My Wolf’s thoughts were a jumbled mess...
Some vital component had disconnected inside his head the moment Hycinth had left us. His self-hatred radiated through our bond, cutting me to the bone. The marrow of his being was bleeding, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to staunch the flow. Not that I had enough strength of my own to even try to keep us both together. His agony was mine, and mine was his.
Dazed and confused, he ran.
No goal in mind, no destination.
He just knew he had to run because standing in one place hurt too damn much.
Through the forest, careening around trees, paws barely touching the fleshy earth beneath his feet, an ominous silence played in the air around us, a distinct lack of birds calling and squirrels chattering. Even the hum of insects was absent. All creatures, substantial and insignificant, somehow recognized the devastating imbalance of the feral predator flying through their midst and wisely kept themselves hidden. The only sounds that could be heard were the spongy crunch of dead pine needles and twigs underfoot and his ragged panting.
Mile after mile...
...but he couldn’t outrun the pain.
Desolate tentacles of tortured thoughts clawed their way through his chest, eating away at the broken pieces of his heart.
Lungs burning from exertion, the muscles in his legs quivered. His head dipped, too heavy to carry. He stumbled. Three steps more and we came to a halt. Body quivering, his hindquarters fell. His snout went up. A mournful howl ripped from his throat.
Again and again, he cried...
Somewhere in the far distance, the echo of several wolves answered his call, sharing his agony. But he couldn’t hear them. Their voices couldn’t penetrate the hard shell of his hurt.
Looking through the lens of my Wolf’s irises, I took in the terrain. Mountains surrounded us, but at the moment, I didn’t even have any idea where we were. Neither did my Wolf. Why would we care?
Abruptly, a sound did encroach on my Wolf’s self-imposed isolation, a distinct chuffing that could only be one thing—bear!
My Wolf’s ears perked up. Every cell in his body vibrated with awareness. Nostrils flaring, he tasted the air to lock on to the location of the predator more than twice his size. Head turned to the right and slightly to the left...got it!
Slinking into motion, my Wolf padded silently in the direction of the animal.
Alarm shot through me.
Wolves didn’t fight bears. Not when we could avoid it. There was other prey far less dangerous and much easier to kill. And we certainly never took on one alone.
That was suicide...
...and that’s what worried me.
“Don’t do this!” I called out to him. “Turn back!”
He just snarled his response.
Step after step, the scent of the great beast grew stronger.
The wind shifted...without a doubt, now the bear knew we were here as well.
My Wolf didn’t slow his approach. He just slunk lower, ears flat, pupils blown as we came face-to-face with the omnivore.
Without even a second of hesitation, my Wolf struck, leaping up for the bear’s throat.
Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy.
A massive paw with four-inch claws swiped through the air, a direct hit, tossing us off of him. Fiery pain lanced through our shoulder. The scent of our blood filled the air. Landing on the ground, my Wolf ignored the pain and rolled quickly to his feet. Body quivering with adrenaline, he circled his prey with intent. The beast stood on his hind legs, front paws in the air, making himself look bigger, a more formidable opponent.
But my Wolf only saw an opportunity...
“Let’s just go home,” I tried to reason with him. “You’re tired. I’m tired. Let’s go home...and get some rest.”
But he wasn’t listening.
Nor was the bear waiting around for us to strike again. Instead, he dropped to all fours and lunged forward.
My Wolf spun out of the way but reacted a second too late to avoid the scrape of razor-sharp canines down his back. Roaring out his fury, my Wolf snapped his head around, powerful jaws clamping down. Mouth full of fur and flesh, my Wolf took a generous chunk out of the bear’s chest.
Bellowing angrily, the big beast stumbled as blood trailed from the wound, but he stayed on his feet. Sparring again, my Wolf attacked, inciting the larger predator.
Round and around, claws and teeth found purchase in the other...
...blood flowed freely from both of our bodies.
Even as he fought, impossibly, the torment in my Wolf’s head grew louder, like a record on repeat:
Worthless, worthless wolf...
Breathing ragged, pain radiating throughout his body, on and on he struggled.
We couldn’t take much more...
My Wolf hesitated. He’d tried. Really he had...now, it was time to let go.
“Fight, dammit!” I yelled at him in desperation and struggled for control. If he gave in now, if he gave up, we were dead...but I knew that was what he wanted.
“No more, no more pain...please...” he whimpered. “She’s gone...she doesn’t want me,” he begged me to understand, begged me to stop fighting him. A wave of heartbreak washed over me again, paralyzing me with its intensity.
What could I say? I couldn’t tell him we had something to live for...because it was a lie. He was right. We didn’t. Everything beautiful in our life had gone away. What was the point?
I faltered in my resolve, my strength waning.
We could just let go...
The force of the bear’s jaws would tear out our throat in one easy bite. The pain would only last for a moment...and then it would all be ov—.
“NO!” another Wolf snarled ferociously into my consciousness—Ever!
He was close...but not close enough.
“Don’t you fucking leave me!” Ever growled through the mind link of the wolves, fear rolling off of him in waves. “You’re my best friend. I can’t do this without you, I can’t...” his anguished thought cut off.
But a chorus of other voices filled the void:
“You are loved...!”
“Come back to us...!”
Desperate pleas from panicked wolves. Their paws pounded the earth, propelling them to our location. They were getting nearer by the second.
Suddenly, scorching heat seared through our left flank, the bear’s claws ripping through our flesh like butter. My Wolf let out a howl of pain. The strong stench of blood filled the air anew. We could hold on no longer.
It was just too much...
Falling, my Wolf hit the ground with a loud thud, knocking the little bit of remaining air from his lungs.
The bear had won...
...it was over. One more strike, a fatal blow, was all it would take.
But the beast stumbled. He fell to one knee, blood flowing profusely from the gouge in his chest. Still, it didn’t matter...he had the upper hand. My Wolf could no longer move. Too much damage had been done. Rearing back, the bear’s massive head snapped forward, jaws wide to claim his prize.
My Wolf didn’t look away. He stared death straight in the eyes. Relief rushed through him. Soon...
But the killing blow never came.
Instead, a wall of fur vaulted over our prone form, the paws of Ever and Asher sailing over us from behind, their big bodies slamming directly into the bear. The force of the impact was deafening but drowned out by even louder vicious snarling from wolves on all sides.
They struck as a cohesive unit, dodging and weaving, drawing the bear in one direction so another Wolf would have a strategic opening. Under normal circumstances, one bear stood a chance against a pack of wolves, but the beast had already been so significantly wounded he couldn’t overcome fighters of Ever and Asher’s caliber, not to mention the rest of the Enforcers that joined in the fight.
Suddenly, tendons snapped, bones reshaped and sinewy muscle transformed. Too wounded to hold his shape, my Wolf had no choice but to shift back into my skin. The horrendous pain of the change stunned me. I grunted and my vision swam, white spots and then nothing but blackness.
The bear roared his anger causing me to snap back to consciousness. I watched with bleary eyes as the bear’s cry cut off into a strangled gurgle. Ever’s canines locked onto his throat. Snapping his big head side to side, the beast tried to dislodge Ever, but Ever clamped his jaw even tighter, refusing to let go. Blood from the animal’s neck gushed over Ever’s jaw, dripping down his teeth onto his fur. The bear took one final faltered step and then fell hard, causing the earth around them to shudder.
Unable to hold them open any longer, my eyelids fell shut. We’d lost too much blood. Every inch of my body screamed in pain. Maybe the bear and I had both lost this battle.