Prologue from Finding The Way

A year ago

“I’m scared, Mum.” I grip tighter to my mother’s cold hand as we stomp through the crispy leaves of a frosty autumn morning in the Evergreen forest. “Can we slow down please. I can’t walk as fast as you and Dad.”

“We have to go quickly, Diane. The sun is already coming up. If we’re still with the rest of the pack at sunrise, I don’t know what will happen.” My mother tugs on my little hand, and I almost stumble to keep up with her pace. 

My father stops ahead of us. He’s carrying my ruck-sack—all my worldly possessions are in it. Not much to show for a life of thirteen years: a small bag stuffed full of clothes, a couple of pictures, and a teddy cat I’ve had since birth.

“I’ll carry her for a bit.” My father places my bag down and scoops me effortlessly onto his shoulders. At thirteen I’m getting big now, my womanly figure developing and my strength building every day, so I must be heavy for him. I’m a shifter…a mystical creature talked about in stories of old but not thought to be real in the human world. An animal hidden inside the body of a human until we allow them to come to the surface and take over. A wonderful combination of two creatures living in harmony together. I’m a red fox when in animal form, hence the reason my hair is as crimson as a ruby. This journey would be easy if I could be in my fox form, but it’s apparently too dangerous as the woods we’re in are full of wolf shifters who don’t like their territory being invaded by us. 

With me on my father’s shoulders, my mother picks up my bag and we set off through the forest again at a quicker pace. Both my mother and father are fox shifters. Since I was born, we’ve lived in a small village on the outskirts of Evergreen forest. Everyone in our village is a fox shifter, and we’ve always lived happily together as a pack, but all that changed recently when my uncle took over the position of alpha, the leader of the village. He’s introduced lots of new rules, and we are suffering as a result. Food is scarce and fighting is prevalent amongst the villagers, even within families. My mother and father are disgusted at the way our pack is being treated, but there is little they can do about it at the moment, despite the growing support for my father to fight my uncle and challenge his position. That is why we are in the forest at dawn. I’m to be sent away for my own protection. An associate of my father’s has agreed to take me into his care, and I’m to reside with him until my pack’s issues are resolved. It’s safer should anything happen to my family. I can’t think about that though, because I burst into tears every time I do. 

We reach a clearing in the woods, and my father puts me down. He looks tired and I help him to sit. The sounds of the forest waking up increase around us. Birds sing their morning chorus to the first lights cascading through the trees. 

“Are you all right?” I ask, and he smiles warmly at me.

“I’m fine, my little button.” My father always calls me that, it was a nickname he called me from when I was born because I had a button nose. “I’ll be happy to see you safe. Then I can concentrate on sorting out your uncle’s mess, so I can bring you back home.”

I lean forward and give him an affectionate kiss on the cheek to show him I love him, and how proud I am of him for making this decision. I don’t want to go, but I know they are only doing what is right for me. My father already has enough stress on his shoulders…I won’t create more by arguing. 

The crack of a wooden branch draws our attention to a cloaked figure walking into the clearing. The shadowy person drops their cloak to reveal a man of about thirty. I sniff the air and know instantly he isn’t a fox. The hairs on the back of my neck prick up, and a little growl escapes my throat. My father laughs.

“No need to attack, Button. This is my friend.” My father gets to his feet and greets the stranger with an amiable slap on the back. “Thomas, how wonderful to see you again. You’ve not changed…you look amazing. How long must it have been?”

“Five years, now.” My father’s friend embraces him back. “I wish I could say the same for you. You look tired, Weston.”  Thomas’ face screws up in concern.

“Very tired,” my father replies wearily before pulling my mother into the conversation. “You remember Mary, my wife.”  

“I do.” Thomas kisses my mother on her outstretched hand. “It’s lovely to see you again, Mary. Radiant as ever, I see.”

My mother’s cheeks turn as red as her hair.

“It’s good to see you again, Thomas. I wish it were under better circumstances.”

Thomas nods.

“I do as well. Weston has told me everything,” my father’s friend replies and then looks over to me. “I can’t believe how much she’s grown. Wow.”

“Diane.” My father calls me over with a nod of his head. “You probably don’t remember him, but this is Thomas Cartwright. He’s an old friend of mine from school. He’s actually your godfather as well.”

I step tentatively toward them.

“Hello.” I hold my hand out politely to Thomas, and he shakes it before pulling me into a big bear hug. I freeze in his arms. To me the man holding me is a complete stranger. I don’t know him at all, and over the last few months, I’ve learnt it can be difficult to trust anyone. Even the person I thought was my best friend betrayed me when her family sided with my uncle’s rule.Surprisingly,since her father made beta to the pack, her family always have enough food to feed themselves. I can understand why she supported her parents in their new status because as children we do what our parents say, but she didn’t need to tell her father about the family I’d been giving my extra food to. The family in question had not agreed with one of my uncle’s new rules, so the money available to them was reduced, effectively cutting off their ability to feed themselves. They were also forbidden to hunt to supplement their needs. I gave them as much of my extra food as I could, but when my friend told her father, even that method of obtaining sustenance for themselves was cut off—they left the pack shortly after that. I don’t know what has become of them, but a family without a pack is vulnerable unless they can truly immerse themselves in the human world and deny the animal within them. 

“She looks so much like you, Mary.” Thomas says and pulls gently on a strand of my red hair.

“Thank you.” My mother blushes again.

I sniff the air trying to work out what manner of creature Thomas is. There’s a strange smell surrounding him, not human but not animal. I’ve not experienced it before. My father must see me trying to figure out my conundrum and says by way of explanation, 

“He’s a wizard.”

“Wizard?” I turn to look at my father with a puzzled expression on my face. “But I thought they were only in the storybooks you read me?”

My father laughs. “Just like shifters are only thought of as existing in the books humans read.”

“We’re in those as well,” Thomas adds with a chuckle. “Here, watch this.”

I stare at the stranger as he rubs his hands together and then slowly pulls them apart—inside the middle of his palms is a blue ball of energy. It’s mesmerizing in its beauty—the blue toned swirls inside it remind me of lightning strikes in a violent thunderstorm. I find myself reaching out to touch it, but Thomas squashes it before I can.

“I don’t advise it if I were you. Your father did once, and it burned him. It’s our weapon of choice when needed. Thankfully, I’ve only ever had to use it to protect myself on one occasion…it’s more of a magic trick to entertain the children in our coven.”

“Coven?” I question not quite understanding the word, which is new to me. 

“It’s where witches and wizards live together. A bit like a pack, I suppose.”

“Yes, our pack is in Ashurst. Whereabouts in England is your coven?” I test the new word on my lips, cataloguing it’s meaning into my brain.

My father takes a long-drawn-out breath, and my mother whimpers. I turn to face them.

“What is it?” I ask and taking my mother’s hand, I squeeze it hard to offer her comfort.

“Thomas doesn’t live in England,” my father replies.

“He doesn’t? Where is he from, then?”

“America,” my father informs me, and my eyes go wide.

“You are sending me to a different country…on the other side of the world.”

“It’s for your own safety,” my father quickly adds. “Please, Diane.”

“It’s thousands of miles away,” I protest, tears filling my eyes. I’m so scared, and I don’t want to leave.

“It’s not as far as you think,” Thomas offers me kindly. “As a wizard I don’t have to travel the way humans or shifters do. I can move around by something called teleportation. With a short spell, we’ll both be in America, and as soon as I get word from your mother and father that it’s safe for you to come back, I can have you home in seconds.”

“We don’t have to get a plane?” I try to stifle the sobs still sitting at the back of my throat.

“No, no planes…just instant travel. So much better than cramped planes and sitting around in airports spending far too much money in duty free.” He winks at me and I can feel my body calming down.

“So, they can come and visit me as well in an instant?” I ask. but at this, Thomas looks down, and my father answers for him.

“It will be too dangerous. Nobody can find out where you’ve gone until it is safe. Diane, you must be brave. Thomas is a good man, he’ll look after you. He might even be able to teach you some of his spells. You can come back to us as a shapeshifting fox with magical powers.”

I remain silent, and looking down at my hands, I pick despondently on my fingernails. I know my parents are doing the right thing—they wouldn’t want us to be separated unless the risk was great, but it hurts all the same. We’re a close family, and I’ve never been apart from them like this before. I force a smile onto my face—I can cry when I’m alone, but in front of the people around me now, I need to be brave.

“I’d like that.” 

The air around us suddenly crackles with energy, and before I have a chance to realize what is going on, ten men appear in the clearing. They are heavily armed with guns and knives. 

“No.” My father pulls me behind him. Thomas balls his hands together and prepares an energy bolt.

“Daddy,” I whisper. “What’s happening?”

“Thomas!” my father shouts, and the wizard shoots a bolt directly into one of the men, and he falls backward onto the floor…I think he’s dead. His entire body is covered in black charred flesh. “Get her out of here,” my father orders, pushing me toward Thomas, but before I have a chance to reach for the wizard, a red hole appears in his forehead. His eyes go wide, and my mother starts to scream loudly in the background.

“I’m sorry,” Thomas motions with his mouth and falls to the ground as I’m grabbed by one of the armed men.

“No.” My father shifts in an instant and attacks my captor trying desperately to get me back. My mother does the same, but they are no match for the strength and arsenal of the evil stranger holding me. I watch on in horror as bullet holes riddle my parents’ bodies before everything falls silent, and my mother and father are left lying motionless on the floor of the clearing. Tears streams down my face…my parents are gone. 

In a flash of light, I’m taken from the only home and people I’ve ever loved and thrust into a dark dungeon in a place I don’t recognize.

“Welcome, Diane.” A gruff voice emerges from the shadows, and its owner appears a few seconds later. A tall and imposing man with thick hair coloured in black and grey waves. His piercing brown eyes drill into my very soul—they are nearly as black as night. He’s evil, I can sense it. I don’t know what he is, but he smells pure animal.

“Where am I?” I manage to get my words out with a trembling voice.

The man laughs.

“You are right where you need to be, Diane. Where I can harness the power of your prophecy in order to destroy the humans.”