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Amanda, my roommate, kept up a steady stream of chatter as we walked to the dining hall together. It was refreshing to be with something who wasn’t a family member actually talking to me. Most people I met either weren’t sure how to talk to their princess or wanted to woo me into giving them stuff. But Amanda just wanted to be friends. She was genuinely nice to me. I admit, I sort of tuned out as we walked, just basking in how different and how great college was going to be.
“Right, Lani?” she said.
“I… uh… sorry, what?”
Undaunted, Amanda gestured to the forest that our path had brought us closer to. “I said, it’s creepy, right? All dark and spooky.”
Dark was the only part I thought she had right. The only word I would have associated with the forest less than “creepy” was “spooky”. “I guess?”
She shuddered. “I don’t know why the path comes so close to it. I wonder if there’s a better route to the dining hall. That or we’re just going to have to get dinner before the sun goes down from now on!” She pulled out her cell phone and opened her flashlight app, in spite of the sporadic streetlights along the way.
“You’re that freaked out?” I asked.
“Aren’t you? Who knows what’s in there! I heard there are coyotes around here.”
“If we’re attacked by a coyote, I’ll protect you,” I promised, trying not to laugh. Being afraid of an animal was absolutely baffling to me.
Amanda grinned and thanked me, with no idea that I was being completely serious. We shifters liked to keep our existence a secret, but the odd human now and again figured things out. I certainly wasn’t going to let a coyote drag my roommate away when I was more than capable of saving her. I knew it was there, but I semi-consciously felt for the claw under my shirt, like I often did when I thought of shifting. I was pretty sure even the biggest coyote around wouldn’t stand a chance against a lioness.
She picked up her pace and I followed. The path was nearly deserted, which pleased me. I was planning on running wild in the forest when I got the chance. My only concern had been getting out of sight of the students. If all humans were as paranoid about being near the trees at night as Amanda was, it would be easy for me to slip on and off campus.
We made it to the dining hall without any coyote sightings and lined up for dinner. I rarely got to choose what I ate. The cooks stuck to their own menu, amending it now and then to suit my parents’ fancy. The buffet style dining hall was like heaven. In spite of wanting to fit in with the humans, I loaded up my plate with a little bit of everything. Luckily, it looked like everyone else wanted to sample the food too, so I wasn’t the only one with a full spread.
Amanda and I sat down at the end of a long table and were soon joined by a couple more girls. We went around with introductions. Crown Princess Lelania Galonllew of Glenhela was a mouthful that I was happy to shed in favor of Lani Grant. Short and sweet.
Halfway through dinner I got the eerie feeling that someone was staring at me. I looked around, hoping to catch them in the act, but couldn’t see anyone who looked like they might have been watching me. Nobody still staring, no heads rapidly turning away.
Then again… I cast another glance around. Unless my mother had sent a second pair, there was no way they would already have arrived. Not to mention I didn’t recognize anybody. Surely the guards would at least look familiar. And only students could eat in the dining hall. As worried as she was, I couldn’t imagine that my mother would have gone to the effort of posing a guard as a student just to keep an eye on me.
The feeling kept nagging at me as I ate. I finished quickly. I didn’t like feeling nervous. Maybe my mother’s concern about assassins or kidnappers or whatever was rubbing off on me. As soon as I was finished I grabbed my tray and headed for the nearest trashcan. There was a line of people, scraping off their trays. I joined it, practically bouncing in place, eager to escape.
And then, I saw him.
The tall window next to me was reflecting the dining hall as clearly as a mirror. And there, a few tables away, was a boy. He was staring intently in my direction, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed. If he was a guard, my mother had found one I had never seen in my life.
His eyes moved to my reflection and somehow seemed to meet mine. His shoulders stiffened and he jerked his head back down to look at his plate.
A throat cleared behind me. The trashcan was free and I was just standing there like a spaz. I muttered an apology and quickly slid the trash off my tray. I whirled back to face the boy, but his chair was empty. Shoot. I looked around and spotted him; at the far door, hurrying out of the dining hall.
If he was a shifter, he’d be long gone before I could get to him. Especially with the woods nearby. Not that I wanted to call attention to myself by running across the room either.
I swung by the table where Amanda was still eating.
“Something didn’t agree with me,” I lied, patting my stomach. “I’m going to head back to the dorm.”
“Alone?” Amanda asked in alarm.
Our new friend Olga stood. “I’m heading back, I can walk with you.” She turned back to Amanda and her own roommate, Janice. “If you two are cool alone.”
Janice nodded. “We’ll go back together.”
Good grief. Did all humans flock like this? I understood the benefit of safety in numbers. But shifters mainly formed packs to guard against the threat of rival alphas and other packs. Humans didn’t have the same feral desire to fight and dominate that we did.
Like Amanda, Olga seemed uncomfortable by the trees. If Amanda was so worried about coyotes, I wondered how she would feel knowing that soon a lion would be running around in there too.
Sadly, there wasn’t a lion in the woods “soon”. It was nearly three weeks before I felt comfortable enough to venture out. I wanted to make sure my roommate was a sound enough sleeper and to be certain that, no matter what night it was, the path into the woods was clear. I also wanted to make sure the moon was bright, until I got more comfortable in the strange woods.
It seemed like Tuesdays were the best day. Late nights on Thursdays and Fridays were usually full of people coming and going to parties. Forget about weekends. But early morning classes on Wednesday seemed common enough that campus was empty after dinner on Tuesday. I snuck in and out of the room, pretending to take late night showers, to test my roommate. Lucky for me, she was a sound sleeper.
School itself was great. I was still an undeclared major and taking my ‘gen-ed’ classes. My favorite was an art class, where I could just get my hands dirty sculpting. The rest weren’t so different from my lessons at home, except for the group setting. History, though, was fascinating. I knew so little about human history.
The staring incident had also kept me inside longer. Without outright asking, since I didn’t want to worry her, I had managed to figure out that my mother had not sent more guards. Whoever that guy was, he wasn’t a royal guard. Thankfully, I hadn’t seen him again. I was hoping he was just a weirdo. Maybe he thought I was really pretty or had a bad dye-job or something.
I slipped quietly out of bed, already wearing my “running” clothes. My roommate didn’t stir as I tip-toed out of the room and eased the door shut. Home free. I practically skipped down the hall, giddy with the thought of finally shifting.
I jogged down the stairs and nearly crashed into the door that led to the third floor as it swung open in front of me.
“Sorry!” a guy gasped.
You have got to me kidding me. I almost never saw people on the stairs. Why now?!
He stood there, looking at me like he had been caught doing something wrong. I was sure I had the same expression. Relax, I told myself. He would never, ever suspect that I was sneaking out of the dorm to turn into a lion and go gallivanting around in the woods. I wasn’t even sneaking, really. There was no curfew, we weren’t forced to stay in the building all night.
The boy slipped past me and went up a couple of stairs, toward the girls’ floor. He was wearing only a t-shirt and boxers. “Don’t tell the RA,” he said with a wink.
He had just unknowingly given me a great excuse. I caught the door to the boys’ floor before it shut and matched his sly grin. “Only if you won’t.”
We both laughed and he jogged up the stairs. I waited a moment, then hurried on my way. There was nobody else around and I made it outside without another incident. The windows from the rooms looked right down onto the path, so I did a few token stretches, just in case anybody was watching. They’d think I was a bit weird going for a midnight run, but with luck wouldn’t read into it further. Then, I broke into a brisk jog down the path. As soon as an empty building was between me and the dorm, I veered off the path and into the woods.
The nearly full moon made it just bright enough for my weak human eyes to see where I was going. After I felt like I was far enough away from the path, I stopped. For a moment I just took deep breaths, inhaling the crisp air and getting back in touch with nature. It wasn’t necessary for shifting, but I liked to get in the mood. I could hear a couple of owls and a whip-poor-will calling in the distance.
At last, I pulled out my claw and clutched it in my fist. I closed my eyes and focused on the image of a lioness. Shifting wasn’t painful, but it wasn’t exactly painless either. Since it had been so long since my last change, I felt especially stiff. My body ached as my bones and muscles stretched and rearranged. The small patch of fur over my heart itched more and more, until it suddenly rippled and began to spread out over my skin. I felt a weird tugging sensation as any clothing the fur touched was pulled taut and absorbed into it. It was almost painful as my tail sprouted and my spine elongated.
Done. I was shifted. I shook myself off and stretched. Then I took a deep breath, opened my mouth and… crap. I couldn’t roar, not this close to campus. I let out the breath as a growly-sigh and shook again instead. I set off slowly, getting my feel for the forest floor and enjoying the crunch of leaves under my paws.
Being a lion always felt… right. Even though I spent most of my time in human form, there was something indescribably perfect about shifting into my animal body. I didn’t mind being human. In fact, I enjoyed. But there was a sense of contentment, inner peace, that I felt when I was a lion. I knew that my family felt the same way, and assumed that most shifters did.
I picked up my pace into a brisk trot, then a lope. I jumped a fallen tree and broke into a flat-out run. Lions were made for sprinting, not distance running, so I didn’t go far. I eased back into an easy jog and alternated between that and sprints for a while.
As I explored, I wondered if any shifters did spend more time as animals than humans. There was no reason not to. I could, if I wanted to. It just wasn’t convenient. Our home, heck our entire kingdom was built to accommodate our human bodies. It had plenty of room to shift, but our buildings were all human friendly. We had human sized doorways, and chairs, and beds, and everything had to be manipulated with fingers, not paws. Where there any shifters out there who did the opposite?
I was so busy imagining what my room would look like if it were designed for a lioness instead of a girl, that I almost didn’t notice the deer. I spotted her at the last possible second and froze. The doe was drinking out of a small stream. She jerked her head up, wide eyed, and lifted her tail in alarm. I held perfectly still until she bent to drink again. Slowly, slowly, I lowered myself into a crouch.
I certainly could. It would be easy. I measured the distance. A quick step-step-step-step-step-step- step-step-step-step-pounce! A single bound would take me over the stream and onto the deer. If she ran, it would be easy to turn my momentum into a second strike and catch her.
But should I? We followed three rules for hunting.
Pick your prey carefully. We weren’t animals. An animal would kill whatever prey was easy. Young, slow, injured. If it was time to hunt, an animal would take what it got. This deer was young, probably her first winter. She looked healthy and strong. Killing her would impact the population. A hungry lion would strike, a shifter wouldn’t.
Only kill what you’ll finish. I wasn’t that hungry. A rabbit would do, if I saw one. Not a whole deer.
Never kill for sport. We weren’t animals, but we weren’t humans either. Humans took trophies. Shifters took only for food. Even if I wanted to break that rule, I’d leave evidence behind. I didn’t want to chance on a human finding it and thinking the kill was suspicious. The last thing I needed was humans swarming the woods looking for some big predator.
The doe was safe tonight.
Even as I made up my mind, she flicked her tail in alarm again. This time, she bounded away into the woods. The bushes on the other side of the stream moved and a huge coyote stalked out.
No, not a coyote. It was a wolf! It saw me and froze. I wasn’t afraid, I could take a wolf. Then again, I had only ever done basic self-defense sparring. I had never actually fought another predator. I hoped a wolf would have the sense to not mess with me.
“Good evening,” I said. A real wolf wouldn’t understand me. But a shifter…
The wolf looked surprised, then its tongue lolled out in amusement. “I was wondering if mountain lions range this far.” Its voice was distinctly male.
“I’m not a mountain lion.” I was slightly insulted by being compared to a small cougar.
“I see that now.”
“You go to school here?” I asked.
The wolf nodded. “You?”
I nodded too. Meeting another shifter without your pack was often a delicate process. It was something I was taught to handle, but had never experienced. Everyone I met in Glenhela knew I was the princess. And I often met them while sitting next to my mother’s throne.
The first rule of thumb was that we wouldn’t ask where the other was from. Shifters stuck together. While feuds between packs were rare now, it was better for us to be allies, not enemies. Finding out we were from packs that weren’t on great terms would only lead to problems. There were still a few roaming Alphas and wild packs out there. They’d force you to join if they could. I doubted any were nearby, but this wolf and I could protect each other from them.
Luckily, even if this wolf was an Alpha, we wouldn’t be compelled to fight since I was underage. Then again, he was probably younger than twenty-four as well.
Our next step was to shift. As the stronger shifter, I was supposed to go first. Sort of a trust-submission thing. I slowly began to change. If he attacked or didn’t shift soon, I’d quickly return to my lion form. After he realized what I was doing, he started too.
Once we were both human, we laughed at each other. It was incredibly dark, but I could see just well enough to recognize him. It was the boy from the stairway.
“I thought you were going up to the fourth floor,” I teased.
“I thought you were coming down to mine.” He smiled at me. “I’m Piter.”
“I’m jumping over,” he warned, gesturing to the creek. I backed up to give him some space.
“Nice to meet you,” I said, as we shook hands.
“Likewise. I thought I was the only shifter at the school.”
“So, you don’t know any others?”
“No. No, just me. I’m the only shifter. Do you know more?”
“Nope. As far as I know, we’re the only ones.”
“Good,” he said. “That’s good that… you know, we met.”
I laughed at his sudden awkwardness. “Yeah.” A cool breeze made me shiver. My light clothes weren’t meant for standing around in the cool night air. It had gotten colder since I had left the dorm. In fact, it was probably getting quite late. “I should get back soon. Before my roommate wakes up.”
“Yeah, that’d be tough worrying about your roommate finding out.”
“Yes, of course. I meant it is tough.” Piter rolled his shoulders and started shifting. “We should get back, you’re right.”
He stood patiently while I shifted and soon we were trotting through the woods together. It was obviously a much better environment for a wolf. He set a brisk pace that I found almost challenging to keep up with, as he wove through gaps between trees and bushes, and ducked under things I had to jump.
But it was still nice to be with another shifter. Even though we didn’t talk as we went, the companionship was there. All too soon we reached the path and changed back. We continued in silence, back to the dorm.
“Well, goodnight then, Lani,” he said as we stopped on the stairwell where we had unofficially met.
“Goodnight, Piter. Guess I’ll see you around campus.”
“Yeah. And if not, same time tomorrow night?”
“That’d be great.”
I grinned and jogged up the stairs to my floor, pleased to have made friends with a shifter.
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