This story was written during the July monthly writing work session with my BFF Meagan. For more, see the original post.
Plot Twist: betray
Cliff pulled open the door before his brother had the chance to knock. “Well? Did you find anything?”
Giving him a satisfied look, his older brother brushed past him into the great room, brandishing the stack of papers he carried. Cliff grinned and kicked the door shut with a heel as he followed, eager to find out what Dalton had learned.
It was about time they got some good luck.
They’d been searching for the man they’d taken to calling the Old Bastard for over three hundred years, since the day they’d returned home and found their mother dead on the porch, the house engulfed in flames behind her. Shouting for their brother who had stayed behind, Cliff had pulled Evelyn onto the grass and joined Dalton in trying to put out the fire. It had been a lost cause; the house was too far gone, and they were just too late. They found Keegan’s remains a day later in the woods behind the house after hours of searching. He’d died in wolf form, and he hadn’t gone easy.
They’d gone to live with their cousin, and everyone assumed they’d moved on. But unlike the rest of the world, they’d never forgotten, and they’d plotted their revenge. They’d watched the tensions between humans and shifters escalate as they’d hunted for the smallest of clues as to the identity of the man who had killed their family. When the Second Great War of the Races erupted in 2987, the humans started burning all public records in the major cities that made reference or involved any of the nonhuman races. The Randolph brothers had joined the shifter army not to defend their race, but to save the histories on the off chance they’d find some small clue on the man they were looking for.
Now, seventy eight years later, they probably had the largest collection of shapeshifter documents on their race’s history, and nothing to show for it.
Cliff hoped that something on one of those sheets of paper in his brother’s hand would turn things around.
Dalton pulled back his chair from the long table they’d been using for their research and began separating documents. Cliff leaned over his shoulder to see he’d collected old parchments, torn scraps and a few that looked like official court records.
“Where did you find them?”
“Do you remember that weird old guy who used to live on the edge of our property in that rundown shack? Turns out he fancied himself an amateur historian and had been writing down stories he’d heard during his travels.”
“Why the hell are we just learning about him now?” Cliff complained, throwing himself into his own chair.
“Because after Mother and Keegan died and we left, there wasn’t anyone for him to talk to or take care of. So, he closed up and went to live with distant family across the country.”
“Are you telling me he took all of his research with him?”
“No,” Dalton said. “He stashed the majority of it in his secret hiding place.”
Cliff was ready to swipe at his brother, claws out, until he saw the smirk. “You found it, didn’t you? Is that what this stuff is from?”
“Took me while, but yeah, I finally found it. Old coot had it stashed right under our noses, literally.” Motioning, he drew Cliff closer as he shifted papers around until he came up with the map they’d drawn out of their property back on the outskirts of Kelamine Forest. It detailed their estate, the surrounding areas and the nearby city. Dalton pointed to a shaded area near the river farthest from the main house, then drew his finger across the page until it stopped nearly dead center in the middle of the woods. Leaning closer, Cliff saw the notation.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
“I’m dead serious. Somehow he found out that there’s caverns and tunnels underneath the ruins of our ancestral home. He went out there, found a way in, and made himself a nice little treasure trove.”
“And all this?”
“The first bits and pieces I came across that were dated around the right time. There’s a lot down there, little brother. I think we finally caught a break.”
Cliff sat back down hard. They’d both given up a lot on this revenge plan of theirs, and the chance that the end was in sight was a heady thought.
“So why are we looking at this stuff here? Wouldn’t it be easier to take the notes we’ve made to the source?”
“See, that’s why you were an officer and I was a grunt,” Dalton said. “You’ve always been good with the ideas.”
Grabbing a couple of the largest satchels they had, the brothers packed up anything that they thought they might need in order to cross reference and crammed them as carefully as possible inside. The map they rolled and secured loosely with twine, slipping it into a hard tube that had a strap attached.
“This should give us a good start,” Cliff stated as he looked around. “Do we need the essentials, food, water, a bit of whiskey?” He added that last part with a grin, and Dalton mirrored it.
“Couldn’t hurt. I’ll grab that, you go get our rides ready.”
Cliff caught the tube his brother tossed at him, then slung the strap of one of the satchels over his shoulder as he headed out. He figured Dalton had stabled his horse in the stall next to his, so the prep would be easy. It would be slower to travel on horseback, but they couldn’t exactly take what they needed with them in wolf form. The horses whinnied at his approach, and his roan poked his head out for a rub.
“Anxious to get out of your cage, huh, big guy?” he asked with affection as he set down his load and entered the stall. The big horse nodded enthusiastically, sending his mane flying. Cliff laughed, settling a calming hand on the animal’s neck. “Alright, alright, Easy now. Let’s get you saddled up and loaded. If you’re good, I’ll see if I can’t talk our brothers into a race to the edge of the forest.” He laughed again as the horse thumped him in the chest with his head, then settled down.
He made quick work of the business of saddling Arian, and secured both the map and his satchel. Dalton arrived just as he was finishing up, tossing him a smaller pouch. Tucking that into his saddlebag, he tied a loose knot to keep it closed and checked on his brother. He was cinching the strap on Ryden’s saddle, and looked good to go. He swung himself up onto Arian’s back and walked into the cool night to wait.
He felt different this time. He didn’t know why, but he did.
Dalton followed him out, leading Ryden by the reins, then dropped the bar into the braces that locked down the stable. Swinging into his saddle, he eyed his brother.
“Why do you two look like you’re about to bolt?”
“Probably because I told Arian we’d race you two to the forest’s edge if he behaved.” He shrugged unapologetically at his brother’s raised eyebrow. “Brothers of all species are naturally competitive, be they horse or shapeshifter. What can I say?”
“How about you say nothing and we see who’s the better steed and rider?”
“There’s another reason I made officer and you stayed a grunt,” Cliff offered, whistling Arian softly into a canter as they crossed the yard and headed for the small path that would lead them to the westernmost section of their property and the woods. “I had a horse who actually listened to me.”
His brother said nothing. Instead, Dalton gave Rydan a single hard kick, and the darker roan that was his own horse’s twin leaped forward, putting on an impressive burst of speed. Arian whickered loudly in protest, and Cliff got a better grip on the reins. “Go get him,” he said softly, and grinned into the night as his horse bolted after them.
They crossed the grasslands on the outskirts of Kelamine Forest in record time, both horses running full out, their thundering hooves muted by the packed grass in the quietness of the night. Neither rider pulled up on the reins as they dodged the trees that began to appear. There was only one path into the forest, and both horses headed right for it. In the end, though, Arian pulled ahead and shot into the forest ahead of Rydan. They charged on until they reached the clearing, and both horses reared and the brothers laughed.
“Nice race, brother!” Dalton called, patting his horse’s shoulder as Rydan danced with excess energy from his run.
“Definitely!” replied Cliff, taking large swallows of water from the bottle he’d dug out of his supplies. Stashing it again, he motioned for Dalton to lead the way. His brother turned Rydan toward the left trail, and deeper into the heavy forest. It had been a long time since Cliff had been on this part of the property, and he kept getting distracted by things around him. Once or twice his vision blurred, but he didn’t think much of it, considering he’d been up for a days buried in research.
Ten minutes later, the trees thinned out a bit, and he caught sight of the ruins past his brother’s shoulders. One of the largest castle walls still stood, although only half as high as it had been and now overgrown with vines and moss. Big chunks of granite lay topped all around, and he could see more in the distance for a good mile.
Dalton took Rydan up and over the nearest mound, weaving in and out of the obstacles time had left behind. Cliff followed, curious to see where the entrance to the hermit’s stash was situated. When his brother slowed down and dismounted, Cliff did the same and closed the distance on foot. Glancing around, he could see why it was the perfect hiding place. There was nothing but nature all around him.
Tossing the reins of their horses over a low-hanging branch, they each loaded up with their supplies, and Dalton walked over to a closely grouped set of trees, their trunks and roots twisted and gnarled. His brother stepped around to the side of the thatch, then spoke a phrase in a language Cliff hadn’t heard in centuries. A moment later, the two nearest trees shimmered and a faint green light traced a large outline onto the bark about the size of their front door. When the two ends met, he heard a faint chime and the section within the outline disappeared.
Cliff whistled softly. “Who is this guy, exactly? Your average hermit doesn’t usually secure the entrance to his hidden treasure with a lock spell in our ancient language.” He climbed up beside his brother and peered into the darkness.
“I don’t care, as long as we get what we need.” Dalton dug through his satchel and brought out a light globe, rapping it to activate its spell. “Come on.”
He watched his brother disappear into the tree, and moved to follow. When his vision blurred again, he barely caught himself in time from tumbling into the passageway. He heard his brother holler for him. He shook his head, blaming the problem once again on his lack of sleep. Pulling out his own light globe and activating it, he stepped inside.
Thanks to his wolf, he didn’t have too much trouble finding his way down the path. He had a moment of uncertainty when he heard the entrance seal itself behind him, but he’d never been comfortable with magic any stronger than what he held in his hand. He heard his brother further down the path, and followed its twisting and winding until he could see another large doorway illuminated from inside just ahead.
He stepped across the threshold and marveled at what he saw. Shelves had been carved into the rock face on every wall. Crates stood stacked in every corner and along the hall that led further back into what he presumed was another room like this one. Every shelf, crate and surface he could see was filled with books and journals and loose sheets of paper.
If they couldn’t find what they were looking for here, Cliff guessed they wouldn’t find it anywhere.
Looking around for his brother, he saw him at a large table that lumbered close to the longest wall. There was just enough room between the edge of the table and the shelving behind it to slide in a chair, and he saw a pair of them. Dalton was setting his satchel down onto one of the two chairs, and Cliff moved to join him.
“It’s going to take us a lot longer to go through all of this than I thought,” Cliff said, scanning the shelves nearest to him. “Everything is just crammed into whatever spot was available, without any thought for any kind of organization. Where did you find the stuff you brought home tonight? We could probably start there.” He turned to look at his brother, and his world spun. He grabbed onto the back of the nearest chair as he fought his shifting equilibrium, and fought to bring his brother into focus.
A moment later, he caught sight of who stood behind his brother in the half-shadows, and he felt the growl rise within him.
“What have you done, brother?” Cliff ground out, fighting back the desire to shift with every once of willpower he had. He could hear creaking beneath his grip and gritted his teeth against the pain as he felt his fingers lengthen into his wolf’s claws and dug furrows into the wood. When the next wave of dizziness hit him, much stronger this time, his grip tightened in order to keep him upright. Seeing Dalton smile at his situation ironically brought things into focus for him.
It wasn’t a question, but Dalton answered anyway. “Just a little something I added in to make you a little more manageable. I better than anyone know what happens when you lose your temper, and we couldn’t risk it.”
Cliff’s eyes narrowed. “You should have doubled the dose, brother. Now, answer me, because it’s obvious you didn’t bring me here to do research.”
“You did say he was the smart one,” a new voice commented, and Cliff’s entire body went still. He knew that voice. It might have been three hundred and sixty-two years since he’d last heard it, but he knew that voice.
A five-year-old boy always remembers what his father sounds like.
His head swam again, and a subtle warmth started coursing through his veins. “Wolfsbane? You gave me wolfsbane?! I’m your brother, damn it! Why would you give me the one thing that is guaranteed to kill me slowly, and what has he this got to do with him?”
His vicious snarl on that last word had his brother stepping back a bit, and Cliff smiled to himself.
“When we were young, our father went by the name Harrison Randolph. After his ‘death,’ he returned to his place of birth and resurrected his true name. I think you’re familiar with it, considering we’ve been hunting him for centuries.”
“Blakely Macrae,” Cliff said through clenched teeth as he struggled to stay upright. He could feel the wolfsbane working its way through his system, and he didn’t have much time left to find a healer.
“Nice to see you again, Sutcliff. You’ve aged well, considering your bloodlines.”
He bit back another pain-filled grown as he crouched, close to losing his battle with his desire to shift. “Whatever he’s promised you, whatever he’s giving you, it will never make up for the fact that he killed our mother, our brother.”
“Actually,” Harrison drawled, “they were your mother, your brother, not mine. I come from more pure and noble stock. Grab him,” he shouted.
Cliff saw two other men step out of the shadows, and knew it was now or never. “I’ll pay you both back for what you’ve done, then and now. I swear it.”
With a scream full of such pain and fury that it startled everyone else in the room, Cliff threw himself into the magic that facilitated his change, and faster than he’d ever done before, he shifted into his wolf.
© 2014 Nicole A. Bossard