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I ran steadily along the length of the beach, just on the edge of the salt foam and odd straggle of seaweed. A few seagulls were keening overhead and the sky was a cloudless azure blue with the light gaze of the morning sun scattered across the ground. My feet pounded into the soft sand, making light indentations that would soon be swept away by the unstoppable force of the sea. It was just the elements and me. Feeling the exhilaration of the moment, I sped up to a sprint until I felt as if I was flying. My heartbeat thudded at a fast yet steady beat and I sucked in the salty air, filling my lungs before exhaling loudly.
I finally slowed and answered. What?
I’m going to check on the eastern perimeter. There have been rumours circling in the village about some strange noises. Will you come with me?
I hesitated, considering whether to put John off or not. It had been quiet lately and the few incidents we’d investigated had turned out to be nothing more than harmless local wildlife. I debated internally for a short moment; I could always stay out here and finish my run instead. Then I gave myself a brief rueful smile - who was I kidding?
I grumbled unconvincingly back at John’s vaguely irritated nudge.
Way Directive 22, Mack.
Totalitarian dictatorship more like, I snorted mentally back at him. I’m on my way.
The alpha’s word is law. There was more than hint of self-deprecation apparent in his Voice before he broke off the mental link.
Thinking to myself that John was lucky that I was always a stickler for the rules – well, some of them at least - I moved away from the shore and headed into the forest, jogging through the trees. Dry pine needles crunched satisfyingly under my feet. I leapt over a few moss covered rocks and headed towards the east. Although the keep’s grounds were officially around just ten acres, we considered all of Cornwall our playing ground, at least up until the border with Devon where another pack took over. The eastern perimeter he had referred to wasn’t that far away, however, just the far side of Bodmin moor. A few years ago we’d been in a bit of trouble around the moor because some bright spark with a digital camera had snapped Alexander in his animal form. He was just a kid so fortunately hadn’t matured to full size yet – and the photo was blurry enough to cause doubt and dissension amongst those who saw it - but the gutter press had had a field day waving it around and extravagantly spreading tales about the ‘Beast’.
They’d had a similar problem since the Eighties in neighbouring Exmoor. Apparently, when the Marines were initially sent in to track it down, the commanding officer, who was unable to ever catch what he thought was just a dumb animal, had commented on that beast’s ‘almost human intelligence’. Hah! Still, with Alexander, we’d been lucky that there had been a particularly thorny problem in London at the time involving some water-wights terrorising pleasure boats on the Thames or the Brethren, the shapeshifters’ equivalent to the Royal Family and the government all rolled into one, would have come storming down. Instead they sent down some mages who waved sticks around for a few days, warning everyone that if the very public rumours continued then Cornish heads would roll. Or so I heard. John had me hide in the basement the entire time. Fortunately it didn’t last too long, however. I suspected that Cornwall was considered too parochial for the Brethren to bother themselves about, even with such a shocking breach of protocol. Although word was that when they went to Exmoor after the first beast sightings there, they had ripped the offending shifter apart, scattering his body parts across the whole of the United Kingdom as a warning.
I jogged along a small brook until it curved upstream towards the hills, then hopped over it and headed towards where I knew John would be. I finally found him crouched in a clearing, not far from the edges of the moor.
“You sound like an elephant running through those trees,” he complained.
I put my hands on my h*ps and raised an eyebrow. “Is that the thanks I’m getting for interrupting my run to come and investigate the over-energetic dalliances of some bunny rabbits?”
“That was one time.” He straightened up. His salt and pepper beard and bald head, along with the laughter lines around his eyes, hinted at the wisdom and experience contained within that smart mind of his. John had been alpha in Cornwall for thirty-two years, and was universally liked and respected by the pack, but that didn’t mean that I couldn’t still have a little fun.
“So what is it this time? Don’t tell me, I’ve got it, a sheep has gotten lost on the moor and its bleating is terrifying the farmers.”
He held out his palm. There was a small shiny black object resting in the middle. “I wish that’s what it was,” he said grimly. “Take a look at this.”
I picked it up from his hand and rolled it through my fingers. It was almost entirely weightless, and very smooth. There was also something else. I held it up to my ear and heard an odd chiming sound.
John looked at me sharply. “You can hear it?”
“Sure,” I said surprised.
“Describe it to me.”
“You mean you can’t hear it?” I was puzzled. Compared to my own hearing, John could hear a leaf drop from fifty paces away. “It’s like bells. Only not, it’s more continuous than that. Like a never-ending echo of a chime.”
He pursed his lips, clearly unhappy. “It’s a wichtlein’s stone.”
“A mine fairy’s? They knock three times and a miner drops dead?”
“You’ve been reading too many fairy tales. Wichtleins do sometimes hang around old mines and tease the men that work there, but more often than not they are true harbingers of evil. I don’t think one has been seen in the British Isles for more than a century.”
“What do you mean ‘true harbinger of evil’? What kind of evil? Vampire evil? Shadow men evil?’
“Try large scale death and destruction evil.”
“Oh.” I paused. “So not bunny rabbits then.” I felt a brief shiver of heat inside me.
John held out his hand and I dropped the stone back into his lined palm.
“So what’s next?”
His brow furrowed further and he looked at me with troubled eyes. I had a nasty feeling I knew what he was going to say next and felt a brief nervous tremor.
He sighed heavily. “I’ll have to file a report with the Brethren.”
Damnit. Up till now, at least for as long as I’d been old enough to be aware of how the pack was run, any reports John had sent to the Brethren had been after any otherworldly messes had already been cleared up, and the details had been purely informative and retrospective. In other words requiring no further action. This reeked of a mess that was about to begin instead – and for me that spelled danger, especially if the Brethren were going to gallop on down to ‘save’ us.
I eyeballed John with hopeful skepticism. “Really? We can deal with death and destruction without them.”
Unfortunately his voice was flat. “No. Something on this kind of scale is something they need to know about.”
“Will they come here? Do I need to leave?” I asked quietly, curling my nails painfully into my palms.
He didn’t pause before answering, which I suppose was slightly reassuring. “I shouldn’t think you’ll need to. Even if they arrive to see our little pack with a delegation, we can mask you well enough – of course as long as you’re not in a position where you’d be expected to shift. Julia’s been improving the lotion since the Brummie delegation were here last autumn. With that on even the Lord Alpha himself won’t be able to smell a hint of your humanity.”
I felt an immense wave of relief. As far as I was concerned, this was my home, even if the Brethren would strongly disagree. And probably summarily execute me for daring to think otherwise. Because I was human - and humans were not permitted to even know about the Brethren or the mere existence of shapeshifters, let alone live with them for seventeen years.
As for the lotion, shifters have an animalistic sense of smell. The first time that another pack’s members had visited us, years before when I was just a kid, Julia had set to work creating the potion that now, on occasion, we used to hide my all too human scent. She’d been getting better and better at it. Fortunately the fact that I spent all my time with my pack meant that the worst of my so-called human stench was already covered from just sheer transference, whilst the lotion did all the rest. I had been meaning to ask what was in it for years but had always then thought better of it. Sometimes ignorance was bliss.
John looked at me steadily. “I won’t let you be put in any danger.”
I forced a laugh. “I can look after myself. More than most shifters can.”
“The Brethren aren’t like most shifters. In Cornwall we’re generally an amiable and peaceable bunch who fight off the odd wild bunny.”
I smiled despite myself.
He continued, “Don’t dismiss what you’ve already heard about them. They’re different. But also don’t forget that they’re strong and unforgiving because they have to be. Without the Brethren keeping the local packs like us in check then there are those shifters who would,” he paused for a heartbeat, “cause trouble.”
Actually I knew of a few who’d cause more than trouble. “But you’re the alpha here. Can’t the local alphas keep the trouble-makers in their packs in check?” I was aware that there was an irritating whiny note to my voice but seemed unable to prevent it. John’s voice, in return, remained calm and steady.
“A lot of my power comes from the fact that I can draw on the Brethren when I need to. And alphas can be trouble-makers too,” he added with a slight smile.
I nodded slightly, trying not to let the nervous panic rise up any further. I usually tried to forget that there were big bad things out there like the Brethren. It wasn’t good for my health to think about the what ifs. What if the Brethren discovered who I was and killed me? What if they killed the whole pack for harbouring me? What if my mother hadn’t ever compelled the Cornish pack to take me in? What if she was still alive? What if…