“Can’t catch us!”
“Catch you! Catch you! Catch you!”
The waters of Lake Shane sparkled in the morning sunlight as Clueless splashed around, frantically chasing after Derrick and the two rabbit twins. Their names, Fey had learned, were Jake and Nat, and they had been added to the pack about a year after she had left. They were both manborn, but had taken to living in the Wild as naturally as…well, as naturally as Fey had when she’d first been Awakened.
Derrick, on the other hand, was a pureborn. A skinwalker born from two skinwalker parents. Those were exceedingly rare, since they could only be conceived by two skinwalkers that shared the same animal. Pureborns were considered special, even by skinwalker standards, many believing that they held powerful destinies. His talent with medicine and treating injuries was proof enough of that for Fey. She could remember when, just a year or so before she’d left the pack, she had broken her leg. Using nothing but sticks and animal hides hunted by their packmates, Derrick had whipped up a cast that any human doctor would have envied. She had healed in just a matter of weeks.
More than anything, though, Derrick was Glenn’s pride and joy. Fey couldn’t imagine what would become of Glenn if anything ever happened to his son.
A day had passed since their arrival, and after a night of being tended to by Derrick’s skilled and gentle hands, Clueless was on her feet and ready to go. Being a retriever, she had always loved the water, and had literally jumped for joy when Fey offered to take them all swimming. With her playful, doglike demeanor, she had become best friends with the kids almost immediately.
Fey sat on the shore, watching as both the rabbit-walkers took Clueless by surprise, leaping straight out of the water to land on her shoulders.
“Dive, dive, dive!” Derrick shouted, tackling Clueless from the front. She fell over with a splash, then resurfaced a couple seconds later, spitting out water—and then pounced when the tips of a pair of rabbit ears poked above the surface nearby.
“Caught you!” she yelled, standing back up with Nat wrapped in her arms, giggling madly. “Caught you! Yes! Good girl! Caught you!”
“I’m over here, slowpoke!” Jake yelled, popping out of the water twenty feet away. “Nyah nyah, can’t get me!”
Fey couldn’t help but smile as Clueless dropped Nat back into the water and went after her brother. She was as dumb as a rock, yes, but there was a certain innocence in that stupidity that Fey couldn’t help but admire. Untouched by the rules and expectations of both humanity and skinwalkers, the idea of holding back was a foreign one to her. Clueless didn’t like things, she loved them. When something caught her attention, she would go after it with a level of zeal that Fey had never seen in anyone else.
The smile faded quickly from her face, though, when the weight of the situation pressed down on her again. The wendigos—or whatever they were—could get here any day. Jake, Nat, and Derrick were in danger because of her. So was everyone else in the pack, but watching the children play in the water with Clueless, their peril struck her as especially frightening. So young. Too young to be put through the horrors Fey had witnessed over the past few days.
There was nothing to gain from agonizing about her decision, though. The mistake had been made. The only thing she could do now was stand her ground and help make sure her former packmates didn’t become the monsters’ next meal.
The fur on Fey’s back stood up, and she realized she was being watched. She sprang to her hooves, spinning to face the spy, and then sighed in relief when she saw it only Ember.
Wait, Ember? she thought in dismay. I’d almost prefer the monsters.
“What do you want?” she demanded as the fox-walker strode onto the pebble beach.
The hatred in Ember’s eyes was unmistakable, but Fey didn’t back down as she fixed that hostile glare on her. The two of them had never gotten along, but this…this was different. Something had changed while Fey was away.
“You just couldn’t stay away, could you?” Ember hissed, her lip curling in disgust. “You had to come back and make everything about you again.”
“What are you talking about?” Fey asked.
Ember crossed her arms and stared out over the lake. “Things were going so well. Glenn hardly ever compared me to you anymore. I was actually starting to think that maybe I could do it.”
For a minute, Ember didn’t reply. The orange and black hues of her fur, like sunset, were a direct contrast to the bright and clear morning that had welcomed the forest into a new day. Technically, she was what was known as a melanistic fox, but since that was too much of a mouthful, everyone just referred to her as a fox.
Fey referred to her as a few choice words that she didn’t want to say in front of Jake and Nat.
“You’ve always been Glenn’s favorite,” she finally said. “Everyone knew you were the one he wanted to take over the pack when he died. The day I got my Instinct before you, he should have been proud of me. Instead, he was disappointed in you.”
Fey shrugged. “That’s not my fault. He’ll get over it eventually.”
“He was getting over it,” Ember spat venomously. “He was actually starting to see me for who I am, instead of who I’m not. But then you just had to come waltzing back in, acting like you’re the alpha, and remind Glenn of how damn amazing he thinks you are!”
“Don’t blame me for what he—”
“Do you know what he said to me yesterday after you two came back from your little talk? He said ‘Ember, spend the next few days watching Fey. That’ll help you develop good habits.’”
Fey tried to meet the fox-walker’s eyes, but had to look away. Even after putting his pack in danger like she had, Glenn still considered her a better leader than Ember? There was absolutely no love between Fey and Ember, but Fey couldn’t help but feel a pang of sympathy for her former packmate.
“I wonder if he’d still think you were so great if he knew what you’ve really been doing for the past three years?”
Fey snapped her head over to look at Ember. “What?”
Ember gave her a savage grin. “I can smell the human all over you. Glenn thinks it’s because you ‘rescued’ Clueless from her owner, but I know the truth.”
Fey’s mouth ran dry. She desperately tried to think of something to say, but her mind was blank with panic. With an infuriatingly smug look, Ember leaned over to whisper into Fey’s ear.
“You haven’t been building a pack at all,” she said, “have you…Tame?”
Fey was shaking again. “I…don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The gleam in Ember’s eye was almost more than Fey could stand. Half of her wanted to run away. The other half wanted to knock those pointy teeth out of her head.
“I won’t tell Glenn,” Ember promised. “He’d be more pissed off at me for delivering the bad news than he’d be at you for going Tame. But I want you to leave and never show your face around here again.”
“Fine,” Fey agreed, her heart pounding in her ears. “But I have to stay long enough to make sure Clueless will be happy here.”
Ember burst out laughing right in Fey’s face. “You still think Glenn is going to let you dump your responsibilities on us and run? You should be the one named Clueless!”
“Watch it,” Fey snapped. Insults about herself, she could handle. But making fun of Clueless was going too far.
“Get this through your thick goat skull: she is not staying here!” Ember sneered. “You’re going to leave, and you’re going to take that brainless mutt with you!”
Fey clenched her fist. “If you say one more thing about her, I’m going to tear that big, bushy tail you’re so proud of off your butt and cram it down your throat!”
“Oh, please,” Ember said, baring her teeth at the challenge. “Don’t pretend like you care about her. If you do, why do you still call her Clueless?”
“Because that’s the only name she knows!”
“You know, it’s fitting that the only skinwalker stupid enough to follow you is named—”
That was all Fey could take. With a scream, she threw herself at the fox-walker.
“Instinct!” Ember exclaimed. Just as Fey’s punch was about to connect, the fox-walker exploded into a cloud of swirling black smoke. Fey stumbled through it, then spun around as the smoke reformed itself into Ember. “You two are perfect for each other. Put together, you and she might have enough IQ points for half a person!”
“I’ll kill you!” Fey yelled, lunging at the fox-walker again—until a massive brown shape moved in between them.
“STOOOOP! IIIIT!” Norrin roared, his voice loud enough to shake the ground.
Fey took a step back in shock. Those had been the first words he’d said since she’d arrived…and he’d said them to protect Ember? She looked at Ember, and bristled with anger again when she saw the cruel smile she was giving her.
“You’re right,” she said, hugging Norrin’s arm—which was almost as big as she was—to herself. “I’m sorry, honey. Let’s go back to the nest.”
“H- Hey! What…What is…” Fey gestured madly at the two of them. “What the hell is this? I thought that Norrin…”
“You thought what?” Ember cackled. “That Norrin was just going to pine for you for the rest of his life?”
Fey was speechless. All she could do was stare at the blatantly intimate way the fox-walker was pressed up against the bear-walker.
“That’s so like you, Fey,” Ember said, turning to walk back to the nest with Norrin. “You thought that just because you left, the entire world was going to come to a dead stop!”
The two of them walked off, disappearing into the woods and leaving Fey alone with Clueless, the kids, and a whole mess of feelings she thought she’d sorted out years ago.