It hurt. Despite my need, my anger, it hurt. My strength was fading fast, the pain making me pant breathlessly as my pulse thundered in my ears. Every part of my body was screaming for me to stop, to stop and just collapse, because this was too hard, too hard. But I couldn't, not now, not when I was so close.
Not when this was my only chance.
Gritting my teeth, I couldn't hold back a groan as I pushed forward, my shaky arms and legs scrabbling across the ground. I'd had to give up on my right arm, the pain too much even as it now hung limply at my side. It made crawling even harder, the simple act of holding myself off the ground with just one arm taking all of my energy. Yet with every torturous movement, every heaving breath, I still managed to get closer; until, after what felt like an eternity, I saw it.
The rocks. They didn't look like much, just a few largish moss-covered hunks of stone, sunk seemingly randomly into the ground and piled around one another. But between them, in one of the many dark gaps, was the cave; the cave Leon had dragged me from, the cave where he had hurt me.
Which meant the other cave, the one I was looking for, was just metres away.
Fumbling across the ground, my eyes searched the area, scanning for the tell-tale bush that covered the entrance. If you knew what you were looking for, it was easy; its leaves were different to all of the other shrubs that surrounded it. But with my head spinning, my body quivering, they all looked the same. There were no small leaves or big leaves, dark leaves or light leaves; there was only green.
Dammit. I was running out of time; I had to find it now, because I could feel that my one good arm was about to give out. Panic began to set in, my darting eyes wild and wide, but still I couldn't find the bush. In desperation I tried to crawl forward, moving in the hopes that the bush was just hidden behind a tree or something, and that any second it was going to appear.
I should have known that was a mistake.
Because the moment I shifted, my body failed, and I crumpled to the ground. I hit hard, the air blowing out of lungs in a rush at the impact. I was half-sprawled in a bush, my right arm flaring up with agony as it twisted wrongly, but I didn't flinch; I barely even noticed it at all.
I was too busy focusing of the solid thud my elbow had made hitting the ground below the shrubs I was buried in. It was not the sound the rest of my body had made, the barely audible, muffled thump of the earth and soil. No, this was something else.
Something I didn't dare to hope for.
Fighting back the hurt that flooded through me, I forced my fingers to search the ground, slipping through the masses of leaves and twigs in the process. And at first I found only dirt, no different from that which I was laying on; until my fingers suddenly found a flat surface. Holding my breath in anticipation, my fingers skimmed across the mystery ground, searching for proof, proof that this was what I hoped it was.
And it was proof I found, as my hand touched the familiar cold metal of the knocker.
I gasped in relief, my hand squeezing tight around the metal ring; I had found it. I had found the cave. Or rather, I had found the entrance to the cave; the old wooden cover sunk into the ground to hide the opening. A door of sorts, to make sure none ever found this place, and to make sure nothing ever got inside. Another time I would have curiously wondered when last it was open, but not today; not when I was struggling to yank up the wooden board, not when my chance was ticking away with every second that passed.
Perhaps I had already missed it; it had taken me minutes to get here, which in supernatural terms was way too long. Hell, I had only travelled about 50 metres, even a human should have made that in just seconds. But I couldn't think about that, I couldn't think about the possibility I was too late; I just needed to move.
And so, with a stronger heave this time, I hauled the wood up. A soft wave of stale air met me as I shoved the cover aside, pushing the many leaves and branches of the bush out of the way so that I could peer downwards into the dark hole; and there it was.
Glinting slightly, in what little light reached down into the cave, was the silver sword.
Leon wasn't dead yet. And I couldn't shake the feeling that by now, he really should have been; every second he was alive was another second I wasn't at Thea's side. And the thought of that – the thought of her collapsed on the ground, alone – was horrible enough that part of me thought that I should just end this all right now; thought that I should just kill the wolf in front of me. But that same thought – the memory of why she was like that – wouldn't let me.
He didn't deserve a quick death. He deserved so much worse, so much worse, for what he'd done. And I couldn't even give him that, because despite the rage that was boiling through my veins, I wouldn't stoop that low; wouldn't stoop to his level.
But I would still hurt him. I had already hurt him; my claws and teeth tearing through his fur, biting and scraping, cutting and clawing. And yet it wasn't enough, would never be enough. Because my right front leg was still aching fiercely from when he'd broken Thea's arm, because the imprint was still full to brim with Thea's pain and terror, and because I could still hear her scream, again and again, in my mind.
He had hurt her.
With yet another furious growl, I lunged for him, bowling him over and pinning him roughly to the ground as my teeth sunk into his side.
He would never. Touch. Her. Again.
But he didn't seem to know that. Because through all of the tackling and brawling and snarling between us, he didn't seem interested in fighting back, but rather in getting away; and it wasn't hard to figure out why.
Thea. Every time he tried to make a break for it, it was in her direction. Which was yet another reason I should kill him right now, but I couldn't do it; he had to pay for this. Regardless of his efforts, I would make sure he didn't even get near her, let alone close enough to touch her. Even Thea herself was moving away from us, which surprised me at first, because I hadn't been sure she could move. But nether-the-less, she was, and I couldn't blame her; if I'd been her position, I'd want to get the hell away from him too.
If only it didn't hurt so much.
Pain. Pain was everywhere. She hurt so, so badly, her slow movement only making it worse, but she wouldn't stop; she couldn't stop. I could feel her fear, her desperation, her need through the imprint; she couldn't stop.
But it hurt. I didn't know how she was doing it, because the pain through the imprint was so intense I would have crippled by it if not for the rage that had already consumed me. I wondered, not for the first time, if the imprint enhanced it somehow; if her pain felt stronger than mine. Because I had been hurt before, but this was so much worse.
So. Much. Worse.
Leon once again tried to slip past me, diving low to the ground. With an angry snarl, I stopped him, shoving him backwards as my sharp paws once again clawed through his blood-matted fur.
He couldn't get through me; I couldn't let him. But the pain; it was so distracting. It was battling furiously with the anger that filled me to the brim, making it hard to focus.
So much pain.
Again, Leon darted away, this time to the side. Even distracted and injured, I was faster than him; in just two leaps my jaws were locking around one of his legs and forcing him to the ground. He fought me, but my larger size gave me the advantage; that and the fact that his strength was quickly failing under the many minor wounds I had given him. But even though I could taste his blood in my mouth, could feel his flesh as I sunk my teeth in, it wasn't enough.
It would never be enough.
It should have been easy. Climb into the cave, grab the sword, and climb out again. Three steps that should have taken just seconds, milliseconds even, if I'd been moving fast enough.
But not today. Today, everything hurt.
Climbing into the cave hurt, taking hold of the sword hurt, even standing up again hurt. I was trembling from the pain, tremors wracking through my body as waves of hurt flooded through me. But I was still doing it, still fighting through it. I was moving so slowly, and yet I was almost there.
I would finally have the chance to end this.
Except at that very moment, just as I was forcing myself out of the cave and back onto the ground, it all went wrong. I tripped, slipped, I didn't know; all I knew was that I was falling. Instinct made me move to save myself, the speed of the movement stretching my torn skin and consuming me with fresh, raw pain.
But that was nothing compared to the agony that ripped through me as my broken right arm tried and failed to stop my fall.
I screamed, the sound horrible and piercing as my body caught fire with the pain. I fell limp instantly, overcome by it all, my head feeling as it would explode from the sudden and overwhelming wave that assaulted me. My pulse was a thundering roar in my ears, my vision immediately disintegrating into nought but a fragmented blur.
Snapping the bone in my arm for the third time had been the last straw.
It all happened too fast for me to follow.
One moment, I was snarling at Leon, my teeth inches away from tearing through his skin. And less than a second later, it was me, not him, howling in pain; because my front leg had suddenly come ablaze with pain, the just healed bone once again snapping beneath me.
It hurt. God, it hurt. Thea's pain was sharp and fierce thought the imprint, and was even worse than my pain, sending me staggering as I shuddered beneath the weight of it.
She hurt. But why? Why?! She was supposed to be safe now, dammit! No one, no one, was supposed to hurt her ever again. But she was hurt, and badly, and I didn't know how. Leon was right here; he couldn't hurt her again. But then who–
In a flash, Leon was slipping past me, my claws missing him by a hairsbreadth. I roared in fury, the sound an awful mixture of panic and pain, throwing myself after him instantly. Any other time, I would have been able to bring him down immediately; my strength didn't detract at all from my speed. But with my front paw out of action, and Thea's pain slamming into me like a landslide, I was milliseconds too slow.
And now he was heading for her. Thea.
I couldn't let him get to her. I could not let him get to her.
Before his grey brown form had even finished disappearing, I was after him with a murderous snarl. My leg protested painfully as I threw myself through the trees, not yet healed, but I ignored the pain.
I could not let him get to her. Because if he did, I would never forgive myself.
I let this happen. Me. I let him get away, and all because I was too bull-headed and livid to just kill him and end this. Regret flared to life, swarming through me as I ran, making me move even faster after Leon.
I could not let him get to her.
Save her, kill him. That had been my mantra. I should have followed it; I should've been strong enough to forgo revenge and kill him the moment I got hold of him. But when I'd seen her, when I'd seen what he'd done… it had all flown at the window. Even now my violent rage was beating down the regret, because I knew he deserved the hurt I'd given him, and a hell of a lot more.
But deserving of revenge or not, if Thea being hurt was the price, I didn't want it.
She could not be hurt.
With a burst of anger fuelling me, I lunged for Leon, my teeth sinking into one of his rear legs as I tried to force him to the ground. He fought back, his growls meshing with my own as we grappled, rolling across the ground wildly. He made a frantic leap to the left, which I followed, my heavier body slamming his downwards. And I should have been able to pin him there, despite his flailing claws raking down my stomach; except at that moment I caught sight of the figure crumpled on the ground just metres away.
It had taken me just seconds to catch up to Leon and bring him down, but even that short amount of time had been enough for him to almost reach her. The knowledge sent fresh fear through me; one more second and he might have touched her, might have hurt her. And the horror only increased as I remembered, once again, that he had already hurt her; the proof was glaring at me as I took in the countless slashes that covered her limp body. The sight stunned me, my eyes locked on Thea's lifeless body; I couldn't look away.
Not until Leon broke free from underneath me in a rush, throwing himself towards her.