Authors: Christine Johnson
Tags: #Children's Books, #Teen & Young Adult, #Children's eBooks, #Literature & Fiction
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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First Simon Pulse hardcover edition June 2011
Copyright © 2011 by Christine Johnson
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CLAIRE'S HUMAN FORM offered no protection from the chill in the moonlit clearing. She shivered as the early-October breeze licked at her arms and cheeks. Wrapping her arms around herself, she stared across the circle, wishing her mother would hurry up and start the ceremony.
A tangled pile of branches waited in the center of the pack. Marie kneeled down in front of it and leaned in, the mist of her breath kissing the outermost tips of the twigs.
Claire's mother closed her eyes, focusing. The graceful lines of her body tensed for an instant, and then it was over. The fire ignited with a roar, pulled into existence by the force of Marie's will.
The light and heat spread through the clearing, changing the texture of the air. The forest crackled with power—it was as though the fire had woven threads of lightning, tying the members of the pack together, linking them to something larger than themselves. As the flames grew, the feeling intensified, humming along Claire's skin, whispering to her about the things she could do.
Begging her to become a wolf.
The pack stood in a circle around the fire, all of them silent. Waiting. The flames leapt before them, the trees towered behind them, and the full moon shone down from above. Everything was ready for their transformation. Marie raised her arms, and with her voice full of the authority that came with being the pack's Alpha, she began to chant.
She called each of their names, and Claire shifted from foot to foot, aching for the warmth of her fur. As she edged closer to the fire, Claire noticed Judith staring at her. She quickly turned her attention back to her mother but kept Judith in her peripheral vision. From her spot next to Marie, Judith regarded Claire with narrowed, judging eyes.
Claire forced herself not to raise a what's-your-problem eyebrow and kept her attention trained on her mother. The chant was almost over, anyway. Anticipation tugged at Claire as Marie called her name. This was only her second full moon ceremony since she'd completed her transformation, but every second she spent in the woods—every time she looked at themoon hanging in the sky like an ever-changing jewel—she loved it more.
There were no secrets in the woods the way there were in her human life. There was just the pack. And the ceremonies.
And the hunt.
Marie lowered her arms.
"And now it is time. You may transform."
The words hung in the air, tantalizing as a ripe apple. Claire forgot about Judith. She forgot about everything but the unbelievable joy of slipping out of her human form and changing into her wolf self. Paws appeared where her hands and feet had been, and her skin gave way to thick gray fur. Claire's teeth grew sharp, and she felt the sudden, familiar heaviness of her tail.
The instant she changed, her senses sharpened. She could see the individual twigs high up in the trees. Could hear the rustling of something small—a mouse, maybe, or a chipmunk—in the undergrowth. And the smells . . . It was almost painful at first, how many things she could smell when she transformed. In her wolf form she could tell that there were four kinds of wood in the ceremonial fire tonight and she could smell the sweet, sighing scent of the autumn leaves dying on the trees above her.
And she could smell pain—the sharp, unbearable scent of pain. It startled Claire, and when she heard a worried whimper coming from Katherine, one of the other Beta wolves, she knew she wasn't the only one caught off guard by the odor. The scent was coming from Victoria, who sat on the forest floor, paws splayed awkwardly, panting hard. After Claire, she was the youngest wolf in the pack, but she was groaning like an old woman.
she huffed, in the nonverbal language they shared in their true forms.
The more pregnant I get, the harder it is to
change. I'll be okay in a second.
She hadn't been pregnant that long, and Claire was horrified by how fast her belly had grown. Werewolf pregnancies didn't last as long as human ones, which made having a baby especially difficult, because it was so hard on the human part of the woman. Claire had seen it—the terrible way Victoria's skin had stretched, how the sudden change in her shape and weight had made her hips hurt so much that she could barely walk.
Beatrice, Victoria's mother, walked over and sat next to her, leaning against her flank like she was propping Victoria up.
Marie, can you hunt without us?
Victoria staggered to her feet, her belly swaying underneath her, dragging her spine into a bowl-shaped curve.
No, no, no! I'm okay. I can go. S
he licked at her muzzle anxiously.
You reek of pain. You will stay here. And your mother will stay
with you. The four of us can complete the hunt on our own. The weight of Marie's command made Victoria sink back down onto the ground. She looked relieved and disappointed in equal measures. Beatrice just looked relieved.
Marie turned to Judith, Katherine, and Claire. Let's go.
Without waiting for a response, Marie trotted off into the woods, her ears pricked forward and her nose high, searching for prey. The other three wolves followed. Claire kept to the back of the pack, since she was the newest wolf. She didn't mind—there was more to do at the back of the hunt than stuck in the middle, anyway. While Marie tracked in front, Claire kept her senses trained behind them, searching for an animal that might not have been able to find a good enough hiding place. Judith and Katherine loped along in between.
It was hard work, running along with the hunt. Marie set a punishing pace and expected the rest of them to keep up. Claire had taken to jogging in her human form, to make sure that she was in shape. She'd die of embarrassment if she was gasping for breath the way Katherine was. If Marie had taught her anything, it was that being a werewolf was a privilege, a life-and-death-risking double identity, and Claire had every intention of living up to that.
Behind her, there was a single, soft noise in the forest. The sound of a step.
A misstep, more like.
Claire whirled around, her head lowered and her shoulders hunched, sniffing the air frantically. The odor was not quite like deer—it smelled muskier. The animal part of her brain supplied the answer at once.
Claire gave a soft yip. Her mother pulled up short and circled around, nearly colliding with Judith and Katherine, who scrambled to get out of the way.
Marie pressed close to Claire, her nose quivering.
Judith stared over Marie's shoulder at Claire, her lips drawn back ever so slightly, showing her sharp, pale teeth. It was a dominant move—almost an accusation. Everything in Judith's posture told Claire she should have stayed at the back of the line, kept her mouth shut, and let one of the senior wolves find the moose.
Before she could stop herself, Claire rolled her eyes. Judith took a warning step forward.
Marie's soft yip froze Claire and Judith in their tracks. Whether she hadn't noticed what was going on or she was just ignoring it, Claire couldn't tell. Either way, her mother's tail waved approvingly.
The praise made Claire shiver. The anticipation of sacrificing a moose—even if it was a young one—zinged through her. The other two wolves shifted behind them, silent as the shadows themselves. Marie turned and acknowledged them with a look.
Claire, you circle around with Judith, and Katherine and Iwill cut off the path.
The order was given noiselessly, all eye flicks and twists of her ears.
The wolves didn't waste any time. Judith and Claire ignored each other completely as they streaked through the trees toward the doomed animal.
In a matter of moments, the quiet of the forest was broken by the moose's panicked bellow. And then it was over. They dragged the heavy, lifeless moose back to the clearing, in preparation for the feast.
Later, when the moose had been disposed of and their whiskers were clean again, the wolves ringed the fire once more. Claire hated this part—squeezing back into her human skin after the freedom of being a wolf. It was like slipping into a scratchy set of bedsheets. She got used to it quickly enough, but she dreaded the initial, prickly discomfort.
And Claire still wasn't used to going through the full moon ceremony without Zahlia. Zahlia had been dead for two months, and though they were not allowed to speak of her— even to say her name—the ragged hole she had left in the pack sent a shudder through Claire every time she passed too close to the memory.
After all, Zahlia had been her friend. Before Claire had found out that Zahlia was murdering humans. Before her "friend" had set up Claire's mother for capture. Attacked Claire's boyfriend. Turned on Claire.
Before Claire completely disappeared into the black hole of the Zahlia nightmare, Marie gave the signal and the wolves transformed. As much as she wanted to stay in her lupine form, her mother's command had to be obeyed. With a sigh, Claire slipped back into her human skin.
Victoria stood next to her, dressed, but with her distorted stomach uncovered. The hem of her shirt had twisted, and she struggled to yank it over her stretched belly. Embarrassed, Claire averted her eyes.
"Damn it!" The curse was quiet enough, but Claire could hear the tears in Victoria's voice.
"It's okay," Katherine soothed. "It'll be over soon enough. They say that the end is always the hardest part. Just think— probably only one more full moon to go, and then you'll be a mother. Oh, I'm so jealous. I always wanted a little baby to squeeze and hug."
Marie cleared her throat, silencing them.
"As the Alpha of our pack, there are many decisions that fall to me—including when to hold the traditional celebration of our newly transformed wolves."
Claire forgot all about Victoria. She stared at her mother, her eyes wide with questions.
Marie looked over at her. "On the night of the new moon, two weeks from now, we will gather here especially for you. You will be expected to do a short demonstration of the basic skills—transforming, hunting . . ." The tension drained out of Claire. She knew how to do those things. And she even had something extra: the ability to hear others talking even when they were miles away. Not all wolves had that sort of long-distance hearing. Sure, she had to focus pretty hard, but still, she could do it. It might even be sort of fun, to have the attention of the group like that. She started to nod at her mother, but Marie interrupted her.
"Of course, you will also be required to light the ceremonial fire."
Claire's head stopped moving midnod.
The ceremonial fire. Shit.
She couldn't do that.
She'd been trying for weeks, but in spite of all her efforts, the only way Claire could create a flame was if she had a match handy. Of course, she hadn't admitted that to her mother. She hadn't wanted to seem that inept. Not being able to light the fire was worse than embarrassing. She might as well be having trouble tying her shoelaces.
Without being able to light the fire, she wasn't a normal werewolf—she couldn't prove that she could connect herself to the foremothers and tap into their power.
Her mother smiled at her. "And to celebrate your success as a wolf, you will lead the hunt that night."
The idea lay in front of Claire, rich as chocolate cake. Just participating in the hunt was her favorite part of the gather ings. It was the only thing in either of her lives—human or wolf—that required her to use all her senses to their fullest. The wild intensity of the chase, the pride of completing the sacrifice to the Goddess, and the frenzied joy of the feast that followed were consuming. She couldn't imagine anything better than that.
Except actually getting to lead the hunt. She wouldn't let anything get in the way of that. Not even her mental block against lighting the stupid fire.
Marie interrupted her galloping thoughts. "You are ready for this, yes?"
"Um, sure." Claire swallowed hard. She couldn't bring herself to admit that she actually wasn't ready. "I mean, it'll be fun, right?" The last word came out as a squeak.
"It's not just fun," Judith snapped.
Claire took in her mother's lifted eyebrows, and concern crawled over her, spider legged and sharp fanged.
Marie gave Judith a grudging nod. "True." She turned to Claire. "It does confirm that you are a complete wolf. There's no need to worry about it, though." She laughed. "Incomplete wolves are practically a myth, even the consequences for being one are almost medieval. It will be a wonderful celebration. I've been looking forward to it since you first changed—I can't wait to see you lead the hunt."
The words buzzed around Claire's head, and she struggled to stay calm. Marie dismissed the rest of the pack and put out the fire. As the embers turned to ashes, Claire took deep breaths, letting the achingly cold air dull her panic.
When the only light in the clearing was the glow of the moon overhead, Claire and her mother headed for home. The sound of their feet crunching quietly through the last of the fall leaves was the only noise—there was nothing else to distract Claire from the worried pounding of her heart.
After a few wordless minutes, Claire couldn't stand it anymore. "Why didn't you tell me before? About the new moon gathering?"
Marie reached up and fiddled with the silver chain around her neck. "Because I didn't decide until tonight that it was time. After Victoria has the baby, she'll be excused from her pack duties for a few months. I didn't want her to miss the ceremony, but it was clear when I saw her tonight that she will certainly be pregnant for a while longer."
Claire started to say something but snapped her teeth shut before the words could come. Talking would just get her into trouble. And it wouldn't make any difference anyway. She knew her mother. There would be no begging for an extension. No bending of the rules.
She had two weeks to learn how to light a ceremonial fire or she was going to utterly humiliate herself. In front of the whole pack.