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Soulbound ‡ feral

by Wes Leigh

Chapter 6

I am a Hound of God. I travel my own road, into Hell and out of it.

-- From The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Shadows and thickets. His cloak.

The evening breezes. His messengers. His scouts.

Quivering creatures. His prey.

On padded paws he stalked the forest lanes, pausing to scent the air and track the whitetail deer he'd been following. Almost within striking distance. Over the next rise. Unaware that calamity crept nearby.

Patiently he slipped forward one quivering step at a time. It was more challenging hunting alone. Much more difficult. With no packmates to aid you, each kill depended on closing the gap to the prey, pushing ever forward into that dangerous zone where a step closer meant possible detection but also a greater chance to bring down your target. And thus, he patiently crept closer, one measured step at a time, the ultimate predator.

His instincts told him when he was close enough. His heart began pounding within his chest. Drool slid from his fangs. His muscles tightened in preparation for the leap.

Like a destroying demon bursting forth from the earth, Connor erupted from his hiding place and leapt through the air at the grazing whitetails, who immediately twisted around and sprang frantically in every direction.

All escaped save one, who died quickly beneath Connor's snapping jaws. Triumphant, he stood over the bloody carcass and greedily fed. Warm flesh. Dripping blood. It satisfied more than the hunger of his body, feeding his wild wolf soul.

The man inside the wolf tried to sound the alarm. 'There is more to life than the hunt and the feeding,' the man tried to argue.

'What more?' the wolf replied.

The man had no answer.

'I'm no tame dog,' the wolf insisted. Finally, he was alive again.

The wind whispered to Connor. Something dangerous ahead. Not the scent of a whitetail or a cougar or coyotes. Not a wolf. Not human either. Nor the strange mixture of scents that came from another werewolf.

He sniffed the air carefully. Could it be the Blooded he smelled? His nose sorted through the smells of the forest, the land, the distant river. No, it wasn't the Blooded either, with their peculiar stench of the grave and of blood.

There was blood in this scent, but fresh blood, the smell of a predator, mixed with something more, something new in his experience.

And new meant dangerous. He crept forward, one slow step at a time.

The moon was full and high in the sky, illuminating the clearing before him. The scent was coming from the shadows at the far side of the clearing. Whatever it was, it was close now, causing his hackles to rise in response to the danger lurking within.

His instincts warned him to flee. This was not a foe he should fight alone.

He turned to slink away, but a rumbling voice spoke before he could leave. "Hau."

Connor paused and waited.

The voice spoke again, "Hau, little one. Do not be afraid."

Connor's lips pulled back in a snarl. Wasn't he the largest of the pack? The strongest? The fastest? He was no 'little one'. And he feared nothing.

The shadows shifted and a towering man stepped into the moonlight. Tall, with broad shoulders and a thick body wearing a loose robe. Wrinkled skin in an ancient face. Long, flowing white hair, cascading over his shoulders and down his back. Eyes like deep pits that absorbed all light and revealed nothing of the soul within. He stared at the spot where Connor hid. "You have found me, though you did not know you sought me. Before you slip away into the night, you should stay and talk."

Connor sniffed the air carefully, trying to make sense of the confusing message his nose was sending him. This was no man. There was something more to his scent, but Connor couldn't make out what it was.

The man laughed softly. "You don't know my scent, wolfling. But I know yours."

Connor growled low in his throat, preparing his body to leap away at the first sign the man meant to harm him.

Raising one hand slowly, the man said, "You are in no danger here. Not from me. You carry the danger within you, wolf who is not a wolf."

Connor's muscles quivered, but his mind commanded them to wait.

The man lowered his hand. "If you stay, you may learn much. If you go, you may learn more." The man chuckled. "The choice is yours." He turned and disappeared into the shadows.

Connor waited and watched. The man didn't return.

Shifting into human form, Connor walked forward through the thicket. As he approached the shadows on the other side, he saw a makeshift shelter made from branches and hides. Inside the shelter, he saw the large man sitting on the ground with his legs crossed. There was bedding on the ground surrounded by a few baskets and other small items. "Who are you?" Connor asked, his voice cracking from lack of use.

"I am not here to tell you who I am."

"Then why are you here?" Connor asked.

The man lifted his hands and gestured around him. "To be what I am. In my own place."

"That's confusing."

"The truth often is."

Connor moved forward another step. "Do you have a name?"

The man chuckled. "I have many names."

Connor saw the man reach behind him and pull a bundle from a basket. He held the bundle out to Connor. It was a folded robe. Connor took the robe and asked, "What is this for?"

"Robes are for wearing. When you are not covered by the fur of the wolf. Or you can remain in your human skin. Nakedness does not bother me."

Connor stepped back cautiously and inspected the robe. It was made from some type of soft cloth, warm and comforting under his fingers. He shook it open and slid it over his head. It was too large, even for his hefty body, hanging loosely from his shoulders down to the ground.

The man spoke. "Hota's robes are too large for you, but they will serve you well enough."

"Who is Hota?" Connor asked.

"I am Hota. Hota is who I am. Who I am now. Who I choose to be." Hota gestured at a mat on the ground next to him.

Connor hiked up the robe and walked guardedly forward.

Hota waited patiently until Connor sat down. "I have told you my name. Shall I continue calling you Wolfling?"

Connor grunted and chuckled. "I'm Connor. Connor Finnigan."

Hota nodded slowly. "Welcome, Connor Finnigan."

"You said you have many names?" Connor asked, studying the man before him.

Nodding, Hota replied, "I do. I am also Matoskah, which means White Bear."

Connor looked at the man's long, flowing white mane. "Because of your hair?"

Hota chuckled. "That is part of it."

"Do you live here?"

"This is my place. I am of the Oyate, though you wasica wakan know us as the Lakota tribe."

"What is Oyate?"

"It means the people or the nation. It is the name we call ourselves. But the wasica wakan call us Lakota. Sometimes they call us Sioux. Those are not our names, but we answer to them, just as I answer to Hota, though I am also Matoskah. Does that answer your question, Connor of the wasica wakan?"

"What is that? Wasica wakan?"

Hota smiled. "It is the name the Oyate have for your people. You are the wasica wakan, the men who do not understand."

Connor nodded. It seemed appropriate.

"You are not offended by that name?" Hota asked.

"Why? Should I be?"

"You should not," Hota replied. "The truth should never offend. But some are upset when they hear this. They say they do understand, but they do not. And that is why we call them wasica wakan, for they do not know what it is to understand."

Connor nodded. "I was once Connor Flynn. Now I'm Connor Finnigan. I belong to the Silvermane Pack, and I guess I'm one of those men who don't understand, also. I certainly don't understand who I am and who I want to be, and I don't even know if I want to be Connor Finnigan any longer. Maybe I can be like you. With another name."

Hota grunted. "Each of us has six names. We have a birth name, a name our tribe gives us, an honor name, a secret name, a spirit name, and a name for our special deeds. You are Connor Finnigan. You are Connor of the Silvermanes. And I think for me, you will be Shunkmanitu Tanka Shah."

"What does that mean?"

"In your tongue, it is Red Wolf."

Connor smiled. "Say it again, slowly."

"Shoonk manee too tonka shah," Hota replied, pronouncing the words in short phrases for Connor to hear and repeat slowly. "It is a good name for your spirit, but to make it easier for you, I will simply call you Shah."

"Shah?" Connor asked.

Hota nodded and grinned. "Shah means Red. Red like your hair. Red like your fur when you are Wolf. Red like blood." His eyes gleamed when he said the last bit.

Connor nodded, grinning. "I will be Shah, then. And what do I call you? Hota? White Bear?"

"You may call me Hota. It will be a name you can remember."

"I can learn your other names."

Hota shrugged. "I miss my tribal name. Matoskah, the White Bear. It was the first of many names I was called. The other names I reject."

"Other names?"

Hota's eyes turned dark. His voice rumbled from deep within his chest. "They were names I did not choose. Chiye-Tanka. Sasquatch. Sésquac. Wendigo. Witiko. They are evil names, names others gave to me, trying to trap me into their legends. They are names I do not accept, for I will not allow others to tell me my place in the world." He looked intently at Connor. "Do you have the strength to take your own name, or will you allow others to tell you who you are?"

Connor lowered his eyes. He couldn't answer. He'd been allowing others to tell him who he was, and then he ran away from it all, which was just as weak in its own way. And now he was letting this strange man give him yet another name, simply because of the color of his hair. Connor looked up at Hota, his eyes pleading for help.

Hota grunted. "It does not take many words to tell the truth. Sometimes no words at all."

Hota rose to his feet and reached down to take Connor's hand. He pulled Connor to his feet and motioned for him to follow. "Now that we have settled on names, let us get down to the more serious matter of eating."

It was easily one of the largest elk bucks Connor had ever seen. Almost 6 feet high at the shoulder and massing well over 800 pounds, it was an impressive creature. Even as a werewolf, he'd never be able to take it down on his own.

He turned to Hota and asked, "What weapons do you have?"

Hota grinned slightly and said, "The same weapons you have, Shah. Tooth and claw." He reached down and pulled his robe up over his head and dropped it to the ground. His naked body was impressive, massively muscled and powerful despite the obvious signs of advanced age. Hota took a deep breath and his eyes widened slightly. His body shook and his muscles rippled beneath the skin. Silver hair sprouted everywhere and his form became hunched and hulking, with thicker but shorter legs and an enormous skull.

Connor finally understood the scent of Hota. Man and bear mixed together. Werebear. His form was now that of an enormous grizzly with silvery white fur.

Hota grunted at Connor, waiting.

Connor stripped off his own robe and shifted into wolf form, dwarfed in size by both Hota and the elk they were hunting. Connor faded into the shadows, moving stealthily behind the buck.

Hota attacked first, engaging the buck from the front, rearing up on his hind legs and taking mighty sweeps at the elk with his six-inch long claws.

The elk lowered his head and charged Hota, using his great antlers to fend off the werebear's attack.

While the buck was sparring with Hota, Connor dashed in from the side and launched his body at the elk's exposed neck, slicing it open with his fangs and leaping away before the elk could disembowel him with its antlers.

Its lifeblood pouring out onto the ground, the buck stumbled and fell to its knees. Hota moved in and broke its neck with one swipe of his great paw, mercifully ending the buck's life. Then he shifted back into human form and knelt beside the elk, speaking softly as he caressed its neck.

Connor, still in wolf form, sat back on his haunches, waiting, watching.

Hota finished speaking and turned to Connor, explaining, "I thanked this one for giving his life that we might live. His blood will now return to the sea and his bones to the ground, for he belongs to the land." Shifting back into bear form, Hota began eating.

Connor moved up next to Hota and joined him in the meal.

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