I’m not naive.
Though my father had taught me very little about vampires, I’m still educated enough to be wary. I know they aren’t sexy and they don’t sparkle in the sunlight. I know they don’t discriminate between human and werewolf blood. I know they do not leave two small puncture wounds on their victims...
It is much, much worse.
I keep my focus on Theron as he squeezes his way through the small entrance of the cave. Every breath he takes is intentional, every hold is meant to make him thinner and able to move between the stone walls easier. This is one instance where being muscular and broad isn’t beneficial, though I think that’s probably strategic on the part of the queen... hard to be ambushed, even harder to make a quick escape.
The deeper we go, the more obvious the temperature change becomes. The scent of limestone and decay is stronger, assaulting my senses and urging me to gag. Sifting through the distinguishing smells, I find Theron’s and choose to latch on to that. Not only is it deliciously more delightful to my nose, but it also has an automatic effect on my body—calming me and leaving me in a small, but desperately needed, bubble of euphoria.
I will never tire of spice and forest.
The tight space opens up into a huge cavern. I watch as my shadow merges and disappears into the impenetrable blackness that now surrounds us. If I were human, I wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. The noise of the world outside has disappeared, replaced by silence and the sound of our breathing and thumping hearts. Theron’s eyes turn from the comforting brown I know so well and love so much to the swirling colors I am so easily entranced by. He lifts his nose to the air and sniffs, “She knows we’re here.”
Moving forward without a sound, the floor becomes smooth and slippery. We stay on a well-beaten, clear path for which I’m thankful. The smell of rotten flesh is overwhelming here, causing me to envision half-decayed carcasses that probably litter the edges of this huge space. I shuffle along, staying as close to Theron as possible. I don’t sense any other presence inside the darkness but as we delve deeper into the stony recesses of hell, my wolf becomes edgier, more alert.
The rotunda appears endless, dipping slightly and taking us farther into the ground than I am comfortable with. This is where the walls finally start to close in on us and while I’m not claustrophobic, the unease of not knowing what awaits us is threatening my already unsteady nerves.
I look to Theron for inspiration. The twinkle in his eye, the lightheartedness I have been recently introduced to is completely gone. Old Theron is back, his gaze hard and steely, his lips turned downward and pressed into a thin line. The authority that rolls off of him lay thick upon my chest, making it tough to breathe and difficult to move. It’s as if I am trying to walk underwater—like gravity is pushing, squashing the air surrounding me... my body seems weighted and sluggish.
Theron’s muscular arm shoots out in front of me, startling me and ripping me from my thoughts. I gasp at the sudden, surprising movement as he silently pushes me behind him.
And now my senses kick into overdrive.
It’s the smell that hits me first: blood, rotting flesh, terror, and tears. Curiosity demands I step next to Theron, discover the source of such a horrific scent. Theron, however, disagrees, pushing me behind him again. I glare at him, a low growl rumbling from my chest. I expect at least a cold glance in my direction, but that’s not what happens. Theron instead keeps his eyes straight ahead, watching... waiting...
I follow his line of sight to a perfect hole in the limestone floor, possibly four feet in diameter and a good twenty feet directly in front of us.
And this is where hearing overpowers smell.
Loose rocks and small pebbles, ping off the cavernous hole, falling, down, down... never-ending, never hitting bottom. Like nails down a chalkboard, the sound of something sharp clawing and ticking at the thick limestone echoes throughout the small chamber we currently stand-in.
And it’s getting louder... closer...
Something is coming.
And then, it isn’t.
Suddenly, everything is quiet once more. The stillness that hangs in the air is thick, smothered in tension. It’s like the calm before the storm, the silence of the woods when a predator is near... the goosebumps that rise on your skin or the hair that stands straight up on the back of your neck, expecting something to jump out and grab you at any second.
I don’t like it.
Theron is brave and so am I. And while every fiber of my being screams at me to run and each thump of my heart does nothing to warm the blood that suddenly freezes within my veins, I don’t yield.
I don’t falter.
I do, however, grab Theron’s hand of which I am not the slightest bit ashamed. It reminds me he’s here and I’m not alone. I insisted on coming and I refuse to regret that decision. Though maybe, in the future, I should consider the possible consequences of my actions before opening my big, loud mouth.
Piercing the silence that had engulfed us, a shrill cry resounds from that demonic black hole, effectively confirming that something is, indeed, coming. Again, I attempt a step forward, only to be thwarted a third time by Theron and his overprotective ways... this time, a little more forcefully.
“Ancient...” the thing inside the hole hisses, “Expecting you...” It is hands down the most terrifying voice I have ever heard. Different tones seem to mold together, layers over layers, all speaking consecutively. Raspy, shrill, delicate, angry... yet feminine and all very disorienting to my werewolf ears. Crimson eyes peer at us from inside the hole, cocking its head to the side and studying us curiously. “Brought treat?” It asks, hopefully.
I assume that “treat” means me.
“MINE,” Theron snarls, a vicious, murderous sound I’ve never known him capable of. And while I understand Theron received his reputation for a reason, it just now dawns on me that I have not quite ever accepted that there is a darker side to him. I saw the mad Theron, the depressed Theron, the gentle and happy Theron... but I had yet to witness the evil side that everyone whispers about—the side every being fears more than anything else. Whether it’s his more animalistic personality or the word “mine,” I’m not sure, but every part of that interaction affects my body in ways I can’t explain and don’t want to think about. He has no clue what he’s doing to me and honestly, neither do I. The monster from the hole giggles, “Of course...” If, somewhere deep in the back of my mind, I thought this was as scary as this being was going to get, I was very, very, wrong.
Up and out of the pit it comes, on hands and feet... At least, I think they’re hands and feet. Arms and legs are quizzically formed, long and skinny, and bent to an odd position reminding me distinctly of a crab. It scurries up the wall of the cavern, around the hole from which it came and back down again, landing effortlessly upon the same limestone floor we presently stand on.
A thick head of dark, tight, spiral curls sits beautifully upon her skull, flowing down and stopping just above her collarbone. Her blood-red eyes are huge, perfectly round and circular, and most definitely not befitting to the size of her heart-shaped face. Where a nose should be, there isn’t. Two tiny holes are placed right where you would expect nostrils to be yet she has no indication or varying degrees of distinction that there is, or ever was, a nasal bone.
Her mouth is huge, lips full and voluminous and I imagine before she angered the sun god Apollo, she was more than likely the most beautiful woman to walk the earth. I can see the possibilities. But it’s her smile that instantly halts my assumptions and causes me to instinctively jump back.
I know now that there were very few movies or books in the world that had captured the true essence of a vampire because she does not have two, measly fangs. Oh no, that would be a blessing at this point in the introduction but that just isn’t what is going to happen. Instead, rows of long, needle-like teeth sit smooshed together within her mouth. They’re not the kind of teeth that would leave two tiny fang marks on their victims’ necks. They’re the kind of teeth that rip, tear and devour every part of the body. I understand now why vampire victims are never found and why very little of the population know what they look like. If one were to fall prey to this creature, there would be no remains to identify and there would be no hope of escape. She is single-handedly, the most nightmare-inducing, horrifically horrifying creature I had yet to lay eyes on.
Note to self: never piss off the sun god.
Raising her head, she sways from side to side, her eyes closed and her breathing ragged. With those small holes for her nose, I’m pretty sure she is not sniffing the air as a werewolf would. Apparently, vampires do not hunt by smell. Her teeth chatter, snapping at the space around her almost as if she is chomping down on imaginary prey. I stand, bewildered, but not really wanting to know why she’s doing what she is. It isn’t a necessary knowledge I desire to comfortably live out the rest of my life.
However, a vampire does seem to be all I need to rid myself of that pesky curious cat... it’s obvious even that ornery thing knows its boundaries.
A startling jerk to her movements stills her body. Her eyes fall on me causing Theron to push me further behind him with a warning growl. The queen quickly shifts her gaze to him, “No worry Ancient. No hurt maiden. No. No. No... No hurt maiden. You need my help? Yes?”
“How do you know that?” Theron inquires, suspiciously. I wonder the same. She appears, to me at least, to be more of an inside type of girl... just going out on a limb here, but probably very introverted.
“Know things. Lots of things. See lots of things...” she cries.
Theron sneers, “And what things have you seen?” I’m not sure what his play is. Personally, I would be a tad bit more respectful but then again, I am not immortal.
“See lots. See death. See fear. Extinction all beings. Bad, bad, things.”
“Can it be stopped?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You. You stop. Ancient stop.”
“No. No. No. No,” she screeches, shaking her head feverishly. Her small curls bounce and sway with the motion, “YOU. ONLY YOU.” Theron shakes his head, confusion written all over his face, “I don’t understand.”
“Chance. Second chance. Redemption. Must redeem. Must save maiden. Must save all.”
“My name is Catalina,” I correct. I have no clue why she referred to me as a maiden. Both heads snap in my direction, seeming surprised I spoke. Maybe I shouldn’t have but that damn curious cat seems to be poking her head out of her hiding spot now. “Maiden. Cat-ta-leen-ah. Yes... Maiden,” she gives an affirmative nod as if she has confirmed such cryptic information to herself. Unfortunately, this does little to give me much insight. Stepping around Theron for a fourth time must have been the charm because he doesn’t push me back, “Why do you call me that?”
She tilts her head from side to side, much like a canine trying to understand the meaning of the words being spoken, “Symbol. You carry Maiden mark.”
“The crescent moon,” Theron says breathlessly as if it had all just clicked into place for him. He turns to me, his big hands clasp my shoulders “The mark on your forehead when you shift. It’s a waxing moon... one-third of the triple moon goddess symbol.” Okay... so? I stare at him, as if maybe the longer I look the answer will suddenly appear. The Queen hops up and down, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Maiden!”
“What does that have to do with anything? Technically, I also have your mark as well...” I remind him.
“Chance. Second chance. Redemption. Must redeem,” she repeats, vehemently, as if I hadn’t paid enough attention the first time she uttered it. However, her saying it a second time still doesn’t help solve the mystery of what the fuck she’s talking about. Her lack of conversation skills is aggravating me. Her obscureness is pushing me over the edge. Why can’t she just do it? Whatever the fuck “it” actually is...
In an instantaneous rise of exasperation, I tear myself from Theron’s grip, swatting his hands away in the process. “That means nothing,” I snap, throwing my arms in the air. “Lina,” Theron grabs my arm, scolding me like the six-year-old he still thinks I am. But I am far from six and today, he is going to learn. “You speak in circles—choppy cryptic words that give no real answers!” I walk forward, annoyance overriding any gut instinct that screams at me not to move another inch. She’s wasting our time and not giving us the answer we really want... and she knows it. Theron wraps his arms around my waist, pulling my back and trapping me between his back and forearms, but I am not done yet. Not even close. “We did not come here to listen to your perplexing psychic bullshit! Are you going to help us or not? That’s all we need to know! Stop straying from the topic and answer the question!”
She cocks her head from side to side again, examining me like a specimen in a petri dish. I don’t like it. I don’t appreciate it. And it does absolutely nothing to keep my anger at bay.
But then, she giggles again. I very quickly realize that that giggle will forever be the only thing that can keep me frozen in place. The hair on the back of my neck stands straight up and a chill runs down my spine. “Yes. I help. Send family to help.”
“Thank you,” I reply, shaking off the creepy feeling she ignited within me. I don’t bother to cover the sarcasm in my voice, she doesn’t deserve it. “Let’s go,” I grumble. Theron releases me as I turn to retrace our steps out of this forsaken death pit.
“No. Maiden stay. Alone. Need to speak,” the queen demands, almost happily. “The fuck you will!” Theron rages, using his body to block the tapping on the limestone that becomes hastily louder, indicating the queen is coming dangerously closer to us. She hisses, “No worry. Maiden safe. Special. She key!” Theron silently, albeit deadly, stares the vamp mother down, “Key? Key to what?”
“Everything,” she squeals, “key to everything! Maiden special. No hurt maiden. Must live. Must be special.”
Fuck me, she must know about that damn cat.
“It’s fine,” I promise softly, more to Theron than the devil queen. She could pound sand for all I care, but she is requesting a private conversation with me and there’s a nagging feeling inside of me that begs me to stay and listen. It’s abrupt—a sudden feeling that whispers to my soul that her words will be important. While the thought of hearing any more of her abstruse bullshit frustrates me, I trust my instincts more. Though it’s entirely possible I’d receive no concrete relief to my curiosity, it is even less likely to happen if I don’t grant her request. I’ll just have to swallow my pride and bear it.
Theron’s jaw ticks and his adam’s apple bounces down and then back up again. His gentle eyes search mine, making me want to melt right on the spot. I hate when he does that... or do I?
I don’t know anymore.
His sight then turns to the queen, all emotion wiped clean from his face. The only indication that he’s serious is the cold glare he gives her, “If you are lying, I will not hesitate to rip you apart, piece by fucking piece. Are we clear, Vampire?” She hisses, seemingly insulted by his threat, “No hurt your Maiden. No need.” Theron snarls in response but leaves, abandoning me to a monster my own subconscious couldn’t even dream up. But I will not back down now, “What do you want?”
Claim? Did she just tell me to ′claim him?′ Surely I misunderstood her raspy, hissy dialect. The last thing I expected was to be told to claim someone... a scolding for my disrespect, maybe—it would have been more predictable, but this? It makes absolutely no sense. I must have misheard, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I heard you—”
“Claim. Mark. Mate the Ancient. Do soon.”
“Theron?” I exclaim, dubiously. She wants me to claim Theron?! I can’t claim Theron! Theron is... Theron. I have a mate... somewhere. Wolves don’t just run around all willy nilly marking each other for the hell of it. I guess it’s possible that maybe she doesn’t understand our culture and how things work. I shake my head fervently, “That’s not how werewolves do things. We have predestined mates and Theron isn’t—”
“No mate.” She nods her head towards me, her voice calmer... I think. I’m not sure she has emotions but it seems like maybe she’s somewhat sympathetic. At least, I feel as if maybe we’re starting to understand each other better. “Yeah, Theron no mate,” I agree. Ah geez, I’ve been talking to her so long that I’ve begun to absorb her crude dialect.
“No!” She insists, ”You no mate! No given mate! Need Ancient. Destined for Ancient. Must claim. Must claim now...”
Her words hit me hard and fast, their target the heart within my chest. The bullseye causing a wave of vertigo and forcing me to lean against the cold, rock wall. Every werewolf has a mate, I am no different! My Goddess would never forget to create my other half! I refuse to believe it, “You can’t know that.”
“I do! Scent...” she skedaddles closer, unwavering faith in her abilities, “Taste on tongue. Only yours, no other. No mate for you. Sorry. But true.” Of course, she doesn’t smell another. I’m currently unmated. It’s traditional for the male to mark his female with his scent once they meet... I can understand how she could so easily misconstrue things, “That’s only because I haven’t found him yet.”
“No. Deeper scent. Soul scent,” she hissed. “No other. No made for you. Sorry. No mate.”
Another sharp pain, straight from my heart, I feel it shift and beat erratically. A flare of intense heat swells upon the back of my neck, the unspoken promise of anxiety and adrenaline working hand in hand to force me to vomit. This revelation leaves me reeling. How can it be? While I want to believe she’s wrong, and maybe part of me still does, that stupid fucking gut of mine whispers that she’s not. I fight back the tears that threaten to fall and expose my less than composed insides. If the queen notices, she doesn’t speak of it, “Claim. Mark. Mate—soon. Made for you. He yours. You his. Do now.”
All the feelings I’ve had for so long, over so many years now make perfect sense. If she’s correct, Theron will be the closest contender to a mate I will ever get. Oddly enough, that thought doesn’t distress me as much as it probably should. My soul, my mind, my heart... all have been pointing towards Theron for so long. A crush that’s slowly but surely becoming more... and confirmed by the unlikeliest of mythical creatures.
“Wait,” a nagging question in the back of my mind suddenly wants an answer, “why now?” She keeps saying to claim him now—soon—what’s the rush?
“Feral female. She want Ancient. Mark. Mate now.”
The thought of another female wanting Theron overwhelms my whole body with a degree of jealousy I have never known. Possessiveness grips me tightly, demanding I tear “her” head off... whoever “her” is. If the queen is correct, if he is mine and I am his then three is a crowd, and whoever this party crashing bitch is has to die. “Who is this feral female? Why does she want Theron?”
She scurries back to her death hole, talking casually like I am asking about the weather, “Vengeance. Hate. Despair. She want.” That isn’t enough of an answer for me—I need more information before she dismisses this conversation. “That’s nothing to go off of! Who is she? How will I know her?”
“Crone,” she states simply as she enters her den like I should know what the hell a Crone is. Her voice echoes off the limestone as she descends further away from me—a last, apocalyptic reminder, “Claim now.”
And just like that, I am left all alone once more, only the darkness and my turbulent thoughts to keep me company.