Curse of the Cailleach: Chapter One

Summer, Upstate New York

My brother was dying and there was nothing my parents or I could do about it.

Twenty four hours ago he’d been a healthy, happy sixteen-year-old kid, grinning toothily across the dinner table at me as I’d teased him about his obvious crush on one of our packmates.

This morning he hadn’t woken up for breakfast on time, so I’d barged into his room armed with a foghorn, because, yes, I am that older sister. Instead of shocking him awake, I’d caught one look at the thing in his bed that only slightly resembled him and ran for Mom and Dad.

His condition had only deteriorated since then. He’d lost twenty pounds in less than a day, a dangerous amount for a gangly teen, but a catastrophic amount when that gangly teen was a werewolf who needed quadruple the calories a human did.

He looked like a desiccated corpse: skin burnished bronze by the summer sun had faded to the color of old parchment; limbs once brimming with the promise of bulk had shriveled into a mockery of themselves; his mop of dark hair had lost all its volume, clinging to his face and neck in sweaty strands. Every few seconds a pained moan slipped from his chapped lips as he tossed and turned in the throes of a fever dream.

He wasn’t the only one suddenly struck ill. Over the last day and a half, twenty three other werewolves tied to our pack had succumbed to the same wasting sickness. None of them had ever suffered from so much as a head cold before. Only one thing could do this to our kind. Magic.

This wasn’t the flu; it was a declaration of war.

On the bed, Matt started whimpering, each low, unvoiced plea knifing deeper into my heart than the one before.

“Shhhh. It’s all right,” I told him. I didn’t even know if he could hear me anymore.

I leaned forward in my chair to take his hand, but paused halfway there, unsure if touching him were wise. His skin looked like it was on fire. What if being touched hurt him?

I decided against it and leaned back in defeat, feeling utterly helpless, and adding insult to injury, unhelpful too. I would have done whatever it took to make him better, but so far, our attempts had been met with unilateral failure. Thanks to the messiah complex that seems inborn in older siblings, I was even willing to switch places with him. Anything to have my brother back.

“He’s getting worse,” Mom said from the other side of his sickbed. Her unruly blonde curls fell around her in a tangled mass as she leaned forward and pulled the washcloth from Matt’s forehead.

Her declaration proved too much for the beast that paced behind us. A low, threatening growl rumbled through the room, all the warning we were given before the creature’s power began to flare.

I had just enough time to duck and cover, hunching in on myself as I braced for impact. Out of the corner of my eye I saw my mother do the same. Then it hit us.

It felt like someone had opened the door to a blast furnace. Metaphysical fire scorched down my right side as it streaked past me toward my brother. It stuck to my exposed skin like napalm and then spread, unchecked by silly things like my clothes or the fact that I was fighting against it with every fiber of my being.

If I’d been able to open my mouth against the onslaught of pain, I would have belched a slew of profanities that’d make even my gutter-mouthed grandmother cringe.

The magic wasn’t just attacking my body, it was after my mind too. It peeled off in smaller, more insidious tendrils of flame and burrowed beneath my skin. They hit my bloodstream and exploded upward through my veins, driving toward my skull with single-minded purpose. When they reached it, they slipped inside and burned their way into the dark corners of my psyche.

My ears filled with disembodied whispers and the sound of a thousand hearts beating as one. I blinked and my brother’s bedroom disappeared. My world became a shadowed realm of half-heard murmurs and half-formed images that urged me to shed my human form in favor of one that came with claws and fangs.

Run. Night. Forest. Paws. Fight. Maim. Full moon. Hunt. Blood. Kill. Howl.

One word and one image lorded over all others: Shift. Shift. SHIFT!

I fought against it with every ounce of strength I had, draining my reserves, pouring all my energy into resisting the command.

Apparently rage > desperation, because it quickly became apparent that I was fighting a losing battle. A ripple ran down my spine, and then another, pleasure and pain blurring together so I couldn’t tell one from the other. Part of me, the weaker part, longed to give in.

I cracked my jaw open to scream my frustration and a howl slipped out instead.

Fuck, it hurt. And I was only being hit by a fraction of the power that bore down on my brother. The full brunt of it should have instantly ripped his wolf form from his body. There was a chance that if he shifted, he could heal, and the fact that our father was now trying to force him to proved just how desperate we had become.

Trouble was, Matt didn’t shift. Instead he lay twitching on the bed for a full minute before being violently jerked upright, chest first, as if pulled by puppet strings. He threw his head back and roared at the ceiling as a smattering of fur erupted over his exposed skin. It only lasted for a second before retreating beneath the surface again.

His fingers half-turned to claws and then shredded his t-shirt, exposing the concaved torso beneath. I was left with an unobscured view of something out of a horror movie. Muscles rippled and rolled beneath his sweat-slicked skin as they attempted to restructure themselves. Ribs punctured his sides with the sound of cracking kindling and tearing flesh, only to reknit a heartbeat later. His arms slipped out of their shoulder joints with sickening pops and then slid just as noisily back in, his collar bones cracked in half and then knotted as they healed, and his nose elongated into a snout before being punched flat by an invisible fist.

It was all happening at once, and it was all going wrong. So, so very wrong. And then it got worse. Matt howled in agony and began clawing at himself in a desperate attempt to free his wolf, flinging chunks of skin in every direction.

I’d seen some shit in my twenty years of life, every werewolf had, but my brother tearing himself apart was a new kind of nightmare. I would need industrial-grade brain bleach or back-to-back-to-back sessions of black-out binge drinking to wipe these images from my mind.

A chunk-o-Matt hit me in the face and stuck, and I decided there wasn’t enough brain bleach in the world for this. Nausea rolled over me. My stomach churned.

I was half a second from shifting myself, and I didn’t trust that any movement wouldn’t trigger it. If I lost myself to the emotionally-dulled oblivion of wolf form, I might succumb to the numbness. I might let it lure me into staying that way, like Dad had. I couldn’t do that. Matt needed me. And so I choked down my gorge and dug my nails into my arms as my brother’s flesh started to slowly slide down my cheek.

Matt screamed again, the sound more animal than human. Fur erupted from the gouges he had carved. It lasted all of two heartbeats before retreating, once more exposing the long, bloody gashes. The fur regrew. And then retreated. Fur. Blood. Fur. Blood. It wasn’t working. Something was keeping him from changing.

His jerking became full-blown convulsions. Foam appeared at his lips.

“Stop it! You’re going to kill him!” Mom screamed.

Just as suddenly as it had flared, the power died. Matt collapsed back to the mattress, and freed from the fight to remain human, my mother leapt from her chair to help him.

“You’re okay. It’s okay. Dad won’t do that again,” she said, wiping the spittle from his lips.

I remained twisted up in my chair like a pretzel, bitterly fighting to regain control of myself. Only when the threat of wolfing out had passed did I give in to my other need and leaned over to vomit spectacularly on the carpet. The smell hit my nose, triggering another wave. Tears and snot streamed down my face as I emptied my stomach. I heaved until only bile remained, then slapped my brother’s flesh from my face and turned to glare over my shoulder at the hulking creature that stood behind me.

He was twice the size of a natural wolf, covered with bristling black fur and armed with three-inch incisors and razor claws. He didn’t look all that frightening in that moment though. Just pitiful. His ears drooped and his amber eyes were shaded with worry. When his gaze met mine, he let out a low, mournful whimper.

Werewolves didn’t deal with stress very well, and to see one of our own laid low by an enemy we couldn’t rip to shreds was taking a toll on us, Dad worst of all.

I might have felt bad for him if he hadn’t nearly killed Matt. I would never forgive him for that horror show, or the fact that I could still feel Matt’s blood dripping down my face, or for the metaphysical burns that covered my entire body. Every nerve ending felt like a livewire. My skin was a raw, red mess.

“Fucking great idea, Dad,” I said, struggling to my feet. I nearly toppled over.

“Charlie, don’t. Just come help me,” Mom said.

I glared at the wolf one last time and then turned to her and Matt. I froze the second I caught sight of my brother’s ruined torso. Where did I even begin? Deep gouges zigzagged from hip to neck, blood oozing from the open wounds. He was already healing, I could see it in the smaller cuts, but it wasn’t happening nearly as fast as it should be.

I was just reaching for a washcloth when the sounds of a familiar engine hit my ears.

“She’s here,” I said.

“Go see what she wants,” my mom told me, pushing the sweaty hair from my brother’s brow.

I felt my father’s gaze on me as I left, but didn’t dare look at him. I couldn’t trust myself right now, and I sure as shit couldn’t trust him. If I snapped at him again, we might turn on each other and tear the house apart.

I paused in the upstairs bathroom just long enough to clean myself up, and then headed downstairs to greet our guest.

Maria, our pack’s alpha, cut the engine of her battered old Harley when I opened the front door. She hadn’t bothered with a helmet, and her shoulder-length raven curls were wild from the wind.

My stomach gave a lurch when she stood from the bike and straightened to her full height. Hundred year oaks surrounded our farmhouse, creating a canopy of green overhead. The late afternoon sun trickled through the leaves and fell around Maria in dappled shafts, flitting from her Grecian nose to her highly arched brows before tumbling down over her leather-clad curves.

Power radiated outward from her. It lapped against my skin in gently breaking waves. I’d been around her when that tide turned into a tempest. She had enough juice to make what my father just did seem like a parlor trick.

I fought the urge to cower as she approached, consoling myself with the fact that she had this effect on everyone.

She didn’t waste time with pretenses. “How’re you holding up?”

I glanced at her honey-brown eyes and then away, in an obvious show of submission. “Not good. Dad just tried to blast Matt into wolf form. I’m going to have nightmares for weeks.”

“You want to help me figure out who’s doing this to us?”

That was Maria, straight and to the point. She didn’t dwell on the negative or the positive. She was all action. It made for a good, if somewhat merciless leader.

“Of course,” I said.

“Grab that red-headed know-it-all and get up to the lodge. I’ll be there in half an hour. I’ve been visiting the sick all day. I’m gonna check in on your family and then my last stop is the Sullivan’s.”

My face blanched. I’d been babysitting their kids since I was sixteen. “Stacey?” I asked, thinking of the their pretty, bubbly pre-teen.

“No. Shaun.”

My hands curled into fists. Shaun was their five year old. I hadn’t even considered he’d be the one, because who the fuck attacks a five year old? I was going to kill whoever was doing this to us. Slowly.

Maria caught sight of my expression, and an echoing rage spread over her features so quickly it stole my breath away. Her jaw clenched, her top lip curled into a snarl, and her eyes lost all pretense of humanity.

The sticky summer heat did nothing to keep goosebumps from prickling my flesh. This was not the woman I knew. This was not the wolf I ran with either. This was other. It was like the sun had disappeared and night had suddenly fallen.

I was an apex predator, I didn’t scare easily, but in that moment I might as well have been a rabbit facing off against a lion. I tried to fight against my rising panic. To be logical. To tell myself that Maria’s rage wasn’t directed at me, but at our enemies. Instinct is strong within our kind, and it won out. My heart hammered against my ribcage as fear and adrenaline flooded my limbs, urging me to run.

Maria’s nose twitched when she caught the sharp tang of terror rolling off me. Slowly, her lips lifted from a snarl to a smile. It was not friendly.

Oh. Fuck.

“I-I’ll go find Casey,” I said, giving into instinct to turn tail and flee into the forest.

And by flee, I mean run for my life. I flew down the familiar trails half-blind, terrified that I was about to hear the sounds of pursuit.

Casey was exactly where I thought she would be, in our childhood tree house that straddled the lines of our parents’ properties. In times of stress she could always be found hiding there, curled up in the ratty old armchair we’d found at a garage sale with some obscure historical tome in her hands.

I burst through the trapdoor like a cannonball, and the fact that I managed to catch my cousin off guard spoke volumes about her mental state. She should have heard me crashing through the undergrowth a mile away.

She let out a screech that curled my toes as she toppled out of the chair, landing on her ass so hard she shook the tree house.

“What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Shut up. She could still come after me,” I panted, sitting on the trapdoor as if I had a prayer of keeping out a rampaging alpha.

Casey shut up. We were shifters. Our twenty years had been riddled with bloodshed. When a pack member told you to that someone could be after them, you took it seriously. Casey took it seriously, closing her mouth to tilt her head and strain her ears along with me.

The motion sent her long, fiery mane tumbling around her shoulders in waves. The same waves our mothers shared. Her blue eyes met mine in question, but I only shook my head, still unconvinced I wasn’t about to die a very violent death.

Five minutes passed before I began to believe I’d been spared.

“I think Maria almost just made me her lunch,” I said.

“In a good way or a bad way?”

I snorted. “How could that possibly be in a good – oh, I get it. No. Not in a good way. She just went full-blown werebeast on me in my driveway.”

Casey let out an exasperated sigh. “What did you do this time?”

“What? Nothing!” I protested, becoming the picture of innocence. For once, I didn’t have to fake it. “She told me that Shaun Sullivan was one of the ill-”

“Oh, no. Poor kid.”

“And I had the sudden urge to kill someone-”

“As you do.”

“And then she went all…other.” I shuddered, remembering her smile.

“Wait, she went alpha? What was it like?”

My cousin, the scholar, was once again missing the point.

“I don’t frigging know! I didn’t stick around to have a, ‘Grandma, what big teeth you have’ moment. She was looking at me like I look at deer during a full moon, so I hightailed it out of there.”

“So it was scary. I thought it would be from what I gathered from the rumors.”

“More like shit yourself terrifying.”

She wrinkled her nose and leaned toward me, sniffing.

“You ass. I didn’t actually shit myself.”

She grinned impishly. A second later, I did too. For the first time since Matt had fallen sick. Goddess bless best friends.

“Come on. We have to get to the lodge,” I said, hauling myself to my feet. “We’re going to do something about whichever suicidal preternatural is attacking us.”

A feral smile split Casey’s lips as she stood. Book worm she might have been, but beneath her civilized veneer she was just as bloodthirsty as the rest of us.

“Hey, have you vomited recently?” she asked as I pulled open the trapdoor.

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