The forest whispered to me, and I howled in reply.
Leaning my head back, my voice echoed through the moonlit forest. It was a long, mournful note that belied the energy that was coursing through my veins. A cold wind struck me, spraying a flurry of snow into my face, and I shook it off. I felt so alive. I wanted to hunt!
Glancing back at the smaller wolf behind me, I jerked my head forward and took off into the night. My four paws practically flew through the woods. I threw snow into the air with every step, hardly worth being called an obstacle. I couldn't even feel the cold through the fire burning inside me. Tonight, I was letting go. I let myself be an animal, with nothing to distract myself from the pure, uninhibited passion my instincts brought me.
The smaller wolf had trouble keeping up with me, so I slowed my pace. It was the last thing I wanted to do, but I made myself do it anyway. The brown wolf, hardly more than a pup, wasn't able to plow through the snow like I did. She had to raise her paws almost up to her chin, and that slowed her down. Part of me, that nagging, annoying part I had been determined to ignore, told me to help her, to try to clear a path for her. I didn't listen to it. The pup would never grow strong if I did everything for her. She had to learn how to fend for herself.
SHE'S FIVE YEARS OLD!
I stopped and shook the snow off my fur, hoping the annoying voice would go flying out of my ear. No such luck. That voice didn't know anything about being a wolf. It was weak, and soft, and probably didn't have much meat on it. It was prey, and as a predator I didn't like having prey inside my head.
Still, I paused for a minute and lifted my nose to the air. The scents of the forest were fresh and pure, like the snow was washing everything clean. There weren't many signs of life this time of year, but...
There! My head snapped around just as a white tailed deer turned and went bounding off into the darkness. I bared my teeth and growled, desperately wanting to give chase. I might not have been able to catch the prey inside my head, but I could definitely catch that. I held myself back, though. As badly as I wanted to hunt, we weren't here for me tonight.
I looked down at the pup, who stood beside me, panting. Catching her eye, I put my nose into the air again. When she didn't move, I reached out with my front paw and pushed her nose into the air. She snapped at my paw, and I growled at her. Her tail went between her legs, and she finally raised her nose. I wagged my tail in approval.
She sniffed the air for a few seconds, and turned to look where the deer had been. I moved to stand in between her and the bigger animal, shaking my head. Deer was good eating, but she wasn't ready to take down something that big. She needed something smaller. Reluctantly looking away from the bigger prey, she started to sniff the air again.
Come on, I thought impatiently. It's right there!
Eventually, she put her nose down to the ground and began following the other scent I had noticed. I trailed behind her, watching but trying to keep a safe distance away. She needed to learn how to do this herself. She was still so new, barely a wolf at all.
She looked up and froze. Twenty feet away, a rabbit stared right back at her. Its fur was white, the perfect color to blend into the snow, but our keen wolf eyes still spotted it easily. It stood there, petrified, while we eyed it hungrily. The little wolf still wasn't moving, so I gave a sharp bark and she took off. The rabbit bolted, and she chased it, barking like a common dog. I rolled my eyes in exasperation.
Stop that, I chastised myself. You're a wolf. Wolves don't roll their eyes.
I watched as the rabbit spun around and ran back the way it had come. The smaller wolf snapped at it as it went past, and then went skidding into the side of a tree when her paws lost traction on the slippery ground. She took a second to shake the snow off, and then gave chase again.
Her reflexes aren't fast enough, I thought as the two of them ran frantic circles around me. The instincts of a huntress guided my every movement, but I could tell just by looking at her that she didn't have them. Not yet.
Finally, she managed to lead the rabbit into a trap. Or, rather, the panicked animal trapped itself by accident. She pounced on it, pinning it under her front paws, and I leaned in closer, eager to see her first kill...
She started licking the rabbit.
The little rodent squirmed in her grasp, unable to process that she wasn't trying to kill it. She jumped to her paws, putting her butt in the air and wagging her tail— and the rabbit zipped away. After staring after it for a few seconds, she gave chase again. With a growl, I went after them, passing the smaller wolf in a brown blur. I caught up to the rabbit a second later and stepped on it, stopping it in an instant. The other wolf slid to a stop, almost running into me, and I glared down at it. She let out a whine and gave me her most pathetic puppy dog eyes.
Don't do it, the prey inside me begged. It'll just make her sad!
I ignored it.
This thing is your food, I wanted to snap at the smaller wolf. You're not its friend. You're the predator, and it exists so you can do this!
I bit into the rabbit, raising it off the ground and shaking it back and forth. It screamed at first, a sound that the prey inside me would have thought sounded like a baby crying, but then fell silent. Panting with excitement, the taste of blood on my tongue, I dropped it on the ground for her to see. She whimpered again and backed away, looking at the rabbit in horror. I snorted, but it didn't matter one way or the other. She would change her mind just as soon as the scent reached her nose.
Sure enough, she sniffed a couple of times, and suddenly her eyes were glued to the rabbit. She licked her chops, and my sensitive ears caught the growl of her stomach. I hadn't let her eat before coming out tonight for that very reason. She looked up with hungry eyes, waiting for me to open the carcass and drag the succulent, warm meat out for her. I shook my head. She had to do this herself. It was time for her to start being a wolf.
Taking a tentative step forward, she gave the rabbit another sniff. Then her instincts finally became too much to ignore and she sank her teeth into it. She worked clumsily, not knowing which meat was worth eating and which wasn't, but I still felt proud when I saw the dark brown fur of her snout turn black with blood. A few minutes later she backed away and sat down, having effectively gutted the rabbit. I came to sit beside her and licked her snout, cleaning the blood off of it.
Well done. You're learning fast.
She wasn't proud of herself, though. I could tell just by looking at her, the way she refused to look at the dead rabbit. She was resisting everything. It wasn't surprising, really. I had done the same thing at first. More than anything, I was trying to convince her that things would be so much better if she'd just let it happen. Eventually the wolf would win out.
Getting to my paws with a sigh, I motioned for her to follow me and dashed off into the forest again. My blood was still on fire, and I wouldn't be going back to the den until I was good and tired. Tonight I was going to be a wolf, even if I had to stay up all night to do it.
In fact, that's exactly how I wanted it.
We ran for hours, weaving in between the trees with the nimble grace of a dominant predator, letting the moonlight sink through my fur and into my skin. I tracked down and killed that deer we'd seen earlier while the other wolf watched. This was the only way to eat. Fresh meat, not the old, slimy, burned kind the prey inside my head lived on. That stuff was good to avoid starving, but it took raw, bloody meat to keep the spirit alive. I didn't know how the inner prey had survived so long without me to take care of it. This was what we lived for, whether she wanted it to be or not.
All too soon, though, the full moon began to sink towards the ground again. I looked up at it, growling as if I could chase it back up into the sky. The alpha's words echoed in my head.
"Be back at sunrise. I have something I need to talk to you two about."
They were human words and they meant nothing to me, but my alpha's command still turned me back toward the den and forced my paws to move. I didn't want to go back, I didn't want to become the prey again, but I couldn't ignore my alpha. The most I could do was relish these last few minutes of being myself before they came to an end.
I stopped at the bottom of the hill, the den lighting up the woods like the sun had already risen inside it. It was always like that. The prey liked being in the light. I couldn't blame them, I guess. If I was prey, I'd probably want to make it harder for predators to sneak up on me too.
The pup padded up beside me, panting, just as the moon sank below the trees. My body immediately began to shrink and twist, my fur retreating into my skin except for that on top of my head, and my paws grew fingers, thumbs, and toes. My snout grew shorter, pushing itself into my face, and likewise I could feel myself being pushed into the back of my mind until...
"You all right, Kimberly?" I asked, looking back to see the smaller wolf morph into the little girl I knew.
She was having a harder time of it. Her fur shrank slowly, like she was having to force it down. The rest of her body followed suit, but it still took her almost five minutes for the whole transformation to take place. Finally, gasping for breath, she got up on her knees, the snow burying her almost to her waist.
We were both naked.
"Hold on," I said, turning around and grabbing the ghillie blanket on the ground. A quick tug uncovered a plastic chest that had been buried in the dirt so that only its lid was visible. A frozen December night was not the ideal place to find yourself nude, so it was with numb fingers that I undid the clasps and opened the chest. Inside were two sets of clothing, one for each of us. We had put them in there earlier.
"Here," I said, tossing Kimberly her shirt and pants. "Get dressed, quick."
It was one of the more clever ideas Stark had shared after taking us into the Silverpack. Werewolves couldn't very well transform with their clothes on. If they didn't get torn apart during your growth spurt, they'd be so restricting on your four legged body that they'd slow you down, maybe even cut off blood circulation. Instead, Stark had buried chests like these all over the woods behind his cabin so we could stow our clothes in them before changing. It kept them dry and safe from prying eyes, so long as we made sure to cover the chest up again after we were done.
I pulled my shirt down over my head and looked back at Kimberly. "How are you doing?" I asked. "Feel all right?"
Kimberly scowled at the snowy ground and refused to look at me. A twinge of anger pinched my face, and I had to push back the wolfish urge to bite her.
"Kimberly," I snapped, "answer me!"
"I'm fine," she grumbled, and set off up the hill towards Stark's cabin without waiting for me. I pushed down the irritation again. I wasn't the alpha here. Just because Stark had ordered her to do as I said didn't mean she had to defer to me on every little thing. Still, having a five year old defy you in every way she could without being able to do anything about it was enough to make me grind my teeth. I set off after her.
I couldn't blame her for acting that way, and I never would. It was my fault she was in this situation in the first place. About two months ago, I had lost control during the full moon and mauled her. I don't remember doing it, I could rarely remember anything back then, but she had been found in a ditch the next morning, presumably dead. Only she wasn't dead, even though sometimes I think she would have been better off that way. No, I had passed on my lycanthropy to her, and everything that came with it. The poor kid's parents still thought her corpse had been stolen from the funeral home, and we weren't allowed to let them know otherwise. For all intents and purposes, she was an orphan.
So, no, I didn't blame her for hating me one little bit.
A minute later, we at Stark's back door. His cabin was huge, like a lodge people would spend a fortune to live in for a week. We stepped inside onto the polished wood floors and were greeted with the fresh smell of cedar, and I couldn't help but roll my shoulders when his heaters blew a luscious wave of hot air over me. Even if we were werewolves, even if we were fully clothed, a snowy night in December is anything but comfortable.
There was another smell in the air, even stronger than the scented wood, and I turned to see my mom standing behind Stark's griddle. It was as long as the kitchen counter itself, giving her room to cook pancakes, eggs, and bacon all at the same time.
"Morning, girls!" she chirped, ladling a few spots of batter onto the sizzling black surface. "Breakfast is almost ready."
Kimberly made as if to run back to her bedroom, but froze when she heard this.
"Go ahead and take a seat," Mom said. Kimberly did, sliding out a chair at Stark's table. A minute later, Mom scooped up a generous helping of all three courses and brought them to her. Not wanting her to do all the work, I fetched a gallon of orange juice from the fridge and poured her a glass.
"Thank you, Mrs. Pace," Kimberly said, ignoring me, and then dug in.
I sighed but let it slide. Mom went back to working the griddle, and I slid a chair over to sit across the counter from her.
"So," I whispered, "how long have you been up?"
She looked up at me. "What's that, honey?"
I blinked. Right. The words had been perfectly clear to me, but I always forget that my mom can't hear as well as I can, being a human and all...
"I said, what are you doing up this early?" I asked again, speaking a little louder this time.
She gave me an affronted look. "I just wanted to make breakfast for my girls."
I bit my lip. Ever since she had moved in with us at the pack house, she had taken it upon herself to be Kimberly's new mom. I wasn't sure how I felt about that, but Kimberly hadn't protested. Maybe that was exactly what she needed, but the idea still made me uncomfortable. Kimberly was part of the pack, but not the family. Her parents were still out there, thinking their only daughter was dead...
I shook my head, getting rid of those thoughts.
"I thought you two would be hungry when you got back," Mom went on. She nodded towards Kimberly, who had already scarfed down half the plate. "Looks like I was right."
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Mom, you know what I mean. Are you still having..."
She stiffened, her hands stopping mid-flip, and the half cooked pancake ended up splattering on the floor. With a sigh, I retrieved a paper towel and knelt down to clean it up.
"I'm fine," she whispered a minute later, but the whiteness of her face told me the truth.
My face turned red, and I glared as hard as I could at the pancake mess so she wouldn't see it. I wasn't mad at her, I was mad at Hendricks. It had been a month since I'd rescued her from the demon crime boss, but she was still having trouble sleeping at night. I didn't blame her. I'd spent half a day with Hendricks and his goons, and thinking about it still sent shivers down my spine. Mom had been there a month. I wouldn't be surprised if my poor, defenseless, human mother never got over it.
I stood up, throwing the paper towel in the trash, and gave her a hug.
"It's all right," I said, rocking her back and forth as comfortingly as I could. "You're here, I'm here, and they're never going to touch you again."
"I... I know, honey," she said, and pulled back. Her face was still pale, but she managed to give me a brave smile. "I'm fine, I promise. So, do you want some breakfast?"
I smiled at her as my stomach growled, and nodded. She dished out another helping of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, but before she could hand them to me the front door burst open at the other side of the cabin. Heavy boots clomped across the hardwood floors, and a tall, gray haired man joined us in the kitchen.
"Oh good," he grunted when he saw us, "you're all already here."
"Morning, Stark," I said.
"Morning," he replied, shedding off his coat to reveal the ratty Dr. Pepper t-shirt he always wore. He owned the cabin, but you probably wouldn't have known it by looking at him. Who would have thought the shaggy old man wearing dirty clothes would be rich enough to own a place like this?
He took a deep breath as he shucked his boots off in the hall closet. "Jennifer, that smells absolutely amazing."
Mom blushed, and suddenly the plate of food she was holding out for me was gone.
"Would you like some, Mr. Stark?" she asked, bustling over to set it in his customary place at the table.
"Don't mind if I do," he said, sitting down. "And how many times do I have to tell you to call just me Stark?"
Mom came back to the griddle and found me standing there, still empty handed.
"Thanks, Mom," I said, wryly.
"Oh, hush," she shot back, and immediately handed me another plate. "He's the alpha, so he gets to eat first. Isn't that how it works?"
I took the plate and frowned. Yeah, I guess that was how it worked.
"I don't uphold those kinds of rules in my pack," Stark said, swallowing a mouthful of food. "We're not animals here, we can still act like civilized people."
I sat down across from him and started buttering my pancakes.
"But, it's good that you're all here," he went on, setting down his silverware. "There's something we need to talk about."
"What's up?" I asked.
He folded his hands in front of himself and looked at me and then Kimberly. "I know the last couple months have been hard for all of you, but I'm impressed with how well you're recovering."
He looked at my mom too when he said this, and her face turned red again.
"I think it's safe to say you're ready to go back to a somewhat normal life."
I snorted, and he turned to look at me again.
"Sorry," I said. "It's just, I think normal went out the window a long time ago."
He smirked at that. "Maybe so, but that doesn't mean you have to stay out here in the middle of nowhere for the rest of your lives."
"I'm all right," Mom piped up. "I don't mind it here."
"Well, you're welcome to stay as long as you like, Jennifer," Stark agreed. "You're as much a part of the Silverpack as your daughter."
An honorary member, but still a member.
"As for you two," he said, turning back to me and Kimberly, "you've missed a lot since this is all started. That's why..."
He spread his hands out in front of him.
"You're both starting school again in January."
NEXT TIME: School? Crap. I think she'd rather face Hendricks again, wouldn't you? What kind of whacky, kuh-raaaaazy adventures are they going to get up to now?
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