Wolf’s Cross Chapter One
Excerpt from work-in-progress. May contain errors.
From his most ancient beginning, flight exemplified freedom within his heart and soul. As a hawk, Loki soared high above the suburban oasis carved from Arizona’s austere desert. He drifted upon a rising column of warm air, wings angled to induce enough drag so he didn’t outpace the child he followed. Far beneath him the figure of the six-year-old was tiny, but enhanced avian senses permitted the Trickster to drink in every sight and sound.
The boy’s fleet feet splashed upon the wet pavement, running beside a small twig boat while the swift flowing gutter-steam swept the tiny craft along. Michael Allen Fraiser had light brown hair and an olive-toned complexion as well as a lean, athletic build designed for speed.
The child ran with joy; he ran with confidence. No hesitation in his stride or caution in his manner. His arms extended straight from his sides and his throat produced a steady hum like the engine of a small plane. As if at any moment, he would find liftoff as the wind carried him high into the sky, far from worry and fear.
Weaving a delicate spell, Loki spied upon the boy’s thoughts and caught a glimpse of pure imagination, a sweet dream of freedom almost powerful enough to be magic. Michael lacked the skill to focus his longings and shape reality, but the fantasy was nonetheless charming and oddly compelling.
Favorable air currents created by the June storm faded and the updraft ceased, forcing Loki to bank and circle to maintain altitude. The shower had lasted two hours and dropped less than an inch of rainfall. Even so, the downpour flooded the desert community’s paltry drainage system. Instead of constructing expensive sewers, urban planners designed rounded curbs and wide gutters along the roadsides. The troughs channeled the runoff into a park surrounded by stucco, cookie-cutter houses.
Chasing his makeshift ship as the current swept it along, the boy turned onto a curved pathway. The sidewalk sloped down through wide patches of multi-colored gravel. Drought-resistant bushes and trees grew at infrequent intervals. At the center of the open range, play structures stood atop a cushy surface made of recycled rubber. Adjacent to the slides and swings, a volleyball court was set at the center of an emerald patch of artificial turf.
Floating over the open expanse, Loki surveyed the landscape below. None of the scraggly trees offered a satisfactory perch. The scattered lamp posts were higher than the branches. Those manmade constructs were all situated along sidewalks and the paved playground, too far from the boy’s route to provide a satisfactory vantage point.
When Michael darted off the pathway and sprinted across a sloping rocky patch, Loki remained aloft to stay close. Near the bottom of the hill, the drainage ditch emptied into the water collecting in the lowest part of the park. Riding the tide, the twig boat sailed toward the center of the pond. The pool of water was completely opaque, dark even at the shallow edges where light should have penetrated.
Michael’s stride shortened. The soles of his sneakers skidded across the rocky surface, brought him to a halt upon the muddy bank. Indecision was etched into every line of his slender frame while he considered whether the toy’s recovery was worth wet feet and ruined shoes.
Folding his wings, the hawk entered a steep dive and plummeted toward the earth. Just before he crashed into the ground, his avian form dissolved into a swirling column of smoke and coalesced into a boy. An unruly mop of black hair topped his head, and his skin was warm brown, the color of coffee mixed with a dash of cream. He chose to appear eight years in age—young enough to seem unthreatening to a suspicious six-year-old, but old enough to exert some authority. Standing a few paces behind Michael, the Trickster pulled ribbons of magic from the air and wove them into garments to clothe his body. Nothing elaborate—just a T-shirt, board shorts, and Nikes.
The sun brightened as it crept from behind the clouds. He squinted to shield his eyes. A quick dip of his head produced a red baseball cap with a wide brim. Chin tucked to his chest, Loki watched while Michael kicked at clumps of bushes.
After a minute, the boy turned up a thin branch less than two feet in length. Holding the implement as an extension of his arm, he returned to the puddle’s shore and probed the murky depths. Concentric rings spread across the water.
Dead center, fat air bubbles swelled to the surface.
The boat bobbed just beyond reach. A cry of frustration issued from the boy’s throat, and he edged closer until the toe of his shoe dipped into the puddle. He balanced all of his weight upon one leg and leaned outward. The tip of his tongue poked between a gap in his front teeth, and his straining form embodied a single determined thought—just a little farther.
Uneasiness roiled Loki’s gut, coiling like a confined serpent. As an accomplished freebooter, he recognized a golden opportunity when one presented. This unwary child was low hanging fruit, an easy shot at revenge. Loki didn’t even have to get his hands dirty.
All he had to do was stand aside and watch while Fate murdered the boy.
Air hissed between clenched teeth. He didn’t like this at all. Oh, how he loathed the monster he’d become. He’d done many perverse and malicious things in his time, but he also possessed a certain twisted code of honor. As a general principle, his more spiteful pranks trapped unwitting adults, not children.
The boy wasn’t special or remarkable. Aside from a fertile imagination, he possessed no special abilities or magic. Not the son of a god or even a monster. Loki wondered what he was even doing there even though deep down, he acknowledged the compelling curiosity driving him to investigate the child.
He had to know what it was about Michael that Jake considered so damn special. The child must possess a secret, a hidden quality significant enough to qualify him for adoption into the Barrett family.
The pond’s surface rippled as the air bubbles grew larger and migrated closer to the oblivious child. When the boy wobbled on the verge of toppling into the water, Loki sucked in a sharp breath.
Impulsively, he barked, “Hey, kid! Don’t fall in.”
Emitting a startled yelp, the boy flailed his arms. Twisting on one leg, he spun and barely caught himself. The branch fell from his hand and landed in the water with a crisp splash.
Loki exhaled, long and slow. Tension bled from his coiled frame. He released the ball of magic clutched in his hand and was shocked to discover he’d prepared to go to the child’s rescue. But why? He wasn’t a hero or a Good Samaritan.
He wasn’t even nice.
Wide-eyed, Michael stared. “W-w-who are you?”
“A friend.” His gaze flicked to the bubbles and then to Michael. Reaching behind his back, he conjured a small sailboat from one of his countless treasure stashes. The item appeared in his hand. “Did you lose a boat? I found this.”
An elven toymaker had handcrafted the tiny sailboat, the product of hours of loving labor. The sleek hull was ornately decorated in gold overlay upon a field of dark green, and two elegant masts supported crisp white sails.
It gleamed like a jewel.
“Wow, it’s beautiful.” Michael’s eyes widened with amazement and then blazed with yearning. Suspicion forgotten, he hurried toward Loki on eager feet, stumbling in his excitement. His arm extended, hand grabbing.
“It is yours, isn’t it?” Loki asked.
Fascinated, Loki observed the conflict between conscience and greed as it played out upon the boy’s face. Small teeth sank into his jutted lower lip, and a tremor coursed through his body. His arm jerked and then fell.
Shaking his head, Michael said, “I lost a boat, but that’s not mine.”
Honesty. How curious.
Loki cocked his head. “But you want it. Why not lie and take it? I wouldn’t know any different.”
Michael’s stance solidified. “I know, but stealing is wrong.” Then a haunted look appeared in his eyes, and he shuddered. “Bad things happen to people who steal.”
Loki’s stomach gurgled, a belch sour with bile. He thrust his open hand toward the child. “Take it. I want you to have it.”
“I don’t know…” Michael stared at the ship, his gaze intent with longing. Such self-restraint was remarkable in a child his age.
“It’s not stealing if I give it to you.”
After a split-second of indecision, a smile blossomed on Michael’s face. He reverently lifted the tiny ship from Loki’s grasp.
“It’s beautiful,” he said in a breathy voice. “Thanks.”
An adult would have questioned Loki’s motivation or wondered where he’d acquired the exquisite toy. The boy simply accepted his reasoning at face value. He could be faulted for naivety if not dishonesty.
“You’re welcome.” Warmth replaced the nausea, a percolating cheerfulness that made him sneer. His interested gaze lingered on the boy. “It’s not made of glass. You can put it in your pocket or a backpack.”
Michael’s wary eyes regarded him. “Okay. What’s your name? I’m Michael. Are you from around here?”
“Ben.” The lie rolled off his tongue without a second’s consideration. He waved his hand vaguely toward the far side of the park. “I live over there.”
“Do you want to be friends?” Michael asked.
Loki blinked. “Friends?”
The child nodded. “Yeah, you know. We could hang out.”
“Friendsssss…” The word terminated in a sibilant hiss. He scowled while a storm of conflict raged within. He understood the basic principle of friendship. Loki and Odin had once been loyal companions. But once burned, twice shy. He refused to place his trust in another person ever again.
Loki regarded the boy with hardened suspicion, trying to discern his angle. “Why? You already have the boat.”
Michael’s brow knit. His gaze dropped to the sailboat and then lifted to consider Loki again. His face pulled into sorrow, pinched eyes and bowed mouth. Stepping forward, he thrust out his hand, offering the coveted toy.
“I’d rather be friends.”
“Really?” Loki glanced at the boat. “How odd.”
The child frowned. “You’re weird.”
“So I’ve been told.” Well, not in those exact words. Reaching out, he pressed the child’s fingers closed around the ship. “Keep it. We can be friends.”
Somehow, he would adapt. Life had thrown enough absurd and challenging puzzles his way. If necessary, he could fake friendship well enough to con a naive six-year-old. Hell, it might even be fun.
“We can?” A beaming smile transformed the boy’s face. “Great! We’re going to be best friends.”
“Best friends,” Loki agreed, marveling at the childlike simplicity. As an adult, acquiring a best friend had taken him centuries, not to mention the huge risks. Vulnerability exposed him to hurt. Trust placed his lot solidly in the hands of another.
Centuries invested in building up a single relationship only to have it vanish in the blink of an eye, lost to misunderstanding and distrust. Pride and ego set even the closest of comrades at each other’s throats, and when the dust settled… sons died.
Sons paid the price of their father’s sins.
“How old are you?” Michael asked. “I’m six, but I’ll be seven August third.”
“Eight,” Loki tilted his head to gaze skyward. Too much time had passed since he’d last become a boy. He recalled childhood as a short, brutal experience that probably didn’t have much relevance to a modern kid. His slang needed updating and he hadn’t gotten into a video game since his total obsession with Mario Kart in the 90s. However, his repertoire was extensive, his shape shifter nature adaptable.
He’d figure it out.
“Wanna try out the boat?” Motoring with childish exuberance, Michael turned toward the standing puddle. The surface of the supposedly shallow pond stood undisturbed, opaque despite the bright afternoon sunshine.
Lashing out, Loki seized the boy’s elbow. “Play with it at home. Stay away from black water.”
Face rounded with fear, Michael spun toward him. “Why?”
“There are witches who lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to drag unwary children under.”
Blanching, the boy shot the pond a terrified glance. He hastily backed away from the puddle. “You know about monsters?”
Satisfied he’d instilled a healthy sense of caution, Loki began, “I—”
“Hey, Michael!” The voice of a teenage male sliced through the air.
As soon as the child turned, Loki changed to a fly and buzzed high above him. Through multi-faceted eyes, he watched Michael glance over his shoulder. Upon finding his new friend gone, he frowned and turned in circles, looking for Ben.
The teenager shouted again. “C’mon. We’re gonna be late for the game!”
“Coming!” Clutching the exquisite sailboat to his chest, Michael whirled and ran toward the two older boys approaching from the distant side of the park.
Once he was sure he was alone and unobserved, Loki adopted his new persona as Ben. Standing on the shore of the impenetrable pond, he cocked his head. His gaze penetrated the darkness to what lay beneath—the frustrated fingers of Fate, angered at being denied her prize.
Feral viciousness edged his smile. “I do know monsters. Quite well.”
Wolf’s Cross COPYRIGHT © 2016 by Melissa Snark
All rights reserved.