"Do you believe me now?" I asked Valerio.
He knelt down, his fingers skimming against the dirt that was dug into a circle. "Hmm." After transforming into his wolf, he stuck his nose straight down into the dirt and sniffed. "It smells distantly familiar and that wolf looked distantly familiar too," he said once we retreated back to the pack house.
There was no use trying to follow the scent. If Black couldn't catch it, then nobody else would. Maybe Ayodele would, if he was here with us; but by the time he got there, it would be useless.
"I thought so too," I said. "I can't place it."
As soon as we stepped into the pack-house I could tell something was off. Protectors were rushing around, trying to organize themselves. A few of the higher ranks were giving specific orders – orders that I nor Valerio gave – to small groups.
A younger Protector jogged up to us, breathing heavy. "Luna," he bowed, "Luca was spotted a few miles outside of our borders."
My eyes widened. "When?"
He gazed at the ground for a moment. "This morning."
Valerio growled and stepped forward. "Why are we just hearing about it now?"
"We weren't sure if it was him. He smelt... he was... different." The man's gaze was down. He rubbed his palms together. "We should've told you sooner, my apologies."
I gazed around at the groups of wolves, all now quiet and waiting for my orders. "Do you have his scent tracked? Do you know where he is?"
To both of my questions, the Protector shook his head.
Valerio's eyes glowed gold. "Why not?" He clenched his jaw.
"We-we couldn't track his scent. It was barely there."
I sighed, annoyed and angry that my own pack wasn't doing their jobs. The least they could've done was inform us. We would've been able to do something. "You didn't think to follow him?" I snapped.
He pressed his lips together. "I-I know this sounds really bad. But we are going to find him. We will pick his scent back up. I promise, Moon Goddess."
I stormed past him, an uneasy feeling building in the pit of my stomach. Why would Luca take the chance to come so close to our property? What was he doing here? There was more to the story than him just taking a casual stroll around the borders. "Take us to his last known location."
The man nodded. I ordered ten Protectors to follow, each equipped with the highest training, and left the others to guard our home. Then we ran deep into the forest, past the Great Oak and down the path.
I stayed behind the rest and nudged Valerio to do the same.
"What are you thinking?" he asked.
"Luca's scent is barely there? That sounds like the wolf in the forest."
Valerio raised a brow. "You think?"
"If it is him, why does he keep running away from you?" Valerio asked. "He's purposely coming onto our property, leaving messages written in dirt for you to see, then running away. What's that about?"
I didn't have time to reply. The wolves in front of us began to slow, and the strong scent of blood suddenly overwhelmed me. Everyone rushed around in a frenzy. Over the sound of everyone's murmurs, someone groaned. I ran toward the sound.
A small, wooden cabin sat in the middle of the forest, nearly hidden by vines. On the front door, a white crescent moon piece of décor was covered in bloody fingerprints.
The young Protector from before jumped in front of me. "Moon Goddess. I don't know if you want to see what lays ahead."
I shrugged him off and rushed in anyway. A Protector was lying prone on the floor, blood pouring out of a gash in his neck. I knelt next to him and flipped him onto his back. His eyes were closed. From the claw marks in his neck, a green mold-like rash had formed. It was slowly crawling down to his heart and up to his brain, like it was alive and thriving in this poor man's body.
Just as I was about to place my hands on his neck, to try to revive him, another Protector stumbled into the room, holding her leg. "Don't!" she yelled. "Don't touch him. You'll get infected."
I stared over at the woman. She uncovered her leg to show me the green mold that had begun to infect her flesh.
"What happened?" I whispered.
"Luca came back to try to kill the pups," she said.
The woman nodded. "This is a community center. They're all safe in the back room – at least most of them." She looked down, then clutched her leg again, a pained expression washing over her face. "We-we couldn't save the last."
I gazed around, taking in the tables filled with board games and unfinished homework. "Are their souls gone?"
"Yes," she said. Then she stumbled over, falling onto her hands and knees.
I closed my eyes and held out my palm, knowing what I had to do. White emerged from my palm and jumped onto all fours. "Save her."
She looked at the woman and hurried over. After licking her leg – and now hand too – a few times, the wounds closed. However, the green mold still lingered, not as badly as before.
I ordered her to walk back to the pack-house with three other Protector, guarding her at all times. The other Protectors brought the children to safety. As I examined the dead Protector, Valerio appeared in a doorway. "Mae, the pup is in here."
By the sound of his voice – quiet, frail – I knew I didn't want to see what happened. But I stood anyway and walked to the door. When I entered the room, I gasped.
Oh, my... Oh, my gosh.
A pup hung on the wall, a sturdy tree branch shooting right through its chest holding him in place. Claw marks covered his body. Three of his fingers were laying on the ground beneath him.
I fell to my knees. "Luca did this?" I couldn't believe it. Not my Luca. No, not him. A tear slipped from my eye. Valerio crouched next to me, wrapping me up in his arms. "Luca did this," I said more clearly this time. He did this.
Valerio stood, back facing the child, like he couldn't bear to see his broken little body. "Come on. I'll get someone to clean this up."
"No." I shook my head. "No more running away. I need to face this – all of this – not just the times when we're the heroes and save the pups. I need to face this dark, disgusting evil." I stood and slowly approached the pup. Valerio stood at the door to the room, his arms crossed over his chest. "You can go if you need to, Valerio." A tear slipped down my cheek.
I heard some shuffling, then he appeared at my side once more. His eyes remained steady, but his lip quivered. "We are a team."
We took the body down from the wall, and I held him in my arms for a good fifteen minutes, brushing the leaves and twigs out of his hair. The poor boy didn't even look like he was ten yet.
Somehow, my heart ached even more. How was I going to tell his family that I couldn't save him? How do you tell someone something like that? How would I tell Aaisha if it were her child? I couldn't even begin to imagine what that would feel like. Now that she was pregnant everything seemed to hit so much closer to home.
I scooped the pup into my arms and walked to the nearest river with him. The dry blood and dirt washed away in the water. And, when he was clean, I asked Valerio to find his parents, whomever they were.
I rested him on a bed in the hospital back at the pack-house. There was nothing more I could do for him. He was gone. Not even his human body could survive a rise from another soul.
Valerio returned to me with bad news. His parents were dead too, killed by a human last spring because he thought they were too wild to live so close to his property. He fed them wolf's bane during a friendly neighborhood gathering and covered it up.
It was dark when Valerio told me that. The moon was glowing in the deep, dark sky. And I walked outside, him following after me, and sat down in the dirt. I immediately curled into him as if he were Damon, as if he were my lover that could make everything better just by his touch.
Valerio's touch didn't make me feel better, but it did give me comfort that I wasn't alone. I cried and cried, letting all of the tears fall until I had none left. I could only imagine Aeron watching me from above, thinking that this would be the perfect moment to attack.
She's weak, he would think. Then he'd laugh with this other divine and tell her that she was the strong one.
"I don't think Luca is the wolf in the woods," Valerio said. "Their behaviors don't match."
I nodded. "Wishful thinking."
I have been so busy with finals and papers ahhh, but I'm glad I got this chapter out.
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What are your thoughts on this chapter?
The wolf in the woods?
Warmly, Destiny <3