THERON

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NINE.

My muscles spasm and my bones begin to break.

I don’t even attempt to control my beast.

There’s no point.

Lycan legs lengthen and struggle to form against the restraints of my pants. Stitches tear and polyester rips to accommodate a new, animalistic form... their structure not intended for such a body type. My shirt stretches across my broadened chest, the material riding up my abdomen and busting from the pressure of my new, more muscular arms. I hand the reins over to the lycan and am not surprised when his massive claws shred the shirt to pieces, freeing him of its feeble confines. I watch as the torn material rolls off the mountain, carried who knows where by the wind.

It doesn’t matter now, as I am only a backseat passenger to his every whim.

At least I still have my pants... mostly.

Growls, whines, snarls and stifled roars resound from within his massive chest—the only way, other than possibly shattering this whole mountain to smithereens, to relieve his anxiety. ”Lina,” he whines, pacing the small landing in front of the cave.

I understand his stress as it is mine too. I quickly discovered, after being cursed, that me and this monster were the same—two sides of one coin. While I could mentally separate myself from the more animalistic side he represented, we were still connected; intertwined and woven on a deep, soul level. I was him and he was me, two personalities split down the center but never severed. The only way to keep my sanity was to identify him as a different being altogether... even if it was a lie. How my brothers lived in harmony with their monsters’ side, I’ll never know. I suspect it has something to do with the acceptance of this fucking curse... one thing I have never been able to make peace with.

"Left her. Bad Theron! Bad! Bad, bad, bad!" He chastises me, his displeasure in my decision quite clear by the boiling anger I feel inside me. That fucking animal is not telling me anything I’m not already aware of.

The problem here, and what my beast has yet to understand, is the degree to which Lina would allow herself to be controlled. I know I’m walking a fine line—fourteen years away had not dimmed my memory. Lina is still just as stubborn, if not more independent. Telling her she can’t do something will make her more apt to want to do it. So how am I supposed to handle that?

Personally, I do not desire another slap on the nose.

Now, however, I am absolutely fucking certain I cannot allow that to continue. The amount of internal disruption it causes me is too great. I am barely holding on as it is to what tiny thread of humanity I still have left. If anything happens to Lina—

No.

Nothing will happen to her. In fact, I am pretty sure she will actually be the death of me. Presently, a coronary seems most likely.

Sounds from inside the cave perk our ears and still our breathing. We hope it’s Lina returning as my newly domesticated beast seems a bit lost without his master.

Apparently, I am yesterday’s alpha.

"Sack up and focus, stupid mutt,” I grumble. One of us has to be in control of our emotions here. I like to think I still have some self-preservation... however small it may be because, obviously, I now prefer to lie to myself.

It’s her scent that confirms she’s coming. The small entrance takes the smell and funnels it through the tunnel and straight up our nostrils. Cashmere and almonds envelop our heart in a comforting blanket, soothing our spastic nerves and quelling our fears. But it’s not enough.

A massive lycan paw grasps her shirt and yanks her out of the cave and into my chest. All she can manage is a small yelp before our arms wrap around her and smash her face into patchy fur.

She is back.

She is alive.

“Mam bref,” her hot breath mumbles against our skin. Knowing everything Lina says is important to me no matter how insignificant, I force my beast to release her but arm’s length is as far as he’s willing to go—touching her skin gives him the reassurance he needs.

I do not argue.

“Can’t breathe,” Lina repeats, gasping for air.

Oops.

My beast whines, “Hurt?” He quickly scans her body for even the most minute scratch or bruise. Luckily, she is in the same condition we left her in.

All appendages are still attached.

“Down boy,” she frowns, patting our bicep, “I’m fine.” And while the lycan part of me flashes her a wolfy grin, happy with her answer, my human side is skeptical. I did not spend years and years of immortality to be clueless about human emotional cues. Usually I ignore these as I just don’t give a fuck, but this is Lina, so it’s different. Keenly studying her slouched posture, downturn mouth, and saddened eyes I determine we definitely have a discussion coming.

Gently, I push the lycan hand to cup her cheek. “What’s wrong?” We whine.

Whine.

What the fuck is up with all the whining lately?

Lina shakes her head, moving our hand away from her face.

We do not like that.

“She said...” her brows furrow, her eyes look to the stone ground as if it holds all the answers. I watch those brown eyes flicker back and forth, different emotions flashing among her beautiful features.

Confusion.

Sadness.

Happiness.

Confusion again.

Then, determination.

It’s that last feeling, that determination, that finally makes her speak again. We are still here, hanging on every word, every breath... every pounding heartbeat. Her gaze slowly rises from the ground, “Theron, I need to ask you—” but they never actually make it to me. Halting abruptly at the landscape behind me, her eyes widen and she gasps, “The sun!”

The sun.

I forgot about the sun.

Whirling around, I know instantly what the cause of her sudden panic is because I feel it too. Lost in my inner turmoil, I had neglected to pay attention to our time limit... and now, we are out.

The last seconds of daylight slip behind the tree line, covering the landscape in shadowy blue. Simultaneously, screams, squeals, and screeches echo throughout the forest below, reminding me that the dinner bell is ringing.

Or is it breakfast?

Fuck, I don’t know.

But that’s not what kicks my ass into high gear. No, that would be too natural, too simple. What causes my new spur into action is Lina—Lina whose large brown eyes look to me for help... the same beautiful brown eyes that flip my stomach every time they grace me with their attention. The fact that independent and willful Lina is relying on me causes my animal instinct to come alive. We are needed. Called upon for protection and safety... and we will not cower, no matter the danger.

Snatching the backpack from our little landing in front of Hell’s Cave, I slip it onto her shoulders and snap the belt in place under her breasts.

I’m going to ignore the feeling that causes me...

Cries from above us temporarily steal my focus and force me to glance up. Five or so vampires hanging from the mountain above us have locked their sights onto their next meal. Huge, red, bat-like eyes stare down at us, hungrily.

I fling an oddly resistant Lina onto my back. Her arms immediately wrap around my neck, long legs tightly wound directly under my ribs as if she understands exactly what is about to happen. I don’t have the heart or the time to tell her I’m just winging it now.

One last glance above us confirms my worst fear. Greedy vamps start scaling down the mountain. Their scrawny bodies and demonic movements make them undeniably fast and vicious... but we are not going to wait patiently for their arrival.

They’ll have to work for their dinner.

Or breakfast...

Like the fucking details matter right now.

With not much space for a running start, we have to work with what we have. Massive paws thunder across the five-foot span of the ledge and lucky for us, my lycan is fast.

Lina shrieks, “THERON!” It seems as if she is only just now aware of how we’re getting off this fucking mountain. I have no choice but to ignore it this time—we are out of options... and time.

A six-story free fall doesn’t sound so bad compared to the possibility of being ripped to bloody shreds.

My beast leaps from the edge of the mountain, sending us outwards and falling quickly into the unknown. Lina squeals, burying her face into our back and clutching her legs tighter around us. I can feel the momentum of our fall separating her torso from mine. I pray she’s able to hold on since my arms are too busy desperately flailing in the open air in an attempt to keep our balance upright for landing.

And we are going to land hard.

The split second of weightlessness ended all too quickly and now gravity was happily taking over, dropping us like a heavy rock in a turbulent body of water. How my beast knew the exact trajectory to keep us clear from being impaled by tree branches or landing on sporadically placed boulders, I’ll never know but I am definitely not going to question his tactics. The ground rises to meet us swiftly and I hope it’s prepared for the fucking weight that’s about to land upon it.

An earth-shaking rumble effectively announces our presence as we land (quite gracefully if I do say so myself) on all four paws. And it’s those four paws that do not take a moment of rest to access the absorbed pressure on our limbs.

We are off and running.

Soaring over dead trees and skidding around live ones, my beast is not concerned with the thunderous sound his hands and feet are resonating through the woods. Dirt, weeds, and twigs fly up from behind us every time he propels those strong legs from the ground.

Clawing his way through the woods, he jumps furiously up a steep incline, drifting us back onto the trail we need for escape. I’m almost certain we can find our way home without it but it will take longer and I do not desire to spend any more time than possible in the company of vamps.

Speed gives us the feeling of the wind rushing past our face, intent on stealing our breath but we will not concede. We won’t give in because it would not only be our death, but Lina’s as well. So onward we run, the ominous feeling of danger closing in around us, like the flow of mercury hot on our heels.

It only pushes us to go faster.

Out of nowhere, a single vampire flies through the air, spotted only by my peripheral. Added weight lands upon my back, slowing us slightly. One surprised scream from Lina and I know exactly what is happening.

Instant fear explodes inside me forcing me to look behind us, even if a part of me doesn’t want to acknowledge the occurrence. The vampire is ripping into the pack on her back, desperately searching for blood and muscle. Claws and teeth dig and tear frantically into the polyester material. Lina tightens her hold on me, her eyes pinched shut awaiting the pain that was too sure to come. She might be helpless right now due to her position and unwillingness to fall off my back, but I am not.

“MINE!” My beast snarls, canines snapping for any piece of vampire flesh we can grab.

And grab we do.

Numerous attempts finally gift our effort with a nasty, smelly, scrawny vampire arm. The devilish beast shrieks and hisses as we yank him from our back and bring him around our shoulder. Animal instinct wants us to enjoy our kill... slow down—take our time, but we currently do not have that kind of luxury. The crying vamp within my locked jaws will probably live to see another fucking day... but not comfortably. Shaking my head back and forth feverishly and I don’t loosen my grip until I feel the burst of skin and disgusting black blood spill into my mouth and gush out from between my teeth. I toss the wailing creature into the bushes, never letting up on our pace.

Almost instantly, another one jumps onto my hindquarters, its grotesque nails shredding my skin. The pain is intense, sharp, and burning, causing me to roar in release, but I ignore the urge to stop. Such a wound will quickly heal on me, but stopping will mean certain death to the woman on my back.

And she is not meant to die today.

I feel Lina shift to her left. Not knowing what is happening I glance over my shoulder just in time to see her send a powerful kick straight into an already smooshed vampire nose. The force knocking that demonic motherfucker off me and sending him rolling to the ground only to be trampled by the rest of his hungry family.

“Do you suppose they consider us fast food?” Lina jokes, a strained snicker fanning her breath across my neck. Maybe comic relief helps her to cope with the high-stress situation we currently find ourselves in, but it does little for me. However, the feel of her breath...

Nope.

Now is not the time.

“Theron! Get me that branch!” I followed Lina’s pointed finger to a low-hanging tree limb about fifty paces away. I do not know why she requested such a thing but whatever she wants from me, I’ll gladly give it to her. I disregard the lycan that visualized rolling on his back and receiving a treat like a good boy.

"Yeah, let’s have her neuter us while we’re at it," I huff, sarcastically. I feel as if his loyalties have somehow switched from me to Lina... like I’m chopped meat or some shit.

"Treat?” He asks, way too excited and most certainly confused.

I sigh, ”No, you idiot! Neuter means to chop off our balls!” It’s like explaining something to a two-year-old. While I like to think I am abnormally intelligent thanks to years and years of endless, boring immortality, my beast has not appeared to ever have absorbed the same knowledge.

He whines, ”No breed?"

Finally!

He gets it!

"Yes, no breeding!”

He growls, leaping for the limb Lina requested. One powerful snap of his jaws breaks the hanging branch free from the old and dying tree. Wood cracks and splinters inside our mouth, shards wedging between our teeth and poking our tongue painfully. We toss it over our shoulder, wanting nothing more to do with the evil thing. Yes, unpleasant experiences do work in training lycans and werewolves. We are partially canine after all.

Lina releases her arms from our neck, grabbing the branch and raising herself to sit. Her legs tighten around our waist, her core bouncing against our back with every step we take because, apparently, we’re a fucking horse now.

All nerves spring to life, focusing solely on the sensation of her riding our back. ”Breed with Lina, then neuter okay,” the lycan joyfully chimes within my head.

I do not need that image right now.

Lina swings the branch like a professional baseball player every time a vampire gets too close. She sends them sailing across the woods, some hitting trees, others rolling down the mountainside. I cannot help but feel a sense of pride well up inside me.

While her quick thinking will give us more time, it won’t stop the incoming terror. When one goes down, there is another ready and more than willing to replace the first... all wanting to win the prize at the end of the race.

Suddenly, a loud, ear-piercing cry rings throughout the forest. Lina drops the branch, an unyielding need to cover her ears more important. I would agree, but again, I don’t have that luxury as doing such will halt our flight. Life seems more important than busted eardrums.

“They stopped,” Lina whispers, breathlessly. Confused, I look behind us and sure enough, they have quit chasing us, though obviously not willingly. Ceasing our run, I turn around and watch hissing and screaming vampires trying half-heartedly to cross some invisible barrier... a flood gate that holds them back. Their blood-red eyes remain trained on us, but slowly they retreat into the woods. The sudden change in their motivation has me wary. What would cause them to just give up so easily?

And then it dawns on me... I may have even heard a ping when the lightbulb kicked on but that’s neither here nor there. ”The queen pulled them away,” I mind link, Lina. It’s the only explanation that makes sense. She said we were important—Lina was the “key,” whatever the hell that means. Naturally, she’ll want to keep Lina alive for whichever fucking treasure box is meant to be unlocked.

And while I try to be thankful for the queen’s command, the thought of Lina being so vital to more than just me causes another wave of anxiety.

I do not know what the future holds for her.

...And that scares me.

***

Back at our previous campsite for the day, I have Lina start a fire while I mark every tree around us.

Mark.

Yep.

With my urine.

I blame the damn lycan/werewolf parts of me.

Regardless, it will keep predators away.

Returning to human form and properly dressed, I sit down beside Lina, following her gaze to the crackling fire. The warmth emanating from those red and orange flames gives her soft cheeks a pink hue, reminding me of the little girl I first met fourteen years prior... though I know this is only a brief moment in time. Lina no longer holds the once childlike innocence within those eyes. Long gone are the days of fantastical tales about clouds and dolls or giggling at butterflies or listening to bedtime stories. I’ve missed the best parts of her life and yet somehow come back to journey with her through the worst.

Fate’s a bitch.

“Theron,” she speaks softly, her attention never straying from the fire before her, “have you ever heard of a werewolf without a destined mate?”

“Well, mates don’t always find each other,” I reply casually. With a population spread so far and wide, there are a few that never find their other half before they part from this realm. It’s rare, but not unheard of. The council has tried to make pairings easier by hosting numerous mating balls throughout the world but, again, sometimes Fate’s a bitch.

“No...” Lina shakes her head, “I mean—I know that, but that’s not...” she sighs, fidgeting with her fingernails and causing me to frown. I’m not sure where this conversation is going. Furrowed brows and brown eyes meet mine, studying me and making me feel even more uncomfortable but I do not dare push her to speak. This is the most talking I have gotten from her in almost two hours. Something is weighing heavily on her mind and if now is the time she decides to open up and let me in, I’ll be as patient as she needs me to be. She gulps and licks her lips, “Has the moon Goddess ever not granted a werewolf a mate?”

“A mateless wolf?” I chuckle. Not possible. The moon whore isn’t that heartless, “No, that’s not a thing, Lina. Every werewolf and lycan has a mate. It’s predestined.”

“So I’m the first and only then...” she mumbles. I gawk at her in disbelief while she looks back to the fire. Did she just say what I thought she said? Why does she think that? The thought of such a perfect wolf not having a mate is just preposterous! I frown at such a consideration. “Lina, look at me,” I urged. “What are you even talking about?” She is still so young, she has plenty of time to find him and just because he hasn’t fallen in her lap yet doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a mate.

Where is this even coming from?

That angelic face gazes up at me, lacking the usual sparkle that always accented her eyes. A dull ache sweeps over my heart... it’s a sight I never want to see ever again. “The vampire queen. She told me the goddess didn’t create a mate for me,” Her eyes search mine, pleading for me to tell her the queen is wrong. For the first time in my life, I wish more than anything to be able to lie, if only for the sake of comforting this precious she-wolf.

Unfortunately, the queen is never wrong.

Given the very appearance of Lina’s wolf, it wouldn’t be out of the question to consider that all the qualities the Ancients hold could be transferred to her, for whatever fucked up reason. She does look like us... is she mateless like us as well?

I have no answer for her.

I watch helplessly as the tears start to well up in her eyes. I know what it’s like not to have a mate and I wouldn’t wish that curse on anyone, least of all Lina. I am also well aware that this is a pain I can’t fix. If the queen said it then it’s true and Lina has no option but to come to terms with it.

After all, she has been through in such a short amount of time, I somehow understand that this is the straw that’s going to break that fucking camel’s back.

Her dad is gone.

Her house is gone.

Her mate... nonexistent.

How she’s still able to fully function, I don’t know. I have never been that strong. Looking at her now, it embarrasses me to remember the life I led for millennia before meeting her. The depression, the despair... I allowed it to consume me and for what? I didn’t know or experience the amount of loss over even a thousand years that she has in less than a week.

Not knowing how to alleviate her pain, I do the only thing I can think of: I pull her into my arms and hold her just as the dam breaks. “Did I do something wrong, Theron?” She sobs, “Is she p-p-punishing me?” Her words are like a knife to my soul, ripping me apart from the inside. Her cries are forceful, shaking and rocking her body to the very core, shoving that knife even deeper within me. Still, I let her cry it out. Tears, snot, drool... I’m not here to judge.

I am here to care for her.

Seeing Lina so emotionally distressed suddenly makes me feel connected to her agony as if everything she’s feeling or thinking is what I am experiencing as well. Is this what people refer to as “empathy?” If so, I definitely do not like it. Though this is a brand new, puzzling emotion, my focus is on more important things, specifically the beautiful girl presently warm and safe within my embrace.

She is all that matters.

“No, baby,” I kiss the top of her head, “she’s just a spiteful, callous bitch.”

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