Around the age of twelve or thirteen, Ren had looked up from his chores to see Coyote with a group of boys his age, including Choo Co La Tah. "I-I-I-I have to f-f-f-finish."
"Oh c’mon, we won’t be gone that long. You can finish when we get back. It’s the middle of the day. Everyone’s taking it easy due to the heat."
Even though he sensed something about it wasn’t right, he nodded. Since they’d never invited him before, he was afraid to turn them down lest they never ask him again.
Ren set his tools aside and wiped at the sweat on his brow before he joined them. The whole way to the bathing lake, they joked and laughed with each other and ignored him.
Once they reached the small clearing where the lake rippled, they stripped down to loincloths, then jumped into the water.
Ren hesitated. Would they mock his body? He’d never removed his clothes in front of anyone before.
"C’mon, Makah’Alay," Coyote called. "You’re missing out."
Bracing himself for the worst, Ren stripped to his own loincloth, then waded in. To his relief, they ignored him while they splashed and played.
Ren ducked under the water and let the coolness ease the summer heat. For several minutes, he floated peacefully on his back with his eyes closed.
Until someone grabbed him.
Before he could recover, Choo Co La Tah had yanked his loincloth off and they ran for the shore, laughing.
Ren went after them. As soon as he was on dry land, Coyote caught him about the waist and lifted him off his feet, then threw him back into the water. He came up, coughing and sputtering for air, to find them all gone. Along with all his clothes.
He tried to call them back, but nothing would come out. His jaw spasmed and the words hung in his throat.
Humiliated and angry, he swam back to the shore and got out. He should be able to make it back to town without being seen. There were several alternate paths that weren’t traveled much.
Once home, he could …
That thought died as he came face-to-face with a group of teenage women who had come to bathe. At the sight of his nudity, they shrieked and laughed at him.
His face red, Ren cupped himself and ran to the woods to save what little dignity he could. But inside, he was mortified.
By the time he made it home, his father was waiting for him. The girls had come straight back to tell everyone they had caught him masturbating in the public pool.
"Where are your clothes?"
His father backhanded him so hard, it knocked him to the floor. "Answer me!"
Ren tried, but he was so upset he couldn’t say anything in his own defense. No words would come out at all.
His father yanked him up by his arm.
Ren stumbled, his eyes filled with tears of pain. He tried to get his freedom, but his father wouldn’t let go. They were headed to the whipping post. Ren fought harder.
Still his father hauled him nak*d through the house. As they passed Coyote, who watched them with wide eyes, Ren reached for him.
"P-p-p-" He was trying to say please so that his brother would tell their father what happened and spare him his beating.
Coyote ignored him and followed them to the back courtyard. His father tied him to the post, where Ren was given twenty lashes for defiling the pool.
"You are never to go there again," his father snarled in his face, "you understand?"
Tears soaked his cheeks as his lips quivered from trying to speak.
His father buried his hand in his blood-soaked hair and wrenched it. "Do you understand me, you retarded bastard?"
Sobbing in silence, Ren nodded.
His father untied him. "Now go clothe yourself and finish your chores. If there’s one thing left undone by sunset, we’ll be back here for twenty more." His father stalked away and left him on the ground.
Ren tried to push himself up, but he hurt too much to stand. His limbs trembled from the pain even worse than his lips did.
He lay there for several minutes until Coyote brought him a blanket and covered him with it.
"I’m sorry, Makah’Alay. We were just having fun. I didn’t know the girls would say that. We thought they’d laugh about it and tease you. We never dreamed they’d tell others you were doing something lewd."
Still, his back burned from the lashes. "W-w-why didn’t you s-s-say-"
"I didn’t want to get in trouble. Besides, you know how Father is. He’d have found some reason to beat you for it. There was no need in both of us being punished."
His brother was right. Either way, he’d have been beaten.
Coyote helped him to his feet. Placing Ren’s arm over his shoulder to help him, he started toward Ren’s room.
Halfway there, their father met them in the hallway with a smile for Coyote.
"My precious son, you’re ever kind to those least worthy. While I appreciate your charity, you shouldn’t have done it." He curled his lip at Ren. "You can’t pamper wrongdoers after they’ve been punished. Otherwise, they never learn any lessons. Now let him go and take the blanket. He thought it was funny to be nak*d … let him walk to his room that way."
Ren waited for his brother to say something in his defence.
Instead, Coyote nodded. "Sorry, Father. I won’t do it again." He took Ren’s blanket.
Ren struggled to stand alone. His eyes filled with tears, he watched as his father ruffled Coyote’s hair and kissed his head.
"Come, my precious son, I have a present for you."
Kateri couldn’t breathe as the raw pain of that memory hit her hard. How sad that compassion was so rare for Ren that he hung on to his brother’s selfishness and defended it as good. How could Coyote have been so mean to him?
A raw, bitter fury took hold of her. Before she even realized what she was doing, she quickened her steps and shoved Sundown.
Shocked, he turned to stare at her as if she’d lost her mind. "What was that for?"
"You bastard! Why did you wait to become his friend? You know, you could have been nice to him before you were obligated to!"
"What are you talking about?" Sundown scowled. "Is she loco?"
Ren turned her around to face him. "Kateri, he doesn’t remember being Buffalo. I mean, he has bits and pieces of it, but he doesn’t recall much. While they have similarities and they look the same, Sundown is an entirely different man."
Clenching her eyes shut, she nodded. "I’m sorry, Ren." She looked up at the cowboy. "Jess. I just get so mad at all of them … She turned back toward Ren. They had no right to treat you that way."
"Did you have another vision?"
She nodded. "Now I understand my grandmother. We’d be walking down the street and she’d flinch for no reason. Whenever I asked her about it, she’d say, ‘It’s the past, baby. For some people it’s so vicious that it creates a loop of bad memories that runs constantly inside their hearts. A loop so bad that sometimes it reaches out to those of us capable of seeing it to let us know to take extra care of the ones who were hurt. It tells us to let them know that just because the world is eat up with mean, it doesn’t mean we all are. That even though the past hurt them, it doesn’t have to destroy their future. Give as many smiles away as you can. They’re free and they make the world a much prettier place. You may not have the best clothes or the latest in shoes, but everyone has a unique designer smile that is worth millions, especially to those who need its warmth.’" She clenched her hands in her hair. "Ugh! I think Jess is right. I am crazy."
Ren ran his hand down the line of her jaw, causing chills to rise on her arms. "You’re not crazy. You’re coming into your powers and you don’t have control of them yet. Trust me. We all think we’re going crazy when it happens. You should have been there the first time I turned into a crow. I flew straight into a tree and then had to figure out something to explain away the huge bruise I had in the center of my forehead for two weeks."
She shook her head at him. "You’re terrible."
"He’s right," Sasha said from behind him. "When I was learning to teleport, I accidentally flashed some unknown wedding party. You talk about humiliating. And of course the powers that got me there decided to abandon me a blink later. So there I stood in all my glory, cupping my junk and wondering, ‘Why me, gods … why me?’"
They all laughed.
"I hear you," Urian said. "I accidentally turned my brother into a goat for a week. I was so scared of what my dad might do that I didn’t tell him. It wasn’t until my mother figured it out when she found him in my bed that he was restored to his real body. I’m really glad he had a sense of humor about it and didn’t kill me. But he did guilt the shit out of me over it for the rest of his life."
Kateri felt for his brother. "Was he okay?"
"Yeah, but he did have this strange craving to chew on leather after that. At least it kept his fangs sharp."
Cabeza drew up short and motioned for them to be silent. Without a sound, Jess pulled his gun off his shoulder while she and Ren each nocked an arrow.
Off to the left something was running.
And it was headed straight for them.
"Use me for cover."
Kateri gaped as Ren moved to stand between her and whatever was approaching them. "Ren-"
"I’m immortal and I just got you resuscitated. You’re a lot more important than I am. Now do what I say … please."
Those words had her riled up until the please at the end. That one word coupled with the break of fear for her in his voice took every bit of the sting out of his sharp order. And it rammed home what he was really saying.
He who never cried, had cried over her.
"A’ight, baby," she said with a smile. "But just so you know, you get hurt, I’m opening up a can of ‘Bama whup-ass on them so big it’s gonna look like an LSU Bowl showdown. You hear me? Roll Tide."
Sasha turned around to face her with a severe scowl. "I speak dozens of languages and hundreds of dialects, but be damned if I caught a single word of that. Am I the only one completely baffled?"
Sundown cocked his gun. "He said he loved her. She said, ‘I love you, too.’ Now shush."
Sasha stood there moving his finger back and forth as if repeating her words silently in his head. After a second, he turned to face Jess. "How the hell did you get that out of what she said?"
Urian glared at Sasha. "The man speaks Southern football, now shut up."
"Southern football, my ass," he mumbled before he turned into a wolf and dashed into the woods after whatever was approaching.
Cabeza drew a strange triangle-shaped weapon Kateri had never seen before. "If I accidentally kill Sasha, you think anyone would hold it against me?"
"Yeah, unfortunately." Sundown sighed. "Zarek would tear you apart over it."
Cabeza clapped Ren on the back. "Then I shall blame you, amigo, should I slip and yield to my urges."
Ren gave him a wry stare. "Gracias."
Suddenly, and just as she remembered that so long as Ren’s eyes were blue, he wasn’t immortal, the forest around them attacked. Literally. The trees. The foliage. Demons.
Ren lowered his bow and moved to cover her. "Cabeza? Huitzauhqui, por favor!"
Cabeza manifested the huge paddle weapon with the jagged edging and handed it off to Ren. Sharper than a machete, it cut through everything it touched. Ren backed her up against a rock wall so that nothing could attack her from behind.
Kateri opened fire on every target that was within range. Sundown unloaded his shotgun, while Urian fought with a sword and Cabeza with a different kind of war club.
Ren cursed as more demons crawled out from the ground to attack. He’d lied to Kateri. His powers were still down, so he was as mortal as she was. But at least the others hadn’t outed him for it.
The worst part was that he couldn’t refill her quiver or blast them.
Or could he?
He looked at Sundown, who had yet to reload. That meant that Jess was able to create the rounds….
Closing his eyes, he summoned another quiver. It appeared instantly in his hands. Thank the gods!
He turned and handed the arrows off to Kateri, then manifested fireballs to throw at their attackers. They shrieked and screamed as fire hit them and drove them back.
It was a thing of beauty.
Kateri hesitated with her next shot as she saw Ren drop his weapon. He leaned his head back and spread his arms out wide. Arching his back, he chanted under his breath in a language she’d never heard before.
In a single blink, heavily stylized armor, unlike anything she’d ever seen, appeared on his body. A deep dark purple that was edged in gold, it covered him from neck to toe. Steel gloves shaped like talons complete with long claws curving over his fingers, both to protect and to fashion weapons for him, enveloped his hands.
The front of his hair was now pulled back from his face and secured with eagle feathers at the crown of his head.
A heartbeat later, similar armor covered her. She shivered at the feel of it. Instead of being heavy, it was air light. But more than that, it felt like it was breathing.
Conjured from the powers that he’d inadvertently inherited while breast-feeding from the crow-demon. Amazed by it, she returned to shooting, only to learn that he’d put some kind of force field around her so that her arrows couldn’t go more than a few feet before striking it and falling to the ground.