8. Inquiries

8. Inquiries

A Chapter by Lynaelee

"Clara, wake up," an authoritative voice commands. I roll over and bunch the pillow under my head as I scrunch my eyes tighter. "Clara, up. You have questions. Ask them now while we have time. I'll answer them truthfully. You can also use this time to yell at me if you want. You were pretty angry earlier, with due cause." I sigh and roll to my back and slowly open my eyes. I am inside a cage that is inside a second cage with the bars going different directions and several feet away. I could lay between the bars and still have room to stretch before I touched the inner and outer bars. The inner cage is about as tall and long as me, if not a little bigger. Buck is sitting on the ground beside me, fully clothed.

"You caged me?" I shout. He smirks.

"For your own protection, kitten. It keeps you exactly where I left you and I don't have to track you down again," he replies. I scowl and he laughs. "That's not the reason, but you gotta admit it's true. I don't like having to track down things that belong to me. No. You don't belong to me, but you are under my protection and you didn't even remotely stay in the same area. That makes it difficult for me to protect you, Clara. I understand free will and all, but I don't think you understood the gravity of the situation you're in. The real reason for the cage is I'm not the only werebeast up here; there are four of us total. So that means not all the animals up here can shapeshift; most of them are the true wild animals and a danger to you." 
"So how did you get me in here then without those wild animals attacking me?" I ask in a much more gentle, yet overly annoyed tone.
"Easy. You're an exceptionally hard sleeper," he teases. I roll my eyes and look around as he gestures outside the cage. I roll into Buck in fright as an overly large grizzly bear walks by. "Whoa there, kitten. I told you, you're safe in here. That's Laurence; the second shapeshifter you have officially met. Like I said, there are four of us all together. He's the oldest of us all, but he also has the ability to counter dark magic. He worked on you while you slept and is certain that your heart is protected, but just to make sure, we'll keep you up here with us. You're easier to protect if you aren't running, to be honest. And if you are running, you can get lost out here, be reckless, and become an easy target. Chances are, you'll get one of us killed too. Inside this cage, we know you'll be stationary and we won't have to divide our attention between keeping you safe and alive while killing the hellhounds. We also looked over the papers you were given. That prophesy is a longer one than the one we discovered and answers more questions we had. Don't ask what those questions were. The less you know, the better. We had lines 3-8 to go off of; less than half. So we had to guess and we were mostly wrong, with the exception that somebody was meant to be sacrificed. Based on everything the hellhound page says, we can confirm it's true. We also know they are incredibly stupid and will be drawn to the smell of fire. That's why I couldn't let you light the fire to cook your fish. Or why they didn't give you a torch or a candle in your tent." I nod and gasp as the realization I had earlier comes back to the forefront of my mind.

"Did you know they tunnel up from the ground or that when they go back into it at daybreak, the ground becomes whole again? I believe they can come out anywhere that Kern can tap his foot, but I don't know for sure. He already told me that I can't hide from him." Buck's eyes widen as he looks at the bare ground beneath us.

"I saw the holes but I had no idea. We'll take care of this bare ground below you. You'll be safe," he promises as he pulls me to a sitting position. I pull away from him as he rubs my back in a soothing manner. "You'll be safe," he repeats. I don't know if he is trying to convince me or himself. Either way, I like hearing it and believe he will always keep his promises.
"Okay. I trust you. So what was with your crazy behavior by the blackberry bush the other night?"
"Just another way to keep you safe. I did want you up in the trees for your own safety. However, you refused so I had to figure out another way to keep you out of the hellhounds reach. Surprisingly, those bushes threw off your scent majorly. If I wasn't right on top of you, I couldn't smell you at all. So I dug a hole and put you in there. Then I put the dug up roots back - kinda. I was thinking if there was some deterrent there, the creatures in the area wouldn't try and find you under there. Plus, logical thinking, no human would think to look under a bush to find you. The mind controller may have lived a long time, but he doesn't know everything and luckily he didn't figure this out. Then I had to go around and search the perimeter after I had you stashed. Even walking around, I couldn't pick up your scent. I smashed some berries into the tree where you rested and put some dirt over your privacy bush. Thank you for not eating those red and white berries, by the way."
"You're welcome. I knew they would make me sick or possibly kill me," I reply. "Blackberries though; they hid my scent?"
"Remarkably so. However, they didn't muffle your sounds. I knew it wouldn't be long before the hellhounds were released. If they heard you, they would have ripped that bush apart and dragged you back to their master. I wasn't planning on sleeping with you, but it shut you up and definitely kept you safe-"
"And warm. I can't thank you enough for that. I've never been fond of the cold. The fire in my bakery is always on; I like sleeping when it's toasty because then I never need a blanket and I can just crash into my bed when my day is through. Plus the less I have to build up my embers, the quicker I can start the next day. I didn't really think about how to stay warm up here, then again, I wasn't planning on being up here so long, but you provided me with warmth and comfort the other night, Buck. I really appreciate it. I am sorry I put you in that position, but I truly am grateful," I interrupt.
"You're welcome, kitten. Its fine. If I were to sleep somewhere else, I may have given your position away. Being under that bush with you though, gave me the opportunity to take care of any claws before they reached you if that was the case. You slept soundly when you finally understood what the plan was. I did sleep some too, just like you asked me to. I smelled the hellhounds before I heard them; they reek of sulphur. By the time they were closing in, you were starting to shift in your sleep and wake up. I couldn't move you because hellhounds are really fast and they would have been on us before I even got you on my back. I just had to keep you quiet. I was still trying to figure that out when you rolled over and opened your eyes. Clara, they searched the flat around that bush just before dawn; they couldn't find you and they were moving away from us -down the next ravine- when the whistle blew, calling them home," he explains. 
"The whistle happened right before they jumped back into the holes," I add.
"Good to know. Thanks, kitten. So I never would have guessed that berries could warp their sense of smell too. When you begged for five more minutes of sleep, it was perfect. That way I knew you wouldn't be getting in trouble and I could go spy on the camp movements and check in up here. I also was scouting a path away from their sentries who were still on the lookout for you. About an hour later, I came back to the blackberry bush. You were still sleeping hard. I figured with the two hours of sleep you got the night before in the tree, catching up on some sleep wouldn't hurt you at all. So I left again, scouting a different route away from view of that camp; all the places I found the first trip out could have been spotted by those men. I knew we needed to move no later than the midday meal, but when I returned the second time, you were already gone. I quickly swept the area looking for you; obviously I wasn't able to find you. I panicked because you were no longer in a safe area. In anger, fear, and desperation, I called for you again. You responded immediately to that before you went to sleep. I was hopeful that I would get the same response. However, I have a terrible time with my temper so it probably sounded like a snarl to you."
"Yeah. It did. I heard that. That's when I fell again. Kern was right there; I didn't realize I was walking into danger," I whisper. Buck sighs and rubs my cheek.
"So I'm the reason your ankle is worse?" He asks softly. I purse my lips, look down, and nod.
"I startle easily."
"I gather that. Forgive me for being so harsh and demanding. I was afraid for you, kitten, and when I get angry or upset, I panic and act out unreasonably."
"Okay. So you have a short temper, yet I still trust you. You haven't given me a reason not to. I apologize for being the cause behind your temperament," I state. Buck chuckles and squeezes the tip of my ear gently.
"Fair enough, kitten. All is forgiven. You are not responsible for my actions, only I can be. When I was finally able to pick up your scent and found that it led to their camp, I was livid. I had no idea how to get you out without making matters worse. All I knew was that I had to get you out of there before they started to kill you. They guarded the only easily accessible entrance," he murmurs as his hand traces my jaw and his fingers stroke my cheek again. I shiver and try to pull away; he doesn't let me.
"Okay. So how did you get into that camp then?"
"The trees on the far side. Most of the men were sticking close to the water or your tent. The forest undergrowth was exceptionally thick all around the perimeter. Clara, there was only one way to get into that camp by foot. Out of all the odds, you stumble into the only place where you can be escorted into their camp. They didn't plan for a climbing, shapeshifting mountain lion to infiltrate their camp. Your scent -fresh bread, something floral, and now ripe berries- stands out and is very strong. I could tell exactly where you were even though I couldn't see you. So I climbed the trees and jumped from branch to branch as the hellhounds ran the perimeter. I kept looking for a way out because I had no plan; I just knew I had to get you out of there. I never thought taking you straight up the hill was a pliable option, especially if you were sleeping like you should have been. Because honestly going up that hill as a lion is easier than a human, but you would have slid off my back. There was no trees by you so I couldn't get too close. I didn't understand the holes surrounding your tent either, but I saw the path I had to take. Once I was able to find a quiet secluded area in the camp, I climbed down, shifted back into this form, ducked into another tent, and stole some clothes. They obviously haven't been worn by anyone in a long time, but they worked in a pinch. Speaking of, you were pretty torn up when I told you to wear my clothes. Knowing they belong to a complete stranger, do you want me to find you something else to wear? Something more feminine perhaps? Just know, I personally think the pants are more practical up here."
"This is fine. I don't like changing several times in a day and I agree with you. Besides they are warmer. Buck, I can honestly say I wasn't upset about the clothes. My dress was nothing more than scraps. This is much better. I had been wearing the same clothes for a few days. I was overdue for a new outfit. Thank you," I reply as I meet his eye again. He grins and continues to rub my cheek. I lean into his hand; it's very comforting. 
"Okay. Good. You're very welcome then. So I had to hide in that tent for a while. That man in charge-"
"Lord Kern Demin," I interrupt. Buck rolls his eyes but nods as he finally removes his hand from my face.
"Yeah. Him. He was paranoid and barking orders outside the tent I was in. Apparently several large cats had been stalking you and no matter what they were not to get into the camp, to you. The creek was the weakest access point. Those blasted cats would not come near the girl, but if the cats were brave enough to continue to stalk her, the men were to spill their blood and give it to her to drink. And the men who bring him the hide of the cats would be greatly rewarded. The princess would enjoy a private meal with them for starters. He may have implied a few other things, but I won't go into that. The rest of the men would be banished to the caves that she escaped from, and he would crumble it around them for they had failed him. I almost wanted to laugh out loud with that. What did you tell him exactly, kitten?"
"They wanted me to drink blood?" I gasp as I put my hand over my mouth, feeling the need to retch again.
"Shh, kitten. No blood drinking. You never have to worry about that." I nod.
"Thanks. All I told them was that one cornered me up the tree the first night but ran away after he heard a snarl from across the lake. Another found me outside a barley field that luckily led to a cave that was too small for it to fit through, but it shredded my skirt. I said the cave came out up there and I was following the water to catch some fish for breakfast. He thought I was being followed by the cats but I argued that they could have been different cats at the base of the mountain than the one he was seeing around his camp. He was impressed that I made it up the mountain so quickly, but a long cave through the mountain was plausible. He didn't question it further. After meeting the hellhounds, I got the vibe that he thought his pets were looking in the wrong area. I thought back to everything I had told him and hoped that because I said I was underground was the reason he believed his pets couldn't sniff me out. He said they never got my full scent, but now they do. I'm sorry, Buck! I didn't know. I just knew that I couldn't tell him about you; a great feline who was protecting me for reasons I didn't fully understand at the time," I reply. Buck laughs merrily. 
"Brilliant. You did good, kitten. Thank you. Let's see. Where was I? Oh! Yes. Waiting in the tent, trying to figure out how to get to you. Then the fire started and that was just the break I needed," he explains. I nod and he grins. "Lord Demin took as many men as possible to the fire to put it out, so I made my way towards you - with my eyes closed listening for any man that could have been hiding behind the trees. I don't trust my eyesight all the time in this form. I see just fine, but I miss a lot. My hearing improved and I can pick up on more things than I should. I was expecting a dozen men or so to guard you with how he was yelling how valuable you were to him. I took those two men out as quickly and as quietly as possible. I was exceptionally angry with you, kitten. I wanted to fight through more men to work off my anger, but less was better; causing a scene would have tipped them off that you were escaping -er that I was going to be helping you escape. I didn't realize until after I had gotten to your tent that holes were gone and I didn't even try to come up with an explanation. I knew was fortunate to get that close to you at all with so little in my way, but I think they seriously thought that their camp was impenetrable. Their lack of extra vigilance definitely helped me out too. They were too comfortable in their camp, thinking nothing could get in. Lucky for us, they were wrong. I ducked into the tent hoping you were sleeping so magic wouldn't be revealed any furthur to you. You were even more terrified and I feared you would pass out or something. Seeing you awake, I half expected you to challenge me or to start screaming. I didn't mean to scare you at all, Clara. I would have taken your air supply away until you went to sleep, but I wouldn't have broken your neck or hurt you in any way. Life is precious and I'll save as many lives as I can; including your life. I was angry and said some things I regret. I just needed you safe. After you agreed, I just went up the hill. It was a better option than going through that camp again. Plus. That part was easy," Buck remarks softly. I nod again.
"And you carried me a mile and a half without becoming breathless?! You acted like I weighed nothing at all! That's not possible."
"Guess I just channeled my inner cat, kitten. It wasn't too bad at all. Any further, in this form, I'm sure I would have had issues. I apologize if I seemed like a horrible brute in the cave. I didn't mean to come off as impolite. I was just looking for any injuries. That's all," he replies. 

"I know. All is forgiven. Thank you for all you have done. So do all you, what did you call yourself? Animalistics? Cool cats? We. Um. Wer-"

"Werebeasts," Buck clarifies with an amused look on his face.

"Yeah. That. Do all you guys have some sort of magic?" I ask as I hold up my hand that was all scraped up, but it doesn't show any more. He grabs it and rubs my hand gently. 

"You can say that. Shapeshifting is what we consider our primary magic, but we all have second form of it too. I'm the only one that can heal raw wounds in an instant. Unfortunately, unless the bone was poking through your skin, I can't help your ankle; not magically anyways. It'll be better by the end of the week if you keep it wrapped up and stay off of it as best as you can. I haven't tried to see if my healing tongue
 works in this form though; something about actually licking someone's blood as a human disgusts me. As a cat, the blood is much more appealing. I guess that's because it's normal to eat food raw in that form. Yes. I am the only one who hasn't tried my secondary magical abilities in my human form. I told you about Laurence. As for the others, well Talon can communicate with everyone telepathically. Or open certain minds and close others; distance doesn't seem to matter. She has to be able to be close to make contact the first time; we think only because you're not connected in even though she has flown above us several times. She hasn't opened her mind to many outside of our circle; she has heard but they can't. She's on lookout right now. Then there's Mabel. She can convince animals to do whatever she wants them to. Which is why we practically have an army of different wild animals not attacking each other right now. However, she can't stop them if their instincts take over, which is why the cage is important. As you can see, we layered it so anything trying to claw at whoever is in here would have a harder time reaching in," Buck explains as he releases my hand and pushes my hair back. I grab his hand and put it in his lap and withdraw my own hand. 

"So your name isn't Buck. You told me everyone else's. What's your real name?"

"Buck is better. Trust me," he huffs. I giggle and look down. I pick up a rock and throw it. It bounces off the metal of the cage and I scowl.

"So all this is because I'm cursed with green eyes?" I mumble. "Not exactly eyes of the field like the parchment read, but hey."
Buck lifts my chin and looks me in the eye. I hold my breath as I meet his gaze. "Your eyes are not a curse, Clara. You didn't see the fields of wildflowers as we came up. They all have closed buds, no flowers blooming at all. It's unfortunate, but your eyes can blend in with them right now. That being said, your eyes are the furthest thing from being the answer to silly prophesy. They are unique. While green eyes are rare, they are not a curse. You were the only one they found because you were not afraid to show your eyes. Most towns that have people with green eyes try to hide them. They're wrong. There is nothing wrong with people with green eyes. The men from that blasted camp would have tried to mold anyone into fitting that prophesy to fit their own needs, or well the needs of their leader. They could have needed my eyes. For this light brown is surely closer to the fields you imagined, since you think with grain in mind on a normal basis. I guess that is just the perks of being a baker though. However, they studied the area up here at the beginning of their month. Based on the fields around us, green was the color the color they needed. Bright green to be exact. Unfortunately, that means you in their mind. I have seen a lot of people with green eyes, but your eyes are definitely the brightest and truest form of green. Your eyes are truly gorgeous and nothing to be ashamed of. They are not a curse. Never think that, Clara. Never," he whispers. I blink rapidly at him and pull away from his touch and look at my feet as I finally start breathing normally again.
"I wish I could believe that. Is there a hidden agenda in your words like the men who came into my bakery or like Kern?"
"Not in the least bit. I mean it, Clara. Your eyes are beautiful and are the furthest thing from a curse. You should be proud of them. They're a wonderful gift from both of your parents. There's nothing wrong with them, with you." I nod but don't look up.
"But I am a traveler from a far. I use my hands to feed others. You just confirmed that my eyes match the fields. He said he was going to enjoy my heart, which means it will be squeezed and I will bleed. This is not something I can run from. For it's been foretold! I can't escape destiny," I argue.

"Unfortunate coincidences," Buck replies. "We will protect you, Clara. Your luck can change. That's our job. They want you, but we're not giving you up on the off chance that piece of parchment could be right. We're not taking any chances. Remember, life is precious and worth protecting; even your own."

"Good to know. So is this what you werebeasts do? I mean go around and seclude people in a cage until the threat passes?"

"No. If we get injured too bad in our animal form, this is where we recover; humans can heal quicker than animals. So if they shift back into this form, they can heal in this cage. I can help with that, like I did for you. You are the first, non-shapeshifting person that has been brought up here. However, you have the hellhounds after you; that makes all the difference," he murmurs. 
"Does it hurt to shapeshift?"
"Not at all. I can feel the change happen, but I would compare it to just stretching your muscles. You can feel the tension, then it releases. I have tried to just shift a single appendage, but it's all or nothing. Sometimes having my claws or teeth to shred something would be helpful, but having to shred my own clothes to accomplish a simple task isn't worth revealing myself. I don't mind that either; I like being an animal. Having people fear you and give you a lot of free space is nice. People avoid me in that form; like you tried to do. I would never hurt anyone though, not that you knew that at the time. You are the first person I actually approached instead of avoiding like a true wild animal would do. I had to protect you. Even after you showed me that you were a fighter. I want you safe. Then I want you to live a long and happy life, Clara. That's all," he admits in a soft tone. Maybe he's embarrassed, but I believe he's being sincere and that makes feel a little uneasy. I don't understand why.

I clear my throat and try to change the subject, "so what do you do when you're not being a massive lion?" He laughs and I look up.

"I live like a human and hide this magic. I can't mention it for obvious reasons. Magic is forbidden as you clearly noted earlier in the first cave. I make a living by being a blacksmith in a village about twenty miles away from the mountain, towards the west. My trade allows me to leave frequently with a reasonable excuse. Nobody will suspect anything if I come and run freely up here for two or three days as a lion. They all think I'm traveling to another town to sharpen knives, fix horseshoes, or gather raw materials that are harder to come by in my area. Plus, I need enough fuel to keep my forge hot and the mountain is full of trees for fuel," he replies, smiling broadly. I nod.

"I can see how that can come in handy. I hate having to beg someone to help me get some wood for the bakery, but I cannot effectively swing an axe to get my own," I reply. "Buck, I think your magic is spectacular, just so you know. I won't turn you in or demand your death. I am curious though. How did you find me?"

"I didn't. Not really. We knew that they only had a month to look for their sacrifice and that the blood moon is tonight," he begins as two smaller mountain lions walk into the cave we're in, hissing and snarling at each other. I watch them carefully as they bump into the outer cage. It rattles but doesn't move. "Ignore the locals, kitten," Buck rebukes playfully as he tucks a loose strand of my hair over my ear and back into it's braid. I look back at him and he grins as he pulls his hand away from me. "We call them Galah and Cretin." I think about it for a moment.

"You name them?! And the best you could come up with was Dumb and Dumber?"

"Pretty much! That's just what they are," he laughs. "Back to how we found you, we knew that the person who would be the target would be from one of the local villages around the mountains here. Nobody new has moved into the villages Talon, Mabel, or myself call home within the past ten years. Laurence prefers to live like a bear, hardly comes to town, and found where they might be having the ceremony at while he was wandering around out here. So then we started looking at the towns closest to that spot. We found nothing. We split up and continued our search hoping we would come across you first. After two weeks of no success, we had to make an appearance at home again for a day or so. At that time, a group of six men came to my town and made a stop in every business. I followed them back up here. I passed along the information. We knew we were running out of time, but so were they. More men left more often. They were still searching for you and we had to stop them. The only thing we could hope for was that they never found you. I came across your scent going down the mountain, by the lake. At first, we noticed the hellhounds avoided the water like the plague because we figured fire and water don't mix. So we never searched your side of the mountain."
"So the water protected me from devil dogs? The men could have looked still."
"I think the water deterred them, for sure because the hellhounds still avoid the water, but the men obviously can be by it. They just never did. I'm sure since your town is so close to the lake is the reason your town was searched last. I think the demon lord didn't want his men by it either because he loses his control over them when water is in play. When I came across your scent, it surprised me. People are scared to try the mountains. Nobody ever comes up here because of the local legends of the demons that reside up here, so I followed your scent. I was genuinely curious and it smelled delicious - edible even. I think I would have come into your bakery the next day if I didn't run into you that night. Then those idiots were yelling 'she's here!' I climbed up the tree and overlooked the scene; hellhounds were closing in and I figured you had to be their mark. The scent of sulfur was strong and I knew I was right. I was going to keep you between my feet to defend you until I could get help or pull you up that tree safely. I didnt realize you had a plan to get around that tree; in all honesty, I'm glad because it was for the best. You were safe and they couldn't get to you. The hellhounds threw the two men to the ground, tearing up their shoulders. Don't feel bad that those men were killed; it was a better end than the one that awaited them. I'm sure they were already burning with a fever that could not be brought down. By the end of the third night, they will be forever transformed into a hellhound; I watched it too many times. For those men, that would have been last night, kitten."
"Wait! If you held me between your legs, we both could have been scratched and turned!"
"True, but I would have avoided that if possible. I do have exceptional reflexes and their limbs come off easily enough. You wouldn't have been scratched on my watch. So then, after those men were scratched, the hellhounds came towards me. I shoved one off the cliff and scratched up another. Then I climbed the tree and looked down. They can't look up; which is news to us. They scratched at each other and another fell over the cliffside. Another man came up the path behind them and I snarled at him. He looked up, met my eye, and backed down the mountain while the white dogs - if that's what you want to call them- surrounded him. I came back up to the lake to find you. The quicker I could get you to safety the better it was. Yes, my goal all along was to get you up here. With your scent so strong and scattered up there, I knew it would confuse them for a bit. I wanted you to move right away. But you didn't want to move, not that I could blame you; if I was in your position, and a giant cat was clawing at me, I wouldn't want to move out of that tree either. So I stayed below you to see how or if they would try again."

A large hawk flies into the cave and sits on top of the cage, looking down at us. The bird winks and looks at the man beside me, so I do too. Buck shrugs his shoulders and looks back at me. "Can they travel if a storm is brewing?" I hear inside my head. I stand up, put my hands over my ears, and began pacing the cage. Buck laughs and pulls me back down to the ground. I rest between his legs and he rubs my back.

"Relax, kitten. I told you Talon can speak through the mind. Meet Talon. She has opened your mind. Apparently eye contact is important," he explains as he points up. I look back up at the bird above me.

"The demon dogs, can they travel during the day if there's a storm coming?" The voice echoes in my head. I shake my head and reach for something to hold onto; aside from Buck, a pillow is my only option.

"I don't know. They came out just after the sun set and the sky was kinda gray, but before the moon came out fully. The disappeared about half hour before the sunrise," I admit. The bird looks at Buck then back at me. She blinks twice and flies out the entrance. "What did you tell her?" I ask as I turn so I can see him better.
"I just let her know the information you passed along. She'll let the others know and we'll secure this place for you," Buck replies. He points to my pillow. "Would you feel a little better if the pillow hugged you back?" I look at him with wide eyes. "You're tense. I'm just offering to calm you down. You did use me as a pillow, kitten."
"Thank you, but no thanks to the hug. Did. Past tense. Before I knew you were a man. So why are you werebeasts all different animals?" He laughs and looks down.
"Because that's just the way it is. I don't know for sure," he replies.

"Buck, if they can come up through the ground, why didn't the dogs just dig under the tree or into the cliff around the tree to stop me?" I whisper as I clutch the pillow tighter to my chest. Buck puts his hand on my knee and gives it a gentle squeeze. 

"I don't know. I've been asking the same question. The pieces don't all fit," he replies as a wolf walks by the entrance. I look at Buck with wide eyes and in a panic as I lean into him some. "Are you not a dog fan?" He teases  as he rubs my back. I shake my head and sit up, only to be pulled back into his arms. "It's okay. I can hear your heartbeat, kitten. It is beating way too fast. Clam down. You don't have to fear this local dog or his pack. He won't hurt you. We call him Alpha. He's got eight wolves in his pack, but we didn't bother to name them. Something is making him uneasy. We have about six hours before the sun sets." Buck purses his lips in a thin line and I look around, trying to sense the air or whatever he's doing.
"Is something wrong?"
"Depends on your definition of wrong. You still haven't calmed down and kinda need me here. The others are busy too so we can't have someone in here for you to talk to. Our original plan was thrown out the window when we were separated earlier and I had to reveal myself to you. Unfortunately, Laurence is asking that I shift because I'm the fastest of us in case there's an emergency."
"If you need to go, then go. I'll be okay, Buck."
"I'm sure you will, kitten. Are you hungry?" I nod and he pulls away from me. "Okay. I'll be back shortly. It's easier to be among the locals in their form than as a human. We have food nearby. Human food, not humans for food," he clarifies. I nod again as he locks the gate behind him and takes off his clothes with a wink. I blush, turn away, and look around the cave. Galah and Cretin are sleeping in the far corner, but other than that, there is nothing going on in this cave. Laurence comes back in, ducks into the open outer cage with a blanket in his mouth, and pushes the outer door shut. His movements are sluggish, but methodical. Buck is nowhere in sight and his clothes are folded up nicely by the corner of the outer cage. Laurence walks around the cage until he is directly in front of me. I watch in wonder and horror as he stands up with the blanket in front of him and seems to shrink before me. When he is done shifting back into his human form, he wraps the blanket around him securely. His long silver hair doesn't match his fur like Buck's hair does, but his slower movements make sense now.

"My dear, I am Laurence. You must be Clara," he greets politely. I nod and refrain from rolling my eyes. "Would you please join me?" I look at him skeptically. "I need to make the bottom of the cage safe for you. If the hellhounds can come up through the ground, the metal from this cage will stop them. We aren't going to risk your life by a miscalculation on our part. Your demise would ensure the death of the world. That's too much to lose," he informs me. I nod and stand up. He gestures to the door and it swings open. I hobble around and stand beside him, still tightly clutching the pillow. Then the second door opens, he moves over to the doors, and holds them open. "Now, Mabel!" A beaver comes to the door and starts chittering. One by one, wolves bring in long logs, duck outside, and grab another. It isn't long before the ground I was on, is covered. I watch in wonder as Laurence lifts up his shriveled hand, wiggles his fingers, and the logs start to rise up. Before my eyes, they transform into a flat metal sheet to which he expands to fill between the bars and out through the second cage.

"That's amazing," I breathe.

Laurence chuckles, "this is nothing yet. Hold on and watch out." I tuck the pillow in between my legs, grab onto the inner cage, and hoist myself up so my feet don't get trapped in the moving metal. Once it is secured to the outer bars, I lower myself down again and hug the pillow. Again the beaver speaks in it's special way. Multiple birds fly in with pieces of straw and leaves. Galah and Cretin stand up and move outside. When the last bird flies out, Buck comes back in with a bucket in his mouth. The other two cats shadow him with some fabric in their mouths too. All three giant cats put their items inside the cage and leave again. Laurence shuts the outer cage and helps me into the inner cage. "I need him to stay in animal form. The wind is changing and we can smell sulfur; it is getting stronger. It can't be a good thing." I nod as I look at the items the cats brought me: food that was wrapped in the smaller fabric, water, and fabric to turn the straw and leaves into a bed.

"I can't smell anything. Not even when they were right beside me," I whisper after thinking about it for a minute.

"Interesting. Well human noses are less developed than animal noses. Talon, open up Clara's mind to hear Mr. Lion. He'll sit at the cave entrance and answer any other question you may have. Clara, it gets cooler up here once the sun goes down. Take this blanket after I shift back," Laurence orders gruffly. I nod and look at Buck.

"I'm glad you can talk to me now. Is there a reason you didn't send one of the other, uh werebeasts my way to make me come up here faster? I could have avoided the hellhounds all together. No wait! They want my blood. So if I were to kill myself, would that solve the problem? You wouldn't have to protect me from them and they can't get to me. So it's a win-win." He snarls and paces back and forth. Laurence clears his throat.

"This close to the blood moon, no. Dead or alive, they need your heart and blood. It wouldn't make a difference at all; they would still ruin the world," he explains. I nod and he shifts back into a bear. I pull the blanket in as he locks the second gate.

"If you think like that, all this will be for nothing," Buck practically shouts inside my head as he snarls again.

I lower to the ground and blink back tears as I think, "was just trying to be helpful. No need to yell at me. I'm going to die either way. I told you, can't escape destiny."

"Clara, look at me," Buck's voice softens in my head. I release the pillow in my hand, look up, and meet his eye as Laurence ducks out of the cave again. "You don't have to die. We're trying to ensure you live. But like the infuriating, self-reliant kitten you are, you're not making it easy." I open my mouth to protest and he growls. "You'll see, you're worth it. Just trust me."

"Okay, Buck," I murmur as I start stuffing the larger fabric. "How long have you known about this?"

"This particular night and your sacrifice?" I nod. "I've been a werebeast for 13 years. After I managed to control the phasing part, Laurence took me under his care and guided me. He's been holding onto that piece of the prophesy for about fifty years. Yes, we still age like regular people. Before you ask, I'm 25; those cats out there are only eight years old and fully grown. They will be dead soon; I might be dead if the lifespan of this form affected me. Laurence doesn't believe that will ever be a problem, so that's a plus. We all do our own crafts in our own towns, but Mabel specializes in self-taught lessons. She was able to pinpoint the exact time for the next blood moon; books are her thing and she's wise and understands things you wouldn't think possible. Talon is an excellent seamstress. Her work is always flawless and Laurence is just a wizard who portrays himself as a salesman when he goes into town. I wouldn't hang out with him if it wasn't neceasary. But Talon, I have a lot of respect for. She's just remarkable and one of the best friends around."

"Talking about me?" The hawk demands as she flies back in. I look up at her and smile.

"Only good things. Buck tells me you're an excellent seamstress," I praise as I finish stuffing my bed.

"That I am. However, you're going to have to sew that up yourself. I'll get you a needle and a spool of thread to stitch that up in a minute. So it's Buck now?"

"Is anyone else on this line besides Clara?" The hawk ruffles her feathers and Buck stretches. "Keep it that way for a bit. Yes, it's Buck now and forever more. Since you were curious, kitten, I prefer the name you gave me over Kelly," he states. He looks at me and smirks. My eyes widen as I take in what he was saying. "Talon has been the one person that I couldn't hide that name from. She respects me enough not to share it with everyone else. Laurence has tried to guess it for years, but never has. I'm always Mr. Lion to him."

"Buck Lion it is," I confirm out loud. Both voices echo in my head in laughter. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

"Likewise, madam. Buck Lion has a nice ring to it. Again, it is better than Kelly Slobbs. I actually introduce myself to everyone as Lee and don't mention my father's given name at all. I use the last part of my first name paired with my mother's maiden name, but I think Buck will pair much better and has a better ring to it than Lee ever did. Thanks, kitten," he explains as Talon flies away so she can collect a spool of thread and a needle. 
"What did you call me before I told you my name?"
"Honestly, I didn't call you anything aside from a stubborn and foolish girl. After you told me your name, I thought 'well guess my pet has a name now.' Everything after that was 'my pet, Clara.' I tried just Clara when you were throwing up, but it didn't work. Then you spilled off some nonsense about me caring for you like I would a kitten. It fit. Now I can look at you and say 'kitten' or 'Clara' with no stumbling. You're not my pet; I would  like to consider you my friend. I would use your last name, since it is proper, but you never told me what it was. Do you prefer something besides Clara?" Buck thinks. I blush and shake my head as I stuff the last handful of straw into the fabric. 
"Call her kitten or Clara or whatever you want. She would tell you off if she didn't like it," Talon pipes up as she comes back into the cave, holding onto my sewing supplies with her talons. I blush furiously and look down, hearing Buck's laughter echo in my head.
"Kitten," he thinks. I look up and meet his eye. He winks at me. "Even if you didn't say a single word to me all the way up the mountain, I still would have ended up calling my pet, my kitten. You became my protection charge and it was my duty to look out for you. Just like I would have to do for any actual pet, but I won't force you to stick around after tonight. I can't take away your free will. You're free to leave once the blood moon is over; we won't keep you against your will then."
"We wouldn't keep you here if it wasn't for your own safety," Talon interjects. I look up and smile at her and she drops the sewing supplies. 

"Thank you. I understand. I'm not mad. I was upset at first, just because I didn't expect to wake up in a cage. There was a lot to take in tonight. Well the last few nights," I murmur. "Um, so now that you can speak, you're really okay with being named after a plant, Buck?" I ask as I thread the needle. 

"Well you compared me to buckwheat but actually haven't fully called me that; just Buck. It works and I like it. You needed to name me instead of calling me kitty all the time. You took the time and actually thought it over before just trying out random names to see which one I might respond to. Even though you think in forms of grain, you didn't call me the first one that popped in your head. Buckwheat is definitely a better name than Barley or Oat would have been. So thanks. Make the stitching tight; we can use that bed for others if it holds. Just don't hurt yourself, kitten," Buck warns. I look over at him as I stop sewing. "Blood is the most potent form of any scent. Even just a drop. That's one reason I didn't want you to try and test my theory down in that other cave. I tried to keep you from injuring yourself further on the journey up here, but you still managed to scrape yourself up. Luckily, without any blood. I admire your spirit and drive. Eat. Get some rest. It's going to be a long night. Call for me if you need anything. Talon, keep us linked and watch her. I'm going to check the perimeters." I nod and begin sewing up my bed again.

"Of course," Talon replies. "She'll be fine." After a minute or two, she speaks up again inside my head, "you're not bad with a needle and thread."

"I like working with my hands. It's easier to make my own clothes then go to a seamstress who mocks me for my size. 'Never trust a thin cook or baker,' I always say," I reply out loud as I tie the final knot. She chuckles.

"Toss them to the back of the cave. Thank you. Clara, while you may not be considered thin, I wouldn't consider you fat either. I think you look just fine. I would trust a woman with curves who loves her body over a beanpole any day. Truth be told, I think you look better than most women who come through my door. Healthier. Fit even. Buck tells me you are active too. You don't see that very much. These days, I see more women who expect men to do everything for them, besides the cooking and cleaning. I honestly think they need to have some kids to fatten up some. I prefer to make clothes for women with curves and who aren't afraid to help themselves - like you. You embody the figure of independence that I want my daughter to have when she gets older. Tell you what, I will happily make you a dress. Just as long as you make me some bread in return. If you still kinda smell like fresh bread after spending three days in the wilderness, I would be willing to bet that you are an excellent baker," she barters.

"Deal. I may be decent with a needle and thread, but I'm definitely better with dough." I yawn and move over to the food. After eating my fill of seeds, nuts, and berries, I look outside and shiver. I then wrap the blanket around myself and lay down on my new bed. "I don't think I slept this much when working at the bakery. It's unnerving," I grumble. Talon laughs inside my head.
"Buck told you to rest. You're just following orders. He likes to look out for his friends. You have me as your friend too. I agree, you should sleep while you can. It is going to be a long night," her shrill voice remarks in my head. I grin.
"I definitely lost my mind; taking orders from animals. I like it," I murmur. It isn't long before sleep wins again.

© 2017 Lynaelee

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Added on August 5, 2017
Last Updated on November 22, 2017



Sometimes I feel like I need an outlet to express myself. I have never been good with verbal communication, but I have always found an out in writing. I hurt. I bleed. I make mistakes. I cry. Yes,.. more..

If only If only

A Book by Lynaelee

1. *Prologue* 1. *Prologue*

A Chapter by Lynaelee