Chantelle Mizuki didn’t want to die today.
I’m wearing old underwear. With holes. Nobody is going to see them. No nurse, no doctor, no coroner. Nobody.
Chantelle’s footsteps crunched in the autumn leaves of the mountain forest. Night was falling. Wolves were howling.
Granny Ceci’s voice rang in her ears. “Don’t go in the forest at dusk, mon chou.”
Too late, Granny.
She hadn’t planned to be out this late. It was light when the After-School Art Club finished at the library. She had asked her student Alfonso to stay and talk about his application for art school. By the time they were done, the sun was low in the sky. Only after Alfonso had left did she discover she’d locked her keys in the car.
In the daytime, everyone used the path through the woods to get to the other side of the village in the Laurentian Mountains of Quebec. She loved the soft pine needles underfoot, tall trunks stretching their branches to the sky, soothing fragrances of moss and fern. During the day Chantelle expected to stumble across Snow White singing and dancing among the trees.
Night-time was different. Every noise was menacing, every shadow a predator waiting for her to stray off the path.
Chantelle kept to the darkened trail, wishing those howls and barks were getting fainter. The sounds of the forest were soothing when she was tucked into Granny Ceci’s gingerbread cottage—her cottage now. This evening, those sounds took on ominous undertones.
She remembered Granny Ceci telling her, “Ma cocotte, the Laurentian Mountains are home to many creatures, some fair, some foul. Be prepared for both.” Tonight, it was the foul creatures. Why couldn’t it be chipmunks or raccoons?
Another howl wailed over the tops of the trees. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. One step in front of the other. You can do this.
Soon she reached the edge of the village. Only a quarter of a mile left. Past Marie’s big house on the hill, through the ravine, then up the path to the top of her street.
No problem. She had survived book signings with dozens of cranky children and their bad-tempered parents. She had run off her cheating no-good boyfriend. A wolf or two? No sweat.
She picked up her pace to a jog. Her legs were aching, her chest heaving. At the very least she’d have a funny story to tell Yvette and Kat. Well, it would be funny if she made it home in one piece.
The recent wolf sightings had everyone in town worried. The wolves were larger than usual, more vicious. They had even killed some dogs. Villagers were warned to stay away from the woods at night. She knew her woodcraft and carried her multi-tool at all times, but that wouldn’t be enough to stop a feral wolf.
Of course, today was the day she’d locked her keys in the car. She’d forgotten to take her ADHD medication. And her publisher called in the afternoon to say they were passing on her “passion project,” as they’d called it. Illustrating Granny Ceci’s stories and having them published were a way to honour her grandmother’s legacy. But her reputation as a children’s story illustrator was not opening doors for the collection of folk tales. Her usual collaborator hadn’t helped at all. He didn’t want his favourite illustrator distracted from his own book projects.
Was the howling closer now? Or was it her imagination? She crouched by a small cluster of sumac bushes. Her heart raced. The wind whistled through the treetops, clattering in the dying leaves.
There was a clearing ahead. What a relief! It was the small field behind her neighbour’s house. Marie, a dear friend of Granny Ceci’s, lived on the edge of the village. The little meadow divided the forest from her garden, which was enclosed by a stone wall.
There would be a large blue spruce at the northern edge of the clearing. The conical silhouette of the tree stood tall against the dying light. Three shadows, large and shaggy, skulked at the base.
She spared half a breath for one of Granny’s favourite curse words.
Could she make it to Marie’s house? She should move slowly, deliberately, not run. But rabid or savage wolves would still attack. If they came for her, she would have to run along the perimeter.
She was stuck. Sweat trickled down her back.
I need a plan. If she got out of this, she could move back to Montreal. There was nothing keeping her here. Granny had died last year. Why was she still here? Pull yourself together, girl!
The moon burst out from behind a cloud.
One of the wolves looked up, the cool light illuminating his outline. He cocked his head and looked in her direction. He howled, long and low. The other two wolves nosed him, turning towards her. Could they see her?
She sent a silent prayer up to Ceci. Wherever you are, please help me.
The wolves paced at the edge of the clearing, whining and sniffing the air.
She had to move. Maybe make a commotion once she got closer to the garden wall. Marie might hear.
She breathed in and out. Now. She took a cautious step.
One of the wolves inclined his head. Had he seen her? Another step.
He pointed his muzzle at her, his tail arching over his back. Two steps.
The lead wolf pushed off on his hind legs, padding towards her position. The others followed on his tail.
Ben l’on! Granny would have said. Oh, come on!
She sprinted towards the wooden gate in the middle of the stone wall.
They reached her in the clearing. The largest one growled, ears and tail erect. His eyes looked odd—orange, almost glowing. Impossible. It must be a reflection of the moonlight.
These wolves were big. And their faces looked funny—no, not funny, just strange. Almost human-like.
Heart racing, Chantelle took a step back.
The wolves advanced, circling her. They weren’t acting like regular wolves. What was going on?
The leader surged forward, snarling. She backed up and bumped into another wolf. The wolf behind her made a huffing noise that sounded almost like a laugh. Goosebumps broke out on her arms. Was this the end?
The largest one snapped at her leg. As she stepped back, her knees buckled and she fell to the unforgiving ground beneath her. Tears stung her eyes as she scrabbled in the grass and dirt. He descended on her and sunk his teeth in her calf. She batted at him, a shrill scream erupting from her throat. She had to get away.
The other wolves nipped at her arms as she pulled back, dodging their snouts and paws. She searched for purchase on the ground. They dragged her across the ground, away from the wall.
Fear churned in her stomach. Her heart beat fast as she struck at the wolves. Then something changed, fear turning into anger in her chest. Tingling sensations erupted into a warmth across her chest. Her ears buzzed.
What’s going on?
Some kind of energy bubbled from her middle. Rising up, it surged from her core out towards her arms and legs. It felt strange, yet familiar somehow.
The buzzing increased, changing into a burning sensation. A shooting pain in her leg snapped her attention back to the wolves. Sliding along the ground, she reached for the wolf attached to her leg. She smiled as she caught hold. His fur was matted, his bulk solid beneath her fingers.
The low droning made her ears itch and blocked out the growls of her attackers. Her field of vision telescoped into her hands, legs, and torso in front of her.
Anger surged within her. She pushed out from her diaphragm. Energy tingled and sparked, hot and strong. It poured down her arms and into her hands. When she shoved against her attacker, something blue zapped out of her palms.
The wolf let go when the blast hit him. Falling back a few inches, he shook his head and coat.
Growling, ears back, he pushed forward. The lights in his eyes glowed. The wolves regrouped and closed in.
I’m going to die here. With no one present to hear a snappy parting line.
A spotlight came on, almost blinding her. A rifle shot rang in the air and the creatures froze. Out from the garden gate stepped a small figure.
The ancient woman leaned forward, hefting a rifle that was almost as tall as she was. Her red plaid jacket was three sizes too big and hung down to her knees. She peered out from thick glasses beneath a dark green hunter’s cap.
“Allez-y vous, sales chiens!” The old woman’s Québécois accent was thick but her tone was unmistakable.
Chantelle sucked in a big breath. She shuddered and turned to her attackers. The larger brown wolf swung his head towards her.
Another shot grazed the attacker’s mud-coloured fur. Yelping, he jumped out of the ring of light. He whined, pawing the ground, the other wolves huffing beside him. He glanced over at the old woman.
A new growl, low and menacing, rumbled by the gate. Beside Marie was a large dog, ears back, tail up. They moved forward in unison. The wolves backed away from Chantelle.
The lead wolf slunk towards the trees with his two companions. Looking back, he howled once before the trio disappeared into the night.
Chantelle pushed up from the ground, relief warring with the fear and pain. She tried to stand but her leg throbbed. The bite marks oozed blood. Her feet shuffled forward as she held her elbow against her side. Had they bitten her arm too?
She reached towards Marie by the gate.
Then she was falling.
Strong arms wrapped around her. A low voice murmured and Marie’s voice answered. She was being lifted up, arms carrying her to warmth. The voices faded away.
Her fingers touched a soft blanket. How long had she been out? A fire crackled nearby. Gentle hands prodded at the bite.
She faded out again.
* * * *
Charles Ducharme sat in his large corner office at the flagship ski resort in the Laurentian Mountains. He spread his hands on his heavy wooden desk and looked down.
Ostie! The land deal’s tanking.
He stood up and strode to his office door.
“Ken, where’s my brother?”
“Henri?” his assistant asked.
Charles returned to his desk and drummed his fingers until the phone rang a minute later. “Thomas, what happened to the deal?”
“Another bid. The team’s prepping the counter-offer now.”
“Who’s this Frères Gris Consortium?”
“They’re buying up property in the area. Name’s from a missionary group from New France. They owned a city block in Montreal a century ago, then dropped out of sight.”
“We found scattered rumours about them. Settlers called them cannibals and devils. Stories of eating children and women alive.”
“Those are just tales. Humans think loups-garous are stories too.”
“It could be humans using the Frères Gris name. Nobody’s seen them.”
Charles raked a hand through his wavy hair. “What do I tell our indigenous partners? This project is about reconciliation with our neighbours.”
“We’ll work through the night if we have to. I don’t like losing.”
“I’m going to stay. We need this parcel of land to start the geothermal pipelines.” Charles stood up and grabbed the files Ken had left on his desk.
“You need some time off, Charles. Yesterday you flew off the handle in front of the kitchen staff.”
“It’s bad timing—”
“You missed Grand-maman’s one-fiftieth last week. Go. Have a visit with her.” Thomas had his best interests at heart.
“If Henri were here, he’d tell you to get laid.”
“Of course our baby brother would. You know I don’t like hook-ups.”
“Have you been with anyone since Alice left?” Thomas asked.
Charles didn’t answer.
“That’s twelve months. You can’t blow off all that steam in the gym. Something’s got to give.”
“It’s just—my wolf’s restless. Nothing helps.” Charles put the files in a drawer and closed his laptop.
“You’ve got a lot on your plate. We’ve been on high alert since you became Alpha. And with the Trois-Rivières pack nipping at the border of our territories—”
“Another family arrived yesterday fleeing from Roland and his pack. And with the land project stalling, everything’s spiralling out of control. I can’t keep it together.”
“Let your pack help. Don’t shoulder it by yourself.”
Charles shrugged. “How? I’m stuck in a corner. I can’t get out.”
“Spend a few days with Grand-maman. Then we’ll talk about making changes around here.”
They hung up. Charles grabbed his leather duffel bag and left the contemporary suite of offices, walking past the indoor pool and sleek workout rooms. He continued through the main lodge and stopped at the reception desk. He pasted a smile on his face and asked how the reception team was doing. I have to make more of an effort, show my employees I am approachable. The front lobby was empty as he exited the main doors and walked to the parking lot.
Stop micromanaging everyone. Thomas was right. He needed to get away for a few days. But with the counter-bid, he couldn’t step back, could he? And his uncle had showed up last week talking about a seat on the Board. That would be another nightmare.
He sighed, got in his SUV and turned out of the ski resort property. He drove slowly through the ski village, keeping an eye out for pedestrians, then turned onto the mountain highway. It was a forty-five-minute drive to Grand-maman Marie’s village. Time enough to think about his brother’s request. Get his head on straight.
A lot had happened since his father died three years ago. A pang hit his gut. It still felt like yesterday when they’d got the news that he’d been killed on the highway. Slid off an icy road and over a cliff, his oldest son in the car with him. It had been such a shock to become Alpha that way. He had relied on his pack’s support. His brothers, Thomas and Henri, and his cousins—Michel, Clementine and Bertrand—were always there to help. He had to figure out how to take a step back and let them help more.
He barely noticed the brilliant fall colours around him on his drive. He took the hairpin turns and narrow passes on autopilot. Luckily, it wasn’t busy. They still had a few weeks before the snow fell and the tourists descended.
Charles drummed on the steering wheel. There was always something to worry about. If it wasn’t the Trois-Rivières pack, it was the Elders in the village. And yesterday the mages had reported disturbances in the ley lines, unusual adjustments to the moon cycles and curious variations in the local flora and fauna. His Elder Mage, Gwen, asked him to keep an eye out in Lac St. Patrice—his Grand-maman’s village—since she had identified a problem there.
He would look around a bit while he was visiting. But he would try to relax. Just forget everything for a few days.