The following is an excerpt of “The Fox Returns.” Look for it in Fated and Claimed, a limited edition collection of 10+ ABO stories from Sienna Sway, Zelda Knight, and many more!
The near-naked branches of the trees gleamed in the last of the fading daylight, the orange rays glinting off the brilliant leaves. The sky was tinted pink, and frost nipped at Valentin’s nose. Already, the wind had changed direction, sweeping in from the north. The cold seemed dangerously close to bursting into a flurry of snow.
It wasn’t much of a surprise to him; after all, he’d grown up here in the woods, among the crags of the windswept peaks, in the vales and ravines. The weather was familiar, almost comforting. What was more surprising was that he remembered so vividly, even after two decades away.
The sun dipped below the horizon; the world turned dark, then darker, as though all the color were leaching out of the landscape. The naked limbs of the trees were shadowy, skeletal fingers stretching toward the sky, the rising moon. The wind rattled through the branches, shook the dry, dead leaves, and Valentin paused on the rocky, winding path, inhaling deeply as the wild in him rose to meet the wilder call of Nature.
He shook his head and pressed on. He’d decided to make the hike to the abandoned chalet on foot, because he knew it was a one-way trip. Once he passed the gate, there was no going back.
The fallen leaves crunched under his boots as he followed the trail away from the river, which was nothing more than a slim, dark trickle after a long summer, the bed now choked with leaves. The water burbled underneath, wending its way through a maze of jagged, black rocks.
The trees thinned as he ascended the hill. He paused briefly when he crested it, certain he’d seen eyes glowing in the dark, a shadow darting between the trees.
He’d known for a while now that he was being followed. Eyes had been on him the moment he entered the woods, possibly from the time he’d set foot in the meadow in the golden glory of the afternoon.
He wasn’t afraid; he knew what it was that stalked him through the woods that late October night.
At last, the steep incline flattened out, and he followed the trail as it hugged the edge of the ravine, peering over the rim of it. There was nothing but shadow below.
A few hundred meters more and he gained the gate, broken and hanging pathetically from its rusted-out hinges. The masonry of the fence had been old when he was young; it looked worse for wear now, as though the winters had been harsh and the summers even less forgiving.
He heard a stick snap behind him and whirled, but there was nothing there. His nose twitched; the air was heavy with the scent of smoke, frost, autumn spice.
He made his way up the drive, which Nature was trying to reclaim as her own; the thicket of trees was dense, everything growing tight together amid a jungle of decay.
He supposed no one had been up this way for a while; he found evidence of a couple of fires, some spray paint on one of the dilapidated, wooden outbuildings away from the main house. Teenagers likely, trespassers, perhaps tramps. He knew from scent alone that there had been other visitors, but they were swift on their four feet, rarely stopping.
Valentin was surprised that none of the windows in the house had been smashed out; the door was still locked as well. He supposed there was some magic in the old place yet. It was why his mother had lived here, after all; it was why they stayed, even after all these years.
His key still fit the lock; he spent a moment or two wrestling with it before the ancient iron finally gave way and he was able to turn the tumblers. Then he kicked the door and it crashed open.
The house smelled of dust; it lay everywhere, swirled into the air behind him. The furniture was covered in dust sheets, which had turned an ashy gray. The grandfather clock stood in the deepest shadows of the entryway, still tick-tocking ominously.
Valentin glanced over his shoulder, but the doorway was empty. The moon was overhead, casting her light into the yard behind him. He turned away and drifted deeper into the house.
He passed through the deserted rooms, ignoring the ghosts that seemed to linger there. His footsteps echoed; the floorboards squealed underneath him as he passed.
He stopped only when he reached the sunroom at the back of the house. It was now filled with moonglow; the trees in the yard rattled in the wind beyond the panes.
Valentin set down his pack and peered up at the moon. She was shy of full, but waxing toward it rapidly. Probably less than a week, then. The way his blood sang told him so.
The glint of eyes hidden among the trees in the yard caught his attention. He stared directly at the creature; it stood stock still and stared back.
“I know you’re there,” he muttered, then moved to the back door. He wrestled with the latch, then stepped boldly onto the porch.
He peered into the shadows. “Renard,” he called softly.
The creature ducked its head, then trotted through the trees into the clearing. The moon shone brightly on silver fur; a bushy, bright tail wagged slightly as the fox came to a standstill, ears pricked forward.
Valentin sighed. He folded his arms.
There was a sudden shudder in the air, a chill, followed by the wind whisking laughter past him.
When he looked back, the fox was gone, and in the creature’s place stood a man. He was lanky, languid, his golden eyes hooded as though he were drunk or half-asleep. A slow sort of smirk curled his lips, adding to the illusion. Despite that, he studied Valentin with an intensity that forced the blond to shudder.
Neither of them moved. They stood there, as though transfixed, for what felt like an age. A chill breeze rustled the leaves, swirling through the expanse between them, a flurry of inky color in the rum light of the moon.
“Well,” the fox-man said, and his sharp teeth glimmered in the moonbeams. Valentin shivered, and it wasn’t because of the cold. “I see you’ve finally decided to return.”
Valentin shifted his weight and drew his coat tighter around him. “It hasn’t been that long, Ren.”
Ren chuckled, like he thought that was a very good joke. Perhaps it was. Valentin had left twenty years ago and never looked back.
Then again, twenty years wasn’t that long, not to someone like Ren.
At last, Ren’s laughter subsided, drawing itself into an amused little hum. He smiled slyly at Valentin, his golden eyes twinkling with merriment. “Have you finally accepted destiny then?”
Valentin stiffened his spine and stood straighter. He couldn’t help the way his hands curled into fists.
Ren’s gaze darted down, then back up to his face. The amusement drained from the fox-man’s expression. “What other reason could you have for coming back here now?” He sounded irritated.
The leaves crunched under his footsteps as he drew closer. “It is odd to me,” he murmured, “that you’d return now, when the bitter wind shakes the leaves from the trees, when the night is longer than the day, when the sun is weak and the shadows strong. The veil between worlds is thin, thinner every day; the moon waxes to her zenith, and now, here you are.”
He circled Valentin, who fixed his gaze on a point across the yard, in the shadow of the trees. All the hair on his neck stood up as Ren paced around him, stalking him much like he’d stalked Valentin through the woods. “Yes,” the fox-man growled, “very strange indeed, that you’d deign to come back now, of all times.”
He paused beside Valentin. Their breath billowed into the sky, plumes illuminated by the moon.
Valentin turned to glare at the fox-man. A smile curled over Ren’s features. “You’re fighting, but you’re losing, aren’t you? The moon, I’d bet—she turns the tide of your blood, doesn’t she? Her light grows stronger, and you feel the tug of your own destiny. You’ve denied yourself so long—you ought to have waxed and waned like her these last twenty years, hm? Instead, you’ve only waned.”
Ren’s gaze was critical, but Valentin said nothing; he had nothing to say. Ren wasn’t wrong so much as Valentin didn’t like that he was right.
“Ah,” the fox-man said again. He jammed his hands in the pockets of his slacks, and they both peered up at the moon. “There are still a few days.”
“Yes,” Valentin agreed.
When Ren said nothing more, he turned back to the house, ignoring the uneasy disorientation that settled over him when he looked at the woods around the house. The trees were at once familiar and strange. Yet he felt the pull in his veins, the same song that had called him here.
Ren was not wrong at all; he’d been ignoring that seductive melody for twenty years. With every changing season, it was more difficult to do. As September faded in October, his mind clouded; he could think of nothing but the woods, the scent of them, the house with its old stone fireplace, the golden afternoon light as the days grew shorter and the world shifted toward hibernation.
When he was younger, it had been nothing more than a light mist. Now, it felt more like a thick fog had rolled in off the lake, lying heavy around his brain, and he could see nothing beyond those clouds of memory. The longing to go home burrowed deep in his bones.
He’d resisted, because he knew what going home meant. It meant acquiescing to the fate he’d run from when he was just fifteen.
Ren trailed him silently into the house as far as the hall. Valentin ignored him in favor of the powder room.
He palmed the scar that adorned his neck, ragged around the edges, a permanent reminder of who, what he was. He peered at it in a murky mirror on the dun wall. Then he shook his hands and wiped them on a towel.
“We’ll get the well primed tomorrow,” he said as he turned back to the sunroom, where a fire was blazing on the hearth. Ren had laid himself out on the floor, his limbs artlessly arranged across the worn hardwood boards. He hadn’t bothered to draw the drapes, so the moonlight crept in.
“Planning on staying a while, then?” Ren’s fox ears pricked forward. He felt no need to disguise himself around Valentin.
Valentin said nothing. He rifled through the cupboards—empty, all of them, except for the faintest hints of vermin. He crinkled his nose against the hunger pang that the thought of scurrying mice aroused.
“Hungry?” Ren asked, as though he’d read Valentin’s mind.
Valentin swallowed both the thought that the fox was psychic and the razor-toothed hunger gnawing through him. “I’ll live.” He thought of the granola bars stuffed in the backpack he’d brought with him on his hike from the last bus stop, miles and miles from here. Unappealing, but food nonetheless.
Ren grinned at him. “You always were stubborn,” he murmured, then sat up. “What if I got us something to eat?”
Valentin opened his mouth to protest, but Ren was at the door. He slid it open, then winked. Just as quick, he was gone, scurrying across the yard on all fours, silver tail a flag behind him.
Valentin huffed, then moved to the fireside to wait.
He must have dozed, because it felt like only an instant passed before Ren returned, creeping back in through the sliding door. He pushed his bloody muzzle against Valentin’s cheek. Valentin shoved him away.
The fox had brought back a rabbit. Blood trickled across the floor. Valentin crinkled his nose.
He was hungry. He’d been walking all day.
“Go on,” Ren encouraged, shifting back to a more human shape.
“I’m going to cook it,” Valentin announced and forced himself to pick the carcass up and go outside to skin it. The temptation to tear into raw flesh with his teeth was strong.
Ren sighed, leaning in the doorway. “It would be easier for you if you gave up these human notions of yours.”
Valentin skinned the rabbit wordlessly, then drained the blood, even as the cold crept into his fingertips. They both watched red drip down to the ground, and then Valentin put the carcass on the spit. He noted two more pairs of eyes between the trees.
Ren waited until he stepped back into the house, then closed the door, locking it. He drew the drapes. Valentin put the rabbit over the fire.
“You know,” Ren drawled.
Valentin grunted, then turned about to face the fox-man. “I don’t need you to hunt for me,” he huffed.
Ren grinned. “Of course not. You could do it yourself.”
Valentin felt his lip curl in a snarl. He turned back to the rabbit before he could say anything more.