She was freezing.
Atarah blinked slowly, large flakes of snow melting against her cheeks.
She wanted to shift, but the pain, God, she wasn’t sure she’d survive the pain.
It was so fucking cold. Too fucking cold.
Her breath came out in short pants, misting the air, fogging her thoughts, and for a moment all she could see was snow, clinging to her fingertips, painting them blue.
Why had she come out?
Patrol stopped after-hours. No sane wolf would be out at this time, so why was she?
Atarah sobbed, numbly fumbling for the lighter she had tucked under layers of fleece and leather. She’d run out of fluid years ago, keeping it only for the sentimental value it held.
Grazing her finger against the dented surface, she sighed, sinking deeper into the snow.
She’d walked this path at least a hundred times before, painstakingly marking the barks of every tree in the vicinity, but even the familiarity of the place couldn’t calm her.
Not when she was lying beside a wolf she’d never met.
And definitely not when she had no idea where it had come from, or when it had died.
She’d woken up, with an arm thrown over its torso, face tilted towards its deformed maw. The eyes rolled upwards, framed by bubbling flesh that had peeled in some places, giving way to angry red sores coated in congealed blood.
Atarah had never seen an infected wolf so close, and she’d promptly turned to the side, and heaved the contents of her stomach against the snow, so delirious that she’d watched the vomit freeze, marveling the way it stained the white a putrid orange.
And then, she’d rolled a few feet away, and fallen asleep, too tired to move to a cleaner area.
Her fingers traced the lighter frantically.
The wolf looked better now, she mused absentmindedly. A thin layer of frost had settled on the long-cold body, coating the blisters in a blanket of white, half-melted snowflakes clinging to frozen cheeks and raw blue lips.
She could almost imagine she was alone.
Clenching the lighter, she swallowed harshly. She didn’t want to be alone. She was too far from the packhouse, too frightened, and too fucking cold. Her breath shuddered, fighting to break free.
Atarah clawed at her throat, salt-laden tears coating her lips. She couldn’t breathe. She couldn’t fucking breathe. The panic had finally set in, weighing down on her limbs, pulling her deeper into the cushioned ground. She didn’t want to die. She wasn’t ready.
With that terrifying thought, her body began the shift, forcefully pushing her to the shadowy recesses of her own mind, urging her wolf to take control.
A shift prompted by fear was dangerous. She had to control it to some extent, or neither wolf nor human would be able to take control, and she’d be trapped within her body, fighting against insanity.
Gasping for air, she pushed back all thoughts, focusing on her body compacting and bending, thrusting the presence of her wolf, who she’d shoved deep into the furthest corners of her mind, forwards.
Her back snapped.
She wasn’t cold anymore, she was burning, waves of fire rippling over her skin, as thick fur pushed through her pores, and claws pierced the beds of her nails.
Briefly, her vision flickered black, the edges blurring. Atarah had never learnt to control the pain of her shift. She’d always believed it kept her grounded and focused before a fight. But now, it was going to kill her. The pain was going to kill her,
Her mouth gaped in a silent scream, morphing midway into the snout of a wolf, canines extending past her chin, slicing the sensitive skin of her lips.
Then, with a final snap, she collapsed, sable tail wrapping around her thawing limbs, her paws tucked beneath her as she lay, half-buried in the snow.