WEST TOSSED the sack of trash into the dumpster behind the diner, flashing his fangs at an interested raccoon and making it scamper into the evening. Little menaces were getting bold, creeping about in the stretching days of spring, hoping for scraps. If Joe saw any of them, he’d start talking about poison again. West doubted his ability to sway the hothead a second time.
He let the dumpster lid swing closed and wiped his hands on his jeans, sighing as his back cracked when he stretched. Six months of working at Joe’s Diner had tested his fitness. As much as he enjoyed the diner, the end of his shifts seemed to get further away every time. At least he’d finished one more, since the trash had been his final task and he was free to go home.
“Felt that in my bones, son! Long day?”
West grimaced through one last stretch and turned to find Double Double Eggs Benedict, an older woman with immaculate nails, watching him.
“Said I felt that one in my bones,” she repeated.
West smiled, though it felt pale. “Long day is right. Just easing out the kinks.”
“Don’t stay out too long. It’s a full moon tonight, and that brings the weird from the woodwork!”
“No need to worry. The moon isn’t full yet,” West said, aiming to reassure her.
“Is that right?” Double Double raised her eyebrows, curious gaze turning distracted as a man in a suit came to join her. They left without saying anything more, though they both glanced over their shoulders at West before getting in their car.
“See you next time,” West said belatedly. He shook his head and wiped his hands on his jeans again, nervous. Should he not have mentioned the moon? Were moon phases something non-lycans knew? West couldn’t help but know. The tides moved under his skin like blood.
Dammit. He had said something weird. Again. With an irritated huff, West stuck his hands in his pockets and hunched his shoulders, starting on the long walk home. Six months at the diner—ten months since leaving the pack—and nearly every day he learned more about life among humans. Stupid stuff. Small stuff. Like being careful not to mention he walked home even when it snowed out, as it had all through the past winter, because lycans ran hot and weren’t susceptible to the usual seasonal colds. Like trying not to smile too wide and show his canines.
Not knowing the phases of the moon.
Weather was fine to discuss, Joe had said. West should stick to the weather.
For all he hated raccoons, Joe had been good to West. A shifter originally from out East, he’d found West sitting in the diner’s parking lot, staring at his hands. October had recently settled in, and West had come to a dead stop on his long route south, seeing a sloppily carved pumpkin in the window of the diner off the highway. He’d remembered trying to carve wolves into pumpkins with Dana. Every year they tried, though, for all his skill with a knife, they’d never come closer than a misshapen squiggle or two. He’d been wondering if his hands might finally learn to make the shapes and Dana would never know, when Joe had sat beside him. Lit a cigarette. Asked if West was passing through.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” West had said. “Thinking about pumpkins.”
Joe’s cigarette had smelled rich and spicy, almost disguising his seaweed-scent. He’d breathed out a cloud and ashed the cigarette. “I got six fucking pumpkins taking space in my fucking kitchen right now. You any good with a knife, pup?”
“No place for a man in the kitchen, my father says.”
“Don’t give a fuck about your father. Asked about knives.”
West kept looking at his hands. They’d been covered with blood the night he left the pack. Less messy than pumpkin innards. Easier to wash off.
He’d glanced at Joe. “Yeah. I’m good with knives.”
The next day he’d started in Joe’s kitchen. They hadn’t spoken about the “interview” since, but sometimes Joe looked at West like he wanted to ask. West kept his head down and cleaned when that happened. He didn’t think about “pup” until he’d been working in the kitchen a month. Too late, then, to ask.
Anyway, there was always something to clean in the kitchen.
In return for his kindness, West tried to pay Joe back by not drawing attention, not letting him down. He kept a mental list of acceptable small talk, regulars at the diner, and the best way to prepare vegetables. Little things, like faces and usual orders, and small details of their lives dropped like crumbs as regulars chatted at the counter. West enjoyed it, though it seemed a strange way of living, letting people know your insides without being sure of their agenda.
His father wouldn’t have approved.
West was learning his father was kind of a jerk.
Not my problem anymore. Forcing his shoulders down, West relaxed into his stride, still a ways from home. He’d found the cabin nestled into a forest off the highway, halfway between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, on the north shore of Lake Huron. The roof had more holes than it didn’t, and stank of coyotes, but at some point, a mage had cast layers of protection spells on the wood and stone, more valuable three times over than the effort needed to get the cabin into a habitable state. There’d even been a spell powering a solar converter for electricity. West would have kissed it if he hadn’t been concerned about electrocution. Mages weren’t known for being safety-conscious.
West had spent the early days of winter making the cabin suitable for lycan habitation and teaching the spells to recognize him. Joe just raised his eyebrows and let West be vague about his living arrangements. In turn, West kept his questions to himself about how a seaweed-scented shifter wound up so far from salt water.
Halfway between the diner and West’s cabin sat a gas station, abandoned for years, a gray aberration studded against the green backdrop. Yellowed posters advertised long-ended promotions in the small store window, like looking into the past through grimy glass. West usually walked a little faster as he went by. Abandoned buildings made his fur rise.
Yet, creepy as he found it, the gas station didn’t usually smell of hot tar and bitter tea. Quashed memories attempted to rise, and West stopped walking. A questing sniff brought tendrils of sweat and aggression to his sensitive nose, mixing unpleasantly with other scents. West edged forward with his senses on alert.
Three lycan kids played on the station forecourt, bowling one another over like puppies, breathless with laughter. Their beat-up truck sat nearby, headlights guarding them from the dying day, half their clothes piled by the muddy wheels, along with a few empty bottles. They’d been playing awhile. And they’d been under Rabid’s influence for as long, to judge by the hysterical edge to their laughter. West’s skin itched with the distinctive stink of the spell. He inched closer, pushing aside memories pressing for attention. Home waited on the other side of the gas station. No way out but through.
“Hey!” one of the kids suddenly yelled, rolling away from her friends and to her feet. She rushed forward with lycan speed to stare at West with red-ringed eyes. A vein had burst in one. “Where did you come from? D’you guys see him?”
Growls rumbled like a burned-out engine from the other two, and West drew his hands from his pockets, keeping his shoulders down and his posture loose. Rabid could take the user to joyous highs or violent lows, depending on circumstance.
West knew the latter from experience. He’d not bothered trying the spell a second time.
He spread his toes inside his boots as he circled her widely, finding more stable purchase, each step placed with deliberation.
She circled in turn, following him with her mismatched eyes. “Where do you think you’re—”
“Don’t you smell him?”
The question from one of the other lycans cut through the growls, making silence ring. Somewhere a bird called. West tensed as they stared, their red eyes glowing like embers. Rabid did something to the blood of lycans, making bodies and tempers burn hot. People said that was why users’ eyes turned red, but West thought of the color as a warning sign.
He should have heeded the warning, not wasted time wondering how he smelled. His heart hammered at the thump-thump-thump of the other kids sprinting toward him, warbling howls bursting from human throats to sing their hunting song. Savage and short, like the strikes they aimed at West’s face and body.
None landed. West hadn’t trained since leaving his father’s pack, but he could still dodge their uncoordinated blows with ease, twisting away from the edge of raggedy claws. Sobriety and years of practice worked in his favor even as his unwillingness to seriously hurt them worked against him. Eventually West managed to wind two of the kids, knocking them back, and captured the third in an armlock.
“Will you listen now?” he asked the lycan with the busted eye.
The kid in his arms struggled, her boots biting into his shin. “Gerroff, asshole!”
“For sure. Just one second.” West caught the eye of one of the others. “What about you? Will you listen?”
More sober than her companions, she spat at the ground and reached a hand out to stay her other downed friend. She tilted her chin. “I’m listening.”
“You need to get out of this territory. It’s been claimed.”
“By Metaschemata Law.” West released the kid and waited as she dashed to her friends so he could speak to all three of them. “This is neutral territory. They don’t want Rabid taking hold. The spell—”
“Yeah, yeah,” one of them said. He wasn’t sure who, since they’d huddled together. “Take a number.”
West clenched his teeth and swallowed his words. The spell had grown in popularity in the last year, since his unpleasant experience, but the magic wasn’t stable and more lycans were succumbing to the side effects. West was no mage, but he didn’t think magic could be limitless. The protection spells on his cabin, for instance, wouldn’t last forever. They’d need to be refreshed at some point, to reactivate the magic. For something like Rabid, which had a few scrawled symbols and an injection of otherwise innocuous chemicals, he didn’t think it could be stable.
But if they wanted to be like the lycans he’d seen with half their insides liquefied, beyond the help of their innate regeneration ability, it wasn’t his decision to judge. Just because it was a stupid decision—West relaxed the muscles in his jaw. He wouldn’t become his father, living lycans’ lives for them.
All the same, if he ever found out the brain trust behind the spell, he’d punch them in the face and not regret a damn thing.
West watched the kids get into their truck, pleased none seemed hurt in more than their pride, and pulled out his phone when the headlights faded to nothing. The line rang twice before someone answered.
“Metaschemata Law Ontario. Heidi speaking.”
West tried to lower his voice and flatten out his accent. It made him feel stupid, but no one could see him blush. “Rabid has arrived in your territory. Just… just so you know.”
“How do you—Did you call before?”
Furballs. “No, I—”
“You did, didn’t you? I’m sure you did. Those wolves in Sudbury—”
West disconnected the call, ears burning. He shoved his phone into his pocket, zipped his jacket, and started back on the walk home.
WEST FLICKED on his magelight, booted up his old laptop, and activated the hotspot on his phone. Joe had helped him with a data plan, only puffing out a breath of smoke when West hesitantly asked for advice, and suggested buying a charm to boost the signal. West had been embarrassed to ask for help with something other people did effortlessly, but without the internet, he would’ve lost contact with his study group for the online Metaschemata History course he’d been taking.
And without his study group, West wouldn’t have the Prof.
The course had started as an effort to learn about his own history, to provide the knowledge to support the strength of his father and older brother. The pack needed both, didn’t it? To be its best? West had enjoyed history at the little school they had in the territory, learning about famous lycan battles and their push for rights, working with mages as they slowly revealed their existence to humans. Though his training had concentrated on sharp edges, as fitting his future role in the pack, West had sought out more knowledge at the library in his off time.
His father had never mentioned other shifters, or that they were called “metas” now. Lycans and mages, he’d said, like that was all, but there were worlds of people to learn about, hidden beneath the rock of ignorance. And with every new thing West learned, there were six others he wanted to explore in more depth. The world was so much bigger than he’d imagined.
Two months after registering for the course, West fled his father’s territory.
His laptop finally woke, and West opened the course message board and found an argument already in progress between Sylvia and Milo. They were contesting the known elements of lycan pack structure—or wolf metas, as they called them—and West grinned as he prepared to weigh in with a rebuttal, correctly supported by citations. The course tutor, Professor Wylie, said they had to use citations and couldn’t state “personal experience” when making a point. Too subjective, he’d said, giving feedback for West’s first piece of work, where West argued against the supposition that magical bonding was a myth.
West had spent a week reading journal articles and trawling archives until he could prove the Prof wrong with documentary evidence.
They hadn’t spent more than two days without contacting each other since.
West’s phone rang in the middle of a heated debate about the possibility of bonds between shifters—metas—and humans. He glanced at the display, grimaced, and returned to his post. Dana. He’d been ignoring her calls for months, but she kept trying. He’d given her his number not to talk, but because otherwise she might search for him. One text had been all he’d sent. Still alive. Any more could be read as an invitation, and West didn’t want to see anyone from the pack. He’d left such a mess behind him, he might never be ready. Much less for their judgment.
Between Dana’s call and the confrontation with the bespelled kids, West was too tired to keep arguing with his study group until the small hours, as he usually did. Signing off early had nothing to do with the Prof’s nonappearance; he’d contacted West off-list, a quick email continuing their rambling, months-long conversation, so at least West had something.
It wasn’t as if West missed the Prof. He didn’t even know him. West’s father said it wasn’t possible to know someone without their scent. Like a flat image, never filled with shadow or limned with light. Since leaving the pack, West had questioned much his father had said, but some things lurked in the dark corners of his psyche with their claws dug into bedrock. He thought the importance of scent might be one of them. Something that left scars in his expectations.
West left his laptop to whirr itself to sleep and snuffed the magelight before heading outside to check the perimeter of his cabin. The spells were old but smelled strong, and he nudged key markers as he passed, refreshing their knowledge of him. Markers in the forest were less of a concern, as coyotes and bears weren’t interested in him or his strange smell. He didn’t know much magic—mages guarded their secrets the way his family had guarded West’s ignorance—but West recognized symbols for concealment and protection, the same as were carved into the pack hall back home. Every night West lit a candle to thank the mage who had protected the cabin and left it for him to stumble upon in his hour of need.
The spells held strong, so West returned to the cabin to light his candle and get ready for bed. He glanced at his laptop, silent and dark. The Prof would be in touch again. He was probably busy teaching, or researching, or whatever professors did in their downtime.
Not convinced by his argument but having no other, West slept.
A scream woke him, vibrating through his bones. Panicked, West fell out of bed onto four furry feet, defensive instincts working to protect his sluggish brain. He nudged the door open with his nose, using the wolf-friendly handle, and rushed into the cool night. The screeching followed, but he heard it from inside his head, like the echo of a dream. It wasn’t until he passed the first key marker, etched on a tree stump, that he realized the noise came from the protection spell.
Someone had breached the spell perimeter.
Maybe a bear. Maybe a coyote, cold and hungry and following its nose. Anything smaller, a skunk or bird, wouldn’t make the alarms shriek. West considered the possibilities as he followed his nose to the sulfurous smell of broken magic, running through the forest under the light of the waxing moon. Branches splintered beneath his paws, and small night creatures scuttled from his path, chittering with nerves and reproach. He rarely ran in the forest, not wanting to scare local wildlife away from the habitat they’d cultivated under Metaschemata Law protection in territory unclaimed by any pack. West knew he lived at the little cabin by some kind of grace, and he’d be out on his tail if anyone discovered an heir to the Hargreaves pack gamboling around outside of his territory. West needed to live with his head down. Stay out of trouble.
But what to do when trouble found him first?
Because trouble had crashed into the forest and left blood in its wake. West stumbled to a halt when he found a doe with her belly shredded, her glassy eyes staring in his direction, accusations in her still face. As West followed the trail of viscera, he found smaller animals, unrecognizable by anything other than scent. Fur and flesh mashed into the earth. Nothing eaten. His own fur bristled at the waste, and he slowed to a stalk. A rampage?
Breaking into a clearing by the stream, West recoiled at the sudden stench of tar and tea. Rabid. He nearly fell over his tail in the haste of his retreat and bit back a yelp at the sting of pain before ducking his head and making for the abandoned leather jacket on the bank. Rabid stink seeped from the folds of the fabric, and he held his breath as he nosed through it, searching for something to identify the asshole who’d spoiled his forest.
The jacket held no wallet or phone, and Rabid obliterated all other scents, making his search fruitless. West sat on his haunches and chewed on a howl, keeping it in his chest. Asshole had stumbled into the territory, wild with Rabid, and broken the protections on West’s home for—what? Food they didn’t intend to eat? For the joy of the slaughter?
West curled nose to tail and let out a sigh that ruffled his fur. The shrieking stopped, as if realizing he’d found the source of the breach. Magic.
He tucked his nose beneath his paw and tried to block the scent of Rabid by concentrating instead on grass and water, but blood seeped into his perception. He could taste it in the back of his throat, and he jumped to his paws, not ready for the memories the scent evoked. Flicking his tail, West stretched into human shape and its duller senses. Always strange to change perspective, it took a moment to recalibrate to standing nearly six feet from the soil instead of three.
Night breezes curled around West’s naked body and brushed through his messy hair. The cold refreshed him and made him think of the snug nest of blankets waiting at the cabin, more an indulgence than a necessity. There’d be no more blankets if those kids had followed him home. He should’ve incapacitated them and waited for the Law to come. He wouldn’t have needed to be overly violent; his father had taught West ways to restrain lycans for short periods of time. A nerve strike could be clean, if applied correctly.
West clenched his jaw and looked away from the leather jacket, another dead animal left behind by whoever had broken the protection spells. It didn’t matter who so much as it mattered who might find West once his scent could travel on the wind. The diner had so many people passing through, West barely smelled like himself after a shift, and Joe’s strong ocean scent did the rest. But with the perimeter breached, his father’s pack could find him at the cabin and take West away from the home he’d tried to build.
They wouldn’t hurt him, not if he didn’t resist. Father never used his fists when his words would do. It had been his words that chased West’s mother away. West didn’t think he could bear more of his father’s words—nor the words turned to decree, as they had the night he left. Him and Dana. Marriage, his father had said.
West might have lived too long under his father’s paw, but he knew he wasn’t the marrying type.
And then the fight with Lyle, his older brother, vying with West for the place of alpha, like West had ever been interested, and speaking of Dana like a hind to chase.
West clenched his jaw. He needed a mage to refresh the wards. The work wouldn’t come cheap, but the matter of payment could be resolved later. There were other problems more pressing.
Dropping to four paws, West ran for home. He took the long way, leaving the doe, but vowed to return in the morning to bury her. As he ran, he kept his ears and nose open, alert for anything new in the forest. Nothing struck between the clearing and the cabin, and West slipped inside the open door and switched to a shape with fingers. He considered his laptop and the possibility of asking Professor Wylie for help—the man must have plenty of contacts in the meta community—but his gaze stuttered on his phone, sitting on the stack of mildewed books by his bed.
He knew someone who would definitely have the right contacts. If he dared ask.
Chewing his lower lip, West navigated to the call screen on his phone. Missed calls: Dana, Dana, Dana. There’d been times he’d regretted giving her his number, but usually he talked himself out of getting a new one. They’d been friends since they were pups, and the betrothal had been as much a betrayal of her as of him.
But West had never responded to her calls. He hadn’t been a very good friend. Still wasn’t. Holding his breath, West sent a quick text. Need a reliable mage in Ontario. Don’t ask why.
Expecting no response until morning, if at all, West curled in his blankets to try to sleep, despite his skin itching with nerves and anger. When his phone buzzed across the wooden floor less than ten minutes later, he pounced on it and squinted at the glow to read Dana’s response. Julian Colquhoun. Level 6. Based in Toronto. Miss you.
West opened a message to respond. Closed it. Opened it again and typed rapidly before he could think better of the idea. Miss you.
Turning off the phone, West hunted through the cabin for a pen. He finally found one beneath an overturned bowl and scribbled the mage’s name on a receipt from his work pants. Julian Colquhoun. In the morning, before work, West would go online for the mage’s contact details, get in touch, and hopefully arrange an appointment to refresh the wards. He’d need to find a way to pay the mage for his services, but that was tomorrow’s problem. If the mage came recommended by Dana, he should be reliable. West needed someone reliable.
The longer he stayed in the human world, the more West realized he needed a lot of things.