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Preoccupied with approaching doom while snowflakes settled on his hair and sheepskin jacket, Ashe Evans walked right past the white buffalo standing in two inches of snow beside the road. A disgruntled snort disturbed the snow-muted morning as the buffalo, offended by Ashe's rudeness, thumped a hoof impatiently against frozen ground. Startled from his thoughts by the sudden noise, Ashe turned swiftly to locate its source.
"Good morning, Mr. Thompson." Ashe, his nose and ears red from the cold, breathed a relieved sigh and waved at the large bison, causing the heavy backpack he carried to slip from his shoulder. Mr. Thompson's breaths were misty white clouds in the late March snowfall as he blinked at Ashe in irritation.
Ashe Evans might have been any twelve-going-on-thirteen-year-old trudging toward a rural school in the snow. He wasn't. Cloud Chief might have been any small farming community in western Oklahoma. It wasn't. The buffalo might have been any buffalo still living in the Central Plains, but Amos Thompson would tell you himself (quite majestically, in fact) that he most certainly was not.
Protected by three vampires and a perimeter spell laid each year by an itinerant witch, Cloud Chief, Oklahoma, appeared to be a ghost town on maps and to passing non-residents. Inside the spell's boundary, werewolves, shapeshifters and vampires populated the small but thriving community.
"Sorry I didn't see you, Mr. Thompson," Ashe apologized. Snow had collected atop Mr. Thompson's woolly head, giving anyone with any imagination at all the idea that he wore a beret between short, curving horns. Ashe waited until he'd turned away to smile. Stamping his hoof again (Mr. Thompson had no patience for inattentive children) the buffalo trotted off to help neighbors check on spring lambs.
Hunching into his sheepskin jacket, Ashe hefted the backpack to a more comfortable position and continued on his way. Transformational Arts, his first class of the day was waiting, along with inevitable shame and eternal embarrassment.
Every seventh-grade student at Cloud Chief Combined was expected to take (and pass) Transformational Arts. With a vampire father and a shapeshifting mother, Ashe should be passing Transformational Arts easily. He wasn't. Ashe, no matter how hard he tried, couldn't produce a single scale, feather, talon or patch of fur. The school year was winding down too, with only six weeks of classes remaining. Struggling to fight off a recurring bout of misery, Ashe wondered if his parents ever imagined that he might turn out frustratingly ordinary.
"What happened to you?" Ashe, dumping his backpack beside a desk in Transformational Arts, stared at his best friend. Black-haired, dark-eyed and looking much like his werewolf Packmaster father, Salidar DeLuca frantically swiped at his left ear and hair, attempting to brush white chalk dust away before Mrs. Rocklin arrived.
"Dori hit me with an eraser," Sali growled, glaring accusingly at Dori and Wynn across the aisle. Dori Anderson, a shapeshifting ocelot and Wynn O'Neill, an extremely rare unicorn, glared right back. A feud simmered constantly between Sali, Wynn and Dori, with occasional eruptions of mild violence and adult language. Fed mostly by insults from Sali, the hostility showed no signs of ever letting up.
"Don't you know to duck?" Ashe wanted to snicker at Sali's predicament—the chalk dust wasn't easily removed from dark hair.
"It was a well-planned, two-prong attack," Sali replied, his nearly black eyes staring at the chalk dust that now covered his fingers.
"Ah, the ocelot-unicorn maneuver—surround your enemy and distract him," Ashe nodded respectfully at Dori and Wynn. Wynn, quite pretty with long white hair and pale-blue eyes, acknowledged the near-compliment with a return nod. Dori, wearing her curly, dark-blonde hair shorter, wasn't about to concede anything to the enemy camp. With green eyes flashing a warning at Sali and Ashe, Dori turned away with a disgruntled "hmmph."
"Mrs. Rocklin's coming," Ashe hissed, shutting down conversation inside the classroom as nine students scrambled for seats. Ashe heard their instructor walking down the hall from the opposite end of the building, giving his classmates plenty of time to slide into seats and innocently face the blackboard before Mrs. Rocklin arrived.
Exceptional hearing seemed to be Ashe's only gift. Better than the werewolves and his vampire father's, Ashe's ability to hear the tiniest sounds from a distance had the entire community scratching their heads in confusion. As Ashe hadn't managed to become anything other than himself, he wasn't about to boast of his auricular proficiency.
Mrs. Rocklin eyed Sali, who continued to surreptitiously brush chalk dust from his hair. Knowing without question that Sali had been up to something, Mrs. Rocklin called on him first. "Salidar," she said, lifting an eyebrow, "You will go first this morning. Try to get all your fur out on the initial attempt."
Reddening guiltily, Sali stood. Ashe knew Sali was self-conscious during his changes from human to wolf and at times his turns weren't a complete transformation under Mrs. Rocklin's watchful eye. Dori snickered, earning a nasty glare from Sali.
"You can do it," Ashe reassured his friend in a whisper so soft only Sali might hear. If Sali were alone or with Ashe, his turns were perfect. Whenever Sali transformed in front of his older brother Marco, something always went wrong. Marco wasn't merciful when he teased Sali about the unsuccessful attempts, either.
Closing his eyes, Sali focused on changing. Before long, a furry, half-grown werewolf pup stood amid a puddle of Sali's clothing, with no missing patches of fur. Proud of his accomplishment, Sali sat on his haunches and grinned a wolfish grin, his pink tongue lolling mockingly.
"Showoff," Dori grumbled. Sali's wolf hearing caught Dori's words easily. Turning his head, he offered a sharp-toothed grin to her as well.
"Your ear is still covered with chalk dust," Wynn pointed out maliciously. Several classmates stifled laughter as Sali raised a paw to awkwardly swipe at his left ear.
"Very good, Salidar," Mrs. Rocklin acknowledged Sali's flawless transformation while ignoring chalk dust. "Ashe, would you please?" she gestured with a hand. Mrs. Rocklin no longer had to finish the sentence; Ashe understood what was expected. Without a word, Ashe rose and pulled Sali's clothing from beneath the wolf pup's feet. Following a tail-wagging Sali, Ashe carried jeans, T-shirt and sneakers to the changing cubicle at the back of their classroom.
Ashe performed clothing duty six times before Mrs. Rocklin called his name. Lowering his head to hide the flush that crept up his neck and threatened to become full-blown embarrassment, Ashe stood amid whispers from his classmates. "He can't," competed with "he's human." For the first time, however, Ashe caught the worst insult any shapeshifter could level against another. "Empty," echoed in his ears.
Blowing out a sigh and chanting "change," softly to himself, Ashe concentrated, focused and grunted, even. Nothing. Not a single thing happened. Head hanging and cheeks flaming, Ashe sat down again. It was no use; he had no talent.
Feeling anxious and a bit nauseous, Ashe sat miserably through two more classes before lunch. "Dude, you're trying too hard," Sali whispered as they walked toward the school cafeteria. Worried that he'd bungled a spelling test and then failed to hear when Mr. Dawkins called on him in Math, Ashe barely listened to Sali's attempt at reassurance. Mr. Dawkins, a werewolf, accused Ashe of daydreaming. Ashe wished it were daydreaming. Or spring break fever, which was affecting the other students.
"Hurry up; we'll miss seconds on dessert if you don't walk faster than that." Sali pushed Ashe to a quicker pace along the polished tile corridor that separated rows of classrooms. Filled with noise and students rushing toward the same goal, the hall was crowded but not impossible for Sali to negotiate. "Dude, lose that funk and let's eat, I'm starved," Sali declared as they stood in line to get their trays. "It's burger day," Sali added, craning his neck to see what was being served. "If you don't eat yours, I'll take it."
"You can have it," Ashe replied listlessly.
* * *
"Ashe, it's not something you can help," Dori's older sister, Cori, sat next to him at the cafeteria table he and Sali frequented. Sali traded his empty tray for Ashe's mostly full one.
Great, Ashe thought. Dori's been talking already. Now it's all over school. They'll all call me empty before it's over.
Eighty-six students attended Cloud Chief combined, with all twelve grades taught in the same building. Sometimes, Ashe watched the two tiny first graders and wondered if he'd ever been that small. After considering it for a moment, he supposed that he had. Ashe liked most of his classmates, but Dori and Wynn would never sit with him and Sali at lunch; there was the unspoken war between them, after all. The others moved in their own circles and seldom included Sali and Ashe.
Cori, a pretty blonde, was a high school junior and four years older than Ashe. She didn't mind talking to Ashe now and then. Cori and Dori's father, Nathan, was a good friend to Aedan, Ashe's father. Both of them vampires, they'd known one another for a long time—long before they'd married and had children.
Vampires weren't capable of having children in the normal sense. Aedan Evans had gone to scientists in the supernatural world and his and Adele Evans’ DNA was combined in a fertilized, donor egg. Ashe was quite familiar with that particular knowledge; his parents explained it carefully to him when he was ten. It was the only way a vampire could have children, and those children could only be born to a shapeshifter mother. Human DNA failed to combine with that of any vampire to produce a child. Cori and Dori, both born in a similar fashion (although their mother, Lavonna, had supplied the egg), had no trouble shifting. Ashe's persistent failures were becoming fodder for school gossip.
"Cori, you're a panther. That's an amazing ability," Ashe acknowledged Cori's gift. "You don't know what it's like to have all of them staring and whispering when you can't do anything."
"Ashe, you're smart," Cori said. "You catch onto your lessons faster than the others. I know that may not sound important right now, but it is. And you can hear better than anyone else in the community. Everybody has a gift; you just have to figure out what yours is." Cori blinked green eyes at Ashe, smiled slightly and picked up her nearly empty tray before Sali could snatch anything off it. Flouncing away toward the tray drop, (mostly to taunt Sali) Cori walked out of the cafeteria without a backward glance.