Calla's pleading eyes tell me to go.
"Please Analia! They are coming for you, you need to run! Go now!" Calla screams. She grips my shoulders while tears stream down her face. I hesitate. I cannot leave my sister behind. As if privy to my inner thoughts, she says, "I will be fine. You must save yourself." As I start to turn, she grabs my hand. "If something happens, remember the game."
My sister has always been the strong one. The fighter. Taking her word, I run down the wooden stairs and slam through the door into the night. The cold air hits my skin causing goosebumps to rise on my arms and legs. I focus on shifting but fail. Above me a helicopter swirls through the night sky, zeroing in on their target.
I watch in horror as the helicopter lands on the roof and dozens of men jump out, tranquilizer guns in hand. Suddenly, the roof cracks and a lion bursts through it. Calla. She growls, eyeing her enemy. The agents begin shooting. In a flash, Calla's form shifts into a bug, and the darts fly over her. Seamlessly she shifts into a giant bear and attacks the agents with her paw. They fall off the roof and onto the unforgiving ground. Calla shifts again into a blue whale. The roof cracks under her weight and the remaining agents don't stand a chance as they fall through. Calla, now an owl, watches carefully from her place on a distant branch.
I cheer silently at my sister but my joy is only momentary. The helicopter moved out of the immediate airspace and has a small missile trained directly on my unsuspecting sister.
"CALLA!" I scream. She turns toward me but my warning is too late. The missile reaches its target and explodes on impact, destroying everything that is important to me. "No, no no. Calla. NOOO!" I fall to the ground, broken. My tears turn to ice on my face. My chest aches as I lay in the snow, sobbing.
You must save yourself.
Calla's last words echo in my head. I cannot let my sister's sacrifice be in vain. I force myself up and start to run. Thoughts of Calla give me strength and I start to shift. Searing pain runs through my body as I shift for the first time in months. My once-numb feet and hands turn into paws, and I drop on all fours. My torso stretches out and fur sprouts from my pores while a tail grows off my waist. My head twists and turns until it take the shape of the enlarged cat. I am no longer a young girl but a full grown cheetah. I start to run, faster than I ever have before. My legs surge from the energy going through them and I feel the power of my core. I run aimlessly through the forest without direction or purpose. I run until the small cottage I called home for three years fades into the night.
The freezing wind rushes through the whiskers on my face. My lungs starts to ache and my body begs for warmth. I stop when the exhaustion bears down, refusing me another step. Giant redwoods envelop me, their canopy of leaves cutting off all sight to my surroundings. I glance back once, toward the past that is gone forever. The vision of what I had and lost is forever burned into memory..
I drop my head, the reality of my future hitting me. I am the last shapeshifter still free in the world. All of our friends, our families, had been captured or killed by the government. Their fear insisted that shapeshifters were dangerous and held too much power. We were a threat and only by eliminating us would the world be safe.
With few options for survival the leaders of our pack decided we should shift into one animal and live with a pack. But that solution proved useless. Pacem -- a highly classified government branch created for the sole purpose of locating and destroying shapeshifters -- hunted down and massacred packs of shapeshifters.
There was no place for shapeshifters to turn for safety. A massive anti-shifter propaganda campaign convinced even the sympathetic that shapeshifters were a curse and only if they exterminated all the shifters then would peace be possible. What they failed to inform the people was that the Pacem Project's scientists had captured as many shapeshifters as they had killed. They were studying them in hopes of finding the markers in shifter blood not found in normal humans.
Shifters have a higher core temperature than other mammals, and radiate more heat. A new form of infrared technology was developed to allow Pacem to locate and detect shifters no matter what form they were in. Calla and I were able to avoid detection because our blood was unique from other shifters. It allowed us to shift into multiple animals whereas other shifters were limited to one.
But somehow our secret was out and my sister paid the price. Calla was right when she told me to run. She knew that she was too dangerous for them to capture, but as a 10 year old, I was perfect for their studies. She saved my life at the cost of her own. I knew I had a responsibility to her and to all the other shapeshifters who had been lost or taken to survive and get strong.
Lost in my thoughts my body struggles to hold onto the cheetah form. I slowly start to shift back until I am fully human. A large growl from behind me freezes me. I slowly turn to face a wolf staring at me from behind the base of a tree. Another growl and then a howl comes from my left and then my right side. I am surrounded with no chance of escape.
"I'm not your enemy," I say slowly. I hold out my palm like a white flag. I meet the eyes of the largest wolf. Its teeth are bared and his narrowed eyes are glued to mine. In slow, easy steps it approaches me. I stand, paralyzed, as it sniffs my legs. I jump back in fear when it barks. It howls again and again until all the wolves come out of their hiding spots to circle me.
Close to a dozen set of gleaming eyes watch me, waiting for my next move. I take a steady breath and calm myself. One of them growls when it smells my fear. I think of Calla and imagine what she would do. I slowly kneel in front of the wolf closest to me. Sure that he is the pack leader, I drop my head. With a deep breath I push my body to do the only thing that will save me -- I shift into a wolf.
Seven Years Later
The rabbit in my mouth tastes odd. Maybe an illness? I don't like it. I toss the dead carcass to the side. After seven years as a wolf, I have mastered their language and ways of living. Hunting is still my weakness. The human part of me hesitates when it's time to dig my teeth into an animal for the kill. On occasion I shift to my human form, desperate to remind myself of who I really am.
My friend Dakota, a rather independent wolf, proudly prances up to me with a deer in her mouth.. "Dinner!" Dakota drops the deer at my feet, like an offering and pads up to my side.
Relieved, I say, "Good. If we came again with no food we were likely to get kicked out of the pack."
"You worry too much, Analia," Dakota says, though there's no bite to her words. "Help me drag this."
Together we pull our contribution to the pack. On our arrival, Bardu, the chief, motions for us to bring the deer to the center. There the pups are first to eat, enjoying their meal. Pleased with our offering, Bardu gives us permission to leave.
Dakota and I race to the creek and as usual I win. I wait for her to jump in and then follow. Together we play as we search for fish. Once we both have our meal we take it to shore to eat.
"Please!" Dakota pleads, finishing off the last of her food.
"You've seen me do it before," I remind her.
"And it's incredible every time." When I give her a blank stare, she laughs. "Maybe not to you."
I glance around to make sure we're alone before slowly shifting into a human. After years of practice I barely feel the pain from changing. It reminds me of Calla and how effortless she made it seem. Dakota barks happily once I'm fully shifted. I laugh before shifting back.
"There, you happy?" Dakota and I walk together along the side of the creek, crushing twigs with every step.
"You've never told me about your life before," Dakota pauses, "the pack. What was it like?" Seeing the pain in my eyes, Dakota shakes her head. "Never mind. I'm sorry."
"No, you're my best friend. It's alright." I think back to the years that feel like a distant memory. "My family lived as rabbits, just over those mountains. It was wonderful. Until one day my parents didn't come home." I stop, remembering the pain. "My sister Calla turned into an eagle, took flight, and saw Pacem Agents. My parents were gone."
"Analia, I'm so sorry. I had no idea." Dakota drops her head.
"I had Calla," I say, though both of us know it wasn't enough. "She took care of me."
"Why are other shifters only able to shift into one animal where you can do anything?"
"I'm not sure," I answer honestly. Part of me didn't want to think about the past and what happened. "It's why Pacem killed my sister and why they are after me."
"Maybe if you knew you would know how to stay safe," Dakota says.
Her words stop me. Whenever I asked Calla about her gifts she always said I was too young to understand. Then it was too late. "She told me to remember the game," I whisper. When Dakota looks at me with question, I explain, "Before she told me to run, she said remember the game."
"What was the game?" Dakota asks, but I barely hear her.
I start to shift into human form. My reflection in the creek stares back at me. My brown hair falls past my collarbone and curls at the ends. Emerald green eyes set against tanned brown skin. I stare at my features - I am the spitting image of Calla. Broken I fall to my knees and cry. I cry for my parents, for Calla, for every shifter murdered in cold blood.
Every emotion I had buried rises to the surface and bursts through me. Tears stream down my face. Questions with no answers pound inside my head - Why was I saved? How do I save the future of shifters? I have no answers and wonder if I ever will.
"A game of hide and seek," I say suddenly. "We used to play in the edge of the forest, away from the cottage. It was where Calla used to go to read or study her books."
Images of Calla reading for hours float through my head. Her books were her prized possessions. She insisted they weren't safe to keep them in the cottage.
"I have to go." I shift into a cheetah and dash through the forest toward the cottage I haven't seen in years. As I near the area, I see nothing but ashes left of the home I loved.
Shifting into a human, I walk the rest of the way. I drop to my feet over the rubble. Tears fall unheeded onto the ground. I relive all the memories, good and bad, until they are embedded into my heart and mind.
I rush to the edge of the forest until I find the space we played in. I search until I spot what looks like a small compartment in the ground. Puzzled and excited. I yank open the door to the compartment to find a small safe inside. With shaking hands I open the door to find an aged and worn book inside.
I read for hours until I reach the last page. Finished, I start a fire and toss the book in it. I watch the flames dance around it until nothing is left. I change to a wolf and return to my pack.
"Did you find anything?" Dakota asks, spotting me.
"I'm a hybrid," I whisper to her. "My mother was in human form when she met my father."
"All the other shifters?" Dakota asks, looking confused.
"Shifters started as canines. Their water supply became contaminated by some form of bacteria. The ones that survived adapted. Their DNA was altered and they became a new species. Ones that could turn became humans."
I stop, pausing for a breath before I tell her the rest. She waits patiently, seeing my struggle.
"Dakota," I start, "I can make more shifters like me. All I need is to transfer my blood to another and they become a shifter."
Dakota steps back, shocked. "That's what your sister was trying to hide."
"It had to be. If the government knew that then they could build an army to do their bidding."
"What are you going to do?" Dakota asks.
"Nothing." Images of pain and struggles the shifters before me felt still haunt me. "They will hunt them again. More forests will be destroyed. There will only be death and heartbreak." I drop my head. "I won't let anyone else go through that."
Dakota comes close and smiles at me.
"Analia, I know you suffered. You have lost so much. You were made to believe that what you had is a fault but it's not. It's a gift." She shakes her head when I start to argue. "Analia, you cannot let everything that happened be in vain. Change is hard but there will come a time when the world sees shifting for the miracle that it is. You have to believe that."
I shake my head. "I lost my family."
"Then let us be your family," Bardu says, joining us. Surprised, I glance at him. "We will help you to change the world. For the better."
"Dakota?" I ask.
Dakota smiles and nods her head yes.
One by one everyone gets in line. They promise to support and stand by me. Together, they say, we will make the world a better place.
"Thank you," I say to the group. Glancing at the sky, I whisper to my sister, "I love you. Always."
The era of shifters began again.