9. DepartureMature

"You really are welcome to stay." Vivian said, her yellow eyes glowing with worry.

"I know, but we really must go. We've been here too long as is." Shade held out one hand to shake her's.

Willow had gotten her stitches removed yesterday morning so we decided it was time to go.

Bear was a silent statue behind Vivian, his green eyes impossible to read as he watched us say goodbye.

"I really wish you would stay longer..." Talon's deep growl of a voice rang out. The Shifter was watching Shade like a hawk, his deep blue eyes unwavering behind a mop of ginger hair.

 Shade shook his head. "We'll be fine, thank you."

I agreed with Talon, Shade looked so weak, his hair matted and wild. The dark bruises under his eyes looked almost black compared to the sickly pale color of his skin. It made me nervous.

"Shade, let's move." Rusty called as he shifted, shrinking into a dark russet wolf.

I waved to Bear, a small smile on my lips. He gave me a small wave and smile before I turned and shifted, following my pack.

We traveled in silence, the gap between us so obvious it made my heart ache. Brooke and Faline were a good ways away from their brothers, Jasper slinking behind Willow, silently asking for forgiveness. And Shade walked in front, his black pelt hanging on his usually muscular frame in rags. Something was definitely wrong with him.

By noon we had stopped by the creek to rest. Just down stream was the tree Bear and I had sat under just days before. Shade's question came back to me. Had I considered Bear as a possible mate? I would be of age soon, should I start looking?

"Here..." Salem dropped a fresh rabbit at my feet, his eyes not meeting mine.

"Thank you..." I looked at the limp body, it's warm scent making my mouth water. "Has Shade eaten yet?"

"I don't know."

"He's needs this more than I do..." I pushed the rabbit back to him. "Take it to Shade."

For once the sun didn't bring me joy. Laying next to the water's edge, I couldn't keep my thoughts straight. Shade's question kept bringing others. If I took a mate, what did I want in him? Who would be my top choice? Age difference? Looks? Attitude? Personality? Did these things matter to me? My head was so full of questions it hurt.

I had until I turned eighteen to answer those questions. I was seventeen now. I would be eighteen in May. It was almost August now. Ten months. I had time.

"Echo!" Howled Willow. "Time to move!"

I rejoined my pack, traveling upstream. Our goal was Canada and then above the Arctic Circle, where we would be safe from Hunters.

It was so far away. And it would be cold. And hardly any sun at all.

With no one talking, the journey would be long and tiresome. I knew tempers would snap many times along the way.

I heard a gunshot ring out, Rusty letting out a startled yelp, his form suddenly human.

"Hunters!" I heard Willow snarl as the humans burts from the bushes.

"Echo! Get help!" Shade ordered.

There had to have been twenty-five Hunters. And nine of us.

I tore off through the trees, calling out to the Shifters of the resistance.

Bear greeted me at the Entrance, Luka by his side. "What is it?"

"Hunters! And lots of them! They jumped us near the creek!"

"Sound the alarm!" He barked at Luka, the startled Shifter rushing down into the cave. "Show me where!"

Switching forms to a snowy owl, I took to the sky, the hawk by my side. I flew as fast as my wings would take me, my heart pounding so hard it hurt. I couldn't lose my pack, not now.

"Just ahead on the creek bed!"  I circled over the spot before diving through the tree branches, shifting as I got closer.

Letting loose a ferocious roar as I landed, I swiped my great claws out, catching a Hunter in the back and throwing him into the trees.Bear rose up on his hind legs, the great white bear slamming Hunters into the trees and breaking bones with a single swipe. I bit down on a Hunter's arm, crushing bone with my powerful jaws.

Out of the corner of my eye I watched a large golden lion rip a Hunter apart, blood splattering his massive chest. I felt a surge of pride for Leo.

Jasper's dark form stood over a bleeding black wolf, the vicious cougar snarling and clawing anyone that got close.

Willow. Where was Willow?

There, the pale gold leopard tearing apart a Hunter limb from limb.

Blood stained my silver striped fur as I tore into a young Hunter attempting to sneak up behind Bear as he struck down three more Hunters.

Most of the Hunters had run before reinforcements arrived, the ground soaked with Hunter blood and littered with a body here and there.

"Shade..."  Brooke's voice was choked, the dark ginger wolf nudging the still, black body.

Walking over to join my pack, I touched my nose to the blood soaked pelt. It was already cooling.

I felt my heart break. Shade was dead.

Willow leaned against me, her head bowed. "We'll miss you, Shade..."

"I couldn't protect him...." Jasper was laying next to his fallen friend, Shade's head on his forelegs. "I'm sorry Shade... Forgive me."

"Faline?" Salem's voice sounded half way panicked. "Faline!"

I looked around for the little Shifter. "Maybe she's hiding in the trees?"

Salem raced away, Brooke by his side. The two wolves wove in and out of he trees, calling for Faline.

"She's gone..." Salem laid down in shock. "I can't even find her trail..."

Bear growled, turning to Vivian. "We have to find her."

The black fox shook her head. "How can we without a trail?"

"The Hunters..." I raised my head. "They must have taken her."

"Then we go after her." Bear nodded, his eyes locking on mine.

"No..." Jasper stood up. "At least not today. Let's regroup at the Den and make a plan..."

"And bury our fallen..." Willow nuzzled Jasper's cheek, her fur streaked with tears.

I watched as my pack carried Shade away, my heart heavy. We has lost two packmates in a single hour.

"Echo..."

I looked up at Bear, his eyes hard.

"You up to rescuing that little one tonight?"

I nodded. "Always."

The End

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