THERON

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NINE.

Theron laid on his back, watching the clouds float overhead. He didn’t care that he was in his human form now. He didn’t care that he was as naked as the day he was born. He wasn’t concerned with the amount of blood that was dried and crusted to his skin.

He felt alive.

For the first time in as long as he could remember, he let himself relax enough to pay sweet attention to what was around him... and not in the way he was used to.

He didn’t listen for the cracking of twigs to warn him of an incoming predator. Instead, he relished in the natural sounds of the forest around him; the harmony of the birds, the music of the wind lightly blowing through the trees, and the melody water created as it trickled down the small stream to his left.

He wasn’t on high alert for the smell of prey or danger. As it just so happened, he thought lazily about the scent of the deer blood that was wafting from the carcass to his right and how fresh and warm blood smelled a bit different than that of the cold and coagulated kind now emanating from the dead body of his recent kill.

And Theron didn’t focus on the feeling of constant anger, resentment, and self-hatred that usually occupied his soul. Currently, he was just enjoying the feel of the sunlit grass he now relaxed on. It was soft mostly, but sometimes a little prickly if he moved a certain way. The dirt beneath that held the growing roots of that sod was cool and moist, a stark contrast to the warmth of the grass.

But what he paid the most attention to was his sense of sight... not the headless and shredded deer that lay beside him. Oh no, that was the old Theron—the ”Before." Before Catalina. This new Theron, what he amusedly considered the ”After,” was in awe of the way the sunlight filtered through the trees and the leaves fluttered against the breeze... the azure color of the sky and the fluffy clouds that floated along, passing like a sailboat in the ocean. He wondered what stories Lina would have created out of these gigantic puffs of cotton.

He did try to make up stories himself, but without a cloud that closely resembled a flower, aka a penis, he had nothing. Theron just did not possess the imagination or creativity for such silliness.

Oddly enough, Theron hadn’t needed a generous amount of kills to satiate his bloodlust this time. This single carcass so close beside him had not fueled the thirst for more but instead, brought him only angst and longing because what his problem was, honestly, was much more complex and confusing: He missed that silly, little, blonde she-wolf.

And the only thing that made him feel better, allowed him the sensation of being close to her, was this. Viewing the world around him in a new light and taking the time to appreciate the beauty of the nature that surrounded him. It didn’t matter to the wondrous outdoors that he was a murderer. It didn’t matter that he often let his emotions get the best of him, turning into the demonic beast he was so greatly known for. It didn’t matter that he was an abomination, a curse upon the ground to which he lay on. No. Nature accepted him-flaws and all. Unconditionally.

Just like Lina.

But with the thought of Lina, came the remembrance of his current situation.

Daniel Grimes had not given them much useful information. The dead fucker was able to confirm the region of the three packs that Theron had detected, but Daniel had only been responsible for those packs within the proximity of Tennessee and did not know who had his particular job at their Texas facility... though he strongly suspected that whatever was happening in his assigned area was also going on in Texas, which, ultimately, made the situation worse.

The dreaded fact was there were more than three wolf packs being affected.

With that knowledge, it was more than horribly suspect that the Ancients didn’t know what was happening to their people. How could no one inform at least one of them? Theron knew he wasn’t a likely candidate but surely Marius would have been privy to such strife. The older, wiser, and more social of the four would surely have had the avenues and connections not to be blind sighted... wouldn’t he? If not him, then surely the council. If the council was aware, then so was he and his brothers. Well, maybe not him, specifically—or ever, really—but his brothers at least, for that was the structure of things.

As the werewolf and lycan populations grew, there became a need for a council as there had become too many shifters for his brothers to handle on their own.

Their fault. Not his.

It wasn’t as if different forms of birth control hadn’t existed for decades now, the Ancients just had a hard time controlling their urge to procreate. It was a necessity among all forms of living things to breed. Theron didn’t fault his friends for that initially—to each their own, so to speak. But there had come a time where enough really should have been enough. Theron himself had no issues commanding such an urge so it was beyond him that Marius, DeLoren, and Kai couldn’t do the same. Maybe it really was a mind-over-matter scenario... sex was never on Theron’s mind, so it didn’t matter.

So if Marius had no inkling of these kidnappings then that meant either the council didn’t know of the abductions OR... they did. And the more Theron considered that possibility, the angrier he became.

If that happened to be the case, if the council was keeping that monumental of a secret, it would be the biggest betrayal in the history of werewolf betrayals-not that there were many to begin with. Loyalty to their kind was an innate, animalistic instinct ingrained into their very DNA, especially on the council since they were so old and thus closer to purer blood than their descendants. Let’s be honest, the longer the lineage is passed down through the years the more diluted it becomes, it’s just a fact.

So did that mean the council was corrupt? Were they bought as well? Did this go higher than just his species?

Damn, he shook his head to clear his wild ramblings—they were getting out of control...

...And to think, Theron believed he had no imagination.

***

Three weeks had passed since the Ancients had first received replies from the Alphas—only four in total had come forth.

While Marius hadn’t questioned the odd amount of affected packs, Theron did. He knew he had three distinct scents during his time in Tennessee. Three. So, naturally, he found it baffling, if not downright suspicious, that only two from the Texas region and two from Tennessee had claimed to be mysteriously missing members. Theron didn’t know how many should be in the Texas facility but he trusted in what he smelled in that hellhole of a laboratory he had ended up in... And two was one shy of the correct number.

Needless to say, he was currently paranoid, suspicious, and too tightly wound.

So when the meeting with the council and those affected Alphas came about, Theron was on guard and more focused on his senses than ever. Whose heart would thump abnormally as they lied? Whose pores leaked fear and anxiousness? Who wouldn’t be able to look him in the eye?

As Marius, DeLoren and he entered the council’s meeting hall, his brown eyes flitted across the bodies already seated and prepared for discussion.

Theron trusted no one.

“Father,” a man approached Marius in greeting. “Uriah,” Marius welcomed him with a handshake and a hug. Theron held in the urge to snicker. Yes, this Uriah probably stemmed from the groin of his brother in arms, but Marius was far removed from being his actual father. It was more likely that time had seen fit to label Marius as a great-great-great-multiplied by some unfathomable amount-grandfather, but definitely not Uriah’s direct patriarch.

While the Ancients were immortal, their descendants were not, and, as the lineage became more and more diluted from its original creator, the less their years of life would become. A descendant straight from any Ancient’s sperm could live to be up to three hundred years old but the further down the line in relativity, the more likely their average lifespan would be to that of a human.

If Uriah was kin enough to sit on the council then Theron would need to reevaluate Marius. Apparently, this particular Ancient had not been as busy and consumed by breeding for quite some time now.

Interesting.

“You remember DeLoren,” Marius said as DeLoren shook Uriah’s hand in acknowledgment “Of course,” Uriah replied with a nod. The man’s gaze then fell upon Theron and he raised one eyebrow in curiosity. Marius only chuckled, “Uriah, I want you to meet Theron, who has reluctantly decided to grace us with his presence.” As if on cue, Uriah reacted to this introduction just as Theron expected him to (as everyone always does), with widened eyes, a couple of steps backward, and a tiny whimper. It was so predictable that Theron no longer rolled his eyes in response. He was used to this exact reception.

As the man tried to recover from this cognizance, Theron took his sweet time assessing him. Uriah was average, standing less than six feet tall by an inch or even two. He had a head full of thick dreadlocks, graying and fraying sporadically within the defined strands. A caramel complexion contrasted greatly with his steel-colored eyes, making him appear instantly untrustworthy to Theron. It was in the eyes. He didn’t like the eyes. With a large mouth and thick lips, his “welcoming” smile appeared fake to Theron... and he didn’t mean because of the man’s dentures. Though they did happen to be a brighter shade of white than what should be normal for a man of Uriah’s age, which Theron could only guess to be somewhere around fifty or sixty in human years.

Uriah finally broke out of his unwarranted fear and stuck a large hand out for Theron to shake, with a big, welcoming smile on his face—forcibly fake, of course. Theron stared at it in weary disinterest, “Look, Urinal—”

“Uriah,” he corrected.

“Whatever,” Theron waved dismissively, “I’m sure the pleasure is all yours and whatnot, but I have enough BFFs. I came here for answers, so if you don’t mind I would like to get this show on the road.”

Marius shot Theron a warning glare from behind the councilman’s shoulder, while Uriel or whatever the fuck his horrible name was, cleared his throat to relieve the awkwardness around them, “Right, uh... please be seated then.”

“Thank you," Theron threw out in irritated emphasis, as he stepped around the three men and sauntered to his chai—-a chair that unsurprisingly, was in better shape than any of the others in the room. It was probably quite hard to make a piece of furniture look so worn if it was hardly used.

The Ancients sat on a raised platform, higher up than the six Council members in front of them. Marius on Theron’s right and DeLoren on his left... Kai would take the seat at the end, next to DeLoren if he had been present and not out doing Theron the biggest favor in the world.

It took everything in him not to call Kai and check up on Lina but Theron had specified the rules clearly to the young Ancient: Kai was not to call unless there was a major problem or the she-wolf was in imminent danger. It had been done with purposeful intent. He had a job to do and he needed to stay focused for her sake.

Four Alphas took the hint and followed the small group, taking their seats at a long, horizontal table at the front of the room. Theron kept a suspicious eye on all of them, focusing his goddess-given advanced senses on each. If they were being deceitful, he would know.

Urine and his frazzled dreadlocks spoke first, “Please state your given names and what pack you are from.”

Theron stifled a snicker, noting how all four men appeared very similar in looks and demeanor. Typical Alphas. Snobbish and arrogant with their muscular physiques and handsome faces, dressed in the same black suits and ties. He remembered now why he never bothered to talk to these tools. Alphas were, in all honesty, just dickwads with a little bit more authority and strength than the rest of their pack members. They lacked brains and personality, choosing instead to be a carbon copy of what their societal ancestors deemed approving behavior for such an “important” rank.

Theron found it boring and unimpressive.

So, in consecutive order, they each stood and introduced their lame selves:

“Alpha Daemon Hines, The Bluegrass pack, Brandenburg, Kentucky.”

“Alpha Hunter Ryan, Midnight pack, Gatlinburg, Tennessee.”

“Alpha Jack Clemens from the Red Dawn pack. We reside in Waco, Texas.”

“I’m Alpha Trey Allred from the Wichita, Kansas pack-Dark Plains.”

Theron rolled his eyes, who thought up these ridiculous names for these packs? Why did they even need stupid identifiable pack names anyway? Pack 1, 2, 3, etc. would have sufficed. Hell, if they really wanted to get wild and crazy they could go with A, B, C, and so forth. Why complicate things? Theron couldn’t help but envision the first Alphas sitting alone in their offices, skimming through the thesaurus feverishly in an attempt to have the “coolest” pack name.

Losers.

Theron wondered if he had been an Alpha what he would have named his pack. It definitely would not have been LAME-O like ′Bluegrass.′ Goddess, you literally chose the name of your pack from the state motto!

How original.

“We convened this meeting as it has come to light that disturbing and mysterious abductions of your specific pack members seem to be unpreventable,” Uri said, “As such, we are here today to launch a thorough investigation into your competence as Alphas.”

Uh, no Urial—that was definitely not why Theron was here today. He couldn’t care less about the “competence” of these Alphas. It wasn’t his problem and he wasn’t part of their pack. What Theron was here for was answers, not accusations.

So it was, for the first time ever, that Theron finally engaged in a council meeting and voiced his annoyance, “I don’t know why the fuck you are here, Urinary, but I for one am not concerned with the politics involved in being an Alpha. I am focused on the how and why of these kidnappings! As Alphas you can rule your pack however you see fit, but when your members are being snatched up one by one and sent to experimental laboratories, I thoroughly believe the top priority should be in the details of such happenings. After I have had those questions answered, Urinalysis over here can place judgment however he sees fit, but not before.”

The four Alphas looked at each other in pure confusion and bewilderment. Theron assumed they had not expected such disrespect towards an Elder of the council but it bothered him not. Respect, in Theron’s book, was earned, not dished out blindly and this dweeb of a councilman had not given Theron the impression that he was deserving of such respect.

“THERON!” Marius snapped, in his condescending, father-like tone. Although he may be older and wiser than Theron he was not above him. Never above him. They were equals, cursed at the same time, and bound to each other in such a way that there was never a question about who was the leader of this group. That term did not exist for the Ancients and Theron refused to be talked down to like a petulant child. “Do not speak to me as if your loins carried the strongest sperm to pierce my mother’s egg, Marius! I am not one of your kin you can control with your deep voice and highly emphasized eyebrows! I am your brother and I am here for one purpose only and that does not include dishing out punishments to Alphas that had no control over the situation they currently find themselves in.” Theron seethed, “So hold your fucking tongue until I am done and then you may do whatever you wish.”

Ignoring the growl that emanated from his “wise” brother, Theron turned his attention back to the Alphas, “I was taken. I was poked and prodded, injected and beaten, silvered and tortured all in the name of “science,” apparently. I know—I saw what happened to wolves that were not strong, like me. If you think for one minute you will find them alive, you are sorely mistaken. When you return to your packs, you have no choice but to organize funerals for your missing members because I promise you, they are no longer breathing.”

I want a list—no. Scratch that. I want a file on each and every member that was taken without a trace. I want to know everything about them right down to the color of their shit as we need to determine if there was a pattern—a rhyme or reason they were taken. I want to know their last known location, the last person they spoke to, the very last remnant of their scent you were able to find. I even want the names, ranks, and pictures of your most trusted advisors. I don’t care if you email, fax, or send a messenger pigeon to deliver those files but I want them ASAP.” Theron glared at the dumbfounded Alphas, “Do I make myself clear?” Wide-eyed and dubious, they nodded numbly in agreement.

Theron leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms over his chest, “Good. Now, do any of you have any information that would be useful to me that may not be included in said files?”

Mr. Colored Dawn Alpha raised his hand. Theron sighed in annoyance, this wasn’t a classroom and he wasn’t a teacher. They did not need their hands to indicate when they wanted to speak. What kind of totalitarian council meetings did Urethra run around here?

“Speak, Alpha Jack,” Uriah gritted, his muscles tense and his seated body erect. Theron smiled smugly as he knew that dread head’s aggravation was due to Theron himself and not the acknowledged Alpha specifically.

“Uh, yes, Councilman... we, uh, have confirmed that each member from our pack was kidnapped while in wolf form.”

DeLoren frowned, “Are you to have us believe that they were bested while in their strongest form?”

Alpha Jack’s cheeks flushed crimson in embarrassment but as he opened his mouth to speak, the Bluegrass Alpha interjected, “I very much wish I could tell you that it was not the case for our pack as well, but we have confirmation of the same within our ranks. They indeed had been in lycan form when last spotted.”

Theron wasn’t as surprised as the rest of his peers. He had been in wolf form when taken so this wasn’t news to him. He thought he had made that clear to DeLoren when he recounted his tale but apparently, Theron was wrong. Strong and powerful Ancient aside, he had been bested too. But duty overshadowed embarrassment in his book, and he had not been afraid to admit his lax awareness of his surroundings. Of course, exhaustion would do that to any being but those demonic sons of bitches had gotten lucky when they chose Theron. Had he been one hundred percent, they would have all been dead and Theron and his brothers would never have been the wiser as to the devilish covert operation the humans had initiated right under their noses.

“Same,” Alpha Trey and Alpha Hunter agreed concurrently.

“Making a logical assumption that my fellow Alphas will most likely concede to also... the only recognizable scent we were able to detect on the premises was human. How many, we were not sure,” said Alpha Jack.

The other three Alphas only nodded.

“And where, on your territory, did this take place? How close to your pack homes?” DeLoren wondered.

“Not very close at all,” Alpha Hunter replied. “In fact, most of my missing members were border patrols, taken during their shifts... too far out to be noticed by the residing members.”

Again, the other Alphas seemed to affirm with silent nodding.

“What could possibly have been strong enough to catch border patrols off guard?” Uriah and his nasally voice questioned... and Theron was the only one who could answer that, “Tranquilizer darts. I was hit with one as well.”

Marius snorted, “Border patrols are on the highest of guards at all times. It doesn’t make sense that they would not have scented a threat.”

Oh, really? Well, thanks for throwing me under the bus, brother, Theron thought bitterly.

“Actually, if you think about it, it does make sense.” Theron turned to Marius, “Border patrols are focused upon what is on the ground, what scent is carried through the wind. If a dart took them by surprise it would have only been because it was shot at extremely long range.”

“Snipers?” DeLoren asked, incredulously.

“Yes,” Theron confirmed.

Suck it, Marius!

DeLoren’s eyes widen in pure puzzlement, “What the actual fuck are we dealing with, T?”

“Military,” Marius stated, grimly.

The room instantly grew silent and Theron wondered if it was time to admit something he had been trying to avoid for a long while now. Eventually, it would come to light and Theron assumed it would be better to announce and prepare them before they discovered it the hard way. He had a nagging and quite disturbing feeling that a war was coming if things did not take a different course. If these beasts went into such conflict without knowing what to expect, it would end up in the certain slaughter of his species.

And Lina wouldn’t stand a chance.

With that being said, there was one other thing that also needed to be addressed first, while the Alphas were still thinking clearly and not lost in the aftermath of the bomb he was about to drop on them. “Have you any reports of rogues being taken as well?” Theron asked quietly. He saw DeLoren shoot him a knowing look from the corner of his eye but he disregarded it. DeLoren could deny his protective urge of Catalina as much as he wanted but the truth remained like a dark cloud hovering above them. They needed to know what kind of danger she was in and if he wouldn’t ask, Theron had no problem doing so for the both of them.

Three of the Alphas denied such knowledge but Alpha Hunter did not. He looked to be fighting an internal battle that Theron didn’t fail to notice, “Alpha Hunter? Do you have something to add?” The Alpha’s eyes flashed to Theron for only half a second before he remembered his place and cast them down—an act of submission towards the Ancient. He watched Hunter swallow before continuing, his large adam’s apple more prominent than the other three and thus easily noticeable. “Yes, Ancient. My, uh, good friend, chose the life of a rogue, separating himself from our pack two years prior...” the Alpha trailed off, looking conflicted.

“If you are afraid of what will happen to you for admitting you broke the law by keeping in contact with a rogue, don’t be.” Theron placed an iron grip on Uriah’s shoulder in an unspoken promise of more to come should the councilman dish out justice for breaking such a ludicrous law, ”Urinator here will not try you for that particular indiscretion, right Uri?”

“Of course not, Ancient Theron,” the Elder replied through gritted teeth. Now whether that was because he was very much irritated by Theron or because of the harsh grip currently applied to his shoulder blade, Theron did not know. Either was possible and either was just as equally satisfying to the Ancient himself.

Alpha Hunter stared with weary eyes but proceeded anyway, “I haven’t heard from him in six months.”

Marius inquired, “And how often did he normally speak with you?”

“Daily,” the Alpha responded, uncomfortably. He bit his bottom lip after the word left his mouth but kept his resolve nonetheless, something Theron instantly admired though it was only a hushed noise in the background of his mind as he put two and two together. His brows raised in concern, “Your pack is located in Tennessee?” Not that Theron needed the affirmation, he already knew. And Gatlinburg was way too close to the Smokey Mountains to be of any comfort to Theron. He made a mental note to ask Alpha Hunter about the surrounding packs in his area as Theron was certain one was missing from their little soireé today.

Hunter gulped, “Yes.”

Theron pushed through the dreadful feeling that plummeted down into his stomach and decided now was the right time to reveal his secret—one that threatened all of the men in the room and beyond. “I have one more thing to add before we close this session,” Theron sighed. This was not going to be a simple admission. It would only bring more questions and thus more fear but he had no choice now, “When I escaped Superlunar laboratories, I was shot several times. The only reason I am disclosing this information is because I want all of you to be aware of how dire this situation is.” Theron took a deep breath and trudged on, “The bullets that pierced me were not only made of silver and laced with wolfsbane. There was something else inside of them... something that slowed down my healing capabilities and had me stranded for days recuperating.”

Marius gave him a hardened, accusatory look, “You never spoke of this before.”

“Because I did not want to cause any panic,” Theron growled. He wasn’t purposely keeping the information close to his chest, he just didn’t realize how viable this small detail would come to be. “I don’t know what was in those bullets, but if it was enough to knock me off my feet, it is more than sufficient to kill a regular werewolf or lycan.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re a real Debbie Downer?” DeLoren deadpanned, his chin now resting upon his hand, slouched in his seat.

Theron smirked, “Not to my face.”

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