Nostalgia was a dangerous emotion, Fey realized as the bus came to a stop.
The woods. The hills. Even the clouds in the sky all seemed exactly as they had been on that day three long years ago. Seeing it again, it struck her how much she had missed this place.
Fey Greenbriar was home.
And that was what made it dangerous. As she gazed out the window at the familiar landscape, every inch of which was engraved with memories, she had to forcibly remind herself that she was walking straight into danger. This wasn’t her home. The people she’d come to see weren’t her friends. If she let herself slip into a false sense of security while she was here, they would disembowel her before she even made it past the tree line.
She looked at Clueless, fast asleep with her head resting against the window. The trip had taken all night and most of the following morning. Clueless had spent the first half of the trip trying to press her face against the glass hard enough to see behind the bus, as if Zave were right outside, following them on foot. A little after midnight, she had finally fallen asleep. Every once in a while, she would let out a little bark. Luckily none of the other passengers seemed to notice. Steeling herself for whatever might come next, Fey shook the other skinwalker awake, and the two of them disembarked.
They were the only ones to get off at this stop, and that suited Fey just fine. Fewer people meant fewer wandering eyes to see them abscond into the woods. It was a large gas station and truck stop, but at this time of morning it was nearly deserted. Standing out in the parking lot, Fey couldn’t help but turn in a slow circle as feelings she had hoped she would never have to confront rose up in her chest. This was the exact place where she had left the pack, and the life of a skinwalker, behind three years ago. The pain of betrayal—her own betrayal—was still as sharp as it had been that cold winter morning where she had shed her true form for what she’d believed was the last time.
She could still remember how it had felt to wear her human body for the first time in nine years. Not only had the sensation of not having thick, warm fur all over her body felt utterly alien to her, but that was the first day she’d had to wear clothes since her Awakening as a child. The way she had picked at her shirt and pants, fighting the urge to strip them off just like Clueless had the day before. And her feet! Real feet after nine years of walking on hooves! She had almost forgotten what it felt like to have toes!
It hadn’t been her choice to leave the pack. She had known it would happen eventually since the day she’d developed her Instinct. She had thought she was prepared. But when her eighteenth birthday had finally come, and skinwalker custom dictated that she set out on her own to Awaken and lead her own pack…
I felt so alone, she thought, the memory making her eyes sting. The world was so big, and my place in it had just been yanked away. They expected me to carve out a new place to belong, surround myself with a new pack to chase away the loneliness, but…but I already knew that it wouldn’t be enough.
Fey had loved being a skinwalker. Living in the woods, unconcerned with humanity’s petty rules and useless expectations. There, her only concern was finding enough food to keep her belly full until the next day. It was a kind of freedom that the human world could never offer. Humans were expected to work day and night, toiling away at meaningless tasks just for the right to exist. Compared to that, the Wild was a paradise. But what good was paradise without her friends? The packmates who were close enough to be her family? Fey didn’t doubt that she’d be able to find more skinwalkers and build her own pack, if given enough time. But having a new pack would never make her stop missing her old one.
The human world, though…that had held its own temptations. Houses that were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Stores where you could buy food instead of scavenging for it. TV, books, and any number of other distractions to keep your mind occupied when you started thinking about the pack you would never see again.
Before that day, she had never wanted to be anything but a skinwalker. But standing at the edge of the forest, watching buses pull up and whisk people away to lands unknown, she suddenly didn’t care if she was a skinwalker or a human—all she wanted was to be someplace else.
One month later, she’d gotten her wish. An apartment, a job, and an inescapable sense that she’d thrown away all the best things she’d had in life.
Fey shook her head, chasing away those gloomy memories. She had a job to do.
“Come on,” she said to Clueless, who was staring longingly down the road they’d come from. “We need to find my pack before they find us.”
By they, she had meant the monsters. But considering what skinwalkers did if they thought you were trespassing on their territory, she could have just as easily meant her old pack.
Clueless shook her head. “No! We wait for Zave!”
“He’s not…” Fey cut herself off. This was the part she had been dreading: breaking the news to her that Zave wasn’t coming. She had rehearsed a thousand different ways to tell her on the ride over, but hadn’t thought of a single one that didn’t hurt the newly Awakened skinwalker’s feelings.
“Zave come, then we go,” Clueless said, nodding to herself.
Fey’s lip curled. After everything she had done for Clueless, she only cared about Zave. Was Zave the one who had Awakened her? Granted her sentience? She would still be a stupid dog right now if Fey hadn’t been there. But no, let’s all talk about Zave! Zave this, Zave that, isn’t Zave just the best freaking person in the whole damn world? All this time it had been eating at Fey, but she had pushed it down for Clueless’ sake. But now that they were finally rid of that creep, Clueless was free to live life the way nature had intended, and he was still the only thing she could think about.
It was too much.
“What is wrong with you?” she yelled, whirling to face Clueless. “Why are you so obsessed with that idiot?”
Clueless cocked her head. “Zave not idiot.”
Fey stepped forward and jabbed a finger into Clueless’ chest. “Stop defending him!”
“But…I love Zave!” Clueless eyes were wide with innocent confusion.
“Well, he doesn’t love you!” Fey shot back.
As soon as those words left her mouth, Fey knew she had made a mistake. Something in Clueless’ face changed, and this time she was the one to take a step toward Fey.
“Zave! Love! Me!” she yelled right into Fey’s face.
Fey knew she should back down before she pushed Clueless too far, but in the hurricane that was her emotional state, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
“Zave has never loved you,” she spat. “And the sooner you figure that out, the sooner you can start acting like a real person!”
There was a fire in Clueless’ eyes now. Her fists, which she had never used, were clenched in fury, and her whole body was shaking. “Zave love me. I love Zave. Zave feed me, Zave pet me, Zave—”
“—calls you stupid every single day.”
Clueless stopped short. Fey felt a quick pang of guilt in her chest, but she brushed it away. It was high time somebody told her.
“Y- You lying,” Clueless said.
Fey shook her head. “Zave never told you what clueless meant, did he? He didn’t want you to know what he’s been calling you ever since you were a puppy.”
“Stop it!” Clueless snapped. “Stop!”
“Clueless means stupid!” Fey said, and now she was the one advancing on Clueless again. Clueless took a step back for every step Fey took forward, inching them closer and closer to the woods. “He thinks you’re stupid, and he’s been saying it every time he calls your name! So stop defending that piece of crap and—”
Before she could react, Clueless had lunged forward and knocked her to the ground. Fey’s head hit the ground hard, and stars danced in front of her eyes—until they were blotted out by Clueless’ rapidly elongated face. Golden fur sprouted all over her, and the clothes Fey had spent so long forcing her into drooped and slid off of her ill-fitting body. For the first time she’d been Awakened, Clueless had taken on her animal form again.
Then she sank her canine jaws into Fey’s throat.
Fey let out a squawk of surprise as pain ripped through her. She tried to speak, but blood flooded into her throat. Clueless thrashed a couple of times, tearing the wound open even more, and then dropped her.
Fey rolled over onto her stomach and forced herself to her knees. She tried to cough, but her throat was filled with blood. Blood was spilling down her front, soaking her skin, staining her clothes. So much blood. She began to feel dizzy.
Food! She needed food!
On unsteady legs, she stumbled over to a nearby trash can and began to root around in it. It was lucky that nobody was around to see her, because she wouldn’t have been able to stop even if there was. She pulled out a whole assortment of trash. Burger wrappers, cardboard soda cups, plastic bags, and other stuff she didn’t care to identify. She brought a handful of it to her mouth, praying to whoever might be listening that she’d be able to swallow it…
“In…stinnn…” she managed to gurgle, spitting up blood as she did. Still, her eyes burst into light, and she shoved the garbage into her mouth. In her goat form she wouldn’t have minded the taste, but in her human mouth it was vile! She didn’t dare transform, though. Not in a place like this.
Her vision was going dark. She had a minute—seconds, more likely—before she passed out and bled to death in the truck stop parking lot. Screwing up her face, she brought the trash to the back of her mouth, ignored the searing pain…and then she…
Fey gasped in relief as the pain in her throat immediately lessened. It didn’t go away entirely, but she could still feel the gaping wound begin to close up. While still trying to catch her breath, she shoveled another handful of trash into her mouth. This one went down more easily, and the pain receded even further.
A minute later, she was healed. Her throat still burned from the memory of the pain, and the blood she had lost made her head spin every time she moved, but she would survive.
“Clueless?” she asked, getting to her feet. “Clueless, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
Horror washed over her. Clueless was nowhere to be seen.
“Clueless!” she yelled, scanning the truck stop from one end to the other. But there was nothing, nobody, to answer her call.
Fey fought to push down the panic that rose up inside her. Maybe Clueless had gone inside the store. Or maybe she was hiding behind one of the empty, parked trucks. Or maybe she was out in the road somewhere, trying to get back to…
Her eyes landed on the forest behind the truck stop. No, Fey knew exactly where she had gone.