Chapter 24 - Facing The Demons
The heart is always the last one to leave the fight - Jay Long
The howl of wolves in the distance filled the forest with a deathly hush that had my lips curling back in a taciturn snarl. Instinct latched onto my wolf’s spine and we pivoted around, ears straining as we listened for movement in the brush. The air had stilled and thickened around us, twisting my wolf’s gut. All that could be heard was our female’s heavy breathing as we crouched in front of her, hackles raised, ready to attack.
Something must’ve tripped the wards the witch had cast to mark our territory, strictly delimited after we’d taken over the council, and alerted the permanent patrol of border guards. It was not uncommon for our innumerable enemies to encroach upon the neutral territory separating packs from each other and cross onto claimed land, but usually the threat was swiftly eliminated and the casualties few. For the patrol to howl their warning meant that the breach must’ve widened and that the threat was imminent.
Muzzle to the air, we stilled, sniffing. Scenting something strange and indistinct, we breathed deeper, trying to capture it. It was something faint, something that emitted almost no smell, barely a suspicion of something bitter and acrid that was somehow familiar but gave no real direction from which it came. It was an odor, however nebulous, that made my skin crawl and had my beast baring his teeth, fur bristling.
A known and effective deterrent against my kind, yet in its lowered dosage it abolished the excitability of the poisoning agent and purposely cloaked the scent of the wolf using it. A scent neutralizer that most werewolves steered clear of. Even having ascertained its advantages, wolfsbane remained decidedly poisonous and would kill you in the long run. Our wolves were well informed. They knew the risks and they wouldn’t resort to something that would reduce their life expectancy, cutting short the time they had with their mates and young.
But then there had been traitors planted among those closest to us. Not everyone had been reduced to the new ruling council’s submission.
Realization came slow, but brutal. My wolf’s throat tightened on a growl when recognition passed through our combined consciousness. Fury lit our insides, throbbing in our veins, and he started forward. We knew that fucking wolf.
In the grip of fear’s cold fingers, I heard Emma’s heart pound in her chest, halting our forward movement. The intolerable redolence had begun to taint her summery scent and we leaned into her, touching our forehead to hers, trying to calm her growing fear as it crashed through our senses and clutched at our throat. She started shaking and it didn’t stop at our touch. I watched her unconsciously pull our scent deep into her lungs, unable to cease her trembling.
“What is it? What’s happening?” Emma whispered weakly and we sensed apprehension in her voice when she spoke. Fumblingly orienting herself to the feeling of impending danger, she clung to our fur as she eyed the trees around us. “I don’t see anything.”
Rogues inbound. Rainier suddenly shoved the warning through the invisible thread that extended between us. Where the hell are you? My mind exploded with a legion of images – Rainier and Vieri grappling with rogues across the forest soil, blood spattering the shrubs and dead leaves. More fighter patrols being dispatched to the breach, teeth snapping, snarling.
North. I pushed back and caught a whisper of a curse. I’ve got Emma. We in trouble?
My wolf sniffed the air, sorting carefully through the forest scents.
Damn straight. Fuckers are headed your way. Rainier’s baritone spilled statically over the link. Images flew at me and the force of it threw my wolf’s head back. I saw large mangy wolves bounding northward on the edge of a thickly overgrown ravine, patrols chasing them deeper into the forest. The sight nettled me, but I knew they weren’t an immediate threat, not with the cavalry on their trail. My instinct somehow catalogued them as less important, as if their purpose had merely been to serve as a distraction. What worried me was the feeling of being watched from the trees.
Already here. I shoved back and my wolf’s lips twisted back from his teeth in a searing snarl, startling our female.
“Marc,” she whimpered in a small voice. “What’s going on?”
Ears flattened, we nudged her back behind us with a low warning growl, willing her to be quiet. Our eyes caught movement at the edge of the glade, attention riveted on the multitudinous stirring of the dense, solid-leaved undergrowth and smaller understory trees covered in bindweed.
Something more conspicuous moved to our right.
Need help. Have to protect Emma. We widened our stance, snout wrinkling back in a threatening display of gums and teeth, hoping we could hold our own and that our reinforcements wouldn’t come too late. But with this much distance between us and the breach it was like fishing in a bathtub and hoping for a bite.
My wolf lifted his nose, testing the breeze as it shifted and I counted the seconds in tense silence. The smell had gotten stronger, close enough for him to catch the stench of blood and slaughter.
Emma’s body seized suddenly beside me and her grip on my wolf tightened with a frightful whimper before she started pushing and tugging at his fur. A choked cry for help escaped her quivering lips and for a moment my heart stood still and then thundered. She lurched forward, twisting and thrashing as spasms convulsed her usually timid features, contracting her muscles and contorting her limbs. I had to watch helplessly over my wolf’s shoulder as her jaw clenched and reddish spittle frothed from the corners of her mouth, worried that she was biting down on her tongue.
A low growl rumbled from my wolf’s chest and he bared his teeth as an unreasoning panic set in. Seeing his female thrash against unseen binds left the animal confused and uneasy. As his human counterpart, I wasn’t much better.
I knew this episode could easily have been misdiagnosed as epilepsy by anyone oblivious to the supernatural community right under their noses, which obviously I wasn’t. Emma had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital by her deadbeat parents for being different, for having visions that they, in their simple-mindedness, couldn’t fathom. Though I knew that anxiety was also a common seizure precipitant, my suspicions were confirmed the moment she looked up at us with frantic silvery eyes.
Her pupils were blown – frosted – swallowing the color of her irises, and moved restlessly near her upper eyelids as if to roll back into her head. She looked like she was seeing the world through an unfiltered lens, a perception beyond the usual senses, like she wasn’t even seeing us. I knew then that our female had been hit by some kind of unstoppable psychic force that wouldn’t relent until it was good and done with her. The witch had warned that something like this might happen, but I hated that it had to be now. Given the situation, it left Emma especially vulnerable against attack.
Instinct coiled around my spine, ready to snap its jaws at anything it considered a threat. We would do all we could to save her, but we were running out of time.
My wolf twisted his head back to face forward, reacting to each noise anew. He caught a blurred movement in the bramble from the corner of his eye and pivoted back around to cover our thrashing female with his bulk. A large, filthy male, wearing skin and nothing else, broke through the trees and we bared our teeth in a challenging snarl.
This was him. We didn’t need any other validation beyond the smirking grin on his face and the smell of wolfsbane and animal putrefaction that coated his true scent. We were facing down our female’s rapist and I could feel my wolf’s eyes blacken with rage as our hunger for vengeance gnawed at his sanity. Ears erect and canines bared, we watched the prowler with a vigilant stare, crouched backward and ready to strike.
His features were hard and sinister with a crooked nose, and his eyes, dark and depraved. He had a beard, unshorn and unkempt, that hung from his heavy jaw like a dewlap and hair matted with grease, dirt and blood, gathered into a crude knot at the top of his head.
He leered with tobacco stained teeth and moved closer, expression beastly and malicious from underneath thick black brows. My wolf snapped his teeth, his stomach twisting in revulsion at the other male’s inexpressibly verminous appearance. This filthy dog had been the one to touch our female with his dirty fucking paws, to bruise her pale pink flesh and violate her sanctity.
Instinct slithered bitterly through me. We had seen firsthand the result of his menace and he didn’t deserve to live, regardless of whatever pack law decreed. He would die by our hand and we wouldn’t allow it to be any other way.
Take his throat.
Rip him apart.
“It galls you, doesn’t it?” His voice was harsh and cold as it cut through me. “That I had been the first to mount your pretty little bitch. That it had been my seed growing in her womb.” He chuckled darkly, tauntingly. “I bet that just fucking ripped the wind right out of you.”
His gaze shifted to our heaving female as the spasms finally passed and she collapsed against us, hugging her knees as her labored breath rattled in our ears. My wolf shifted her further behind us and away from the rogue’s sadistic stare, a vicious snarl rumbling from his throat. Our female was vulnerable and exposed and we needed to get her somewhere where she would be safe from his pursuit.
“Hello toots,” the bastard dared speak to her. “Remember me?”
Emma flinched and blinked rapidly, still dazed after her seizure. Her grip tightened on me, but she didn’t acknowledge the male that had ruined her in so many ways. Otherwise inclined, my wolf’s eyes narrowed on our prey with a snap of his jaws.
Emma crooked her arm around my wolf’s neck, her body limp against us as she leaned close to his upright ear. “Please Marc, we have to go. I saw something bad. Please, we can’t stay here.” Her voice was low and shaky as she begged for us to get away and I couldn’t help feeling apprehensive of what our female had seen. It had to have been something deeply distressing for her to sound this terrified.
Having caught her tearful plea, the rogue laughed manically before he shook his head and his eyes narrowed to slits. “Not so fast, little bitch. You killed my heir – I think it’s only fair I reunite you.”
We tensed and fury stained our vision red as he advanced on our crouched position. Emma shuddered against our flank and my wolf lapped his tongue across his teeth with a warning growl. Our ears twitched at a sound in the distance and we quivered in agitation. We heard paws pounding against the forest floor just as we’d seen them in Rain’s images. My wolf rolled his head with a snap and a snarl. It would be impossible to ward off their attack and keep Emma safe if the patrols chasing them weren’t hot on their heels.
I could feel Vieri pushing at the fringes of my mind and almost sagged in relief when her dominance flared across the link. Closing in. Male hurt you?
No. Take Emma. Keep Safe. Instinct twisted my heart in my chest as Emma continued to tremble against us, her skin cold and clammy against our fur. Male wants her.
The Alpha female didn’t hesitate. Within seconds she burst through the trees and snatched Emma from behind us before disappearing back into the underwood. Our female gave a gurgled scream that almost pushed my wolf over the edge and then they were gone. Safe.
Enraged, the rogue snarled at the empty space Emma had occupied and launched himself at me. My wolf leaped to meet him midair and clamped his teeth around the male’s throat just as something sharp perforated our ribs. We felt a hot lacerating pain in our flesh and bit down harder, crushing the male’s throat in our jaws with a sickening crunch.
My wolf staggered and dropped to his side with an uncharacteristic whimper before halfheartedly kicking the rogue’s limp weight from atop us. We tasted blood on our tongue. His and ours.
Hold on. Rainier’s voice drifted through the fog before darkness engulfed me.