“Where are you at again?”
“Stell Valley,” I said. “It's about an hour from the border.”
“Oh, I know where that is.” Rudy, Jason's omega husband, popped into the frame of the computer. He was jiggling a cute baby whose tiny feet beat a tempo against his thigh. “That's not that far from where I grew up. It's pretty backcountry out that way.”
“I know.” I glanced around at the rustic hotel room, the only accommodations available in the town. “The wi-fi is pretty spotty out here. The hotel is the only place in town I can seem to get a signal. Even my phone doesn't work that well.”
“What are you doing out there again? And when are you coming home?” Jason asked. “You know Mom doesn't like it when any of her puppies are away from home for too long.”
“New dig with Professor Frostburg.”
“You're still working with that crotchety old coot?” Jason laughed.
“He may be crotchety and he may be a bit full of himself, but he’s one of the best researchers in the shifter anthropology field. I'm lucky to be on this dig with him and Allison. It’s a great team and hard to get onto. There's been some interesting finds. Hopefully one day we'll figure out where shifters came from.”
Rudy's head popped back into the frame again. “Why do you want to know where shifters came from? Is it really that important?”
“It is to me.”
“Fair enough,” Jason said.
“Anyhow,” I said, “enough about what's going on out here in the boonies. How's everything back in the city?”
“Everything is going great,” Jason said to me. “You can see how big this little pup is getting.” He reached over and plucked his son from Rudy's arms. He was a cute little boy with Rudy’s light brown hair and Jason's expressive eyes. He shoved a handful of fingers into his mouth and drooled and gurgled while Jason jiggled him on his knee. “The website is working out quite well. Actually, better than I could have expected. And we're going to launch the app soon. Rudy’s done fantastic work with that. He's better than any other programmer I've ever worked with.” Jason gave his mate a glance that carried both fondness and desire.
“How are Mom and Dad?” I asked. “And the brothers?” I had four brothers. Jason was the oldest and I was second in line, followed by Ollie then the twins, Jasper and Slate.
“Well, you know Mom. She's trying to decorate everything that's not nailed down and then some. I've had to keep her away from Rudy for a bit. She tried to take over the decoration of Liam's nursery. I thought there was going to be a real problem there for a while.” Jason laughed. “And Dad is Dad. He's hitting the golf course a lot more now that Ollie is taking over more of the business.”
“How's he doing with that?” I asked.
“Much better than Dad expected, I know that. It's amazing. I've never seen him this focused on anything in his entire life. He's born for it.”
“Jasper and Slate?”
“Still as much trouble as ever,” Rudy piped up from the background, making me laugh.
“Well I'm glad everybody is doing okay. I need to get going. We have to get up to the dig site today. There's some reps from the pack coming.”
“You guys be careful up there,” Rudy said. “Those pack shifters in the backlands aren't always the friendliest people you’ll ever meet.”
“Thanks for the warning, Rudy,” I said. “I'll keep it in mind. But I don't think we'll have much trouble. Professor Frostburg has been up this way before. I think he knows what he's doing.”
“Good luck then,” Jason said. “We’ll talk to you soon.”
I reached over and closed the screen on my laptop. I jumped off the creaky old bed and quickly pulled on a pair of dusty brown boots and a flannel shirt before I headed down the stairs and met up with the rest of my group in the lobby of the old hotel.
* * *
My boots clattered down the wooden steps of the hotel and I headed across the dusty street to the dirty truck parked on the far side. Allison Carlowe was leaning over the hood of the truck, which might have been gray or bright blue. Who could tell with the thick coat of dust that covered it? Allison had a map stretched across the hood. She was whip thin and bronzed by her time spent under the sun on digs. Her hair was as dark as a crow’s wing, which was appropriate because Allison was a crow shifter. Professor Frostburg was next to Allison, talking a mile a minute and jabbing at the map with his finger.
“A map?” I said to Allison. “We're using actual paper maps now? Is there something wrong with the geo-tracker?”
“They don't work well out here, rich boy,” Allison snarked. “All those fancy gadgets you use back in Stelline aren't going to be worth much now. We're going old school digging.”
“You two shut up,” Professor Frostburg groused at us. “Get in the truck and let's go. I want to be up at the dig site before the sun gets much higher.”
We piled into the double cab of the truck, Professor Frostburg at the wheel and Allison riding shotgun. The town of Stell Valley was so small, only the roads that ran north to south were paved. The cross streets were still dirt and all the buildings were made of the same wood that was weathered to a greenish-grey. We took the main road out of town and headed up into the hills above the town. A dusty grit rose up from beneath the tires and gave the truck another coat of dirt. The hills and ravines were covered in a sparse scrub brush and the dust spewing from behind the truck tinted the air orange, the same color as the hills that were starting to rise up on either side of us.
“So, where are we headed?” I leaned forward and braced my arms on the back of the truck seat, feeling the rumbles through the soles of my boots.
“Rancher up this way found some bones, called the University. Burial site, looks like.” Professor Frostburg's hands gripped the leather-covered steering wheel and I could hear the excitement in his voice. “These are interesting bones because our grave occupant appears to have died mid-shift. The bones are half-human, half-shifter.”
“So we're going into an old shifter grave site?” I sat back and peered at the landscape passing outside the window. Shifter origins were clouded in mystery. We didn't know where we came from or why. We just knew where we were now. We'd been searching for answers for at least the past fifty years, trying to figure out where shifters originated from, what our background was, but we hadn't come any closer to finding out our origins.
“We’ll be lucky if the local pack lets us anywhere near the site,” Allison said. “These old shifter tribes are just that: tribal. If you're not from here, if you're not local, they don't want to have much to do with you. They think us shifters who decided to break away from the packs and live more like humans are traitors.”
“It’ll be fine,” Professor Frostburg said. “I’ve worked with these shifters before. Just try not to offend them.”
“I know you’re not talking to me,” Allison bristled.
“You’re exactly who I’m talking to,” the professor retorted.
Allison flicked a rude finger at me when I snorted with laughter.
* * *
After almost half an hour in the truck, we arrived at the dig site. I shoved at the door and jumped out, taking in the area around us. The rest of the team was already here, unloading equipment and setting up tents that would be used to house found artifacts and tools. Professor Frostburg was already pacing the site, checking the small holes that indicated shovel tests had already been conducted. Underneath a rocky outcropping, a tarp was held down at the edges with rocks. That had to be our shifter remains.
The ground around us was rocky, hard-packed dirt. I squatted and grabbed a handful, letting it sift between my fingers, rubbing the grit between my fingertips, trying to feel what it wanted to tell me. I knew some people thought it was ridiculous, but I knew the dirt and the trees and the earth had stories they wanted to tell. I knew the shifter whose bones lay yards away from me wanted his tale known. I knew I would.
A light blow to the back of my head pulled me out of my thoughts. I rubbed the sting on my skull and peered up. Allison.
“Let’s go, rich boy. Time to get the grid set up.” She dropped a canvas bag full of dowels and string in front of me.
I resisted the urge to rip into her and instead grabbed the bag and headed over to where the professor was marking points with the toe of his boot. “Start here,” he barked at me.
I sighed and pushed down the alpha part of me that didn’t like to be ordered around. Instead, I lost myself in the work, setting dowels and stringing the grid so we could finally get started.
* * *
A cold bottle of water nudged my shoulder. I looked up and nodded at Allison, taking the bottle, breaking the seal, and downing half in a single gulp. Allison twitched her head toward the tents. I looked over and saw Professor Frostburg in deep conversation with a tall, grey-headed man dressed in denim and leather. I couldn’t believe he was wearing a leather jacket in this heat. I’d have shed my flannel shirt and tee ages ago.
“What’s going on?” I asked, and took another slug of water.
“Pack rep for the local shifter pack. Prof doesn’t look happy.” Allison took a sip of her own water.
“You really think they don’t want us here?”
“I know they don’t. But there’s not much they can do. We’re on private property now. The ranch property doesn’t end until… there.” Allison pointed to a line of trees to our left, just behind the tarp-covered skeleton.
“Come on.” I finished my water and headed toward the tents, Allison right behind me.
When I arrived, Professor Frostburg’s eyes lit up. “Ah, good. Parker, I’d like you to meet Martin Simms. He’s the rep for the local pack. Martin, Parker Marks, one of my best Ph.D. students.” Professor Frostburg stabbed his thumb in my direction.
“Mr. Simms,” I said and offered him my hand. He studied it for a few seconds too long before finally giving it a rough shake.
“Parker,” he practically grunted.
I bristled at his tone and use of my first name, but Professor Frostburg narrowed his eyes at me and I took a step back.
The rep turned back to the professor. “Like I said, we’re not necessarily thrilled you’re here but there’s nothing we can do. You’re on old man Tanner’s land. Just be respectful of anything you find. And keep us posted on your progress and finds.” Then he turned on his booted heel and headed back to a shiny, black truck.
“First, how’s he keep his truck so clean out here?” Allison deadpanned from behind me. “And second, why the hell would we have to keep them posted on our finds?”
“To stay in the pack’s good graces,” Professor Frostburg murmured as he watched the truck back up down the road. “If we want to continue digs and research in this area—and we do because it’s the richest in shifter artifacts—we need to stay on good terms with the local pack. So both of you behave. And get back to work.” Professor Frostburg turned and disappeared into the tent.
The sun had passed its zenith before we finished marking out the grid. We took a quick break for sandwiches, but we ate quickly and without conversation, eager to get to work.
Finally, I was standing over the tarp, its plastic crinkling in the slight breeze that was blowing down the mountain. Professor Frostburg nudged the rocks to the side and bent over the tarp, looking up at me and Allison. Then he carefully, almost reverentially, peeled back the side of the tarp and revealed the bones lying underneath.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until I heard Allison exhale slowly.
The figure was on his side, legs pulled up into a fetal position, arms crossed underneath. No, not arms. Paws. His arms shifted, his head shifted, his entire upper body canine, his lower, human. For the first time, I could see what shifting did to the bones. The twist in the torso, the shortening of the femur, the jaw elongating. It was…
“Amazing,” I breathed out and dropped down to my knees near the figure.
“Indeed it is,” Professor Frostburg said softly.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Allison murmured, “It should—”
“It should be left alone,” a voice thundered from behind us.
There were six of them from the local pack, standing shoulder to shoulder, all alphas. And they weren’t happy. An older man, the tallest, was the one with the thunderous voice. His eyes were narrowed, dangerous looking slits, and his voice was just barely human, the growl growing in his throat.
I could feel my own alpha snapping its jaws inside me, pushing against my chest and rumbling up. It never came on this fast in the city. Something about being here, far from Stelline City, in the original pack lands, was affecting my psyche. A growl escaped my throat before I could stop it. Allison flung herself in front of me as the pack leader lowered his head and took a step towards us.
Then a smaller man stepped around the leader and placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Now isn’t the time, Barrett.” His voice was low and melodious and stopped me in my tracks. It stopped Barrett, too.
I caught a quick whiff, a fleeting scent, and stiffened. Omega.
He spun and looked at me. His vivid amethyst eyes pierced through my soul and speared my heart. It skipped a beat, then two, and my breath lodged in my lungs. This couldn’t be happening. Not here. Not now.
I heard the rustle and murmur as the pack in front of me sensed the charge in the air. Even Allison caught the change in the atmosphere. She dropped a hand on my shoulder and pulled me back.
“What’s going on, Parker? What’s happening? Is it that omega? Do you know him?” Allison shook me when I didn’t answer her.
“I don’t know him. He’s just an omega,” I said between clenched teeth.
But he wasn’t just an omega.
He was my omega.