Raider sensed the hunters all around him. The scent of magic was a trickle in his memory, but the beasts coming for him were here, now, and fresh on the air.
Raider’s t-shirt clung to his every muscle, and sweat dripped shiny trails down his dark, honey-toned flesh as he ran. He wasn’t familiar with the area his mad dash landed him, but he knew freedom was close. He could smell the desert. The concrete jarred his legs, and his thin sneakers did little to soften his pounding strides. Raider refused to slow even as his thighs burned and chest heaved. Deadly eyes watched him from afar, and he pushed faster to escape.
The city was still, and the afternoon air oppressively hot. Buildings lined the street, a mix of colorful, cracked paint on clay walls, and modern but worn down offices with glass fronts and glittering steel. Raider couldn’t see them among the structures, but he knew the hunters were there. He could feel it. It was a death song in the air, a current of electricity that vibrated every breath he took and warned of impending fangs.
Raider’s blood pounded in his ears, but no matter how fast he ran, he couldn’t escape the scent of sorcery and death. They were coming for him. They were going to trap him, corner him, and kill him. Now that he was cursed…
He lurched forward as fear shocked through him all over again. Pieces. If a sorcerer got ahold of him he’d be nothing but pieces of flesh and bones.
Raider’s gaze darted over his shoulder before he took off from the sidewalk and bolted across the poorly paved street. He kept as low to the ground as he could without jeopardizing speed, and ducked down to run parallel to the cars parked sporadic on the side of the dusty road. He was dressed in torn jeans and a plain t-shirt, but with the black tattoos of roses and vines curled around his neck and muscular arms, he was too recognizable to feel safe.
Everyone in town knew who he was. He was the screw up held back in school when his thief of a dad ended up in jail. He was the idiot, the outcast who couldn’t make friends, the spaz no one wanted around. Weak. No one was going to save a fuck up like him, and he knew it.
The ground was uneven with cracks, and patches of crumbling pavement turned the surface treacherous. Raider did his best to keep from tripping as his hopes soared. The broken street was a sign he was finally reaching the edge of the city.
The toe of his sneaker caught on a upturned crack of pavement, and Raider grunted as he tumbled forward. His hands stung, but he was numb to the pain as he pushed off the pavement and kept moving. His knees were starting to grow wobbly, and his heart felt like a jackhammer as it pounded blood through his veins. Raider gasped burning breaths of air as he forced his body back to the intense pace needed to escape.
Fuck, he hated this. Maybe if his heart were beating frantically on the ground instead of in his chest, he’d finally be free of this insanity. There was no outrunning a curse.
As if he summoned it, Raider’s mind flashed to the enchanted item that ruined his life in an instant. A glittering whirl of cold blues, yellows, and pale pinks flickered and sparkled in a deadly kaleidescope behind his eyes. Raider’s strides shortened as his inner animal chittered.
Impossible. He could see the jewel like it was right in front of him. Bright and glowing, each angle refracted, sparked, and Raider’s brain felt like it was shorting out just from the memory.
“No. Fuck, no,” Raider whispered desperately when his body stumbled to an abrupt stop. He pressed the heel of his palms to his eyelids until they flashed dark red and throbbed, but the image wouldn’t fade. Raider screamed inside his mind but his body refused to move. The vividly flashing gem blocked out the sweltering landscape and reality began to slip away.
Raider could see every unique glint. The jewel was pearlescent and blinding, as if a star had been crushed and cast into one beautiful, perfect gem. He wanted it. He needed it. He needed to go back…
Deep, masculine laughter reached his ears, and something inside him jolted. Raider snapped his head up and turned back to stare in horror.
A group of teenage boys not much younger than him strolled casually down the sidewalk. They were caramel skinned with dark hair and lean muscle, and were dressed in an array of colorful t-shirts and jeans. With a fanged smirk, one teen snickered and jokingly shoved another, and the rest jumped back to keep from being knocked over.
Their howls of laughter sent Raider’s heart stuttering as he recognized the coyote shifters. They found him. After all his running, they fucking found him.
Aaron glanced up and froze mid laugh when he caught sight of Raider up ahead. The tattooed twenty year old was heaving for breath, dripping in sweat, and his eyes were wild and full of terror as he stared at them. “Guys,” Aaron whispered. The tone of his voice had all his cousins falling silent, and they turned his way.
Five sets of eyes locked on him, and Raider took a stumbling step back. He anxiously gauged the distance between him and the pack of coyote shifters. It was seven car lengths, tops. Raider knew he was fast, but he had his limits. He’d been running for what felt like hours, and the coyotes were fresh, calm, and made for endurance.
No. He wasn’t going to die. He wasn’t going to give up and let himself die. He just needed to find a place to hide and he’d be safe.
Aaron’s nostrils flared when he picked up Raider’s fear scent on the air. “What is he…?”
Raider’s inner animal reared up, and he turned and scrambled. His sneakers slammed on the pavement as he took of sprinting in the direction of undeveloped land and dry desert.
“What? Raider, what the fuck, man? We’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Aaron shouted uselessly at Raider’s retreating back. “Holy shit.” With a growl, he pulled his cell phone from the back pocket of his jeans and thumbed it on.
“What’s his deal?” Jaxon’s eyes narrowed as he watched Raider leap over a curb like his life depended on it. “He’s acting like we’re going to beat the shit out of him.”
Aaron shook his head in frustration. “I don’t know, but his uncle has been looking everywhere for him since he took off from the museum. Something about the anti-shifter badges and cops.” He dialed a number one handed while shielding his eyes and looking for a street sign. “We better follow him before he gets himself killed. I think the spaz has finally lost his shit.”
Raider struggled to keep the pace of his wild run. His straining muscles ached, and sweat poured down his body and face to blur his vision. He didn’t dare look back for fear of losing his footing. He knew they were behind him. If the coyotes didn’t get him, the sorcerer would.
Raider’s lungs burned and throat was raw, but he didn’t lose pace until the pavement gave way to wilderness and he found the soil he was seeking. He ran yards into the flat desert expanse before slowing. Dust rose up and choked him as Raider turned toward a massive, gnarled tree among the prickly scrub. Tall, thin grass caught at his jeans and crackled as he ran toward his goal.
Cursed. Even if he got away, he was still cursed.
He clutched his hands into fists and raised one to his mouth. Metal tasted like blood as he licked a silver ring and bit the flesh of his fingers. It was grounding, a reminder he still lived, and Raider quickened his pace. Dust stung his eyes and formed a cloud when he crouched low and skidded over bare roots and rocks. He used his momentum to end up on the other side of the giant tree. His palm was scrapped raw and knees torn bloody under his jeans but Raider barely felt the wounds.
The warm, richly toned earth was like silk in his hands as Raider scooped dirt up and smeared it down the front of his shirt. He needed something to erase his scent from the hunters tracking him. Once his scent was covered, he’d be safe out in the desert. No one would be able to find him, and finally he’d be safe.
“Angel? Angel, I need you to talk to me!”
Raider’s head shot up and he froze. Soil crumbled down his t-shirt and chest as he warily turned to where the tree hid him from view of the town. It sounded like Uncle Joe. It sounded like him, but it was probably a sorcerer.
They could do that. Sorcerers could make themselves look and sound like someone else if they had enough magic. Joseph was still at work, and Raider was supposed to be on a school field trip. The only logical explanation was the sorcerer had found him.
His heart pounded like a drum as Raider turned back and sank his hands into the loose dirt. He grabbed fistfuls of the grit and brusquely ground the soil up his thick, tattooed arms and patted down his shirt. Dust surrounded him in a choking cloud that stung his eyes and made it impossible to breathe without tasting the land.
He could do this. Run. Hide. Escape. He didn’t know where just yet, but it had to be better than here. Anywhere was better than this place where death stalked at every turn.
Cursed. With one touch, he was cursed.
Raider started, his eyes wide and breath frozen in his tight chest. He held still as footsteps crunched stone and dirt, and a boot scraped a tree root just on the other side of the bark wall. Raider licked his lips and dust coated his tongue. It smelled like Uncle Joe.
Could a sorcerer imitated that? They killed so many shifters; surely their magic could trick a nose too.
“Angel, you’re not well. I can scent it.” Joseph’s voice rumbled mere feet away. “The animal has taken you over, son.”
Raider shook his head at the blatant lie. He squinted and quickly scrubbed dirt into his short, black hair and swiped it roughly over his face and around his eyes.
“Don’t run,” Joseph insisted. “Angel, remember who you are. You’re human. You’re safe. The moment you step into that desert, you face dehydration and death at the hands of whatever predator comes your way. Think, son. You’re not yourself.”
Raider’s scowl grew, as did the pounding of his heart. Liar. All sorcerers were liars.
But why was he trying to trick him when all he had to do was cast a spell? Just one spell could trap him forever.
Raider sneered as his mind raced. No… no, it was a lie. He looked down at his dust coated fingers and blunt fingernails. He had no claw or fang to defend himself and the sorcerer knew it. He was weak, prey, and a sorcerer probably wouldn’t waste the magic.
The wind shifted and as dust coated the back of his throat, Raider picked up the scent of coyote. Fuck. Fuck, they were working together. Raider fought a whimper as his eyes darted along the wide expanse of flat land and scraggly brush. They were there, hiding at the edges of his sight. He could sense them watching with malevolent gazes.
The would wait. They would wait for him to bolt, and then they’d run him down and corner him for the killing blow.
Raider grasped his throat as he felt the clench of phantom teeth sink into his flesh. Escape. He needed to dig, burrow—no, climb! Raider jerked his head up and he stared at the massive tree with branches reaching toward the sky. Coyotes couldn’t climb.
“I talked to Mr. Helu. He’s not going to press charges. You’re not in trouble… Angel? Angel, can you hear me?”
Raider’s muscles tensed and he bounded up. In one leap he reached and grabbed the nearest tree limb. His clothes fell around him in a heavy rain of dusty fabric, clunking sneakers, and loose change as he pulled himself up. Raider climbed hand over paw in a mad fury as he scrabbled to reach safety. His pointed face fixed downward once he reached the thin branches at the highest top of the tree.
Below, the man who looked and smelled just like his uncle stared up at Raider’s raccoon form. Joseph’s brown eyes were wide in surprise, and made the lines worn into his face look even more deep and troubled than normal.
“Damn it, kid. I didn’t want to have to do this.” Joseph’s hand was weighted with reluctance when he unclipped the dart gun strapped to his chest.
Raider glared down with masked eyes focused on the weapon. It was foreign to his animal brain, but the human inside warned of death.
The branch swayed beneath him as he craned his head and sought a route to escape. The high vantage revealed the pack of coyotes. Two more had joined the group, and they had split into clumps to form a wide circle around the tree. Raider chittered loudly.
Death. Death had come. They were human clothed but it took only an instant to shift. Once they revealed fangs and claws, they would tear into him until he was nothing but bloodied bits.
Raider’s nose twitched as he focused down on a potential path to freedom. His stuttering heartbeat marked the many steps it would take to jump the stalking predators.
Death. If he failed or misjudged his leap, he’d be dead in moments.
The air popped the same moment his shoulder was bit. Raider jolted in shock and stared at the thin, plastic dart sticking out of his fur covered arm.
A wave of heat crashed down on him, and he struggled to stay upright. His balance shifted like a drunken boat on his small perch. Raider scrabbled frantically at the branches, but his grip had no power. Leaves tore away in his slender, black toned fingers, and the ground raced up to catch him.
“Angel, can you hear me?”
Raider fixed unfocused eyes toward the orange tinted sky. Dust coated his fur and blood grew thick on his tongue. The world was hazy and dim at the edges, and Raider struggled to understand when it became so late. A shadow crossed over him, and his uncle’s familiar face peered down.
A worried furrow twisted Joseph’s brow. “You need help, son.”
Help? Raider’s heavy eyelids fell shut no matter how hard he struggled to keep them open.
No one helped out in the wild. It was either kill or be killed. There would never be help for a prey shifter like him.