Before the Fall

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Chapter 7

Asher jumps to his feet, not wanting to wait a second more, pulling a groggy Sage to his feet. He drags his brother none too gently to the door and down the front steps with speed that a human would call unnatural.

“Hey!” Sara yells as they come stumbling down the front steps. “It’s about time! You got some coordinates or something? Slate was hardly coherent and we know how much it takes to ruffle him, so something kooky must have gone on in there.”

Asher breathes hard as though he’s just run a marathon and looks at his sister, a face splitting grin slowly growing on his face. His eyes shine with excitement. “Sorry, Slate. And yeah, yeah I do.” Then he starts toward the forest at a quick pace.

Slate stops him right in his tracks and brings him out of his excited stupor by grabbing the neck of his shirt rather unkindly. “Asher. Dad’s on his way, he panicked when he came home and saw the house empty. I told him we were here.”

Asher deflates as another revelation comes to him. Wilting, he says too loudly, “What are we gonna do with the kids?”

“Dude!” Forrest objects. “First of all, I’m not a kid--and don’t try to pretend you weren’t referring to me too--and second, don’t you dare even think about sending me home with Sage and Raven again.”

Asher exhales harshly and tries to rein in some of his trembling excitement, combat the adrenaline. “I don’t know what other choice we have.”

Not a second later does Brett Atwood’s truck screech to a halt right behind Asher’s. He jumps out and walks with purpose, slightly out of breath probably for the same reason Asher is. “Alright kids, let’s get a move on, tonight’s our night.”

Asher groans impatiently. “Dad, have you forgotten you have a thirteen-year-old and a six-year-old?”

Brett raises an eyebrow at his son. “Asher, don’t you take that tone with me. I’ll never forget any one of my children and the implications therein. Forrest isn’t a kid anymore and he deserves to be involved, not on the sidelines babysitting. Sage was the one who started this whole thing--and don’t try to keep hiding the fact that this has been going on for days, you’re not as quiet as you think you are. And my little Ray…” Brett beckons his youngest closer and the boy clings to his father’s leg as though he was still small enough to barely reach his father’s knee. “Something tells me he needs to be a part of this too. This is a moment to be shared by--by all of the Atwood family.”

All of his children, save maybe Raven who devastatingly never knew his mother, know exactly what caused the stutter.

Asher looks to Slate, a little lost, and his brother lifts an eyebrow at him. “You heard the Alpha, the decision’s made. So lead the way, brother. Keep the connection strong.”

Asher laughs a little and shakes his head. “Love you guys.” Then he trots toward the forest and yells behind him. “Try to keep up, bro, we all know I got the longer legs!”

Slate rolls his eyes and shoos Sara, Jason, and Forrest ahead of him after Asher and scoops up Raven while his father manhandles a very disagreeable Sage onto his back. Slate uses one hand to flick Sage on the leg as they start at a jog. “Do you or do you not want to find out why you’ve been feeling odd sometime in the next hour?”

“Yeah, Sage, do you?” Raven taunts, the little bugger.

“Yeah I guess,” he mutters, and hooks his legs around his father’s waist, sadly accepting that his werewolf speed is not quite up to par with his father or siblings.

Alpha laughs and speeds ahead of Slate as a pouty Sage bounces around on his back. “Keep up, son! We all know where Asher got the long legs from!”

“Yeah Slate, keep up!”

Slate laughs under his breath and follows easily after his father as they make up time with the brisk pace.

:::::

Gray starts wearing a path in circles now around her little gathering spot by the river. She can feel them getting closer. She reaches out stronger tendrils of energy as they run through the forest. She can feel three strongly, but senses more. She can predict that Sage is one of the three, he’s the one she was able to make a connection with. She also hasn’t forgotten the certain sort of something that lingers between Asher and his older brother and guesses they might be the other two who are more receptive to her energy.

As for the others, who and how many...she can’t spare any focus daydreaming all the possibilities. Who will come, will come. She will assess the situation further when she has more information.

She starts to feel the mental exhaustion creep in as they get closer. At the same time, the adrenaline makes her feel wired, like she won’t be able to come down for hours. Once her little band of mysteries starts to stimulate her physical senses more than her moon-led ones, she lets up a little on the intensity, and breathes easier.

They can’t be more than 100 yards away now, so Gray tries to settle in one spot, but her body vibrates with uncontrolled energy and nerves. To exercise her mind, Gray takes in her surroundings with great detail, though she has been there many times. It’s a location deep into the forest, but an area where the trees are farther in between. The lack of tall obstructions allows for a view of the sky, right now a rainbow of colors from the setting sun. Warm colors: orange, pink, red. It casts a dim light on the little clearing, and continues to fade into moonlight. The grass is lush and soft where she sits by the river, vibrant green to her sharp focused wolf eyes. The air around her is cool, barely a breeze. The only sounds that occupy her mind right now are the unmitigated cracks and rustles and pounding feet of her long awaited visitors, but if she had the capacity to listen wider, she’d hear crickets chirping and the river flowing behind her.

Breathe, Gray reminds herself. Breathe.

Finally she sees shadows approaching at a steady pace and she closes her eyes and says a quick prayer of sorts to the moon. Thank you for blessing me with a piece of your other. I will not waste it.

:::::

Asher can’t help but pick up the pace as he gets closer, feels the energy more concentrated, feels it buzzing beneath his skin. It feels like this place is nearly filled, every corner, with this wolf: her aura, her essence, it rules the forest. This place is hers, and Asher has never been a more grateful guest, already.

Maybe he should pause, look behind him, gather his family together to approach this wolf at the same time, but his rational brain no longer has control of his body. The trees begin to thin and he sees their wolf sitting, ethereal, right there by the river. The peaceful aura brings to realization the racket the seven of them must have been making the whole trip here, and his racing mind hopes they haven’t offended her somehow, broken some rule of her vast domain.

He forces his feet to slow their relentless pace until he’s only jogging into the lightly forested opening. And there she is, their wolf. The auburn-coated, gray-eyed wolf. Asher has no doubts she has been waiting for them, probably a lot longer than they’ve waited for her.

His chest rises and falls quickly as he chases the breath that has left him at the intensity of the moment. She stares at him silently, and he feels an odd, irrational moment of insecurity. He imagines he makes a picture of a sloppy, sweaty boy with childlike awe in his eyes.

The picture she makes, however, is hard to gauge. She sits still, tail curled around her. Eyes trained on Asher, ears flicking at the sound of his family trailing him. Her presence reminds Asher of his older brother. They both have that eerie quality like they know something you don’t, like you’re bare before them with no hiding place. And yet, the same as with his brother, Asher feels no fear.

:::::

Forrest pants harshly as he watches Asher shoot off like a cannon, putting many paces in between the two of them in the space of a breath when seconds before, Forrest had been at his heels. Forrest hardly even knows why this is all going on. His suspicions about the mysterious wolf were only confirmed maybe an hour before.

He could only put two and two together with the facts that Sage, who he’d overheard had been injured--to what degree, Forrest is afraid to know--in the forest that night, but miraculously returned without a hair on his head upset. He knew something had to have happened in that forest that none of them had ever encountered before. And his mind went back to this whisper he’d heard travelling around some trip he went on with his dad that he had completely played off at the time.

As days went on and his mind wouldn’t let him put the notion down, he asked some vague questions to a friend one day while they were playing video games. He set up the conversation particularly.

Hey, have you been hearing about this weird rogue stuff these past couple months? My siblings and dad have mentioned it a couple times.

Derek had nodded, not taking his eyes off the screen. Yeah man, the world is a crazy place right now. Honestly, as much as it sucks to be the slow guy in every race, I’m kind of glad to be human right now.

Forrest had huffed a laugh. You’re only the slow guy because you insist on trying to outpace a supernatural creature. But no seriously, there’s crazy stuff happening in the woods. He cleared his throat. I’ve heard some wild rumors about some magic wolf out there--have you?

At this Derek lowers his controller for a moment and slaps a hand on Forrest’s shoulder. Dude, yes! I thought I was the only one going crazy, but it’s really a thing, huh? Some gray-something wolf, right? That magically appears at the exact moment when stuff hits the fan and then disappears?

Forrest held his breath for a moment, when it all became real.

After that, the internet was his best friend as the mosaic slowly came together. He still halfway believed he was going crazy, even chalked up Sage’s weird nighttime episodes as nightmares, all the way up until Asher said something about a gray-eyed wolf like it was some hushed prayer or something. If it wasn’t already, the gray-eyed wolf from the forest became even larger than life just hearing the way Asher talked about it. He hadn’t the chance to get any semblance of truth out of anyone before he was somehow being whisked off in this crazy race through the forest. If Forrest hadn’t grown up around Asher’s certain brand of “magic”, as his dad would say, he’d think this was some elaborate prank.

Now as he hears Asher’s footsteps slow just ahead, he shoves any doubts out of his mind because now is the time to get the answers he’s been chasing for weeks. He believes his brothers without a doubt, but even so, any lingering doubts he has are about to be resolved one way or the other.

In a flash that still somehow seems too long, he’s standing with his chest heaving next to a transfixed Asher. He follows his brother’s gaze right toward the wolf standing on the riverbed. Suddenly, Forrest understands what his father means when he says “magic”. He feels it in the little tingling that runs from his head town to his fingertips and toes. He wonders if this is how Asher always feels, or maybe if he’s just gotten used to it--wonders how intense it must be for Asher if it’s strong enough for Forrest to feel.

The source of this magic has to be that wolf--the only other variable--so Forrest tries to take in all of her. (Some ugly voice in the back of his mind wonders if he’s a fool for trusting anything he sees with his broken eyes.) She’d seem like a statue except for the fact that Forrest can see her chest moving up and down in an even pattern, like she’s not concerned in the slightest. The color of her coat is beautiful, some color between brown and red, but it’s her eyes that are the most magnificent part of the beautiful imagery that is she. He’s glad he gets to see them trained on Asher for a moment so he can acclimate to their intensity, before the full force of their effect hits him.

Yes, Forrest thinks. This is magic.

:::::

Sara and Jason run only a pace apart from each other right behind Forrest, who they trust is following Asher on this lightning pace hike through and beyond their territory. Sara feels a rush of nerves and excitement and sickness and confusion and that layer of incredible sadness that will always follow her around the week of August first--the week that her firstborn, only four months grown in her stomach, left her spirit behind before her body ever got to feel the first air of life.

Jason doesn’t know how to feel, so he doesn’t feel much of anything besides anticipation. He lets go of the pain of this week, lets go of the nerves, of the grief for this era of life that he’s not sure anyone else realizes is ending tonight. So he lets his body feel instead of his mind. He lets the rush of the wind hit him and fly past as he keeps up with his wife and in-laws who are just as much brothers as the one who shares his blood. He takes in the shifting forest as they enter places beyond the ones he has ever explored. The shades of green, the brown, the fading light of the sunset, the cold of the night--he tries to remember it all. This is a day that will be written about in times to come, even if he’s the only one to write about it and the only place it’s written is his journal.

Sara reaches the clearing coming in just a touch too hot, and jostles her brothers aside so she can stand between and slightly in front of them, leader that she is and has always been. Sara thinks of it like this: if anything goes wrong, she can be the first line of defense between the enemy and her family, and if things go right--well, she has the front row spot she deserves. She was their mom and dad’s practice child, after all. She wastes no time paying any attention to her surroundings, finds no purpose in it. And when she raises her eyes to the wolf that featured in too many dreams, she sees that--yes, this is purpose. This is it.

Jason slows his steps enough to find a spot somewhere behind Sara’s brothers that still offers a clear view of what they’ve come here for. What--or rather who--has, all in one moment, become so important to his family. He raises his eyes and sees a wolf with eyes like cinder block walls that protect her from enemies Jason can’t see, maybe no one but she can see.

:::::

Brett Atwood senses some kind of magic nearby, and it calls to him like a beacon of light. “Hold on tight, my son,″ he whispers to Sage, before chasing his children with an urgency that hadn’t seen the light in a long time. People wonder where Asher and Slate get their magic from, and the merest spark of it that not many people recognize in his daughter, but Brett knows. There’s a core of something magical that lives around his heart, something he and Camille shared. That something that drew them to each other from the start. The kind of thing that not just anyone has, and it just so happens that his three oldest got a taste of that rare magic. Once, he confessed to Slate that he suspects little Raven may have just a touch of it too, like Sara.

The air of magic grows thicker with every step, and it’s a painful echo of something he used to feel every day, but also healing in a way he never knew he could feel. At last he reaches the small gathering accumulated in the clearing and takes a spot next to Jason, letting Sage down and coaxing him to stand in front next to Asher. Brett places heavy, calming hands on his second-to-youngest son and takes in the scene.

The gray-eyed wolf certainly does have gray eyes, he notes. And an auburn coat. He’s unable to take in many more details about her appearance because he’s overwhelmed with this feeling that her energy matches someone else he knows. Her eyes, her countenance, her strength, her intensity, her grand presence--

And then Slate arrives.

:::::

Slate runs through the forest with some sense of foreboding that he hadn’t even recognized he had been feeling because he had been so overwhelmed with Asher’s bleed-through. It’s a feeling that seems to have been gathering all through the night, and it’s enough to make him stumble, scratching his arm on a tree, and he hears Raven cry out.

Slate winces and rights his feet on the path trodden down by the rest of his family. “Sh,” he whispers comfort into Raven’s ear. “I’m sorry bud, you’ll be okay.”

When Raven calms immediately, Slate’s next exhale is one of relief. He wastes no further time with distractions from the present events. He arrives at the riverbed spot within moments even of Asher, the lead runner. Though he’s really too big to be cradled, Slate understands from the tight grip on his shirt that Raven needs the comfort of his brother’s arms, so Slate adjusts the boy until he is supported on his hip. There is a small amount of blood coming from a nasty scrape on his arm, the kind of thing that stings, that Raven would probably shed a tear over in any other situation, but will be fine when it can be easily patched with a band aid.

When Slate lifts his gaze to the wolf waiting for them, he gets punched in the gut with that feeling, but now he can recognize that it was misidentified when he called it foreboding earlier. It was anticipation. Somewhere deep inside himself was this slowly blooming feeling of pure energy. He didn’t feel that it was good or bad--that wasn’t the point--it was just powerful. He had never felt anything like it in his life. He was drawn to it.

Then the she-wolf’s eyes flicker in their sockets, without so much as a tilt of her head, to meet Slate’s gaze dead-on. Something happens between them just then. In fact, it seems the she-wolf was so equally affected that she stands--the first sign of movement. She takes what appears to be an unconscious step toward Slate, their eyes never leaving each other. Slate sees into those eyes and sees a lifetime, past or future, he’s not sure. But there’s something vast there.

And then Raven gasps, “Gray.”

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