Outside, the sky was growing dark. Fey watched from the register as storm clouds slowly moved to cover the town. Far in the distance, she could hear the faint rumble of thunder. There was no rain yet, but there would be. She could smell it in the air, even from inside the store. It was going to be a big one.
She turned from the window to scan a customer’s items, and gave a smile to the puppy in the shopping cart, its tail wagging so hard that its entire rear end was shaking. As soon as they were gone, though, her stomach did a somersault. All morning, she hadn’t been able to shake the uneasy feeling that something bad was going to happen. She assumed it was from her slip up earlier, but she had biked all the way to the store without incident. If her pack really knew what she’d done, she would have been dead the moment she’d stepped outside. Still, after more than three years of staying in human form, an accident like this was bound to shake her up a little. It was a sound assumption. It made sense.
So why didn’t it feel right?
The glass doors slid open, and Fey glanced over to see a young man, about the same age as her, walk inside. Beside him was a golden retriever whose tongue was lolling carelessly out of its mouth. Its head immediately swung to look at Fey, and…
Fey perked up. That dog wasn’t a dog. It may have looked like a dog, from its nose to the tip of its tail, but one glimpse was all Fey needed to know the truth.
It was a skinwalker like her.
“Crap,” she whispered, letting the two of them pass without comment.
This was bad. A skinwalker could always detect another skinwalker, no matter what form they were wearing. It was a sort of sixth sense they all had. If Fey had noticed the other skinwalker, the other skinwalker had noticed Fey.
A few minutes later, they came back to the front, the man carrying a big bag of dog food over one shoulder.
“Hey,” he said, setting it down on the counter for her to scan.
Fey’s eyes were locked on his skinwalker, but she forced herself to look at him. “Hey.”
She scanned the barcode and pressed a few keys on the register. Her heart was racing. Was this what had gotten her all worked up? Somehow sensing that another skinwalker was in town and—
The skinwalker rose up to put its front paws on the counter and barked at her. Fey jumped so hard that she dropped the scanner.
“Sorry!” the man said, pushing the skinwalker back down again. “She’s usually not a barker.”
Fey gave the “dog” a long look after she retrieved the scanner. It was panting and its tail was wagging, apparently as happy as any dog had ever been. That much was normal. There wasn’t a skinwalker alive that couldn’t imitate their animal to a T. But there was still something about this one that seemed…off…to Fey.
She hasn’t been Awakened! she realized.
“Are you okay?” the man asked, and Fey realized she’d spent the last fifteen seconds staring at the other skinwalker without saying a word.
"What's her name?" she asked slowly.
"This is Clueless," the man said. "My name's Zave. It’s, uh, short for Xavier. Xavier Thendred."
Fey bristled with outrage. How dare he name a skinwalker that? Granted, he obviously didn't know Clueless was a skinwalker. He, himself, wasn't one. Fey would have been able to tell. But that didn't make it okay! Her face turned red at the audacity, but luckily Zave chose that moment to look away and scratch Clueless behind the ear.
Fey looked at Clueless, who was still staring back at her as if waiting for a treat. Skinwalkers born from animals—or wildborn as they were known—weren't uncommon. Fey was a manborn, conceived by a human mother and a skinwalker father. She had been nine years old when she was Awakened, and until that day she’d had no idea she was anything but human. Whether manborn or wildborn, skinwalkers were locked into the form they were born in until another skinwalker Awakened their powers. Because of that, there could have been thousands, maybe even millions, of people and animals living boring, mundane lives with no idea about their true nature.
And that was the problem Fey suddenly found herself faced with. Did she leave well enough alone, knowing that this poor dog would only be living half a life? Or did she Awaken Clueless, unveil the world of skinwalkers to her—and in the process, make Clueless her responsibility?
You went Tame to avoid having to make your own pack, she reminded herself.
Besides, a Tame alpha? The idea was ridiculous. Fey was forbidden to return to the Wilds, which meant Clueless would be too if Fey took her under her wing. What was the point of Awakening her to her powers, only to forbid her to ever use them? She looked at Clueless again and bit her lip. She was obviously happy, though that wasn't a high bar to reach for dogs. And Zave—his insensitive name for her notwithstanding—clearly cared for her as well.
No, she finally decided with a sigh. As wrong as it felt to see one of her brethren reduced to a mere pet, there was nothing she could do to make her life happier or more fulfilling than it already was. In fact, after how many years she'd spent thinking she was just a common animal, Clueless may never be able to integrate properly into her new life. It would be best for everyone involved if Fey pretended she hadn't seen anything.
Trying to push the issue out of her mind, Fey swiped Dave's card, and he and Clueless set off for home. Fey watched through the store window as Clueless hopped happily into the passenger seat of Zave's car, and they drove off.
As soon as the car left the parking lot, the storm finally hit. Rain poured from the sky to batter the store's roof like an army of tap dancing spiders. To Fey's surprise, the anxious feeling came crawling back. She had assumed it was coming from Clueless, some skinwalker instinct to Awaken other skinwalkers. But now that the two of them were gone and the feeling was only growing worse, it felt like…like…
Like something was telling Fey that she needed to run. Hide. This was almost the opposite of what she'd felt when she had spotted Clueless, she realized with a jolt. As if her instincts were warning her that something very, very bad was coming.
Lightning lit up the parking lot, followed by the ominous boom of thunder.
Fey decided she was just imagining things, and settled in to wait for her next customer.