Excerpt: Backwoods Asylum

It was still pitch black—why was he awake? Skylar sat up in bed and shoved aside his electric blanket, immediately mourning the loss of heat. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he shoved his feet into slippers and left the bedroom, padding through the house to the kitchen.

Then he heard it, distant and faint: crying. Wolves by the sounds of it, two little wolf puppies. Why would they be crying in the middle of the woods at … he glanced at the microwave clock … ugh, was it really three in the morning?

The crying flared up again and Skylar’s gut twisted. Who would leave babies alone in the woods and in the middle of winter? Had something happened to their parents? Why had they been on his property at all? And those questions just led to a host of others: why had he not heard anything sooner? Why wolves, when there were no wolf shifters anywhere remotely close? The nearest packs were four to six hours away.

Why, oh why, did these things always happen when it was freezing cold outside? Sighing, Skylar left the kitchen to go get properly dressed. He’d travel the woods in his shifted form, but he would definitely want the clothes later. In his bedroom, he shucked his flannel pajama pants and t-shirt, then pulled on thermal underwear, jeans, a t-shirt, sweater, and his favorite fleece. Tugging a toboggan down over his head, smooshing his poor curls and guaranteeing they’d look stupid later, he sat down to lace on heavy, fur-lined boots.

He snatched up his gloves and pulled them on as he headed for the back door, snagging one of the scarves from the rack by the door on his way past. Winding it around his neck, burying his nose in the soft, warm wool, he stepped outside into the frigid night.

The cries were louder without the buffer of the house, filled with so much terror that Skylar ached and feared for them. He wanted to sink his fangs into whatever jerk had left them. He hoped he hadn’t slept through something tragic and the parents were dead.

Well, he wouldn’t know until he knew, and standing on his porch wouldn’t tell him anything. Closing his eyes, Skylar reached deep, called up his alt form—true form, most liked to say, but Skylar was of the opinion that both forms were true forms and he’d much rather use a microwave than swallow his food whole, thanks—and let it overtake him.

Magic prickled and rubbed along his skin, wrapped around him like a scratchy blanket. The world seemed to vanish beneath him, stomach rolling in the moment before his alternate form took hold. Skylar flicked his tongue, tasting the air. Cold, so miserably cold.

He could also taste wolf, blood. Judging by the vibrations, they were near his frog pond. He could only sense the pups, though, which meant they had been abandoned, or he could not yet taste anyone who might be dead. Skylar slithered off across the frosted grass and into the dense woods that covered most of his property, constantly sampling the air, listening to and feeling the activity of the woods. Mostly it was quiet—too quiet. Even the nocturnal animals had withdrawn, alarmed by the crying of the pups.

As he got closer, Skylar could taste the unique tang of shifter. He had figured as much, since real wolves were even less likely, but it still made him angry all over again. Baby shifters! He wished he had someone to sink his fangs into just to watch them freak out before they realized his venom was not as dangerous as that of some snakes. A pity, that. He wouldn’t mind a bit of his parents’ venom to inflict on the kind of monster who would hurt babies.

He reached the pond quickly, his presence driving off the last few lingering frogs, even though he’d never eaten a frog in his life. The pups were huddled together near the pond, their body heat vibrant, and they were squirming and crying enough that between the vibrations and heat signature Skylar had an excellent image of them. They tensed and went quiet when they realized he was there. One of them recoiled while the slightly smaller one lunged forward and began to bark for all it was worth.

Affection surged for them, the one that knew better than to tangle with a snake, especially in the dark, and the smaller one that was going to do it anyway. Skylar reached for his magic again, letting out a slow breath when his human form settled into place. The barking puppy stopped, then gave a low confused whine. Skylar crept toward them on his knees and extended a hand. “Shh, little pups. Sky won’t hurt you.”

The smaller puppy whined again, hunched and creeping as it drew close enough to press its nose into Skylar’s hand. It yipped a moment later and attempted to climb him. Skylar fell over on his ass and allowed the puppy into his lap. The other one quickly followed, sniffing his jeans thoroughly before following his brother to squirm and huddle against Skylar, shivering with fear and cold and the relief of no longer being alone. He held them close, feeling possessive, protective. Nobody was going to hurt them ever again, not if he could help it.

As to that, however, he still had no idea who had abandoned them or why. There was no sign of anyone else save a faint trace of a third wolf and a hint of kerosene. It was feeling more and more like someone had abandoned them right in the middle of the forest, but close enough to his house that he would find them. Everyone knew that portion of the forest belonged to the evil shifter cottonmouth.

He petted the puppies, smiling faintly when they licked his hand and tried to climb up his chest to lick his chin. He leaned down to accommodate them, closing his eyes and grimacing as they slobbered all over his face. Drawing back, he continued the petting until they quieted down. “Poor Hansel and Gretel,” he murmured. “Left in the woods for the witch to find. Unfortunately for whoever left you, the witch doesn’t put anything in the oven except TV dinners and the casseroles his mom brings over.”

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