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Wilmore Wilderness Park, Alberta, Canada
Michaela Proud succeeded in screaming herself awake from her nightmare. She lay in the predawn gloom, bathed in sweat and trembling. The clock beside her on the nightstand ticked like a tiny heartbeat—5:00 a.m.
She was not brave enough to close her eyes again so she swept back the covers and pressed her feet to the cold reality of the drafty floor, safe for the moment.
Michaela rose from her narrow single bed, her ears buzzing with fatigue, and slid into her jeans and a pink lace camisole, before heading downstairs. In the kitchen she flicked on the single overhead light and gripped the worn Formica counter before the sink, leaning forward to stare at her reflection in the dark window beyond. The tiny purple scar at her hairline seemed a trifle. It was hard to believe this was the only visible reminder of the accident that had nearly killed her. The doctors said she was lucky. Michaela saw the beads of sweat on her brow. She didn't feel lucky.
Michaela traced the irregular mark with the tip of her index finger, holding it somehow responsible for her situation. She had never had such dreams before the crash. Now they grew worse each night until she feared she was losing her mind. The doctors prescribed pills, but she'd stopped taking them because under their influence she could not wake and escape the terrible shadow-thing that stalked her dreams.
Something moved behind her. She shifted her eyes, recognizing the spectral figure from her dream. A centipede of terror wiggled up her neck as her heart exploded into wild pounding.
The rasping rattle of breath sounded in her ears, the words barely audible.
There was nothing before her but the empty kitchen illuminated by the harsh overhead light she'd turned on.
She exhaled in relief and embarrassment, sagging back against the counter. For just a moment she had feared she was dreaming or that the creature had crossed to her waking reality. That thought brought her spinning back to look in the glass.
"Get a grip," she muttered.
The tapping on the window caused her to cry out as she staggered back. The rhythmic tap came again. Recognizing the sound now, she pressed a hand on her chest in a vain effort to slow her racing heart and, with the other hand, flipped off the light. The world beyond her window appeared, revealing the little chickadee her mother had dubbed Cheeky, for his audacity. There he stood on the windowsill, cocking his head from side to side as he hopped. Cheeky was the feeder-alert system, notifying her mother when it ran empty.
Michaela laughed in relief.
"All right, my friend, message delivered."
She tugged on her boots, knotting the laces, slipped into the long-sleeved denim shirt hanging by the door, and then gathered a canister of sunflower seeds before heading out. She grabbed the footstool as she passed through the shed and marched across the empty yard toward the bird feeder.
The mist swallowed her feet. She inhaled the cool air, feeling suddenly calmer here under the gray sky. Her hand still trembled as she crossed the misty yard, but her heart returned to a steady rhythm.
If only there was some way to fight it. But how does one battle a thing that exists only in the shadows of the mind?
Was this the hallucination Dr. Kent had warned about? The possibility worried her, but what sent an icy shiver down her spine was the chance that the thing was not a hallucination. Her gaze darted around the yard.
The mist made the familiar trees seem sinister. Was it here? The silence impelled her to hurry toward the squirrel-proof contraption listing slightly to the left. The box stood just before the line of spruce that marked the forest's edge. Her mom would never have let it stand there empty like that.
Bits of wet grass stuck to her hiking boots as she completed the journey, carefully set the ladder before the metal pole and climbed up to pour the seed. When she finished, she recapped the feeder.
Before turning back, she recalled a little blueberry patch by the stream, just beyond the line of spruce. A handful would be so delicious in her pancakes.
She left the bag of seed and the stepladder before striding off. The long grass quickly soaked her pant legs as she made her way through the trees, finding the low berry bushes with little difficulty. She paused to look around. Only a few steps from the cabin, but already her new home had disappeared, swallowed up by the greenery and mist. She'd come four months ago to recover and stayed after her mother's death. She felt closer to her here, in this place she loved best. Michaela stooped to collect the firm blueberries still wet with dew, choosing only the ones that released easily from their stems.
Unable to shake the feeling of being watched, Michaela reached for her mother's fetish necklace, pulling it out from its hiding place against her skin. She clutched the carved turquoise bear, embellished with a bit of white feather. Her mother had never taken it off, and now it had passed to Michaela. It was Zuni, not Lakota, but her mother said the Zuni made better carvers, and she was of the Bear Clan so it pleased her to wear it. Bears had healing power, according to her mom, though they hadn't prevented the cancer. She wished that bears also protected dreams, for if ever Michaela needed this sort of protection, it was now.
The first and only warning she received was a huffing sound to her right.
Michaela turned to see a large black bear rise to its hind legs only ten feet from where she stooped. Her scream died in her throat, trapped by the squeezing fingers of terror that now seized her.
The bear huffed again and then sniffed the air, causing the slits at the sides of its nostrils to open and close.
What had her mother said about bears? Maggie had been a Tribal Woman, all wisdom and knowledge, while Michaela's experience with nature usually involved the Discovery Channel and a bag of Oreos.
She scrambled for some useful scrap of advice as her heart pounded like a fist in her chest. Don't get between them and their babies. But there were no babies here. Carry a gun. Too late for that. What else? Don't run— it triggers the chase response. Stand tall. Back away. Make noise.
Michaela dropped the berries and threw her arms up, shouting, "Ya! Ya! Get away, bear!"
That was when she noticed the gleaming yellow eyes—strange, unnatural, familiar eyes that glowed as if lit from within. Recognition rang inside her like a bell, bringing every nerve ending alive with terror.
She stumbled back and scrambled to regain her footing. The bear dropped to all fours and charged.
Michaela screamed as the bear fell upon her, carrying her backward into the tall weeds. It lunged for her throat, but she dodged and its terrible fangs sank into her shoulder. She screamed again, this time in agony, as her attacker reared back, lifting a claw to slash at her. With the weight of the bear momentarily removed from her, Michaela rolled to her stomach, curling to protect herself.
My God, it will kill me.
She clasped hold of the bear amulet and prayed.
Sebastian, son of the Great Spirit Bear, Tob Tob, heard the other bear attack but did not interfere. It was the natural order that predators attack the weak, and this human female was weak, indeed. He sniffed the air, sensed the difference and paused. Even wolverines didn't exude such a stench. There was something unnatural here.
He stood in confusion, sniffing the putrid odor of malice that clung to the attacking bear. Once close enough to see the creature and to note the glowing yellow eyes, his hackles rose. Nagi, the Ruler of all Ghosts, was breaking the laws of nature by taking possession of an animal.
Sebastian prepared to strike.
The ghost was strong, a true Superior Spirit, while Sebastian was only a Halfling, the offspring of a Spirit father and a human mother. He doubted he could succeed against Nagi. But it was his place to fight.
The warning growl that issued from Sebastian was deep and low, but the ghost was too distracted by the kill to take note. It was a mistake that Sebastian would make sure he regretted.
He reared up and roared.
Now the ghost-bear recognized him for what he was—an Inanoka, a shape-shifter who could change from animal to human at will.
What little was left of the black bear tried to cower, but Nagi disregarded the danger and forced him forward. Of course you are not afraid. You can't die. But you are in animal form now, so I can make you suffer.
Sebastian could not best Nagi, but he could best this little bear. Without his host, Nagi had no body with which to fight. The small male had no chance against a fifteen-hundred-pound grizzly.
Sebastian meant to force the specter out of this animal and back into the shadowy place where it belonged. But how to do it without killing the host?
Nagi charged, and Sebastian met his attack with one swipe of his paw, sending his opponent reeling. Again the bear rushed forward and Sebastian clouted him in the head. The creature staggered and swayed for a moment. On the third charge the bears entwined. Sebastian bit into his opponent's neck, feeling the skin give way as his long incisors sliced through muscle on their way to the spine. Just before he broke its neck, the ghost leaped. Sebastian felt the surge of energy and smelled singed fur. His opponent went limp. Sebastian halted and, hearing a submissive whine, released his jaws.
The black bear fell limp to the ground. Where was Nagi?
He turned to find the specter hovering over the woman, who lay half cloaked in mist. Sebastian eyed the thing that most resembled a living shadow, gray as smoke from a forest fire with putrid yellow eyes that reminded him of an infected wound.
Nagi swooped at him. Sebastian braced as Nagi tried to take possession of his body. He succeeded only in penetrating his skin. Instantly, a scalding pain ignited within him, burning his flesh. He roared in agony and writhed upon the grass, clawing at his own hide as smoke rose from his coat. As suddenly as it began, the pain ceased.
Nagi leaped away, leaving the stench of death clinging to Sebastian's hide. The ghost's vaporous body vibrated; smoke billowed from it in all directions.
Sebastian smiled, knowing the ghost had felt every bit of the pain it had caused him. Apparently, it was too much for the great Nagi.
Sebastian transformed into a man in order to speak. Around his shoulders, he wore his golden brown pelt, now like a cape, fastened at his neck by a single bear claw set in turquoise and silver. The hide never left him, though he often changed its appearance, for without it he would remain in human form.
"How dare you come here?" he roared, his voice gravelly from disuse. He had not been a man in many, many years.
"You have no part in this," hissed the yellow-eyed demon. His voice sounded like water thrown on hot rocks. "Leave her."
Leave her? Sebastian glanced at the male bear in confusion and then recalled the woman. She lay beneath the ethereal Nagi, at the foot of a white birch, clutching her shoulder with one hand and a leather cord, which hung around her neck, with the other.
Was this who Nagi had come for?
He stared at her. Damn, he had shifted right in front of her. She rocked back and forth, her eyes pinched shut. Perhaps she had not seen.
He looked at her closely for the first time. She was small and weak, like a child. The creature had seen fit to protect only her feet, encasing them in a sturdy pair of hiking boots. The rest of her body, sheathed in thin denim jeans, an open shirt and a lacy top, did nothing to shield her from attack. Nagi had torn through her outer garments as if they were paper. Now she huddled, whimpering in pain. Her suffering angered him. He did not mind killing for food, but to torture the creature, as Nagi had done, that was cruel.
Why did Nagi want the woman?
He scowled at the ghost. "She is alive and so beyond your dominion."
"No," howled the ghost, his voice whistling like a gale wind.
"You must wait until she dies to take her. Let her be now."
Humans were not Sebastian's concern. Their care fell to Niyan and his Halfling offspring. But this phantom had drawn Sebastian's wrath when he had used an animal as his pawn. He lowered his head, wishing he could sink his teeth into the ghost. Instead, he took a swing at Nagi, but, as expected, his hand passed right through.
Nagi swooped toward the woman. She threw up her hands as if to ward off the specter. But that made no sense. Very few humans could see Spirits, even fewer when awake. The only true Seer he'd ever met had succeeded in cultivating his gift only after years of training. Yet he could swear this woman followed Nagi with her eyes, as it gnashed its long pointed teeth menacingly before her. How was that possible?
Nagi raged on. Without the benefit of a physical body, he could do no more than storm. But the woman obviously did not know this, for she cowered against the tree, lifting a forearm across her eyes.
"Be gone now," Sebastian warned. "Even you cannot violate the laws of nature."
The Spirit howled once more, a high keening cry that made Sebastian's skin crawl. Then he turned on Sebastian and glared.
"I go, for I have already won."
Slowly the phantom dissolved into the mist that clung to the brook, leaving Sebastian puzzling over his words. Bravado, he decided, and turned to the injured bear.
He lay where he had fallen; his head limp upon the ground. The torn skin and the raw, bloody muscle showed a grievous injury, but Sebastian had not had to sever the long cords beside the spine. He regretted that this innocent would live with the scars of this terrible day, but at least he would live. Sebastian knelt and placed his hands upon the wounds, sending healing energy deep into the shredded muscle.
"Mend, my brother, and return to your path."
The bear lifted his head with great care.