“If you had just left things alone…things didn’t need to turn out this way,” Shan said carefully. I wasn’t sure if Dex had gotten the memo of what exactly was going on but it didn’t seem to matter.

“You killed Rudy. No one had to die for your fucked up cause,” Dex said.

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Shan laughed. “Cause? You are misinformed, young man.”

He looked over at the wolf and pointed at Dex. “You sure this is the one you want? She seems to have more brains.”

The wolf didn’t say anything, though it wouldn’t have been weird at this point if it had. Shan turned back to us and took in a deep, narrow breath through pursed lips before speaking.

“I’ll give you both credit, though. You’re some of the most able white kids I’ve come across. It’s too bad we couldn’t have made this work out some other way.”

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Shan took a step backward. We knew what was coming but we didn’t know how.

And then it happened. Before our eyes he turned into a bear. His bones stretched and cracked, creaked and crackled like a roaring fire, as they expanded to make room for his changing body. Fur spat out of his pores until he was covered from head to toe. Which, in itself, was about eight feet tall.

I know I had just seen it with Sarah but I still couldn’t get over it. How could I? How could this be happening?

Dex was obviously dumbfounded too. His body tensed, his hand gripped my forearm tightly. The fact that he was not filming this part, of all things, briefly (and shamefully) crossed my mind but I let it pass. What did it matter right now? What could we do to get out alive?

We were facing a fucking grizzly bear that had the mind of a demented and merciless human being. This had to be the most dangerous animal in the course of history.

There was a growl from beside it. Oh right, the wolf. That would make things easier.

Whether they wanted Dex or not, I doubted we were making it out of the forest alive. But it didn’t mean we would just give up. I knew I wouldn’t.

As the grizzly stood on its legs, it made a swipe at us. But like Sarah had shown before, Shan was not used to the bear body. He fell over and landed on the ground with an earth-shattering rumble. The wolf looked at the bear, concerned, or something like that.

This was our moment.

“The tree!” I yelled at Dex.

We turned on our heels and headed for the closest tree. Dex threw the camera on the ground, aiming it at the bear and wolf, and grabbed me by the waist and hoisted me up until I caught onto the first few branches. They were heavy enough to support myself and I pulled myself up, straining my muscles, cutting every inch of me on the scraping branches as I rose.

It didn’t matter. I grabbed and grabbed and climbed and climbed and felt Dex coming up behind me. I also heard a vicious bark and a scampering sound.

The wolf was making a run for the tree.

I couldn’t get out of Dex’s upward path fast enough but he managed to swing his legs up just as the frenzied, snapping jaw of the wolf came within inches of latching onto him. He grabbed onto the branches next to me and climbed up beside me. This was about as far as we could go. Anymore and the tree would start to bend over from our weight.

It was too high for Sarah to reach us, no matter how hard she threw her wolf body into the air. But it wasn’t high enough to escape the tallest reaches of the bear.

“Can bears climb trees?” Dex asked. I spied his frantic peepers between the branches.

“I think these bears can do anything,” I said sadly.

He nodded and swallowed hard. I did the same.

“I know I already said this, but I guess it was to the wrong girl. I’m sorry,” he said, his voice breaking.

“It doesn’t matter,” I said. It didn’t.

“When we got to the house…I thought you were right behind me. I…promised to protect you and I failed.”

“We both failed, Dex,” I sighed, so bloody conscious of the grinding teeth just feet below us and the impending threat of the bear. The impending threat of death.

“I didn’t think I’d go like this,” he said. There was a hint of amusement in his voice.

“Death by a grizzly bear? Me neither.”

“No, I meant just…alive.”

I was puzzled. It was welcoming.

He looked below him at the wolf. The tree shook slightly as if the ground beneath was moving. I think the bear was stirring.

He looked at me and smiled, it was shady in the scattered moonlight.

“For once, I can feel everything. Every emotion, every feeling, every sense. I’ve never felt so alive. How ironic.”

I sniffed. This was sad. I always thought the horror of death would have overridden any sadness, but there it was, kneading my heart until it hurt.

“Well, I hope I make the best company you’ve ever had,” I whispered.

“You are the best,” he said sweetly.

He put his hand through the branches and stroked my face. I closed my eyes at his touch and a tear rolled down my cheek. I heard the roar of the bear approaching, its deafening sound rolling through us. I cursed Sarah for getting to kiss the man I loved while I didn’t get the chance.

Dex took his legs and swung them up around a branch and twisted his body underneath the one he was holding onto so that we were both between the same set of branches, our bodies close together.

He leaned in close, his eyes searching mine. They sparkled in the moonlight and reflected my own heartbroken face. Then he kissed me.

His moustache tickled. His lips were warm. It was wet and sweet. He tasted good. I felt like crying and laughing and screaming all at once. My body felt as light as air. A million symphonies played in my head. If I was going to die, I was going to die happy. That was something.

He pulled away. I wanted to cry. I did cry. It wasn’t fair. Whatever it was, I only knew it for such a brief time. Another tear ran down my cheek. He gently wiped it away with his hand and tilted my chin up at me. If other things were going on at the same time, I wasn’t aware of it.

I managed a small smile.

“How was that compared to the other me?”

“Less dog breath,” he deadpanned.

And then everything wonderful was over.

The tree shook violently. The bear was below us and shaking it with its large limbs. Though it wouldn’t support us, we had no choice but to climb up to the top of the tree. We moved our feet quickly, but already the tree started to tip over, like a heavy star on top of a Christmas tree. Between the fact that we were slowly getting closer to the ground, and the shaking, we didn’t have long until our options were out. I guess our options had run out a long time ago.

My hands began losing their grip on the branches. I was going to fall.

I looked at Dex, eyes wide. He quickly grabbed my arms but I only brought him down with me.

We fell out of the tree and landed on the ground in a painless THUNK. I rolled over slowly in the opposite direction of the bear. I didn’t want to see this. I focused on the trees in the glen, the moonlight, the soft breeze.

I felt Dex roll over on top of my body and cover me. It was touching. It was useless. But at least I knew he’d do anything to protect me. Even when all hope was lost.

I heard the roar and the growl and the ground rumbled beneath us.

I was about to close my eyes to it all. It was time to go. Time to say goodbye.

“Nooooo!” someone yelled in full panic.

I moved my head and saw two figures running towards us. One had a shotgun aimed beyond us. The other was making a move to stop him.

The shotgun blasted out in a fiery explosion that lit up the base of the surrounding trees. I heard an otherworldly roar.

The second figure, who I now recognized as Will, tried to attack the shooter, but his tall frame was too much for him. He shrugged him off and fired again, maybe at the wolf. Maybe at Will’s wife.

It was Maximus. The real Maximus. He lowered the shotgun. I could see the black shapes of the bear and wolf run off into the trees and disappear.

Will fell to his knees and covered his face. Maximus left him and ran over to us, stooping in front of me.

“Are y’all OK?”

“Hey man, nice shot,” Dex said from on top of me. He rolled off and got to his feet, then together both he and Maximus hoisted me up so I was on my own two legs.

I looked around. The tree looked partly demolished. The wolf and the bear were gone. Will was crying a few feet away. I guess he believed enough to know what Sarah was capable of. I felt a tinge of pity for him, he was the real victim in all of this, but most of all I just felt utter exhaustion. It was as if all my feelings had been used up in the last five minutes. There was nothing left in me.

“I got here as soon as I could,” Maximus said, squeezing my shoulder.

I nodded, trying to convey the gratitude I felt.

“Thank you,” I said meekly. “You did good.”

Maximus shook his head. “I don’t reckon there is anything good coming out of this.”

A bunch of voices came out from the brush and a few more people came running out, big searchlights in hand. It was the sheriff, Miguel, and two other people I didn’t recognize.

Maximus sighed. “Now it’s the time to explain the fuck out of this thing.”

I looked at Dex. He looked as drained as I did. He put his arm around me and pulled me in slightly.

“Let’s get it over with,” he said. I just wanted to crawl into his car and drive away, but I suppose with the police and who else knows involved, someone had to answer to something. Even if that someone was me.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

We ended up going into the Lancaster’s living room and having an informal hearing of sorts. Miguel stood outside on the porch with a shotgun, keeping watch, just in case. Skinwalkers were not easy to kill and there was a good chance that Sarah and Shan were still out there, though there was no shot in hell that they could return to their normal lives. Bittersweet for Will, to know she was probably still alive but that she would never be his wife again.

I felt stupid trying to explain to the sheriff and his colleagues what had happened to me, but it was apparent that they believed me. That was a huge help as even I didn’t believe myself half the time. I think it would take me a very long time to actually grasp what happened. Maybe never.

The motives of Shan and Sarah were based on anger and I’m sure other things that we didn’t understand. Even Will was in the total dark about everything. But the more we discussed the truth, the more that Will accepted what happened, and then informed us of other strange happenings that had gone on through the years. It was only this year though, that his livelihood, sheep, had been affected, and he finally decided to do something about it. So many secrets, so many blind eyes.

The rest was fitting in with what Sarah had told me. Rudy was a threat. Bird was still a friend somehow, so they only hurt him, not killed him, though it would have easily turned that way. Like many people driven to murder, sooner or later, everyone becomes a victim if you get in their way.

Rudy still hadn’t been found. The cops were slightly optimistic but that was probably their youth. I believed Bird when he said Rudy would never come back. He was gone, and wherever he was, I hoped it was peaceful.

They probably gained a bit of power by killing Rudy, hence why they were able to shapeshift into humans and a bear, two things that weren’t usually done. Had they gotten a hold of Dex, as Sarah said they planned to, there was no telling what would have happened.

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