Wagon wheels are easy enough to fix, people not so much. Loss and fear, trauma, all things people feel on the trails. The kind of wounds that last forever, but at least they aren't the ones that get you killed. This'll be my second wagon train from Westport to Santa Fe, my dozenth overall since I shipped over here in the summer of '29. Was a smooth ride until we made it past Council Grove; that's about when I started getting the gut feeling this might end up being my last. Few days shy of Pawnee Rock, right at the head of the Arkansas River. Two out of my nine wagons have already been left behind. Two whole families up and gone in the middle of the night. No trace of them walking off, no hoof prints to blame on the Cheyenne tribes, no blood, nothing. Now I've got twenty-odd remaining men, women, and children fearing for their lives, and all I can do is tell them to keep close and keep their rifles loaded. A horizon full of dried old prairie brush and scalding red canyon rock is all we've got accompanying us out here on the banks of the Arkansas. Rocky, grassy plains and sun-baked ridges, the last trees we got to see alive were back in Missouri. Land flat enough to see for miles, dotted with plateau cliffs high enough to stake out any meandering caravans. No cover for the wagons; For me, that means another night on watch—another night of watching shadows and sage. Walk-around was as expected. No noise other than shuffling homesteaders in their wagons, and the two men who volunteered to patrol with me kicking up dust. The last rays of orange and burning sun shoved off over the western plains a few hours ago, and now we wait for the darkness from the east to blanket us to sleep. My mind is a whirl, running through the last few weeks of riding. Wildlife that should have been staying clear of the caravan, evenings surrounded by a heavy, foreboding mist that didn't belong out here in the plains. A feeling in my bones that the earth itself doesn't want us out here. I pick at a few loose eggshells and grounds from tonight's trail coffee and spit them off into the brush. Things are too quiet tonight, can't even hear the wind against the wagon canvas. Can't hear the– "Mister Hobbs! Mister Hobbs, come quick!" A man shrieks from one of the wagons. I'm there in a split, rifle drawn. I hiss through gritted teeth. Inside the back of one of the wagons sits one of my lost homesteaders, naked and deathly still. I rack my brain for their name but come up empty. "What's he doing here, how'd he get in here?" I growl, keeping my rifle trained. "Just came flying through the flaps, Mister Hobbs, scared the hell out of us, hasn't said a word since," the outcrier sputters, turning away from me to console his wife. I spit at the ground again before hoisting myself into the wagon, beckoning the intruder, who I still can't quite recognize to sit down. They respond with a lurch in my direction, the first movement they've made since I pointed my rifle at them, and I flinch. Instinct tightens my fingers on my rifle's trigger, and a shot rings out—splintering wagon wood and nothing else. Somehow, in the second I blinked, the man just disappeared into thin air. Fate doesn't give me time to understand or react. A thud rocks me on my feet, something big just tackled the side of the wagon. I hop out to scan the nearby carts and campground with my rifle, waving for the man and his wife to climb back inside their cart to safety. I whip around the corner of the cart, rifle at the ready, when a dark blur slams into me. My arms fly wide and my legs go limp as the weight of the thing knocks me flat onto the dirt. A guttural scream erupts from deep within its throat, and I feel something hot splash across my face. Something wet and sticky, like blood, but not enough to kill me. It smells foul and rancid, and I struggle to keep my eyes open as the beast lunges forward and bites into my shoulder. Pain shoots through my body, but I manage to grab hold of its head and pull it back. The creature screams and thrashes, trying to shake me off, but I hang on tight. You finally get a good glimpse of the beast that you have pinned down, it is a monstrous, horned nightmare of fur and muscle. Its claws dig into your flesh, ripping long gashes in your clothes and skin, and it lets loose another ear-piercing roar. You squeeze harder, feeling its strength waning, and then suddenly it stops struggling and goes completely still. Its deadweight lifts off you and lands heavily on the ground beside you. You roll onto your knees, coughing and wheezing, holding your bleeding arm close to your chest. Your heart pounds and adrenaline surges through your veins, making it hard to think straight. You glance up, seeing the woman standing there staring at you with her mouth agape. The woman tells you that the beast you have just killed was her husband Peter. She says he was attacked by one of the beasts in the middle of the night, and that she watched him die right in front of her. She asks if you saw anything strange happen, and if you know how to stop this new threat. *** The morning sun rises over the horizon, painting the sky pink and orange, and casting the world below in an eerie glow. The last vestiges of the previous night's storm linger, leaving behind a thick layer of mist that hangs low over the ground. The air is cool, and a light breeze rustles the grass and trees. There is no sign of the monsters from last night, but you can see the tracks where they dragged their prey away. You follow the tracks and see a cave. You look down and notice your arms that got clawed at are turning hairy. You suspect that you are becoming one of the beasts. "Oh shit," you whisper under your breath. "What should I do?" You stand there for a moment, looking at the cave entrance. Should you go inside? What would happen if you did? Would you become one of those horrible creatures? Your mind races, and you decide that you must find out. You enter the cave and at first it looks just like a normal cave, but then you hear something. A faint scratching sound comes from deep within the darkness. You creep forward, trying to peer into the shadows, but as soon as you move, the noise stops. You try to listen again, but nothing else happens. It seems like the noises stopped when you entered the cave. It's eerily quiet, you decide it's time to leave, but when you turn around the entrance is blocked by a man. Suddenly the room illuminates with torches and you realize you are surrounded. A man with a large hat approaches you and says, "It looks like you've suffered the same fate as us all..." *** You stare at the man, not sure what to say or do. He doesn't seem hostile, but he also doesn't seem friendly either. He walks towards you and extends his hand. "My name is John." You take his hand and shake it, feeling his rough calloused palm rub against yours. You ask John, "Who are you people? Are you all beastmen?" John chuckles and shakes his head. "No, we're humans, though I suppose some might consider us to be beastfolk." "Beastfolk?" "Yes, we are part human, part animal. We live among nature, and use our abilities to help others." You furrow your brow and lean in closer. "Are you saying that you can change into animals?" John nods. "We are shifters, and we have been given the gift to transform ourselves into any kind of animal. Some of us can even shift back and forth between different species." "So you're a werewolf?" John laughs. "Not quite, we don't have that ability. No, we are shapechangers, able to take on the form of anything living. That includes plants, insects, fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and even other shifters." You feel a little better knowing that you aren't going crazy. You attempt to use your powers to transform into a rose. You concentrate hard and focus on the image of a beautiful flower in your mind. Your eyes glaze over and you begin to see shapes and colors, but no matter how hard you try, you cannot make the transformation. You sigh and look up at John. "Why won't it work?" John tilts his head. "What didn't work?" "Showing you guys my power," you reply. "Oh, well, let me show you mine!" A small bush next to you begins to grow leaves and branches, blossoming into a tree. You gasp and step away. You watch as the tree then transforms into a bird and then from a bird into a butterfly, which flutters its wings before transforming into a tiny lizard. Your jaw drops open and you stare in awe. John smiles proudly. "That was just one of my abilities. I can take the form of anything living, and if I touch an object, I can absorb it and become whatever I need to be." You try again and attempt to transform into a rose, focusing hard on the image in your mind. You close your eyes and picture a gorgeous red blossom, opening them once more when nothing happens. "It's like there's a barrier around me," you murmur. John looks down at you. "Is that so?" You look down and realize you have done it! You have become a rose! "How did you do that?" John asks. "I...I'm not sure," you answer. "All I know is that I wanted to be a rose, and suddenly I was." "Interesting..." He rubs his chin. "If you could take the form of anything, what would you choose to be?" You think for a moment. "I'd love to be a dragon or a tiger, maybe a lion or a bear." "Well, I guess that makes sense," he chuckles. "You must really want to fly." You frown. "No, that doesn't make sense. Why would I want to fly? Flying isn't fun." He smirks. "Have you ever ridden a horse?" "Yes, but—" "Then why do you think you want to ride a flying animal?" You furrow your brow. "Because horses are strong and fast, and flying animals are faster than any horse." You transform into a flying horse just to spite John. "See, that wasn't so difficult after all," he says smugly. You huff and turn back into human form. "Fine, I'll stay a normal person." John laughs. "Good choice. Now, what about you?" You glance at him curiously. "Me?" You transform into the Kool Aid Man and burst through the cave wall and say, "Oh yeah!" John stares at you in shock. "What the hell is going on here?!" You laugh and wave your hand. "Nothing, nothing. Just having some fun." John shakes his head. "We're supposed to be working together." "Yeah, but this is good too, right?" Your latest transformation gets the attention of your Caravan and people start to wander over to the cave to investigate. John looks terrified and says, "They will kill us all if they find out what we are!" You smile sweetly and say, "Don't worry, I won't tell anyone." John glares at you. "Are you insane?! We are in grave danger here!" "Relax, everything is fine. These guys are friendly," you say as you wave at the crowd. Your friends and family look at your form with confusion. The notice the cave dwellers and suspect that they are all beastmen. "It's okay, don't worry," you reassure them. "These are my new friends. They are very nice." One of the beastmen approaches you and whispers in your ear, "Do you have any idea how dangerous you are?" You turn around with a big grin on your face and smugly say, "Oh yeah!" The beastman turns pale and backs away from you. "Please...please don't hurt us..." You nod. "Of course not! That wouldn't be fun at all." The beastman runs away screaming. You turn back to John and say, "Now let's get back to work."