Jessica is excited about starting college in the fall, already enrolled at the University of Oregon. Every year for as long as she can remember, she has enjoyed spending a week camping with her father before school started, but this year is special because her best friends are coming with them. She has no way to know they will all be walking into a nightmare straight out of a horror movie.
Eighteen years before, Jessica’s mother died under mysterious circumstances right after giving birth to her. Her dad refuses to speak about it, though his eyes grow haunted every time the subject comes up. All Jessica knows is that it was a violent death. Her answers will come from a stranger, one who knows far more than he should.
Nethaniel is a Lycaeonian from the planet Laizahlia, a wolf shapeshifter. He is taking his first trip off world with his father when he runs across Jessica fly fishing at the lake. Though it shouldn’t be possible, he recognizes her immediately as his fated mate. Unfortunately, Nethaniel’s father has enemies, and three have followed them to Earth, vengeance on their minds. Jessica and her friends are considered little more than collateral damage.
Naijan leaned against the rough bark of a pine tree and took in his unobstructed view of Crater Lake, impressed with the magnificent sight before him. The top of the rim had been an ideal place from which to appreciate its beauty. These rugged mountains of Oregon reminded him a great deal of his home world of Laizahlia. As an assigned tracker for one of the Council’s Hunters, he’d enjoyed visiting this planet many times before. Once, nearly nineteen years ago, Naijan had spent stolen hours with a female from this same area, an extraordinary creature. He wondered if she still lived, and if so, would she remember him?
He laughed. Of course she would. How could she ever forget?
He would try to free up a little time while here, track her down and spend a few hours reminiscing. The idea pleased him.
It took hours to fully recover after being transported from Laizahlia to Earth. With his body in agony, Naijan had decided to hole up in the back country, far away from any accidental meetings with clueless humans. He might have blindly attacked and risked exposing himself to a Hunter from his world. Also, though not likely, it was possible to run into a human with a weapon. Even without the silver bullets of legend, a well-placed shot through the heart or head could still kill him.
Growing bored after the worst of the pain passed, Naijan decided to stroll down to Crater Lake’s lodge. He enjoyed mingling with the tourists there, the mindless human cattle clueless to the predator walking among them. He kept them off guard with his inquisitive questions, always a wide smile in place. It amused him when a few of the more sensitive to his true nature shivered and stepped away. And always he visualized sharp fangs tearing through tender flesh, the spray of warm blood leaving a thick coating in his mouth and throat.
Another shiver of anticipation rippled down his spine. “Soon, my pets,” he whispered, lifting his nose to the soft breeze, testing the warm currents. He craved the scent of their terror even more than the taste of their flesh and blood.
Tired, and slightly out of breath after the steep climb back up the trail, Naijan slid down next to a tree and stretched out his trembling legs. He detested weakness of any kind, but especially so this drain of energy after being transported. He softly snorted, using his palms to knead the heavy muscles of his thighs. The thick braid down the middle of his back caught against the rough bark and pulled against his tender scalp. Snarling, he reached for the tip, slipping free the leather tie. He shook the thick black strands free, sighing with relief as he leaned back against the tree.
A tiny chipmunk released a single high-pitched chirp, distracting Naijan. The rodent sat motionless a few yards to his left, watching him, front paws resting on both sides of its puffy cheeks. “What do you want?” he asked, a tight-lipped smile twitching the corners of his mouth. “I’ve nothing for you to eat.”
On the walk to the lodge earlier, he’d stopped to watch a few humans feed the greedy rodents. A female child noticed him and offered Naijan a few shelled nuts. She took pleasure in showing him how to feed the chipmunks. Under the watchful eye of her parents, he’d knelt beside the child with his offering of nuts, but the rodent shied away at the last second, sensing the predator lurking inside him.
“Perhaps you mean to feed me, eh?” Naijan said, laughing at the chipmunk that watched him now. Curious, he allowed his beast to step closer to the surface, gathering the energy toward his core. As the current grew in strength, the chipmunk whirled and dashed behind a log. “Ah, not so brave or dumb as you first appear.”
Naijan flinched when a piercing pain sliced across his ribs. His wolf half didn’t appreciate being teased. “Be still,” he whispered. “Only a few minutes longer.” He would release his animal to hunt as soon as the sun dropped below the mountains. His wolf’s shiny black coat would be a perfect camouflage in the dark shadows of the forest.
Growing increasingly tenser, his body twitchy, Naijan knew it was time to contact Chephras (one of two trusted Lycaeonian he’d sent a few days ahead). Time to see what he’d learned. After all, he hadn’t made the jump to Earth for fun and games. Telepathy came naturally to a Lycaeonian, but the brain suffered with the body when transported. It temporarily disrupted the electrical currents. It caused even more pain if sensory receptors used for telepathy were forced to fire prematurely.
Naijan almost pulled back when the first sting exploded in his head. He pressed the heel of both hands hard against his temples, eyes closed. Growling, he pushed through the pain, searching for a line to Chephras.
Finally, after what felt an eternity, he found him. “Have you located Jendigh?” Naijan growled when Chephras sensed him and dropped his mental shields.
“Yes, but Jendigh is not alone. He brought his son. They arrived yesterday, just before sunset. The whelp is still suffering the ill-effects of being transported. What do you wish for us to do?”
“Nothing, keep him in sight until I arrive. Take no unnecessary risks. Jendigh must not sense your presence. I should arrive no later than tomorrow night. Earlier if I can find a ride from a human.”
Naijan broke the connection before Chephras could respond, desperate for release from the pain. It took several long minutes before the throbbing eased enough to think straight.
A young couple caught Naijan’s attention, walking hand in hand along a trail that would bring them dangerously close to where he sat. He grinned, grateful for the distraction, almost laughing when the female raised a hand to rub nervously at the back of her neck. The pup with her chattered on, clueless to the danger he walked his female toward.
Less than thirty feet away, hidden in the midst of deep brush, the couple didn’t notice Naijan sitting at the base of a tall pine. He waited until they disappeared around a bend and then stood and began to strip out of his clothes. After hiding them in the brush, he began to pull up his energy for a second time. No longer fooling around with a chipmunk, his animal rode the powerful current free of his human body, the transformation completed in seconds. The wolf raised his nose toward the darkening skyline and howled with anticipation. The hunt would be easy tonight, no sport involved, but the hungry animal would accept the offered gift with gratitude, ravenous after being transported.
Panting softly, the shiny black wolf stepped onto the narrow path, trotting to catch up with the human couple, his light blue eyes glittering in the twilight.
Jessica Cooper sat in her wet suit on the edge of the boat dock and slipped the flippers on her feet. It took balance to get the flippers through the tube without falling on her butt, but she managed. She’d left camp at a little after daybreak, hoping to catch breakfast for her dad and a few friends. Spending a week camping at Crane Prairie Reservoir was a yearly tradition going back for as long as she could remember. Only in recent years had the families of her friends decided to join them. Their camp sites were far enough apart that they didn’t feel cramped, each family able to do their own thing if they wanted. But they could also get together, go boating, or sit for a few hours in the evening around the camp fire, roast marshmallows and tell tall stories.
Oddly enough, not many of her friends cared much about fishing, especially fly fishing. They’d go out in the boat later in the morning and troll, but none of them liked to get in the water, not like Jessica. She could only shake her head and keep telling them they didn’t know what they were missing.
Jessica settled into her seat on the tube, making sure the fish stringer was attached to a ring on the side before she began to kick with the flippers, taking her backwards out into the deeper water of the lake. As she kicked, a sharp cry from the sky drew her attention to a bald eagle chasing an osprey, trying to intimidate the smaller bird into dropping its breakfast. She rarely saw eagles fish for themselves, the lazy beasts. They much preferred to keep an eye out for the more energetic osprey and steal their hard-earned meal.
The osprey swooped and dived, trying to evade the much larger eagle, but he couldn’t shake him and finally let go, the eagle catching the prize before it hit the water. The osprey gave one last chirp of disgust and then flew back out over the water, intent on catching another small fish. The eagle landed in the top of a large pine with his stolen meal, gloating with a few loud chirps of his own before he started to eat. Jessica knew this same scenario would go on for most of the day, the osprey lucky to keep one out of every five fish he caught.
She shook her head, watching the eagle. “Lazy bird,” she whispered. But it was nature’s way, only the strongest survived. And the eagle was definitely the stronger of the two birds. There were also American eagles at Crane Prairie, but she didn’t see them as often as the bald eagles, though she thought both were magnificent birds.
No wind blew this morning, the surface of the reservoir clear as glass. The lakes at this altitude were all fed with snow melt and would have been too cold for tubing if not for her wet suit. She could see the Three Sisters Mountains in the distance, their snowy peaks glistening under the bright sunlight. Enormous firs and pines grew all around the reservoir, stopping right at the edge of the water. The trees were so thick she could barely catch sight of the many camp sites around it, a thin line of smoke pointing out her own. Her dad had been awake when she left this morning, preparing fried potatoes to go with the fish she planned to bring back. Her friends were all still snoozing, the lazy bums.
It was during times like this on the reservoir, when Jessica found herself alone with the osprey and eagles, that she fully appreciated the wonderful life her father had provided for her. Her dad, who worked for Oregon’s Fish and Wildlife service, had taught her to respect and appreciate nature.
Even this early in the morning the bugs were beginning to hatch, several of the pesky things already clinging to her inner tube. Jessica smiled when a fish jumped a few feet away, feeding on the bugs. She chose a small black gnat from her vest, struggling to tie the tiny artificial fly to her light leader with her cold stiff fingers.
With a practiced flick of the wrist, she flipped the black gnat onto the crystal-clear water, letting it float for a few seconds to make sure it would sit naturally. “Lookin’ good,” she whispered, then began to work the fly rod back and forth, pulling the line free of the reel as the rod tip went back and letting it slide free when she snapped her wrist forward. Her gaze locked on target near the bank. Jessica had been studying the fish, watching how close to the bank they jumped. She couldn’t fly fish from the bank because of the thick trees. It took room to work a fly rod and the tube gave her access from the water side.
The fly landed within inches of her goal and Jessica grinned as she began to pull the line back with tiny jerks, just enough to give the appearance of a panicked bug skipping across the water. But instead of reeling the line back onto the reel, she let it pool on top of the water. Twice more she worked the line through the same area. One fish rose and took a swipe at the tiny artificial fly, but missed in its excitement. When the water boiled beneath it a second time, the tip of her rod jerked violently down.
A happy squeak escaped Jessica as she quickly reeled up the excess line, adrenalin flooding her system. But she only used two-pound test leader, patience important or the line would snap.
A few minutes later, the trout tired out and Jessica reeled it to her. She smiled, though slightly disappointed when she saw it was a fat, fourteen-inch rainbow trout instead of a kokanee. She found the red flesh of the small sockeye tastier than a trout. Jessica quickly double-checked to see if the adipose fin had been clipped. Hatchery fish were all clipped, the wild fish illegal to keep. This one was clipped.
As she carefully unhooked the fly from its mouth, reaching for her stringer, she happened to glance toward the bank, startled to see an absolutely huge dog lapping at the water there.
Only about thirty feet from the bank, she hoped the big beast wouldn’t decide to swim out to her. Even with flippers on, she couldn’t move very fast in the tube, aware the dog could easily catch her.
But after it took its fill of water, it only sat down on the bank and watched her with those bright yellow eyes. Eyes that sparkled with intelligence.
“Are you lost?” she asked, laughing when it snorted and shook its enormous head. “No, then I guess you must be wild, huh?” It snorted again and watched her, head tipped to the side, ears pricked forward as it began to softly pant, almost as though laughing at her. Jessica frowned, a little unnerved as she studied it closer, worried about the thick auburn and black fur around its neck and back. And it had long, dark legs too, reminding her a lot of a wolf. It stood up and turned to the side, looking back into the forest. “Ah, a he, not an it,” she whispered, the wolf equipped with a set of enormous balls. It looked back at her, the head tipped again, as though trying to figure her out. “Yeah, I probably look just as weird to you as you look to me,” she said, slowly paddling her way out deeper into the lake. “You better get on out of here. Some trigger-happy hunter might take a pop shot at you.” She doubted he belonged to any of the campers.
The wolf-dog snorted, as though agreeing, and Jessica shook her head. “Weird.” And then he stretched out on his front paws and touched his chin to the ground, as though bowing to her. “Double weird,” she said, the fish in her hand almost forgotten. She would have thought it a coyote if not for the size. To be honest, Jessica had never seen a dog so big, guessing him to be somewhere around two hundred pounds. She sure as hell wouldn’t want to run across him out on foot. She glanced to the left, toward the line of smoke that told her where camp was. Not nearly far enough away. She couldn’t wait to get back to ask her dad if they’d released any wolves in this particular area, though Jessica doubted it. He would have told her sooner. She’d always had a soft spot in her heart for wolves, even giving money to some of the programs out trying to save them.
He slipped quietly away into the forest, leaving Jessica questioning that she’d really seen him. She slipped the trout onto her stringer and began to work the line back out again, though she struggled to concentrate, her mind on the huge wolf.
* * *
Two hours later, Jessica walked back into camp, four rainbow trout on her stringer. She’d caught two others, but turned them loose, not sure if anyone but her dad would show up for breakfast.
“No kokanee, huh?” her dad asked, taking the trout from her while she put the rest of her things away. Jessica had left her tube and flippers down at the lake, planning to go back after she ate breakfast to get them. She didn’t worry about anyone stealing, knowing most people who came to this lake were honorable.
Baron, her dad’s black German shepherd, came running over, sniffing along her leg, doing his whiny shepherd greeting. Jessica growled and pushed him away. “No, Baron, go away.” To her dad, she said, “No kokanee. They weren’t biting flies this morning. You guys might get some out in the boat later.” The dog lost interest and ran back to her dad, sniffing along the stringer of trout.
Her dad lifted the fish away from Baron’s long pink tongue, and smiled. “Back off, Baron. These’ll taste just fine. Why don’t you light the stove while I go clean these for you. It’ll only take me a minute. The spuds are done. We just need to reheat them.”
Jessica nodded as she unzipped her wet suit and slipped her arms out, leaving it hanging around her waist. “Hey, Dad, have they released any wolves around here?”
He raised his eyebrows. “Not that I know of, why?”
She frowned. “I could have sworn I saw a wolf this morning. Big thing too, I bet his head would reach my chest.” She held her hand up, shaking her head when her dad started to chuckle. “I’m not kidding. I wasn’t that far away from it. I can’t think of any kind of dog that would be that big, not and look like a wolf. Thick reddish-colored fur around his neck and back. An enormous head with pointed ears. Long black legs, bushy tail. Oh, and yellow eyes. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a wolf.”
“I don’t know, you sure it wasn’t a coyote?”
“Huh-uh, no way. Coyote aren’t that big, and they’re too shy. I’ve never seen one come out in the open like that. I even talked to him and he didn’t run away.”
He shook his head, lips pursed, thoughtful. “Maybe someone brought a wolf hybrid up and it got loose. Might explain the size . . . and the lack of fear.”
“Yeah, maybe.” She kind of doubted it though, but couldn’t explain why. “I’m gonna change while you clean the fish and then I’ll help you fix breakfast. I’m starving. Anyone else up?”
“Nope, haven’t seen any sign of the boys, and Tabby’s still down. Guess it’ll just be you and me, kiddo.”
She wasn’t surprised, Tabitha Stevens had never been an early riser. A girly girl, she hated the outdoors, one of those types who liked to take a shower every day, put on makeup and spike her short hair. Jessica was surprised she’d agreed to come with them this year. She usually said ‘hell no, are you nuts’ even though they’d been besties for most of their lives. Jessica suspected she only said yes this year because Jason and his family came along, Jason being Tabitha’s sweetheart for this year. They were camped a couple spots down, along with Jason’s two buddies, Malcolm and Cort. The boys acted excited about going out in the boat today, though not so much for the fishing part of things.
Jessica unzipped the tent slowly, not wanting to disturb Tabitha, and then slipped inside, sitting on the floor to peel the wet suit off. It only took a few minutes to change into a t-shirt and jeans. She reached in her bag and pulled out her brush, planning to go outside to re-braid her hip length black hair. Jessica scowled at the wet tip. She’d forgotten to pin her hair up before she went out fishing this morning. She grabbed a coat as well, the morning air still nippy. There weren’t any clouds though, so it would probably warm up later. Tabitha had brought her swimming suit, even though Jessica had told her it was too cold to swim this high in the mountains, especially in the spring. They would have plenty of other activities to keep them busy.
Jessica had brought her long bow and plenty of practice arrows, and her dad had brought his compound bow, thinking the boys might enjoy it. The boys also brought their paint guns, though Jessica wasn’t sure how she felt about that. It didn’t seem right to shoot at each other, even if it was just paint ammunition, but she’d probably play if Tabitha insisted. Knowing Tabby, if Jason asked her, she’d agree to it. They had the usual camping games too, horseshoes and badminton. It should be a fun week.