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BITE

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You can coax the cold right out of me

Drape me in your warmth

The rapture in the dark puts me at ease

The blind eye of the storm

 

Kiss me on the mouth and set me free

But please, don’t bite

 

~//~

 

The birds were calling.

Nathaniel lifted his head to listen. They couldn’t be more than a stone’s throw beyond his bedroom window: two, three, screaming threats into the darkness. This is our land, one shrieked. Cross us and die.

The forest said nothing back, but lay in its silence. It knew better than to deny the Raven-shifters.

On the floor below his attic, Nathaniel could hear the servants preparing the dining room. There would be a meeting soon, a terrible feast. The table would fill with Ravens and men alike, bodies clamoring for raw meat and bones like the savages under their skin. Nathaniel wouldn’t be allowed to attend, but he could see his father sitting at the table’s head, looking out over his entourage. He would smile, and the deal would be made.

But who wouldn’t? Nathaniel thought bitterly. Selling a nothing son for power was the easiest decision Nathan had ever made—easiest beyond killing Mary, that is. But not too many people knew about that.

Quiet as a whisper, Nathaniel got up and tiptoed to the window. The sun set long before, dyeing the sky in indigo and violet; he could barely see the stars through the thick, dark tangle of trees. The world stood awash in darkness.

He puffed hot air against the glass and trailed one finger through the fog. Two eyes; a mouth full of teeth. Condensation bled tear tracks down into the sill.

Listen for their call, Mary had told him. They will be the ones to lead you home.

Nathaniel closed his eyes, but all he could hear were the Ravens screaming. He gave up and went back to bed.

.

Shattering glass ripped him from sleep. Nathaniel shot up, one hand reflexively snapping under his pillow for a knife he’d never find. He took a moment to catch his breath.

Beyond the thudding of his heartbeat he could hear sounds echoing from under the floorboards—raised voices and thumping furniture, the clatter of dropped plates and cups. The cacophony was impossible to piece apart, threading heavy footfalls and angry tones together into a jumble that bounced off the attic walls. Nathaniel sucked in a sharp breath. Would it be safer to lie still and feign sleep, or to be ready?

Ready for what?

He shivered. Goosebumps rose under his sleepshirt, rising over slashing scars and gnarled flesh.

Another breaking glass made the decision for him. Angry voices twisted higher and higher, warping into throaty cackles and furious screams. A window scraped open on the floor below him; the unmistakable rustle of flapping wings filled the air. Nathaniel got to his feet—and stopped.

The forest had begun to scream.

The sound was nothing like he’d ever heard before—a cacophony of grating yips and high-pitched shrieks that layered over one another, rattling through the forest and into the Wesninski mansion. Shrill tones pierced Nathaniel’s eardrums; he stood, momentarily stunned, as the Raven’s cries swelled to match.

Interlopers, they snarled. This is no place for your kind. Leave, or be destroyed.

Blood pounded in Nathaniel’s ears. Interlopers?  Trespassers on Wesninski land, on Raven-shifter territory—

He stole to the window. Through the traced, toothy smile he saw them: shadows lurching over frosted leaves, hulking forms rippling beneath flapping, inky wings. A crowd of monsters, Raven and something else unidentifiable.

Nathaniel’s hands shook uncontrollably. This is it.

Before he could lose his nerve, Nathaniel raced back to the bed and grabbed his sheet. It was the only blanket he had, but there were far worse things to worry about if he stuck around. Raven-shifters were known to play with their food.

Mary’s whispers shot through his brain like an injection. Teeth chattering, Nathaniel wrapped his fist in the sheet the way she’d taught him all those years before. He turned to the window; the smile stared back at him.

Now or never.

The first punch jolted up his arm in a sickening rush. His whole arm rapidly went numb, then filled him with fire. His heart beat loud enough to drown out all other sound.

He pulled back his arm, and tried again. And again.

Glass cracked; a horrible, cool patch began to seep through the cloth. Nathaniel bit down on his bottom lip and pulled back his arm. Everything throbbed with pain, rippling from his curled fist down into his body. Stop, his body screamed. Stop it.

Nathaniel swallowed his nausea and punched.

Glass gave way beneath his hand like ice fragments and flew into the wind. Instantly, a shock of cold swept into the room, sucking the bare traces of heat from his exposed flesh. Nathaniel became immediately, horribly aware of how ill-equipped he was: barefoot, barely in pajamas, not a knife in sight.

Don’t stop now, Mary screamed. He could still see her in his head, clawing for him even as they ripped her from his side. You can’t ever stop, Nathaniel. Never.

Biting his lip, Nathaniel forced the hole open wider. The screams swelled in volume, sharpening into knives that bit at his eardrums. Whatever fight the Ravens were in, their enemies weren’t going down easily.

Nathaniel exhaled. He was cold, colder than he’d ever been in his life, but the forest was calling for him to go. He had to leave.

They will be the ones to lead you home.

He gripped the windowsill and pulled himself onto the roof.

The night was frigid. Air rushed from his lungs before he could think to breathe; Nathaniel blinked and saw double, triple. His bloody fingers scrabbled madly over the roof shingles.

Out and away. He had to find a way down from the third floor, a way out the front gates of the property. The forest was close enough to strain for him, gnarled fingers clamoring for him the way his heart sang to be free. Get out and get away.

The horrible screams rose to pinnacle as he fumbled his way across the rooftop. Icy grit and leaf litter bit into bare soles as Nathaniel fumbled his way right, then down to the second level. A gutter snagged his pants and tore. He shivered hard enough to stumble and scraped one knee.

Inside, a voice began to call his name.

No.

Nathaniel made a desperate lunge for the edge. It would be too easy to twist an ankle from so high, but there was nowhere else to go. They were coming for him.

Glass splintered behind him. A fist shot out of the closest window, fingernails sinking into the soft flesh of his left arm. Nathaniel looked back—and bit down a scream.

“Going somewhere?” Lola snarled.

Her eyes shone obsidian under the moon, and in them, Nathaniel saw his death. She would take him back inside. She would take him downstairs, down to that room, where little boys knew better than to scream—

No.

The forest rose up in howls. Nathaniel was cold, freezing under his clothes and inside of his skin, turning to ice from the inside out. Lola’s fingers bit deep enough to draw blood.

The jump could kill him.

Listen for their call, Mary had told him, and oh, he could hear them, screaming and reaching into his head, into his brain, clawing under his eyes—

Nathaniel sucked in a deep breath and jumped.

His arm burned, white-hot lines scoring down to wrist. The world rose and fell like the sun’s course: a black, twisting forest; the ground glittering beneath him to match the stars. Nathaniel watched the dirt rush up to meet his legs.

Agony. Sheer, blinding agony—

I broke something, he thought frantically. There was no way he hadn’t, not with the way he could barely kneel, barely breathe. Tears ran free down his cheeks; he looked between his thighs and saw his foot turned a way it should not go. I am going to die.

It would be quick. Lola would be down in an instant, coming for him in the front gardens. He only had a moment left to himself, and then—

Then—

Nathaniel went still. In front of him, stretched across the crumbling stones, was a shadow.

The forest went silent.

He looked up, breath weighing in his frozen lungs, and felt the world shift. The air fogged in front of him—between them—swirling with white mist that drifted into the breeze.

It was terrifying. There was no other word for what he saw; his eyes looked and looked, his brain trying to grapple with the body before him. A hulking mass, all bristling fur and slavering jaws, stood and stared back at him. It was greater than any man—greater than any Raven-shifter he’d ever seen. It was massive.

“Fox,” he breathed.

The creature blinked. It’s eyes, angular and inhuman, took him in with disturbing intelligence. A shifter—or something else?

A door groaned open behind them. Time to leave, or time to die. Nathaniel hoped the monster knew English.

“Get me out of here,” he begged.

In a single fluid motion, the creature lunged for him. He didn’t have time to fear six-inch claws, or the way its lips dripped saliva. Heavy hands curled around his waist and lifted him, tucking him close to chest. Nathaniel clung with all his strength and prayed to whatever gods were watching that it wouldn’t let him go.

Footsteps clattered over stones; a high, sharp gasp tore through the air. The creature shifted too fast for human eyes to follow, shooting out across the grounds and over iron fencing with impossible speed. Shadows swooped in overhead and clamored for their bodies. Nathaniel squeezed the creature’s fur hard enough to draw tears.

They descended into darkness with alarming speed. Screams and shrieks echoed all around them, sometimes close enough for Nathaniel to catch peripheral movement, but no one strayed into their path. Dead undergrowth crackled in frantic time with the creature’s panting; wind sliced at Nathaniel’s ears and cheeks.

Finally, when the howls of battle had finally dulled to silence, the creature slowed to a stop.

Nathaniel looked out. The forest was impossible to see through, a tangle of dark branches and snarling hands that webbed over the sky. He could hardly see the stars, much less the ground beneath them. The world was eerily silent.

The creature crouched and set him down in a pile of leaves. In the shadows, its golden eyes shone like tiny candlelight beacons; he watched, frozen, as its gaze raked over him to settle at his broken ankle.

Don’t, Nathaniel wanted to gasp, but he knew he couldn’t go any further. Not like this. He shivered, curling ruined knuckles into the leaf litter beneath him. His breath clouded above him in wisps.

The creature knelt at his side. One massive, clawed hand hovered over Nathaniel’s chest, heat mingling where they almost touched. Jaws parted to exhale; angled eyes stared him down, as if waiting for permission.

Yes or no?

Nathaniel shuddered. He could feel himself reaching the brink—a point where shivering would not save him from hypothermia. Even beyond that, his broken ankle was a death knell. It wouldn’t be difficult to close his eyes and die right there.

But he’d gotten so far. The Wesninski mansion—his prison, his torture cell—was leagues behind them. No Raven-shifters would touch them in the forest’s black heart; no animals even seemed to breathe there. He was beyond the eyes and ears of his father, just as Mary had once dreamed.

Just as she’d once predicted.

I can’t stop now. He sucked in another breath, steadying himself. I have to live.

“Yes,” he gasped.   

The hand that pressed to his chest burned —a startling heat in the frozen winter night, a kindling from beneath the creature’s fur that lit him up inside. He breathed in and tasted ash on his tongue; he exhaled and felt the surrounding frost begin to melt.

Heat. Infernal flames licked up inside of him. Nathaniel opened his mouth and choked out a yell. His heart beat wildly in his chest, his blood pumping fast enough to make the world swim. He was living, breathing coal, threatening to split through human skin.

He writhed, blindly grasping at the earth, and the creature never looked away.

Stomach muscles convulsed under its touch.

Brace yourself.

His broken ankle jerked.

It comes.

Nathaniel felt the moment his foot twisted, a horrible snap that exploded every nerve, a spark that turned his bones to ash. Fire washed over his vision, blinding him in agony to red-black-white-red-black-white—

And then he fell into darkness and felt nothing at all.

.

Voices pulled him from sleep.

“...wasn’t part of the plan. You could have really gotten..”

... didn’t see what he looked like. What else.. have...”

Nathaniel twitched. His eyes were glued shut under heavy eyelids, but he almost couldn’t bring himself to care. He felt lighter than he had in months, comfortable and tucked away safely. The sheets were warm and soft, threatening to pull him back into slumber.

  —you promised—

Nathaniel’s eyes snapped open.

Oh.

Wood boards stretched above him: a ceiling, carefully logged and layered like something out of a storybook. Oil lamps pushed shadows to small, flickering corners; the unmistakable crackle of a fireplace snapped away somewhere nearby. Nathaniel inhaled and tasted wood-smoke, earth, and something else musky beneath it, dizzying and thick. He felt almost woozy with the smell.

And then he realized: his limbs didn’t hurt.

What—

Nathaniel sat up. The room stretched before him, scaling beyond a four-poster bed to a hearth. Two men stood by the firelight, perfect mirror matches of each other. A third stood off to the side and wrung his hands.

“You had no right,” one mirror growled. The furrow in his brow cut deep with thrown shadows, his mouth turned down in obvious displeasure. “It’s not up to you what’s good for everyone else.”

His mirror stared back at him. Dressed in all black, the man threatened to meld with the walls at a moment’s notice. He stood, curled fists at odds with an empty expression. He almost looked bored.

“Once he wakes up,” the first man continued, “then it’s going to be everyone’s problem.” What are you going to do then?”

The mirror cocked his head. His eyes trailed over the man’s shoulder and stopped at the bed. A cold chill jolted down Nathaniel’s spine.

Golden eyes.

“I don’t care,” he murmured, “but it’s too late now.”

All bodies swung to look. Nathaniel felt himself hunching in the bed; his fists curled reflexively under the covers, brain ticking through frantic escape options. There was one door, blocked, and no windows.

But where even was he?

“I’ll get Dan,” the man in the doorway said. He turned tail and ran. The first man at the hearth turned away and scoffed bitterly.

“I’m giving him two days.”

He strode out of the room after his companion. Then, it was just the two of them.

Nathaniel swallowed hard. The mirror watched him, unmoving.

A thousand questions bubbled up within, aching to spill from his tongue. Nathaniel chewed the first one carefully, tasting its flavor behind his teeth.

“Why?” he whispered.

The man in black gazed at him. The hearth light illuminated his frame, hewing features from gold and brass and solemn stone. Nathaniel would believe his unconcern if not for how still he held himself, how unnatural his frozen form could stand. No human was capable of such a violently quiet existence.

Silenced stretched between them. Nathaniel experimentally rolled his ankle under the sheets. Nothing, not even a twinge, remained. How could that be? More importantly, for what purpose was he still alive? What did they want with him?

Information on the Ravens, his brain offered. A chance to play at ransom. Neither options seemed quite right.

The man still didn’t move. Nathaniel opened his mouth to press—and immediately clicked it shut again. The anxious man had returned with more strangers: a man, grizzled with moderate age; a woman, lithe and dark as walnut bark; a third man, impossibly tall with kind eyes. They crowded at the foot of the bed and blocked the mirror man from view.

Nathaniel realized with a jolt that they all had golden eyes, too.

“Finally, you’re awake,” the woman sighed. “We were worried.. Well. That doesn’t matter now. What’s important is that you’re safe.” She blinked, looking him over. “How do you feel?”

Nathaniel pulled the blanket higher over his body. “Where am I?” He could think of a thousand places that he’d been to, but none of them had ever looked like this. Questions rattled through his head: how close they were to the Ravens, to his father, or if they were still in the forest at all. He couldn’t even tell if they were underground.

Mary’s warnings whispered through his thoughts. Always be careful; always be watchful. He’d escaped from the Wesninski mansion, but who was to say he hadn’t fallen into the hands of another unfamiliar danger? “Who are you people?” he pressed.

The older man and the woman exchanged a look; he nodded, ushering her forward. The taller man stood at her back and pressed a hand to her shoulder.

“I’m Dan,” the woman said. “Welcome to the Foxhole Court.”

Chapter Text

Nathaniel stared at her.

The Foxhole Court.

He’d heard the name, once: a jagged whisper on his mother’s tongue, three words that hooked under his skin. She’d bruised him, beaten him, but her promises spoke of better days.

Do you know why they rule from the sky?

Nathaniel had looked up past her to the open air. The sky rippled with thousands of bodies, black and bloated like flies. The sight of it always made him nauseous.  

Her hands curled around his neck; her fingernails dug into his shoulders until he bled. She leaned and pressed her mouth to his ear.

Ravens cannot fly underground, Nathaniel.

“You’ve heard of us, haven’t you?” the older man said. The lines around his mouth pinched. “But not the way we hoped for.”

Nathaniel shifted. “No.”

They’d been great, once—kings of the earth who wove their kingdom where the sun couldn’t follow. Nathaniel had heard whispers of their folly, the way they were “destined for destruction”; even Mary had spoken of them, though her words twisted with mania. The shifter world had long cast them down.

Still, a Fox in the woods was as good as gone. No wonder they kept the battle to the forest.

“But why ?” He looked from face to face, taking in their grim mouths and solemn eyes. “Why me?”

Dan looked to the elder who shook his head; the man at her left looked away. The room fell into an uncomfortable silence broken only by the fire’s crackling—and then, at the back of the room, the mirror man laughed. It was a sharp bark of a sound, all bite and no mirth.

“Why,” he echoed. The others turned to gaze back at him, parting just enough for Nathaniel to see him in the hearth’s shadow. Gold glimmered in his eyes, restless as shifting sand. “Why indeed. Aren’t you going to tell him, Wymack? What’s wrong, crow got your tongue?”

“That’s enough, Andrew.” Dan’s fingers curled into her sweater, digging at the threads before relaxing with effort. “We’ll take it from here.”

“I don’t doubt you will.” The mirror man—Andrew, Nathaniel thought—smiled. His teeth gleamed, wicked-sharp. “And then, when you inevitably fuck it up, I’ll take him.”

He swept from the room. Nathaniel swallowed the sudden, acrid taste on his tongue.

“Do you want me to go after him?” The tall man looked from Dan to Wymack. “I could—”

“Let him go,” Wymack said. The shadows under his eyes were deep with weariness. “I’ll talk with him later.”

“Are you sure? Too much later and—”

“Let me worry about that, Matt.” Matt’s mouth snapped shut.

Dan turned back to Nathaniel. The glorious bravado of her entrance had dimmed, though the strength of her shoulders persisted. She looked him up and down, golden eyes taking him in clinically. “Abby will be happy to hear about your progress. Should I take leave, Wymack?”

“Just a moment outside, first.”

She nodded. Matt took her by the hand, and away they went.

Nathaniel sized Wymack up. Between the vivid flames wrapping his arms and his grizzled beard, the man cut a weathered, tired figure. There was still strength left in him—born from survival, Nathaniel could read it in other people—but the crow’s feet on his face belied something deeper.

How long has it been?

Whatever Wymack saw in Nathaniel’s face, he didn’t flinch. Eyes trailed over the obvious scars on his arms and face, the knotted flesh peeking above his sleepshirt. His mouth pressed even thinner.

“You’re right to be wary,” he told Nathaniel, “but it won’t do you any good here. You’re in Fox territory now.”

“Is that a threat?”

Wymack lifted an eyebrow. “It’s a fact.”

They looked at each other.

“I don’t expect you to trust me right away,” he said, “but it will be easier if you choose to listen. May I sit?” He gestured to the edge of the bed, far from where Nathaniel’s feet curled. Nathaniel nodded.

Wymack clasped his hands and stared ahead. “There are.. many things that have brought you here. Not all of them were by your choice, and for that, I’m sorry.” His gaze hardened. “But I won’t apologize for saving your life.”

“You knew,” Nathaniel whispered. Wymack nodded tiredly. “How?”

“Call it a hunch. Ravens are conspicuous creatures.” He cocked his head. “And we had some extra help.”

Nathaniel’s fingers flexed around his sheets. “I won’t help you repay a debt,” he told him. “I owe you for this, but nothing more. I can’t—” He swallowed. “I can’t afford it.”

“I don’t expect you to repay anything. Someone’s already paid it for you.”

Nathaniel stared at him. Wymack looked at the wall, eyes lost in a vision Nathaniel couldn’t see. His whole body was wilting, hunching inward in a slow, silent death. The bitter taste in Nathaniel’s mouth strengthened to coat his teeth.

He had to ask. Even if he already suspected, he had to hear it for himself.

“Who?”

Wymack unclasped his hands. He turned, and Nathaniel saw the pain of years within.

“Your mother,” he said.

.

There were two types of animals that Nathaniel knew: those who were animals, and those who were also men. Shifters worked in ways he didn’t understand—in truths or teeth, conscience or claws. They were volatile by nature, their humanity split directly in two, but that was what Nathan had liked best about them.

Shifters dwell in madness, Mary told him once. You’d best not visit too long.

Raven-shifters hadn’t always been king. Every era brought its own ruler—wolves and wildcats, hawks and hares. Foxes. Each had time to breathe, time to govern.

Time to bring their own terrors, if they wished.

Nathaniel remembered his first encounter well. Even hiding behind his mother he could smell the carrion on them—blood in their eyes, gore on their breaths. The way their hands became talons and tore life apart.

We will only ask you once: are you with us, or against us?

Nathaniel opened his eyes. The ceiling danced with shadows, figures that frolicked over beams and trickled down the walls. The fire still crackled away in its fireplace. Everything was as it had been when he fell asleep.

But something wasn’t right.

Nathaniel slipped out from under the sheets. The floor felt surprisingly warm for bare floorboards, emanating a heat that made his soles tingle. He crossed the room and cracked the door open.

The Foxhole Court hallways stretched into darkness. Several doors marked rooms, but no light bled from beneath any of them. There weren’t even candle sconces.

Never forget, Nathaniel.

He felt his way around corners. The world stretched ahead of him in a single mass of shadows—dark enough to force his heartbeat, thick enough to make him gasp for air. His palms turned clammy along the walls.

Shifters exist beyond humanity.

There, Nathaniel thought. A door stood at the end of the hall, barely outlined in silver. That’s the way.

He couldn’t say what he was looking for. He didn’t even know it himself. All he knew was the pang in his gut, the slip of his hands against bark. Nathaniel worked on gut instinct or not at all.

Cold air seeped over his toes; goosebumps rose under his clothes. The damp of sleep became a cursed chill down his spine. Nathaniel pressed his fingers to the wood, feeling the brittle grain, and pushed.

The world opened up before him.

Grass spread from the doorway out into a glade ringed by thick, gnarled oaks. Though the forest beyond was impossibly dense, silver moonlight spilled into the clearing and turned the field to silver and glass. Stars glittered overhead, clearer and brighter than Nathaniel had ever seen them in his life.

Slowly, he stepped outside. Frigid air burned his nostrils and scraped down his lungs. Everything felt still— insulated from the bitterness beyond the trees. He could feel the hair on his arms standing up, tingling from something that wasn’t quite cold. He bit back a shiver.

Moving away from the door made it easier to see how the earth swallowed it whole; a wall of soil swelled at the glade’s edge, forming a vertical drop the door nestled within. It was as if someone had taken the door and propped it against the hillside.

“How..?” he breathed.

His body drifted out into open turf. The sky rested barely above the treetops, huge and glimmering; Nathaniel felt himself stare up and fall , coming to rest among the stars. His stomach stirred wildly with a heat that defied his pinching lungs.

But where—

A rustling cut through the chill—something animal drifting close. Nathaniel looked to the treeline. There, barely visible at the forest’s cusp, was a furry body. Sharp ears; a long, slim snout. The creature blinked back at him with golden eyes—knowing eyes.

But how?

Nathaniel drifted forward. The fox sat unmoving. It’s eyes traced over his body in a way that betrayed something beneath—humanity, buried under bones and claws and fur.

But how?   Shifters walked the line between man and beast; they were never supposed to cross entirely. Even Ravens remained humanoid after a shift. A beast stayed a beast; a shifter stayed a shifter. Drift too far and..

Neil.

Nathaniel stopped. The fox blinked at him. The line of its body trembled almost imperceptibly, paws kneading the earth. The sick swoop in Nathaniel’s gut strengthened.

Neil.

He exhaled a cloud of steam. “I’m here.”

Neil. Neil—

It bared its teeth and began to snarl.

“Who?” he breathed. The fox glared at him, golden eyes too bright to be anything but human , but that wasn’t a shifter body, wasn’t a shifter at all. His stomach clamped tight in his belly. “Who are you?”

Neil. Runner. Running, always running, Neil—

“Nathaniel?”

He spun around. He hadn’t noticed how far out he’d walked—halfway across the glade, drawn blindly to the trees. Drawn to where the shadows met the soil.

A woman stood at the doorway. Her hair gleamed with a thousand colors; her eyes shone a solid, brassy gold.

“Don’t go too far,” she said softly. “Without a guide, the forest will make you lose your way.”

Nathaniel clutched at his pajamas. His heart beat wildly behind his teeth; goosebumps rubbed against his clothes. He became conscious of what he must look like, rumpled and barefoot in the frost.

“There was..” He spun back to the wood—and froze.

The fox was gone.

“..A fox,” he breathed.

The woman at the door cocked her head. The treetops stirred above them, dry leaves whispering beyond the glade.

“You should come back in,” she murmured. “Dan wants another word with you.”

Nathaniel scanned the trees, but no trace of the fox remained. The tugging in his gut eased into something like doubt. He shivered, suddenly conscious of how his feet were painfully numb.

“Okay,” he said. “Sure.”

The Foxhole Court seemed even darker without the stars. Nathaniel could sense the woman moving ahead of him, but he couldn’t see her. He suspected her loud, even steps were for his benefit.

“I’m Renee,” she said, guiding him around a corner. A door along the wall flickered at its edges—candlelight within that seeped into the darkness. Renee stopped at its edge to look back at him. In the sparse light, all Nathaniel could see were her eyes. “What’s your name?”

“You already know my name.”

Renee’s eyes shone like golden coins. “Do I?”

Nathaniel swallowed hard. His tongue felt heavy under her gaze, like she saw and knew him too.

“Nathaniel,” he told her. “I’m Nathaniel.”

Heavy silence spun between them. “Okay,” she finally murmured. “Nathaniel.”

Dan awaited him within the den. The fireplace flickered with an unearthly glow that washed the other Foxes’ faces in gold, turning their eyes to shining, fiery pits. Bodies draped over the furniture, stood against the walls, curled up close enough to the fire to feel its burn. All eyes flew to Nathaniel when he stepped inside.

Nathaniel counted them. Eight.

Andrew was missing.

“Nathaniel,” Dan greeted him. The exhaustion in her frame was long-gone, replaced by the focus he’d glimpsed at their first meeting. “I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to everyone.”

He took in their faces. There were the two men he’d seen before, Andrew’s mirror and a man with skin like damp, rich soil. There was Matt. The newer faces—a willowy blonde and two tall men—looked him over with varying curiosity. The man with a marked cheek fidgeted against the couch arm.

“He’s still in his pajamas,” the other remarked. He gave Nathaniel a scornful look, pinpointing his bare feet and too-long pajama pants. “Did you just roll out of bed or something?”

“Well.” Nathaniel plucked at his shirt hem. “Yes. I did.”

“I’m Nicky,” the bronzed man interjected. He came forward and held out his hand, teeth glinting in the half-light. “Don’t mind Seth, he’s just sour about new competition.”

“Competition?” Seth echoed. “With him ? He looks like a—”

“This is Aaron,” Nicky barreled on, gesturing to Andrew’s mirror. “He’s got a twin, but you haven’t met him yet. His name is—”

“Andrew.” Nicky’s mouth popped open. “I know.”

Nicky’s eyes snapped to Dan; his smile returned with force. “What, did Dan tell you about him? How nice—”

“No,” Nathaniel pressed. “I met him.”

The room fell into silence.

“Is something wrong with that?” Nathaniel looked from Nicky’s pale expression to Aaron’s drawn mouth. There was a furrow in Dan’s brow like that first encounter, a tenseness in Matt’s shoulders like he’d been hewn from stone. Renee’s fingers curled over her pendant necklace.

“No,” Nicky finally managed. “Not at all.”

The Foxes exchanged glances.

“If that’s all,” the man with the marked cheek said, “I have other things I need to attend to.” He looked over everyone’s heads, tower that he was, and fixed Nathaniel with a look. “I can’t waste anymore time this evening.”

Because of you . I can’t waste anymore time because of you.

“By all means,” Nathaniel edged out. “Leave.”

“Hold on.” Dan stepped forward, fingers curling. “I didn’t say—”

“By your leave,” the man said stiffly. He brushed past Dan as if she were another piece of furniture and slammed the door behind him. The room sank into another painful quiet.

“I’m Allison?” the blonde offered.

Dan closed her eyes and sighed.

Nathaniel looked from face to face. Shadows played over foreign features—people he didn’t know in a kingdom that wasn’t his. Only yesterday—or had it been the day before?—he’d been prepared for his death. Now he was being offered something else. Something more.

But what?

He remembered the Fox’s touch, the way he’d burned inside and out against its touch. He remembered the fox at the forest’s edge, eyes whispering truths he feared to hear.

Mary had said the foxes would lead him home, but where was home? What was home? Where was he ?

What, Nathaniel wondered, have I gotten myself into?

Chapter Text

The Foxes were strange people.

Arms piled high with hand-me-downs, Nathaniel concluded that they couldn’t be shifters, not the way the Ravens had been. The cold that thrived in every shifter’s shadow was several degrees too warm in the Foxhole Court. They were bitter people—they had every right to be—but their bitterness wasn’t as hard to swallow as Nathaniel thought it might be.

They tasted almost familiar.

Nathaniel didn’t know too much about the Foxes’ past. It didn’t matter. Watching them bicker, they almost appeared untouched by what they were. Humor shone in their eyes; smiles split their faces. They were louder, brighter than any Raven he’d ever known.

It all started with his feet.

“Your toes,” Allison said. Her eyes scraped over him, nose wrinkling like she’d smelled something sour. “Why don’t you have any shoes?”

They weren’t high on the priority list, Nathaniel wanted to retort. “I forgot.”

“Forgot,” she echoed. “how do you forget?  Can’t you feel your toes?”

Nathaniel wiggled his toes experimentally. “No.”

Allison drew herself up to full height. “This won’t do,” she announced. She turned and eyeballed the other Foxes, lips pursing in thought. “How do you feel about orange?”

“Orange?”

“I’ll be right back.”

She flew out the door. In her wake, Renee’s lips pulled into a smile.

“Don’t worry,” she told him. “Allison will take care of you.” Nathaniel couldn’t begin to tell her how worrying that sounded.

He’d hardly made it back to his room before Allison reappeared. Her arms were full of clothes.

“Don’t bother thanking me.” She pushed past him and dumped the pile on the floor. “You need a little charity.”

Nathaniel didn’t know what to say to that. He knelt, plucking at stray sleeves and worn denim cuffs. Everything was in shades of black, white, and orange. “None of this is going to fit me. I’m too short.”

“Nonsense. I stole half of this from the twins.”

Nathaniel looked up incredulously. Allison towered over him with hands on her hips and a glint in her eye that said defy me, I dare you.

“Oh, don’t worry,” she said, seeing his expression. “They won’t ask for them back. They owe me.”

“That’s not what I was going to say,” Nathaniel muttered. He held up a shirt riddled with holes—ragged claw marks that ripped from one shoulder to hip—and winced. Somehow he couldn’t see Andrew giving anything up willingly, ripped to shreds or not.

Allison held no such qualms. Black pants, a white shirt, knitted underwear—objects sailed into Nathaniel’s arms wildly, all beyond his input. He waited until Allison turned around to shuck his pajamas, slipping into his new things as fast as possible.

Pants slightly tight, sleeves slightly loose—everything fit with impressive precision. Nathaniel buried his nose into his collar and inhaled musk, thick and dizzying. His mouth watered.

“One last thing.” Allison stood up from the pile. In her arms was a puffy orange mass. Nathaniel stared at it.

“What—”

“Arms out,” she demanded. “I’m going to put it on you.”

Nathaniel’s arms straightened. The thing was huge— synthetic, shiny, lurid orange like the setting moon. White fur tickled his nose when he pulled up the hood.

“It’s too big,” he told her. The sleeves nearly covered his fingertips; the parka’s hem brushed over his thighs. “Whose was this?”

“Mine,” Allison said proudly. “And I think it fits you perfectly.”

Nathaniel chewed his cheek. What would his father say if he saw him like this? “I—”

“Don’t.” Golden eyes burned into his own. “Just take it.”

They looked at each other. Slowly, Nathaniel nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll take it.” Allison smiled.

Dinner was equally peculiar. The Foxes moved through the hallways as if they could see perfectly—which, Nathaniel thought, they probably could. He was forced to walk in their midst, following Nicky’s chatter as they ushered him into a new room.

Instantly, Nathaniel’s lungs filled with warmth—bread rich enough to taste, sugary cream and cooked meat. He sucked in a breath and felt his mouth pool. His stomach clenched with hunger.

A massive fireplace poured light over wooden benches, a large sink, and a long, smooth table. Threadbare runners spilled from the tabletop and spread across the floor. The room gleamed faintly with polish.

Stoking the great hearth was a woman. Her hair glinted like spun gold, a wild, curly mess that spilled over her shoulders to her waist; her rolled-back sleeves exposed strong arms coated in flour and juices. She looked up and smiled.

"Food's almost ready. Wash up before you sit, everyone.” Her eyes trailed to Nathaniel. "Who do we have here?"

Matt nudged him forward. "Nathaniel, ma'am."

"Nathaniel," she echoed, eyes crinkling at the corners. "That's a lovely name. I'm Abby."

"She's Wymack's girlfriend," Nicky whispered.

"Go ahead and take a seat," Abby told him. "We're having stew and rolls. Do you eat meat, Nathaniel?"

If he had been lucky. "Yes, ma'am."

"Good. Go on and wash your hands, too."

Nathaniel did as he was told. Sink water ran straight from a hole in the wall, clear and cold enough to make his hands ache. He grit his teeth and rubbed soap into his palms with the rest of the Foxes.

Abby moved a pot from hearth to table. The stew steamed and bubbled, thick with potatoes and venison. Bowls were passed around the table with the rolls, and soon, Nathaniel had a full meal in front of him.

Abby looked over their heads and frowned. "Kevin?"

"Out with Andrew.”  Abby's mouth pressed thin, but she didn't ask any more.

Dinner was a strange affair. Not only was the room warm, but the food was warm, too. Nathaniel spooned his first mouthful and almost spit it back out. His tongue felt like it was burning.

"Careful," Matt laughed. "It's straight out the pot."

Nathaniel ran his tongue over his teeth. The food tasted unlike anything he’d ever known, salted and creamy and rich. He could taste butter, earthy spices—flavors he’d almost forgotten.

Nathaniel's stomach pinched tight. He took another spoonful, careful to blow on the surface first.

Nobody expected him to talk, so Nathaniel ate and listened in. The Foxes argued about the most mundane things—a patch of late berries, the shifting constellations, the wrinkles on Wymack's face. They told jokes. Once, Nicky almost snorted stew out of his nose.

Nathaniel didn't know what to make of any of it. He'd never sat in company like that before—rarely ever sat in company. Hungry nights couldn’t compare to the Foxes' camaraderie. The room’s vibrancy sang in his bones, loud enough to make him dizzy.

I'm really here, he told himself. This is real.

"Nathaniel?" Matt nudged his bowl with a bread crust. "You alright?"

Nathaniel blinked. Eight Foxes blinked back at him, faces lit with smiles and the flush of warm food.

"I'm fine," he said.

Stew weighed him down and turned his limbs to molasses. Stomach and head buzzing, Nathaniel washed his bowl and bid everyone goodnight. He scuttled to his room blindly and locked the door behind him.

The hearth had died in his absence, falling to near-coals, but dinner's heat clung to his skin like sweat. He shed his new clothes and tumbled into bed before the shadows could scrape his bare skin.

The sheets weren't even cold. It was as if the entire Foxhole Court was a coal itself, dark and warm, buried under layers of winter frost.

Nathaniel curled his hands into fists beneath the quilts. He thought of where he'd been only days before: half-starved, scraped to pieces, a fly caught in his father's web. He was so far beyond Nathan's grasp now, he didn't even know where he was.

Are they looking for me?

He shivered and closed his eyes. He prayed that he was wrong.

.

The world was dark when Nathaniel woke. He sat up, blindly staring into the darkness, and willed himself to breathe.

In... and out. In…

His dreams—glistening snow, running foxes—splintered in wakefulness. The ice that bit soles and clung to skin melted; the moon that hung swollen and silver passed into shadow. Raven specters fled his thoughts.

Nathaniel let out a slow breath.

Finding his way to the glade was easier the second time. His mental map of Foxhole Court became clearer with every step; there was no hesitancy pushing the door open.

The glade glittered with thousands of diamonds. Frost shimmered over grass and leaves alike, turning the world into onyx and emerald. Sunrise brushed the horizon’s belly with pink fingers that promised day’s arrival.

The cold bit at Nathaniel’s face and fingers. He jammed his hands into his pockets and took a step forward.

And then he noticed him.

He was terrifying even half-hidden by the forest. Moonlight illuminated seven feet of ragged fur and jagged teeth, hulking muscles under orange, white, black. Long snout, damp nose; he was every inch a furious beast, defying all logic of creation to stand against the sky.

And then he began to shift.

One.

Muscles bulged under skin; fur rippled and pulled back like grass torn away. Claws shrank back into black palms.

Two.

Teeth melted backwards, icicle points dripping up into gums. Jaws flattened and pressed back into his skull; his head swelled, expanding even as his body shrank to meet the soil. He was kneeling.

Three.

He tilted his head upwards to kiss the moon. Black eyelashes, black hair, a single black mark against one cheekbone.

Nathaniel stared. The movement of shifters was sacred, a becoming that no human was meant to see. It was the baring of animal soul, the transition that made the inhuman humane. It was a moment of weakness.

Among the Ravens, witnessing it was a death sentence.

I should not be here.

He barely had time to think before fingers pressed over his eyes. A body lined up behind him, solid, warm enough to burn through his clothes. Musk rushed into his nostrils and turned his knees weak.

Nathaniel sucked in a sharp breath.

“Well, well,” a voice murmured. “What do we have here?”

Andrew.

His fingers pressed hard enough to pull Nathaniel’s head back. Whisper-light breathing ghosted his ears—heat that warred the icy, unmistakable bite of steel at his neck.

“A rabbit,” Andrew singsonged softly. “Sticking his nose where he shouldn’t.”

“Let go of me,” Nathaniel choked.

“And let you run? Not a chance.” The knife rested heavy against his skin. “Not before you answer some questions first.”

“Andrew?” Frost crunched closer. “What..” Footsteps halted. “Oh.”

“Eyes open, Kevin,” Andrew hissed. “I won’t always be here to do it for you.”

“I didn’t hear him,” the marked man—Kevin—murmured. “When did he come?”

“Who knows?” The knife pressed hard enough to sting. “But he’s going to tell us.”

“I don’t mean to,” Nathaniel gasped. Andrew’s heat warred with budding paranoia, memories rising to claw behind his eyes. He knew blind vulnerability too well. “I didn’t—I only saw him—”

“Wymack may trust your mother’s word,” Andrew snarled, “but that doesn’t mean I do. Ravens don’t let their prey go so easily. I will only ask you once more: what are you here for?

The world narrowed. Lola’s mouth at his ear; her blades at his lips, his stomach, his throat. Who was he? Where—

Remember Nathaniel.

“I— I don’t—”

If you scream I have to start over.

He couldn’t go back.

“I don’t know,” Nathaniel gasped. His heart beat fast enough to crack ribs, fast enough to split skin. His insides rattled like a thousand stones. “I don’t know. I just— I had to. She told me I had to.”

He shuddered hard enough to clash teeth and bite tongue. Blood filled his mouth; the salt of it made him gag. He fell to his knees and spat, gasping, clawing blindly at hard soil. Tears pricked his eyes.

“Jesus, Andrew. You shouldn’t have—”

“Don’t,” Andrew snapped. “You don’t get to tell me what I should and shouldn’t have done. Not when you can barely see a human ten feet in front of you.”

“He should have been asleep,” Kevin retorted.

“Rich words from old prey,” Andrew snarled. “You of all people should know Ravens keep no hours.”

Nathaniel blinked up through his tears. Kevin stood frozen, his face cast in shadow. Andrew glared at him in nothing but pants and an open jacket. His fists were clenched at his sides.

The black mark on Kevin’s cheek gleamed.

“You,” he choked. “You, you’re..” He shook his head. “How?”

Kevin’s eyes flicked to him. His mouth twisted down, fingers digging into bare thighs. “Ravens may rule,” he said softly, “but they aren’t infallible.”

“You should be dead,” Nathaniel whispered.

“So should you.”

They looked at each other. Close up, Nathaniel could see silvery scars knotting over Kevin’s hands and arms. A thick gash stood out over his heart.

Nathaniel’s head swam. “How long?”

Kevin shook his head. “Long enough,” he said.

They’re done looking for me.

The air in Nathaniel’s lungs turned to dust. He’d spent his whole life in servitude, raised to believe there was no escape. You were either with the regime or dead.

But here stood Kevin—a Fox, no less—who was neither. How?

Had Mary known?

“You’re running on borrowed time, little rabbit,” Andrew reminded him. “How long until they come looking for you?"

Nathaniel shook his head. Lola’s ghost waiting at the back of his brain, momentarily stunned into silence. He was utterly numb.

Kevin looked up first. “You can’t make him go back.”

“I don’t know if I can trust him.”

“Then don’t,” he snapped. “You can’t make him leave, Andrew. Not now.”

“That’s not your place to decide.”

“I—” Nathaniel coughed. He shifted to look up at Andrew properly—kneeling, frost bleeding through his pants to burn skin. “I can’t go back. Andrew,” he whispered. “Please.

The glade went deadly quiet.

Andrew looked down at him. No light existed behind those eyes; no trace of earlier fire remained. The world had died in ice, and he with it.

This is it, Nathaniel thought. He’s going to—

“Fine.”

Nathaniel’s eyes widened. Andrew turned away to look at the sky. Dawn had crept too close, swathing half the sky in vivid fire.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he said.

Pins shot through Nathaniel’s legs as he stumbled upright. Andrew didn’t move; his knuckles stood out, pale on chapped, clenched fists.

“Anything,” Nathaniel told him.

The sunrise brought the world to life. Pastel clouds stretched for the stars; birds began their first morning calls. Light dyed Andrew’s hair to spun gold.

“I saved your life,” Andrew told him. “Now you will save his.”

Nathaniel exhaled. “That’s—I don’t have anything the Ravens want.”

“Yes, you do.” Andrew turned. His eyes bored into Nathaniel’s face. “Think hard. What is the one thing you, Mary’s prodigy and witch-blood, would have that they didn’t?” He didn’t blink. “I know you know.”

Nathaniel stared back at him. His lungs suddenly felt too tight.

Listen for their call.

The Raven-shifters tongue. The night of his escape. The fox at the forest’s edge that whispered ugly truths.

His knees went weak. He stared straight ahead, fingers grasping uselessly at his coat sleeves. Wind stirred the trees around them.

“But that’s—” He swallowed. “They could have found anyone else.”

“No,” Andrew said calmly. “They couldn’t.”

“What?” Kevin looked between them. “What are you talking about?”

Nathaniel let out a breath. His hands wouldn’t stop trembling in his pockets. He looked from Andrew’s even expression to Kevin’s wide eyes, the black mark on his cheek that made him traitor. He licked his lips.

“It’s me,” he said. “I can speak shifter tongues.”

Chapter Text

Can you hear them?

Nathaniel tipped his head back. The forest’s brink swooped overhead like a thorny, black wave. The tree’s limbs had stripped to bone in late autumn, but he could still sense life underneath. Dormant; waiting.

Whispering from within.

Mary’s nails bit into his shoulder where she pushed him forward. Spindly arms reached to snatch him whole, snagging on his overcoat. An icy wind swept out from somewhere deep like a sigh.

Listen for their call, Nathaniel.

He’d been so young—ten, barely old enough to know who he was. The Ravens called him witch-blood ; Nathan called him a disappointment. Mary called him prodigy, spawn of the old souls, vox animalibus.

All he wanted was to just be Neil.

His mother’s cracked lips pressed to his ear. Her heavy, rasping breaths swallowed all other sounds.

Listen.

They’d waited until Nathan left on call; he’d been doing much of that, then. Nathaniel had called it a blessing. Mary had called it war.

They’d slipped their guard almost immediately and made for the woods. Nathaniel had rarely been so close before; he wasn’t allowed to stray beyond the gardens by himself. He was rarely allowed outside at all.

There, standing at the cusp of the world beyond, he began to understand why.

The forest was full of voices. Reedy tones like trilling birds; grating bass like falling stones. Once he noticed the first strain he became conscious of another, and another, and a third, until—

Nathaniel sucked in a breath. His heart hammered wildly beneath his ribs, a gong that sang here, here, I am here. The voices in the forest answered in every tone, every tongue, every rattle and whisper that he knew and some that he didn’t.

He heard them all.

Never forget who you are, Mary told him. Even when you have nothing, even when you are nothing, you have them.

He hadn’t wanted them. He’d just wanted to be Neil, a boy turned ten with hair like autumn and eyes like winter.

There are so many, he’d whispered. His heart rammed between his teeth and threatened to burst forth. He wanted to fall to his knees; he wanted to retch in the dirt. He couldn’t hear himself think—could barely hear Mary’s breath in his ears.

Remember Nathaniel. Always remember.

But how could he forget?

Breathe with me. In.. and out. In.. and out. In—

His eyes snapped open. Wooden beams spread above him. The air hung heavy with woodsmoke and earth. Nathaniel slowed his breathing in even, steady counts.

A dream. It had all been a dream.

Not a dream, he reminded himself. A memory. One with Mary, no less.

How long had it been since he’d seen her?

Nathaniel slipped from his bed to the hearth. Each coal glowed in a ringlet of dull orange, heat trapped under darkness. He jabbed at them until warmth began to swell.

Three days. Three days in Court and Mary’s shadow already blanketed his thoughts. Nathaniel didn’t know what to make of her. Falsities had become truths overnight; promises, twisted into prophecies. Witch-blood coined useless in Nathan’s mansion made him the Foxes’ potential weapon—or, at the very least, Andrew’s.

Andrew himself was an enigma. In the wake of their new deal he’d disappeared, slipping into the Court’s shadows and failing to emerge for any meals afterwards. Kevin, disturbed to be the third wheel on their brutal secret, hadn’t appeared either.

Even knowing one shifter tongue is powerful, he’d said. But all of them? That’s impossible.

He’s a witch-blood. Nothing is impossible.

The look Andrew gave Nathaniel flipped his stomach inside-out.

Tell no one, he’d said. Not until it’s time.

“Nathaniel? Are you awake?”

Nicky hovered at the doorway. Only his eyes were visible, gold coins floating against the darkness.

“Now I am.” Nathaniel left the poker at the fireside. “Is something wrong?”

“On the contrary.” Nicky took a step; the shadows melted to bare a smile and crinkled eyes. “There’s something we’d like you to come see.”

.

Snow. The world glittered with it, diamonds dripping off of every surface like an elaborate jeweled display. Nathaniel stepped out into the clearing and nearly blinded himself staring. Wetness drooled into his socks.

“First fall of the season,” Matt remarked. A two-foot drift clung to him where he stood in the clearing’s center, the other Foxes in his midst.“Soft enough to swaddle a baby. That’s good luck.”

Seth snorted. “For who? This shit’s thick enough to bury prey alive. We’ll go hungry within the month.”

“Maybe we’d have better luck if you hunted with your eyes open,” Allison suggested. Seth scowled.

Nathaniel dipped his hand into the drift. The top layer of flakes drifted onto his fingertips in a fine, whispery powder. Angel’s dust , Mary called it. Gossamer dripped from a plucked angel’s wing.

The idea of ripping anything off an angel disquieted Nathaniel, but he enjoyed the snowfall anyway.

A twig snapped at the Court’s door—Andrew emerging at last. He slinked from the darkness in a black shroud, dandelion hair drifting in the morning breeze. His eyes skated over the scenery. Slowly, his mouth thinned into a pressed line.

Nathaniel got to his feet. “What’s wrong? Not a fan?”

“It makes no difference to me.” He jammed one boot into the drift; ice splintered under his weight. “But someone else might not.”

On cue, Kevin slipped outside. He took one look at the clearing and shook his head. Soundlessly, his lips began to move.

“Wymack,” Dan called. The snowbank lapped at her knees. “Permission for perimeter check?”

“Permission granted.” Wymack jerked his head up towards the sky. Dark-grey clouds hung swollen over the treetops. “But be back before it gets too thick.”

Dan’s teeth bared into a wild grin. Matt whooped loudly. Nathaniel looked from Fox to Fox, taking in their hunched shoulders and bright eyes. “Perimeter check?”

Andrew stepped up to the drift beside him. His sleepy expression had melted away into something sharp; his fists, permanently chapped at the knuckles, curled tightly at his sides.

“Look away, little rabbit,” he murmured. “It’s time for the hunters to run.”

.

Nathaniel hunched into his jacket. The hood’s furry lining embarrassed him before; now, shooting through the trees at an impossible pace, he couldn’t appreciate it enough. Wind ripped every trace of heat from his face, freezing his nose to numbness and stiffening his lips to a single grimace. He could barely hear.

But he could see.

The forest was a dizzying sea of black-white-silver-grey from Matt’s back, an overhead kaleidoscope of open sky and gnarled trees warring with the silvery sea churning beneath his paws. The other Foxes had become orange streaks in the underbrush; they moved so quick, Nathaniel could barely make out their limbs.

Nine point formation—a pyramid spanning over the forest floor. Dan, lithe and chestnut along the spine, had taken lead. Matt followed in an easy, loping rhythm, keeping pace with the Foxes at either side. Another line of five stretched behind Matt’s back, sprawling to cover as much turf as possible.

Perimeter patrol. Nathaniel felt like he was flying.
They raced through the forest. Frozen creeks and snowbanks blurred under Matt’s paws; bushes whipped uselessly against his massive haunches. His back propped Nathaniel nearly five feet, high enough to make him untouchable. All Nathaniel had to watch for were low-hanging branches.

Every breath bit at Nathaniel’s lungs. His arms were numb from clinging for dear life, as were his shins. He couldn’t bring himself to care.

Matt leapt wide over a still-moving brook. The far bank scattered over both of them, throwing silver flakes into Nathaniel’s eyelashes and up his nose. He snorted wildly, burying his face into Matt’s coarse backside.

The forest voices couldn’t touch Nathaniel. They whispered at his hindbrain in tickling, itchy strokes, but the Foxes moved too quickly to be caught. Pushing through the forest, Nathaniel’s head was a sweet, staticky mush.

The Foxes ran for what could have been hours. The midwinter sky never changed; the landscape never thinned. Nathaniel, divorced from his thoughts, fell into the rhythm of Matt’s breathing and his even, heavy steps. The air blurred with their exhales.

Then, after forever, Dan began to slow.

Berry circle, she called from ahead. We’ll break at the berry circle.

Buried behind thick brambles, the glade cut a flat, white circle out of the forest. Matt stopped before the single, jutting boulder at the glade’s center. His head lolled back to look at Nathaniel.

Ride’s over. Say, has anyone ever told you how light you are?

Nathaniel stared back. When had he told them he knew Foxtongue? He scrambled through his thoughts for the memory and came up empty. There couldn’t be anyone who knew; Andrew had made that clear through their promise.

Oh. Matt blinked. Sorry. Just assumed.. Since it’s an area language, and the Ravens knew you.. well. We thought you were like Kevin. He came with both languages, too. But if that’s not true—  

Oh. Oh.

“No,” Nathaniel made himself say. “No, it’s fine. I just haven’t spoken in a while. I’m.. rusty.”

Rusty, Matt echoed. I guess you would be. Birds don’t use Foxtongue much, do they?

They can barely use it at all, Nathaniel thought wryly, but held his tongue. If the Foxes wanted to believe he was Kevin’s mirror then he would let them. The best lies were made of half-truths.

Matt plowed on, oblivious to Nathaniel’s thoughts. You should try to bulk up. The winter is hard on humans, isn’t it? You’re all skin and bones. He blinked. No offense.

“None taken,” Nathaniel muttered. “I’ve always been light.”

Light?  Nicky emerged from the trees, all rippling fur and gleaming eyes. I want to see! I call dibs on the way back.

“Um.” Nathaniel dismounted from Matt’s back onto the rock. Standing on it, he was barely eye-level with the Foxes. “That’s okay. I’ll just stay with Matt.”

Are you sure? I promise I’ll keep you warm. I’m a smooth ride.

Gross, Aaron chuffed. Did not need to know that.

You’re just jealous, Nicky sniffed.

Jealous? Of what? Your thirst for—

That’s enough. Dan sighed, steam curling from her open jaws. Are we all here?

Nathaniel looked from face to face. Kevin and Andrew’s forms had appeared almost identical in the dark; now, circled close in afternoon light, he could see details that set each Fox apart. Their furs ranged from the twins’ furious orange to Allison’s softer tawny, brown splotches on some coats and more white on others. Their body sizes varied too; with broad shoulders and long legs, Kevin, Matt, and Seth towered over everyone, while Renee and the twins stood only a foot taller than Nathaniel himself. Even their bone structure differed from each other.

What would Mary think if she saw me now?

Nathaniel bit his lip. Somehow he wasn’t so sure she’d be pleased.

Let’s gather our findings, Matt suggested. So we have something for Wymack when we get back.

Dan nodded. Good idea. Anyone want to start?

The Foxes blinked at one another.

By all means, she huffed. Don’t all go at once.

It’s wet, Allison offered. And cold. Just like always. Is that what you wanted to hear?

Not really.

The holly’s bearing fruit, Nicky offered. It looks really nice. I bet the birds will be back for some soon.

Five-stone creek is still unfrozen, as well. Renee folded her tail over her paws. The water will be helpful if we take some back now.

Later, Dan promised. She paused; her eyes flicked over to Andrew and his crew all bunched together. Anyone else?

Andrew stared impassively. Aaron sneezed snow off of his snout. Kevin shifted on his haunches, his eyes trailing over Dan’s head to Nathaniel’s boulder. One ear twitched.

Nathaniel refused to look away. He could hear Kevin’s voice in his ears again, his doubtful expression when he looked at Nathaniel kneeling in the dirt.

But Nathaniel wasn’t there to play messenger.

Kevin?

The Fox looked back to Dan. He shook his head.

Not this time.

Right, she said, bemused. If that’s all, then we can make our way back. Unless someone’s going to split for hunting?

Me, Seth grunted. Leave some breakfast, would you?

Nicky snorted, eyes rolling to look at the twins. No promises.

The larger Fox growled low but didn’t argue. He rose into a four-legged stance and made his way back into the treeline the way they’d come.

Dan lifted her gaze skyward. The clouds had thinned into an even, pale grey during their run. A pale sun crested just above the treetops, trickling weak light over Nathaniel’s numb face. Birdcalls rang through the trees.

The world was waking up.

But even as they watched, a single shadow flit between the clouds—a black smudge almost small enough to ignore.

Fear tore through Nathaniel’s stomach up into his mouth. The snow’s bittersweet flavor turned sour on his tongue. He watched, transfixed, as the shadow drifted away out of view.

Nathaniel?  A wet nose nudged his cheek. Nathaniel jolted backwards before he could help himself, catching Dan’s eye. Are you alright?

“Fine,” he choked. “I’m fine.”

Dan looked at him for a long moment; slowly, she nodded.

We run.

They rose as one. Nathaniel stumbled from his rock onto Matt’s back, tucking feet around ribs and arms over shoulders. His fingers trembled visibly where they clasped together.

Pyramid formation again. The forest whipped around them but Nathaniel couldn’t see it anymore. All he could feel was the burn of his own fears, the chill of cold sweat under his clothes.

He never looked back, but he knew Andrew’s eyes followed him the whole way home.

Chapter Text

Peace—an alien creature, impossible and unattainable. Nathaniel thought he knew peace once. He’d spun sweet dreams out of springwater and Mary’s song; he’d bathed in the warmth of a full belly and fresh linens.

Life was peace, perhaps—until the water froze.

Mother, Mary. Why do we exist?

Blood and bone; meat and mire. To Nathan he was a body to sell.

We exist to serve the soil.

Nathaniel got to his feet. The hearth barely shed light, but it mattered little; he’d memorized the room’s layout already. He was a quick learner if nothing else.

Quickly, Nathaniel slipped his towel and clothes under arm. He crept out into the hallway, fingers tracing the odd smoothness of the walls to the baths. The hall layout he’d memorized, too.

The waters brushed warm kisses over his skin. Nathaniel sank deep and savored the steam curling behind his ears, the curious scrape of rock under his toes. How the Court managed hot springs underground was beyond him, but he couldn’t quite complain.

Magic, his mind whispered. Nathaniel scooped lather from a bowl and scrubbed the thought away.

He’d hardly rinsed when the door swung open.

“Nath— oh. ” Nicky halted, dark eyes skittering over and away. “Sorry. Thought you were done.”

Nathaniel hunched until water lapped at his lips. Light was sparse, but his hands pressed over old scars anyway. “Yes?”

“Patrol.” Even by candlelight, Nathaniel could see how his cheeks flushed. A smile tugged at Nicky’s lips helplessly, lilting his words. “Andrew’s idea.”

One eyebrow lifted. “Right now?”

“As soon as you’re ready.” Nicky cocked his head. He still wasn’t looking, but mischief clung to his words like spring steam. “You know, you’d get done faster if you had help. Maybe next time—”

“Thank you,” Nathaniel bit out, “but no.”

Nicky’s smile widened. “If you’re sure.” He turned to leave, pausing at the jam. “I would finish quickly, though. Andrew doesn’t wait on anyone.” The door scraped shut.

Nathaniel waited several beats. Slowly, his fingers dropped from old wounds. He let out a soft breath.

Was it better to be Andrew’s pack, he wondered, or be nothing at all?

You have something that’s mine.

Nathaniel’s mouth tightened.

It didn’t matter. What was done, was done.

He rose.

.

Winter pulled no punches. With his hair damp beneath his cap and wind throttling his lungs, Nathaniel was convinced he would freeze.

The Foxes, at least, seemed impervious to such discomfort. Their thick winter coats bulged, fur rippling in time with the trees. Snowflakes danced off eartips with a gentle twitch. Nathaniel itched to poke one.

We’ll split, Kevin said. Two and two.

Three, Nicky reminded him. Who gets Nathaniel?

Four pairs of golden eyes turned to him.

“I have no preference,” Nathaniel told them. “Let’s just be done with this.”

What’s wrong? Andrew huffed. Uncomfortable?

“In this weather?” Nathaniel drawled. He could barely keep himself from shivering. “Perish the thought.”

I’ll take him, then, Kevin said. Come on.

They split at the clearing edge: Nicky and Aaron moving south, Kevin and Andrew drifting into the circuit Nathaniel recognized. Morning was an unkind stranger, tugging cruel fingers into Neil’s collar, pinching his back. He huddled as close to Kevin as he could, squeezing until he could feel ribs.

I can’t breathe, Kevin complained. Stop that.

“Stop the wind, then,” Nathaniel grumbled into his scruff. Kevin huffed loudly.

They slowed after a time. Blurry undergrowth solidified into diamond-encrusted scenery, gleaming ice and evergreen. Morning light broke over glades in watery streams; crystals glimmered on Nathaniel’s eyelashes, bejeweling every blink.

Then, at a frozen creek’s edge, Kevin finally stopped.

Andrew looked back. What, tired already?

Hardly, Kevin snapped. He shook his head, scattering flakes into Neil’s face. Get off.

Nathaniel slid from his back. Snow crunched up around his calves, burrowing through two pant layers to skin. He grit his teeth and wiped snow from his cheeks.

“What? Why did we stop?”

Listen. Kevin cocked his head. You can hear them, can’t you?

Nathaniel stilled.

You can, Kevin said.

“No.” He licked his lips. “I’m not doing it.”

You don’t have a choice. You have to.

“Says who?” Nathaniel’s gaze snapped from him to Andrew. The smaller, golden Fox stared back unblinking. “This is why you wanted me on patrol.”

Foxes take no free guests, Andrew said. His voice slapped, bitter-cruel. Earn your keep.

A tall order. Neil knew what came with opening his ears, with dropping his defenses.

And how long had it been? He searched his memories for a trace—the overwhelming, the pressure—but came up empty. It’d been too long.

Always remember who you are, Nathaniel.

Unexpected, unbidden, shame rose in his throat. Nathaniel grit his teeth and swallowed hard. Not for the first time, he thought of Mary.

What would she think of what he’d become?

Look at you, Kevin growled. Afraid of your own blood. Afraid of your power. What good are you, holding yourself back like this?

Nathaniel’s fists curled. “That’s none of your business. You don’t know what it was like—” He bit his tongue. “You wouldn’t understand.”

Kevin’s eyes narrowed. You don’t know that.

They looked at each other.

This is your payment, the larger Fox reminded him. If we’re going to help you, then you have to help us in return. Nobody else can do this—it has to be you.

“Not you?” he tried. “Matt said you know other tongues.”

Matt says a lot of things. I know many languages, but not all of them. Kevin’s shoulders slumped. You’re the witch-blood. You have to do it.

Nathaniel turned away. The snow’s soak paled in comparison to his insides, the solid icy rock his stomach had become. His teeth clenched hard enough to ache.

The world held still, waiting.

This is your payment.

“What,” he grit, “do you want to know?”

The Ravens, Andrew said. Kevin stirred, shifting snow.

Time, he added, quietly. We need to know how much we have.

“Time,” Nathaniel echoed. He remembered the shadows over the clearing—figures he’d thought he hallucinated. Acid stung his throat. “Okay.”

He stepped forward. Thoughts flit like frantic birds, clustering and scattering. He closed his eyes and breathed deep.

Silence.

Nothing—and then everything.

Chittering songbirds. Rustling tree leaves and running rodents, squirrels and sparrows and hares, voices high and low falling and spilling over his ears in anger, in joy, in sadness and despair—

A beat of uncertainty had crossed him—a fear that cut deep into his consciousness, biting at his bones. What if he’d forgotten how?

Listen, she’d whispered. Listen, and remember.

Countless thoughts; countless voices. Nathaniel breathed, and the forest breathed with him.

No. He could never forget. Even beyond the grave, Mary would never let him go.

Second nature sprang forth. His ears closed, focus narrowing to single chords. Sensations and images; words no tongue could shape. Nathaniel heard it all, and remembered.

He opened his eyes.

“They’re coming,” he whispered.

 

Nathaniel was no stranger to violence. Living under Nathan made every day bright with new cuts and bruises. Knives haunted dreams; flesh scarred and re-scarred every time he opened his eyes. He knew violence like no other.

Even so, Wymack’s reaction chilled him to bone.

“I knew.” His eyes flashed gold, molten ore burning bright. “I knew, but I still—”

He snarled. Teeth shot forward, lengthening behind human lips. He moved impossibly fast—fist flying before Nathaniel could do more than flinch—shattering the wall sconce beside him.

“Fuck,” Wymack hissed.

“Permission to increase patrols,” Dan said. The news cut her features into hard lines, a stony jaw.

“Granted,” Wymack grit. His knuckles bled openly. “Double them. Triple, if we must. No chances can be taken along the southern border.”

“As you wish.” She disappeared.

“There’s still time,” Kevin said. “We still have a few weeks. They haven’t come yet.” But they will, he left off. They will, and who knows what will happen then.

“This is because of me.” Nathaniel stepped forward, careful to keep Wymack’s distance. “If you would just—”

“No,” he snapped. “I made a promise to Mary. You aren’t going anywhere.”

The other Foxes stirred. “And we're supposed to take a dead witch's word over everything else?” Seth interjected. “He's going to get us all killed.”

No. I said we're keeping him.”

“But—”

“You heard the man,” Andrew cut in boredly. “He stays.”

“Since when do you take orders?” Seth’s eyes slid from Andrew to Nathaniel. “Don’t tell me—”

“Enough.” Wymack straightened, bloody hand trailing ink. “We won’t fight about this. Have you forgotten so soon?” His gaze could cut glass. “The enemy is out there. They want you to tear each other apart.”

“So what then?” Aaron asked. “Are we supposed to just wait?”

“No.” Wymack’s gaze shifted to Kevin—an echo of his own apprehension, his own darkness. Side by side, Nathaniel thought they almost looked like mirror images. “We do what Foxes do best.

“We’ll be ready.”

Chapter Text

 

Nathaniel never forgot when the Ravens first came.

He’d been sitting in Mary’s old drawing room. The windows there were grand, heavy curtains parted to welcome sunlight, and the leaf-lined wallpaper shifted when Nathaniel blinked. He didn’t mind the canvas covers or the thick inch of dust. Tucked between two easels, he could be himself without fear.

And then he heard their cries—raucous laughter that echoed in the rafters, screams that rung through the halls. He looked out the window and saw them fly: a storm approaching, clouds tipped with blood.

He ran for Mary.

“Don’t speak,” she’d hissed. Her nails bit crescents into his forearm, but the bite was a comfort. This was a Mary he knew would keep him safe. “Stay behind me.”

Nathan’s knives met them in the courtyard. The heavy front doors were left open to bare the foyer to their stench, the cloying reek of rotted blood and sweat. Nathaniel could still see the remainders between their teeth, under their claws. Half-shifted, they were neither man nor beast, but a monster that nature could not conceive.

“The Raven King sends his regards,” one shifter croaked. His chords slid between caw and call.

“A check-in?” Nathan’s wet-blood hair gleamed in the sun. “If I’d known you were coming, I would’ve prepared an offering.”

“Unnecessary. Ravens take as they wish, and never otherwise.”

“Of course,” he replied smoothly.

The lead swung his head. Neck feathers ruffled against the breeze. “Your allegiance,” he said. “We have need of you, and so it must be reaffirmed.”

“Troubled times at Court?”

The shifter ignored him. “We will only ask you once: are you with us, or against us?”

Nathaniel remembered that moment well. The way the shifter turned to look at Nathan, his eyes all black and glassy like an animal’s. The way he cocked its head and inspected him like a piece of meat. The way the trees shuddered and shook, desperate to cast oily wings from their boughs.

“Always,” Nathan rumbled. He bowed his head. “I am always in his debt.”

“As it should be.” The Ravens shared a look. Nathaniel’s skin blistered with goosebumps. “That is all we need of, now. Take heed of our call when it comes.”

“Of course. I send the King my respects.”

“The Raven King,” the shifter corrected him. He turned his head then, twisting it until it was almost backwards. A raven’s head. Fly free, brothers. We make for the Court.

Wings broad as night and twice as black; a sudden gust that turned his stomach.

And then they were gone.

The shadow Ravens cast stained everything. Nathaniel feared them; Nathan revered them. They rest on the manor rooftop and in its courtyard; they ate at their tables, scattering viscera and swallowing meat. All scattered into hiding where they flew.

Still, even with wingbeats ringing in their ears, Mary sung of freedom.

Kings of the underground, she called them. Lords of the forest.  

“If they’re so great, then where are they?” Nathaniel watched her sketch two eyes, a mouth full of teeth. “Why haven’t they come back?”

Mary went deathly still. The pencil dropped from her fingers and rolled away.

“Some things are worse than death,” she whispered. “Some things—” She stopped, catching herself, and pressed palms to her eyes. “No, no, I wouldn’t, I said I was sorry—”

Nathaniel hunched back. It was too late.

Mary’s nails scratched at her temples.“I’m sorry,” she whispered, kneeling. Her eyes stared unseeing, her sketch glaring down at her. “I’m sorry, I said I was—”   

“Nathaniel?”

He blinked. Nine Foxes blinked back at him.

“We’re about to start the session,” Matt said. “Um, if you want to stay and watch.. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Nathaniel replied automatically. He forced himself to move to the sidelines, conscious of Andrew’s following eyes.

I’m sorry, she’d said. I’m sorry. Her pain clung like a heavy cloak, weighing his shoulders down. He searched his memories but never found resolution.

Sorry for what?

The Foxes took positions around the glade—four pairs and Kevin at their lead. Some were already shifted; others, waiting for Nathaniel’s back to turn, stood ready.

Ravens don’t fight fair, Kevin told them. So we have to learn the same.

It was necessary practice. The Foxes argued more than they trained, bodies clashing and snarls ripping through the glade. They were uncoordinated; they were unseasoned.

They were lucky. The Ravens hadn’t been ready before. The fighting had been brief, by night, within the forests where they thrived.

Luck would not be on their side a second time.

And so they fought. Hours of scraping snow away; hours of false battles and maneuvers. They kept longer hours, patrolling before the sun rose and after it fell. Chores went first unfinished, then entirely unfulfilled. The bathing pools were constantly in use.

“I can’t do this all by myself,” Abby said over dinner. She gestured to the piling dishes, the food scraps squandered beneath their seats. “You’re turning this Court into a sty. I need help.”

“I’ll do it,” Nathaniel suggested. “I’m not doing anything else.”

“No,” Wymack agreed. “I suppose not.”

It was fair trade. With the way the Foxes dragged him on patrols and sat him down to observe training, Nathaniel’s uselessness became an unscratchable itch. Even if Wymack spoke of paid debts—a debt Nathaniel still didn’t understand—it felt right to do something.    

Up to his elbows in suds, Nathaniel almost wanted to laugh. He’d spent half his life waiting for this moment. He’d longed for the unknown wilds within the forest, and now he’d gotten his wish. What was he doing here?

It’s better than being out there, he told himself. Fat slid under his fingernails, squelching with the sponge. It’s better than being carrion.

But was it?

What promise had Wymack made to his mother? And Andrew—frustrating, confusing, stone-silent Andrew. No word of their promise passed after that first dawn; no acknowledgement, no reminder. He hadn’t even told Nathaniel why he was staying. Just that he had to, for Kevin.

Kevin, who treats me like dead weight, he thought sulkily. But he couldn’t begrudge the man. He was right.

Nathaniel wasn’t used to this, this waiting. He’d had ways to become useful in his father’s house. He’d had reasons to be.

What am I doing here?

.

Restless days made for sleepless nights.

Nathaniel stared at the ceiling. The shadows above flickered in endless dance, twisting and turning over polished boards. Their flit and curl should’ve been a comfort, but all it did was reflect his thoughts.

Endless. Tumultuous.

What is my purpose?

Mary believed him destined for greatness, but where was she now? He’d done as she asked and now a whole Court of Foxes—shifters paling in comparison to her tales—were in danger. Because of him.

Where am I supposed to go?

Nathaniel knew what happened to Raven enemies. It was only a matter of time before they reached the forest, and then there would be nowhere else to run.

Doubt, terrible and poisonous doubt, crept up Nathaniel’s throat.

What if Mary had been wrong?

The idea paralyzed him. If this was for nothing, if all this was pointless, then his end would be fifty times more painful than before. Lola would make sure of it; Nathan would make sure of it.

The Ravens would make sure he begged before he died.

Cold sweat beaded. He began to shake. Air sucked from his lungs, a weight in his chest. He choked on it.

Run. I have to run.

He stumbled blindly. He stared into nothing; the abyss stared back. He was cold.

You know what they do to bad little boys, Nathaniel.

What was he doing? What was he doing?

An unseen root; a hidden stone. He fell. Shadows clung, pouring over skin, into his mouth, strangling—

Lets play a game.

He closed his eyes.

“Stop.”

He hadn’t even heard him.

“Stop it.”

If you scream, I’ll have to start over.

"Neil .”

His lips parted. Lungs expanded; stomach clenched. Air, dry and heavy, scraped his throat. He breathed.

The silence stretched indeterminably. Nathaniel’s shallow breaths clogged his ears; his clothes rustled too loud in the dark. Dimly, he realized he’d forgotten shoes. Again.

Andrew waited until his rasping faded. Then, the barest brush of fingertips—heat on Nathaniel’s shoulder as he passed.

“Come on,” he said, and moved out towards the light.

The Court’s door nestled deep into a hillside. Nathaniel watched Andrew slip up the door frame side until he disappeared above, back where prying eyes couldn’t follow. He followed silently.

From above, the glade was a frosted sinkhole, black earth tipped in nighttime frost. The tree’s branches sat almost level with their vantage point, and from there, Nathaniel could see how moonlight glanced off ice-coated branch tips. Black, star-studded sky stretched unbroken to the horizon beyond.

Andrew sat without a word. His fingers crept into a rock outcropping behind them until they procured something new—a matchbox, and a thick, dark herb roll.

Nathaniel curled his legs beneath him. He felt his blood thrumming through his ankles but ignored it, watching smoke curl from Andrew’s lips. Golden eyes rest half-mast; if not for his hard shoulders, Nathaniel would think him half-asleep.

They shared no words. The forest spoke to fill the silence: owls hooting, faraway boughs stirring gently. Nathaniel breathed and watched his silver exhales curl into ether.

Finally, Andrew turned to him.

“Your mother.”

Nathaniel’s shoulders stiffened. “..What about her?”

“She’s dead.”

He paused. “Yes,” and then, unbidden, “my father killed her.”

Andrew nodded like it was expected. “No siblings?”

“No.”

“No,” he echoed. “Of course not.”

The forest shivered, leaning in as if to listen. Andrew blinked slowly. Nathaniel watched him take another drag and exhale, eyes boring into his own.

“Tell me,” he said. “What is the forest saying now?”

Nathaniel blinked. Whatever he’d been expecting for his honesty, this wasn’t it. “Why?”

“Tell me.”

He turned away. “No.”

“You’re afraid of your own shadow—”

“I’m afraid,” Nathaniel snapped, “of what they’ll say.”

Andrew’s mouth hardened. “Aren’t we all.”

They lapsed into silence again. Nathaniel watched him stub the joint out and bury the evidence. Dirt smeared his pale skin in ink, burying under fingernails, pressing into little pinprick scars. He had almost enough to match Nathaniel.

“Your scars,” he heard himself say. “How’d you get those?”

Andrew’s hand stilled. “That’s none of your business.”

“It’s only fair,” Nathaniel replied. “A truth for a truth.” He searched his brain. “Think of it like—like a trade.”

“A trade,” Andrew repeated flatly. “And what will I get in return?”

Protests curled on Nathaniel’s tongue. He swallowed them down, determined to know this one thing. He knew little things about the others—tiny things, fragments he hadn’t meant to grasp—but Andrew was ever an enigma.

He could’ve asked for anything, but he would start small.

“Ask me something else,” he told Andrew, “and I’ll answer truthfully.”

Andrew looked at him for a long moment. Nathaniel waited, looking back. They could have been two stones in the snow themselves— stock-still, frozen in time.

Andrew turned away first. “I fell.”

Nathaniel waited for him to say more, but he didn’t. A muscle in Andrew’s jaw twitched under his watch; he followed the movement up to his temple, to the tip of his nose. There was another scar there, too.

Something lay between those two words: a truth Nathaniel knew to recognize without explanation. He looked at Andrew’s pock-marked scars, the iron in his eyes, and saw anew a thousand memories unspoken. Memories he knew better than to pick at.

In that moment, Nathaniel understood.

“It’s your turn,” he told him. “Ask me something.”

They breathed in time; they exhaled in synchrony. The world held still, feigning slumber.

“No,” Andrew finally said. “Not yet.”

Nathaniel knew better than to press him. He stood, following in Andrew’s footsteps back into Court. They parted ways in the dark; Nathaniel watched him drift into darkness before slipping his own door shut. He crawled back into bed, thankful for his hearth and blankets, and closed his eyes.

Only then did he remember.

He should’ve asked why Andrew called him Neil.

.

Their odd, shared solitude seemed dreamlike with daybreak. When Nathaniel woke again, he wondered if he’d imagined it all—but no, there was dirt between his fingers, a chill in his toes. Andrew had found him and brought him to light.

It shouldn’t have changed anything, but it had.

Nathaniel scraped oatmeal around his bowl. Across the table Andrew looked the same as always: disgruntled with daylight, disheveled in sweatpants. He dumped enough honey into his meal to make Nathaniel’s teeth ache.

He’s just Andrew.

Somehow, the thought bothered him more than before.

“Nathaniel? Are you listening?”

He startled. “What?”

Nicky pouted. “You weren’t were you? I guess I have to start over—”

“Please,” Seth drawled. He held his spoon ham-fisted, flicking food onto the table. “Dont.”

“No, wait,” Allison said. “I want to hear the part about you getting poison oak on your—”

“Foxes!” Dan stepped into the room. “Who’s on patrol today?”

“Kevin, Renee, and..” Nicky stopped ticking off his fingers. “Oh. Oops. I thought I was on food duty.”

“Finish up and head out,” Dan commanded. Her eyes trailed over the rest of them. “Seth, you’re on game. Andrew and Nathaniel can split foraging.”

“What, I don’t get a say?” Seth groaned. Dan raised an eyebrow. “ Okay. Fine.”

“At least you get to stretch your legs.” Allison pursed her lips. “The sun’s out today, and I’m inside cleaning.”

“Finish faster and maybe you’ll get evening rounds,” Dan replied. She lifted her gaze to Abby, nodded, and disappeared back into the hall.

“She’s stretching herself thin,” Nicky noted softly. He sighed, turning back to Nathaniel. “I guess you’ll just have to hear my story later. Watch the skies out there, alright?” His eyes drifted to Andrew and back again. “If you need anything, just shout.”

Nathaniel frowned. “You can hear that far?”

“Of course. We’re Foxes.” Nicky’s eyes darted again. “We hear lots of things.”

Andrew didn’t even look up from his food. “Goodbye, Nicky.”

Nicky gave one last glance and got to his feet. “See you later,” he sighed, and slipped off into the dark.

Nathaniel looked back at Andrew. “What was that about?”

“Nicky likes to invent gossip where none exists.” Andrew dipped his spoon back into the honey and popped it in his mouth. “Ignore him.”

Across the table, Allison and Seth shared a quiet glance. Nathaniel didn’t miss the significant look Allison shot his way.

“Come on,” Andrew said. He rose, tossing the bowl into the sink. “I won’t wait for you.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Nathaniel shot back. He got to his feet.

 

Foraging, Nathaniel discovered, was difficult work. Not only did he have to wade through the snow after Andrew, but the Fox gave little aid when it came to actually working. He said even less than the night before—nothing more than sharp commands to keep Nathaniel from straying too far.

Here, he grunted. Dig.

Nathaniel cast a critical eye. The point Andrew nosed at was covered in a foot of snowpack. “Here? Are you sure?”

Who’s the expert here?

Gingerly, Nathaniel scooped snow into the frozen river. The earth beneath was rock-solid; soil scraped even through his gloves.

“It’s too hard,” he said. “I can’t dig through that.”

Andrew sighed. He sauntered over from where he’d stopped, coming up until his fur nearly brushed Nathaniel’s cheek. Heat radiated from his coat; Nathaniel found himself drawn in subconsciously.

And then dirt flew into his face.

Oh. The Fox paused in his digging. Oops.

“Oops?” Nathaniel demanded. He spat dirt, watching it spray out into the untouched snow. “You aimed right at my face!”

You’ll live. He paused to step back, revealing a pit of white, thick bulbs. Come pocket these.

On they worked. Nathaniel felt sweat began to coalesce under his thick parka; his back burned from bending over for too long. His gloves were coated in dirt, as were his knees.

Andrew remained unfazed. He led the way up the riverbank with sure steps, skirting hidden rocks and plowing through snowbanks. The ice settled like a halo over his fur and rippled in time with the wind.

The bag was half-full when he heard it.

Run.

The whisper slammed all breath from his lungs.

No.

He dropped the bag, spilling tubers over snow. The whispers coalesced, frantically building, pressing

Run, run, they’re here—

“Andrew,” he gasped. “Andrew—”

A single scream shattered the sky. Birds took flight en masse, filling Nathaniel’s ears with their cries. The forest groaned.

“The— the others—” He was kneeling, panting from the effort of staying conscious. The forest raged in his ears, hammering into his skull with paranoia, with panic, with frantic terror.

You are out of time.

Andrew’s teeth closed over his hood. Get up, he demanded. Get on my back.

“But—”

Now.

There was no time. Nathaniel climbed on.

The forest churned with miasma. Andrew pushed through everything, whipping through branches and clearing banks with a single leap. The world narrowed to screaming. Nathaniel did his best to hang on.

They exploded into the clearing—and stopped.

Blood everywhere.

“No,” Nathaniel whispered.

Earth scarred with footsteps. The Foxes crowded with hunched shoulders; below them Allison kneeled, trembling.

The body beside her was unmistakable.

Furious gashes—blood oozing, staining snow scarlet. A streak trailed out into the forest, in the direction he’d come from.

Seth.

Nathaniel slipped to the ground.

Allison looked up. Tears mottled her face, warping her into a swollen, puffy mess. Her hands curled like claws at her chest; her shoulders trembled violently.

“You,” she hissed.

Andrew shoved Nathaniel behind him. Allison bared her teeth, eyes flashing. Renee stepped forward to grab her.

“You!” Allison screamed, mouth widening in anguish. “This is your fault! I—”

Her body hunched inward, muscles rippling beneath skin. A horrible, dry gagging sound rattled from her throat.

“I—”

There wasn’t enough time to look away. Allison jerked and became— clothes splintering away as her body swelled, twisting, turning. Her screams rose to earsplitting shrieks. She wailed, spittle flying.

And then she turned, fleeing into the forest.

Renee cast one glance at the rest of them and turned, shifting mid-stride as she gave chase.

Nathaniel’s limbs turned to jelly. He kneeled.

“We need to move him,” Abby told the others. “Matt, Nicky— please—”

“The poultices,” Aaron said. “I’ll go mix them.”

“Wymack.” Dan’s eyes stuck to the bloody stains in the snow. Her face was ashen. “Do I follow them?”

“No. Renee will keep her safe.” He knelt, scooping dirt with his hands. It took a moment for Nathaniel to realize he was burying Seth’s blood.

He crawled forward on shaking hands. It was only right. Allison had been right. This was all his fault.

He knew this was going to happen, and yet—

“Nathaniel,” Wymack said. He’d stopped to look at him. “Nathaniel, stop.”

“I’m sorry,” Nathaniel choked.

“It wasn’t your—”

“Yes it was.”

Silence stretched between them. Seth’s trail turned to churned earth; the tang of blood cleared on the wind.

“It’s not your fault,” Wymack repeated softly. “It’s mine.”

They knelt there: twin statues, blood-stained and earth-soiled.

“Wymack.” Nathaniel looked up. “What did you promise my mother?”

.

Listen carefully.

Wan with sickness. Frail, mad, withering to a husk.

Nathaniel. Are you listening to me? Nails in his wrist, breath on his face. The way she’d dragged his ear to her mouth to whisper, like they were listening in. I will only tell you once.

I am going to die.

His terror—a knife to the chest, a whip to the back. What will I do without you?

She’d looked at him, then, and the clarity in her eyes startled him to stillness.

You’ll wait, she said. You will wait, and go when it is time.

Where? There’s nowhere—

Wrong. Wrong. Are you listening?

Brown eyes, sharp as glass. She’d been Mary one last time.

The voices in the forest will call you home.

 

“A son for a son.”

Wymack stared into the fire. He hadn’t changed his clothes; soil crumbled to the floor around him, speckling the rug.

“A son for a son,” he repeated, softer. “And how could I say no?”

“There is always a choice.”

He turned. Backlit by fire, his eyes became hollow pits; his mouth, a jagged line.

“No,” he said. “There wasn’t.”

Nathaniel watched him stir the fire. Embers sparkled, flecking up the chimney in star-like shards. The light illuminated his mouth, his lips forming condemnation.

“It's Kevin,” he finally said.

Nathaniel knew. He’d suspected when he saw them side by side, the way their faces mirrored each other. The knowledge still churned his stomach. Kevin: a Fox tortured by Ravens, a son who wanted   his father. The fear; the freedom.

What must that have been like?

“She was pregnant at Court. The Ravens didn’t know who the father was, but they assumed.” His mouth hardened. “Kayleigh could never correct them.”

“Kayleigh.” Nathaniel frowned. He’d heard that name before.

Wymack nodded. “Tetsuji’s favorite even without shifter blood. He took her everywhere.”

“A human hand,” he murmured. He thought of Nathan, his bought labor and eager blades. “Yes. I understand.”

“Ravens harbor no traitors,” Wymack said. “She knew Tetsuji would kill her if he found out. She had to leave before the pregnancy finished, or they would never get out alive. Mary knew somehow. She knew everything before it happened—said the forest had a thousand voices.”

Goosebumps rose under Nathaniel’s clothes. “But what happened? Kevin—”

“It didn’t work,” Wymack said flatly. “Their plan failed.” He paused, eyes softening. “Kayleigh died.”

Fire crackled through the silence.

“But then.. why isn’t Kevin dead?” Nathaniel asked.

Wymack leaned back. His eyes scanned the ceiling for stars unseen, trailing over wooden whorls and polish like he could read words between them. Bitterness tore his voice to pieces.

“They found a better way to make him pay,” he whispered. He lowered his head to look at Nathaniel. “Tell me this. Mary told you who we were, did she not? What did she say?”

“Forest-kings.” He paused, remembering her frantic fits. “But you were cast out.”

“Not cast out,” Wymack said. “Cursed.”

Nathaniel’s mouth went dry. Mary had spoken of things like curses—terrible rituals that cast hellfire and agony. The right curse could drive a man to suicide; the wrong curse could poison a whole town.

But a whole race of shifters—no. It should’ve been impossible.

Nothing is impossible, Nathaniel.

“His eyes,” Wymack whispered. “That’s how they knew.”

Nathaniel clasped his shaking hands. He thought back to Mary in the drawing room, Mary in her bed, Mary gripping her temples until she bled. I’m sorry, she’d always said. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

“What..” He swallowed. “What does the curse do?

The fire snapped. Wymack hunched over his knees and buried his head in his hands. Beyond him, shadows cast the room into maddening shapes.

“You have to understand,” he rasped. “You’re safe here. When I rebuilt this Court I was so careful—I knew who to pick, who to keep here. They didn’t have anything left. I took them in.”

“Wymack.” Nathaniel took a single, shaky step back. “What does it do?

Wymack lifted his head. His eyes glowed golden-bright, twin suns set to earth. Fox eyes.

“We’re destined,” he said, “to become beasts.”

Beasts. Not simply shifting, but a loss of humanity. Slicing the shifter existence in half, separating the pieces.

The Foxes weren’t shifters. They had become something else entirely.

“We don’t know how long we have,” Wymack said. “It varies for everyone. Many were taken in the beginning, when the curse was fresh. They turned once and never changed back. The beastly nature ate them away until—” His eyes darkened. “It is a price we all must pay in the end, but I am doing my best to slow the tide. This Court I’ve made is a haven. It’s all we have left, and now you’re a part of it. We have to protect you. I promised Mary I would.”

“A whole race for one man,” Nathaniel whispered. “Why?”

Wymack shook his head. “You don’t understand,” he said. “No other shifters in opposition exist. We were the only ones. Kevin's birth served as a convenience, a false reason to force our annihilation." His fists clenched. "Our downfall is inevitable—all we have left our promises made from the before .”

“You’re a bleeding heart,” Nathaniel said. “You would keep me at your own risk.”

“I’m keeping you because nobody else will. If I let you leave now, what would that accomplish for either of us? Where would you go?” Wymack leaned forward, gaze flinty.“Say what you like, but I won’t break my promise. I can’t leave you to die on good conscience.

“Face it,” he said. “You’re one of our Court now. Stay.”

Stay.

Unbidden, Nathaniel’s thoughts flew to Andrew.

All we have left are our promises.

So many ends. A web was forming, shaping and tangling between Nathaniel and these— beings. He and Kevin were bound by more than one pact. What did it all mean?

He hated it: the mystery, the Ravens, the corner he’d let himself walk into. He’d made no other plans; he’d trusted Mary’s word, and now he was stuck.

There was nowhere else for him— for any of them—to go.

He nodded.

Chapter Text

“He’ll live.” 

Blood dripped from Abby’s gloves to the floor. Dark smears soiled her apron and long skirt beneath; her hair, sweat-soaked and tousled, hung into hollow eyes. She looked from Wymack to the others crowded around the hearth. “He’ll scar terribly, but he’ll live.”

Wymack sighed audibly. Dan slumped into Matt’s shoulder. Beside them, Nathaniel’s nails curled into palms.

“Aaron’s with him, now,” Abby said. She took a proffered cup, drinking deeply. “Until he wakes, all we can do is watch the wound and wait.”

Hours had passed since Seth’s arrival. They’d all taken turns washing blood from under their nails. Renee had returned with Allison and promptly disappeared into the blonde’s room. Nicky, fraught with anxiety, had passed out chamomile tea.

Then, there was little to do but wait.

“He was one of the first,” Wymack spoke into silence. “When it was just Abby and I, we had Seth.”

Indomitable; permanent. Seth was neither of these, though they’d all come to believe he was. 

The hole in Nathaniel’s stomach yawned.

One by one, the Foxes drifted to sleep. None of them dared move from the hearth; instead, coupled as a true pack, they clustered by firelight and drifted together. Limbs over limbs, heads nestled into stomachs, they breathed and rested as one.

All but Nathaniel.

This is your fault. Allison’s eyes blazed behind his own. The fire’s warmth burned a brand into his heart, his insides blackening against its touch.

She was right, but what else could he have done? His purpose, first and foremost, was to survive. It was all he knew. He would do it any way he could.

At the expense of others, Mary hissed. At the expense of all. Our blood is too rich to waste.

Even with ash on his tongue. Even with his blood frozen from guilt, he would live.

Nathaniel waited until all slumbered to rise from his cushion. His limbs throbbed painfully with every step into the hallway, the darkness rushing up to meet him. The way out into the glade was reflex; there, he pulled himself up the door frame onto the overlook.

And then, after a few minutes, Andrew appeared.

Neither acknowledged the other. The stars twinkled, silent witnesses to their vigil. Nathaniel watched his breaths twist and rise to brush the moon.

“Did you decide on what to ask me yet?” 

Andrew exhaled smoke. “I’m considering my options.”

“Just like you’re considering whether or not to tell the others?” Nathaniel asked.

Andrew didn’t reply.

Time stretched. In the night’s emptiness, Nathaniel became uncomfortably conscious of his own beating heart, his pulsing veins. It’d been so easy for the Ravens to rend Seth’s open—Seth, a hulking mass of teeth and claws. And what did Nathaniel have to protect himself? Someone else’s weight? He loathed the coward’s cloak. 

“This is only the beginning,” he said. “The longer you wait, the more people will get hurt.”

“I know that.”

“How many more?” Nathaniel turned, curling his fists. He hated the way his blood thrummed under his nails. He was so tired of being a body to carry, no matter what Wymack said. “Who else has to suffer before enough is enough?”

“Seth was a mistake,” Andrew said. “It won’t happen again.”

His dispassion burned. Nathaniel closed his eyes and saw them huddled, a family made of leftovers; he saw them playing in the snow, sharing meals, sparring in the clearing. 

Them, huddled around Seth’s bleeding body.

“Does they mean nothing to you?” he asked bitterly. 

Andrew paused. 

“You have no idea,” Nathaniel whispered. “What you have. There are people who would die for the shelter you share.”

“Careful, Nathaniel.” Andrew turned, throwing his face into shadow. “Your trauma is showing.”

“And you would think yours buried. You need them. I know you do. I’ve seen the way Nicky and Aaron look at you, like—” He swallowed.

“Like?” Andrew’s voice was dangerously soft. “Like what?”

  “Family.”

Wind stirred over the treetops. Nathaniel ignored the way it bit through his clothes, shredding at the heat of his nape, his fingers. He was so tired of living this way. He had to do more.

“If you won’t tell them, then I will,” he said. “They deserve to know, now more than ever.”

He stood. Every nerve in his body fizzled, a furious fire in the icy quiet. 

He couldn’t wait anymore. They couldn’t wait anymore. 

“I promised you I would save Kevin.” Nathaniel looked down at Andrew. “It has to be done.”

Andrew sat, still as the sleeping soil. His hair stirred with the cold.

“So be it,” he finally said. “It’s time.”

.

Morning was a hollow affair. The world beyond Court trembled with flurries, a whiteness that smothered the trees in frothing lace. Nathaniel’s toes hurt just imagining it. 

Kevin still insisted on patrols. They had a duty to uphold in the wake of Seth’s injury—more so, with one man down. They couldn’t afford to hide away. Snow or no, the Foxes had to guard their home.

The forest took no pleasure from the storm. Nathaniel kept his head tucked into Kevin’s ruff and listened as trees groaned their discomfort, snow covering boughs and blanketing dens. No sane animal was about; in their absence, the forest cried its own weariness, begging for the stillness of deep sleep. 

“Nothing,” he reported. They’d stopped to rest. Andrew smashed a nearby brook for freshwater, and the trickle burned white-hot down Nathaniel’s throat. He swallowed hard, wiping numbness from his lips. “Every being’s indoors, as we should be.”

Kevin huffed. You can’t tell me every voice in the wood is sleeping. It’s daylight.

Barely. Andrew lifted his gaze overhead, to the dark clouds between tree branches. Any earlier and we’d be patrolling blind. 

Better safe than dead. Kevin stared out into the forest. The world hummed on, snow-heavy and smothered. He looked back, taking in Nathaniel’s frosted form and Andrew, golden and still. He cocked his head. Well?

Andrew didn’t even blink. If you wanted to know so badly, there are better ways to make me talk than dragging me out for a patrol I didn’t want.

It was you or Nicky. We all know how he gets without sleep. 

So you pulled me out here for nothing?

Kevin lifted his head. You tell me.

Nathaniel huffed a sigh. He was going to turn into an icicle at this rate. “We’re going to tell the others the truth about me,” he said flatly.

Andrew’s glance was positively murderous. 

We? Kevin echoed. So this collusion’s become a pair.

Don’t flatter yourself a martyr.

When? 

Andrew’s gaze floated somewhere over both of their heads. Nathaniel wasn’t fooled for a moment. When the fancy strikes me, maybe.

“Today,” Nathaniel said. He ignored Andrew’s look. “The sooner the better. We can’t wait anymore.”

Getting courageous, little rabbit? 

“I’m getting tired,” he shot back. “We do this now or not at all. When else would you tell them, when someone else gets hurt for my sake?” He shook his head. “We’ve been over this already. You know my terms.”

Andrew did. He also knew that Nathaniel had nowhere else to go, but thankfully chose to stay silent on the matter. They had more pressing matters than a rehash of the night’s events.

It will play in our favor to act before they do, Kevin supplied. Birds have no qualms come spring.

Tell me something I don’t know. Andrew’s gaze finally dropped to them. But birds aren’t the only ones who thrive in the woods. 

Nathaniel frowned. “There aren’t any other shifters in these parts.”

No, Andrew agreed. 

“Then what..?”

Andrew’s eyes alighted on Kevin. I wonder.

Kevin went still. 

“What?” Nathaniel looked between them. “What is it?”

It’s been too long. Kevin squirmed visibly. They won’t remember me.

Is that your only excuse? You’ve grown weak, Kevin.

Kevin’s ears flattened. Our circumstances were.. less than favorable.

It doesn’t matter. You made a promise, didn’t you? Andrew stepped forward, pushing into Kevin’s space. Didn’t you?

A boy’s game doesn’t befit a man, the larger shifter snapped. And what, you’d waltz up and ask? They’re impossible to reach, and even if you did, an audience alone is impossible.

I never said I was going by myself.

“A trip through this weather is suicidal,” Nathaniel argued. He didn’t know who they were talking about, but it didn’t matter. Kevin was easy enough to harass for information on his own. “For everyone. We’d be leaving the others wide open in the snow. It’s madness.”

Andrew’s grin was positively feral. Which is why Ravens won’t watch for our departure.

.

He chose to announce the news following breakfast. It was the easiest time—no chance to escape, especially in the face of an oncoming snowstorm. The storm’s chill bit deep into the soil, horning in on the Court’s heat, and its prickle lifted every goosebump on Nathaniel’s body. He’d taken a moment after patrol to wrap himself in another sweater and socks; even then, the air tasted slightly too crisp to settle his chills.

Few things could, now.

 “You alright?” Matt asked. He scraped the remnants of his third oatmeal bowl away, sucking his spoon clean. “You’ve been stiff all morning.”

“Cold,” Nathaniel replied. It was partly true.

“You didn’t finish your third toast,” Matt pointed out. “Must be some serious chills.”

Nathaniel’s lips twisted. The man was nothing if not determined to fatten him up. For your own good, he would say. As if Abby wasn’t already ushering unusually large portions to her newest customer.

“I’m fine,” he said.

The last bowls were cleared; the table, wiped clean. Nathaniel watched Andrew draw himself up, amber eyes glancing over everyone. The Court’s table was in full attendance, save Seth. It was now or never.

Wymack’s gaze rest on Andrew. “You have something to say?”

“Something,” Andrew echoed. “Yes.”

“Say it, then.”

Andrew paused. Kevin looked between them, licking his lips. His shoulders hunched below his ears.

They all held their breath.

“The Ravens,” Wymack guessed, when Andrew failed to go on. “Is this about Seth?”

“Catching on quick. That will make this easy.”

“It would be easier if you spoke your mind clearly,” Dan pointed out. She sat at Wymack’s right, same as always. The dark look in her eyes set Nathaniel’s teeth on edge. If she was wary before they even began, agreement would be hard to achieve.

Not that Andrew ever waited for approval, Nathaniel thought bitterly.

“I’ll hazard a guess.” Wymack’s lips thinned. “You want retaliation? Recompense?”

“Recompense would suggest settling. I don’t settle.”

“So you intend to what, take what you deem appropriate? And what makes you think they’ll allow you?”

“Andrew waits for no allowance,” Dan cut in. Her eyes were narrowed to slits. “He intends to kill us all to prove a point.”

“If I wanted you dead, there are easier ways to go about it.”

“Comforting.”

“So then, what do you want?” Wymack pressed. “Don’t think I didn’t miss your morning patrol. Or your excursions. You of all people can’t go unnoticed, Andrew. What are you scheming?”

“Freedom,” Andrew said simply. 

Glances were exchanged. Dan’s nostrils flared; beside her, Wymack’s jaw went rigid. One fist curled around his wooden mug, knuckle bones knifing beneath weathered skin.

“Freedom,” he repeated.

“You made this Court with your goals. I have my own.”

“Outside? And who’s going to harbor you, the ants? We’re wanted . You’re signing a death warrant if you leave.” His lip curled. “I didn’t think you an idiot, Minyard. Don’t prove me wrong now.”

“Who said anything about leaving?”

“Then what?” Wymack leaned back, brow scrunched tight. “What do you want? I made this Court a haven—”

“Seth doesn’t seem to agree—”

“Seth’s injury was a mistake, ” the man snarled. “On our part. We’ve grown lax, and we won’t misjudge the Ravens again.”

“There is no misjudgment,” Andrew said flatly. “You of all people should know.”

Wymack’s expression could’ve frozen suns. “Tell me, then, what we should do. I’m dying to hear it.”

Andrew looked at him for a long moment. His face had remained impassive for their whole conversation, but the light in his eyes curled Nathaniel’s toes. His fervor glowed as twin flames, a rival to the hearth’s dangerous illumination.

No uncertainty; no distancing. Andrew knew exactly what he wanted.

“It’s simple,” he said. “We have to kill the Raven King.”

Everything stopped.

 

“Run that by me again,” Wymack said. “I want to make sure I heard you right.”

Andrew’s head tilted. Hearthlight turned his eyes molten, burning holes in a cold face. “You heard me.”

Nathaniel’s eyes snapped back and forth. Nobody moved. Nobody even breathed.

“Humor me,” Wymack growled. “Just this once.”

A log in the fireplace snapped. Sparks flew from the coop and twirled into open air, haoling Andrew’s shadow in fireflies. He smiled.

“We’re going to kill the Raven King. And I know just how to do it.”

A low rattle echoed through the room—terror ripped from unwilling mouths. All the breakfast’s warmth was torn away in an instant, shearing through thick skin to bone underneath. Nathaniel looked from haunted faces to shaking hands, watching the way Kevin rocked like he didn’t know how to stop. Dan’s face was a pale mask.

“You’re not serious,” she choked. “You’re joking .”

Andrew’s smile turned vicious. “I’m not the joking type.”

Wymack’s knuckles curled tight around the chair’s arm. Every muscle pulled bowstring-tight; every wrinkle seared with pain. His brow lowered to hood his eyes. “You’re talking treason, Minyard.”

“It would be easy. Everything we need is within our grasp.”
“We’re not murderers.”

“We’re nothing at all,” Andrew corrected flatly. “Hiding while the world turns its back on us. No one is watching. It would be easy.

“And who would take the Ravens’ place? You?” Wymack’s mouth twisted. “Don’t make me laugh. Our time is past.”

“I’m not interested in ruling,” Andrew dismissed. “I don’t care about who’s in charge, so long as I’m not living like a rabbit anymore. I’d rather be dead.”

“You will be with talk like that,” Wymack growled. “They’ll kill you the second they get wind. You’re endangering us all even further, bringing this up. Drop it. Now .”

“But I didn’t even get to the best part.” Andrew’s smiled knife higher, his eyes blazing. “Don’t you want to know how it would happen? He’s standing right there.”

There was no mistaking who he meant.

Nathaniel hunched under the pressure of twenty eyes. Dan looked from him to Wymack and back again, her brow creasing with worry. Fingers curled tight into sweater sleeves. “What are you talking about?”

Wymack glared at Andrew. He shook almost imperceptibly, lips mouthing words that turned Andrew’s expression deadly.

“That’s right,” he said. “You already knew, didn’t you? Before he even got here.”

“What?” Dan’s voice rose, edged with panic. “What is he talking about?”

Wymack and Andrew stared at each other. Then, slowly, Wymack’s eyes scraped over to Nathaniel.

Vox animalibus.”

Nathaniel.

Whispering animals in the forest. Bird cries turned to human words. Mary’s hand at his back, at his mouth, clawing his lips shut. Her fingernails ghosted his skin, daggers with permanent poison. 

They’re listening. Don’t let them hear you.

“Impossible,” Kevin had said earlier. The way he’d looked at Nathaniel—hands drawn, eyes haunted—turned his stomach to stone. “The last died years ago. There’s no way.”

“My mother,” Nathaniel had whispered. 

Can you hear them, Nathaniel?

Stones buried underfoot. Lola’s claws dragging him back into darkness, away from the forest’s ears. A knife at Mary’s throat, poised to cut a scarlet smile.

They can hear you.

Wymack’s eyes stared into Nathaniel’s— through him, to a time he couldn’t follow. Nathaniel watched his gaze rest at his mouth, his hands, the bow of his back. Mary’s trace in a devil’s body.

Your mother paid the price.

“The voice of the animals,” he murmured. “A witch’s power, sacred by blood.”

“Witch,” Dan echoed. Her brow furrowed. “But the Raven King—”

“Didn’t do a thorough job.” Andrew’s words stung with dry venom. “He seems to have missed one.” 

You are only alive because they let you be , he’d told Nathaniel. Now you must live on your own.

Why?

You owe me. 

“It’s obvious,” Andrew went on. “Why they were at the estate. Why Nathaniel is still alive.”

“He wouldn’t,” Nicky whispered, catching on. He blinked; faltered. “Would he?”

“Lesser men have done worse acts,” Wymack said. “The Raven sky only reaches so far; it would be what he needs to ensure total control. But it doesn’t mean that I support you.” He scowled at Andrew. “You’re not involving everyone in a suicide mission just so you can nap in silence.”

“Rich words from someone who knows I don’t sleep at all.”

“You’re insane.”

Aaron moved forward. He glared into his twin’s face, a mirror scowl for Andrew’s frown. Fists clenched at his sides. 

“Are you even listening to yourself? Regicide? They’ll kill you for this.”

“I’m not doing it for me,” Andrew said. Aaron recoiled. 

“How are you going to get near him?” Dan pressed. “If you think you and Nathaniel are going to just walk in there and kill him, you’ve lost it. And what of his Court? You think they’re going to let you?”

“Kevin has it taken care of,” Andrew dismissed. 

Wymack’s face went white. “No. Absolutely not.”

“I didn’t ask for your permission.”

“Kevin.” Wymack’s eyes beseeched his son. “You would throw your life away? For- for this idiot?”

“Not for him.” Kevin’s eyes shook in their sockets, but his jaw was set. He didn’t waver from Wymack’s gaze. “For our future.”

“Future?” Wymack’s voice rose. He stood, rattling the table. “ What future? This is a suicide mission!” 

Kevin threw out one arm. “So is staying!”

Abby gasped. Wymack was ashen from head to toe, eyes hollow. Nobody else dared speak.

“You know it’s true,” Kevin whispered. “We have to do this. I won’t stay here and die doing nothing. I won’t let mom’s sacrifice be for nothing.” He shook his head. “You have to let us go. Please.

Wymack stared at him. Nathaniel felt an unfamiliar burn behind his eyes, a dryness in his throat. He wanted to say something. He couldn’t say anything. Kevin was right.

Wymack’s shoulders slumped. All the fury underneath was extinguished, scattered in a single blow. His eyes fell to the table. His mug had tipped and spilled tea across the wood.

“Where?” he whispered.

Kevin looked to Andrew. The blond stared back.

“To mountain country,” he said. “To the Lions.”

Chapter Text

They left before sunrise. Morning was hardly a dream in their wake; shouldering his pack in the Court kitchen, Nathaniel wished he was still dreaming. His bones ached from a night of fruitless slumber. His jaw throbbed from unconscious clenching. His stomach growled.

Kevin fared no better. Between dark eyebags and rumpled hair, he looked as if he’d tossed and turned all night. Shoulders pressed against ears; fingers grasped at the pack in his hands, twisting the leather straps tight around his knuckles.

Andrew, at least, looked alert. The fire in his eyes burned like a brand in the room’s half-light, twin flames to match the hearth one final time. Nathaniel wondered if he’d slept at all.

“Extra rations.” Abby lifted the satchel. “Tack and jerky; dried cranberries. Make it last as best you can.” Her brow crinkled. “But be smart about it. Don’t starve yourselves.”

Andrew took the bag. “No honey?”

“Not for you,” she replied. Her fingers strayed to the apron over her nightgown. “Send note of your arrival.”

“No promises.”

“It wasn’t a request,” Wymack rumbled. He’d risen early too, hunkering over his coffee mug at the table’s end. “You will send note. And you’ll do so again upon your return.”

“No animal willingly moves through winter.”

“Then coerce them.” His gaze flicked to Nathaniel. “You know what to do.”

The other Foxes had said their goodbyes the night before. Nathaniel hadn’t expected Matt’s tight hug, nor Renee’s hands over his. Even Dan’s eyes glimmered dangerously bright, a deep crease in her brow.

None of them asked for a safe return. They knew better than to tempt fate.

“Keep your ears sharp,” Dan had told Nathaniel. Her fingers bit deep into his forearm, holding him close enough to smell soap. “Eyes to the sky, Nathaniel.”

“Always,” he’d told her. 

It wasn’t a promise, but it was the best he could do.

Now, standing at the Court’s doors, Nathaniel felt the night’s trepidation clawing at his throat. This journey wasn’t his alone, but the danger was his to share. The world beyond the Court’s forest was one he’d never seen before. Would it welcome him the way the woods had?

The world waits for no man, Mary would have said. All we can do is move with it.

All Nathaniel could see of the world was darkness. No stars shone through; the trees trembled, mirroring the chill beneath his skin. Even through his layers and thick, orange parka, Nathaniel could feel winter’s cruel grasp.

All we can do is move.

“It’s time,” Kevin said. He shouldered his pack. “We’d best move before dawn.”

Wymack and Abby stopped short of the doors behind them. They hugged Nathaniel in turn in quick, firm movements before turning to Kevin. Neither dared touch Andrew.

“Run with the wood,” Wymack told them. “And may the wood guide you home again.”

“With haste,” Kevin murmured.

Three figures against blackness. They turned, stepping out into the snow.

At the clearing’s edge, Nathaniel paused. A wildness surged within him—a tightening, icy fingers in his stomach. A wrongness. 

Will we return in time?

“It’s too late to turn back,” Andrew told him. 

“I know,” Nathaniel said. “I’m fine.”

He made himself step out of the clearing and into the trees. No matter the fear in his throat, he refused to look back. He wouldn’t grant himself the weakness.

It was time to be something more.

.

The first few hours were hell.  

One would think the trees alive for how they shook. There was no falling snow—a small mercy—but the morning wind sliced deep into Nathaniel’s bones. He hunched over, burying his ears into his shoulders, pressing his face flat to Kevin’s ruff.

Haste was of the essence. An agreement had been made: Kevin and Andrew would take turns bearing Nathaniel’s weight, stopping to switch when necessary.

“And me?” Nathaniel huffed. “What am I to do?”

Sit still, Andrew told him. And think light thoughts.

They ran nose-to-tail through the snow, Andrew leading unerringly even with bags strapped to his back. His bright coat was the one speck of color Nathaniel made out between eye-slits, a flame melting everything in his path. Nathaniel hated that he admired his focus.

On and on they went. Brooks and ravines became one in a hundred irregularities, minor things to cross in a single bound. Snow flew up from Kevin’s paws. Nathaniel’s arms vaguely ached where they clung tight. 

The one distraction to his discomfort was the sky. With two hour’s pass came the sunrise. The night’s clouds were scoured away by a spectacle of fire and gold, a brilliance that put the hearth to shame. The dark web of overhead branches lit from beyond, bearing patches of color like suspended candles. The snow began to glitter. 

They stopped briefly where two brooks met, breaking ice into a steady flow. Kevin unceremoniously dumped Nathaniel and made to drink. Andrew, having stopped ahead of them, was already shrugging off his packs.

Report.

“Nothing important,” Nathaniel said. “The animals are cold.”

And you?

He raised an eyebrow. “I said the animals.”

A man among animals is no better. Andrew lifted his chin. Don’t think so highly of yourself.

Nathaniel rolled his eyes in spite of himself. “In your presence? I wouldn’t dream of it.”

He took his turn at the river, drawing icy mouthfuls through numb lips. When he returned to their spot, Kevin had already shouldered the packs. Andrew sat with his back to Nathaniel, waiting.

Nathaniel looked between the two. “We’re switching so soon?”

Your knees are bony, Kevin sniffed. It was bugging me.

Unbelievable. What had happened to their earlier seriousness? 

Well? Andrew’s tail swished. We don’t have all morning.

“Unbelievable,” Nathaniel repeated aloud. “Are you two going to be like this the whole way?” But he climbed on all the same.

Andrew had taken measures to avoid bearing Nathaniel prior. Settling his hips, Nathaniel could only think of two occasions where he’d been forced to ride. Both had been emergencies concerning impending death. Their record was not promising.

On a surface level, riding all the Foxes were the same. They were large and heavily muscled, thickly furred and incredibly warm. Riding Matt and riding Kevin were too experiences only contrasted by Kevin’s unending complaints. Nicky, too, was the same.

Riding Andrew was decidedly not similar. His size, while formidable, lacked the extra foot and a half that gave Nathaniel stretching room. His shoulders were broader, making him hard to grasp. He ran like he didn’t have a passenger.

“Watch out!” Nathaniel hissed for the umpteenth time. Snow rained down from a narrowly-avoided branch, melting into his parka. “You’re going to take off my head!”

Then have a smaller one.

Nathaniel spluttered and dug his heels in.

And then there was the smell. Nathaniel had noticed it before—a musky scent, something like spices and earth—in the clothes Allison had given him. Smelling the source was like dipping his head underwater; his nose buzzed with headiness, his mouth dry from more than the cold. His lungs felt strangely heavy. 

Illness? No, Nathaniel thought. I’m not sick. But.. 

He let his face press to Andrew’s neck. The heat, combined with his thick scent, washed down the front of Nathaniel’s parka like warm honey.

It could be worse, he decided. Nothing to do about it now.

He would do his best to ignore it.

 .

“So,” Nathaniel said, “where exactly are we going?”

They’d stopped for a meal. Andrew was out to relieve himself while Nathaniel opened the pack under a rocky overhang. It was best to stay out of plain sight if they could help it, no matter how clear the skies were.

Kevin watched him rifle through things. To the northwest, he replied. A mountain range lies where the trees grow evergreen. That is where the Lions live. 

“Could you draw me a map?”

Kevin cocked his head. Foxes don’t possess thumbs.

“As best as you can,” Nathaniel pressed. “Please. I want to know.”

Kevin grumbled, shifting about the snow to bare the earth beneath. The ground was frozen solid, but Fox claws were sharp enough to cut through just about anything. He raised one over the soil.

We are here, he said, drawing a thicket of pines. In the Forests Beneath. The streams that run within are all born from the same flow known as the Aviary Falls. The mountains north-west harbor the origin. 

His claw flowed upwards from the pines, sketching out rising mountains with fearsome peaks. A waterfall spilled from between them, pooling at the mountain ridge’s base in a giant lake ringed with spiky trees. The stream continued from the lake below down into the forests before branching like a tree.

Here, he said, pointing to the lake. The Great Mane—home to the greatest congregation of Lions. There we shall attempt a council. If the Lions are willing to uphold old bonds, then we will have our say heard.

If they aren’t blinded by their selfish isolation. Andrew came to sit beside them. He cast an eye down to the sketch. They’ve grown complacent, sitting in their mountains. They think the Ravens will be satisfied with just the Forests Beneath. They don’t know about you.

The Raven King made it clear years ago that all the witches had been killed, Kevin explained. They held a great celebration in their Court for the fall of the last traitor. They said there would be no other humans interfering with our ways—that it was cause for relief.

“But they knew about me,” Nathaniel murmured. 

They probably planned to use you to hold sway over the other clans. Andrew caught his eye. Used you and thrown you away, like an old napkin.

Kevin squirmed. Or worse.

Nathaniel tore his gaze away to stare at the ground. The map appeared almost childish in its simplicity. Cross a whole forest. Find a hidden mountain lake. Simple. 

But when have things ever been easy? he thought wryly.

“Well,” he said. “If that’s all we have to do, then I suppose we should keep moving. You both can weather the chill, but I don’t have a fur coat to protect me if we don’t find shelter by nightfall. I’ll freeze to death.”

And what a tragedy that would be.

“Quite,” Nathaniel said flatly. He stood, sweeping away the sketch with a clump of snow. “Let’s go.”

 .

Time was a peculiar monster. It ate calamities and celebrations without deference; it tore history from earthen bones like a carrion bird. It answered to no being, man or beast, but consumed all with the same indifferent jaws.

Time was a peculiar monster—and fickle, too.

Hours stretched. Days spun outward, unspooling like pulled thread. Shadows flit beneath the trees; the sun and moon rose and fell. 

Day. Night. Two opposite sides of a single coin in Time’s purse.

How long has it been? Nathaniel wondered. It could have been four days; it might have been six. When the world was a single, frozen twilight, there were few markers to keep one focused. Nathaniel found himself staring out into the trees until his eyes saw nothing else. His heart beat endlessly in his chest, a single drum beating out the seconds, the minutes, the hours of their journey.

Without a guide the forest will make you lose your way, Renee had once said. Nathaniel suppressed a shudder. He knew now how true she’d been.

They slept in caves. They traipsed through thickets. They drank at streams and leapt them in single bounds, or found ways across fallen debris. They moved for days and saw no one.

The world is so still. Nathaniel peeked out above Kevin’s ruff. The voices are muffled, lost to sleep or hunger below.

Time and time again they would stop. Every time Kevin would turn to him for a verdict and Nathaniel would shake his head.

“Nothing new,” he reported. “The Ravens are silent.”

The world’s stillness should have been a comfort, but Nathaniel found no peace in silence. It always meant something was to come.

 .

It occurred to Nathaniel that he didn’t know anything about other shifters. Speaking their language was not the same as seeing them and recognizing their ways. The Ravens were savagely loyal and prone to false talk; the Foxes were close-knit and easy to anger. 

But what of Lions?

Nathaniel’s sheltered life was a painful reminder in those moments. He had no basis for a third race, no assumptions he could make beyond the change of their flesh. What sort of shifter were they to know Kevin? How did they know him in the first place? As far as Nathaniel knew, shifters didn’t consort with each other unless absolutely necessary.

So many questions. His small world was growing once again.

Disaster loomed a week into their journey: an oncoming blizzard, thick clouds threatening to smother. Gentle flakes sharpened to cruel points; the wind, already numbing and bitterly cold, quickened to kill. 

Every breath burned. Nathaniel kept his eyes shut, counting ragged lungfuls. His balm-smeared lips cracked and bled despite his best efforts. Everything ached.

They tried to press on. The snow rose around them. Kevin’s bounds became labored; his breathing, harsh. 

And then Nathaniel’s shivers slowed, and they knew they could go no further.

The cave was a fortuitous chance. Andrew and Kevin took turns digging away at the snowbank to make an opening wide enough for Nathaniel to crawl through. The inside was rocky and surprisingly dry; dead leaves scattered the floor, providing valuable cushioning over frozen soil.

We’ll have to wait out the worst of it. Kevin eyed their makeshift entrance, ears flattened. And hope we aren’t buried.

“Your optimism leaves something to be desired,” Nathaniel muttered. He could hardly speak for trembling. 

I’m a realist.

“You’re a wet blanket.”

And I’m sick of hearing you both run your mouths, Andrew grunted. Kevin take first watch.

Kevin didn’t dare argue. He snorted, shuffling closer to the cave’s mouth, and settled onto the leaves.

Nathaniel eyed the ground. He’d grown uncomfortably familiar with sleeping on dirt over the past week; now, cold enough for his eyes to burn, the leaves were a gods-given blessing. He shuffled together a small pile and promptly flopped into it, layers and all.

That wasn’t to say he slept easily. His exhaustion warred with his frozen limbs. He closed his eyes and willed himself to stop shivering, but it was nearly impossible to still for longer than a moment. His skull ached from chattering and clenching teeth. 

All he could hope for was numbness.

What I wouldn’t give for the hearth. He curled tighter.

 

He didn’t know when he slept—he was awake, and then he was awake again. He blinked, startled by a sudden ache. 

He lifted his head.

Andrew and Kevin were trading places. The air had marginally warmed in Nathaniel’s slumber; he found he’d stopped shivering. Still, the loss at his back confused him. He rolled over.

There: a slight indentation in the leaves, large enough for him to easily roll into. Nathaniel tilted his head forward. The leaves were slightly warm to the touch and faintly musky.

Kevin approached. Move over, he demanded. You’re in the best spot.

Nathaniel rolled into the warm dip. Debris crunched against his parka, cradling him in the barest of beds, but the faint scent soothed him. His eyes strayed to the cave’s entrance where Andrew stood sentry. He blinked slowly.

“How long has it been?”

Several hours. Kevin settled into the pile, scattering leaves. The snow’s barely let up.

“So we’ve yet to leave.”

I’d give it a day. With any luck, the storm will pass soon.

Nathaniel sighed. They had to have made progress, but the inclement weather made determining exact distances difficult. Beyond searching for a mountain range—an impossible feat when he could barely see several feet in front of him—Nathaniel had no idea what signs to look for. The forest’s animals gave no clues.

His thoughts strayed to the road ahead. 

Nathaniel rolled over. Kevin’s head rest between two paws, but his eyes were still open. Now would be as good a time as any.

“How do you know the Lions?” he asked. “What promise does Andrew mean?”

Golden eyes flit to his. Nathaniel lay still, waiting. He didn’t expect Kevin to spill everything, but he deserved to know at least part of what they were getting into. Andrew spared no details prior to the trip; he’d had to pack and leave without a question. Surely Kevin understood.

And then finally: It’s an old memory.

“It’s as good as any.” Nathaniel thumbed his hood’s furry lining. “I don’t.. My knowledge of the world was left to my mother.” He didn’t elaborate. His paltry state was no secret among the Foxes.

Kevin exhaled noisily. I was hardly old enough to know them. The memories.. They’re faded with time. But Jeremy was a paragon among shifters. 

Nathaniel breathed. “Jeremy?”

An old friend. One of the only ones I had, actually. Back when.. Kevin paused, crossing his paws. Back before.

“I didn’t think the Ravens allowed your leave.”

No. It was an emissary come to honor the Raven King. He came with them.

A paragon among shifters was high praise from anyone; for Kevin to say so, Jeremy had to be extraordinary. “What was he like?” Nathaniel wondered. 

Kevin sighed. Like sunlight.. Sunlight in the middle of winter. He closed his eyes. I was a spectacle to be shunned, and Jeremy offered his hand like it was nothing. He gave me comfort when I needed it most.

“He sounds unreal.” 

Had I not known him, I would have thought the same. Jeremy seemed above ill will even then.. He saw my solitude as the slavery it was. He promised me that.. Kevin swallowed, ears flattening. He promised that if I ever managed to leave, he’d offer solace.

Nathaniel’s eyebrows rose. “Was he allowed to promise such a thing?”

He should not have said it, no. But the dream was what kept me going until I found a way out. Kevin’s ears relaxed. I don’t know how he fares now. I have no doubts he’s risen in rank. The only question is how far his honor will allow.. And how much his leaders will permit.

A solemn silence pervaded the air. Nathaniel squeezed his eyes shut, imagining what could and may be, but he couldn’t delude himself. None of them could.

Jeremy would be their only hope.

.

Days passed in bitter flurries. The threat of another blizzard hung uncertain, but they couldn’t risk another lost day. Every hour away from Court was another hour the Ravens might learn of the Foxes’ weakness. They could dally no further.

Life narrowed into two precise images: 

Running. Running over embankments; running along streams. Explosions of flurries that stung Nathaniel’s face until he felt nothing but serrated knives upon his skin. The steady one-two pound of the Foxes’ feet echoed his heartbeat, his very breath. On they ran.

Resting. Resting in caves; resting on banks. Food dwindled from Abby’s pack despite Nathaniel’s best efforts. Prey ran scarce. The only comfort they shared was that sometimes they were too cold to feel hungry. It wasn’t much of a comfort at all.

And then, finally, Nathaniel began to notice.

“Something’s wrong.”

Kevin lifted his muzzle from the stream. Andrew eyed Nathaniel from his meal. 

What is it? Kevin asked, hesitant.

“The animals,” Nathaniel murmured. He reached out; he heard. “They’re..”

Off. He had no way to describe what he heard—the way the birds sang different songs, the way the wind rushed differently. Rabbits bound their way through snow, but every footstep was off, somehow. Uneven from what he knew.

The forest is different, he thought, and knew it to be true. “How far are we?”

Nearing. Kevin gave up drinking to watch Nathaniel instead. It’s hard to say. But you feel it, don’t you?

The wood’s all twisted, Andrew remarked. We are intruders on unfamiliar territory.

“I’ve never heard animals like this,” Nathaniel admitted. “They all speak the same tongue to me, but the way they lilt and sing is weird. It’s like an accent.”

Do they have the accent, or do we?

Who’s to say? Kevin sniffed. I’d like to think we Foxes speak it right, however.

Nathaniel rolled his eyes. “What’s it matter? You can't understand each other anyway.” Kevin merely sighed.

Andrew was right, however. The longer they ran, the stranger the forest became. Birds Nathaniel had never seen flit above them when the snow abated. The land began to noticeably climb; the earth, when visible, scattered with stones. Even the air was different—lighter.

And then, the trees.

“What’s that smell?” Nathaniel lifted his head. The cold had all but destroyed his sense of smell, but something was beginning to tickle his sinuses. Something almost like.. cinnamon? “It smells spicy.” 

The bark, perhaps.

“The bark?”

Andrew lashed out with one paw. The tree they’d rest beneath shuddered, scattering flakes, but where his claws sunk had been wiped clean. The bark underneath gleamed rich and dark, almost scarlet. It smelled unmistakably sharp.

Redwood, he remarked. So Aaron’s little books didn’t lie after all.

We must be getting close. Kevin’s eyes trailed to the sky. And not a moment too soon. The sky is darkening again.

“Then we continue.”

.

The final sign was almost unnoticeable: an unfrozen riverbed, wider than any they’d seen since leaving Court. Water rushed deep over mossy stones, spraying bitter mist that stung Nathaniel’s eyelashes and wet his lips. Kevin shivered beneath him.

It reeks, Andrew growled, shaking his coat. Those cats piss more than a stray dog. 

Mind yourself, Kevin snapped back at him. 

Nathaniel closed his eyes. The river deafened the forest’s low murmur, but another sound had begun to rise with every step. Something unnameable; something large. 

A thousand voices—a thousand bird calls. Every prey, no matter how small, sung the same tune in a single unending chord.

They’re coming.

His heart lurched. “Stop,” he said. “Wait—”

The forest’s chord snapped to silence.

Shadows rose around them.

Andrew snarled and lunged in front. The shadows soundlessly bled closer, ink spilling to a singular point. Nathaniel held his breath.

Nobody moved.

State Your Purpose, the forest whispered. Who Are You?

Nathaniel twitched. He leaned forward, breathing into Kevin’s ear. “Let me go.”

Andrew visibly tensed. The air, thin as it was, stretched thinner. The figures came no closer, but their growls were now audible: low, raspy, a hum edged in dangerous promise.

“Kevin,” Nathaniel whispered.

Slowly, Kevin crouched towards the earth. Nathaniel lifted one leg, desperately quelling his sudden tremble, and slid to the ground. Ice bit through his gloves.

Who Are You?

He crawled forward. Andrew growled as he shuffled past. Nathaniel didn’t dare rise from hands and knees, eyes searching through the underbrush. He stopped several feet in front, half-buried in a drift, and lifted his gaze to the shadows.

He opened his mouth.

The way of shifter tongues was unknowable. To hear them, all Nathaniel had to do was listen. It was a simple matter; it was as easy as opening his ears.

But to speak—to wrap his tongue around impossibility and whisper syllables of a beast—Nathaniel couldn’t sit idly. The shift from Foxtongue to Lionspeak was one consciously made. His thoughts reshuffled; his brain realigned.

“You know me,” he whispered.

Time stretched around them. The river ran its endless course, sputtering and spraying, blind to their plight; the trees rattled and groaned with the wind, cinnamon sting and spice wafting on the breeze. The sky, blooming into a brilliant pastel sunset, bled buttercup yellow and baby blue tendrils across a rose petal horizon.

The inkblot ahead of them shifted—imperceptibly, then faster. Quickly down the slope towards their hunching trio, skating through thick snow. It stopped at the fallen log ahead of them.

Nathaniel exhaled slowly.

He’d wondered for weeks. The thoughts plagued his days as much as his dreams, an ever-present knell that spoke of his ineptitude. He, the last trace of a woman who knew All and Everything, only spoke the tongue of birds and Foxes. 

What did they look like? How did they speak? 

He wondered no longer.

The Lion was beautiful. A terrible beauty, perhaps, but one undeniable. 

Slavering jaws poised to shred. Topaz eyes slit with ink. An entity of liquid gold, its belly snow-white and sleek. Claws as long as Nathaniel’s fingers glint against the fading light, sinking inches deep into the wood.

 Nathaniel’s heart raced. His throat squeezed tight, but he couldn’t show fear. He lifted his head and met its gaze squarely. His lips opened, speaking words he somehow knew and some way formed. 

“Take us to the lake.”