“What is that intriguing scent?” He spoke softly to himself as he reached for his jacket and moved toward the den opening. He poked his head out and took a cautious look around.
There was nothing there… but there was a scent. It was powerful and lingering. It smelled like cold fire and ice, things that normally wouldn’t interest him at all. But it was drawing him in. He sniffed harder, his long, red hair falling around his face as he scrambled out of his home and made his way through the cleared land in front of his den.
Cautiously, he stepped toward the snow, pulling his jacket on and trying to hold back the shivers that threatened to shake his whole body. The scent seemed to elude him, tousling his curls and exposing the broad, black stripe that ran from the crown of his head back toward his neck.
He looked left and right and, as far as his eyes could see, there was nothing but melting, crunchy snow. But something had to be there! He could feel it. His cock had begun to harden the moment he caught a good whiff of that scent, and now his heart was beginning to pick up in tempo.
His — his mate? It had to be his mate!
His whole countenance brightened. He had come so far only to find her this soon! This was beyond amazing! This was a blessing of untold proportions! He eagerly turned toward the place where the scent was the strongest. He threw his head back and opened his mouth to let out a triumphant yell when it struck him.
A compact ball of frozen snow impacted with his face, immediately sending him into a coughing fit that threatened to knock his lungs loose.
“W-wh-cough-wha –?” His eyes watered as he scrambled backward to find purchase, only to step into the snow. If it wasn’t for the thick layer of snow, he was quite sure his ass wouldn’t have bounced so hard when it hit the ground.
Well, that effectively ended his coughing problem. He couldn’t cough when there was no air in his lungs. Wheezing, he curled into a fetal ball and wondered what he had done to deserve this.
It was out of sheer instinct that he shifted. The air around him shimmered with heat as he instinctively drew on the magic within him. There was a tug on his central core and then, where there once lay a man, now lay a red-gold creature, lifting its nose and sniffing in the wind.
And what his senses now told him made his heart leap with joy. His instincts were correct. His mate was here.
* * *
Atka and Iluq froze, watching the man writhe in the snow before a teasing scent of rich musk and exotic flowers filled the air. Then, where a rather striking, swarthy redhead once lay, there now was a creature of undetermined origins.
It looked kind of like a fox, but then it didn’t. It was confusing to say the least.
It shifted to its feet on long, black legs, the bright color of its body blending seamlessly with the long appendages. The large, triangle-shaped ears perked up, tilted toward the small shuffling sounds it heard. Its nose twitched as if its sense of smell was much more keen in his primary form. A long, red-gold mane with a distinctive black stripe ran down its back. The fluffy, white underfur flashed as it lifted its tail, alert and watching.
“Oh,” Iluq gasped, backing up as he stared at the poor thing before them. “It’s a deformed fox! Our neighbor is a deformed fox.”
“It is not,” Atka countered, looking worriedly at the strange creature sniffing in their direction.
He knew it was nigh impossible for them to be seen in their shifted forms, as they blended so well into the snow in the embankment where they hid. But somehow he knew the beast was staring right at them.
“It was probably rejected by its skulk.”
“What?” Atka tore his eyes away from the creature to stare at his twin. “What are you on about?”
“Look at it!” his brother demanded, never taking his eyes away from the creature, though his nose twitched in curiosity. It wasn’t fear or disgust in his voice — more like fascination. “Look! What fox has legs that long?”
“Well –”
“Or ears like that?”
“Maybe –”
“Or is that tall? I am telling you, that creature isn’t right! It’s not exactly gross or anything, but it’s not normal either. Do you think it’s catching? Maybe it’s like those human zombie movies! One bite and suddenly we’re all chasing after others for brains.”
“Brains?” Sometimes his brother was too much to take. “If it’s after brains, then you have nothing to worry about.”
“It’s not a bad-looking thing. Kind of cute now that I look at it more closely –” Iluq leaned forward, nose twitching in excitement as his tail waggled back and forth. “It smells kind of nice too — for a horribly mutated creature bent on sucking our souls and our brains out of our bodies. Maybe we can reason with it, offer it virgins or tourists or something to satisfy its hunger for human flesh.”
“Maybe it’s not a fox –”
“Inbreeding!” his bother retorted, his eyes shining. “Of course, it’s an inbred fox. It has to be. Only a fox has a nose like that, Atka. And that body — it may be overly large, but talk about perfect comportment. And that tail is so big and fluffy –” He stopped, blinked twice, and then shook himself as if knocking away some really bad thoughts. “Anyway, there have always been rumors that if you mate with your own sister and your kit becomes your own nephew, making you your own uncle, you grow three eyes, two heads, and six legs. Stuff like that.”
“He doesn’t — three eyes and six legs?”
“Just four overly long, skinny black ones. And those big ears — makes him look like a bat. Still, something just ain’t right, Atka. And I’m telling you, he’s not natural.” Iluq paused a moment, his nose still twitching with his revelations. “He could be dangerous, or… Let’s get closer.”
“What?” If Atka had been in human form, his eyebrows would have been in his hairline. “We can’t –”
“We have to! The fate of the whole skulk is in our hands. The whole fate of Last Chance is in our paws. What if there are more of them? We must discover its origins and its secrets and — and –”
“And what?”
“I don’t know!”
He had never seen Iluq quite so frazzled. But before his brother could say another word, the creature’s whole body jerked as if struck. Its gaze shot in their direction and focused in on them.
“I-Iluq –” Atka stammered.
“Run, Atka!” His bother suddenly gasped, taking a step back. “The unnatural beast sees us! Run for your life! Run for your brains!”
Then Iluq was gone, leaving behind only his brother and the puffs of snow he kicked up as he raced away. Atka blinked and turned to get another look at their neighbor creature, then froze. “Oh, dear.”
There was a pair of amber eyes inches from his muzzle. And they didn’t look amused.
This was seriously not turning out to be a great day.

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