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Soulbound ‡ feral

by Wes Leigh

Chapter 7

A fucked-up family's a fucked-up family, whether or not werewolves are involved.

-- From Kitty Takes a Holiday by Carrie Vaughn

Andreas Finnigan was fully prepared to rip the throat out of the next wolf who disagreed with him. And that was a dangerous place for the leader of the Pack to be. His decisions needed to be sharp and clear, like a clean kill. But with Gabi pushing him to search for the boy and his Pack demanding the boy be left to his own devices, this decision wasn't an easy one to make. It was becoming more and more like a clumsy kill, with prey suffering as it fought a losing battle all because the hunter had mangled the killing blow. Andreas detested sloppy kills.

What was he to do about the lad? Gabi had been devastated when Andreas brought her the news that the boy had disappeared from camp, apparently wandering off on his own. Andreas had searched for two days and had determined that the lad had headed north initially, though the trail had quickly gone cold. It was clear the lad didn't want to be tracked.

Gabi snarled at Liam Byrne. "If it was Joshua or Jacob who was lost, you'd demand the same, Liam. You'd ask to have the entire Pack turned out in search for them."

Liam growled, "My boys would be trying to get home, not trying to stay lost. That's the difference!"

Gabi squinted at Liam. "What makes ya' so sure my boy is trying to stay lost?"

"He's feral, Gabi," Liam insisted. "He was never part of the Pack. He was never even your boy. You tried to take him in and make him one of us, but he wouldn't submit to our ways. You know that!"

"Is that what your boys say?" Gabi demanded to know. She turned to Sean Allen, the Pack Beta. "You worked with Connor and all the lads. Was he still feral?"

Sean ducked his head. His loyalty was to the Pack, to the Alpha, but he couldn't help how he felt about Connor. The lad had grown on him, and he hated the thought of the powerful young wolf going feral again, running wild in the mountains with no pack around him.

Gabi grabbed Sean's arm and squeezed it. "Sean Allen… was my son still feral?"

Sean nodded his head slightly. "He tried to fit in with the Pack, Gabi, but his heart always sought the wilderness."

Shauna McCoy gently pulled Gabi away from Sean and turned her so they were standing face to face. "You know I'd move heaven and hell if Donny or Ethan ran off like this. I would, Gabi, so I know how you feel. But if Connor doesn't want to be found, there's nothing we can do."

Gabi jerked away and turned to Andreas. "What if he's not hiding, Dre? What if the Blooded have captured him?"

Andreas looked at his wife with weary eyes. He missed the boy too. He'd had such great plans for the young wolf, plans for a future as the leader of the Silvermanes. And now those plans were rotting away, all because he'd pushed the lad too hard. Why had he talked so much about the Blooded? Why had he filled Connor's head with so many details about hunting and killing their ancient foes? It was his fault. He'd mangled the kill, but now it was time to land the final blow and mercifully end the pain.

Andreas looked around the room at the other lycans and stated, "Connor is feral. He's no longer Silvermane, no longer under the protection of the Pack, no longer our concern. We move on."

Gabi sobbed and ran from the room. The other lycans watched her go, sympathetic to her pain, but relieved that the matter had finally been decided.

In the next room over, the young wolves sat and waited. They'd heard the argument between their elders, and though they had their own opinions about what should be done for Connor, no one had asked them. They were only pups, after all. No one asked a pup what should be done.

Donny McCoy looked at his brother Ethan.

Ethan stared back, concerned because he knew his brother too well. "You can't, Donny," Ethan whispered.

"I don't have any choice," Donny whispered back. "He's my alpha. He'd do the same for me."

"What if they're right?" Ethan asked, his voice intense but hushed so no one else could hear. "What if Connor's gone fully feral?"

Donny sighed. "Then I guess I'm going feral too."

There was no way to track Connor. The trail was long cold, days old and long since erased by rainstorms. Still, Donny began the search at the campsite where Connor had last been seen. Leaving even his clothes behind, Donny shifted into wolf form, a huge brown beast with golden fur around his neck, and began searching for the only wolf he could ever follow.

"Why did you have so many names?" Connor asked, stirring the fire with a long branch. They didn't need the warmth of the fire, being lycans who weren't bothered by the cold, but there was soothing comfort in the flickering flames.

Hota watched the boy poking at the embers. "You ask too many questions?" he grunted.

"You don't give many answers," Connor responded.

Hota's lips curled into the faintest of smiles. "You also ask the wrong questions."

"What was wrong with that question?"

"You ask me why I have so many names. I tell you they were not my names. They were names others tried to give me, but I refused to accept them."

Connor poked the branch deeper into the heart of the fire. "Why did you refuse? What was so bad about the names they gave you?"

Hota shrugged slightly. "They were not my names. They were not who I am."

"Then why did they call you those names?"

Hota glanced up from the fire. His eyes reflected the dancing flames as he explained, "It is often the way of people to try to force a name on another. They called me Sasquatch and created a legend around the name. A tale of a lumbering beast, half man, half animal, wandering the forests. They spoke of Sasquatch with awe, saying he had unnatural powers to elude any who sought him, appearing whenever he wanted, evading sight unless he wished to be seen. With each telling, the truth was lost in many words. I am not Sasquatch."

Connor waited patiently, studying the craggy features of the old Lakota warrior sitting across from him. "And the other names? Were they also the beginning of legends?"

Hota nodded. "They called me Wendigo. They said I became a creature of uncontrolled hunger, who feasted upon his own people and went mad. They said I roamed the mountains, seeking more of my own kind to kill and feast upon. They said Wendigo is a harsh lesson for us all of what may happen when fury is unchecked." A single tear rolled down Hota's cheek and fell to the ground. "I am not Wendigo."

Hota turned his back on Connor and the fire, lying down and pulling his furs over his body. It was obvious there was more to Hota's past, but it was not something he would discuss that night.

Connor continued studying the fire. His thoughts drifting off, picturing a great silver bear roaming the mountains alone, seeking something… someone he'd lost… and creating legends as he journeyed.

Hota closed his eyes and remembered those who had once fondly called him White Bear. More tears seeped out and rolled down his craggy cheeks. They were gone, forever lost to him, and he would never hear their laughter again as they shouted, 'Matoskah, come and play!'

Nor would he hear again the screams of fear as their home was invaded.

Or the screams of the dying as he mangled those who had attacked his home and slaughtered his family.

Better to never hear that name again. From now on he was Hota. That was all he was.

Donny trotted through the moonlit forest, sniffing the path, the brush, the trees. The scent was there, faint, almost faded to nothing, but it was there. The scent of his alpha. Drawing him on.

Connor awoke to the sound of moans. He turned over and saw Hota shaking and twitching, his furs pushed off in the night. The fire had died to mere glowing embers, but it gave enough light to see that Hota seemed to be fighting an invisible foe, snarling and slashing, grunting as his arms reached out, his fingers curled into claws, grasping, clutching.

"Hota?" Connor whispered. "Are you okay?"

Hota sat up suddenly. His eyes flew open and his head pivoted from side to side. His breath came in harsh gasps as he searched for the enemies he'd been fighting. He finally noticed Connor on the opposite side of the fire and seemed to immediately calm down.

"What's wrong?" Connor asked.

Hota shook his head slowly. "Just a bad dream, wolfling." Hota reached down for another branch and tossed it onto the fire. "Sorry I woke you." He threw a second branch onto the fire, stood up, and walked off into the night.

Connor tossed his furs aside and followed Hota. He found Hota standing on the edge of a ravine, looking down at the broken earth. Connor walked up and stood next to Hota, waiting patiently. A lone coyote yipped somewhere off to the east, breaking the silence of the night.

Hota turned to stare in the general direction of the coyote. His voice, when he finally spoke, was a mere whisper. "I was away when it happened. Driving coyotes off our land, away from our deer. They are cowards and always run away, circling back and trying to draw you off. But where there is a bear, they will not stay. They ran in fear from me, but it took all night to drive them off. When I returned, I was still far from our home when I heard the screams. I changed into the bear and ran, but I was too late to stop it. My family was gone. Taken from me."

Connor waited, afraid to speak, afraid to move lest he interrupt Hota's reverie.

Hota clinched his fists and stared up into the dark sky. "But I wasn't too late to catch those who slaughtered my family. I sprang upon them in the middle of their work. I ripped one apart. I caught another and tore him open. The others fled. I tried to follow them, but they left no trail to track. They disappeared into the night and I never found them, though I've hunted them every day since."

Hota swallowed hard and sighed. "I buried my family on our land, speaking the prayers of my people over their graves. The murderers I left to rot. And to warn their kind of what I would do if I found them. For many years, I tracked them. I sought them in the forests, on the mountains, in the ravines. But I never found them. Perhaps that is best."

Hota shook his head slowly from side to side. "Over the course of my long journey, I purged my soul of anger and revenge. It is not our way. I will not walk that path."

Hota gasped and began sobbing softly. "Instead, I walk the path of Sorrow. My days are spent remembering them, and my nights are filled with horrible dreams, for I cannot purge my soul of their screams."

Connor slowly reached up and placed his hand on Hota's shoulder, squeezing gently. "I lost my parents the same way, Hota. They were killed when I very young. I was left alone in the forest, left to die, but I survived."

Hota placed his hand on top of Connor's, pressing down, acknowledging the teen's presence. With shuddering breaths, Hota said, "I do not ask any to walk this path with me, but I see you and I both walk with Sorrow, and so we have found each other." Hota turned to Connor and asked, "Who killed your parents?"

Connor shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Andreas thinks it was vampires. A rogue band that roamed the wilds years ago."

Hota nodded. "I spoke with vampires who live in the towns. They did not want to talk to me, but I demanded answers from them. I demanded an accounting. They said it was not their doing. They also blamed it on rogue vampires, but they refused to help me find the ones responsible."

"Then they're still out there," Connor said. "Still killing."

Hota grunted, "Perhaps, but I think it more likely they hide. They are like coyotes. When they know they are being hunted, they slink away into the night. They find places to hole up, and they wait until the hunters go by before they come out again. They know I hunt them. For years, I have tracked them. If they come out again, I will find them, and so they hide."

Connor was confused. He didn't want to upset Hota, but there was one thing he had to know. "I thought you said you no longer seek revenge."

Hota nodded. "I do not."

"Then why are you hunting them?"

Hota turned to look at Connor. There was pain in the old man's eyes, deep and heavy from years of weeping for loved ones stolen away. "The spirits of my loved ones cannot rest while these murderers live. I hunt them so that my family can find peace and so that I may join them and rest from my journey."

Connor was surprised to feel hot tears running down his own cheeks. He wiped the tears away and said, "They killed my family too. I want to hunt them with you."

Hota reached out and took Connor in his arms, pulling him into a warm hug. Both of them cried softly, committing themselves to the task and to one another.

Donny found the carcass of the buck elk. His nose told him that Connor had been here, eating. But there was another scent, a strange odor that caused the hackles to rise on his neck. It was the smell of a bear, but not any bear he'd ever scented before.

Who had killed the elk? Connor? Or something else?

It was a confusing tale his nose told him. He couldn't sort out the clues, but he knew Connor couldn't be far now. He sniffed all around the elk and found a faint track headed off to the west. With his nose to the ground, Donny continued his search.

The following day, Donny crawled slowly out from under chokeberry bushes, cautiously sniffing the air. The wind was at his back, so he was blind to the scents ahead. All around him, he smelled Connor but also the strange bear, and that worried him.

He shifted into human form and peered into the clearing ahead. His vision as a man was better, and with his wolf nose unable to scent the area before him, he needed the extra information his human eyes could provide.

The clearing appeared empty. There was no movement. No indication of danger. No sign of Connor.

He shifted back into wolf form, knowing he could move faster if he needed to run, and slowly crept forward a foot at a time. He eventually reached a crude shelter on the far side of the clearing. It was empty, but the scents of Connor and the bear were on the ground and the walls of the shelter. They had both been here, and recently.

But they were gone now.

Donny sniffed around carefully and found the strongest scent heading off to the west. Nose to the ground, he followed the track, filled with hope that he'd soon find his alpha wolf. He was still baffled by the presence of the bear's scent, but he didn't smell blood, and that was a good sign.

Crossing over a small stream, he paused to drink, hoping the cold water would satisfy the hunger pains he was beginning to feel. He would need to hunt soon. The hunger in his stomach was becoming overpowering, but the urge to find Connor was stronger still, so he pressed on, jumping out of the stream and sniffing until he found the track again.

Connor gathered wood for the fire and carried it back to the campsite Hota had selected for the night. Hota wasn't there. Their gear was on the ground, neatly stacked under a tree where they'd left it, but Hota was nowhere to be seen.

Connor dropped the wood to the ground and trotted to the top of rise, searching in every direction. He saw Hota in the next valley, moving like a great ghost of a bear through a stand of cottonwoods. Connor walked down to the campsite and began gathering stones to ring the campfire.

Hota trotted up to Connor and transformed into a man. "We are being followed," he stated.

Connor looked up, alarmed. "Vampires?"

Hota shook his head. "No. A lone wolf. He follows our track. Come." Hota shifted into bear form and headed east, with Connor running at his side. They angled to the south and looped back. Slowing down and crouching slightly, Hota sniffed the air, then nodded toward a copse of juniper pines just ahead, where a single brown wolf with a patch of golden yellow hair on its neck was sniffing the ground, searching for something.

Connor crawled forward on his belly and sniffed the air. His body stiffened suddenly, then he sprang up and dashed forward, charging the other wolf.

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