Blood On Your Paws: Life’s Journey #6

-Interlude-

Blood on your Paws

Bears are sometimes the most spoiled creatures on the planet. Humans hold little to the greed and malevolence of a were-creature, Bear or otherwise. Matt and Luke had sired a cub, Jaden. This young man was mainly Luke’s love interest, but Matt came along for the ride and supported both of them. He had accepted Jaden as a new member of their den and provided for him as he did Luke. After Jaden changed, he became possessive and horribly hurtful toward Matt. Even after all Matt did for the young Bear, no gift seemed adequate; nothing would make him happy. Jaden clung to Luke, guarded him; like a snapping dog would protect its food. Matt remained present, forgave Jaden for each outburst, and loved him through all his tears; he tried against all his inner voices to help the young Bear. However, he could tell the change was driving him insane and slowly eating away at the fabric of the young man’s mind. Sooner or later, Matt or someone else would have to put him down. Long ago, Matt and Luke had made a pact with each other that if either were to go insane from the change they would put the other down. Now, it seemed that the choice had fallen on Matt; Luke refused to accept the facts and ignored them at each turn.

As months passed, it came time for the annual gathering. Matt, Luke and Jaden went north early to attend the Meeting of Elders and watch the Bear Games. The meeting and the games were an annual event where each Elder’s protector would compete and spar with one another. In reality it was a way for elders to rank themselves and to find out who had the better protector or guard. Matt had only participated once in the past. However, it wasn’t going to be a happy visit.

The two Bears stood in the arena waiting for the other to move. Jaden was across from Matt holding a short sword, bouncing on his toes. Matt was across from him, his staff lying in the sand in front of him as he stood completely still, arms at his sides, looking at the young Bear. He had been challenged to a Reckoning; this was a fight to the death and was a part of Bear custom when settling disagreements and problems. A downward spiral of events had led Matt, Jaden and Luke, to this place. Matt had been called to task, made to fight someone he didn’t want to, for something that was out of his control. He would have to make a choice; inside he cursed the Great Bear for changing him, more so for making him choose.

“Pick it up, you fucking coward,” Jayden screamed at him. The small Bear’s voice was cracking. He was dancing, giggling, and grunting; all manner of vocalization came from the young Bear.

Matt remained externally motionless and silent. The wind started to whip around them and the air became colder, denser; it seemed as though it was crashing into the ground. He was already in motion, gathering himself, mapping the area. He could already see the energy flowing through the little Bear. In truth, this cub could not win this fight, but Matt had never displayed his prowess in battle to either Jaden or Luke. Matt knew all the way down to his gut that within each creature is the capacity for both great evil and great good, how that creature acts is what makes the difference. Now it would seem that Matt would have to kill and take the life of another.

“You coward, you don’t want him! You don’t deserve him, he is too much Bear for you and we’re not ever going to be a Triad! You deserve death for not fighting for him. Fuck this; I’m going to kill you now!” Jaden yelled, leaping toward Matt.

Matt’s eyes snapped wide as time slowed down. The world exploded to his senses; the brilliant light of flowing energy filled his eyes, the movement of bones, the flowing of breath, and the beating of the Cub’s heart filled his ears. Gathering himself, Matt stepped into Jaden’s blade. Jaden’s eyes were dark with hatred and intent on killing Matt as he slammed the blade in and through his chest. In that second a vortex formed around the two and pushed out in all directions. Matt reached up and grabbed the cub by his throat and held him up off the ground as he slowly transformed to his half form. Matt’s blue eyes glowed as he started to growl low, baring his teeth. His talons extended slowly, puncturing the neck of the cub as he hung there flailing, trying to get away. Blood flowed freely from around the wounds as the Cub tried to get air in raspy tormented gulps. The cub was trying with everything he could muster to get away, thrashing and beating his hands and feet into Matt. He was still too young to control his shifting, too young to understand what he was; a newborn child in relation to the animal that Matt was. Matt’s eyes began to glow a brighter blue and in that second Jaden realized he had picked a fight he couldn’t win. He would be killed and there was nothing he could do to stop it. Matt smiled at him and flung him away as if tossing away a toy. As he tumbled to a stop Jaden scrambled backwards, away and up to his feet trying to catch his breath resting against the wooden and stone wall of the arena.

Matt turned to face him. The blade Jaden buried in his chest still stuck through him. Making eye contact with Jaden Matt reached up and pulled the blade from his body, grimacing as the wounds healed almost instantly. He looked at the blade and recognized it as one from the Lodge’s weapon case; this was the blade of an Elder. ‘Who had given it to him and why?’ In a smooth motion he lifted the short blade up and threw it at the young cub. Jaden gasped as he saw the blade come at him. It sunk into wall to the little cubs left. Matt smirked at the cub, turned and started to walk away out of the arena. This fight was over, or was it?

Jaden realizing that Matt had spared him, or taken pity on him, was more hostile and enraged. To lose in battle was one thing, but to not be taken seriously as a fighter was a curse worse than death in Bear custom. Jaden would be considered unworthy of being a Bear. He needed to kill Matt or be killed, but living like this was not an option.

9 Months Earlier…

Matt and Luke were moving some furniture around in their home. With the addition of a new cub, came the need to clean out some stuff and make more room. The two Bears had been quipping and snipping at each other all day as they worked, but it was always kept short of getting physical. These two had been together a long time. Arguments were part of that life; however, being a Bear left some nasty complications to deal with. Physical matches were genetic with being a Bear. It took a lot from both of them to not get into a fight.

“If you want a cub, OKAY, but you really need to talk to an Elder. Jaden is kin, but he feels dark. Babe…” Matt was cut short by a paw wrapped around his throat. Luke had partially shifted after they put down the piece of furniture in the basement

“I want him as my cub, and in our den. You have spoken, but I have the final word,” Luke snarled a few inches from Matt’s face. Luke’s claws dug into his throat. The heat of his voice touched on something deep within Matt.

“Let me go Luke,” Matt growled as he shifted partially. His musculature pulled taut. Luke had become a total bastard over the past few months. He had met this human, barely out of secondary school and fell head over heels in love with him. He instantly wanted to make him a Bear, and it was hard for Matt to keep him from changing the human too soon.

“Are you going to allow him into our den? Are you going to be a nice little cub and give this Bear what he wants?” Luke said his voice full of rasp as he leaned closer, licking up the side of Matt’s face, his hot Bear saliva burning Matt’s skin.

“Let me go Luke,” Matt said again as he had planted his rear paws, gathering both his footing and himself. His guard was down around the man, now it would seem that the Bear in both of them wanted a good fight. He smoothly finished shifting to his half form and bared his teeth, flexing his neck muscles. His new silver fur bristled as it grew from his body in the split second it took Luke to realize what had happened. Luke’s hand was forced open as Matt kicked the large Polar Bear in his stomach, knocking all the wind from the Bear who was twice his size. As Luke went to all fours and tried to suck in air, Matt leaned down putting them nose to nose.

“I never said you couldn’t, but I want no part of it. Do you understand?” Matt hissed as something came to the surface, a dark and evil part of Matt. “Know this Bear, my love for you will extend to this cub, but don’t abuse that and don’t ever touch me like that again!” As he finished he pounced forward and grabbed Luke by the throat and bit down on his neck, pinning him to the ground with a ferocity and energy that was not normal to Matt. Luke whined in pain and passed out as his blood flowed from around the wound that Matt left. Rising to his feet, Matt licked the blood from his muzzle and surveyed his prey.

3 Days before the Reckoning Fight…

Matt had gone into town to pick up some supplies for the gathering; this year, he had been asked to prepare some of the food for the feast. This was a great honor among Bears and Jaden had hopped into the SUV as he was leaving. The two chit-chatted about this and that, nothing serious and Matt actually thought the cub had relaxed and was starting to enjoy being a Bear. The cub had gotten the chance to go explore and meet other Bears this week.

Out of the blue Jaden yelled, “I don’t want to share him!” slamming his fist into the dashboard hard enough to crack the molding of the rented SUV.

“That really isn’t in your lane,” Matt said glancing over at him. He could see the energy cresting off of the young Bear, and his heart sunk as he reached out to him and looked deep within him. He was empty, an open vessel with no soul; a gaping sucking hole of need. Matt knew that the change had finally killed the human part of this young Bear.

“Then what is my lane?” Jaden sat back and crossed his arms defiantly looking over at Matt. He was acting like a child, a spoiled rotten child.

“That’s your call; I have made you welcome and given you a place at our table, what more do you want?” Matt replied, getting close to losing his temper. He thought to himself, ‘This little punk just needs his ass kicked….damn!’

“I want him to myself, I want him and me to go west and settle without baggage and without you.” Jaden snarled a few inches from Matt’s ear, then slumped back into the seat and kicked the dashboard, finishing the crack that had started on the top of the dash.

“Jaden, why do you dislike me so much?” Matt asked, speaking softly, feeling Jaden slipping further into whatever hole was pulling him. Matt knew that he could no longer help the Cub. Secretly, he had worked with all the skills he had to heal Jaden as he slept; feeding him the energy of nature, putting the pieces of his mind back together, easing his dreams. It seemed that it was a losing battle, one that Matt wasn’t going to give up on. Not just yet.

“You … you, you are just here. Luke will never love me like he does you and that makes me nuts!” Jaden spat as his body started to morph and change. He was starting to lose control. As his head thrashed back, Matt reached over and touched the cub. Focusing himself on Jaden he stopped the Cub for changing forms.

“You really need to calm down some; all these things you are feeling are likely part of your change. Remember, Bear emotions are stronger than human ones,” he whispered as he tried to both settle the cub and maintain control of the vehicle as it wound up the mountain toward the lodge.

“Stop changing the conversation,” answered Jaden as he caught his breath and his vision cleared. When he noticed Matt’s semi-transformed paw on his leg he swatted it away, not knowing what had just happened.

“I’m not; the first six months after I changed were hell. If you’re going through a small part of that, I can help or find someone to help you,” Matt pleaded. Luke loved this cub and Matt had grown to love him as well.

“I don’t need help, I just need you gone. I need you out of the picture. Not in our vicinity. You are not treating Luke the way he needs to be treated, you’re always babying him and pandering after him. Damn, he’s a bigger Bear than you, you should be serving him better,” yelled Jaden, getting worked up again.

“Love is NOT about servitude, it’s about respect. I told you both I will be there for you, I can’t see where that was a bad thing for either of you,” Matt said and locked eyes with the young cub as he sat sideways in the seat.

“That’s it, you will always be there. You will always be a stick in his mind, a love that keeps him from moving forward. Damn it, just leave already,” yelled the cub, he was almost stomping his feet.

Snickering a little, Matt replied, “Young one, I’m not going anywhere I don’t want to go.”

“Okay… stop the car … just stop the fucking car. If you won’t do it willingly, then I will have to make you leave,” Jaden screamed.

Matt looked over as a flash of anger washed over him. “What are you talking about, just get back in the car, we are almost back at the lodge,” he raised his voice at the cub.

“Fuck you, I will walk … get ready Matt, Bear of the Moon, I am going to kill you,” Jaden growled as he leaned down and locked eyes with Matt. He slammed the door and turned to walk away.

Matt sat quietly in a daze watching the cub lope into the woods, toward the lodge. Inside he was torn. Violence was never the answer, but he wasn’t going to back down either. This presented a hard choice. If Jaden were to challenge him, he would have to answer the call. If he were to win, Luke would hate him. If Matt did not fight for Luke, then Luke would still hate him. Matt was again feeling like it was an intractable tactical situation, and he had no way out. Driving slowly back to the lodge, he was greeted by a group of Bear brothers. They scooped him from the car and ushered him into a game of horseshoes and whiskey shots.

In the Bleachers Overlooking the Fight

Two Elder Bears watched the fight start to unfold as both Bears walked into the arena; one a Black European Bear and the other a Blond North American Grizzly. These two Bears had been on the business end of sparring with Matt before. Neither was very fond of watching this type of fight, especially when it seemed to have no cause. For all his faults Matt was loving and supportive. He may be contrary and pretty damn stubborn, but he didn’t deserve this and certainly had done nothing to cause it. The two Bears talked quietly among themselves.

“You know we should stop them.”

“Nope, if that little Bear wants this fight, then so be it,”

“You know Matt is going to kill him,”

“Yeah I know, but a challenge is a challenge,”

“Still, Matt is in bad situation and you know it,”

“Yeah, but you know we don’t interfere with their lives, unless we have to.”

“So, this fight is okay? A cub-ling is about to face a Guardian for God’s sake. I doubt that the cub even knows what Matt is or how he fights,”

“Let it play out. Whatever happens here happens. Those three started this in motion, and only they can stop it,”

“You can’t be serious! That cub is about to get torn apart. You have sparred with Matt; this birth-ling will be nothing more than an annoyance for him.”

“I know. However, you know that the young one was twitchy when we met him. He is showing the signs madness and you know it.”

“I think Matt has been holding him together. He is showing more and more Guardian qualities and healing is one of them.

“So, you want me to go stop them?”

“Be ready, if Matt does kill him, which I doubt he will, it may take both of us to mend whatever is about to happen.”

“Okay…wait Jaden is saying something.”

In the Arena

“Come back, you bastard!” Jaden yelled and launched himself at Matt again. Turning Matt took the blade through his paw and grabbed Jaden close to him, hugging him tight so he again couldn’t move. Jaden thrashed about again, unable to get away. As before, Matt tossed him aside and took the blade out of his paw, the wound closing quickly. Looking at Jaden, Matt threw the blade at his feet and turned to walk away.

This same scene repeated for over an hour. As it was happening, dark storm clouds pulled closer, and warm rain started to fall, steam rising from each of the Bears in the arena. Everyone that watched kept vigil. The Bears transformed as if pulled by some force. They all growled low, making soft chuffing sounds. All knew and understood what was happening. Matt was trying to teach Jaden, trying to work through all the negative emotions just like Vic had done for him in the beginning. As the clouds drew closer, it was apparent to all, this was not working. The cub was rampant, insane with anger, hatred, and all his misplaced negative emotions. The cub would stab, slice and maim the older Bear, and the older Bear would only hug him, disarm him, and toss him down. Again and again it was repeated until … Matt made his choice.

At the Rear of the Lodge

“What the fuck, let me out of here … someone let me out. Jaden!!! Let me out, why did you lock me in here?” Luke screamed and bellowed as he bashed against the bars of the holding cell. Even on lodge grounds among friends, sometimes a pen was needed to hold the biggest and worst tempered of the Bears. Here Jaden had tricked Luke inside and secured him. Luke could feel his two Bears, Matt and Jaden; he knew something was happening. He could feel sorrow from Matt; he could feel him pulling away, just like when he would leave. He felt despair and panic coming from Jaden. Something was happening and the Big Polar Bear was locked away, kept clear of it. Luke screamed and cried; panic was closing in on him. He was descending into the cold embrace of panic and his Bear was starting to take over. The Beast within would come out.

With one last painful slam against the bars and after few more tears Luke was gone, replaced by the Polar Bear. He was the largest of his tribe, a distant descendant of the first ones, the first tribe. Luke didn’t know what he was or the gifts locked deep within, but his Bear knew. The other side of the man now engaged, brought to the surface by his panic and need to be with the ones he called Cubs. A glow lit his eyes as he sniffed the bars and walked a few circles. Then, as if knowing what to do and how to escape, the Bear had no sense of panic and the human was gone. The Bear put his nose in a corner, and then placed his rear paws on bars, curled into a small hunched shape, and lodged his front paws in the opposite corner. A deep inhale and a low rumbling growl started as the Bear pushed with all its might. Muscle, tendon and bone strained. The pressure kept constant on the corner until it gave way, just a few inches at first, but it was a start. The Bear exhaled, panting and licking his muzzle as he surveyed the bars. After catching his breath, the process was repeated until the large Bear squeezed through. Walking outside, Luke put his Polar Bear nose to the sky, caught the scent of his loved ones and trotted off in that direction. The warmest of rains had started to fall, and the scent of pine and leather filled the air.

A few minutes later he arrived in a full gallop at the arena gates. Roaring as he approached, a few of the Bears that were standing gave way for the running beast. Slamming himself into the closed gate Luke broke it free and pushed it into the arena, tumbling to a stop as he did so. Shaking his head Luke looked up and saw Matt holding Jaden, rocking him back and forth while he knelt in the mud and muck. He knew Jaden was dead. Deep inside his Bear knew that Jaden was going rampant with the change, but the human side of the man didn’t want to accept that. Getting to his feet, he moved slowly toward the two. As he drew closer, he could see a sword buried into Matt’s back with the point sticking threw his chest. Jaden was lying across his lap as he kneeled there. Matt was crying, bellowing to the sky, cursing the Great Bear, and cursing the creator for letting this happen. “Why, why, why,” Matt screamed. Luke moved to Matt and chuffed softly, “I love you, and I knew this had to be done.” Matt looked up at Luke, tears filled his bright blue eyes as he spoke.

“I tried to help him. I tried to let him learn. I kept trying and trying …” Matt was descending into a remorseful stupor, the sorrow of a parent that had tried everything and still came up short. Luke, in full Polar Bear form, reached his massive paw and rubbed the side of Jaden’s face and then placed his paw on Matt’s shoulder. A soft chuff followed, “Help me bury our cub.”

Matt nodded, and looked up at him, “The Lake … by the pond, at the place of my change. Let it be there that we lay him to rest.” Luke nodded as he shifted to hand the small body to Luke, who had sat on his rump and stretched out his large upturned paws. Luke snuffled Jaden close to his chest, inhaling the last of his scent, burning the memory into his brain. Matt stood and turned around. As gently as he could, Luke reached forward and gripped the sword in his gleaming teeth. In a grunting motion, Matt stepped forward and removed the blade from his back, almost collapsing as the wounds closed as he turned to face Luke.

Matt reached up and took the blade from Luke’s muzzle and turned around to look at the Bears watching from atop the arena walls. “This cub was given an Elder’s blade to face me. Everyone here witnessed what transpired and not one of you rose to stop it!” Matt screamed, the fur on his body bristling, the clouds coming closer, the wind circling them.

“You call yourself Elders, you call yourselves Leaders, and you call yourselves Bears. Whoever gave him this blade sent this cub to his death. I curse you all for this,” he bellowed as he snapped the blade in two and threw it on the ground.

“I will return in three days to this arena, to this very spot. Let the one who gave this weapon to Jaden face me. Let him look into my eyes and answer to my claws as I rip the heart from his chest. Know this; I will not stop until I have found you. You will have no peace until you’re dead,” Matt roared as he finished. Turning to look at Luke who was still snuffling Jaden’s lifeless body, Matt walked to them and cradled Jaden as Luke let go of him. Then they both walked from the arena, toward the lake, and buried the one they both called Cub.

A summer rain had started to fall early that morning, turning into a torrential downpour as Matt walked into the camp that had surround the lodge and toward the arena. He was naked in his human form. He carried his staff and nothing more. His long hair was held back by a leather rope, fashioned from the bracelet he had made for Jaden. Around his neck was another totem. A single Massive Claw hung by another leather loop. It was a Polar Bear Claw, one of Luke’s.          

The gathering had gotten underway in the past three days, but all cleared the path for Matt as he walked. Entering the arena, he noticed it was empty as he walked to the center. Matt planted his staff in the ground and knelt down to sit on the ground. There he would wait, wait for his retribution.

A Voice of Reason

Night came and dawn crested the horizon when a familiar scent wafted to Matt’s nose and a familiar presence pressed against his back. “You know that no one is going to show up….Right?”

“I know, but I had hoped they would, so I could have closure. I knew Jaden was rampant, but this wasn’t the place for his end. I could have helped him, I could have done more.” Matt mumbled, his voice trembling and his insides hurting for the loss of Jaden. As much as Matt disliked the presence of another in their home, he loved the Cub and wanted only the best for him.

“Nope, you have done enough; but it’s time for you to move on. You need to let go, just like you had to let go of your military friend at the shelter. Forgive yourself and just live … would you, please?”

“Okay, but let me stay a bit longer. I was listening for him on the wind. A piece of the cub still lingers here. I would like to stay and wait, just a bit more. Just a bit more …”

“In for a penny, in for a pound. So be it … but don’t stay too long, you might get sunburned,” replied the voice.

Before Matt could answer, the presence was gone.

Matt did stay for a while, and then he rose to his feet and walked out of the arena. He kept walking through the crowd that had gathered. Right past the elders, right past them all, right to where Luke waited. Vic and Boris attempted to speak to him, but he ignored them as he walked, pushing through both of them, daring either to stop him. Luke had gathered their things and moved the vehicle to a quiet location; with all eyes focused on Matt, it was easy to accomplish. Then the two left. It was time for some quiet conversation and some snuggling between the two.

Not a word was spoken between the two as they drove. Matt was still naked riding in the passenger seat, and Luke had only sweatpants on.  Luke drove and followed the GPS to a location that Matt had chosen.

There the pair would stay for quite a while before they chose to rejoin the world.

They were done for a while.

Part Two

The Bridge of Choices

Leaving Again?

“Where the hell are you going?” Luke yelled.

“On an assignment,” Matt responded.

“Seriously, I thought you were done with this?  What the heck did we give up a life for?  For you to always be gone, just like when you were in the military? For me to sit and worry, not knowing? I’m just supposed to wait around for you, like I’m nothing? Why did you even bother to change me?”

“There are some Bears in trouble, and I need to help,” Matt said meekly.

“Stop saving the world, what happened to all those walks in the woods and quiet times we talked about, huh?  Maybe I need you too,” Luke said in anger.

As had always his way, Matt walked up to Luke, hugged him tightly and kissed him on his cheek before he walked away without saying goodbye. Saying goodbye was final; it was definite. This was not. This was a moment in time that would pass on the wind. This same fight had been repeated so many times, Matt was immune to the anger. Hardened to the guile and steeled to the onslaught of his mate. He would go and he would do what he needed to do. He would answer his calling, and then he would return.

Outside the couple’s new home, Robert was waiting parked in a Jeep. He was tapping on the steering wheel waiting for Matt to come out. He knew that leaving would cause Luke concern, but he didn’t anticipate the guilt that came from Luke toward the Elder and himself.  He could see that Luke was trapped between needing Matt and knowing he had to leave. It would be an awkward meeting when he came back later.

“Good you’re done. You ready for this?” Robert spoke as the stoic and red-faced Matt climbed into the Jeep. 

“Let’s get on with it, I have no stomach for conversation right now,” stated Matt as he got into the back seat.

“Well … ok. That package on the seat contains all the information that I have right now. Tell me, how’s your Russian?” asked Robert, using a more snide tone than usual.

“Not as good as yours or Boris’s, I’m sure…” Matt let his words trail off, lingering in the air. He glared at Robert in the rear view mirror; briefly, his fingers danced over his blade. An old Marine rule, ‘Have a plan to kill everyone you meet’, came back to him and he chuckled. 

Ever since they had moved on, it seemed that Boris had been asking more and more of him. Not that it was retirement or anything, but the couple had much more time together before the move. Now it was just one long string of missions, assignments, and tasks. Matt was tired.  He had been shot, blown up and almost beheaded on the last little ‘mission’ that Robert sent him on. In the back of his head he felt resentment coming from Robert. He knew it would come to a head soon. He had not told anyone about the contact with Dante’, or about the memories of a Bear living for millennia danced through his dreams, permeated his thoughts, and tickled his senses like déjà vu. What he did know for sure is the good Bears these two were now, in this generation, were not who they grew from Cubs and into adolescence. Matt knew the truth about them; he knew what they were 700 years ago. It would come to a head soon enough and Dante would have his justice.

“So, you going to daydream all day, or read over the information? We’ll be at the airport in about 30 minutes; why don’t you put some of that intellect of yours to good use?” Robert almost cursed at him from the driver’s seat.

“I’m on it. Thank you, I’m a bit dreamy today,” Matt said coyly. 

“You better get your mind clear or its going to get you killed.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll come back in one piece,” Matt said as he flipped through the information. Not a word was said between the two for a short time.  Just as they were pulling up at the plane heading north Matt stirred restlessly, looking up at Robert.

“Say Robert,” Matt asked while taking his sunglasses off his eyes and looking up into the rearview mirror.

“Yeah, what?”  Robert sneered.

“How old are you?” he asked, locking his crystal blue eyes with Robert. He could feel a swelling of energy flow through him, like a building tidal wave that was about to break over rocks. 

Robert paused and looked into the rearview mirror, “A few hundred years older than you,” he said and pulled up to the plane. It was running and the cargo door was open; he could see another Bear tapping on a clipboard, waiting for him. 

“Really, you smell older … funny! Why is that?” Matt hopped from the Jeep and headed for the plane. As he glanced back, he could see Robert furiously tapping on his cell phone. As he stepped on the cargo ramp, he locked eyes with Robert. He kept that stare until Robert broke it, and sped away in the Jeep. This was going to be an adventure. Robert was trying to eliminate him, but why? 

Before Matt moved he took out a second cell phone and sent a flurry of text messages to Luke and others. It was a warning to be on guard, things were not right; a special code that the two and a close circle of other were-creatures Matt had encountered over the years would know. Being a Guardian, Matt was connected to the world around him. He perceived and communicated on a different level than most Bears, another gift from Dante’.  He knew that before Robert got back to the house, Luke would be safely departed and in the company of friends other than Bear brothers. Stolen away in the forest guarded from sight, scent, and other earthy means of tracking.

Matt made out the muffled growl of the Bear loading the plane. He tucked the phone away and slung his gear in a net. He climbed up to the top of the net carriers and lay down far away from the small group that was seated in the nets below. Matt liked it this way, he could see them if any of them approached. The engines droned to full power and the plane lurched onto the runway. The familiar feel of the takeoff, followed by the momentary floating as the aircraft found its way in the cold air. As the plane evened out and the engine noise took on a nice purr, Matt drifted off to sleep. He always slept better up here in the cargo nets, in the air.  It was funny how that always worked out. 

Jet fuel and Conversations

In a half sleepy state, a familiar scent wafted up to Matt. His eyes snapped open and his senses burst outward. Nothing … ‘What the hell.”  He rolled over toward the group and looked down; one was missing. Something was off. Matt went to sit up but before he could a voice came from below and behind him, from the raised cargo ramp. 

“You know, you can stop with the lone-wolf Bear thing … it doesn’t become you little brother,” said a semi large bald Bear with tattoos adorning his face. Matt rolled over and out of the net, landing on his feet a blade in hand. His mind was working out the details, the timeline, the mission, and military time, a man whom he had served with on three continents was standing in front of him and had not aged a day in over 100 years. He was Bear, but how?

“O-a-mae-o” said the Bear.

“Manalu” responded Matt. “Tulou, how the heck is this possible Thomas?”

“Because little brother, my Elders have been watching over you for years,” responded the Bear. Thomas was a Southern Islander, or had been what Matt was led to believe. He was tattooed from his head to his toes. Matt had served with him at various times doing various things in the military. He developed a working friendship with the man during that time and always felt comfortable and at ease around him. Thomas had been present at some of the nastiest times in Matt’s past and had witnessed Matt at both his best and absolute worst. The larger Bear had pulled Matt out of his drunken stupor after a failed mission, sobered him up and got him back home in one piece. Luke knew Thomas, but only as the plain-clothed officer that always picked Matt up and brought him home. They had parted friendship on a distasteful assignment in Haiti. Matt still mentally shuttered at the thought of what Thomas did. When they returned Matt could not stomach it anymore and went forward with details that caused the US government a black eye, and Thomas to be reassigned elsewhere. He’d lost track of him after that … until today. 

Matt still in a crouched defensive stance responded. “Explain!”

“Seriously, do we need to talk about it? Okay. The short of it, I’m Bear and have been since you met me. My Elders have been watching you; they didn’t agree with Boris not telling you what you were and are a little shocked that you would pledge your skills to him even after that. Little brother, you see, a small group wants you to join them and make some things right in this world,” Thomas shook his head and looked Matt in the eye earnestly. “On a different note, why the hell did you change Luke and drag him along with you? You know that wasn’t right. I have watched you move like a Bear when you were human, I watched you harness the energy of the world to save so many. Why could you not save yourself and the man you love? Why did you condemn him to a life that he didn’t want? A life that will only bring him frustration and pain.  Bear he may be in blood … but Bear in his heart he is not,”

“Not a topic of discussion Thomas … I-” Matt stuttered as a flood of memories and emotion hit him. In his mind Dante’s memories rolled through his thoughts; visions of this Bear much older than he led on. Waves of heat, a fight, Dante hurt … and then blackness, cold, ice and snow. The vision so violet and so deep it dropped Matt to all fours. Under his jacket Dante’s mark burned in his skin. 

“What’s the matter little brother, Cub got your tongue?” sneered Thomas, moving closer as he drew a short sword.

“Not at all, I’m just wondering how it’s going to feel to take your head,” Matt said not looking up, letting Thomas approach. In Thomas’s hands his blade twirled through the air. 

“You were never a match for me, not when you were training.  Not now. Not ever,” Thomas raised his sword.

Matt moved to meet Thomas and they locked blades trading blows. Thomas’s den mates threw themselves into the fray and Matt found himself cornered. “What now young one?  Either submit and come with us, or we take your head,” growled Thomas. Standing behind him were three other den mates, Matt looked forward to see the Loadmaster had been killed or severely injured in the fight, more collateral damage. 

Matt smiled, “You four have a choice, stand down or die.”

They laughed a guffaw of laughter. That is when Matt moved; he shifted as though Dante’, moved within him. Two were beheaded as Matt came to a stop on the Cargo Ramp of the plane; he had snagged his gear bag on the way by. Before Thomas could register what was happening, Matt threw two blades and took the third Bear down. Now it was just him and Thomas. 

“Well little brother, you sure surprised me,” Thomas spoke looking back at Matt who was standing, crouched on top of the cargo door. He had slung his gear bag over his shoulder and neck and took out two more blades. As the larger Bear charged, Matt kicked the cargo gate latch free. When Thomas closed the distance, Matt moved within slicing nerve and tendon, muscle and sinew. He left the large island Bear, unable to move on the cargo door. 

“One chance. Why?”  Matt asked.

“Little brother, a war is coming between humans and Bears, what side do you want to be on? They are food, nothing more,” spat the large Bear.

“Not if I can help it,” Matt muttered. He strode up shoved a blade deep into the Bear’s chest and turned it to inflict maximum pain. Turning, Matt walked back to the cargo door release. Reaching the release, he turned to face the incapacitated Bear and smiled. Thomas screamed.

“Have a safe flight and remember your seat cushion can be used as a floatation device.  Good-Bye.” Matt sneered and engaged the release; the cargo door opened and dumped the screaming, incapacitated Bear out into the open air over open water.  Matt smiled, ‘Never a match … Silly Bear, Tricks are for kids.’ He dumped the other bodies out the cargo door and quickly cleaned up the area then he healed the loadmaster. The older Bear working the plane had no part to play in this and was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Bear was grateful and shocked, but knew to just let it go. Bear bravado had its place and that’s what they chalked it up to.

In a few hours they would be in Clear, but why were these Bears going to the same location? Did they know about Matt’s mission? Or was it just a coincidence? Matt searched their gear, but it was nothing special. Clothes, dried meats, books to read; it appeared as if everything was a coincidence. However, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew it wasn’t. 

Thomas had been a weird influence on Matt while he was in the military. It seemed that he had always brought out the nasty side of him. On several missions Matt had to pull himself back from being, well … a monster. Matt was not a natural asshole or evil, but Thomas just seemed to bring that out of him. He was glad Thomas was gone, this time for good.

Ice and Vodka

Landing in Clear, Matt made his way to the provision store. It was run by a Bear brother as well as a safe haven, shown by the marking on its sign. The door creaked open and the sound of a single bell sounded as it closed. A voice came from behind a row of wooden shelves that held small canned goods. “Top of the morning, little one!” came a Russian accent, so thick that Matt could hardly make it out. 

“Same to yah,” responded the little Bear.

A figure scooted his way from behind the shelf hunched over, dragging a large box. He came around the corner butt first, and turned to face Matt, “You smell different, but you also have the aura of a friend, and someone I knew,” said the Bear, now standing straight. This Bear was at least 6-½ feet tall and as wide as the window he stood in front of. Matt faltered, he lost his words and stood in the doorway stuttering.

“I … um … I …” 

“No worries lad, come over here and have a seat,” spoke the Bear.  As he motioned for Matt to sit, Matt could see his hands were not quite human and not quite Bear.  He was partially shifted under his coveralls and button down shirt. His ears were Bear, but obscured by the knit cap he wore. As the large Bear smiled, his ursine teeth peeked out behind his lips. He was wearing large wool socks over his feet, to cover up his partially transformed features. 

“Thanks, I’m looking for Jürgen?” Matt asked, sitting on the edge of the seat.

“Then look no further little one, I’m he! The one you seek; I’m sure Boris sent you to accompany me on a trek. My very last one,” the Bear spoke, his voice a mix of sadness and pride. The large Bear poured them two glasses of Vodka with a large chunk of ice in each.  They sat facing one another staring each other down. No words were spoken for a bit as they both inhaled deeply and watched each other. Afterwards, they chatted and Matt was amazed at the depth and age of this Bear. 

This was an ancient one, one of the Bears he looked for and wanted so desperately to talk too and spend time with. Matt’s orders were to accompany this Bear to the Hunting Grounds, and ensure he was safe on his journey. This Bear was moving on for the last time; the way the old ones moved on.  As they aged, the very old Bears lost their ability to shift back and forth and were often left stuck somewhere in between. Matt would help this Bear transform for the last time. As they talked, Jürgen tended to customers and went about his day. Matt walked around den and store marveling at his collection of things. Coins and currency from all over the world, small art pieces, it was a collection of collections. In a far removed corner behind all the shelves, closest to the entrance to the bedrooms and private areas was a small statue of a Bear sitting on a single shelf, with nothing around it. The little statue caught Matt’s attention; it seemed to glow on its own. 

As Matt reached to touch it, a deep voice came from just over his shoulder as two massive paws were placed lightly on them. “That’s carved from the origin rock. At the time of our creation, the Great Bear along with others created us to protect man, to be their counsel and advisors. We are human and we are Bear. We are both,” Jürgen spoke, as his paws drifted across Matt and circled him in a warm hug, so gentle and graceful it didn’t match this Bears size. 

As the older Bear turned the little Guardian around, Matt noticed the store was closed and the shades had been drawn. The warm crackle of the heaters and the small pot bellied stove were the only sounds. Matt knew what this Bear wanted and in truth, Matt wanted it too.  Jürgen enjoyed Matt many times that day and night and as they were locked into the passions and throws of ursine sex, Jürgen transformed for the last time. Matt moved and gave energy to Jürgen to help with his transformation. Over many hours, he shifted gradually into his full Bear form. Late the next morning, the pair slipped out a side door and made a quiet, undisturbed exit from the town. As per his wishes, the store would be burnt down and he would cut ties with the world of humans for the last time. Tucked inside Matt’s jacket was the small statue; it would be a way to remind him of his duty to all Bears and what it meant to be a Guardian. 

A gentle snow fell as the two walked, it covered their tracks leaving no trail, no trace, and no record of their passing as it should be. Inside Matt cried; he didn’t want this Bear to move on. The old ones needed to be revered, loved, and cared for not led off to die. 

The two walked for several days, talking along the way. Jürgen spoke of battles and love, of sex and mead. These were adventures that would make any Cub long for the old times.  At the end of the journey as the pair arrived at the entrance to the Hunting Grounds, Matt reached out and grabbed the long fur of the older Bear.

“Please don’t,” Matt begged.

“Young one, I have lived long enough. It’s time for me to move on,” Jürgen chuffed.

“No, please … please stay and be a part of this world. We need you … I need you.  Jürgen, please,” Matt fell to his knees.  The large Bear turned around to face the small Guardian.

“This is my choice; I am tired of this world and living. My passing will not be missed by anyone. Little Guardian, you cannot save us all; you cannot hold the whole world on your shoulders. Thank you for walking with me and talking to me, it has made this trek a joy. Go back to the world of humans. Open your heart to everyone, don’t be afraid of who you are, face your demons, and never be swayed in your love for your mate,” Jürgen spoke inches from Matt’s face, as tears rolled off the little Bear. He turned and walked into the falling snow; just as he walked out of sight, the wind picked up and he disappeared. He became part of the energy flow that was the world. He moved on by his will alone. He left no trace, no track; he vanished as a ghost on the wind.

As Matt felt Jürgen become part of the world, he exploded. Rage, hate, anger, loss, love, longing, all flowed up and out of the little guardian. The snow around him melted as he became a conduit for the energy. Static electricity discharged off of him as the waves of emotions flowed like a geyser. He could feel himself start to transform, his clothes ripped and fell away as he morphed into his Bear. Bellowing to the snow and ice he screamed his rage, his loss, and his love for the Bear that had passed. He spat his anger to the ancient ones for thinking they were no longer needed, and he whimpered his longing for Dante and for Luke. At the end of the outburst Matt just laid on the snow face up, panting, tears freezing to his fur. Silently, he vowed to never bring another Bear to his willing death. He would find a way, he would find a purpose for them; they would not be cast off like old clothes that were no longer needed. 

Through the cold of the snow Dante’s, mark burned.  Matt knew he had made the right choice. He sat up gathering his shredded clothes and gear into his backpack and made his way back. In his half form he was warm enough, but he needed to be careful of humans. He was sure they would mistake him for a Sasquatch or something, but he did not want to push it. 

It was drawing close to the time of the southern gathering.  Matt would have to go back to the lower parish of New Orleans where he grew up. He was not looking forward to this, but Luke and Vic were so he would have to make the best of it. Inside he wished to never set a paw back on that soil. That place held only pain for Matt more than he had told Luke, more than he had ever told anyone.

The Voodoo that You Do

The lower parish of New Orleans stunk even worse that when Matt had left. The group of Bears had landed a few hours earlier, checked into the hotel and were out meandering around the streets looking for trouble, or fun depending on how you looked at it. He was trailing a few paces behind Vic and Luke, a little lost in his memories. As the festival of Bears and Men was taking its normal course Matt was left feeling like an outsider. His gut was tight, as it always was in large groups or crowds. He ducked down a back alley and before he realized, was making his way back to his old watering hole. The old ways, the sights, and smells were coming back to him. It seemed that not much had changed in eighty plus years. Soon, Matt was standing at the entrance to El Ta Doe. It had been a dive back then and had not improved much since. It was a locals spot; working class customers, a few police officers off duty, but nothing more. Matt made his way to the center of the bar and ordered a drink. Actually, he ordered a whole bottle of Vodka and a bucket of ice; he proceeded to make his way through the bottle. He reached down and nibbled on the semi-stale salt-lick popcorn. The drink had no taste after a while, all Matt wanted was his senses dulled to cut out off the memories, the flashbacks, and to just not feel anything for a while.

The piano started to play and he was lost in memories and alcohol. Soon he finished the bottle and was feeling pretty rowdy; he wanted to be bad. However, Bear situational awareness being what it was; he decided it was time to leave. As he made his way from the bar, someone caught his eye. A person he knew danced on the edge of his sight and then was gone. Stumbling Matt made his way outside and started to follow the person; it was Danny. It couldn’t be. He was dead. Matt had seen him die, held him as his heart stopped, and handed the flag to his parents. Just as Matt would begin to catch up, Danny would disappear. He was past drunk, on the way to blackout. His Bear physiology was taking care of the stupor and he was coming around pretty fast, but he had finished a liter bottle of Ketel One Vodka. Still, he was tumbling and stumbling. Finally, Danny brought him to the one place he didn’t ever want to come again.  The cemetery where his parents were buried, his entire family, his line. The figure grabbed Matt and threw him through the cemetery gates. Landing in a tumble he looked around, the world was blurry and off center. Danny appeared and kicked him over a row of markers and into the side of a tomb. He looked up; the marker was for his family. Danny grabbed Matt by the head and made him look, made him read the names, made him see his pain, made him see his loss, made him deal with the blackness that he had tucked away, deep down. 

An explosion of energy shook the ground and Matt brought the memories back, dealt with his pain, his loss. After so much death how could he possibly be a helper in life? The emotional baggage, self-loathing, and doubt had eaten at him for years; now it would be dealt with. In the cemetery the wind picked up circling Matt, and storm clouds formed overhead. The young Guardian was pulling nature toward him, yanking at the world and in turn the world would echo his pain. Here in this place of rest a battle would begin, one of Matt’s past, and of his future.

As he was held there, he saw his father, mother, brothers and sisters. There he saw his son and daughter in law; they had been killed in an automobile accident. He’d stayed away and not visited or made peace with it. Now, as Danny held him there he reached out his senses and could still feel his son and daughter in law. The last of their life energy hung in the tomb waiting to be given a path to freedom. As Matt reached out and touched the tomb; the remaining life force flowed to Matt and around his body. He smelled his son’s hair, felt the warmth of his daughter in laws heart, and heard ‘We love you dad’ as the energy flowed out and into the world. Matt cried for his son and daughter in law. They had left four children that Matt had kept an eye on and watched over. The four were his constant concern and he would always pass by on the way back north, to check on them. 

As he looked around the cemetery is started to rain. It was a southern afternoon thunder burst. The kind of rain that falls so hard you can’t see ten feet in front of you, stops traffic, and makes any movement hazardous. The hot air mixed with the cooling rain, and steam formed just above the ground. The rain-washed away the last of the drunken stupor and with it Danny. Matt was left with his clothes torn to shreds, kneeling in the Louisiana mud in the cemetery of his family. He stayed that way for some time, just looking at the tombs and markers, remembering his family opening his heart to the world, listening for the whispers of family on the wind, hoping above hope that he would see them again someday, but knowing he was now Bear and death was not an option open to him anymore. 

A gust of warm wind pushed through the cemetery, “I see ya found ya way back home,” came a familiar voice.

Matt turned his head slowly, knowing that this place, this parish, and his family had some strong ties to Island Magic. “Chum?” asked Matt.

“Na sir, I be ta great, great granddaughter and keeper of ya’ family. Gran has long departed, but not before she gave us a picture of ya’, the young Cub. Said you were like Legba, the shape shifter, the protector, and the jester. Said you would come back to make peace. Said you would need to be healed,” said the small Negro/American female. She was not much larger than he remembered Chum, but the same necklace, the same smell, same glow. 

“I don’t know what I need,” Matt remarked as another rainstorm started.

“Come to da ol’ plantation manor, I’ll round up da gathering we will heal the protector of young ones and ancients,” she said as she took a few steps toward Matt and laid a small charm at his side. Looking over, Matt knew what it was; it was a protection and calling charm, one that would keep him safe as he crossed the plantation. He was about to go home, to be healed by the old ones of his world. Matt walked many paths, he had ties to many home, in many places, and he was a bridge, a link among many. This would be another bridge he would either have to cross or destroy. 

Whiskey and Cigars

Luke and Vic were making the rounds. Humans, Cubs, and Bears mixed into a froth of sweat and sexuality that had to be seen to be believed. The street festival was progressing and both of the Bears had claimed a few Cubs and taken their leave with them. They were both careful to stay within their species, but humans were tempting if only for a kiss or grope. 

“You seen Matt?” Vic asked as they both downed shots.

“Na … he hates crowds, this was his home I’m sure he’ll be ok. He’s probably in a bookstore somewhere or a library, far removed from all this,” Luke said has he yanked in a Cub and planted a wet sloppy kiss on him, then pushed him away. 

“Okay, but I’m worried. You know he didn’t want to come in the first place,” Vic answered.

“Yeah I know, but sometimes it’s about me and what I want. I have followed that Bear all over the world, he can follow me for a while,” Luke said a little smugly. Vic made note of the comment, but stayed close to Luke just as Matt would have. The pair made their way from bar to bar following the ebb and flow of the crowd. It was getting dark and with that a different element was on the street. Vic noticed it first, but Luke was a little dull to it. As they entered the Voodoo Lounge, partially dressed Cubs and humans were packed in and the music loud, beer flowed and festivities commenced. The pair of party Bears was eating it up, but in the back of his head Vic knew something was wrong with Matt …

Stumbling, Matt made his way back to the manor house. Long abandoned by his family, long forgotten by the neighborhood it was given up on by the city. The property sat untouched by humans, but writhe with the old magic. This ground was hallowed to many, cursed by others, and Matt had to walk across it to reach the gathering. His vision was blurry and his balance was off. The charm he was holding started to get warm in his hand. Matt knew he was entering the fury, the protective barrier that was around this place. To humans, this place was haunted. To Matt it was alive, just as it had always been. Matt rounded the old carriage house, ducked through an overgrown grape harbor and emerged into what was the workout ground where he and his father spared, fenced, wrestled, and boxed. As he walked, he could make out the staff holders along the far wall, only a single staff remained; it was sure to be useless as a weapon at this point. As he walked out past a row of flowered hedges he felt the ground change, he was walking on the meditation sands of his mother’s garden. Matt paused briefly to kneel down and grab a handful of the sand, letting it slide from his closed fist as he watched. When the last of the sand fell from his hands he heard the sounds of drums and chants. It was time to attend the gathering; the demons of his past would be put down and he would have closure with his parents.

Across town but in a different world in the Voodoo Lounge, the Bears were far outnumbering the humans. As with most Bear gatherings, humans would leave on their own without much coaxing; it was a natural instinct when Bears come together in a group. The age-old question of who is Alpha comes into play and little contests start to erupt, with the amount of booze being passed around, it was sure to get a little wild later. Luke and Vic were sitting back enjoying themselves and had actually found the corner of the lounge that had the food. Leave it to a Polar Bear to always find the grub.

“Aren’t you worried about Matt? He vanished almost 12 hours ago,” asked Vic, devouring chicken wings.

“Nope, he’s a big Bear he can take care of himself. Besides, with all this young meat around, I’ll have my paws full in a bit. I see two that I want. How ‘bout you?” questioned Luke.

“I’m good I have enough at home to keep me occupied, but are you sure you want to go after it like that. It’s kind of … well … out of your norm.”

“The hell with the norms, I want ass and I’m going to get it. This isn’t about love; it’s about taking what I want. Period!” Luke said, a little annoyed.

“O-okay, well, okay,” stammered Vic, totally surprised at this. Luke had been attached to Matt and wanted no one else for a while, now it would seem that a switch had been flipped.  He had been acting erratic for some time when Matt was away. It was hard for Vic to rationalize what was happening. As the older Bear, he stuck close and guided when he could, but Luke had become moody and downright hurtful in his speech toward Matt. ‘Gods be praised if those two survive this.’  Vic thought to himself and he watched Luke grab hold of a Cub and haul him into a dark corner. 

Across town at the old plantation manor, Matt approached the small fire surrounded by people. Some wearing masks while others had painted their faces. When he approached the fire, his legs became weak and his vision blurred as its smoke wafted over him. 

“There ya be. Time to make peace with ya demons young one. The gathering will guard ya on da journey,” said the small dark skinned female. Matt dropped to his knees as the chanting started, he was undressed and his body painted. The markings were protection totems.  This would be the third time in his life he had gone through this; the first was with his brother, then his sister, and now he would journey to meet his parents. He had to know the truth about things and this was the only way. Drums started and someone held Matt’s head back pouring something down his throat. It burned, and his senses exploded as the journey began. The wind picked up and clouds drew close. Matt started his journey through the guff … in search of the truth. He would learn his answers and his demons would be at rest. 

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