The sun was a finger’s width away from the horizon.
“Um, Fey?” Zave asked, looking around worriedly as the shadows stretched longer and the sky grew darker. “Please tell me you packed a flashlight or something.”
Over the past six hours, Fey had subjected them to a brutal hike. There were numerous trails in these woods, and she had skillfully avoided all of them in favor of making as straight a line as possible toward her destination. That meant that, more than once, Zave had found himself following her up near-vertical cliffsides. Being part goat, she didn’t have any trouble with these climbs. Even Clueless, thinking only of the incredible “walk” she was being taken on, had scrambled up after her with surprisingly little issue. Zave, on the other hand, had bloodied all ten of his fingertips and scraped both knees before he’d even reached the top of the first one. Still, he had kept up, and for that he was proud of himself.
But now, as night drew closer and closer, he found himself faced with another trial. One that would be harder to overcome than every cliff from here to wherever it was they were going.
Nyctophobia, his childhood therapists had called it. A fear of the dark so intense that he would fly into a full blown panic if the lights so much as flickered. His mother had promised him that it would pass, that by the time he grew up he wouldn’t even remember it. Now he was twenty four years old, and if anything, his fear had grown worse.
Fey stopped and looked back at him. She was still wearing her half-goat body—or true form, as she liked to call it. Strangely, the longer Zave looked at it, the more normal he seemed to find it. Normal was the last word in the world that should have been able to describe a goat-human monstrosity, but even Zave couldn’t deny that when Fey wore it, it looked natural on her.
“Why?” she demanded. “You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”
Zave didn’t answer, but the way his cheeks burned must have been answer enough, because Fey let out a sharp laugh.
“You are!” she exclaimed, glee filling her eyes. “Holy crap, Zave, you’re actually scared of the dark!”
“It’s a phobia!” he snapped.
“It’s pathetic, is what it is,” Fey shot back.
Zave opened his mouth to reply—but suddenly Clueless was between him and Fey. With a snarl, she darted forward and snapped her teeth at the other skinwalker.
“Hey!” Fey yelled, taking a startled step backwards. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“No be mean to Zave!” Clueless yelled right back. “Zave nice! Zave good girl!”
Fey looked at Clueless with cold eyes for a few seconds, then nodded. “Fine. I’m sorry. And no, I didn’t bring a flashlight with me.”
The forest was darkening quickly. Only a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon now, and Zave could feel the beginnings of a panic attack coming.
“Nothing at all?” he asked, ashamed of how his voice shook but unable to stop it. “You can’t make a fire or anything?”
“I could,” Fey said, “but I won’t.”
Zave ground his teeth together. “Why not?”
“Because those things are still out there somewhere,” she snapped, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. To anyone who wasn’t mortally afraid of the dark, it probably was. “A fire will lead them right to us.”
By now, Zave was hyperventilating. He crouched down on his haunches, fixing his eyes on the last feeble beam of light poking between the trees, even as if faded from existence. Clueless wrapped her arms around him in another hug—giving hugs was her new favorite thing now that she had arms to do it with—but that did nothing to stave off the oncoming panic.
Across from him, Fey sighed in exasperation. “Good lord, Zave, grow a backbone! Fine! Here, use this!”
She fumbled in her backpack for something, and then a tiny cigarette lighter landed on the ground in front of Zave. Without thinking, he grabbed it and flicked the trigger. It took a few tries, but eventually a tiny flame winked into existence. It wasn’t much, the light not even reaching five feet away from him, but it was something. He let out a long sigh of relief and sat down heavily on the forest floor.
“We’ll camp here tonight,” Fey said, trying to sound as if this were her plan all along. “As soon as the sun rises, we’ll keep moving.”
Zave barely heard her. His eyes were fixed on the tiny flickering fire in his hand. A breeze blew through the forest, extinguishing it, and he desperately flicked the trigger until it sprang to life once again.
Opposite him, Fey sat down with her back against a tree. “Clueless, come here.”
The newly Awakened skinwalker obeyed, and plopped down next to her. Even with her humanoid form, she still did her best to sit like a dog.
“Okay, first of all,” Fey said, smiling a little, “don’t sit like that. Sit like I am right now.”
Clueless cocked her head, but just as Fey was about to repeat herself, she slowly sat her rump down on the ground and stretched her legs out in front of her. Her eyes went wide with amazement.
“I sit!” she exclaimed. “I sit like Zave!”
“You sit like a skinwalker,” Fey corrected her. “You’re not an animal anymore, Clueless. Well, you never were, but…you know what I mean.”
Fey hesitated, then said, “Look, I know this is all brand new to you. That’s why I’m here, to help teach you how to use your new body.”
Clueless nodded energetically. “We are both Zave!”
Closing her eyes, Fey let out a long, slow breath. “All right, let’s get his out of the way. I’m the one in charge here. Not Zave. That means that you have to do whatever I say. Understand?”
“You in charge?” Clueless echoed.
Fey nodded. “I’m in charge.”
“Zave in charge.”
“What? No, I’m—”
“Zave tell me to sit and I sit! Zave tell me to roll over and I roll over. Then he give me treats.” She perked up a little. “Zave! Can I have treat?”
Zave managed to pull his gaze from the meager light long enough to say, “Ask Fey. She’s the one who packed everything.”
“We just ate two hours ago!” Fey snapped. “Now will you please pay attention?”
But it was no use. What little focus Clueless had, Fey had already used up. Getting to her hands and knees, Clueless crawled over to where Zave was curled up, doing his best to keep his entire body in the tiny circle of light, and cuddled up with him.
“It’s like you’ve brainwashed her,” Fey said in contempt.
“She was just a dog until earlier today,” Zave shot back. “Maybe you could try not being such a—”
“She was never a dog!” Fey cut him off vehemently. Glaring at him, she settled back against the tree. “Whatever. I’ll have plenty of time to fix her once you’re out of her life.”
Those words were like an ice-cold knife to Zave’s chest, and he went back to staring at the lighter’s flame. Night had fully covered the forest now, and that tiny fire was the only light he could see that was closer than a million light years away. Within a few minutes, both Fey and Clueless had fallen asleep. Zave, however, didn’t dare close his eyes. If he did, what little light he had might go out, and then it would just be him and the darkness.
Doing his best to keep from thinking about the dark, he turned to look at Clueless. For the first time since she’d originally transformed, he really studied her. She was still unmistakably the dog he had raised from a pup. He could have picked out Clueless in a room with a hundred other golden retrievers in it, and becoming part human hadn’t changed that. And now, with her snuggled up against him, he suddenly realized just how far the changes had gone. Clueless didn’t just have a human body, she had a woman’s body. In reality, she was only three years old, but apparently dog years applied to skinwalkers too, because she was clearly full grown, pressed up against him…
And wearing nothing but her fur.
Zave sat up, wrenching his mind away from thoughts like that. The sudden motion blew the lighter out. Plunged once again into pitch darkness, Zave thumbed the trigger once, twice, three times, and the flame finally reappeared. But this time, the calmness of being in the light didn’t come. Suddenly he became all too aware of how tiny and weak his light was compared to the seemingly infinite blackness of the night. More! He needed more light!
Scrambling around on his hands and knees, cupping his hand protectively over the flame so it didn’t go out again, Zave gathered an armload of twigs and dry leaves as quickly as he could. Arranging them in a haphazard pile, he held the lighter up to it, and…
Relief washed over him as light flooded the campsite.
Then he saw the monsters surrounding them.