Before the Fall

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Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Step light. Breathe even. Hurdle roots. Leave no tracks.

Gray is in her element in the depths of nature, the late summer sun having faded into early night. She welcomes the bite of the wind as it ripples through her red-auburn fur.

She is dodging around a tree to keep herself just out of sight of the rogues she’s tailing when just a hint of a woodsy, sweet smell comes wafting from the east. It seems that she’s come back in range of that delicious fresh fruit smell that she has come to associate with the local pack in the area. It’s also a scent that has become...rather familiar in a way that most things are not for her anymore. Gray has been trying to find motivation to move forward and leave this place like she’s done indiscriminately to every other place over the last three years, but as time passes she finds herself being pulled further and further in, an invisible tether reeling in her every step. The harder she tries to pry herself away, the more entrenched she becomes--quicksand.

Gray is not an average werewolf. Her story could fill enough pages for a decades-old grimoire--after all, no one with a simple story would find themselves three years into a solo one way trip to nowhere--but she has never been one to wallow or let emotion drive her. Though her mind is that of wolf more than woman after all this time, she decides to enjoy the extra clarity of hearing, intensity of smell, and tactility of touch that comes along with the fur and claws rather than mourn a previous life that doesn’t mourn her.

This in conjunction with Gray’s unique talent--her moon gift--sets her apart from the human and werewolf world alike. Gray has wondered occasionally why she has this gift, but after all this time, those musings have lost their luster and she just accepts her life as it is. Certainly though, the moon gift should be credited as the reason she hasn’t succumbed to wolf-like madness after all this time. Any other wolf living outside pack bonds for so long would have become much like the feral beasts she’s chasing now. She believes the moon has granted her extra purpose to give her meager living meaning and life. The moon guides her feet and brings her to where she’s needed.

Gray has always been more in tune with the moon than anyone she’s ever known. Most werewolves dismiss the moon and her part in werewolf history as folklore and myth. Not Gray though, she has always believed--and the moon has yet to disappoint her. So Gray might be unsure why she has been here in specific for so long, but she trusts that clarity will come.

Wolves aren’t made to be nomadic, after all, she thinks with the merest trace of hope. As long as I stay under the radar, there can’t be anything wrong with lingering a while longer. And if only the scant smell of pack fills her with things she hasn’t felt in years, well--that’s neither here nor there and nothing worth more than a passing thought.

No matter that it’s been three months (Or at least she thinks it has been three months. Probably. Time gets foggy when one spends all of one’s time with a wolf’s coat and four legs far away from civilization. And clocks. Gray isn’t sure she even remembers how to read one of those anymore.) which is the longest time she’s spent anywhere in three years. No matter that she hovers around the area where it smells of wolf pack and family the strongest.

Gray huffs under her breath to express distaste at her meandering thoughts, but the following breath allows her to inhale more of that scent. The scent of pack territory is growing stronger and thicker and she sees that the two rogues are dangerously toeing the line. Perimeter lines denoting precise boundaries are impractical for a wolf pack in the twenty-first century, though some more territorial packs try, but it’s apparent to anyone with a nose that this area is strongly and centrally occupied. It should be equally obvious to any set of eyes that the trodden down paths here are where pack patrols routinely cross. Well, maybe any werewolf with a nose and eyes, Gray can’t be sure. She hasn’t spent a whole lot of time conversing with humans as of late. Observation can only get one so far.

A dangerous game they’re playing, Gray scoffs to herself as the rogues drift more and more off course. How stupid do a couple of rogues have to be to go hunting in pack territory?

Even beyond that, it is concerning that she keeps coming across these pairs and groups of rogues. Pairs. Groups. It’s just not right. Rogues, by definition, are solitary creatures. It is an oxymoron to say “group of rogues”. Hence the reason she is tailing them. Research.

As Gray comes closer to her subjects of study, she smells blood on the poor deer they are stalking. Ah, that explains it, she thinks. Well, part of it. The juxtaposing nature of rogues travelling in companies is a much larger subject matter, but the bloody doe does explain the lack of spatial awareness.

The length of time a rogue has spent without a pack is directly correlated to the deterioration of their minds until they reach a state where they operate only on basic instincts. Essentially, they become as dumb as an animal minus the advantage of having survived in the wild their whole lives, and desperate to chase pleasure after pleasure. Dumb and desperate--It’s one of the more volatile combinations of descriptive adjectives for an entity with claws and the bite capacity of 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch, Gray thinks.

Werewolves are only able to function normally and healthily when there is balance between man and wolf. A large part of this balance is based in pack bonds, a phenomenon that perfectly balances the human and animal in a werewolf. Humans are heavily influenced by and dependent on their relationships with family and friends--they need social interaction to be well adjusted, successful human beings. Similarly, wild wolves’ mortality depends heavily on pack socialization and structure.

Hence, werewolf packs. The perfect combination of wolf packs and human family, by blood and otherwise.

Gray estimates that these two particular rogues have been without pack bonds for maybe eighteen months and change--all in all, about as far gone as one can get. Which explains why they would be so reckless as to stray into pack territory for a deer. They’re just as Gray suspected: dumb and desperate.

Or maybe desperately dumb. Perhaps with more data points, she’ll resolve that particular quandary.

Faintly, the auburn she-wolf becomes aware of sounds from further within the pack-occupied land. The noises originate from a place a ways away from her and the rogues yet, but are approaching their neck of the forest where pack scent starts to fade a bit. Wolves on patrol should not be making that much noise so close to lands where they can claim lesser authority. Rookie mistakes, Gray tsks.

Her concern increases exponentially when she hears voices--meaning that they are wearing their human skins, or some of them are, at least. Gray thinks she can scent wolves wearing their fur as well.

“Sage,” comes a distant, harsh reprimand through the foliage. Female, Gray notes. Definitely walking on two legs. Who goes on patrol as a human? But then, Gray goes everywhere as a wolf, so what would she know? “If you are going to come you must be silent. Or we will have to send someone to come get you and take you back home.”

Gray hears a whimper from what sounds like a young boy--Sage, it must be--and she splits her focus to keep her eyes trained on the rogues and her ears tuned in to the pack conversation. “Sara, I want to help. There’s been nothing dangerous happening for months. It’s safe.”

Far too loud, child, Gray scolds mentally. Then wrinkles her nose with an afterthought, And far, far too naive.

The rogues prick their ears and lift their noses to the air, sniffing. Gray narrows her eyes, deciding it is now her civic duty to alert the group of pack werewolves that they’re not as alone and “safe” as they may think. Humans versus rogues is not a battle she is eager to witness. Not even in the name of research. And Gray would go pretty far in the name of science.

With not many other options, she decides to deliberately step on a twig that offers the expected crack. If the pack wolves aren’t half deaf, they’re well within hearing distance. Even novices such as these should understand that any animal big enough or clumsy enough to snap something like that is not something to be trifled with, nor likely a native to this forest. At best, Gray predicts, the pack wolves will hear and retreat. In more middling levels of positive outcome, they might come to investigate--at which point Gray will have long since made herself scarce--surely leaving the humans behind or changing them back to wolves so they can protect themselves. At that point, the rogues will have likely made themselves scarce in favor of finding easier prey. Either way, it will have achieved Gray’s aims to make the innocent among them aware of their surroundings and the lurkers in them so they can avoid attack. At worst, the rogues will be distracted from their prey and follow the noise of the crack until it leads them to Gray--at which point Gray will incapacitate them and be on her merry way. And that is confidence, not cockiness. Statistics support.

Unfortunately, Gray’s “at worst” hypothetical didn’t account for the severity of one unpredictable variable, she thinks as one of the pack wolves yelps in surprise.

She’d actually overestimated their intelligence. Perhaps she’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they have been very very sheltered instead of just hideously low on the IQ scale.

The rogues both whip around at the yelp, and Gray sees their maws shape into a hungry rictus. Evidently the bloody doe the rogues had been tailing will live another day, now that the mangy mutts have been distracted.

Knowing things are about to go down quickly, dozens of thoughts fly through Gray’s mind all in a matter of seconds as she streaks silently toward the pack wolves, having been a few hundred yards away. Too late to lure the rogues away myself, they’re approaching too fast. I could jump in between the rogues and the pack...which would only draw the pack to attack me as well. I can’t give them time to register me as a threat. Catching the rogues off guard will be more efficient. Let them make the first move, then pounce.

As Gray runs closer, she absently smells something odd about the female human, but files it away for later study and focuses on her first priority. The adrenaline starts to kick in--this is the most excitement she’s had in months.

Gray lets the rogues leap into the small clearing and rush the mixed group of humans and wolves as she fully assesses the situation. Two wolves, the larger one with midnight dark fur and the smaller one more lean and with a browner coat. Both adult males. Two humans. One, an adolescent boy--Sage--the other, an adult female--Sara. Lovely.

The rogues attack, and they seem more in sync than rogues should be. They’re too strategic for simple minded, blood lusting lugs. Too intuitive, collaborative...more data Gray will definitely be analyzing later.

The mangy black rogue goes for the largest of the pack wolves while its dirty gray companion goes for the young human--the strongest and weakest links, respectively. Gray decides that the large, dark pack wolf can hold his own, so she seizes her opening and leaps on top of the rogue threatening the boy.

The surprise attack has the desired effect. Now on top of the scruffy gray rogue--whose coat Gray thinks would probably be closer to white if it was clean--Gray sinks her claws into his back, and takes his scruff in her jaw. Settling into her grip, Gray uses the momentum of the bucking rogue and throws her weight to the left, putting the rogue in a vulnerable position on its side. She twists in a flash so she looms over the rogue, and takes the fragile bones and tendons of its foreleg in her mouth with the intention of hobbling it in hopes that it will retreat and no lives will need to be lost. Unfortunately the rogue is quick, so Gray mostly rips off a chunk of skin and maybe crushes a bone or two in the paw--injuries that will heal easily given a few minutes of time. She will have to keep it occupied and aggravated such that it won’t heal quick enough.

Once the rogue has loosened itself from Gray’s grip, she lets it round on her and snap its jaws viciously. Easily dodging, Gray checks for the other rogue out of the corner of her eye. It appears to be outclassed by the larger of the pack wolves. Gray approves.

She uses quick darting motions to tease her own opponent, tactically chosen movements to test a hypothesis on how the other furry pack member--the deep brown male--will react. It becomes very apparent that the leaner wolf does not trust her, appears to be preferring to watch with suspicion and see how things toss up as long as his own are safe. He stands stalwart in front of the two humans and lets Gray do his dirty work as long as she presents no threat to him and his. It’s something Gray would do--be cautious and gather as much information as possible until it becomes clear which action is the most effective for the desired outcome.

Having amassed as much data as she desires, Gray goes on the offense and dives at the rogue’s legs, putting him off balance. The move makes Gray vulnerable for a moment and the rogue takes advantage, drawing blood on the side of her muzzle. The superficial wound will heal in many fewer minutes than a broken bone, so she doesn’t let this deter her and grips the rogue’s throat with her teeth, hanging on like the wolf she is. She sees peripherally that the largest of the pack wolves is delivering a death blow as well. Her mouth tastes of blood, but before the deed is seen through, something catches her attention and her grip dislodges as she startles in a rare showing of a lack of poise and calm in the face of chaos.

Ever observant, Gray turns incrementally to catch a glimpse of something streaking across her peripheral vision. Seconds later, she inhales and catches the faint scent of a third unfamiliar wolf--another rogue. She curses and berates herself for her uncharacteristic lack of vigilance. Later, Gray will reflect and realize that the rogue had managed to cleverly disguise its scent by overlaying it with odorous plant life as well as its companions’ scents and had used the cover of the loud skirmish to avoid being heard as it ran through the forest from its hiding spot.

The following events happen in slow motion. Gray registers that the new rogue is taking a straight, calculated path toward the humans at an unforgiving pace. A second later, she sees the moment the larger pack wolf across the clearing realizes the implications of a third rogue attack and its trajectory. Simultaneous to this, Gray realizes the brown coated pack wolf does not have the same vantage point as his counterpart and is blatantly unaware of the new threat. Gray’s muscles bunch to leap at the swiftly approaching rogue, but her opponent, though near to bleeding out, was prepared and waiting for this sign and tackles her with the last vestiges of its strength. The larger pack wolf across the clearing has successfully killed its own charge, but is too far away to arrive in time by an agonizingly small margin.

The next events happen in the blink of an eye. The third rogue gets its jaw around the young human, Sage, for too long a moment before the brown pack wolf escapes his inhibitor of obliviousness. He turns just in time to catch sight of the massacre in progress. To his credit--a small consolation Gray thinks he will likely not take much comfort in later--he reacts instantly and has no mercy when he deals with the rogue then. Its remaining living comrade clears out limping and bleeding in the wake of the turmoil it and its accomplices have caused.

Gray realizes that her ears have been ringing from adrenaline only when the sound of screaming comes slamming back into focus. It’s Sara, kneeling next to Sage, who is the one letting out a mix between a wolfish howl of grief and a very human cry of unadulterated horror.

Gray doesn’t have a clear view of the boy, but the blood on the ground tells a chilling story. The other two pack wolves have shifted to human forms and there seems to be a strong familial resemblance between the four of them, but that’s not what occupies most of Gray’s consciousness. Her reason for staying in this place has slapped her in the face, and it’s only fitting that it should happen on a full moon night, the ethereal glow of it shining down on her auburn coat and glinting in her color-bled eyes.

The screaming abates, giving way to harsh breathing, and rushed conversation ensues.

“We have to get him back to the house,” says Sara desperately.

“Dad will know what to do--we need--we need Paige, how far are they?”

No.” Gray can tell the word is spoken through inaudible means--pack bonds, through which close pack members can communicate telepathically--as well as aloud, giving it the power and authority that oozes from it. The man who had previously been the larger of the male wolves continues, “We can’t move him. He needs help and he needs it here and now. What can we do here and now?”

The man with the lighter head of hair becomes unnaturally still and cocks his head at his darker haired counterpart--surely his brother, Gray thinks, it just has to be--both of them covered in blood, mostly not their own. The first shakes his head as though he’d seen a ghost and his head turns slowly until his gaze is pinned on Gray, sitting silently feet away in the clearing, waiting. The man can’t know why she is waiting, but somehow he knows it’s for him.

“You can help,” he says certainly. Everything about him right now oozes power from the moon. There is no doubt in Gray’s mind that he has a gift of his own that he accesses now.

“Asher, we can’t--”

“Yes, Sara, we can,” says the remaining still unnamed man, the one who had previously been the largest wolf. “We need a miracle and if Asher says he’s found one, I believe him. I trust him. With my life and with Sage’s.”

The swiftness with which this unnamed man reacts and the scale of implicit trust he has in the other man, Asher, is incredible to watch. This seems to breathe life back into Sara somehow. She does not move from where she cradles the young boy’s head in her arms, but she lifts her head boldly and determinedly at Gray. “Okay, Wolf. Prove my brothers right.”

Gray dips her head once, inhales, exhales, and begins.

:::::

He can’t see it, Slate thinks, horrified, he doesn’t know. Slate sees his brother stand with that laser focus that Slate wants at his back in every fight, only right now it’s not focused on the right thing.

ASHER, he sends violently to his brother right before life changing events take place.

Asher, always in step with his closest brother, does not even spare Slate a glance--that’s not what Slate asked him for in that one word, after all. He asked Asher to turn and do something, anything other than stand there and watch his thirteen-year-old brother get shredded to bits.

Asher jumps into action with reflexes just a moment too slow. Asher has never killed, never wanted to be put in that position, but he has no regrets as he watches the life bleed out of the rogue who may have just killed his little brother.

Slate reaches his brothers and sister just as Asher snaps the neck of the rogue. Slate wonders if his life is going to be defined by this moment. The one where he was just a second too late.

Yes, he thinks as his breaths come out harshly, yes he certainly does wonder if his life will be defined by that very second.

Sparing a quick glance to see the clearing empty of rogues now, he shifts to his human skin between one instant and the next. Sara is screaming as she tries to hold her little brother together, tries futilely to stop the river of blood from escaping the body of a boy whose place she would take without a moment’s hesitation if given the chance.

Asher and Slate kneel at Sara and Sage’s side and the two brothers, the ones only eleven months apart who speak nonverbally more often than not, have nothing to say to each other for the first time maybe ever. The two who were too late.

Sara’s screams die down and as she gulps in air, some slight semblance of control returns to her body. “We have to get him back to the house,” she says tightly.

Asher finds his voice next. “Dad will know what to do--we need--we need Paige, how far are they?”

Slate has no patience to give and wouldn’t even if he did. “No,” he tells them forcefully both aloud and through their bonds. He was always one to keep his head in stressful situations. He reasons with purpose, “We can’t move him. He needs help and he needs it here and now. What can we do here and now?”

Then a series of images passes through the bond between Asher and Slate.

(See, Asher always had a special way of using the bond. Speaking through the bond is not an innate skill for most werewolves. In all other cases, the two wolves have to have somewhat of a close relationship and a lot of practice and self-discipline to channel verbal communication into something preternatural. Asher on the other hand, has had incredible mastery of the bond since the time he was born. He doesn’t just send thoughts around here and there, he can communicate emotions and feelings, and with special people, images and visions. And “special people” really means special person: Slate.)

Slate sees through Asher’s eyes an auburn coated she-wolf--somehow the distinction is made between them that she’s not a rogue, she’s not a rogue, she’s not a rogue, Slate, who is she?--and she fights fluidly, no movement wasted, not an ounce of fear in her body. Flashes of her with the real rogue, close-ups of her snapping jaw, ripples in her fur, some images coming in clearer than others. Then she turns her head just so and Asher sees eyes as gray as a stormy sky in sharp focus. Those eyes tell a story.

Then something happens that never has before. It’s new and entirely involuntary. The two boys see stop motion images--from whose point of view, they don’t know, neither of them has seen this before, have no reason to even imagine this, have no idea where this is coming from. The she-wolf approaching the four siblings. The she-wolf parting them until she reaches Sage. The she-wolf bending her large head, sniffing Sage, inhaling his sickly scent. And then all the sudden, like fast forward, the image blurs and Sage opens his eyes and smiles.

And the she-wolf is gone.

Slate doesn’t know how long he and Asher were in their visionary stupor, but it had to have been only moments. Asher turns his head in a slow, sure movement and addresses the auburn, gray eyed she-wolf Slate somehow hadn’t even realized was still there. Perhaps even then he knew she wasn’t a rogue. “You can help,” Asher says certainly.

“Asher, we can’t--” Sara gasps, but Slate interrupts.

“Yes, Sara, we can. We need a miracle and if Asher says he’s found one, I believe him. I trust him. With my life and with Sage’s.”

For only a moment--they all know there is no time to spare--Sara just stares, and Slate sees her understand. She faces the she-wolf with that fierceness that lives deep within Sara. “Okay, Wolf. Prove my brothers right.”

Sara looks into the unnamed wolf’s eyes, takes her attention for a moment away from Sage to deeply size up this wolf, this supposed savior. Usually she leaves the odd and mystical talents to Asher and Slate, but every now and then, Sara gets her own sliver of something other.

In that wolf’s eyes, Sara sees a woman, strong and independent. One who suffers so others can prosper. She sees a sister, one who has suffered to protect her own. Sara sees a little piece of herself in those eerie grayscale eyes.

Sara loosens her hold on her pale as snow little brother and lays him flat on the forest floor, sitting at his head and pillowing it on her crossed legs. She relinquishes all control to this wolf who has somehow won over the three oldest siblings without a word and hardly a movement. She feels no fear as the mysterious wolf stalks lithely to Sage’s side and lowers her head to his thrashed flank. Sara reaches down and ever so gently pulls away the remains of the ripped cloth of Sage’s shirt.

Asher and Slate kneel closely at Sage’s side, opposite the wolf. Slate keeps a heavy hand on Sage’s calf while Asher squeezes the limp boy’s hand. Slate is sure not one of the three of them is breathing.

The wolf flicks out her tongue and gently lathes the skin around Sage’s wound. Then she visibly inhales, chest expanding, and lays her large head on Sage’s chest, cutting off the other siblings’ view of the wound. The wolf exhales. Inhales. Exhales. Then quicker--inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Then she stands, covered in Sage’s blood and howls what Asher, ever the poet, might describe as a celestial howl, a discourse between the wolf and the moonlit sky. To hear it, just to be present in that moment, is an indelible experience.

And Sage gasps and opens pretty blue eyes, just like his brother’s, and his lips curve upward ever so slightly.

And the wolf is gone.

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