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Ethan swerved, just missing the river's edge, and leaped uphill. If he pushed, he could reach the mountain, and if he reached the mountain, he could get to the cliff. It was better that he jump into forever than be captured, because these wolves wouldn't simply kill him, they would tear him apart, over and over again. He couldn't live through that hell a second time. Once--years ago--had almost destroyed him and had certainly destroyed what was human in him.
So he ran as cougar and ignored his body's rapidly draining reserves--it was the end of winter and he was racing towards oblivion.
The werewolves' sudden appearance had initially confounded him. He'd been alone for so long that when he came upon the pack, or more accurately they came upon him, he froze. Only for a moment, but that time of pure astonishment had been crucial in terms of the hunt--and that's what this was. They were attempting to bring him down. By his count, six wolves were chasing him, and they were close, too close.
Unlike hounds that bayed the few times they'd tried unsuccessfully to tree him, the wolves were silent, steady and very, very large. Why these shifters were after him, Ethan couldn't fathom. He'd been careful not to attract their interest. Though he knew, at least at an intellectual level, that not all wolf packs were sadistic, he'd been wolf-shy forever. His past had taught him to avoid them at all costs.
The winter had been long and harsh, and he wasn't as strong as he needed to be. For one thing, he'd lost too much weight and his skin hung loose around him. Nevertheless, his paws were large, larger than a wolf's, and he should have been able to outrun them on this snow. But hewas one and they were many, enough they could switch off on the hunt, take turns being fresh.
They had planned this.
His muscles bunched, straining, propelling him forward despite his fatigue. The snow's crust sometimes broke beneath him, making him stumble before he pushed on. The key was not to panic, to remain determined. He reminded himself that this snow would break under his pursuers' paws too, and with greater frequency. And yet, the wolves were gaining.
Ten more minutes max. He could make it to the cliff. Despite his body's protest, he ran, and ran hard, barely slowing down. As long as he didn't collapse, he would get clear.
The wolf shot out of nowhere, dark against the white snow, racing towards Ethan at an angle. As if he knew of Ethan's plan and was determined to cut off his escape route. Ethan's confidence took a hit and it was hard not to falter.
He forced himself to aim straight for the predator. The large werewolf was male and as Ethan approached, the wolf eased up his pace and turned, apparently bracing himself for Ethan. Foolish thing, or was this one a sacrifice? For, one on one, a cougar, even a malnourished cougar, would best a wolf and kill it easily. Didn't matter. Ethan refused to go down that road. If he stopped to harm one wolf, the pack would be on him, attacking, and would forever claim their right to do it again and again.
At the last possible moment, Ethan leaped and he caught an expression of surprise on the wolf's face before he was past it, flying through the air.
As he landed, the snow's hard crust cut the pads of his front paws, but he welcomed the pain, let it spur him onwards as his hind legs pushed off the snow and moved him forward.
Unlike Ethan, the wolf was fresh. Ethan didn't think he could keep up this new, faster pace. Though he tried, he tried, marshaling the last of his energy. Yet he heard the wolf panting, the snow breaking as the wolf closed in.
He could turn, Ethan thought. He could turn and slice the wolf open, gut him with his claws. A pack of wolves he couldn't outfight, but this one he could kill.
No. Instead he ran harder, fighting to race ahead. The cliff. It was not that far.
Pain speared his right flank. It wasn't the jagged tear of teeth, but a sharp, clean puncture. No wolf was on him, so he ignored the sensation of having been shot and bunched his hind legs to push harder.
The effort failed and he stumbled, his right leg going numb and not responding to his body's commands. Up, get up. Ethan summoned all his will to push forward, and fell.
The wolf approached and Ethan, snarling, lunged to keep the predator at bay. The lunge was pathetic, with his hind legs giving out, and Ethan collapsed onto the snow. His body had betrayed him while a wolf stood watching, eyes brown, fur black.
It was like before. Years ago, the wolves had liked to watch him when he was down.
Ethan felt sick. It would happen again. They'd ripped him open a few times, waited for him to heal, and repeated their not-quite-lethal attacks. A terrible sort of play. A punishment. But for what this time? He hadn't consorted with one of theirs or attacked anyone. Revenge couldn't be a motive. Perhaps they simply wanted to toy with him.
They'd drugged him, he recognized, a dart in his right flank immobilizing him. So this episode was different. As was the dark wolf's somber appearance and his strange, unhappy whine. Last time, the wolves would have laughed at his helplessness by now.
They were wolves with different weapons and perhaps a changed agenda. One he couldn't guess at and one he feared. Ethan had never returned to his human form after the terror. He didn't know how long it had been since he'd become feral and didn't want to know. The point was, the point to cling to--he refused to turn human. His human was weak and would reach for solace, for companionship, for contact. Ethan simply could not afford it, or survive it.
He should close his eyes, shut out the dark wolf, but the anger in him wouldn't let go of that brown gaze, would not look away, even though he could no longer hold up his head.
The wolf whined again, as if in greeting. Lila used to whine, Ethan remembered rather hopelessly, though he'd spent so many years trying not to think about her. The wolf came closer, approaching Ethan's neck, and he braced himself for the attack.
The wolf nuzzled Ethan. Lightly.
What the fuck?
"Get back, Bram." The voice came out of nowhere, a warning, and the wolf obeyed by retreating a few steps.
Bram. Ethan remembered that name. His cat remembered all the names. Not a different pack then, though Bram had been a youngster last time. So the same pack had somehow tracked Ethan down. But why? He'd have felt sickened if the drug hadn't taken hold, allowing him to float in a painless, cloudless space full of only curiosity and anger--and even those emotions were becoming distant. Panic was completely at bay.
Bram stood between Ethan and the second wolf, and growled. Under other circumstances, Ethan would have felt like Bram was protecting him, which didn't make sense. Evidently, the drug was confusing him.
"Jesus, Bram, I could wring your neck." That gravelly voice sounded angry and alpha-ish. Somewhere deep inside himself, Ethan cringed. "What the hell were you thinking going one-on-one with a feral cat? He could have sliced you open. He's done it before."
Despite his best efforts, Ethan's eyelids drifted shut. He didn't entirely lose consciousness, but he wasn't aware of time passing. He kept his focus on himself, on his cat. He was only cat, not human. No shifting, not ever again. He had to keep a stranglehold on his ability to shift so he didn't give in to his weaker side.
"This was a hunt, Doug." A new, reproachful voice jerked Ethan back to the present. The words were spoken low, uncertain, and someone stood very near Ethan.
"What the hell else could it be after he ran from us?" the one named Doug answered. "It took me three shots to bring him down. This cat was fast, twisting and turning like a mad thing. I missed twice."
There was a long silence, and if Ethan had had the energy, he would have lifted his head to see the two shifter humans. But he could only listen.
"Bram, look at me," Doug demanded.
"Sorry." Sorry for what? Ethan didn't know. He only knew that brown-eyed Bram-the-dark-wolf was no longer a wolf. He must have shifted to human while Ethan had drifted along in his drug-induced haze. God knew how long they'd been here.
But why turn from wolf to human? And why didn't they attack? What were they waiting for? For him to shift too? The worst thing was that they called to him, these shifters, standing nearby in their human forms. They called to Ethan the human, and he was scared he wouldn't be able to resist the pull.
"Get the fuck back." Doug spoke again, still annoyed. "You're not even wolf and he's still cougar."
Ethan would stay cougar. He was not going to change for them. As if from far away, he heard himself snarling.
"Bram," Doug warned. "If you can't act responsibly, I will not keep you on this job."
"He's down." Bram's voice filled with resentment. "And I know how to take care of myself."
"Right." The older man didn't believe Bram. Why not? Ethan muzzily tried to figure out what they were arguing about. He was losing track of the conversation. Another needle poked his flank and he barely felt the puncture.
Time passed, but Ethan grimly and determinedly remained cat.
Words came back into focus.
"Jesus, we've been here close to an hour. Shift already." The gloved hand of the alpha came down on Ethan's face, and despite his desire not to show weakness, he flinched. A thumb raised his eyelid and the blue eyes of his worst nightmares looked into his. "Okay, Bram, he needs encouragement and clearly he's harmless now, close to senseless. Get over here and touch him, coax him." The alpha spoke directly to Ethan for the first time. "Shift, buddy. It'll go easier on you if you do."
This asshole was no buddy of his, but all Ethan could let out was a soft, pathetic hiss. He began to tremble. His human so long suppressed was struggling to change, to shift, to be with these humans. To talk.
Couldn't go there, could not go there. Not with fucking wolves.
They knew of his struggle to stay cougar, but showed no mercy. A bare hand ran through his fur. Not a pat, but an awful caress that went down the length of his spine. They were playing with him, tempting him, and the human in him didn't know or didn't care. The human thought they were asking for his company, offering friendship. The human was an idiot who yearned for companionship.
His cat, on the other hand, was a solitary animal who needed no one and nothing, but food and sleep. His cat was much stronger. Usually. At this moment, his human craved contact and Ethan could not fight it down. Between the drugs and that shifter hand--fingers drifting through his fur, over his shoulders and back--he became terribly, fatally weak. Tremors rippled through him.
"Let it go, Ethan." A bare murmur, as if in comfort. Bram's voice was a lure and a betrayal. A false source of comfort.
Ethan refused to let it go. He fought hard to stay what he was, focusing on his cat, fighting down his human while those beguiling fingers softly stroked his exposed neck. Despite his best efforts, the blackness took him.
Ethan lay on his back.
He never lay on his back. It was too narrow, the cougar's back, and much more comfortable to lie on his side. He attempted to roll over and his body resisted. Odd. His shoulders were too broad, his legs wrongly shaped, his tail ... gone.
Panic. He pulled in air and scrabbled, trying to sit up. He couldn't see, couldn't move limbs properly. A noise came from his throat, and it sounded all wrong--human. God no.
Something pushed at him to rise. A hand. Hands. Someone behind him. Human-shaped. Arms surrounded him, clamped down on his wrists, wrapping his own arms around him like a human straightjacket. A chest pressed against his back.
Made no fucking sense. Prepare for attack. Cat ... Think! Air pulled in again. Breathe, Ethan.
"Easy." A murmur.
Ethan bolted. No. Tried to bolt, but couldn't move, could only shake. He wasn't paralyzed, but confined. The clasp became a vise, and legs pressed down on his own while arms tightened around his. Someone enveloped him. How? Why?
He heard a keening noise and came to recognize that his own throat was making it.
"You're all right, but you need to calm down."
The voice spurred Ethan to fight harder, and he strained against the muscles and bones that held him. He was strong, even in human form, but not more powerful than this cage of arms, legs, back. He needed to shift. Cat. Cat. He needed to think to shift.
"Don't fight. No one is going to hurt you." The timbre of the voice gave his captor away, as did the strength that held him.
Wolf. Ethan was entrapped by a wolf. The thought tore at him and his heart banged harder, threatening. Everything threatened. His world started to turn gray and he battled to hold on. God knew what they'd do to him once he passed out.
"Easy." It was an effort for the stranger to hold him. The wolf actually nuzzled the side of Ethan's neck, a classic wolf-calming technique, but it worked on wolves, not him. Ethan would have tried to crack his captor's head, but he was shaking too hard and he was held too tight. Ethan had lost control. Weak, lost.
"Ethan." A soothing voice, deceptive, and yet some of Ethan's energy leached away. Human curiosity rose within him, tentative but building despite the terror. Fucking human. It coaxed Ethan to not want to fight. It created this terrible longing within him.
It made Ethan recognize that the wolf knew his name. And ask the question, How?
Cat. Ethan needed to shift so he could fight. His cat could outfight any wolf. His stupid human would want to make friends. Jesus.
Breathe for a moment, Ethan. Get yourself together and you can shift, wolf or no wolf.
His shuddering breaths went in and out. God, he couldn't find it in him to shift. Why not? Where was his cat? It was as if this human contact--no matter that the male was really a wolf--suppressed Ethan's cat. Instead his human wanted to ask questions.
The stranger eased his hold slightly. Not enough that Ethan could do anything, just to make him more comfortable.
He had never been held like this, and it felt unsafe. He shouldn't try to speak, but his human ignored that warning.
"I can't see," he managed though a long-disused throat. It hurt a little to talk.
"Open your eyes."
His eyelids flew open and light struck, blinding him with brightness. He cringed.
"Can you turn down the lamp, please?" The polite request wasn't directed at Ethan.
Talking to who? There was another person in the room. Of course, Ethan had heard the breathing but hadn't registered that second presence yet. Panic hit Ethan again, and the wolf increased pressure on arms and legs, an overwhelming embrace. He didn't want this, but with wolves it sure as hell was not about Ethan's wants.
"Ethan." More urgent this time. "You're safe here, but you need to calm down."
"Can't. Can't." Fool to admit it, but oh God, there were two wolves, and they were going to rip him open. One would hold him and the other, the blue-eyed one, would bleed him out. The helplessness of it all hurt. He'd spent years avoiding exactly this.
"No one's going to hurt you." Why did the wolf say that? Was it a new game? Ethan couldn't make sense of the situation, especially when his captor rubbed his face against Ethan's neck, making him shudder in confusion. "You're not thinking clearly. You've been cat too long, okay? It takes some time to think as a human again. But it will come."
Never mind the human. Cat. But Ethan couldn't find his other self. His cougar was lost somewhere deep within, fighting to get out, but too far below the human surface to succeed. The internal fight sapped Ethan's will and the gray came again, a wave he couldn't stave off.