Rogue Page 20

Unlike lions, tigers, and the other breeds of large cat, which have round pupils similar to that of a human, in cat form, we have the distinctive oval pupils of a house cat—vertically oriented black slits. And because it was daytime, Marc’s pupils had narrowed almost completely out of existence to protect his sensitive feline retinas.

I blinked at him, and he licked his muzzle in return, flashing a mouthful of pointed, slightly curved teeth. He was mocking me. He could already have been halfway to the stream, but he’d stuck around to watch my Shift because he knew he could afford to. Marc was flaunting his anticipated victory, and in that moment, my new goal in life became making him pay for his arrogance with a mouthful of bitter dust raised by my paws as they flew past him.

Marc watched me careful y, waiting for the onset of the final phase of my Shift, which would be his signal to leave. If he hung around until I finished, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

Fresh pain lanced through my face as it began to ripple over a sickening current of elongating bones and protruding teeth. Marc huffed through his nose and slunk graceful y toward the far edge of the clearing.

Toe pads nestled on a soft bed of ivy, he turned back for one more glance, just as the first undulating wave of fur sprouted on my back, flowing down from my spine to cover my torso.

With a silent, powerful shove against the earth, Marc was gone, soaring over a three-foot-high clump of undergrowth to land soundlessly on the other side. By the time sharp, curved claws erupted from the ends of my new cat toes, I could no longer hear him running through the forest. But that didn’t mean much. Cats can be absolutely silent when they want to. And Marc wanted to.

His nose still dribbling blood, Vic shoved aside a low-hanging branch and ducked into the woods. I paused long enough to give him an apologetic glance, then followed Marc through the forest toward the stream.

Trees flew past as I ran, launching my newly lithe form over moss-covered logs and around bushes. My body resisted such strenuous exercise at first, because I hadn’t taken the time to properly stretch my new configuration of muscles. But soon the act of running eased my residual stiffness and alleviated that I-don’t-fit-into-my-own-skin feeling that fol owed a Shift. With those kinks worked out, I was free to enjoy the exhilaration of racing through the forest at a speed no human could possibly experience without the benefit of an engine and at least two tires.

From al around me came the sounds of the forest: nature’s residents, busy even in the midday heat. My practiced ears had little trouble weeding through the myriad croaks, squeaks, chirps, hisses, and the rhythmic rustle of leaves as I searched for any sign of Marc.

Marc had truly disappeared, but I’d only been running a few minutes when the gurgle of running water met my ears. Even if I hadn’t known the way by heart, I could have followed the sound to its source. Rather than tracking by smell like dogs, cats use their sensitive hearing to locate prey, one another, and anything else that makes noise.

I turned toward the sound, and a couple of minutes later I could smel the water. Or rather, I smelled the minerals, plants, and creatures in the water. And suddenly I could smell Marc. We may not use our noses to track, but we use them regularly to identify one another, and my nose was tel ing me Marc was somewhere just ahead.

The race wasn’t over yet.

Encouraged, I scrounged up a fresh burst of energy. Small animals darted out of my path. Thorns tugged at the fur on my legs and stomach.

With each bounding step, my paws sank into a soft layer of ivy, moss, and last year’s leaves. I ran directly into the breeze, stirring the branches over my head, and only the occasional twig cracking beneath my paws betrayed my presence. And as I drew closer to the stream, I heard a faint huffing noise.

Marc. And he was close.

I sprinted around a thick patch of raspberry briars to find him directly in front of me, headed straight for the stream. He was almost there. But so was I.

A growl rumbled from deep in my throat. Instead of stopping at my warning, Marc sped up. I did the same, my muscles burning in protest.

Cats are sprinters, not long-distance runners. But I was so close!

The distance between us narrowed. My claws gripped the earth as I ran, providing traction on a slick bed of moss that grew thicker the closer I got to the water. My lungs burned from exertion, demanding that I win, that I not put my body through such torment in the heat of the day for nothing.

But I couldn’t win. Marc’s tail was only inches from my nose, but I had no more speed to offer, no more energy to spend. Marc had cheated, and he was going to win.

Unless I cheated, too.

After an instant’s hesitation, I sank my teeth into the tip of Marc’s tail.

He yelped and tried to stop instantly. Instead of the graceful halt he’d no doubt intended, he tumbled forward, stumbling over his own front paws. His muzzle hit the ground, buried in a patch of moss, while his hind legs kept going, propelling the rest of him forward. He looked like a pig rooting in the mud.

I dropped his tail without slowing, and huffed in Marc’s ear as I passed him. It was the closest I could come to laughing in his face.

He recovered quickly. I glanced back to see him running after me, moss stuck in his front teeth. He was too late. I splashed into the stream up to my shoulders, snorting and tossing my head as I inhaled too much water.

Before I could clear my nasal passages, Marc bounded into the water after me. He hissed and slapped the surface with one front paw, spraying me with a backlash of water.

I’m sure you are pissed, you cheating son of a bitch, I thought. But all I could do was grunt at him. And splash him back.

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