Authors: Toni Boughton
Toni L.H. Boughton
Copyright © 2014 Toni L.H. Boughton
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Ebook formatting by
This is dedicated to my parents, my friends, and my cats.
And always to my mother, who has never wavered in her belief that I would be a writer someday.
She’s the first person to whom I send my chapters as I write them, and bless her, she doesn’t even like zombies.
Table of Contents
One year ago Flux swept over the earth like a wildfire. This strange new virus burned out not buildings but humankind, and then compounded that misery by giving millions of its victims a hideous new un-life. Corpses felled by Flux rose again with an insatiable appetite for flesh. The world was given over to a new predator and the remnants of humanity could only try to survive.
In a hospital in a little suburb of Colorado a woman with no name and no memory found herself trapped in the midst of horrors beyond imagining. She called herself ‘Nowen’ and along with another survivor, a nurse named Jamie, struggled to make it in this harsh new world. Captive in the hospital, Nowen fought for survival - and fought to understand the strange feelings of wild animality that surged through her. Until one day she was attacked by the undead, and shape-shifted to a wolf.
Nowen was lost in her own mind until fate let her free. She found herself in Wyoming, with only one thought on her mind: get back to Jamie. On her journey back to Colorado Nowen fought with both other humans and the wolf that shared her body and mind. When she finally made it back to the hospital in Colorado, what she found there caused her to turn her back on the cities of man and, as the wolf, head back to the mountains of Wyoming.
Only to one day discover that someone knows what she is.
I know what you are.
Nowen held the ragged piece of cardboard in trembling hands and read the black-inked words over and over. Five little words and her life was suddenly turned upside down. Her legs gave out on her and she dropped to the chilly grass of the clearing the wolf had claimed as their den. Overhead the sky was a milky early-morning blue, a gentle breeze blew through the dark-green pines, and handfuls of pink and purple lupines dotted this little patch of prairie.
The charm of summer in Wyoming went unnoticed as Nowen stared blankly at the piece of cardboard. She flipped it over in her hands, looking for anything that might tell her where it came from. Nothing - just bland, unassuming beige and the black words. She traced the letters, as if by doing so she could determine who had written them. She held the cardboard up to her nose and inhaled deeply, using both her human senses and the wolf’s.
Smoke. Cigarette? Grass. Fabric.
Nowen lowered the scrap of cardboard and closed her eyes, turning her thoughts inward.
Who put this here? How did they find me? This means that there are people still alive out there. Or, at least one person is still alive. Are they nearby?
On this startling thought she snapped her eyes open and looked around the clearing. She was still alone, as best she could tell. The weather-beaten tent caught her eye. It was covered in dust and pine needles and had folded in over itself sometime in the past. She had a vague memory of setting the tent up during a light snow, when the grass was still dead and the sky was more often cloudy than not.
How long was I under?
Nowen rose on unsteady legs and staggered over to the dirty tent.
I...set the tent up...to come back to at night. I didn’t want to stay as the wolf always. I didn’t want to forget...forget...
A woman’s face floated before her mind’s eye. Young, with summer-blue eyes and pale blonde hair and an easy, open smile.
That’s...that’s...who is that?!
The name of the woman hung just out of reach. Nowen gritted her teeth as she shook the tent free and directed her anger inward.
The lambent, amber fire of the wolf’s eyes looked back at her placidly.
Damn you, how long was I under?! What month is it? Or hell, what year?
The wolf laid her ears back and growled. Nowen growled back.
You can’t have your way all the time!
In her mind she saw the wolf stand up, lips slicked back from sharp white teeth. A prickling, like thousands of tiny needles, ran through her hands, and Nowen looked down to see bands of dark fur wrapping around her fingers and racing up her arms.
“No!” she shouted, in a voice so harsh and cracked that a crow screamed back in challenge. Nowen clenched her hands into tight fists. She set all her attention on the wolf and forced it back. The midnight-black fur slowly sank back into her light reddish-brown skin. “We are not! Doing! This! Again!” she said.
The wolf whined, sorrow evident in the sound.
That won’t work on me.
-began to flip through Nowen’s mind. Racing across the prairie under the full moon. Wading through snow-cold streams. Dozing in the gentle warmth of the sun. Tearing the throat out of a two-day-old pronghorn fawn, the blood so rich and warm as it coursed over her tongue-
Nowen swallowed a mouthful of saliva, and the wolf grinned.
Enough. I’m in charge.
“I’m in charge.” She said it again, out loud, trying to convince herself. “I need - no, I
to find out who left this note. It could be someone else like me. Like us. And this has to be more important right now.” The wolf seemed to contemplate another attempt at escape, but finally the wild eyes closed.
Nowen sighed and sank down to the ground. The urge to sleep was overwhelming. All the night before the wolf had been hunting, and now the combined weariness of that activity and the fight for control seemed to drag her bones beneath the very earth itself. She spared a moment to consider searching, now, for the intruder. A jaw-cracking yawn convinced her otherwise.
A cool breath of air wrapped around her body and Nowen shivered. She looked in the tent and grabbed one of two backpacks stored there, searching through it and trying to remember the last time she was human. The handful of clothes in the bag were musty but in good condition, and she dragged on a pair of jeans and a heavy brown sweatshirt with the letters ‘UW’ stitched in gold on the front. A further search of both packs turned up more clothes, a couple of boxes of matches, a few cans of soup and chili, a few battered and moisture-swollen paperbacks, and four mice that had chewed through the nylon fabric of a pack and made themselves at home.
Nowen chased the mice away and laid the empty packs in the sun to air out. The tent, a simple affair and cheaply made, was in irreparable shape and not much good as shelter, but once it was doubled over on itself and stretched out on the cool grass it made a passable bed.
With a weary sigh Nowen lay down on her back and studied the sky. Confused thoughts ran through her head and a sensation of being as unmoored as a cloud swept over her, a state of mind she’d felt in the past and was not happy to feel again.
The worry about who had left the note fought for primacy with the worry about how much control the wolf had over her and won, at least temporarily.
Who is it that knows what I am? When will they be back? Damn it,
they be back?
A new thought occurred to her, one so unexpected but also so welcome that goose bumps ran down her arms.
Someone knows what I am. Could they know...who I am?
A curl of excitement unfolded in her stomach, and Nowen found herself split at this idea. When she had first woken in a hospital in Colorado, unknown to herself and anyone else, the mystery of her true identity had been a frustrating puzzle. But finding herself in the midst of a world-wide flu epidemic that was killing millions had pushed that problem back. And then finding that the dead re-animated as mindless killing machines had made her lack of knowledge about herself very unimportant.
In the hectic first months of this desolate new reality survival was of more value than knowing who she really was, and it had become surprisingly easy to not even worry about such an insignificant fact. Then the wolf had come out, and the question of her identity became even stranger.
Nowen rolled onto her side, folding one arm under her head as a pillow.
Even after all this time together she still thought of the wolf as a separate creature. How she shape-shifted, how she had gained this ability, were there others out there like her - these were questions that had no easy answer, and so they fell by the wayside. When the wolf was out, everything human fell by the wayside.
I can’t deny that I like it. There is freedom in living as an animal. You exist in the here-and-now, exulting in the gloriousness of just being alive.
An amber eye half opened in her head.
But I’m not an animal!
Nowen directed this angry thought at both the wolf and herself.
I was a human first. Or at least, I think I was.
She flashed back to a memory, a dark hospital hallway and a dead woman in a chair. A dead woman who had been, for a while, the most important person in the world to her.
Once I thought I could give up my human side. I thought I could walk away from all the unknown parts of myself.
Unexpected, unwanted, the bright excitement unfolded deep inside, deeper than the wolf could go.
I was wrong.
Nowen lay atop a granite boulder, just one of many rock formations that made up this part of the Medicine Bow Forest. She was roughly a quarter-mile away from her den and angled so that she had a wide view of the approach to her location.
The sun was sliding toward the west, although there were still a good couple of hours before twilight. She had spent the day in an uneasy slumber, snapping to wakefulness at every slight noise. As a result she was almost as tired as when she had lain down that morning, and her attitude was foul.
Her stomach rumbled and the wolf growled in response.
I’ll eat something soon, so knock it off.
A flash of movement came from one of the bands of pines that ran lengthwise across the prairie below her perch. Nowen tensed for action, and then relaxed as a lone mule deer bounded out of the sheltering trees and fled across the grassland.
She stiffened as a thought came to her.
What startled the deer?
It couldn’t have been her scent; the air was still and quiet. Smaller predators had been scared away by the presence of the wolf, and in all her time roaming the forest she’d never seen any large predators. She turned her attention back to the stand of pines, going as still as a shadow.
Hardly more than a minute had passed when her wait was rewarded. Someone stepped out from the trees, and she narrowed her eyes and took in his details.
It was a man, broad in the chest and legs but looking to be shorter than she was. His short, white-blonde hair shone in the late-afternoon sun. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Dark glasses obscured his eyes, and she had a momentary, unpleasant flashback to the last time she’d been around strange men who wore sunglasses. The man below her perch carried nothing with him, but did have a jacket of some sort tied around his waist.
She watched him in quiet silence as he moved across the prairie floor in the direction of her den. He seemed to be alone, and as she studied him she felt a little disgust at the wolf. The strange man walked right down the middle of the prairie floor, taking no precautions against being sighted.
Look at him - ignorant as a newborn calf. How did this human get so close to our den? You’ve gotten complacent.