I look up to the sky, taking in the heavy rain clouds, gray and dark. It's early afternoon, but this storm has swept in fast, and I'm over five miles from my cabin nestled deep in the Badlands Territory.
I consider my options. I could find a tall cedar tree and stay put until the storm passes, or walk upstream back home, knowing I'll be soaked through within minutes. I don’t like the idea of sitting under a tree for hours, so I decide to go hunting instead, preferring my bear form when the weather turns like this.
I shift quickly, moving from the 6'3" build of a man who's lived his life in the woods into a burly grizzly who is fearless of the elements. As I run along the river's edge toward the ocean, my body shifts form. My flannel shirt, blue jeans and leather boots are left behind on the forest floor. And soon, the rain is coming down heavy on my fur.
I've been a shifter all my life, grew up in Bear Valley, way up North. But after losing my brother Joseph in a car crash earlier this year, I had to leave. He was the only family I had left. And I figured if he was gone, there was no reason to stay. Bear Valley was filled with bad memories, or at least sad ones, ones that made me wish for what I used to have, not for what is.
When I heard word of a shifter territory called the Badlands, I decided to pack what little possessions I had and head south. I'm happy to be here, in this wild country that's untamed, just like me. It has a similar feel to Bear Valley, but there are more than bear shifters here. There are all sorts of people and creatures from all walks of life. And it helps me fit in more seamlessly. I've only been here a month, and I've kept mostly to myself after purchasing a cabin. My plan is to start a logging business when spring rolls around. But now, we're headed to winter and I’ve decided to keep a low profile and stick to myself. I haven't gotten over losing my brother, and I reckon that until I do, I won't be fit to be anybody's friend.
I see fish in the river current, and I dive down with a paw, eating an early dinner on the shore of the shallow river. I'm near the ocean, and I feel the air change, the saltwater creeping in. Thunder and lightning strike out on the horizon over the dark, icy waves, and I feel the sea calling to me, but I don't know the song.
Still, I see a glittering, a flicker of light. And for a moment, I ignore it, thinking it's a figment of my imagination, a long-lost lightning bolt. But then I see long brown hair curled and tangled, the body of a woman, fragile and pale, eyes closed, caught in the current.
I rush toward the vision, jumping in the water, urging myself to shift before I reach out for this woman who is drowning before me. I never heard her struggle. Didn't hear a cry for help. Maybe she was walking and slipped and fell, alone, lost.
A deep surge inside of me propels me forward — the beating of my wild heart, telling me that whoever this is, I must protect her.
Shifting from bear form quickly, I realize how naked I am, out here in the thunderstorm, with the rain beating heavy against me. But that is irrelevant now.
I must save her.
But as I reach for the woman, my foot loses hold on the riverbank. And before I can dive in to reach this woman who's making her way to the ocean, my head hits a rock and everything goes dark.
My eyes are closed. And if I'm calling for help, there’s no way in hell anyone's going to hear me.
I reach my hand out to this woman who maybe was never here at all.
A ghost, an idea, a memory that wasn't mine for the taking.
And though I can't surface to consciousness, as my mind fades to black and my heart seems to stop, I feel the woman’s hands clasp mine.
I've seen bears in the Badlands all my life. It’s no surprise when I see the grizzly feasting at the side of the river. The storm swept in quickly, more quickly than I expected, and it makes me wonder if the war Fjord is off fighting is coming to a close.
My stomach turns as I consider those implications.
Marriage. Being his wife. A life at sea when I want more than the ocean. I want solid ground.
I’ve been out foraging for most of the afternoon, collecting herbs and berries and bark for the salves and potions that I sell at my apothecary shop. But the rain came in heavy and hard, and I decided to leave my basket under the boughs of a cedar tree. I shifted in the water so I could get home more quickly. Forget the scenic route through the forest, I can swim downstream in seal form and arrive at my oceanside cottage in minutes.
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