A Mate's Deception
The woman before her was the root of the pain and anger that swelled within Cora. From the scrapes and bruises she wore upon her exterior, to those she wore on her interior, Cora was tired of containing the product of the woman’s attacks. No, it wasn’t that she was tired of it, she wanted to let the woman feel the suffering she caused others, and her lioness echoed that desire.
The woman’s disparage of her strength and capabilities, as well as her blasphemous words towards her own mate, powered her growl as she let it tumble from the back of her throat. It was deep and rich, a growl that welled up from a long-ago memory of a power that was hidden within for so many years.
Lara slapped a slender hand over Cora’s mouth, the ripple of that growl still moving through the basement and reverberating against the stones. There was no other sound, nothing that would dance along with the vibration that had overtaken the room. Anton went motionless on his knees before his exposed mate, his fingers still deep within her core.
“Anton, give me your belt.” Lara wriggled off the man, tugging her skirt back in place with more force than was necessary with her free hand.
Anton’s gaze was locked on Cora’s face as he remained unmoving. There was a question that settled in his eyes, along with an awe she had never before seen from him. Cora let her lips curve in a smile beneath the woman’s hand, a smile that traveled to her eyes as she met Anton’s gaze without fear. His eyes widened a fraction, conveying the fact that he knew. Could he sense it in her warning?
His head bowed slightly towards her, acknowledging her position, maybe even her power. Even if Lara didn’t notice, or maybe it was that she just simply refused to acknowledge it, her time was up! No longer was she in a succession for the crown of the Kingley pride, for it now belonged to Cora.
“Damnit, do I have to do everything myself?” She grabbed his arm in a vice grip, her nails digging into his skin as she forced him into a standing position.
With one hand, she quickly unbuckled the leather strap and snatched it from around his waist. Belt loops strained and popped at the force of her aggression. Anton simply stood there. He did not stop her, nor did he help her.
Considering the volume of pheromones that still saturated the air, his own blending there, it must have taken a lot of self-control not to lift a finger. The strain on his face as he refused to follow her command was evidence of that. How often had he tried to fight his urges for his mate, and how often did she win?
She forced the leather strap in Cora’s mouth, working the fastener tightly around her head to prevent Cora from speaking, from being able to exert her authority. “You have no control over me,” she spat at Cora. “Your helpless, bound, and now gagged.” A self-satisfied, wicked grin crossed over her features.
“Lara,” he spoke softly, “you need to let her go.” Absently, Anton wiped the sleeve of his shirt across his face, wiping away the semi-glistening remnants of her flavor from around his mouth.
“Who are you to tell me what to do?” She sneered at him, her brows nearly touching from her anger. “Are you siding with her? Over me?” Her pitch increased as incredulity peeked from beneath confidence.
“It’s no longer a matter of sides. You’ve lost, end of story.” Anton peered at Cora, a subtle expression there that encouraged her earlier actions as he briefly let his eyes flick to the leather straps over her head. He was siding with her.
The electricity in the air was growing thick in the air around them, like static but with more spark. Anton cocked his head to the side before glancing sideways at Cora. The thrum of power vibrated the stones at Cora’s back, her bones feeling the sensation as if liquid light was being poured over her.
“I’m your mate,” Lara cried out. “I’m the one you should be defending and supporting.” She rammed her palms against his chest, and he had to step back a few steps to regain his balance. “Not some stupid girl who can’t even defend herself,” she accused wildly, pointing a damning finger in Cora’s direction while glaring at the man before her.
“Can’t you sense it?” The frown on his face was full of concern at Lara’s inability to sense the change in the air, curious as to why she could not sense it. He held his nose in the air as his ears perked up to the energy that delicately traveled on the current around them. “There’s been a shift.”
“Don’t be an idiot. How can there be a shift?” She scoffed, grunting in disbelief. “My father is king, Anton. If anything happened to him, the crown goes to me,” she practically crowed with delight.
A smile spread across Cora’s face, power surging against her spine. It weaved its way from her toes, to bounce across each vertebra before settling at her crown. The tingling at her crown felt delicious, like a beam of sunshine directed overhead. The warmth of it bolstered her mind, body, and soul. She watched the woman before her trying to pick up on the threads that were woven in the air, and she waited for the dawning of its meaning.
“Your father was never meant to be a leader,” he said sternly. “And neither were you.”
“The hell I wasn’t! If not for that snivelling brat-”
Anton’s eyes narrowed on his mate. “You said it was never personal!” He took a step towards her. “You said you wanted what was best for her because she was family! You said she was only here until you could ensure that the safety of both prides was procured as stated in the treaty! You said marriage to Brock was the only way!” Anton’s face turned red, anger making him dangerous. With each step he took, Lara took one away from him.
Finally, she stopped retreating and stiffened her spine. “Of course it is, Anton! Why else would I choose to be with him over you?”
Clearly, she had played him one too many times as he shook his head and sneered at her. “Of course,” Anton mocked. He turned to face Cora, his expression softening...a silent apology for his part in her misery. It was enough, she realized. She nodded, offering him a small smile through the leather strip that made his lips tip up at the sides. Turning back to his mate, he said, “We need to leave, Lara. It would do neither of us any good if we are found here...not after what we have done.” His voice lowered against a deep sadness.
He strode across the stone floor and opened the door, waiting for his mate to follow suit. There was a stiffness about him, a strain about the set of his mouth. His eyes flicked to Cora, conveying a sorrow she was only starting to recognize.
At that moment, she knew that Anton would allow himself and Lara to be taken before the council to accept the consequences of his actions. However, he opted to try to get Lara away from her...so that she wouldn’t have the chance to do the unthinkable. She saw the silent plea there, and her features softened. If he ran, he would never be able to go home. He would leave the only family he ever had to keep Lara away from Darcy and herself. No matter what he did, she knew he did it out of love...to protect his family.
Cora nodded slightly to Anton, a silent answer to his unasked question.
“The hell we do!” Lara spun on Cora, her eyes filled with rage, demented and wild. “I should have killed you when I had the chance.”
“Lara!” His voice echoed in the room.
“You want to leave, then go!” Lara snarled at Anton before turning back to Cora. “You want me to tell you what happened to your parents, princess? What really happened to your real parents? You see, I was there!”
Anton’s eyes widened, his hand falling away from the door. “What did you just say?”
Lara grinned at him as though she had won some victory, the very sight of it setting Cora’s teeth on edge. “Do you think I would have missed that work of art, darling? I mean, you were so amazing.”
“You were...there?” He breathed the words, shock and disgust intermingling across his features.
Lara ignored his question as she turned to face Cora. “God, but Anton was so clever! He staged a fallen tree in the middle of the road. There was so much snow that afternoon that it was not much of a stretch to find an old tree fell by the weight of the snow.” She paced in front of her, her hands clasped in front of her face as she let the excitement of the past catch up to her present. “So, you see, your father, being the gentleman and protector that he was, got out of the car to inspect whether or not said tree could be moved. It wasn’t often that your dad actually drove a car, you being so pampered and all. Usually, you all had a chauffeur...but every Sunday your dad would drive to have dinner with mine. It made it easy to determine when we would strike...it had to be Sunday.” Anton watched, waiting for a confirmation that he appeared to be dreading. Which meant everything she had said so far was planned...her idea.
Cora continued to work at the leather straps, one of them weak enough she thought she might be able to snap it. Maybe she should have stopped Lara from telling her story, but why mess with a good distraction?
“When your father stepped out of that car, Anton took his shot. It was poetry in motion, I tell you. Watching his body swivel to look back at his wife and child in the car as he choked on his own blood. What a horrifying image that must have been, Arwen.” Each word stirred within Cora...each one bringing a new resolve forward, renewed courage. “Your mother, bless her,” she said sarcastically. “That woman tried to lock all the doors and move into the driver’s seat. Imagine her surprise when Anton flipped the switch on his controller. That car went completely dead. And you sat in that back seat with tears streaming down your face, but you did not once try to scream or cry out. And here I thought I was emotionally dead.” Cora nearly choked. It felt like something dislodged in her head, and she could feel it playing around the edges of her memories.
“You were there,” Anton breathed, his face paling. “Why?”
Lara turned a smug smile on him. “I like to watch,” she mocked seductively.
“But, that’s sick, Lara.”
Lara rolled her eyes. “You killed her parents, and I am the sick one?”
Anton’s face grew dark and angry. “I had no choice,” his words were deep, and heavy with emotion. “They would not give my sister a fair hearing. They were going to execute her! You said…”
Lara cackled. “God, you are so easy!” Anton’s face froze, his eyes watching her as puzzle pieces started clicking into place. “I only told you that so that you would take care of my dirty work.” An evil smile twitched itself across her face. “The best part is,” she whispered, as though conspiring, “they were planning to release her the next day. It’s why we had to act fast!”
His breathing picked up, matching his thundering heart. The aura of power that surrounded him was no match for Cora’s, albeit still impressive for a wolf among lions. “Everything I did...because of things that you told me. To protect my sister. To prevent the pride from taking Cora away from Darcy...from me. To keep her safe!”
Lara flicked her hand dismissively. “Yeah, what can I say. I am just really good at getting people to do what I want!” Her words were filled with loathing as they spewed from her mouth. She leaned forward and her lips curled with an arrogance that was unmatched. “I told you, I crave power...and that includes power over those around me. Including you!”
Anton charged her, ramming her back against the far wall. “I killed the rightful king, forced a child to keep her beast down and beat her into submission when she didn’t to prevent them from taking her and locking her away in an asylum, was willing to give her to the man you chose because you said it was the best thing we could do for her...all of it...based on lies?” He snarled as Lara yelped. Sharp claws slipped into her flesh the angrier he got.
She thrashed against him, “Get off of me, Anton, before you no longer live to regret it!”
“I’ve already lived to regret it!” He lifted a hand to strike her, but Lara was faster. She shoved her palm fast and hard into his chest, sending him flying across the room. Anton hit the wall hard, the stone gave beneath the impact as his head cracked against it. His body dropped to the ground with a thud, unmoving.
The woman before her had manipulated her for her entire life, and Cora wanted retribution. Not for herself, but for the Kingly pride, for the parents that she once had, for the parents she did have, for those moments in life that were stolen from all of them because of this woman’s manipulations.
Lara’s chest rose and fell harshly as she stared at the place where her mate had fallen. He was still alive, but barely from the look on Lara’s face. If he was dead, Cora would have thought she would witness the bond breaking in Lara, unless she truly was that cold.
The emotions swelled within her as Cora frayed the last strap within breaking point. She had heard enough. Lara had played Anton, her own mate. His acts of crime were hers. The swell in her chest rose, the rumble echoing against the walls.
Lara’s knees nearly gave beneath her before she shook it off. She sprang across the entire distance between them, whipping out one of her long arms. Her hand struck Cora hard against her face, her claws trailing behind. The once healing wound on her face reopened, a trail of fresh ones lingering behind.
“I wouldn’t try that again if I were you.” Lara was panting, bringing a hand to her forehead in an effort to calm herself as she paced in small circles. “You’re getting too strong. It’s too soon...something has…”
Cora let her teeth elongated, gnashing them into the strap there and destroying it in mere seconds. Lara flinched, taking a step away from her. Cora tugged her arms away from the wall, and the shredded leather bindings snapped. Though they released her from her imprisonment against the cold slab, her hands were still bound to one another by metal. It didn’t matter, she didn’t need her hands freed to defeat the woman in front of her.
“You’ve lost,” the words rode in on a growl. Lara stumbled, her legs begging to fold beneath her. Her head dipped before she snatched it up on a wave of fury.
Lara backed away, her pale eyes full of hatred and fear. The claws on both of her hands elongated, and she held them out on display between the two of them. “No, I just made a mistake. I let you take one too many breaths. But I’ll fix that!”
Cora bellowed out her laughter, the sheer force of it emitted another wave of power that would crash against all those present. It felt familiar, like an old friend coming home. “You are so wrapped up in the power you think you possess that you can’t even feel the shift around you. What was once your source of power is no longer yours! You have no pride, no home, no power.”
Lara snarled, her eyes scanning the area wildly. “I have power. I decide who lives and who dies, who thrives and who suffers, who eats and who starves. I control it all, and I’ll be damned if I give that up to the likes of you!”
“It’s too late, Lara.” Cora took a few steps around this woman, trying to keep her attention on her movements. “Shame you never really got to know the true depth of the power you seem to crave.”
“What could you possibly know about power,” Lara spat, watching Cora pace around her, not missing any move she made.
Cora smiled, and it spread across her face. Those memories that had been dancing around in her brain surged forward, and they felt amazing and strong. “You toyed around with their fear, their self-preservation. They lived to survive. Your rule was weak and insecure.”
The power of those memories of her life as it was and as it should have been washed over her. The strength and compassion of her father, the warmth and love of her mother, the unity and companionship of her pride, the affection and teachings from Darcy, the discipline and determination from Anton, and the care and protection from Brock, all warmed her. Her heart swelled, and she could feel it radiate beyond her physical form at its sheer force.
“It isn’t fear that generates the greatest power, Lara. Fear forces those to fight for you but holds no allegiance. You were so focused on making them all fear you that you missed the best part of being part of a pride. Missed the opportunity to see their greatest strengths...their greatest source of power. That which they give freely, willingly, without hesitation. Powered by their hopes, dreams...love.” The energy surged around her, pushing itself beyond where she stood. “You betrayed them...their trust. They relied on you to protect them, to ensure their safety, and you preyed on them like a wild beast. And because of that, that is what you shall become...a wild beast.”
“You bitch! You don’t know me,” Lara lashed out a claw, but Cora was just beyond her reach.
“Don’t I?” Cora turned a meaningful look to the man that currently lay crumpled on the floor. Though she let her eyes linger, her other senses were all too aware of Lara. “He was your mate, someone you should have embraced. Someone that was meant to complete you and make you feel whole once more. But, you cast him aside carelessly.”
Lara snarled and rushed forward, her claws extended out. Cora deftly sidestepped the attack as Lara’s palms smacked hard against the wall. She slapped her hands hard against the stone once more and screamed loudly in frustration before she spun back on Cora. “I will kill you!”
The rumble started deep in Cora's chest, spreading over her entire being. Her hands fisted together as she deftly snapped the metal-binding them together before she spread them wide, holding them out at her sides letting the rumble build. When it reached the back of her throat, she released its depth on her words. “No, but I will banish you!”
The walls vibrated as Lara fell to one knee, her face ashen as she fought against the power...against the command that lie there. Submit.
Fighting against the command was futile. Lara screamed against the power that crashed against her and forced her into submission. Her screams filled the room and rose above the low pulsing of Cora’s growl that continued to rumble through the area.
Voices above their heads crashed in on Cora’s thoughts, and the power that resonated around her faltered enough to give Lara freedom from that power. Springing forward, her claws extended out, she rammed them hard into Cora. Her claws sunk deep, and warmth started to spread over her as a sharp pain spiraled through her.
“Cora!” It was his voice. He came for her.
Cora looked at Lara, and smiled broadly, letting the warmth and concern of his voice flood over her. Letting those memories of their youth together caress her: riding beside him on her beloved pony while he worked to reign in a massive steed simply to walk beside her, him awkwardly cradling a doll against him because that is what she asked of him, his jovial laughter at some silly joke she told just to see her smile, using his magic to make the pain go away when she scraped her knee. Each memory brought comfort with them, even as darkness started to descend. “The difference between us?” Cora asked, her voice hushed and coming out barely a whisper on harsh breaths as her hands clutched at Lara’s shoulders. Cora tugged Lara closer, whispering in her ear. “The power I have will never die. Yours has already expired. Love, Lara, that’s true power. And you are bereft of its very existence.”
Lara snarled at her, shoving her claws deeper into Cora’s flesh. Cora gasped, feeling the woman’s claws working deep at her side. Her life, and her cub’s, was slowly trickling from her grasp. She reached out to those tendrils that circled around them, and she hoped it would be enough to save them both.