Sneak Peek: Binding Shadows
Tobias was fourteen the first time the urge to tear off his clothes and catch small animals in his teeth gripped him. His own screams woke him from the dream of racing through the trees on four legs with moonlight in his fur.
Instinct made him call for his elder brother. “Mark! A m-m-monster’s inside me.”
“Not a monster, Toby. A beast,” Markus offered from the bed across the room.
By the time their mother arrived, her locks slipping free from the scarf tied around her head, Tobias was hysterical. He buried his face in the worn, nubby chenille of her robe and panted. The lavender scent he always associated with her night cream flooded him in soothing relief.
“You’re safe.” Her voice curled around the ragged edges of his consciousness as she settled on the edge of his bed. “Only a dream.”
Her palm, relaxed on his sweaty brow, tingled. She began to sing one of the soft, lilting chants that had soothed all of her four children since birth, ones they would never be able to recall the lyrics to in the morning.
As Tobias drifted again, his brother’s voice slid through the darkness. “Not only dreaming anymore, Ma. It’s gonna be soon. I can smell him now.”
Their mother’s sigh turned to the whisper of wind in leaves as dreams swallowed him again. “We’ll take him this weekend.”
He forgot her words the moment she spoke them.
On Friday afternoon, he tumbled off the tram with Markus and their younger sister, eager for the weekend. Mom took Markus to the woods at least once a month, and he was used to seeing the car parked out front on Friday. Tobias would spend two whole days buried in a book without his older brother giving him a hard time, or their mother urging him to go outside. But his step slowed at the sight of his own duffle bag in the back of the Škoda wagon.
His parents stood on the top step with his youngest brother between them. Mom shouldered her purse, bending low to give his baby brother a kiss, but her eyes were on her husband. “The performance is six. Isela has call at four-thirty. Don’t forget extra pins for her hair.”
“Ich weiss das, Liebling.”
Mom stretched up to kiss their father. The kiss went on for too long, as usual. Tobias averted his eyes, his cheeks hot. Markus made gagging noises.
When they parted, their father’s face softened into a brief smile before his gaze settled on Tobias. Tobias shivered at the worry in his father’s eyes.
“Viel glück, mein Schatz.”
Mom and Papa exchanged a final peck before she joined the boys at the lowest step. “You two scalawags in the car. Jezt. Hop along.”
Tobias fell asleep on the long drive to the wilds of the Šumava forest. Mom made spaghetti for dinner, his favorite, and when darkness fell, she shooed them both outside.
“Everything will be alright. Trust yourself,” she said as they left her a silhouette framed in the light of the doorway. She called to his brother, as always a few steps ahead, “Go easy, Markus.”
Markus’s skin, a brown richer than sun-warmed earth, absorbed the glow of moonlight as he shrugged out of his jeans and socks.
Tobias followed his brother’s lead, stripping bare though his skin prickled with goosebumps. His heart raced, and pressure rose in his chest. The beast. His dreams returned in a jumbled wave of images and scents.
“Let that feeling come,” Markus murmured, resting a hand on Tobias’ still bony, paler shoulder. “It’s fun—you’ll see.”
That promise, clutched in the eagerness of his voice, kept Tobias from retreating back into the house. Still, he shivered, refusing to come out of his underwear, even when Markus teased. His fingertips scratched at his own chest as if possessed. The pressure took shape and stretched against his ribcage.
Markus grinned with too many teeth, all glittering and sharp. “Don’t fight, brother. We’re meant for this.”
Markus laughed, throwing his head up to the night, the last human sound he would make until dawn. Skin once smooth and brown became furred black. The places between the stars were no rival for the darkness of that tousled fur sprouting in all directions. His face became a snout, and his ears slid back to the top of his head, raising long and peaked.
Tobias reeled away, but his feet wouldn’t hold him. He opened his mouth to scream, and an animal sound came out. He tumbled backward, scrambling in the mud and leaves from the juvenile wolf. His brother.
The beast welled up inside him, flooding his consciousness with scents and sounds beyond his human awareness.
He blacked out just long enough to lose his last grasp of control. The beast inside him surged. When his senses returned, they drowned him. A shocking inner heat banished the night chill from his skin.
What the beast did to his senses was only the beginning. Everything about the way his body moved felt like recovering a forgotten memory. He staggered to his feet—paws—and swung around, backing up in circles until he tripped over his own long legs and landed on his side in the heap of expelled air and lupine whimpers.
The black wolf stood nearby. Markus. Tobias knew him. The same way he knew that what he had become had crawled up from inside his very bones.
He read the black wolf’s body as fluently he read Markus’ face from a lifetime together.
Come on, the hunched back and flagging tail ordered. When he barked, Tobias understood the command. Get a grip and let’s get on with it.
But Tobias found nothing to hold on to. He managed to get upright after a multitude of attempts the black wolf found comical.
Tobias looked down at his paws and fell over again. He caught a glimpse of his furred tail and tried to flee it. He crashed into brush and trees, and all the while, a terrible noise sounded in his ears. The noise of an animal caught in a trap. The trap, his own body. The prisoner, his human consciousness.
His mother called reassurance from the porch. The salt of her tears stung his nose. Tobias wanted to go to her, but the beast held him. When she took a step towards the edge of the porch, the beast swung a mouth full of bared teeth at her. Markus lunged between them, facing Tobias: head down, ears back, and this time there was no humor in the curl of his tail or the hunch of his shoulders.
Tobias stumbled away, whining.
The first night was a disaster. Markus tried to help, teaching him the wilderness around their cabin. They hunted a rabbit in the darkness—well, Markus did—and Tobias would never forget the high-pitched scream it made when Markus’s teeth closed in on its neck. The black wolf returned with the limp shape dangling from his jaws. Tobias recoiled, even as saliva flooded his mouth.
A gnawing hunger surged in him as Tobias watched Markus tear open the soft belly and work the carcass with his teeth. Markus tossed the remainder to him. The beast ate, Toby screaming mutely inside.
After that, he surrendered the last of his humanity and retreated into the darkness.
In the morning, he woke on the porch, curled up with Markus as they had in the cradle. Only he was naked and shivering and mottled with what might have been dirt or dried blood. Their mother opened the door, threw out a couple of blankets, and disappeared again. She reemerged a few minutes later with cups of steaming hot cocoa and marshmallows. Markus took his mug, heading inside to the warmth of the fireplace.
Tobias lay where he’d awoken, clutching the blanket around his body and shivering. Smudges of darkness swept semicircles beneath his mother’s eyes. He’d never seen her look old before now.
“We had to wait to see… if…” She offered the cup.
At the scent of warm chocolate, he vomited on the porch. He sealed his eyes shut against the glimpse of glistening red meat and dark organs, bits of bone, and hair.
The second night he tried to fight the change, but the beast wanted out. It overtook him almost as soon as Markus’ paws hit the ground. The beast fought, but he refused to let go of humanity, forcing himself to recall every detail of his bedroom, and his books, his siblings and their father.
He slunk to the front door, head and tail bowed. Their mother appeared at the window, her face a question. The black wolf gave a human-like shrug in response. The door opened. She sighed as Tobias slunk past her to the blanket she’d laid by the fireplace. Annoyed, Markus abandoned him in favor of the dark forest.
On the way back to the city on Sunday afternoon, he lay in the rear seat, staring at the places in front of him as Markus regaled their mother with stories of his roaming.
“You’re so quiet,” she murmured when they’d stopped to let Markus out to pee.
“W-w-why, Mom?” The words scratched through his raw throat.
“I don’t know,” she said. “We’d hoped—I’d hoped—you just never seemed like you’d change.”
“I don’t want to,” he whispered. “E-e-ever.”
“You have to. I know that much, and if you don’t, it will happen on its own, and you will lose control. We survive at the necromancers’ mercy. There are rules about how people like us behave in public. At the first hint of a violation, they’ll make us disappear, or worse. You understand? And it’s not so bad, is it? Your brother—”
“Is a brainless idiot.” Tobias choked on the words. “I hate it. I’ll never like it. N-n-never.”
“Don’t talk that way about your brother.” She watched Markus trudge back from the woods. “Denying the change makes it more dangerous. You’ll come up to the cabin with us every weekend and during school breaks. When Markus says you’re in control, you can stay inside and play checkers with me if you want.”
“Ma!” he wailed.
“Tobias, some things we don’t have a choice about in this life,” she snapped with a dreadful finality. “At the least, you learn to live with it, so you survive. If that’s all, I can give you, so be it.”
Tears choked out whatever reply he might have made. Markus climbed into the car. He avoided looking into the back seat, even though Tobias’s wet sobs must have been audible to his preternaturally sharp ears. Even in human form, Tobias’s senses had improved since before since he’d let the beast out.
Markus turned up the radio.
At home, their mother garaged the car, resting for a moment with her palms on the steering wheel, and her eyes closed. Markus touched her arm.
“Go on in, Ma,” he said. “I’ll get the bags.”
She passed a hand over the tight coils of his hair and settled on his cheek with a weary smile. “Thanks.”
When she was gone, Markus shouldered Tobias aside, slamming the doors as he went.
As Tobias pulled his overnight bag out of the trunk, he passed one forearm under his dripping nose and glared. “I’m telling Dad.”
Markus’s face hardened. “Who do you think helped pick out the cabin?”
The pat he gave Tobias shoved him backward. Tobias whirled on him, the beast’s snarl rising in his chest. Shock stopped him in his tracks. Markus grinned at him, bearing his teeth. His eyes glittered yellow for a moment before flashing back to human copper.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself, you big crybaby,” he said with a huff. “And if you say anything to Issy or Chris, I’ll kill you. I know where you sleep.”
Coming March 2020
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