THERON

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FOUR.

“LINA!”

My father’s frantic voice immediately wakes me from my deep slumber...

But it’s the smell that fills my nostrils that has me the most concerned. It causes me to sit straight up in my bed.

My breath hitches.

There’s a smoky haze hovering around my room that suddenly has me very much alert and awake. The smell of smoke is thick, clogging the back of my throat and forcing its way into my lungs.

I can’t breathe.

Instant panic fuels my hysteric anxiety. My burning eyes are wide in fear, filled with unshed tears.

I need air—sweet, sweet air.

Gasping for oxygen, I roll out of the bed, falling onto the floor. The layer of clean air on the ground helps me to regain my senses.

I have to get out.

Clawing at the wooden floor, I am crawling towards the door when it is suddenly kicked wide open with a powerful bang. There, standing in the doorway with the collars of their shirts covering their noses, is my father... and the Ancient from last night, looking very much accustomed to one another.

They are not strangers.

But I have no time to ponder such a thing.

They stumble into the room once they spot me. Hands on each side of my body, they haul to my feet. Placing my arms over their shoulders, and drag me out of the room and down the stairs where a raging fire is consuming my home.

The heat of the flames hit my face with force, like the punch of a fist. It is scaling the tall walls of the cabin, climbing fast and high as if it has a mind of its own. It leaves the once beautiful brown wood charred and crackling in deep red, smoldering embers as it progresses quickly—too quickly—consuming my whole life.

Squinting my eyes, attempting to see through the dark smog, I frown. There is no way fire can move that fast without help. And I know though I am reluctant to face the fact, that there is no saving my home. No firetrucks could make it this far up in the secluded woods. The end is inevitable and a sob escapes my throat.

The place I grew up in, the place I made my most precious memories in, the place my heart dwells in and holds dear will be no more. The tears that now stream down my face are no longer caused solely by the burning sensation in my eyes.

My heart is breaking.

Grief is overfilling my body, flowing outwards like too much water in a cup. Everything I have ever known is slipping through my fingers as swiftly as the fire that furiously devours my life right in front of my eyes.

I desperately want this to be a nightmare. I want to wake up, only to realize it wasn’t real. I am still safe and sound in my bed, surrounded by my things and happy life inside the wooden walls that have protected me for so long.

But I know that will not happen.

The thought is too much, my body no longer able to hold its weight atop such heavy devastation. A cry of frustration iss all it takes to release the floodgates. I go limp in the arms of my father and the unknown Ancient. Crashing to my knees, I start to wail.

It no longer matters to me that we are still in the center of a burning house—it’s my house. My home, my love, my life. If it is to be swallowed by demonic flames then I will follow it to the deepest pits of hell. I will not abandon it to die alone. Because once it is gone, a part of me goes with it and I am certain I cannot live with only half of myself.

Dad and the Ancient are not having it though.

Ignoring my screams and tears and sorrow, they try to lift me from the floor but I do not make it easy. Swatting and kicking their hands away from me, I turn on my hands and knees to crawl back to the center of our once gorgeous living room. I crave nothing more than to be left to my own demise.

I may be of werewolf blood, however, I am no match for two male wolves—an Ancient being one of them.

They’re too strong.

And before I know it we’re outside the perishing cabin. I take no notice of the clean air that is now purging the smoke from my lungs. I just don’t care. All I can focus on is what’s before me.

Smoke billows out from the broken windows, pitch black and rising high into the air. Red, orange, and yellow flames consume the structure, collapsing the weakened boards of the roof.

I howl at the destruction, stupidly trying to sprint back towards my home. How I would be of any help, I have no idea but desperation fuels my soul to move—to do something.

But before I can make my break, two strong arms wrap around my waist, pulling me back and trapping me inside their hold.

I am not going anywhere.

Another strangled cry escapes my mouth as grief takes my body over once more. This time, I don’t fight it. The strong arms follow me to the ground as I fall on my knees. A hand pushes my head into a chest that does not smell like my father but confusion is overshadowed by my emotional pain. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he repeats over and over again, rocking my body in an act of consolation. Gripping his shirt I sob into the soft cotton material. He smells of pine and mischief but it comforts me.

The chest I am held against rumbles, a soft chuckling vibrating against my tear-stained face. “I know officially meeting like this isn’t under the best of circumstances, but I’m Kai.”

Pulling away, I finally look up at the boy with the good hair. His blue eyes are sad, the sunlight rising in the east illuminates their color. The freckles sprinkled across his nose make him appear young but I know he is anything but. His bottom lip is slightly fuller than his top, the corners of them dip deeply into his cheeks. He gives me a gentle smile and I can’t help but instantly like his childlike, mischievous demeanor. It’s kind of unnerving to know such a violent being rests within this angelic-looking boy.

Kai’s head suddenly snaps towards the tree line, a ferocious warning growl erupts from his throat. I can see his face start to elongate and transform as he pushes me behind him, eyes locked on a danger I have not yet been able to see.

My dad moves beside him, a growl coming from his wolf as well. I peer around them shyly and I am not shocked to see Alex.

He stands, dressed in tactical gear, arms behind his back. “Hello,” his deep voice is laced with emotionally empty disdain.

Now I am the one growling.

He raises a hand up, nonchalantly, “No need for hostility. I am only here for the girl,” he makes a show of it, leaning his body to the side, head dipping as if he is attempting to lower himself to my level, “Hi, Lina.” He gives a small wave as the corner of his mouth raises into a disgusting smirk, “Sorry about your house, by the way.”

All I see is red as anger flashed through me. He wants me to know it was him who took everything from me. But he is a fool because his handsome face will not save him from my wrath. I snarl in fury, the only thing standing in my way and sparing him from the rage my wolf craves desperately to take out on him, is Kai’s extended arm. Kai doesn’t want me near Alex, but I know I can handle it.

“Lina is not a prize to be used for exchange, Hunter,” Kai snaps, “Leave before my brothers come and shred your team to pieces.” His voice is boyish but the passion with which he speaks sends a chill down my spine. He is in Ancient mode now and it is slightly scary.

Alex hums, “Kai, is it? Right? Well, let me share a secret with you, lycan—I am going to get the girl. It is your choice if you hand her over peacefully or if we take her by force.” Alex shrugs, “Either way is of no consequence to me.”

The rustling bushes behind him have my eyes straying their attention away from Alex. Seven men, dressed in the same tactical gear slowly appear, one by one, beside him.

Guns?

They have guns...

...we have no guns.

Their faces are stoic, eyes empty as if it’s just another boring Tuesday for them... as if they are not threatening to take the lives of the men that stand as sentries before me.

But my guards don’t back down. They do not falter. My father and the Ancient are unafraid, unlike me.

I have been told of hunters. Dad made sure I knew they existed, killing our kind without reason or mercy. They are ruthless, barbaric, and hold no qualms about the wolves they slay. And now, I think I may just vomit as I realize how close to Alex I was last night. He could have killed me on the spot, right then and there, in the middle of the dance floor. But he didn’t.

Why?

Hello, curious kitty, welcome to the party, “What do you want with me?” My voice is strained from the smoke and fire that only a short while ago burned my throat. It trembles with bemused fear... were they sent by Ian?

Alex laughs condescendingly, “You, my dear Lina, are just bait for a bigger fish, so keep your ego in check.”

Excuse me?! Did he just double insult me in one breath?

I jump to my feet, ready to pounce. I can shift midair so I am not pressured to transform before I strike.

But the hunters give me no time to consider my actions.

The sound of bowstrings releasing reaches my ears, an arrow shoots through the wind, squealing as it pierces the empty space between us. I am frozen, stupefied, as I watch Kai snatch it from the air, inches from his head.

And that is the exact moment all hell breaks loose.

I have never witnessed a wolf shift as fast as Kai did. Before I could even blink, he is in lycan form. And he is breathtaking. Beautifully monstrous, his skin is a yellowish gray, the mark that should be on his forehead in wolf form is sitting upon the left pectoral muscle of his chest—it glows bright yellow.

He towers above even my father at a whopping nine feet and fucking something inches tall. Not only have his lycan haunches extended his height but his muscles as well. He is a beast. Grotesquely large muscles ripple and flex as they fill in and overtake his once slim and lean body.

His boyish face has extended into a large and terrifying snout. Saliva oozes out from his massive canines, running down his lips and dripping onto the ground. His body is sporadically covered in random patches of dark blonde hair, trailing down his raised hackles on his back merging with his long, strong tail.

A chilling howl splinters the air around me, I can feel it course through my body and out my fingertips, the power behind it calling to me—commanding me. It consumes my very soul, digging deep and radiating to my heart.

In the distance, multiple howls reply. By tone alone, I believe there to be three separate and distinct timbres.

Theron and the other Ancients...

They are coming.

My gut twists into a tight knot, the thought of seeing my friend again excites and scares me equally. But I have no chance to dwell on the matter. Like a wave breaking the surface, the hunters collide with Kai, my father himself thrown into the mix, though he has not shifted. They fight—punches, kicks, gunshots, soaring bodies, and weapons flung all around, my father and Kai attempting to give Theron more time to get to us.

My attention is on the fight for too long, my trance delays my reaction time and I am too slow to dodge the fist that slams into the side of my head. I fall to the ground, surprised by the sucker punch. What a fucking pussy move. My jaw aches but I ignore it, rolling on my back to face my attacker head-on. It is dishonorable in werewolf culture to perform such a sneak attack.

Alex’s green eyes glare back at me, darkness falls over his face, contorting his handsome features into something far more sinister. His chest rising and falling, he gives me no time to get to my feet on my own. Reaching down, he grabs a fist full of my hair and roughly pulls me to stand. I wince at the painful sensation of my hair tearing from its roots.

I twist and turn, trying to free myself from his clutches. My hands flailing in an attempt to pry him away from my scalp. He is dragging me into the woods, every step taking me further away from my father and Kai.

A sudden gust of wind rushes by me, a dark maroon blur catches in my peripheral, plowing into Alex. The force sends us tumbling to the ground and I tuck and roll, landing on my face, millimeters from the dirt.

Instinctively, I lift my head at the scene in front of me. A large lycan, bigger in stature than even Kai, crouches before a dazed and confused Alex.

I don’t need the symbol on his chest to tell me who my savior is. Though his eyes are cold, hatred radiating from them to the human caught within his sight, they dance and swirl with familiar colors.

I remember those eyes.

I will never forget.

I’m frozen to the ground, my best friend currently in a form I have never seen. And he is magnificent—dare I say majestic, even. My heart lurches forth, threatening to burst through my chest and place itself right into the large paws of Theron. I am so taken by his nightmarish beauty, I fear I will faint. I am dizzy, light-headed... conflicting emotions overwhelming me—happy, sad, excited, angry—I don’t know which one to feel at the moment.

His terrifying bright, white canines chomp the air around him. He snarls and snaps at Alex, who is just now coming to.

But Theron wastes no time.

Rushing forth, his strong, muscular legs flexing and glimmering in the light of the rising sun, he propels himself off a nearby tree, landing feet away from Alex with an earth shuttering thump. Scurrying, his back claws kick dirt and grass into the air. He jumps on top of the hunter, ready and more than willing to rip Alex’s throat from his neck. Theron’s massive head rears back, his jaws open in anticipation of the skin and blood they will soon make contact with, but suddenly, as if someone had just pressed the pause button, he stops.

His eyes widen in surprise, his body suspended in motion. Alex scrambles out from underneath him, unnoticed, as Theron’s sight glazes over.

He is mind linking.

A sad, mournful howl resonates into the sky near the clearing where our fight began. From whose vocals it came from, I do not know. What I do know, however, is that’s the sound a wolf makes when a pack member has fallen.

Theron’s glowing eyes snap to me and he whines. A dark cloud ascends over me. My old enemy Anxiousness rears his ugly head and now I am terrified at the prospect of who could have been murdered.

Scrambling to my feet, I run. Jumping over dead logs and spinning around trees, I plunge through the forest. My bare feet slap hard against the underbrush, the only sound to be heard within the usually loud and active woods. Even the woodland creatures seem to be in shock, their silence unnerving me.

Skidding to an ungraceful stop at the edge of the clearing, I stand now, my eyes absorbing the scene in front of me. Five human bodies lay dead on the ground, blood oozing from their wounds and coloring the once green grass crimson. In the distance, two lycans stand with their heads bowed, blocking my view. By their coloring—grayish green and blue—I can only assume they are DeLoren and Marius.

Theron reaches my side not a second later. I can feel his heated gaze burning a hole through the side of my face but I can’t bring myself to look at him. My only desire is to determine the wellbeing of my dad and Kai.

Jogging towards the group, I push my way in between the humongous bodies of DeLoren and Marius, only to instantly regret it.

There, on the ground is Kai, now in naked human form, hovering over the lifeless body of my father. The small hole directly on the middle of his forehead confirms my worst fear. A little line of blood dribbles from the wound, tiny white smoke emerges from the hole.

He is gone.

My breathing starts to quicken, my heart feels tight and constricted within my chest. They are playing a cruel joke on me. This isn’t real. It’s not. I cannot accept it.

Collapsing to my knees, I pull the torso of my father into my arms. His head hangs loosely, chin touching his chest. “No,” I whisper, “no, no, no, no, no! Dad! WAKE UP!” Tears begin to blur my vision and it becomes harder to breathe. I feel as if I am right back inside my burning house, oxygen denying entry into my lungs. I run my fingers through his hair, “Dad?” My voice is hoarse, emotions thick inside my throat, refusing to depart from my body.

“DAD!” I cry. This can’t be right, he can’t be gone. I need him. The heartbreak of the loss of my cabin is nothing compared to this. It only compounds my pain. The realization that I have ultimately lost everything now is too much.

The house was a house. Full of fun, memories, and love but it was replaceable. I suddenly feel stupid and pathetic for being so upset over burnt possessions because I can acquire more.

I only have one father.

I can’t buy another.

I will never have another.

With no other way to express my grief, no other way I can think of for release, I erupt. A loud, painful, scream full of frustration and sadness is sent from my body to the sky above, powerful enough for the Goddess herself to hear me.

And I hope she does because right now I am feeling cheated. My home, my father, taken from me within hours of each other and I am angry—furious that the moon goddess would allow such a horrible thing to happen to us. She should have stopped this—protected us. That’s why we worship her, pray to her, build our lives around the idea that she is real and watching and loving us from afar.

Now I am only left to question my life.

Alone.

Out of nowhere, a wet nose nudges my neck. The cold, moist feeling brings me away from my dark thoughts.

Theron.

Now in the wolf form, I once knew, his soft, shiny hair tickles my skin. He nudges me once again, more forcefully. ”Not alone, never alone,” a familiar, velvety voice echoes through my mind, reading my thoughts.

My best friend is speaking to me for the first time.

Overcome with emotions, I wrap my arms around his neck, burying my face within his fur. Inhaling, the familiar woodsy scent of grass and spice seeps into my nose, calming me. The tension slowly erodes from my body, my sobs turning into quiet sniffles. Silence may surround us but I know we are the quiet focus of the other three Ancients. They remain still, allowing us this moment.

The wolf form he is in slowly morphs and changes inside my embrace. His fur recedes, disappearing entirely, replaced by human skin, but he never pushes me away. He never moves out from within my arms, even as the pelt I have buried my face into turns into a hard chest. And once his shift is complete, he rises to his knees, bringing me with him. Strong arms enveloped me tightly, pulling me closer.

I hear his heartbeat, a steady thump against my ear. His skin is smooth, but hard due to the muscles that have sculpted him. He is warm and still smells of nature and spice. He runs his fingers through my hair, comforting me, and yet he says nothing. I feel safe... protected and content here. Within his arms, I am shielded from the outside world... nothing can touch me.

This is my safe space.

My happy place.

And I would love nothing more than to remain here forever but we both know that is not possible. As gently as possible, he pulls away. His large hands cup the sides of my face to tilt my head upwards. Calloused thumbs caress my cheeks as his eyes meet mine.

I inhale sharply as I am hit with recognition. I now understand, all the pieces falling into place.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Swear it.”

“Today, tomorrow, and forever...”

Memories of Theron and thoughts of Angel merge into one—one person. And he is right in front of me.

“You,” I softly accuse, breathlessly. He has stolen the very air I breathe. It seems to be a recurring theme today.

“Me,” he whispers with a slow confirming nod.

It is too much for me.

Everything seems to hit me at once, like a car, the force of the impact sends me reeling. My house. Alex. Ian. Dad. Theron. Angel—a spinning wheel of pictures swirling through my mind leaving my senses overloaded and malfunctioning.

I see Theron’s smile drop, concern now painted upon his beautiful face. His mouth opens... he is speaking, but I hear nothing—only a loud ringing in my ears. I try to ask him what he is saying, I try to read his lips, I try...

But darkness creeps into my vision and soon I am swept away into a peaceful and silent black nothingness.

I see nothing.

I hear nothing.

I feel nothing.

And I am not troubled by it as I welcome my state of unconsciousness with open arms.

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