Chapter 6

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Two full days of trailing behind Prince Dax's company of soldiers with little rest and no food, hampers my mood to the point where my skin itches with the transformation I know is coming tonight.

The wizard hasn't made another appearance. I imagine him somewhere—possibly in his dark castle—laughing at me for approaching the Prince when the moon was dark.

Every few clicks, Captain Niilo glances over his shoulder to find me. And each time I narrow my gaze on him, wondering not for the first time, what his deal is. Yesterday he brought me three dead rabbits and a bird, to eat. I don't know why, but he seems to have taken it upon himself to take care of me. It's rather annoying.

At least they've stopped trying to kill me.

Close to sundown we stop in a semi-cleared alcove on the side of the main road. A couple of soldiers begin cutting down the young saplings and clearing enough room for tents to be pitched and a fire to be built.

The stench of sweat and dirt wafts up my nose as the camp settles in. I find a shadowed alcove of arrow and birch trees far enough away from the camp of soldiers I shouldn't be heard, but close enough that once I find my human footing I'll be able to approach Dax. With my tail curled around me, I tip my head back to the stars appearing in the milky blue sky above. Only a few more minutes. A low fog settles through the trees, creating a veil of white that mists from my nose and mouth.

A sharp sting accompanied by a shiver runs the length of my tired body, signaling the moon's rising.

The transformation takes longer this time. As if the wizard's power boosted it last time to the point that it didn't hurt. Groans escape me in gasps as my muscles ache and tear. Each excruciating second that passes brings another wave of nearly unbearable pain spearing through my bones, until at last I'm lying in the undergrowth, damp with my own sweat, panting as if I were just at the center of a hunt. It feels wrong. My body doesn't feel like my own anymore. It's not welcoming.

"Hello? Who's there? Show yourself." Captain Niilo. In the short time I've been with Dax's company of soldiers, I've grown accustomed to the gravelly tone of his rough voice.

I scramble to cover myself in leaf-litter and broken branches just as the bronze captain steps from the forestry, dark eyes finding me immediately. Even in the shadow of night I can make out a dark pink blush as it spreads across his neck and cheeks in splotches.

"Pardon me, my lady." He spins quickly so his back is to me.

I right myself and double-check everything is covered before addressing him. "I would be grateful for something to cover my modesty, sir."

Niilo jumps to action as if stung. "Of course."

He hurries back through the trees and I'm left alone once more. The arrow trees sing to me softly, a song that only they know as they rustle in the breeze of the next summer storm. There are no birds. Odd, but I've not ventured this far from the palace before, so I can't tell if this is normal. I'm in the middle of trying to map out how close we are to the Rift when Niilo steps back into view with a bundle of cloth.

"I'm afraid the female soldiers in my company prefer pants rather than dresses. I hope these are still sufficient."

I screw up my nose at the pants as he places them on the ground a few feet away, then I meet his gaze. We stare at each other for a moment. Then his mouth opens in an O and he takes a few steps away and turns around.

"Afraid to leave me alone again?" I ask, pushing myself to my feet and snatching at the scratchy material.

He coughs, uncomfortable. "It would be dishonorable of me to leave you when you may have need of something else." He pauses and then quietly adds, "And I'm traveling with the Prince and I don't trust you. It is my duty to protect him from those wanting to do him harm."

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