War Is an Ugly Thing
Everything in my body hurt.
From my scalp down to my toes, no area was exempt from the throbbing agony that devoured my attention and stole the breath right out of me. I tried to take shallow panting breaths to regain my air but it felt like someone was sitting on my chest, gleefully stabbing a white-hot poker in my lungs on each inhale. I had to have a broken rib, probably several, if the unbearable ferocity of pain was any indication.
The stench of blood consumed the air around me and overwhelmed my sensitive nose. Instinct demanded I recoil from the offensive smell, but even if I could move, there was no avoiding the foul scent because the fresh tang of metallic iron flowed freely from my own skin.
“Make sure every damn one of our healers is present and ready to treat him by the time we get back!” Ever barked out orders.
“Got it!” someone grunted.
I couldn’t see who he spoke to. From the location of Ever’s voice, he must have been hovering over my prone body, but my eyelids were just too damn heavy to open and look at him. Blackness swam at the edges of my consciousness. I prayed for the blissful numbness to overwhelm me, to give me a brief respite from the torture but unwillingly stayed awake instead.
My Wolf was silent in the back of my mind, whimpering. I didn’t know if his acute distress was physical or emotional, probably a combination of both. We were still alive. It wasn’t the outcome he planned. And I’d almost agreed with him. Hell, I had agreed with him. I’d given up, willing to let the bear consume us both.
The thought astounded me. Even in my darkest hour, I’d never contemplated ending my own existence. But I’d known that dark desire danced in the shadows of my Wolf’s mind which was why I’d resisted his pleas to shift. His downward spiral had gone exactly as I’d feared.
“I don’t know if he’ll make it back,” Asher whispered tensely, drifting through the fog of my mind. “Maybe we should have the healers come to us.”
“No! We can’t treat him properly in the middle of the damned forest,” Ever snapped. “He’ll make it back alive.” His tone hardened, the sound close as he gritted right next to my ear, ”Did you hear me, brother? We’re going to carry you out of here. And you’re going to fucking live! Is that understood?" He radiated Beta strength and power doing everything he could to force his will upon the circumstances.
I couldn’t answer him. Tongue thick, my mouth felt like I’d been gnawing on cotton for days.
But he wasn’t waiting for my answer. Several hands forced themselves beneath me. I cursed when they came in contact with my ruined flesh.
At some cue I couldn’t discern, all six wolves lifted, bearing my weight amongst them. White-hot pain hit me like lightning, searing down my spine. I wanted to howl, but the only that came out were deep muffled groans.
“Fuck,” Ever hissed under his breath, but my noises of discomfort didn’t keep them from accelerating into motion. Long strides ate up the ground as they maneuvered around trees and the thick underbrush.
“Wait a minute!” Asher bit out. The wolves came to an abrupt halt causing me to curse violently in my head.
“I need to reposition my hands. His skin...it’s coming apart,” Asher’s voice hitched, his own pain coming through, “Let me just...” Hands beneath my left flank rearranged themselves as he pulled the edges of the gaping wound together as best he could.
This time, a long howl did slip from my throat, but I immediately regretted it. Fire slashed through my lungs courtesy of several splintered ribs poking into flesh where they didn’t belong.
“Okay, now...” Asher gritted out.
I panted breathlessly as they resumed their grueling trek through the forest.
“There’s a narrow but accessible trail five miles east of here,” Ever grunted with exertion. “Have two ATV’s meet us there, one for Leander and the other to transport his kill.”
I wasn’t quite sure I agreed with his assessment. We hadn’t dealt the final deathblow to the bear, but I was in no position to argue.
A short beat went by before Ever continued, “On second thought, get one of the healers to meet us there. Have them bring pain meds and anything usable to treat him on the way back.”
“I’m on it!” someone replied from a distance. Was that Samuel?
“Oh, and make sure the healer is male. Leander will lose his damn mind if a female other than his mate tries to touch him again...even if it is to save his sorry life,” Ever grumbled the last half of his order.
“Understood!” Samuel called.
Even with their fast pace, it took close to an hour for the wolves to navigate the woods. I ground my teeth together the entire time to keep from crying out. Finally, they slowed and stopped. I panted. The scent of several more wolves surrounded us as I was placed on a makeshift stretcher on the back of one of the large ATVs.
Keane, a male healer, instantly began his inspection, his fingertips lightly tracing different parts of my body. I tried unsuccessfully not to flinch.
“Let me get an IV in him before we go,” he said.
“Do it quickly!” Ever demanded.
The healer didn’t reply. He just tore open supplies, and I felt a sharp sting in the cradle of my arm.
“Here. We brought you some shorts,” a male voice said. I didn’t open my eyes but recognized the voice of one of the Enforcers. Fabric rustled as the wolves got dressed. Nobody bothered to cover me with anything. Not that it mattered. The healer needed access to nearly every inch of my damaged skin.
“How much blood has he lost?” Keane asked, his tone tense.
Ever replied grimly, “Too much.”
“That’s what I thought,” the healer muttered. “I’ve got three bags of blood in a cooler. I’m giving him one now. Hopefully, it will be enough until we get back.”
Within just a few minutes, Keane had everything connected to his satisfaction, and climbed onto the rumbling off-road vehicle, straddling me, the only space available to sit. He was careful to keep his weight off of my body. “Okay. Let’s roll. I’ll do the rest while we’re moving.”
The ATV lurched forward. I thought I was going to throw up as pain and nausea swirled in my gut. There was a sharp sting in my other arm. “This will help take the edge off,” Keane mumbled. “I’ll clean you up as best I can while we ride, but I won’t be able to stitch your wounds closed until we get you into a sterile environment.”
Fuck. I should hope he didn’t plan on doing any stitching right now. Not with the way the ATV was lurching over the rough terrain. I’d look like Frankenwolf by the time he was done, I thought, my mind a bit altered with the almost immediate effect of whatever drug he’d pumped into my brain. My head felt woozy and my exhaustion ratcheted up about ten notches.
Without warning, something cold was poured over the deep claw wounds in my shoulder, bringing me back to full awareness. Squeezing my eyes shut, body rigid, I cursed, “Fuck!”
“I know,” Keane replied tightly, dabbing at the edges of the lacerations with gauze to remove the dirt and grime. “Just hang in there.”
“He needs more for the pain,” Ever snapped.
“I can give him another shot of morphine now,” the healer replied, “but I don’t want him fully sedated until we can get into a controlled environment where I can monitor his vitals.”
Ever made a noise of agreement and frustration.
There was another sharp prick in my arm. I felt the cool liquid enter my veins. And again, drowsiness took over. Keane might not have wanted to fully put me out medically, but my body had had enough, and I drifted into unconsciousness.
When I awoke next, my eyelids felt heavy. They fluttered as I worked to open them and keep them open. The hazy shape of Ever’s profile came into view. I blinked a few times. Abruptly, his head snapped toward me, chocolate brown eyes assessing me with both concern and extreme relief. He exhaled heavily, “You’re awake.”
I tried to respond but my throat was bone dry and I coughed, causing pain to flare in my chest. I bit back a grunt. Ever quickly reached for a closed container with a bendable straw poking out the top. He maneuvered the drink to me, and I wrapped my parched lips around the end of the straw, sucking ice-cold water into my mouth. I nearly moaned as I sucked greedily. I’d never tasted anything better.
When I finished, I pulled away, letting my head relax against the inclined medical bed I was on.
Ever was silent for a long moment, just staring at me with an unfathomable expression, a flurry of emotions running through his eyes.
He had questions. I waited for him to speak.
Finally, Ever swallowed thickly and cleared his throat. Even still, his voice was rough and hitched, “Don’t make me go through that again, Leander.”
Eyes falling shut, my heart twisted at his words and obvious distress.
What I’d done was fucked up. I got it. I couldn’t imagine if the roles had been reversed, how I would have felt. The torment I put him through. The torment I’d put them all through. Every one of them was my pack, my family. My pain was their pain, and I’d slashed straight through their hearts the moment I gave up.
But still, nothing had changed...
I opened my eyes, recognizing the wetness that breached my eyelashes, and tried to explain, “I-I don’t...my Wolf, he can’t...” my stuttered words cut off, hopelessness washing over me.
Ever’s brow furrowed. He leaned closer and gripped my arm, murmuring fiercely, “You are not alone....your Wolf is not alone. Somehow, someway, we’ll get through this together.”
It sounded all well and good, but...
Ever felt my resistance. He recognized my hopelessness. His mouth tightened into a thin line. With new determination, chocolate brown eyes darkened to that of his Wolf. His voice lowered gruffly, part human, mostly animal, “Let me see him.”
I didn’t know what good it would do. If my Wolf had no intention of listening to me, why would he heed another? But at this stage, it couldn’t make things worse. I let my eyes shift and my Wolf pushed forward.
Whatever Ever saw in my haunted Wolf’s eyes caused his breath to hitch. But his resolve didn’t falter. “You are not alone,” he repeated again. “You are pack...family...we are here for you. We won’t let you carry this burden all by yourself.”
My Wolf’s thoughts were in chaos. He couldn’t think past his agony and loss.
From the side, my father’s Wolf stepped into view. I hadn’t seen him sitting on the floor in the corner of the room. Tall and regal with a salt-and-pepper fur coat so much like his beard, he padded next to the bed. His big-boned frame made the room seem suddenly smaller, and his significant height put us at eye level.
“Look at me, young pup,” my father’s Wolf ordered through our mindlink, voice stern but gentle.
My Wolf was already staring intently into his eyes, but I understood the order was meant to lend significance to his next words. “I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but you can survive, you can live again. You’ll never be who you once were, so let go of the past. Let go of the guilt that eats you up inside. You did the best you could. You did your duty to me and your pack when you destroyed the wolves that killed your mother and tore your innocent sister from her womb. Regardless of who they were to your mate, evil like that had to be put down. And for three years, you’ve kept this pack safe from attack. I’m proud of you, son.”
A whimper slipped from my Wolf’s throat. He was overwhelmed by the love found in his father’s eyes.
My father’s almost black orbs glimmered with emotion. Lifting on his hind legs, he placed one big paw on the side of the bed and grasped the scruff of my neck with the other. He pressed his forehead to mine, holding it there while he inhaled and let it out slowly. ”And sometimes...even when you love the hardest...it isn’t enough.”
My Wolf didn’t want to hear that. “But she was my mate!” he wailed. “Why couldn’t she love me?!”
My father’s Wolf lifted his big head to look into our eyes again. “War is an ugly thing. People pick sides. They have alliances and loyalties they are not willing to let go...no matter the reason.”
Words were lost to my Wolf. He hung his head.
“You are a worthy Wolf,” My father’s Wolf continued fiercely, his tone growing even gruffer. “You’ve got to be strong now, stronger than you’ve ever been. There are those that still love and need you. It would kill me to be without you. Don’t leave me here alone.”
Those were the first words that made a difference...
Our pain was great, unbearable. But our father had lost too much already. He was the only blood family we had left.
Lifting his heavy head, my Wolf whimpered, “I’ll try...”