Grape Merriweather Book 3
Sometimes a Monster
by Libby Heily
Grape wanted to save her brother. Instead, she’s put herself and her friends in danger. Starth is unlike any land she’s ever known. Vampires, were-animals and shapeshifters abound, but it’s Starth’s cruel dictator that she fears most. She and her friends are held captive and the only way out is to fight.
Grape will try to unite the warring factions of Starth and spark a rebellion against the dictator. She’s hoping to find a way home; the people of Starth want their freedom. How far will they go to get what they want?
BUY THE BOOK
A cloud of dust followed the boys as they raced through the forest. Legs pumping, their lungs nearly bursting, they leapt over felled trees, scraping off bark as they went. Mushrooms slid from their baskets, falling to the lush vegetation below.
Freid jumped gracefully over a large stone. Pamuk pushed himself harder, eager to outdo his brother, but as he jumped, his basket tipped, spilling the mushrooms he’d spent the morning collecting. “Wait up!” he called as he knelt to recover them.
Freid slowed his pace. He waited for Pamuk to call for him again, knowing that this time his brother’s voice would be high-pitched with fear.
“Don’t leave me!” Pamuk shrieked.
Freid stopped, satisfied that his brother was sufficiently terrified. He kicked at the dirt with his leather boots, making sure to keep his gaze on the path and not on Pamuk. His brother glanced around anxiously as if he expected death itself to jump out from behind a tree. Most shifters felt comfortable in the forest, but not Pamuk. Freid blamed their parents. They lived deep in the woods, miles from the nearest village, but their parents still feared being discovered. They never let the boys shift into animals or even trees or rocks. Their parents had barely survived the Great Roundup, escaping mostly through speed and luck. Freid had heard many stories of aunts and uncles he’d never met, the ones who’d been captured and killed by Nukpana.
He knew it was safer to stay human as his parents wished, but he chafed against his own skin. His arms and legs felt puny. The chill in the air hit him hard in his human form. He wanted to be fast and strong like the wolf, but spent his days lumbering slowly through the world as a boy.
His parents were right to be scared. The citizens of Starth were under strict orders to kill shifters on sight, the few who remained. Thankfully, he and his brother were too young for the flame tattoos Nukpana had forced on the shifters. The tattoos had long since been replaced by genocide. If his parents hadn’t been careful and smart, they wouldn’t have lived long enough to have children. And now they spent their lives hiding.
“Why are you so clumsy?” Freid called to his brother.
Pamuk mumbled an answer as he picked the fallen fungi from a tuft of grass. The mushrooms felt spongy beneath his fingers, like dried toads. He glanced up, sniffing. Something new was in the air. His hands froze over the basket as his nostrils flared.
“What is it?” Freid asked, hurrying over.
Freid stood still, searching for the smell. In the distance, a fox’s tail dipped behind a tree. He pulled off his tunic.
“We can’t.” Pamuk winced as his brother disrobed.
Freid hated the fear behind Pamuk’s words. At nine, his brother’s voice was already far higher than his own and the panic only made it worse. Pamuk sounded like a little sister rather than a little brother. “There’s no one around.”
Freid’s eyes narrowed. “Mom says things all the time. Either you change with me, or I’m leaving you behind.”
“You wouldn’t d-do that.”
Freid wiggled his eyebrows then dropped down to all fours, fur growing rapidly from his skin. Within seconds, he snarled in full wolf form. He gave Pamuk a gentle nudge with his nose. When the boy didn’t move, Freid took off after the fox.
“Freid!” Pamuk called. He hurried out of his own clothes and dropped to the ground. It took him far longer to change; his brother had managed to do it in seconds. Pamuk promised himself he would start shifting at night as his parents slept. Anything to get faster and not be left behind.
Pamuk took off, following the scent of his brother and the fox. Dirt flew, kicked up by his sharp nails. Trees whizzed by as his legs bent and whipped, propelling him ever faster through the forest.
He spotted Freid, large and shaggy, his gray fur wet now, on the banks of the river. He must have gone in after the fox, but why would a fox jump into the water? As Pamuk drew near, he spotted a fat salmon on the ground by his brother’s paws. Freid had dove in after the fish and was waiting for Pamuk to catch up to share the treat.
Pamuk loved fresh fish and eating in animal form was always more pleasurable than as a human. He’d never eat a raw fish as a boy but loved the squishy meat as a beast.
As Pamuk drew near the riverbed, Freid changed back into his human-self. Pamuk’s heart raced as his brother threw his hands in the air, his eyes wild.
“Hurry!” Freid yelled, backing into the water, the fish forgotten.
Pamuk pushed himself faster. Something terrible must be behind him if Freid had changed to warn him.
Pain seared Pamuk’s flesh as an arrow drove through his thigh. He tried to run but stumbled, falling to the ground and spinning. His body changed and he lay in a heap—a scared, naked, nine-year-old boy.
“Pamuk!” he heard Freid call from the river.
Pamuk sat up, wiping tears from his eyes. He tried to change but couldn’t. He faced the forest, looking for his attackers. Two large men picked their way through the trees. Pamuk groaned when he saw their green uniforms. Nukpana’s men. What were Nukpana’s men doing all the way out here? His eyes darted to the large bows they carried, each armed with a yellow-tipped arrow. He knew that the yellow meant asthemite, the only thing in all of Starth that could stop a shifter from changing.
Pamuk glanced over his shoulder and saw Freid waist-deep in the river, ready to turn.
The next arrow bit into Pamuk’s chest. A wooden shaft protruded from his left breast. He touched it, wanting to make sure it was real, that he wasn’t dreaming. He wrapped his hand around the arrow and made to pull it out. His hand spasmed as another arrow pierced his heart. Pamuk fell backward. The blood in his body slowed. From the water, his brother stared, horrified. Pamuk reached for Freid. He’d never seen his brother scared, not like this. “It’s okay,” he tried to say, but all he could get out was a wet gurgle. He knew the taste of blood, having bitten into many animals when they’d broken the rules and hunted in the forest as predators. The familiar bitter sensation on his tongue made him gag.
Freid disappeared, his body shrinking rapidly into a salmon.
Pamuk closed his eyes and said a silent prayer. He hoped his brother would make it home safely, that he would tell his parents that Pamuk had died bravely. When he opened his eyes again, the two men hovered above him. The bearded soldier spat a huge glob of phlegm next to Pamuk’s head.
“Damn shifters. Can’t resist changing. Really, this is your own fault,” the man said, drawing out his hunting knife.
The soldier leaned down, to cut his throat, Pamuk assumed. But thankfully, his last breath left his body before the knife touched his skin.