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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 the moon 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.
Sorry, 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. She 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.
Excellent. Well-spotted, chérie.
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 I will 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 mid-nod.
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 gatherings. 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.
* * *
When they finally arrived home, Claire made a beeline upstairs. She was still fired up from the hunt and on edge from the announcement about the new moon gathering. It was already after two—if she didn’t find a way to unwind, she’d never get any sleep before school the next day.
She looked longingly at her running shoes. Going for a run, even in her human form, was the only thing that really calmed her down lately. But it was too late to go running. Anyone who saw her jogging at this hour was bound to think something suspicious was going on.
She kicked the shoes into her closet and grabbed her phone—there were two messages. The first was from Matthew, her boyfriend. He sounded exhausted. With only five days left until the state soccer finals on Saturday, the coach had them on a crazy practice schedule. Still, in spite of the fatigue in his voice, he told her that he hoped she’d had fun at the gathering and that he’d see her in the morning. And that he loved her.
The words sank into Claire like sunshine. Matthew always had that effect on her. No matter what, he made her feel like whatever was going on, she could handle it. It didn’t hurt that he was the only human in Hanover Falls who knew about the werewolves. He was a secret-keeper for the pack, a gardien. He protected them, and they protected him. Being honest with him about who and what she was made it a lot easier for Claire to keep lying to everyone else.
Like her best friend, who had left the second message. Emily’s words came out all in a rush. She demanded to know why Claire wasn’t answering her phone at almost midnight, unless she was asleep, in which case Emily was very sorry for maybe waking her up, but she really, really needed the blue-black nail polish she’d left at Claire’s the weekend before and could Claire bring it with her tomorrow, please?
Claire laughed, loving Emily’s signature, caffeine-fueled intensity. She deleted the message and grabbed the little glass bottle off her dresser, stuffing it into her backpack. She looked longingly at her bed, but she was still too wired to sleep. Instead, she trudged into the bathroom and turned on the shower, hoping the hot water would help. With her mother’s announcement tying knots of tension in her shoulders, though, there might not be enough hot water in the whole city to relax her.
School the next day was slow-motion torture. Her exhaustion from the gathering and the constant, nibbling worry about the upcoming new moon ceremony were a dizzying mix. Claire staggered through the halls toward her locker, having survived first-period history without falling asleep on her desk or chewing her nails down to the quick. Considering how she felt, that counted as a major success. She dropped her bag in front of her locker, sending a dust bunny flying.
“Oh, yay! Yayyayyayyay! You’re here!” Emily bounced across the floor with a huge smile on her face. Her hair still startled Claire. After Emily had gotten back from her forced exile at her aunt and uncle’s farm last summer, she’d chopped off her hair. It was short and sort of spiky in an irregular way that looked good on her, but Claire couldn’t quite get used to it. She kept expecting to see the long, smooth ponytail Emily had worn since the fourth grade.
Emily started talking well before she actually got to Claire, her questions flying out of her mouth like a flock of sparrows. “Did you get my message? Did you bring the nail polish? Are you okay? I waited for you before class, but you never showed and I got worried… .”
Claire blinked, trying to digest all the words. She ticked off the answers on her fingers. “Got the message, brought the polish, fine-but-tired. I was up late and I overslept.” She grinned at Emily. “Okay?”
Emily held out her hand. “Polish first. It’s an emergency.”
Claire dug it out of her bag.
Emily took it and then pointed the bottle back at Claire. “So, if you were up late, why didn’t you answer my call?”
“My phone died. I didn’t realize it until I went to bed, and by then it was way, way too late to call.” The lie was as easy as blinking. She didn’t even feel guilty anymore. Not really. Not when she knew what the consequences would be if anyone found out her identity. The thought made Claire’s stomach sway inside her.
“You look like you’re going to faint or throw up or something.” Emily leaned forward. Claire could smell the fake-sweet scent of strawberry Pop-Tarts on Emily’s breath, and it reminded her that she’d skipped breakfast.
“Your pupils are all funny. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Claire blinked. Swallowed. Shook her head, then nodded.
Oh great, Claire. Way to look totally together.
“I’m fine. Just tired, really. And hungry. So, what’s with the manicure urgency?”
Distraction was always a good tactic. And with Emily, it usually worked.
“So, that’s the other reason I was calling.” Emily glanced around the hallway and dropped her voice. “That guy Ryan, in art class? The one who does all the charcoal work?”
Claire nodded again. It was hard to keep track of Emily’s endless string of potentially datable guys, but she vaguely remembered something about a blond guy who’d been making Emily’s toes curl in the art room.
“So, yesterday, he came over while I was painting, and he told me that I held the brush like it was an extension of my hand. And the way he said it …” She shivered happily. “Anyway, if he’s looking at my hands that closely, then I should probably redo my raggedy polish, you know? Because—”
Emily cut off midsentence as a pair of arms wrapped around Claire’s waist from behind. For a wafer-thin moment she tensed, but then the familiar hint-of-cinnamon smell that meant only one thing—Matthew—wafted over her. She melted back against his solid chest.
“Hey, yourself,” she said.
Emily was staring at her expectantly. It was obvious that she wanted to say something more about Art Guy but that she didn’t really want Matthew around while she rehashed the goings-on in her romantic world.
Matthew bent down and tucked his chin over Claire’s shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” There was a heavy, serious note in his voice that made Claire’s skin prickle.
Emily’s eyes widened.
From down the hall, Amy Harper’s blond ringlets bounced as she waved frantically. She was loaded down with posters, and she had a roll of masking tape around her wrist. Even though she’d only been in town a couple of months, Amy had managed to get on practically every committee in the school. She had a dentist’s-dream smile and boundless energy, and she was genuinely one of the nicest people you’d ever meet. She was also into pottery—seriously into it. Apparently, some gallery back in Pennsylvania sold her stuff.
She and Emily spent a lot of time together in the art room and had gotten close fast, which Claire had sort of appreciated, since it took some of the pressure off her. Amy was there for Emily when Claire couldn’t be. Claire had to admit that it made her a little jealous—as much as she loved being a werewolf, all the power and freedom and feeling of specialness that came with the transformation had come with a price. And having to share her best friend with the petite, perky-sweet Amy was part of it.
“What’s up?” Emily called back.
“Can one of you guys please help me tape up these posters? I have a quiz in precalc, and I don’t want to be late!” Amy shifted the stack of paper from one arm to the other, blowing an errant curl out of her eyes.
The “you guys” surprised Claire. Amy wasn’t friends with Claire or Matthew, but then again, she was so nice, she probably automatically included everyone. Like a kindergarten teacher trying to make sure everyone got a turn.
“Sure thing. Be right there.” Emily looked pointedly at Claire, let her eyes skitter over to Matthew, and then twitched her lips. Which was Emily-speak for I’m going now, but you will tell me what the hell he wants to talk to you about, and I don’t mean next week.
“We’ll finish catching up at lunch,” Claire promised, distracted by the catalog of things that might make Matthew sound so serious. Emily zipped off down the hall, arms already outstretched to catch the sliding pile of posters.
Claire turned to Matthew, her heart doing a sort of hiccuping stutter-step as she looked up at him. Claire had spent her entire sophomore year nursing a huge crush on Matthew—along with most of the girls in her class. Somehow, she’d been the one lucky enough to catch his attention. That he’d stayed with her after finding out she was a werewolf was nothing short of a miracle.
“You sound strange,” she said. “What’s up?”
Matthew nodded his head toward Emily and Amy. “It’s about that, actually.”
Claire looked at him expectantly. Her heart quivered against her ribs, nervous.
“The posters that Amy’s taping up everywhere? They’re for the Autumn Ball.” He reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. “I—I really want to go. To take you. But I know that you’re not exactly into dances, and I don’t want to drag you if you’d be supermiserable.”
Claire blinked, wondering briefly if she’d be less confused if she hadn’t been so worried that he was going to tell her something terrible. “What makes you think I’m not into dances?” she finally asked.
Matthew cocked his head at her. “Well, I’ve never seen you at one before. Emily’s usually taking over the dance floor, but I just thought …”
Heat rushed into Claire’s cheeks. She cleared her throat, trying to get up the courage to admit the truth. Matthew was the one person she could always be honest with, so lying about something so small, so human—it seemed stupid. But that didn’t make it any less embarrassing.
“I … um. Yeah. See, the thing is, no one’s ever asked me before. And Emily always had a date, so I didn’t want to tag along stag, and it was easier to just pretend that I didn’t want to go in the first place.”
There. She’d said it.
Matthew’s mouth dropped open. If he laughed, she’d kill him.
“So, you’re saying you’ll go with me? You don’t mind the dress and the corsage and the awkward photos and stuff?”
The girliest, most human part of Claire did a little dance of glee at the words “dress” and “corsage.”
“Of course I’ll go with you. I would love to!” She grinned, swatting his chest with her hand. “Geez, the way you looked before, it was like you were going to tell me that you were moving to Arkansas or something.”
Matthew frowned. “Sorry. It’s just—finals are on Saturday, and things have been—”
“Tense?” Claire interrupted. “Pressure filled? Insanely exhausting?”
“Yeah, those would work.” He smiled the wide, genuine smile that made his eyes crinkle up the tiniest bit at the corners. “But after this weekend, it’ll all be done, one way or another.”
Down the hall, there was a series of high-pitched squeals as one of the show choirettes opened her locker and a flotilla of helium balloons drifted out. Claire wondered if she should stuff Matthew’s locker before the state finals—usually it was something that guys did for girls and not the other way around, but she wanted to do something. Maybe she’d just make a sign to hold up at the game, the way the rest of the team’s girlfriends did.
Claire stretched up and kissed him, just as the warning bell rang. “You’re going to be fantastic. The match is going to be fantastic. And I’m going to be right there, screaming my head off. Now go, before you’re late.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I hope you’re right.” He turned and hitched his bag up on his shoulder. “I love you.”
“I love you, too.” She threw herself into the scurrying mass of people who were scrambling for classrooms, and as she headed down the hall she caught sight of one of the leaf-framed posters. She was going to an actual dance. With an actual boyfriend.
Claire smiled to herself. Emily was going to die a thousand deaths of retail happiness when she heard.
© 2011 Christine Johnson