The trip out to the Door involved Tank showing me how to, as he called it, “fill my skin with Nimala’s blessing”. We ran the whole way to the Door, not like running because we were scared or anything, but running like it was the biggest natural high ever.
It was utterly cool, including watching Tank change from human shape to gi-huge-ic wolf. I mean, there must be riding ponies smaller than Tank and Carl, maybe even full grown horses. Small horses, but still of a size to carry a full sized adult human. Most of the rest of the pack were closer to the size of (very shaggy and muscle-y) Great Danes, with the smaller being able to pass for German Sheppards with funky coats.
Aiden had asked that I not try to change without the teacher he was going to pick out for me, and so I ended up running on two feet. I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of changing into a hurking scaley thing. I kind of thought that being a vradin wolf or cougar or even a vradin mouse would have been cooler, because, well, I must confess a pro-mammalian prejudice. I’m not afraid of snakes and turtles and lizards, oh my, but neither am I particularly drawn to them. I don’t really have a preference one way or the other when it comes to birds, but I think they’re prettier, at least, and more fun to watch than the scaled critters.
Vyk and Lyrgrul ran with us, both taking on vradin wolf shapes, and Jakat, it turned out, was a vradin hawk. She flew over head. Some of the pack took turns running in man shape, playing a game of who could forage the most and the best food stuffs on the run. As the sun began to sink each day, a few of the pack would break off, and catch up to us at the spot where we made camp each night, bringing in a fresh catch for the pot more often than not. Camp cooking kind of freaked me out a little because it mostly involved skinning whatever animal got caught and using the fresh skin as a pot for boiling the freshly butchered meat with nuts and berries and miscellaneous vegetables and herbs the foragers found. It did not help that I got the feeling the only reason that the meat got cooked to start with had to do with my ick factor on the whole eating raw meat thing.
Also, I provoked a lot of general amusement from the pack with the very good eye contact I maintained.
When we got to Trader’s Rest, another vradin hawk whom Jakat recognized informed us that Aiden was still selecting my teacher so Vyk was to accompany us back to Earth. He made a frowny face, but shrugged it off.
Trader’s Rest turned out to be little more than a way station, a windowless stone building about ten feet wide by twenty feet long. It had a thick wooden door, and inside there was a boxed up cache of furs and dried food supplies.
The Door itself turned out to be nearly another full day’s run from the way station. I was both a little disappointed and kind of intrigued, because the Door was very hard to spot, looking like little more than a happenstance arch way between two giant trees.
Tank, in vradin wolf shape, trotted up to the space within the arch and flicked out switchblade like claws from his paw, hooked the (for lack of a better description) fabric of the Door with his claws and then bit it. The Door’s fabric was kind of shiny and stretchy, rather as if someone had managed to cross canvas cloth, plastic wrap, and soap bubbles.
I felt like crap after the crossing, which Tank warned me could linger for a while, especially the first few times I crossed. But it kind of worked out in our favor, because it made it easier to convince my family that I had been drugged and out of my gourd on an involuntary trip the entire time that I had been away, which came out to a little over a week, all told.
Carl’s plan worked out, with the addition of me re-dying my hair to walnut despite Tank’s puppy dog sad eyes at the necessity. Most of the pack had clothes stashed near the Door, including cell phones, and they got in touch with Perry, who turned out to be a sweet older guy who was almost freakishly addicted to current events coverage. He arranged a pick up for the pack, because apparently their cars had been moved for them before police decided to tow them off the highway.
I decided I really don’t want to know about the kinds of missions Griswald Security Incorporated runs for my country that gave them the pull to, one, kill the story in the media on what turned out to be a slow news week and, two, have the local police close the report of my abduction with what amounted to “you don’t have the clearance to know that”.
Both Dan and Dad gave me boat loads of crap about it, positive that the kidnapping was all about Tank and the work G.S.I. did. Dan also hedged around a suspicion that I was lying to him about being out of it during the time I was with my kidnappers. They gave me even more crap when I announced that I was taking a job in Yakima. When they realized that “moving to Yakima” did not mean that I was walking away from dating Tank (we said he was overseeing a job out that way), they about went to the nuclear level of ballistic. I finally had to tell Grammie that I was going to stop coming to Sunday dinner all together if I heard one more word from either of them about it. She put her foot down, firmly, and the men in my family tried giving me the silent treatment. Personally, I relaxed into that, which Dan’s sister Amy found hilarious.
On the bright side, it turned out that Dan hadn’t been a complete and utter ass when he was dating Jody. Jessica was a disturbed ex-girlfriend that Dan had had to get a restraining order against. She had gone into rehab for meth addiction about six months after they broke up, and the doctors at the rehab clinic had realized she had been “self medicating” for clinical manic depression, or whatever the new name is. Being all manly, Dan had chosen to keep the whole situation to himself.
Dan and Jody weren’t dating again or even friends, but they were at least able to be polite to each other.
For her part, Jody was sad to lose a roommate. On the other hand, she advised me to “ride that Tank for as long as the good times are rolling on with him” and “make sure the sexing was as stellar as it sounded the first night”. I cheerfully told her to get her own sex life in order and stay out of mine, but the effect was probably spoiled by the un-hideable blush I could feel all the way down my chest.
With Tank and Vyk helping, my possessions were packed up and sorted into “store” and “take with” in less than three hours. It was kind of depressing to realize that my “take with” pile amounted to my tablet, my smart phone, and a solar charger we picked up, my drop spindle and a stack of silk hankies I hadn’t yet spun up, along with a new backpack full of camping clothes, and biodegradable soap (for my clothes and my self), my toothbrush and a new tube of toothpaste. On a random impulse, I added the set of interchangeable knitting needles that Grammie had given me for my seventeenth birthday and the knitting notion kit, complete with crochet hooks, she had given me the year before.
Tank decided that he was coming with me, and I swear when he told Vyk that, Tank was as close to fully puffed up male posturing as I ever saw him get. Vyk just shrugged and said that Aiden had rather expected as much. Tank brought with him a hurking big knife, several smaller knives, and his smart phone in addition to the necessaries for hygiene and such.
We made a stop at REI and picked up some very nice sleeping bags, a two man pup tent, and some very expensive light weight cookware. I added a water filter/pump thingie that promised to remove 99.9999999% of microbial agents from fresh water sources, much to both Tank and Vyk’s amusement, but when I added two of the water back packs I found while browsing, they added six more, and started discussing how they could tinker with them to make them easier for “canines” to use.
Carl dropped the three of us off at the same spot where we had emerged from the woods, a place they referred to as Frasier’s Rest, but I didn’t see any signs giving the wide turn off a name. I didn’t worry about asking about that. My nerves were running a little tight because, well, it was time to go back to the place where I grew scales. I really would have rather turned furry. That seemed more cuddly, you know?
Aiden met us at Trader’s Rest with Lyrgrul. I had made Tank and Vyk drill me on the vradin speech whenever there was time, and I had learned some basic greetings and words, but I was still a far cry from being able to understand what Aiden said to the two men. Whatever it was made Tank unhappy in the extreme and amused Vyk.
Tank translated for me. “The quitangs have seriously pissed our Montang off, to the point where he banned them from approaching you at all. Apparently, they got into a boasting contest about which of their un-married men could court you in the grandest style, which among the vradin drake can include bridal kidnappings. You wouldn’t be married or anything, but it’s a way to demonstrate how much of a bad ass the suitor is that he can snatch you from under the noses of your clan, which you don’t currently have, and by tradition, he can hold you for up to nine days trying to impress you with what a great guy he is. Assuming, of course, that you don’t get snatched by another suitor.”
Aiden said something else, which made Tank’s face freeze into a neutrally blank expression. Vyk, this time, said, “The Montang has decided that he will be your teacher.”
In my halting new vradin, I said, “I am honored.”
Aiden smiled, and lifted my knuckles to his lips.