If you’ve been impatiently waiting to find out what happened to Jon, well, this is your Tuesday! It’s time for the next part of my serial novella The Wings Take Shape!
Previously, the last known Winged Riders and free soldiers of an empire under siege were taken captive. Jon turned into a cougar using his Skinchanging ability, killed with reckless abandon, and fled into the night.
The other Winged Riders, under Captain Renee Mollen, managed to escape and head for Jon’s aunt, Sadie, also a Skinchanger and something a little more than that these days. On the way there, wild cougars attacked and Jon came to their rescue, but he couldn’t Skinchange back to a human and fled into the night once more.
Renee tracked down Sadie in the hollow root-system of an old redwood, much like the cadshee had lived in before during their earlier trials against the monster.
Now we head back a ways and find out just what happened with Jon while he was Changed into Stalker, the Cougar.
The Wings Take Shape
Part Nine – Stalker
by Rick Cook Jr.
Jon was losing the fight. The struggle with Stalker had begun the moment he panicked and turned into her. Bodies fell, and he wasn’t in control. He’d always sensed something different about her. Something wild and untamed. Where the others were merely forms to take, Stalker always felt like a different voice in his head.
And she was angry at being so contained.
He fought back against her when she tore open Scout Irons’s throat, forced her to flee into the Bloody Wood.
The taste of Thomas’s blood down his throat was victory. It was pleasing. It haunted his steps. He couldn’t go back to them. Not now they knew what he was. After what he’d done.
But they needed help. Renee and the others were captured and he was the only one free.
Except he wasn’t. Jon crept through the Bloody Wood, feeling Stalker pressing against his mind for control. He snarled and swiped at nothing in protest, and her emotions fled before him. For now. She was patient. As patient as a cougar.
Jon crept close, letting Stalker’s instincts guide him, and listened to a hushed argument between Privates Tanner and Wander.
Aldwin Tanner shoved Giselle Wander. “How the hell was I supposed to see this coming? Danver’s a playboy, not a traitor.”
Giselle pressed him against the redwood, shushing him. She whispered, “You’re a playboy, aren’t ya? Are you a traitor, too?”
“Get off me, bitch!” She let him go after a brief struggle and nodded.
She said, “That was mean. You’re not a traitor.”
“Well I’m glad we settled that. And I’m not a playboy.”
“Could have fooled me the way you flirt. Sergeant Hughes has bigger worries than your clumsy advances.”
He snorted. “You’re one to talk.”
She turned away. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“We’re both flirting with Sergeants, Giselle. Only yours doesn’t seem as interested.”
“Oh, she’s interested, all right.” Giselle grinned. “If she’s still alive.”
“They’re alive. I think I saw Hughes and the twins carried into that tent over there.”
Jon shifted his gaze, looking where Tanner pointed. Alive? It was possible. Could these two mount a rescue? He didn’t know either of them well, and trusted them not at all. Stalker pressed on him suddenly. Kill. Get the big one. She’ll feed us well. It felt like his own mind insisting these things.
Jon fought back, fleeing in the underbrush. Giselle and Aldwin both darted gazes his way, but Jon was in control enough to keep running deeper into the Red Forest.
Until he knew he could control it, he had to stay away. Stalker sulked in his mind. He could Change back. Maybe take Foxbane’s form.
But he was deep in the Bloody Wood now, alone. Stalker or Swiftstrike were his best chances at survival. He stayed as Stalker, which made her happy. She didn’t get to stretch her legs much. The Skin-changers feared her, and rightly so.
He hoped that Privates Tanner and Wander managed a rescue. They could have used his help, but they would likely have attacked him for what he’d done to Thomas. He fought the gorge rising in his throat and Stalker was at the front of his mind again, wrestling for control. He threw himself against a tree, scaring a creature from the underbrush. And gave chase. His eyes followed the mole or mouse’s movements and Stalker took control.
She gave chase, losing it inside a hole in another tree. Her whiskers twitched. To be free, to chase. It had been so long, trapped inside. She felt the presence of the boy and snarled. He retreated and her body was fully hers for the first time in hundreds of years.
And she would die before giving it back.
She followed the sounds of the Bloody Wood, stalking prey, feasting when she caught anything. Other creatures danced in the dark around her, but none dared advance. She opened her mouth to taste the scents. Wolves. Bears. Alligators. The spoor of a score of creatures, all of which she had once upon a time stalked, battled and won.
And she did so once more, finding a pack of wild boars and isolating one of them from the pack. She fed on it and left its carcass for the carrion-feeders. Vein-runners scattered, their acidic-tipped antlers splashing the forest around them in their haste to escape. She left them to it, delighting in the chase but knowing better than to attack one.
Near dawn Stalker finally grew tired, and climbed a tree to sleep. So long since she had slept.
And she dreamed. Never before had this happened. They were not her dreams, but the boy’s. Jon. Being captured. Experimented upon. The empire falling. He felt joy and sorrow both at that. His family. His friends. They died and lived and died again, and he could do nothing to stop it.
She woke from the dream and Jon was there, wrestling for control once more. She snarled and fought, but he wouldn’t back down this time. They quarreled within the same flesh and she lost control of her grip. Together they fell and she retreated, giving him the body so he could suffer the pain of the fall.
She could wait.
Jon slammed into the ground, yowling and rolling. He wasn’t hurt, not really. But he was in control again. And he wouldn’t give it back to her.
She sulked inside his mind again. He used her instincts against her, fighting for dominance and pressing her away. Being trapped inside a body was a horror. He had heard of people suffering head injuries, and how they were conscious inside their body even though they couldn’t move or wake. He imagined it was like that.
How dare you take that from me, he thought. If a thought could grin, that was what Stalker was doing. He would have to be vigilant. He should just turn back now, end this.
And yet… he needed the strength of a Totem. If he Changed, and tried to take on Swiftstrike, he would be vulnerable while the Change happened. Was that his thought, or hers? He didn’t know, but he stayed in Stalker’s form. He could fight her. Had won twice now. She would learn her place.
And Stalker laughed in his mind. My place. You’ll learn my place soon enough, boy.
He shivered. It felt like madness. He had to make a move. Find his friends if they had escaped. Help if they hadn’t. He would deal with whatever waited for him once they were safe and free once more.
He found he could easily follow his backtrail. Stalker’s scent was as familiar to him now as his own sweat after a hard day of training. Stalker approved of this, he realized. She wasn’t fighting him, but… encouraging his behavior? Curious. The more he acted like a cougar the more she settled in.
So he acted the part. He followed her trail back to the edge of the Bloody Wood where Tanner and Wander had argued. It was day but the town of Danver’s Table was empty, silent as the grave.
He took a chance and flitted into the center of town, following the scents of blood and his companions. A few bodies were left stacked, the foreign soldiers. No Winged Riders. No townsfolk. Except there was something here.
He listened, and heard shuffling. He followed it, letting Stalker’s instincts guide him. He pushed open a door and tiny gasps echoed from below. A basement. Prey.
Stalker egged him on. Find the weak. We’re hungry.
Jon let himself be guided by her. He found a hatch, which was hard to open with his jaws, but he managed. Whispers and fear drifted up to him. He drank in the fear like it was water.
And peered into the darkness of the basement.
Elders. Children. Injured. Some he recognized from his short time in Danver’s Table.
Easy pickings. Stalker urged him on and when he balked, she surged forward, fighting for control once more.
They’re children! he argued. Children taste the best, she countered, and are easiest to catch.
No! I won’t! Not again. I’m not a monster.
You are. A little bit. We’re hungry, Jon. Let us feed.
He stared into the hole again. Saliva formed. He wanted to retch, but Stalker wouldn’t let him. The children below clutched to each other, to the old men and women. One injured woman stood on one good leg and waved a stick at him.
“We’re not your food, beast! You might get one of us, but we’ll get you. Leave us be! Go! Scat!”
He stepped back from the hole, indignant. Like that little stick would stop him.
He shook his head. That wasn’t him. That was Stalker. Wasn’t it?
It’s us, Stalker suggested. We’re not separate, Jon. We’ll never be separate again.
He howled in frustration and fled. The hatch closing behind him was a good sound. The town had betrayed the empire, but they were innocent. They didn’t deserve to be killed and eaten.
But they would have been easy pickings, Stalker reminded him. Survival is more important than your human conscience.
He had a hard time arguing it with her. He picked up Renee’s trail and followed it through the Bloody Wood. Once he found his Wings, he would deal with Stalker.
You can try, Stalker said. I welcome the challenge.
We’re sticking with Jon/Stalker for another week after this, so stay strapped in for Part Ten!