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Wolf's Wager (Northbane Shifters) by Isabella Hunt (1)

Chapter One

Reagan

 

Cupping my hands in the icy tumble of the river and lifting them, I caught a ghostly glimpse of a face. A face I hadn’t seen in weeks. A face I wasn’t sure I knew anymore. A face gone in the blink of an eye when the water trickled through my fingers. A fitting metaphor.

No matter how hard I was holding on, everything seemed to be slipping away. Including me.

With a tired huff, I splashed some non-metaphorical water over myself. Scrubbing and shivering, I tried not to think about how filthy I was, until I touched my neck. My fingers came away coated in a thin layer of grease and dirt. Ick. Washing harder, I all but drenched my upper back.

God, what I wouldn’t give for a real shower. Nice, warm, and long. With soap.

Oh, soap. Remember soap? And baths. Soaking for hours, letting the world and its dumb problems fade away. Not constantly worrying, planning, cycling through hope and despair…

“Reagan?”

I looked up at the sky as my lips parted in a silent scream. Couldn’t I get five minutes alone? I’d asked so nicely. And I really needed to figure out a new disaster plan—you know, in case this slim, impossible chance didn’t work out.

On the other hand, I wasn’t sure why I’d bothered trying. Privacy should’ve been the least of my concerns. And yet it was the last luxury I craved, racing for salvation or not.

“Hello?” I tried to mask the weariness in my voice as I stood up and looked around. “Drue?”

There was a rustle of underbrush as Drue, Bix, and Gabriel came tumbling out.

“We didn’t mean to bother you.” Petite and round-cheeked, with brown ringlets, Drue twisted a fraying braid between her pudgy fingers. Her shoulders were up to her ears, and she looked scandalized to have disturbed me. “We can come back.”

I chuckled and shook my head. Drue made it sound like she had a tentative appointment with me. Me, the unofficial leader of our ragtag family of refugees, and her second cousin. But Drue was also an expert at picking up on moods, and I chided myself for worrying her.

“Drue, you are not a bother. None of you are. You are family, and we’re there for each other, right?” Three heads nodded at me, and my heart glowed under all the grime. Hell, I’d go for another year without a bath to keep my family happy. “So, what’s up, Three Musketeers?”

“Not Cassidy,” Bix said, flicking his head like a horse to get his curls out of his eyes. Already a born charmer, he smiled and added, “Won’t even get up for me.”

Seriously? I repressed the urge to roll my eyes. “Well, guys, we’re not leaving just yet.”

Drue frowned. “We’re not? Everyone is packed and ready to go.”

“Really?” I asked. Usually it took us at least two hours to break camp.

“No one wants to wait,” Bix said and wiggled his eyebrows. “Not when we’re so close.”

My stomach clenched, and I forced myself to smile. “Right. Of course.”

“Is she doing it on purpose?” Drue asked, and her face crumpled. “Is she scared about how they’ll treat me, her, Bix, and Gabriel?” She swallowed. “You know, p-people like—like us?”

Shifters.

Drue couldn’t even get the word out.

My heart constricting as tightly as my stomach, I thought, Dammit, Cassidy.

Cassidy was my younger sister, and she had a way of, well, crushing souls and picking fights. Like the circumstances weren’t dire enough without her dramatics. Of course, I had to handle the problem child because I was the only one who could. If anyone else did it, like my cousin or my mother, there was apt to be a blowout. Morale was fragile enough.

I took a deep breath and gave the three kids a real smile. “Guys, Cassidy isn’t a morning person. You know that. It has nothing to do with where we’re going. Everything is going to be fine. So, thank you for telling me.” They didn’t seem convinced, so I added, with a raised eyebrow, “Guys, it’s all good. Go finish breakfast—I’ll be right there.”

“You really think we’re gonna find it soon?” Gabriel spoke up stoutly. He was a solid mass of an eleven-year-old, quiet and stoic—except when he was voicing my worst fears. “What if there’s nothing there? Should we find a nice cave?” His tone became hopeful. “With bears?”

Swallowing a bundle of barbed nerves in my throat, I somehow nodded convincingly and kept smiling. I’d learned it was better to keep quiet and show affirmation than to say the wrong thing. Risa, Gabriel’s actual aunt and my honorary one, had told me that leadership was best suited to those who didn’t want it. People who had it thrust upon them.

I wasn’t sure I was leading so much as clinging fiercely to our only hope and dragging everyone along with me, but I appreciated that. Especially since I seemed to make things worse half the time. What did you tell three kids, scraping by in the woods with their elders on a slim hope?

Well, that the hope wasn’t slim, because their belief bolstered ours.

Drue and Bix seemed satisfied, but Gabriel cast an eye out at the dense wild all around us. The forest was still barren of green, except for the pines, though spring was around the corner. However, not even a mile away, jagged peaks stabbed the sky in a blaze of dark rock and ice. A reminder that a snowstorm could hit at any time. We’d been lucky it had been so mild.

Miles deep in the Farthing Mountains, we were trekking through what used to be British Columbia. Or perhaps it still was. We hadn’t seen anyone else in weeks. It was a land of intense beauty. Deep lakes, towering trees, massive mountains, and, somewhere, a sanctuary for shifters.

One that was getting harder to imagine. I couldn’t blame Gabriel for worrying. Out here, cities and sanctuaries felt like fever dreams. Every night, I’d imagined the woods running on forever while our supplies ran out.

Breath churning faster, I felt a spike of dizziness go through me, and I turned away from the kids. Even as I tried to calm myself down, questions and fears bubbled up.

What were we going to do if we couldn’t find Winfyre Ridge? Or if it wasn’t real?

If Winfyre was nothing but a desperate rumor for gullible refugees…

No. No, I refused to believe that. We’d found the markers.

It has to be real, I told myself. And if not, then we’ll find Gabriel a cave stuffed with bears or

Cold water splashed the backs of my legs, and I let out a yelp. Bix laughed, and I turned to see that the three of them had kicked off their shoes and had silently waded in. He aimed another kick of water at me, and I dodged it, while Drue and Gabriel laughed.

I smiled and took a deep breath. Sometimes it seemed like these three were the voices of my conscience. Drue, altruistic and patient, Bix, blunt and pragmatic, and Gabriel, brave and shrewd.

The only way you could get through this was by taking it a day at a time, an hour at a time, a minute, a second. If I opened myself up to a bigger picture of the future, it would invite in the past as well.

I wasn’t ready to go back there yet.

So, I ran in, grabbed the nimble Bix before he could get away, and swung him into my arms.

“No, Rea, don’t throw me in! I’m sorry,” he shrieked.

I pretended to dunk him, and he yelled, then I squeezed him until he began to laugh.

“Come on, you monkeys,” I said, swinging Bix from side to side as we walked out of the river. “Back to camp.”

Camp was a loose term for a huddle of tents and one lone fire pit staked in a small clearing. We’d stayed here a grand total of three days, needing to rest and recover before making the final slog to Winfyre. Most of the camp was now broken down, save one faded green tent in the corner.

I blew out a sigh, shooing Drue, Bix, and Gabriel over to the adults.

My parents were in deep conversation with my cousin Shelby and her wife Linh. Nearby, the Juarezes, Gabriel’s mother Jemma and her sister Risa, were taking care of Collette, the resilient two-year-old. Eight adults, four children.

Once, that’s what we might have said when getting a table at a restaurant.

Now it was a mantra, a reminder, and a safeguard all rolled into one.

By some miracle, we’d all made it this far and relatively in one piece. There’d been some nasty cuts and bruises, but the most serious sickness had been my father. He’d struggled with a terrible cold a few weeks ago, one that lingered even as he insisted that we all continue on. My mother had been so frantic and preoccupied with him, I couldn’t ask her to help me deal with Cassidy.

The fear from those days still weighed on my heart. Thinking about it now, mixed up with my anxieties and hopes about Winfyre, caused my temper to constrict as I glared at the green tent.

Marching up to it, I shook it and said, “Get up.” A groan emanated from within. Unzipping the flap, I poked the sleeping bag mound with my foot. “Cassidy. Now. We’re leaving soon.”

No response.

“Cassidy, seriously, get the hell up. We need to get moving,” I hissed.

My sister rolled over and sat up, fixing a half-awake glare on me. “Do we really, Queen Reagan? Or is that just your anal neuroses acting up?”

“You’re cute, med school,” I drawled. “Get up or get left behind.”

She growled something, but I’d already walked away.

I hated it, but I’d found that ignoring her nasty comments and issuing terse commands were the only ways to deal with the brooding, broken-hearted, and biting monster that my baby sister had become.

I knew she was hurting, and I wanted to help—I really did.

But more than that, I wanted to keep her and everyone else alive.

 

Within an hour, we were packed up and had our bags strapped on. I'd grown used to the horrendous weight tearing apart my shoulders and leaving ragged bruises across my lower back.

Cassidy, as usual, was grumbling. Her short black hair escaped her high ponytail and fell into her narrow face as she mumbled complaint after complaint. Her shoes, the bag, the trip, the trees, the kids, me, the bag, and then something about coffee.

Ha. Like we could trek down a hill and find a Starbucks.

Sometimes I thought Cassidy honestly forgot what was happening, the horrors and wars we’d barely escaped. Or maybe, if the world hadn’t gone to hell, my sister could’ve been a comedian.

Walking along, we spread out into our usual formation. Cassidy, my mother, and the kids up front. My cousin, her wife, and Gabriel’s family behind. Then my father and me at the rear. Keeping an eye on everyone and driving the pace. I’d found it the best way to make sure Dad didn’t overexert himself. He’d chided me for it, but it was all selfish. If he got sick, he slowed us down.

A few weeks ago, I’d taught Drue, Bix, and Gabriel how to find the markers to Winfyre. Since something was still right in this world, they'd become better at finding them than I was.

Even though Cassidy had griped for days about letting them scamper ahead to find them, while the rest of the adults had been dubious, I trusted those three. They needed that.

Hell, I needed that.

We’d fallen into a semblance of a routine with the kids. During the day, to pass the long hours of walking, Mother would regale them with everything she knew about the woods, literature, and history. She’d been a teacher—before.

If they got bored, then they’d drift back to Linh and Shelby, then Jemma and Risa, my dad, and finally me. All of us imparting whatever wisdom we could and trying to keep their minds occupied. Maybe our own, too. Out here, even as we stopped to marvel over masterpieces of nature, we couldn’t help looking over our shoulders.

Overhead, a bird swooped low and let out a voluble call. My eyes tracked it, and a warning hummed a long note in my blood.

Steps slowing, I let my father slowly slip out of sight and stopped. We’d crested a massive shelf of rock overlooking the trees we’d camped in last night. My eyes swept the forest below, alive with shrill calls and flapping wings.

Then it all fell silent at once.

My skin prickled, and the humming grew. Crouching on a lip of rock, I waited and listened.

Below, there was a crack and a brief flicker of movement.

Then nothing.

Fingers tightening on my pack, I glanced back and saw everyone had gone on ahead. Good. When I turned back, there was a wolf sitting next to me.

I sucked in a hard breath, my heart rate spiking, but I kept still. Over the past few weeks, I’d been getting better at keeping calm when weird occurrences like this happened. The first time, I'd freaked out and toppled down a hill.

Now, I nodded at the wolf and forced myself to give him a small smile. He was a deep gray with a tinge of black at his ears and bright blue eyes burning with intelligence.

Nothing had been left untouched by the Rift.

By now, I should have been used to it. The way animals approached me without fear, and how there was an uncanny wisdom in their gaze. How I recognized it. How their expressions and soft sounds made an instinctual sense to me. How my blood hummed and my bones ached in response to the shifts in the natural world, especially when there was an animal nearby.

But some part of me still recoiled. Some part of me still clung to the shard of hope that we could go back. That the world would realign into a normalcy I recognized, instead of one I was learning. That I’d been left untouched.

“Ayani,” I said to distract myself from those thoughts. The wolf was the brother of the pack leader who’d been flanking and protecting us since we’d entered the Farthing Mountains. “What’s wrong? Where’s Lazu?”

Making a soft and impatient sound, Ayani pushed closer and bowed his head. My hand lifted, then curled back. Unlike his brother Lazu, who had an endless patience with me, Ayani jerked up, and a massive paw nudged my leg.

“Fine,” I said. This time I placed my hand on his soft fur.

Images rose up, blips and impressions, mirrored by a blaze of scents and sounds. Rich earth, deep pine, endless sky, and blue waters. Forests that were both a shrine of wild gods and an ancient home. It was almost too fast to catch, but each time I got better at it.

The wolf whisperer, I joked with myself. Maybe not a shifter, but not a stasis. Not anymore.

Suddenly, the images slowed. I saw myself and the kids. Playing in the river, me swinging Bix around. Warmth hummed through the wolf. He’d developed a fondness for the human pups after watching over them for so many weeks. They were brave and resourceful, with an instinctive respect for the natural world.

But as we’d left the river, Ayani had sensed other eyes watching, and a growl had rumbled in his chest. Immediately, he’d darted off, trying to track it. Not again, I thought.

As always, whatever stalked us eluded being seen.

“It’s never gotten that close before,” I said. “What should we do? Hide? Keep going?”

The wolf stood up, snorted, and glanced northwest.

“Keep going?” I asked. Ayani looked at me. “Will we make it? Are we close?”

The wolf didn’t answer. Instead, he bounded into the forest as the wind rose.

Fingers digging into my scalp, I tried to slow my breathing as I stood up. I hadn’t asked him the other question—the one scorching through me. The one Gabriel had worded. The one I didn’t dare even consider at this point. No, we needed to hurry. Somehow, if we were to survive, if we were to find peace—we needed to find Winfyre before sunset.

So long as it existed.