Chapter 22:

Chapter Twenty Two


AUTHOR'S NOTE: if you get tired of waiting for new chapters, the entire book is for sale on Amazon in print and on Kindle!

Chapter Twenty Two

The air around the nest was frigid. With every step they took, the temperature seemed to drop another degree. Zave and Fey were standing at the edge of the small clearing. There was frost coating the trees, and their breath formed little clouds in front of their faces.

Zave shivered, not from the cold, and braced himself for what he knew would happen next.

“Glenn!” Fey yelled. Zave had managed to cure her bleeding by feeding her a dozen pinecones he’d found lying around, but she’d still had to lean on him the whole trip back. Now, though, she pushed herself away from Zave and limped to her former alpha.

The sight of Glenn made Zave’s stomach turn over. Both of his antlers had been ripped out of his head, just like Fey’s horn, and they hadn’t grown back. His arms were splayed, and his antlers had been rammed through the palms of both his hands, effectively crucifying him to a pair of trees that bordered the nest. He hung there, alive but defeated, as if all the fighting spirit had been sucked out of him.

“Derrick,” he whispered, eyes shut.

As horrendous as the sight was, it couldn’t hold Zave’s attention for long. He lowered his eyes to the ground just outside of the cave, already knowing—and dreading—what he would see there.

Clueless lay face down in the dirt, large splotches of blood staining the golden fur all over her body. Zave gritted his teeth. How many times had he watched these events play out in the fire? Each time, she had still been alive—at least for the moment. But seeing her like that, unmoving, he found himself terrified that the visions had been wrong. They had been right about everything else so far, but he’d only had this inexplicable power for a couple of days. He understood practically nothing about them. What if, this one time, they had been wrong and Clueless was…

Clueless suddenly raised her head, gasping for breath. Zave sighed in relief.

“Oh God,” Fey moaned as she inspected Glenn’s wounds. “What happened? Who did this to you?”

“Why, I did, of course.”

The sound of metal scraping stone came from the cave, and everyone spun to look. A figure began to take shape. Short and squat…no, he was just sitting in a wheelchair. The man was ancient, and looked like he had gone through half the mummification process while still alive. Only a few lifeless wisps of white hair clung to his scalp, hanging limply down to his shoulders.

He gave them a kind, almost grandfatherly smile. “Hello there, children. Lovely of you to drop by. As satisfying a main course as it was, I am still feeling a bit peckish.”

“What do you mean?” Fey demanded, taking a step toward him. “What do you mean by that?”

The old man smiled at her too, and then picked up something that had been sitting in his lap. Zave hadn’t been able to make it out in the darkness, but now that the old man held it up to the moonlight, he recognized it with a sickening lurch. It was a hand. Covered in light brown fur, blood still dripped from its wrist. The old man brought it to his mouth and took a bite out of it, chewing with obvious relish.

Fey’s mouth fell open in horror. “You…You didn’t…not Derrick!”

“Was that his name?” the old man asked casually. He dabbed a spot of blood off his cheek. “I quite enjoyed him. My compliments to the chef.”

His eyes glittered mischievously, as if he had just told a particularly witty joke. Glenn raised his head to glare at him. The strength went out of him the moment his eyes fell on the severed hand, though, and he slumped down again.

“The other two,” he went on, “twins I believe? Their meat was tender, but they weren’t old enough to have developed any worthwhile…flavor.”

“You’re a monster!” Fey whispered in disbelief.

The old man smiled pleasantly at her again, as if this were nothing more than pleasant dinnertime conversation. “Yes, my dear, I am.”

“Fey, grab Clueless and get behind me,” Zave ordered her.

She looked at him incredulously. “What are you—”

“Just do it!” he snapped. “If you want to survive this, you need to do everything I say!”

She blinked, too stunned to argue. Then, after a moment’s consideration, she hesitantly stepped forward to help Clueless of the ground. Then, both of them looking like they could barely stand, Fey led her into the woods so that Zave was between them and the old man. Taking a deep breath, Zave stepped forward to confront him.

“That was very brave of you,” said the old man. “Taking the lead, protecting the women. That kind of chivalry is quite rare these days, isn’t it? But I’m afraid none of you are going to survive the night.”

“Who are you?” Zave asked.

“You’re in my home, young man. Manners dictate that you introduce yourself first.”

“Your home?” Fey demanded. “This is our nest!”

The old man eyed Derrick’s hand and took another bite. “Not anymore.”

“I’m Xavier Thendred,” Zave said, holding up a hand to quiet Fey. To his own surprise, she obeyed. “Now answer my question.”

The old man eyed him slyly. “I’ve been known by several names. Which would you prefer that I give you?”

“You’re real one.”

“Very well.” He grinned. “Two hundred years ago, I was called Jacob Donner. You may have heard of me.”

“From the Donner Party,” Zave replied. If he was surprised, he didn’t show it. “Why are you here?”

Jacob held up the disembodied hand, as if that answered everything. Unfortunately, Zave thought with a squirm, it probably did.

“I…” Zave took a deep breath. “I’m going to make a deal with you. If you agree, you have to leave Fey and the rest of her pack alone.”

Jacob Donner cocked his head. “Oh? And what could you possibly think to offer me in exchange?”

This was it. The moment he had been dreading all along. Once these words left his mouth, there would be no going back. It would be like the smiling man said: he could save Clueless’ life, and those of Fey’s pack, but only if he gave up his in exchange. He looked over his shoulder. Far in the distance, the sun was beginning to rise. And in its warm light, he saw Clueless. His heart hardened.

She was worth this.

He turned to face Jacob. “You can have me.”

Jacob laughed, his voice booming through the woods despite his frail body.

“My dear boy,” he said, smiling, “I already have you!”

Zave shook his head. “Maybe, but you don’t know what you have.”

“Zave, what are you doing?” Fey asked.

“What has to be done,” Zave answered without looking at her.

“You don’t have to make a deal with him. Look at him! He’s more fragile than a dry stick! We can just—”

“This is the only way,” Zave cut her off. “I’ve seen it. Anyone who tries to fight him…”

He looked at Glenn.

Jacob Donner was looking at him curiously now. “Who are you, boy? Who are you really?”

“I…I don’t know,” Zave admitted. His eyes grew wide, haunted. “I thought I did, but now I don’t know anything.”

“And what makes you think that you are worth an entire pack of skinwalkers?”

Zave swallowed. “Ask me how I found this place.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “Very well. How?”

Slowly, Zave reached into his pocket and pulled out Fey’s cigarette lighter. He gave it a flick, and a tiny flame sprang into existence.

“The fire told me,” he whispered.

Jacob went rigid. A freezing gust of wind blew through the nest, putting out the flame.

“You mean to tell me,” he said, his voice unbelieving, “that you can see what’s inside the fire?”

Zave hesitated, then nodded.

The old man transformed in a matter of seconds, becoming another one of the monsters that had been plaguing them for the past few days. Only, where the others had fur that was brown and gray, like a deer or a wolf’s, Donner’s was as black as a moonless night. He stood a whole foot taller than any of the others Zave had encountered, and there was a sort of…aura…of power surrounding him. Tossing aside Derrick’s hand, he rose to his feet and reached out to grab Zave by the neck.

“Zave!” Clueless exclaimed as he was raised off the ground.

“Fey!” he croaked. “Keep her back!”

The beast that was Jacob Donner held him at face level, staring deep into his eyes. For a long, terrifying minute, nobody moved. Then the sun began to reflect in Jacob’s black eyes, and in that light images began to form. He saw Jacob set him down, take a step back, and—

“It is you!” Jacob whispered in awe. He set Zave down and took a step back in shock. “After two centuries of searching, I’ve finally found you!”

Zave gritted his teeth, trying not to show his fear—or how much it bothered him that this thing apparently knew more about him than he knew himself.

Jacob closed his eyes in thought, and Fey took a step forward, obviously intending to attack while he wasn’t looking. Zave held out his arm to stop her, though, and once again she obeyed.

“Very well,” Jacob said at last, opening his eyes. “I accept your offer. I’ll take you in exchange for leaving this pack unharmed.”

A little late for that, Zave thought with a shiver, but I’ll take what I can get.

He stepped forward, dreading what would come next. Would Jacob eat him here and now, or whisk him away to whatever dark hole he considered his lair first? He could have seen for himself at any opportunity, but he had never been able to bring himself to watch his own death.

“Not yet,” Jacob said with a shake of his fanged, deerlike head. “You’re not ready. You need to cook for a while longer to bring out the proper flavor.

Zave blinked. “What? But then why—”

Jacob pointed into the distance. “Go. Live your life, for now. I’ll keep my promise and leave this pack untouched.”

He walked backwards into the cave, having to duck to fit.

“But I’ll be watching you, Xavier. And when you’re fully prepared…when your flavor is at its most potent…I’ll be back to claim my end of the bargain.”

He backed into the cave until all that was visible were his glowing yellow eyes—and then they vanished. The unnatural cold immediately went away, thawing the frost on the trees and ground in a matter of seconds.

Zave fell to his knees. Beyond the trees, the sun finally rose, bathing the dark forest in light. He had done it. He’d saved Clueless and the others. But at what cost? The cost will be higher than you think, the smiling man’s voice echoed in his head. Far higher than you could ever imagine.

“Clueless?” he asked, still staring at the ground. “Fey? Are you all—”

“Norrin, wait! Don’t hurt him!”

Zave looked up to see the massive shape of Fey’s bear-walker friend towering over him.

“Kill him, Norrin,” ordered another voice, this one laced with spite and anger. Zave managed to catch sight of a black and orange fox-walker behind Norrin. “Do it now!”

Norrin raised his hands towards Zave. Zave tried to get to his feet, but he could tell he wouldn’t be fast enough. But then, before Norrin could touch him, a white blur streaked around him and knocked Zave out of the way.

“Neither of you are going to hurt Zave!” Fey yelled, spreading her arms to defend him. “He’s…He’s my friend, and I won’t let you put a hand on him!”

“Then you’re a traitor!” Ember yelled, pointing an accusing claw at her, then at Glenn. “Look at what he did!”

“Zave not do this!” Clueless protested, running over to stand beside Fey.

“She’s right,” Fey agreed. “The thing that did this? Zave’s the one who drove it away.”

Ember fumed, baring her teeth. “I don’t care! We have laws, Fey, and those laws say that any human who knows that skinwalkers exist have to die!”


Everyone froze and turned to see Glenn, still hanging from his own antlers, looking at them.

“Get me down,” he growled.

Norrin obeyed, walking over and taking one of the antlers in his enormous hand. Zave looked away, but he still heard the squelching sound as the sharp bone was pulled free, and Glenn’s cry of pain. Those sounds came a second time, and he looked up to see Glenn kneeling on the ground.

“Glenn,” Ember exclaimed, scurrying over to him, “we have to—”

“I said, enough!” he yelled. “There’s been too much death tonight already.”

Standing up, with blood spilling freely from his hands, he pointed at Zave.

“You. What is your name?”

Zave glanced at Fey, then back at him. “Uh, Z- Zave. It’s short for—”

“How did you find us?”

Zave hesitated. “The lights showed me.”

“The wendigos are an ancient enemy of the skinwalkers,” Glenn said without batting an eye at the strange suggestion. “One that we thought were gone forever. Will you help us fight them?”

Something stirred inside Zave’s heart. Something about that question felt…right. As if a part of him had been waiting his whole life to be asked that.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then you’re one of us,” Glenn said simply, and brushed past Ember to head for the cave.

“Wh- What?” Ember exclaimed in horror. “A human can’t be one of us!”

Glenn paused just outside the cave’s mouth, and turned to give Zave a long, hard look.

“He’s not human.”

Without another word, he went into the cave. He came back out a moment later, cradling his son’s disembodied hand against his chest. He stood there for a few seconds, trembling, before the strength went out of him.

Then he fell face down on the ground and wept.

Next Chapter: 01/13/2024