Michael stood in the desert in front of her with four of his men. Three of them carried weapons, rifles with long scopes, but one of them had stripped down to nothing but black shorts.
It late evening, and it was cold, but Michael had told her that she would be warm enough once she'd changed. Annabelle had still refused to come out of the car.
Lia was wearing black shorts and a black top as well, but she was wrapped in a blanket to protect her from the chilly wind. It was late February, but Michael didn't even seem to notice the cold. He stood in his usual black leather jacket hanging open.
"Do you understand?" he asked her again, and she nodded again for the fifth time.
The man in black shorts was Simon. Mr. Mohan had been waiting for him for nearly a month, but there had been a problem with his paperwork as he crossed the border. He had a funny accent, and he had an odd sense of humor that seemed to drive Mr. Mohan crazy.
"Almost ready, lass?" he asked her, and she looked at him. He wanted to change, Lia could tell because of the way he smelled and the way his bare feet scratched at the soil.
He was important, but not as important as Mr. Mohan. Annabelle had said that he was rare and special, and that was why Mr. Mohan had flown him all the way from Ireland to participate in Lia's Hunt.
She'd been allowed to watch one of Mr. Mohan's hunt. Afterward, in the car on the way home covered with blood Mr. Mohan had explained that sometimes they had animals brought in for the Hunt, but that if he preferred to find an animal that on his own. He said it was harder that way, especially to find something that would feed a tiger.
There was a tingle in her neck and she turned to look over the car toward the last clouds. There was silvery light there, and suddenly she could see the sliver of the moon.
Automatically she resisted the change, fighting against it, crying out as the pain hit her. Last night she'd managed to stop herself from changing all night, but tonight was different.
Simon reached out. "Let 'it come, dearie," he said, in that strange accent of his.
She took a deep breath and then stepped out of the blanket, forcing herself to relax into the change as she did so.
One moment she'd been Lia, but now she was two things. She was Lia the girl still, but that was all clinging on to Lia the raven.
Lia the raven spread her wings and flew off into the night. Behind her she could smell fur and knew that Michael had changed, and something else that she couldn't place.
There were some bushed not that far away, and she easily found her footing among them. Lia the girl had read about ravens. They weren't supposed to be good night fliers, but Lia the crow didn't seem to have any trouble.
Something moved, and she looked. There was an owl next to her on the branch with huge brown feathers and massive yellow eyes. It turned to look at her, and blinked.
"Okay there, lass?" said the Simon part of the Owl. It didn't make a sound, but the part of her that was Lia the girl could still hear him clearly. She tried to respond, but when she did Lia the bird struggled against her.
"Wait, wait," the other bird seemed to indicate and it looked around and then took flight. Raven Lia followed after it, trying to stay quiet in the darkness but not doing nearly as good of a job as Owl Simon did.
Lia the raven didn't seem to have a sense of time, and quickly Lia the girl lost track of how long they'd been flying. Owl Simon flew in odd patterns that Lia the raven didn't like. They weren't natural and Raven Lia was hungry but Lia the girl poked at the mind of Lia the owl until they followed along after him.
There was more information packed into that word than just the human connotation. It described something that couldn't be put into human language.
The Raven lanced down out of the darkness toward an unremarkable patch of gray. Her talons went *tha-thicke* into the fur, and her head came down on the struggling mouse's neck. "Cgrrrr . . ." she croaked. The mouse was still alive, still moving, and she shifted her weight, flapped, and struggled. Under her, something small went *pop*.
The mouse stopped struggling.
A beat of her wings and she hopped to one side. The Owl was looking at her from a nearby bush, and she watched him warily. It was her kill, her kill.
She poked at it, tearing it open, and began to eat from the warm little fuzzy body.
Something shivered down Raven Lia's back, under the glossy black feathers. As bits and pieces of the animal were gorged down, something odd was spreading out into her feathery limbs.
"Lia," the Owl said, but the Raven didn't respond. She was still eating, and eating well.
A few more moments passed, and he tried again, "Lia? Lia?"
She croaked menacingly, but didn't look up at him.
She tilted her head up and sideways, staring at him with her left eye. "Simon?" she finally asked back.
"Yes, it's Simon."
"I'm eating a dead mouse."
"Huh. Why am I doing that?" she asked.
"Because of the Hunt. Do you remember?"
"I am Lia. Lia is a human, and a bird. The Hunt. . . ."
"It is a ceremony to bring your two halves together. You are of one mind now. You can send your thoughts out, just as I can. You can control your changes now, and resist changing with the full moon."
"I am Lia."
"You are. Can I approach?"
"It is my kill."
"I will respect it."
Simon the Owl lifted off his bush silently and drifted down to the ground like a feathery brown snowflake. He tilted his head, and hooted softly, and then hopped closer.
Lia looked up at him. He was looking at her, and his mind was . . . creeping toward her, like a spider, and she could feel it coming. Lia the human would have waited to see what he was doing, but the Lia/Raven flicked her mind out at him before he could reach out for her.
The Owl stiffened and fell over, struggling against her. "No no no no no no no . . ." the human consciousness howled. "NO!"
The Raven kept one eye on him, watching seriously as the Owl flapped and twitched along the dry ground. She pecked again at the dead mouse.
Wereism had originally been a curse hundreds of years ago, Annabelle had taught her during her classes. Witches wanted servants, and binding a human body with an animal gave them control over stronger and more powerful servants than normal humans.
Then came the wereborn, those born into their powers. They were free of the magical compulsions of the witches, and they had authority and power over others of their kind. They took control of the wereturned, and broke away from the witches.
The Owl gave a final spasm and then finally came to a rest in a heap, his perfectly groomed feathers ruffled and dirty from the ground.
Lia hopped over to him.
"Mistress," he said. "Mercy." For the first time she realized that the voice she heard in her head didn't have the accent. Her human mind was just turning it into words because she was used to speaking.
That will change, she thought to herself and then sent back "There is still some of the mouse left."
Slowly, as if exhausted, the Owl rolled to his talons, and painfully hopped over to her kill. He stared at her with one eye for a moment, confirming that it was alright with her, and then pecked at the meat.
"The other humans will ask about this when we return," the Simon Owl said.
"What is the answer?"
"You are strong. I could not dominate you."
"I dominated you."
"That is a dangerous thing to say."
"Because of the games that werehumans play. They fight for power, if not in their animal skins, than in their human skins. They will see you as a threat to their power. You should not have been able to dominate a wereborn on your first Hunt."
"Then I will dominate them."
"All of them? Even Michael? Mohan?"
Lia fluttered her feathers. She thought of her sense of Michael, Miss Chi-Wong, and Mr. Mohan. They were powerful, especially Mr. Mohan, and dominating even Simon alone had been difficult. She could hope to dominate them with their extensive experience. Not yet.
"Then we will not tell them that you are . . ." she sent a concept that her human mind did not know the word for.
"I will have to go back to my home." Rolling green fields and strange lights and smells accompanied the last word.
"But, if you need me . . . you have only to call on me. You are my mistress. When you call I will come."
"We should go. They will be looking for us soon."
Lia paused. She'd come together now, and her raven senses were now connected to her human mind. In the distance, very far away, she could feel things looking for her, hunting for her. On most she could smell the stick of disgust and hatred toward her.
But her feathers would protect her. Nothing that was searching for her could see through the sheen and the reflection of her feathers. She wouldn't have to worry about that . . . yet.
Lia hopped closer, pecked at the mouse a final time, and then flapped off into the night toward a waiting Michael and his men, followed by a dusty owl.