Wolf’s Fox by Juniper Hart
The snow around him whipped into a frenzy, the wind howling mercilessly through the trees. What had started out as a typical winter storm had become a mass blizzard in a relatively short time, snow packing on snow to create an entire new floor on the forest bed. Bits of wind and ice filtered through the skies, piercing at Nicholas Konrad’s freshly shaved face. He wished he’d thought to keep some of the scruff he had accumulated over the past few days, but the feel of it against his cheeks had proven to be too much. Still, he cursed himself for forgetting how unforgiving the Minnesota winds could be, even if he had spent over a hundred years enduring them.
He reached a gloved hand up to wipe the excess weather from his face, looking about at the sea of white around him. If not for his superhuman sight, he was sure he wouldn’t have been able to make out the trees from the shrubbery, the intensifying storm turning everything a pristine ivory.
Even with his superb vision, Nicholas could barely see through the white flakes beating against his cheeks, sending a shiver of dismay though his body. The sensation was unexpected.
I shouldn’t have come out here alone, he thought, tempted to turn back to where he had left his car on the side entrance to Fort Snelling State Park. It wouldn’t be a far sprint back, but he hesitated all the same, not entirely convinced that the night was lost. He dismissed his misgivings and plunged onward, the height of his boots doing nothing to prevent the snow from seeping into his footwear. His muscular frame surged forward, the power of his internal shift ready to overtake him with every step. Nicholas had endured worse, he was sure.
There was a reason he picked days like this to hunt. He would certainly be alone in the dense woods, away from any prying eyes or spies. A part of him knew that he was being paranoid. In this day and age, far away from his earliest roots and a century between, there was no need to worry about being watched. Whatever threat his father’s cronies could have created was but a distant recollection. His father, Bane, was an evil wolf who thrived off of dominating and abusing. But he was dead now, and he had been for more than one hundred years. Thank the gods!
Yet Nicholas could not silence the memory of his brother’s voice warning about Cheyenne, Bane’s sister and his aunt who sought the lost Konrad children for whatever nefarious purposes she had in mind.
But we’re not children, not anymore, he thought firmly, raising his knees up as the snow grew deeper. Let her come if she wants. She will still have to contend with Catherine when she does.
The thought alone made Nicholas grin. He didn’t know his father’s sister, but he did know his mother, and there were few who were much of a match for Catherine Konrad.
The chill was seeping deeper into his core now, and it was time to shift, but a small warning sounded inside him, telling him that it wasn’t too late to turn back. Nicholas ignored it, knowing that he wouldn’t have the opportunity to come out again for at least another two weeks. Life had just become too busy for him, too hectic to fit in regular hunts and shifts. Unlike the old days, there were too many issues that kept him from indulging on these runs that had once been a nightly occurrence. Anyway, it was a full moon that night, and the desire to shed his human body was insurmountable. Nicholas finally succumbed and let his human form fade away.
A long, gray tail sprouted from the rear of his body, his frame falling into a quadrupedal position, his hands becoming massive dark paws to match his feet. The contrast of gray-black against the blinding white snow would have been surreal to any passerby. Any strain he’d encountered with his mortal legs was now a non-issue as his lithe but large wolf body padded over the top of the fresh snow like snowshoes. Instantly, any reluctance or apprehension melded away, and he embraced his animal instincts.
It’s a piece of cake being a wolf in this weather, he thought with some smugness. He wondered why he’d been so bothered in the first place. The cold and wet no longer troubled him, his sight perfect in this lupine shape. By rote, Nicholas bounded through the woods, uncaring of the icy pellets flying from above.
All the other creatures seemed to have taken sanctuary in the vast forest, finding caves and hollowed trees for shelter. The lack of animal company was bittersweet to Nicholas, who sometimes enjoyed the frolic of another, but he couldn’t deny how much he appreciated the solitude, even in this frigid cold. The human tears that had blurred his vision earlier faded away, and the landscape became piercingly clear.
His breaths escaped in short, uneven rasps, creating a stream of steam from his black nose as he began to run, unfettered by any mortal constraints now. He was fully an animal, as the gods intended.
Paws flew forward, the firm muscles of his back legs extending to make giant lengths over the untouched whiteness below him. His nostrils caught the scent of a nearby rabbit, and abruptly, he slowed himself to track it. Half the hunt was merely tracking, regardless of his hunger levels. In this instance, he wasn’t in need of meat so much as he wanted to simply see if his instincts were still intact.
Ears back, Nicholas swiveled his majestic sooty head around to get a better stance on his prey. Through the swirl of flakes, it would be difficult to make out the creature, particularly if its fur was not dark. Still, Nicholas could sense that it was nearby, and he cautiously crouched lower.
Slowly, deliberately, he narrowed his emerald eyes and started along the frozen ground, pulse quickening as he moved. He could feel the press of his pointed ears flattening against his head, the scent growing stronger until suddenly—
He stopped again, setting himself back as a different smell permeated the air. This was foreign but more exciting than that of a rabbit. If his heart had been skipping before, it was racing now, and he opened his eyes fully.
That’s not a bunny. That’s something else entirely.
For a long moment, the piercing blue eyes of the creature bored into the depth of his own green irises. Time seemed to stop between them. The snow slowed, the wind paused, and Nicholas stared in disbelief at a stunning white fox, her fur blending seamlessly with the scenery behind her. In his human form, Nicholas was sure he would have overlooked her sleek form, designed to camouflage in such a scenario. But now, they simply gawked at one another until she moved forward. Without warning, her body began to transform, shocking Nicholas more, her lean shape growing upward to shift into the most gorgeous human he had ever seen.
She was so stunning, in fact, Nicholas thought he might be dreaming.
The silver-white of her fur gave way to an endless mane of surreal platinum hair, spilling down the front of her nude body. She didn’t seem perturbed by her abrupt change of form, as if she were well accustomed to shifting in the middle of a blizzard. Unblinking, she sashayed forward, hand extended as if she were in a trance.
Nicholas held his breath, studying her features in disbelief. He was not alarmed by her, curious as her arrival was. He had toured this very spot hundreds, if not thousands, of times over the years and never laid eyes on anything resembling a white fox before. His mind reeled through the history of what he knew about these shifters, but he came up oddly blank. Her closeness was making him heady, the intensity of her crystalline eyes boring into him as if she could read into his soul.
It didn’t occur to him in that moment to shift also, perhaps the concern that he might startle her keeping him in his wolf body. She had no reason to expect a shifter out there in that storm any more than he had. The moment between them was ethereal but perfect.
Her fingers stretched out to stroke his fur, and a thrill rushed through Nicholas as he felt the warmth of her fingers against him. Despite the cold and the strangeness of the circumstance, she oozed in heat, like a little hearth burning between them.
“Where did you come from now?” she whispered, dropping down slightly. Her long hair parted to show one of her two full, luscious breasts, but Nicholas was too enthralled with her face to notice anything else. “It’s too cold out here for even you, lukos. Where is your cave, your pack?”
Another small shiver tingled down Nicholas’ spine as he heard her using the ancient language. It had been a long while since anyone had spoken to him with such tenderness. He lowered his head to permit her long fingers higher up on his head, and she sought the spots behind his ears to embrace, nuzzling her face close to his without fear or concern that he might be feral or dangerous. It was as though she inherently knew to trust him, and he felt the connection in exactly the same way.
I should show my true self, he thought, pulling back again to meet her eyes, but his abrupt movement had the adverse effect of what he had intended to do. She gasped slightly and fell back on her heels. He started to shake his head, regretting his gesture. Before he could make another move or even consider shifting to show his human form, she was on her feet, spinning to run off.
For a stunning moment, Nicholas could do nothing but stare after her, the suddenness of her actions taking him aback.
What just happened there?
“Wait!” He opened his mouth to yell, but a low growl emanated instead. He shook his head and morphed back into his human form to find his voice. Yet as he raised to his full height, the fox shifter was long gone.
“Hello?” he cried out, again aware of how loud the wind had become. Lost in his wolf body, the elements had faded away. Now every sound seemed amplified. “Come back! I don’t mean you any harm!”
His words were carried off into the night, beyond the snow-capped treetops, but Nicholas wasn’t giving up so easily. He had already wasted too much time gawking after her, and he refused to lose another minute. As quickly as he had shifted into his human body, he was a wolf again, tearing off in the direction she had gone.
How far could she have gotten on foot? he reasoned. She was no match for his wolf pace, even in a fox’s body. He used his senses to track her scent, but with the snow falling at such a rate, it was impossible to follow her footprints. For all he knew, she, too, had shifted back into her fox shape and was miles ahead.
I’ll find her. I’ll find her and see what she was doing out here. She probably needs help.
The realization forced his gait onward with more determination and speed, but he soon recognized that he was far from where he had first encountered her and that he had lost the foreign and yet oddly familiar scent. Nicholas was furious with himself for not reacting faster. Obviously, there was something wrong if she was out there like that. It made him wonder why she had chosen to come to that place, in the middle of nowhere, to shift on that night in the storm. Nicholas reminded himself that he was out there doing the same, and it was a full moon, even if the weather was not compliant. But he couldn’t shake the idea that he had witnessed something truly remarkable, even if he didn’t claim to understand it entirely.
Nicholas was forced to pause his run after a few minutes of bewildered searching. He blinked, taking in the blinding whiteness around him. It all reminded him of the brilliance of the stranger’s hair, the glow of her fur.
Did I imagine that?
It was impossible, of course. Nicholas was nothing if not in full control of his faculties, and he could still smell the pheromones of the fox as if she were still stroking him. But standing in the driving snow, miles away from where he had first started, it was beginning to feel like he was in a snow globe, not a real place. Once again, he turned his massive head around, hopefully looking for signs of the girl, but he sensed that she was long gone now.
He had missed his opportunity, and he wasn’t sure he would ever get it again.