The phrase “werewolf society” is intrinsically misleading. In most respects, werewolves belong to the same society as their human neighbors; they speak the same language, celebrate the same holidays, and complain about the same politicians. By and large a French werewolf is going to have more in common, culturally, with a French human than an English werewolf.
There are, however, a few exceptions to the rule, a few elements of a shared culture which bring lycanthropes together. Probably the most universal example is the lunar festival. I’ve never encountered a pack of werewolves that didn’t celebrate it, and that most definitely includes the Colorado Springs pack.
They don’t hold one every time the full moon comes around. Usually it’s every third or fourth moon, and it’s kind of a big deal. Most werewolves regard it as something between a party and a religious holiday, and they wouldn’t miss the event for love or money.
Being the Alpha’s best friend, I always got invites and usually attended. For most of my life I’d been too upset over not being a werewolf to want to, but in recent months that had stopped bothering me so much and I’d started to actually enjoy them.
Admittedly, there was a lot to enjoy. When werewolves throw a party, they go all out. It starts with a massive barbecue at around noon. Most of them show up human, and there’s always plenty of raw meat for the rest. That lasts ’til sunset, and goes through an almost absurd amount of food. You might think your guests eat a lot when you throw a party, but trust me, it doesn’t begin to compare to what an entire pack of werewolves can put away.
Around dusk is when it stops resembling a human party. As the shadows lengthen werewolves start changing, filling the air with sounds more suited to the primordial forest than a suburban backyard. By the time the moon’s fully risen, all of them are in fur. That’s when the hunt starts, and God help you if you get in the way. Thirty moon-happy werewolves out hunting is a dangerous thing.
There is such a thing as the Wild Hunt, but I think a lot of the legends about it were actually started by full-moon werewolf hunts. It’s incredibly beautiful, in the same way as a forest fire.
Shortly before dawn, the hunt finally wounds down. They’ve almost always caught something by then, and as the moon’s influence starts to wane they start to pull themselves together. Or some of them do, at any rate; the festival formally ends with the conclusion of the hunt, but it’s generally accepted that there’s an unofficial third portion. Usually, the only people who participate in that aspect of the celebration are the ones who either aren’t in a romantic relationship or don’t take that sort of thing as seriously as most. Odds are good you can imagine what’s involved, and if not you definitely don’t want me to describe it for you.
It’s a commonly cited fact around werewolves that wolves mate for life. Commonly cited, accurate, and totally worthless. The thing people often forget is that a werewolf is every bit as much human as wolf, and there are plenty of humans who can’t hold down a relationship for two weeks. Given that a werewolf can live for, theoretically, forever, and that they aren’t human no matter what they sometimes look like, it shouldn’t be too surprising that some of them have attitudes which are, by the standards of society, odd to say the least.
So far this one was just at the tail end of the feasting portion. The sun was mostly down, and I was one of the few who still looked human. If it had been winter I might have had a cup of hot cider or something, but even in Colorado it doesn’t get cold enough to bother the likes of me in July. Even in December the cup would have been mostly decorative; I don’t really get cold under natural conditions, unless I’m in the Antarctic or something.
So I was pretty much standing around bored waiting for the last of the wolves to finish the change, idly spinning webs of shadow between my fingers. I’d gotten a lot smoother at that over the past few months, enough that I didn’t even really have to think about it. Practice makes perfect, in magic the same as everything else.
I felt it, when the moon rose. I couldn’t not feel it; it was too much a part of me. As the light of the full moon touched my face I felt a sudden need to hunt, to chase things and revel in the blood, the same urge the werewolves were feeling. It’s a combination of psychology and magic that, while not a compulsion to the hunt, is certainly a very strong encouragement.
That wasn’t unusual. Most of the time I would have shaken it off easily. Tonight it was stronger than usual, and I considered using my magic to sort of ride along in the minds of the pack. It was something I’d done before, more times than I could remember. With my power buoyed by the full moon, it wouldn’t even be an effort.
As I debated whether I wanted to do that tonight, I felt myself reaching automatically for the power that would let me change my shape to join them physically instead of just mentally. That wasn’t too unusual either; even after more than a decade had gone by since I stopped being a werewolf, I still tried to change occasionally. It was instinct, especially under the full moon.
What was unusual was what happened next. I felt a sort of strain, as though I were pushing against something almost too heavy to move—except this was a purely mental sensation. Then, to continue the analogy, it started to move with a feeling like I’d broken the seal of ninety years of rust. Then the really worrisome stuff started.
I felt sensations which, although entirely familiar to me, I hadn’t felt in my own body for years and years, and which I’d never expected to feel again. A tension to the muscles. Elevated heart and breathing rates. Things slowly beginning to shift under my skin….
I looked at my hand and saw that it wasn’t my imagination. The shapes were…not right. The bones had started shifting around, which I felt with hot, tiny pains. My nails were elongating, ever so slightly. Thickening, becoming claws.
In other words, I had started to turn into a wolf.
I thought, absently, that I should have felt something. Pride, maybe, satisfaction that I was finally able to change when it had eluded me for so long. Terror because the last time I managed it turned out really badly for me and a bunch of other people. At the moment, though, I was too stunned to feel any of that.
A moment later, I realized that if I didn’t want to change right there, right then, I’d better do something about it. I closed my eyes and focused my will, forcing the power I’d called back down. A few years ago I probably couldn’t have done it, not under the full moon, not as hard as it was hitting me right now. Fortunately, I’d been practicing a lot with magic, and doing serious magic requires absolute strength of will. I managed to choke the wolf back down, although it felt like I was trying to bottle up a geyser.
I opened my eyes and looked at myself. Everything seemed to be back where it belonged, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Moving very carefully, I gathered my things and collected my mostly-dog Snowflake, clipping her leash on. She didn’t need it—she was at least as intelligent as most people—but it would make people feel better.
All of that was pretty normal. I usually left at this point, only “staying” for the actual hunt about one time in three. Snowflake trotted along beside me cheerfully.
She figured out something was wrong about the time I was sure we were out of sight and earshot of the werewolves, and I started to run. Normally I would have said that was a bad idea around a bunch of hunt-minded werewolves—like dogs, they have an instinct to chase things which run. Fortunately I knew that they were hunting the forest tonight, and I had no intention of leaving the city.
Snowflake kept pace easily. She’s a Siberian husky, in good shape, and the things that make her not quite a dog had recently started showing up physically as well as mentally. She could have outstripped me without making an effort, and I can move faster than any humans but dedicated athletes.
My magic is good at communicating with predators. Up until recently, in fact, that was about all it was good for. As a result I could feel Snowflake’s worry in the back of my mind. Even under the full moon, which makes my magic significantly stronger, I couldn’t distinguish actual words (another way Snowflake differs from a dog; normal animals don’t really form distinct thoughts as you understand the term) without skin contact, eye contact, or an effort on my part.
I’d spent enough time around her that I didn’t need to. I knew how her mind worked. She was concerned for me, wondering why I was in such a hurry. I sent back reassurance as strongly as I could and picked up the pace a little.
I was in good condition, and physically somewhat superior to the average human. I was still somewhat out of breath by the time we reached my house, most of the way across the city from the pack’s house where the party had been held. The whole time the urge to change and go hunting became more powerful, not less, and by the time we were there I was starting to feel genuinely afraid.
We stopped at the door for me to lower my defenses. At Alexander’s suggestion, I’d started putting up wards around my cabin. They were nothing like the multilayered fortress around the old wizard’s house, but they were still pretty good. Attack my home and you’d best be ready for blasts of wind to hit you like a sledgehammer, shadows to try to trip, tangle, and disembowel you, and (my particular favorite) a bit of magic that would make every animal within a two mile radius start raising hell. I figured that last one alone would be enough to make most people bent on stealth go running. Generally I only left them up when I was away, so that nobody could sneak in while I was gone.
The problem was that they wouldn’t allow me through, either. In the circles I’d started running with, shapeshifting into a perfect imitation of me wasn’t all that difficult. As a result my wards were programmed to try and kill me if I didn’t disable them first. Most of the time I considered constantly lowering and raising my defenses to be good practice. Tonight it was an irritant and an expenditure of time that I resented.
A minute or so later I opened the door and we went through. I took Snowflake’s leash off and locked the door behind us, raising my wards again as well. I made my way to my quasi-living room and sat down on the floor not too far from the fire.
After that I spent a while…meditating, for lack of a better word. Concentrating on relaxing, as much of an oxymoron as that is, focusing on being calm and peaceful until the wolf inside me finally started to fade from the forefront of my mind. It wasn’t gone, not even close—the urge to slip into fur and go hunting was still there, would be there at least until the sun came up. But my mind was clear enough that I could think straight.
I could, for example, think about how it was July and as a result I hadn’t set a fire today. Even if I had, I’d been gone for hours and hours at the party. The fire should have been out long since. The fact that it wasn’t suggested that someone had been feeding it. That, in turn, implied that someone had been here, inside of my wards and locks, and I hadn’t even known it.
About the same time I noticed that, a voice spoke for the first time since I came in. “It hurts, doesn’t it?” The voice was male, and fairly deep, but otherwise not that remarkable.
I opened my eyes and looked at the source of the voice. There weren’t any lights on and he was between me and the fire, so I couldn’t make out much beyond a silhouette. He was tall, I could see that much, and very thin. He was squatting comfortably next to the stove, warming his hands at the fire.
I got up and turned on the lamp without answering him, casting a dim light through the room. As I did he turned around and I got a look at his face for the first time.
Silvery-grey hair. Golden eyes that reflected the light like a cat’s. Gaunt features, with hollow cheeks and pronounced bones that made him look like he’d come from a concentration camp. He looked somewhat disturbing and entirely too familiar. I’d seen his face only once, but I wouldn’t ever forget it.
I was raised around werewolves, and tried to become one myself when I was sixteen. It worked, sort of, and drove me mostly insane as a result. A number of people died, and I spent about three months locked up and getting steadily crazier. At some point in that time this entity—I wasn’t sure if the term “person” applied—had appeared and undone the change somehow.
Except that I had started to shift tonight. Which suggested that I hadn’t fully understood what happened that night.
This time I wasn’t feverish and hallucinating, so I noticed a few details that I either hadn’t seen the last time, or which hadn’t been there. He was wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, both well-worn. More noticeably, there was a silver ribbon that shimmered in a way I hadn’t seen before around his neck, and his lower lip was pierced. It didn’t look much like jewelry; it was just an ugly metal spike in his mouth that gouged at his gums when he spoke. Creepy looking. The instant I saw him I also became aware of the scent of magic, so thick it was almost choking, reeking of a predator’s musk.
“I wondered when I’d see you again,” I said eventually.
He raised one silvery eyebrow. “That’s it? I was expecting at least a little surprise.” His voice, at least, sounded normal this time. The last time I’d seen him it had been made up of hundreds of unrelated sounds combined into speech that was nothing like human. Although I might have hallucinated that part; you never know.
I shrugged. “Nah. I’ve been expecting this for years now. And after what happened earlier, makes sense I’d see you again. I take it you’re here to settle that debt?”
He looked confused. Then, suddenly, he laughed, and there was an echo of that earlier, inhuman voice in it, the sound of a windstorm blended with howling wolves. “Oh, you mean from when I helped you out a few years back?” He waved one hand carelessly. “You don’t owe me for that. That was common decency.”
Well, that was a weight off my shoulders. I’d spent half my life, almost, thinking he owned me and I was just living on borrowed time until he decided to collect.
He turned back to the fire. “Do you remember what I said to you back then?” he asked.
I moved up to sit more or less next to him. The fire was very nice. “You asked, ‘Do you want to be free?'”
He nodded. His features were even weirder in the flickering orange light. “Good memory. Can you guess why I asked that?”
“Because you thought the answer was important?” I guessed.
He shrugged. “Maybe a little. Mostly it’s because it’s natural to talk about what’s precious to you. Ask a starving man what he thinks of steak and he’ll wax eloquent for hours on end.” He shrugged again. “Only natural.”
I considered that for a moment. I don’t know why, but most supernatural beings of any age or power seem to delight in talking around the subject. You have to pay careful attention to really see what they mean.
“To a starving man,” I said slowly, “steak is important because it’s what he wants but can’t have. It’s precious because it’s the thing he lusts for most.”
He smiled at me, showing teeth that were very sharp. He said nothing.
I thought some more. He looked a lot like me, really; both of us were only vaguely human in appearance. We looked more like wolves than men, in a lot of ways. Amber eyes and grey hair, in particular.
He looked and smelled like a wolf and spoke of freedom the way a starving man speaks of steak. I looked at the silvery ribbon, which I saw now had no seam or knot, as though it had been woven in place around his neck. No way to get it off without snapping it, and somehow I knew that I could tug on it all day with superhuman strength and not affect it at all. I looked at the spike in his mouth, which had to be pure agony when he spoke.
For some reason, at least some ancient and powerful beings take great pleasure in making their disguises as transparent as possible. I don’t know why; maybe because, even when they try to blend in, their pride demands that people have a way to recognize them. Maybe they just think it’s funny.
“You’re the Fenris Wolf, aren’t you?” I asked him.
He smiled delightedly. “Oh, you are good. What gave me away?”
I rolled my eyes. “What didn’t? I thought you were supposed to be bound until the end times.”
“Who’s to say I’m not?” he asked seriously. “A silver cord around my neck and a sword stabbed into my mouth. Admittedly I couldn’t fit the whole sword, but I think the symbolism is there nonetheless, don’t you?”
“Funny,” I said dryly, “but I was kind of not joking.”
He looked back into the fire, staring at the tongues of flame as though they held answers to my questions. For all I know they did. “The old poets weren’t stupid,” he said abruptly. “Not stupid at all. Some were brilliant. But they were still human. Even when they heard the truth, which was seldom, they didn’t have minds to process it. So they translated it into something they could understand. That’s what you grew up learning.”
“So what is the way things really are?” I asked curiously.
He glanced at me almost regretfully. “You can’t really understand it either. You’re too much like them, and not enough like me.”
“Try,” I suggested.
He seemed to spend a moment thinking. “There is more than one kind of binding,” he said eventually, “and more than one way to be free. Sometimes if you want to be free in one way, you have to be bound in another. And that really is the best I can explain it.” He waved one hand vaguely and both the ribbon and the spike vanished as though they’d never been. “The accoutrements were metaphors at best, and at worst outright lies.”
I thought about that. It sounded like a paradox on the surface, but it actually made a kind of sense to me. “Sort of like when I was a werewolf,” I said after a moment. “When you took that away from me, you were restricting my freedom in some ways. But it made me free to think clearly and control my own actions.”
“Not a bad example,” he allowed. “But you’ve never been a werewolf.”
I raised one eyebrow, a trick that took me forever to get down. “That’s funny,” I said dryly. “I distinctly remember being changed into one.”
He shook his head. “No. Changing you into a werewolf would be like trying to drown a fish. You’re closer to the source than they’ll ever be. You just…woke some things up, inside yourself, that were sleeping until then. I just put them back to sleep.”
“That’s why I started to change tonight,” I said suddenly, realizing it even as I spoke. “It woke back up.”
He shrugged. “Has been for a while now. Nothing sleeps forever.” He glanced at me slyly. “And you’ve been helping it along, too. Playing about with things you don’t understand. Spent quite a lot of time with werewolves lately, haven’t you?”
I mused on that for a moment. “Will it affect me the same way it did last time?”
He shrugged again. “Maybe. Probably not. You weren’t ready for it to wake up back then. Now I think you might be. I can put it back to sleep for a while if you want, but it won’t last as long as last time. Especially if you keep using magic and such.”
I thought about it, but I didn’t really need to. The truth is that if I had had a chance to be a werewolf anytime in the past twenty years or so without going crazy, I’d have taken it without a second thought. “Maybe later. For now I think I’ll just see what happens.”
He nodded and didn’t say anything, still watching the fire. We sat like that for a minute or two, not speaking. The silence felt…oddly companionable, in a way I wouldn’t have expected while speaking with Fenris. I’d encountered a couple of beings like him before, including his father Loki, and never been comfortable in their presence. They had scared me just by being. Fenris…didn’t.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked suddenly. “Help me out when I was going insane.”
He shrugged. “I value freedom. Seemed like offering you yours was the right thing to do.”
“I notice you aren’t staging prison breaks worldwide,” I said wryly. “What made me special?”
He didn’t say anything for a minute, and I thought he might not answer. “You reminded me of myself, a little,” he said eventually. He shrugged again. “And I knew your mother. I thought she might like me to take care of you a bit.”
My eyes widened. “How’d you know my mother?”
He looked at me like an idiot. “How did anybody know Carmen?” He smirked suggestively, in case I hadn’t caught on already.
I sighed. I knew my mom was…not what you might call discriminating, in the slightest, but seriously. I would have hoped she had enough sense to not have sex with divine monstrous wolves older than time, maybe literally.
And then my eyes widened. I never knew my father, never even knew who he was. All my mother said (and not to me, because she’d killed herself before I was old enough to talk) was that he had been an enormous, beautiful wolf in Canada. A wolf who had impregnated her when that should have been physically impossible, who had left no tracks and no scent.
I looked at the Fenris Wolf, who could easily fit that description. “Are you my father?” I asked. It sounded strange, phrased so simply.
“No. Sorry, no. We just…had a good time together.” He shrugged. “There aren’t many people willing to be near me once they know who I am. I liked her. Tried to help her out when I had the chance.”
There was another long pause, during which I stared into the fire too. I wasn’t sure whether I had been afraid that Fenris was my father, or hopeful. Maybe I hadn’t had enough time to get used to the idea to know. In any case, it was a disappointment to go back to not having any idea.
“I did know your father,” he said abruptly. “Decent fellow. I was the one who kept Carmen from following him.” He sighed. “Oh, she wanted to. I think she really might have settled down with him, you know? But it was for the best.”
“Who was he?” I asked.
“Didn’t have a name,” Fenris said. “Not one you’d understand, anyway. He really was what he looked like.”
I frowned. “My father was an actual wolf?” I asked incredulously.
He shrugged. “Mostly. A wolf bigger than most. Smarter. There’re a few of those around.” He looked at me, inviting me to finish the train of thought.
I thought for a moment, then smiled. “Let me guess,” I said slowly. “You were in western Canada a while ago. Having a good time.”
Fenris grinned, his teeth red in the firelight. “Good guess. About two hundred years ago. It was a nicer place back then, I think.” He frowned and looked back into the flames. “Not sure how many generations back that was. Generational time in wolves varies a lot, anywhere from about two to ten years.”
Which made Fenris anywhere from my hundred-times-great-grandfather to a meager twenty generations back, roughly. “Long time ago,” I commented.
He shrugged. “It lingers. They’re still wolves. Just not quite like other wolves.” He shrugged again and prodded at the fire.
I frowned as I saw an incongruity in his story. “If you were trying to help me, why wait until then? I can think of a few times when I was younger you could have helped me a lot.”
He put another piece of wood on the fire. “Didn’t know about you. I still don’t know how she carried you to term—she must have gone somewhere else for help with that. I didn’t find out you existed until about a month before I saw you.” He shrugged. “After that, I hung around a little. You seemed happy enough. You didn’t need my help.”
“And after I left?”
“You were trying so hard to blend in,” he said quietly. “Trying to leave all that behind you. Having me around wouldn’t have helped you any. You had to make your own way.” He smiled again, sadly this time. “I knew it wouldn’t work. Walking away from what you are never does. But you were trying, and I had to respect that.” He sighed and stood up. “I have to be going now.”
“Will I see you again?” I asked.
He grinned. His teeth were very white, and very sharp. “Probably before long. Looks like if I wait very long you’ll be dead. No offense.”
I snorted. “None taken. As much trouble as I’ve been getting myself into I’d bet against my living very long, except I can’t find anybody to take it.”
He smiled at me in an almost proprietary way. “I like you,” he said with satisfaction. “Much more amusing than any of my other toys these days.”
I bristled. “Toy?” I demanded.
He shrugged. “No offense. I’ll admit words aren’t my strongest suit. But you’re one of mine. How could I not take pride in what you do?” he asked rhetorically. Then, while I was still processing that, he said, “You should get some rest, Winter. Big day ahead of you and all that.”
And, as though triggered by his words—which it probably was—a wall of blackness hit me like a crashing wave.