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The fear made changing into her animal form easy. Transformed into a grizzly bear, Samantha Proud charged across the frozen lake as if the devil himself was on her tailfor soon he would be. The March wind blew at her back as she hurdled across the Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories.
What have I done? What have I done? The thoughts echoed with the rhythmic strike of the pads of her feet on the frozen ground. Her stomach twisted with fear as she galloped along, her claws tearing the ice. Should she warn her family or protect them by running in the opposite direction?
Home, she thought. It was the only home she had ever known. Miles blurred together and she reached familiar territory, out of breath and dizzy from her exertions. It was Blake who saw her first. Her twin brother was older by only seven minutes, but that was enough to establish him as her elder and she as his little sister, if you could call a nine-hundred-pound bear little.
They had spent a lifetime running and had run too far and too long for him not to understand the meaning of her panicked flight. On sighting her, he bellowed at the top of his lungs and bolted with her to their parents.
Their father, Sebastian, a great healer, bellowed in return and charged out to meet them, arriving in the yard to their cabin just as Blake and Samantha rounded the woodpile. Her mother, a Seer of Souls, was not a Skinwalker and so could not take an animal form. She was last to arrive, appearing from the cabin as she drew on her black down coat over a lavender turtleneck, her long dark hair falling in disarray about her pretty face.
With one look at her children, she broke into a sprint. "What's happened?"
All three of them, her father, brother and herself, shifted to human form with a flash of light and the now-familiar surge of energy that pulsed from her core. An instant later and their great bearskin coats transformed, at their direction, into their preferred attire. Jeans and a red fleece jacket for Blake and jeans and a brown-and-green plaid flannel for her father.
Blake now stood seven feet tall and possessed a heavy musculature, just the same as their father. His straight, shaggy brown hair was lighter than Samantha's and far shorter. They both had golden-brown skin and the high cheekbones of the First Nation, though her eyes were more cinnamon and his deep brown. Blake's square jaw was clamped tight, and his eyes narrowed on her in disapproval. Here was another difference. Blake's face resembled their father's, especially when he scowled like that, while Samantha's heart-shaped face, generous mouth and pointed chin resembled their mother's.
"What did you do?" Blake whispered. He knew where she went and why. His disapproval did not prevent him from guarding her secrets, as always.
"In the Dogrib fishing camp," she puffed, out of breath. "An evil ghost had possession of a child."
Her parents went still and stared at each other in deadly silence. Samantha snatched another breath as her courage fled entirely. Dread settled on her, pressing her down. She needed to tell them the rest. Needed to warn them. Looking at their worried faces, she felt the groundswell of regret. Why couldn't she have done as she was told for once?
"You were in Yellowknife?" Her father's words were more accusation than question. She knew the danger of going where people lived, because where people lived, ghosts could be found.
"I told you not to go," Blake said.
"What good are my gifts if I am not permitted to use them?"
"What good are they if you're dead?" he countered.
She glanced at her parents, shifting uneasily under their silent condemnation.
"I only go there once a year, at the spring equinox. Just to do some healing." As if when she visited made any difference.
"Showing off," said Blake.
Her mother was not so subtle. "Please tell me you did not expel a ghost. That you did not send it for judgment."
How could she leave a child in torment, when she knew how to free him?
Samantha wanted to tell her parents that she was tired of hiding, tired of living on the run. That up until today she had never, ever even seen a possession. But instead, she bowed her head.
Her mother's voice rose an octave. "Did you?"
Her mother's sharp exhale sounded like a hiss, and her father's jaw tightened. They shared a look. Her parents had done nothing but try to protect their children, though lately their protection felt more like a great, frozen cage. All Samantha wanted was to be useful.
"I'm sorry, Mama," she whispered.
Michaela Proud had once been the last Seer of Souls, but with the birth of her twins, she had become the mother of the only other Seers left in the world. The three of them formed the last of the Ghost Clan.
Michaela's knees gave way but Sebastian caught her. Samantha would never forget the shattered, desolate look upon her mother's pale face. It only added to Samantha's terror.
"No," her mother whispered.
"Nagi will know," said her father, voicing what they all knew.
Her heart thudded as she watched her strong, capable mother cling to her father like a child. "What should we do?"
He did not hesitate. "Run."
Michaela shook her head. "But he can track us. Send his ghosts after us."
"Not together. But as we planned. We separate. He can't follow us all."
Samantha stood motionless as she watched the chaos she had wrought. She had destroyed all her parents' efforts to protect them because she could not turn her back on one human child.
"I'm sorry, Mama," she whispered.
Her mother cried as she drew Samantha into her arms. "Oh, my precious girl."
Her father, the great bear and master healer, encircled them both. But Samantha knew even he was not strong enough to defeat Nagi. It was why they never used their gifts and why they had spent her entire lifetime in hiding.
Blake moved closer and her mother snatched him up as well, gripping him in an embrace that was a useless defense against their enemies. At twenty-two, Samantha was well past cowering in her parents' arms, wasn't she?
Her father stepped back.
"We have to divide to the four directions. Quickly. Before he comes."
"No!" cried her mother. Her opposition frightened Samantha almost more than Nagi.
"Mother, he's coming. We have to go," said her father, his voice now low, coaxing. "One to Nicholas, one to Bess. We agreed."
"But Bess? They won't be safe there."
Bess Suncatcher was the raven who flew to the Spirit World. Her power was dark and dangerous. Samantha's heart crashed into her ribs in wild, painful drumming.
"She knew this would happen. She warned us."
"You know what she does! You know who she calls family." Her mother's voice held both fear and anguish.
Samantha held a hand to her throat, trying to draw a breath past the terror.
Her father's voice radiated a calm certainty that did not reassure. "My friends will keep them safe if anyone can."
"Which one?" she asked.
Their father stared at them both and then fixed his gaze on his son. "Blake to Nicholas. He's the oldest and a leader. Blake will bring the Niyanoka to our cause if anyone can."
Her brother nodded, accepting the responsibility as easily as if he had been preparing for it all of his life. Samantha did a double take. Had he? Did everyone know of this escape plan but her?
Realization hit, dropping hard and cold into her stomach. Her parents had discussed this plan, laid out this last desperate measure to protect their children. Blake knew, too. It was clear by his grave expression and complete lack of surprise. They'd told their dependable child and kept it from their reckless one.
Michaela clung to Samantha. "She can go with him."
Where were they sending her that made her mother so frightened? Fear lifted the hairs on Samantha's neck. To Bess Suncatcher. Samantha searched her mind for details of her father's friends whom she'd never met.
"No," said Sebastian. "Two would leave a brighter trail. He'll find them. She goes to Bess. Bess and Cesar will protect her and prepare her. She knows our enemy better than any of us."
"What if you're wrong?"
He smoothed Michaela's hair and gave her a brave smile. "I may be. But the Thunderbirds do not make mistakes. They know the fates of us all. If it is not safe, then they will bring her somewhere else. Remember they brought Nicholas to Jessie?"
"And she nearly killed him!" she cried, then buried her face in her hands and wept.
"It's the last way I know to protect them," he said, his eyes full of sorrow. He reached for his wife, and she threw herself against him. "We have to hurry, Mother, and pray the Thunderbirds leave no trail."
Sebastian took hold of his twins, gripping the outer shoulder of each. "No more hiding. Your mother goes to her people in the east. I go north to rally the Skinwalkers to fight. Blake goes to my friend Nicholas Chien, a wolf and great tracker. His wife, Jessie, is a Spirit Child." He stared at Blake. "They knew this day would come. His wife will help you bring the Niyanoka to join us. Blake, do you remember all I have told you?"
Samantha's suspicions were confirmed at the nod of her brother's head. She felt hollow inside. She wasn't trustworthy. She'd sneaked away to work her healing arts and endangered them all. Blake had a purpose. They all did. All but her.
Her father continued his instructions. "Convince your mother's people to join us by any means."
Blake stood, his body straight and tall, but his dark eyes filled with uncertainty. "I'll try my best, sir."
Their father squeezed Blake's shoulder and then released him. "Succeed. You must." Her father turned to her. "You go to my friend Bess Suncatcher, a raven. Her mate is a Spirit Child, a Soul Whisperer."
Her mother's words echoed in her mind. You know who she calls family.
A Soul Whisperer? Her eyes rounded and a buzzing began in her ears. Her mother had taught her that this was the most cursed of all Niyanoka, unclean for speaking to the dead. Her blood slowed like water turning to ice, but she did not object. How could she when she had brought this Armageddon to them?
"Bess has some dangerous ideas, but none know the Toe Taggers better than she. Find her. Learn what you can. Tell her it has begun and ask her to join me. But be watchful for Toe Taggers. If you see one, run. If you cannot run, kill it before it kills you."
Her eyes rounded and her stomach dropped.
"Do you understand, Sammy?"
She shook her head. What did he ask her to do?
But he was already looking to his wife. Samantha's lip trembled as she held back tears. Her parents had never left them and never felt they could not protect them, until now. Blake and her mother would rally the Niyanoka and her father would bring the Skinwalkers. To what? For what? Samantha began to shake.
Her mother grabbed hold of her husband in a last embrace. Tears choked Samantha so she could not speak. Their auras flared, suddenly visible even in the fading daylight. She knew her parents were true soul mates, with the bond of shared emotions and thoughts. She longed for such a connection.
"What if we're wrong?" Michaela whispered.
Sebastian stroked her glossy hair. "It only works if we split into four. He can't follow four, not all at once. Some of us might.."
His words faded. Samantha's breath caught as she realized what he meant to say. Some of us might escape. Whom would Nagi follow? Which one of them would die? She hoped it was her. She could not bear being responsible for their deaths. Was that her purpose, to lead Nagi from those she loved? Calm crept into her heart like cold crystals of ice, but she was no longer afraid. She would be last to leave. She'd see to that.
Her mother cradled Samantha and kissed her hair. It felt like a final farewell. Samantha lifted her gaze to stare down at her mother, who was average height but not tall enough to meet the eyes of her daughter, now six feet three inches tall. The two embraced and then drew apart.
With her eyes still pinned on Samantha, her mother spoke to her husband. "Call the Whirlwinds and pray they can carry us to safety."
Sebastian lifted his arms to the heavens, chanting a prayer Samantha knew by heart. Dark, menacing clouds swept in from the north. A storm blew, lifting the rocks and sand to pelt them. All four turned their backs to the wind.
The Thunderbirds had long ago taken the Skinwalkers into their hearts. These Thunderbeings had the power to harness electrical energy on earth and stir the winds into storms. For reasons none could recall, the Supernaturals would carry the Skinwalkers in their claws if they deemed the matter grave. Apparently, at some point, the Spirit Children had decided the Supernaturals were a private jet service and were now on the no-fly list. But no Skinwalker ever called a Thunderbeing unless his or her life depended upon it, for all recognized that such an arrangement was not to be abused.
"Look," cried Blake, pointing to the sky.
Samantha craned her neck and thought she saw the great beating wings of a huge eagle sweeping down upon them.
Her mother screamed and pointed. Samantha turned to see the gray billowing smoke of evil, disembodied ghosts surging toward them from the south. Samantha and Blake transformed instantly into their bear forms, standing before their mother as she gasped with one hand over her heart.
"We are found," she cried, her words all but lost in the raging winds.
Samantha stared in horror at the approaching horde: Nagi, his evil ghosts and something hideous. She knew what these must be, felt certainty swallowing her up. They were, for she had heard of them, the living offspring he had sired. Toe Taggers! Nagi's children were pale and brutish, living monsters, all teeth, claws and quills. She covered her face and turned away.
Sebastian howled, releasing the beast within. He could not fight ghosts unless they took corporeal form and, not being a Seer, he could not even spot them. But he could make out the Toe Taggers and Nagi drawing nearer. He stood between his family and attack as he called to the heavens. The dark clouds rolled in, blotting out the stars. The shriek of the wind screamed in Samantha's ears, but she could make him out, there in the south, advancing like death.
Samantha moved to stand beside her father, but he pushed her back with one giant paw, sending her tumbling along the ground. From this vantage she clearly saw himNagi.
The Ruler of Ghosts rose up before them, billowing as black as the smoke from a burning oil rig. He was dark and deadly with yellow cat's eyes, just as her mother had described. He reached for them, claws extending from his undulating body. Samantha forgot how to fight. She forgot every single thing her father had taught her about how to survive. This was her fault. All of it, because she had wanted to try her powers instead of doing as she was told.
Something snatched her up, tearing her from her mother's arms, dragging her from her twin brother, sweeping Samantha into the sky.
She howled her dismay, wanting to be left behind to give her family a chance to escape.
Below her, she saw the Toe Taggers attack her father, falling upon him like a pack of wild dogs.
She screamed as the ice pelted her, as the great claws gripped her, as the mighty wings beat the skies into a whirlwind.