Eventide of the Bear

By: Cherise Sinclair

And she made no sound at all.

Chapter One

North Cascades Territory – dark of the moon

Bright stars filled the black sky, unchallenged by any rival light, because tonight was dark of the moon.

The dank forest air was pungent with the fir and pine needles underfoot. The rain-slick mud on the trail clogged irritatingly in Emma’s paws. Her fur was matted, her nose wet. She gave a grumbling cough, and her ears flickered when a rabbit darted away. Too fast for her, unfortunately. Besides, her stomach was fairly full. The stream was full of trout, and fishing was one of her finer skills.

Still… She clouted a rotting log and nosed out the scuttling inhabitants beneath. Mostly grubs. A few crunchy beetles. Only a fool turned down a light dessert. And she was no fool.

Well, not about food.

She stopped to listen to the humans in a wilderness campground. Their laughter and chatter rang through the trees, filling her heart with delight. Not her people, but oh, the sound of them was so wonderful. They, too, had been successful at the stream, and the chill mountain air carried the scent of fried fish.

Her mouth watered. Cooked food. Her bear form preferred raw, but she remembered how good prepared food had tasted. These days, she rarely bothered.

Reluctantly leaving behind the campground, Emma ambled toward her den in an uprooted tree hollow and thought wistfully of the cave in which she’d holed up last winter. Very few bear shifters ever hibernated, but she’d needed to escape the loneliness of the long, long nights. When spring finally arrived, she’d resumed wandering through the mountain range.

Daonain often died after being banished. Now, she understood why. If she hadn’t been used to being lonely all her life, she’d have given up her first winter.

How many times had she despaired over the last three years?

She missed voices the most… Children’s giggles. The gardener’s low grumble at finding a weed. The maid’s humming as she dusted. Emma could survive without hot showers and cooked food, and books. She could sing to the pixies and tell stories to the undines in the streams, but she longed for voices the way a flower fairy craved rose blooms.

Human campgrounds lured her close far too often.

A foul stench on the wind made her paw at her affronted nose. By the Hunter, it smelled like a rotting carcass covered in moldering oranges. The fur on her back rose.

Overhead, a pixie chittered and disappeared into its hole.

Emma increased her gait to put distance between herself and…whatever that was.

A scream came from behind her. Another. Then shrieks of pain and shouting filled the air. An animal snarled. A man bellowed. Something was attacking the campground. The humans.

Emma hesitated and kept going. A bear couldn’t help them. And Daonain Law forbade any action that might reveal the shifters’ existence to humankind.

“Mommy! Daddeeee!”

The high-pitched shriek of a child turned Emma as if a leash was around her neck. Abandoning the path, she galloped straight through the underbrush and broke into a forest clearing.

A fire in a stone pit cast flickering, red light across a nightmare. Two human men lay on the ground, one gutted. The stench of blood and bowels hung in the air, recalling the hideous night from three years past. Her stomach twisted.

Three women and two children huddled on the far side, their men trying to protect them from a…a creature.

Grizzly-sized, but rendered almost prehistoric with bony, spiked plates. Its head was shark-shaped with terrifyingly huge, pointed fangs.

Oh my Goddess, a hellhound.

As terror iced her blood, her courage shattered. She froze. Even the God’s enormous cahirs couldn’t win against a demon-dog. She was just a small bear.

The monster darted forward and seized a man’s shoulder in massive jaws.

“Fuck. No!” Shouting, the human hammered it with his fist.

The blows rained off the creature’s back like snowflakes. After tossing the man aside, it stalked toward the women. The children.

No, not the cubs.

The humans were losing. Couldn’t protect them. Move, bear. She had nothing to lose. Not really. She could save the children.

Jolted out of paralysis, Emma charged the hellhound. She swung her paw, wide and heavy, expecting her thick claws to rip hunks from its flesh.

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