THERON

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TWELVE.

My life is starting to require way too many of these round-the-table pow-wows with my brothers. I’ve sat at these conference tables more in the last 15 years than the almost two thousand I’ve been alive and I’m getting fucking sick of it.

While I need to pay attention to what’s being said, my eyes unintentionally keep straying to the window where a beautiful blonde is outside explaining things that go bump in the night to her friends.

The one they call Anthony seems to be the only one taking it well. He stands stoned-faced, only occasionally messing with the baseball cap that’s perched atop his head. Rhys, a.k.a. peanut butter shit for brains, switches between waving his hands about animatedly to rubbing them down his face in vexation. Keeley sits on the ground, knees to chest, rocking back and forth on her tailbone... what that means, I don’t know.

Three different people.

Three different reactions.

I feel sympathy for my little she-wolf; her house is gone, her dad is gone, the possibility of a mate is gone, and her friends... Well, that is yet to be determined. I now wish I hadn’t spent our whole trip back from that death cave wallowing in my own guilt. Lina and I could have talked... I could have listened, been a shoulder to cry on—gave her some form of fucking motivational speech at a bare minimum for crying out loud but no, I let my guilt fuel my anger.

Too many times I had dreaded Lina finding her mate—so much so that I feel as if I have somehow manifested this reality for her. Maybe I subconsciously wished too often for her to be mateless? My selfishness is to blame for the one thing that had been needlessly ripped from her grasp.

How do I live with that?

“The council will not fight back and risk exposure,” Marius continued. What he had said thus far, I don’t know. Once more, Lina causing a potentially disastrous distraction for me. “They assume this will bring werewolves and lycans into the mainstream and out of the shadows.”

DeLoren rears his head back and roars in unamused laughter, “Moot point now, Mar! We’re plastered all over the television! Maybe, we should ask them to put together fruit baskets? We’ll pass them out to humans around the world—like a very, very late ′welcome to the neighborhood’!” Thanks to Superlunar, our kind is out now, whether we want it or not, which means imminent death for all of us. Humans will not try to differentiate between real lycans and what they just saw on the news. I don’t believe fruit baskets are going to alleviate that problem.

Kai raises his hand, “Question: where is the military? National Guard? Surely, under any other circumstances, they would be quickly deployed to dispose of ′threats, both foreign and domestic,′ which I’m fairly certain covers supernatural and mythical beings. So, again, I ask: where are they?”

“We only saw a small snippet of news footage, Kai,” Marius replies casually, as if anything about this conversation requires a fucking casual approach, “deployment of troops takes time.”

“This is Tennessee, Marius. There is a military department an hour from Gatlinburg,” Kai exclaims, “So, one more time—where are they?”

I sigh, “I believe, what Kai is trying to ask is exactly how far do the ties of Superlunar extend into the U.S. government?” What wasn’t clicking with Marius, here? The government has the time and resources to bring the incident at Gatlinburg to a quick end... they chose not to. “It’s safe for us to assume the government is compromised,” I add. It was not out of the realm of possibilities for the United States government to experiment on its citizens—slaves in the 1800s and prisoners in the 1960s most notably. Chemical, radiation, and biological warfare are better tested on human subjects than animals because what better way to know what happens to the human body than to test it on the human body? Now, what needs to be answered is what exactly they’re testing—the performance of their new science projects or the reaction it will have on the American people? Is their end goal to create a new species or bring the old ones out from hiding?

“The answers are up there,” DeLoren grumbles, his eyes glancing towards the ceiling to needlessly remind us of a certain Alpha that still has to be questioned.

Marius inhales deeply, falling back into the chair, “He’s been missing for nine years, brother. He isn’t going to know much about current affairs.” While DeLoren’s bloodlust warms my cold and deadened heart, Marius is right. The Alpha had fallen off the radar, forced into hiding by four extremely ticked off Ancients, so the odds are minimal that he will be up to date on any plausible direction Superlunar is considering. We’ll still question him though... a little information is better than none.

“Circling back to the topic at hand, the vampire Queen is willing to help us. How about the rest?” I inquire.

“Witches are in, although they requested to help remotely... they also don’t want to risk exposure,” Kai replies, rolling his eyes. I nod in understanding. If they want to sit naked in a circle under the full moon and chant spells and shit then so be it, I’ll take whatever help we can get. Their powers are strong enough to reach far distances, unlike us... we’re more physical beings, after all. “Regardless, they are still willing to do more than our council so let’s be grateful,” I eye DeLoren, an obvious hint it’s his turn to share.

It’s at this moment that Lina just happens to decide to come back inside. She slides beside me to sit on the table, “You guys talking shit about me?” My eyes unconsciously rake over those long legs dangling from the table... legs I would much prefer to be wrapped around my hips while I’m pounding the fuck out of her p—

“Nah girl, just your friends,” DeLoren quips, winking mischievously at an unassuming Keeley and effectively killing my mini fantasy. With an exasperated roll of my head, I mind link, ”Oh for Goddess’ sake, just fuck her already and save us from your disgusting attempts at flirting.” DeLoren, not deterred by my truth, snips back ”Take your own advice sometime, douchewad.”

I huff.

Whatever.

Crossing his arms over his chest, he mirrors my actions within his chair, “Those humanoids fucks already knew what was happening here.”

Lina perks up, trying to understand the gist of what has already been said, “The council in Greenland?”

“Yeah. Unlike the witches, they do have more of an interest in worldly affairs—damn fairies always wanting to protect the earth and shit, ya know? They had people inside the lab this entire time, watching and waiting and whatnot... though it never occurred to them there was a real issue until Superlunar caught our dear brother here,” DeLoren’s jaw juts towards me. I can’t restrain the grimace that pulls at my lips. The remembrance of my time in the lab is not something I wish to think of anymore. It’s done and over and time to move on so I pushed that shit down somewhere deep and ignored the way the occasional memory would creep in, twisting my stomach and raising my heart rate.

Kai quirks an eyebrow, annoyed but simultaneously intrigued for some fucked up reason, “So you’re telling me that they knew what was happening to our people, yet didn’t inform us?”

“That’s exactly what I’m fucking saying,” DeLoren’s anger now running deep by the thought. I concur. How many werewolves’ and lycans’ lives would have been spared had we been warned from the beginning? I don’t want to consider it.

Kai runs a hand through his hair, “A heads up would’ve been nice.”

“Yeah, I may have said something similar to them,” DeLoren grins wickedly, which means the same message may have been conveyed but definitely not even fucking close to similarly. “They don’t want to expose their spies so doing anything internally is out of the question. You can bet your ass that if it was just your regular run-of-the-mill wolf they would be singing a different tune.”

I agree. It would have disastrous effects on the ecosystem if general wolves were to disappear... lycanthropy, not so much.

“Here’s where it gets really interesting though,” he continues, “We wondered why the obsession with werewolves and lycans, right? Why did they target us? I now have an answer.” DeLoren withdraws a small polaroid photo from his jeans pocket, sliding it in front of Lina, specifically. Her brows furrow and her lips purse in confused recognition, “Mom?”

At this surprising declaration, I instantly lean over to examine the 3 x 4-inch square.

Time had taken its toll, slightly warping it and lightly fraying the corners. Two kids, one male and one female no older than twelve have with their arms wrapped around each other, grinning happily at the camera. The white space at the bottom has two names written in black sharpie: Arthur & Elena.

I study Lina’s face, a shadow of a smile plays upon her lips, fondness for the woman she never met, and sadness because photos are now all she has. Well... this photo, since it’s safe to assume the rest were destroyed in the fire that leveled her home. The sight of such a conflicting yet unyielding turmoil of emotions causes a dull ache in my chest.

Marius leans over our shoulders, “Arthur? As in Arthur Grimes?”

“The very same,” DeLoren solemnly acknowledges. “According to the source, they were best friends growing up so he knew what she was. He knew our culture, our beliefs, strengths, weaknesses... you name it, he knew it.”

“Why would her pack allow her to run with a human?” Kai asks.

“Because she didn’t have a pack,” I remember Lucan had mentioned that Elena never spoke to him about her pack and, so in love was he, that he never felt the need to pry. Stupid were. “She was rogue.”

DeLoren resigns, “Yep.”

Kai nudges Lina, playfully, “Talk about following in your parents’ footsteps, eh?” It was a failed attempt to relieve any form of tension, in my opinion.

“Anyway,” DeLoren clears his throat, “Supposedly, Arthur kept her secret for years, up until somehow his father found out, thus threatening to kill her and expose us.”

Lina, whose eyes still lingered mournfully on the photo, whispers, “She killed him, didn’t she?”

“Along with Arthur’s mother and sister, who just happened to be witnesses in the crossfire.”

“So this is about revenge then?” Kai questioned.

“Oh no, it’s much, much more than that. Wiping out an entire species is one thing but somewhere along the line Arthur has discovered how to profit from such an endeavor.” DeLoren runs his large hand down his beard, “which is where the military comes in.”

“A tale as cliche as time itself: an army,” Marius snorts, unimpressed.

DeLoren nods, “Mm-hm. If they can turn soldiers into lycans—”

“—All the power resides with them,” Marius finishes.

What he didn’t say was that this army could take out anyone and everyone that stood in its way... though I guess “power” was the basis of such an evil venture. DeLoren’s eyes fall on Marius, confirming what we all know to be a horrific truth, “Yeah... Imagine an army that can’t be stopped with mere bullets... an army that can decimate entire towns in under an hour.”

Kai snickers, “I’m sure the humanoids are happy the option of nukes has been taken out of the picture.”

“I wouldn’t bank on that, bro,” DeLoren shakes his head. “If humans cannot find a way to eradicate a new threat they just resort to bombing. It’s how it’s always been. Which is why our friend Arthur here is double-dealing.”

Kai’s mouth drops open, the implications of what’s just said did not take long for the young Ancient to piece together, “He is selling to every country?!”

“Bingo,” DeLoren points to Kai with a snap of his fingers.

The room goes completely silent, everyone processing the magnitude of this news. And while that’s devastating in its own right, it doesn’t completely answer everything. “I want to talk about Lina,” I say, quietly. If she is this “key” the queen referred to, I need to know what connection she has here other than her mother.

There has to be more.

“When do you not wanna talk about Lina?” Kai sniggers, quite amused by his own dig.

“No, he’s right. We need to address this. You two didn’t inform us of her wolf form,” Marius snaps, pointing two accusing fingers at myself and Kai.

“I just recently found out and that wasn’t because Kai told me,” I shoot an equally accusing glare at my youngest brother. “The queen kept calling her ‘the maiden,’ claiming she was the key or some shit like that.”

A defensive Rhys suddenly pipes up, “Whoa, whoa, whoa—wait. What’s wrong with her wolf form?” His reaction is a bit overdramatic since we are not, in actuality, insulting Lina, but his desire to protect his friend is admirable. I’m not angry, or even slightly annoyed at the inquisition. They had just learned their best friend is a werewolf... they don’t understand that she was not a typical one. Lina must have conveniently left that part out.

“I don’t look like a regular werewolf, Rhys,” Lina, fidgeting with the polaroid still in her hand, glances at me and my brothers, “and neither do these four. Because they are the Originals, they carry different traits than common werewolves. I shouldn’t possess any of those traits, but I do.” Marius, DeLoren, Kai, and I know, and have known for a while, that Lina isn’t normal. Now where that falls in the grand scheme of things, we haven’t the faintest. Her friends, however, do not understand the gravity of the said issue.

“I have somewhat of a theory...” All eyes follow Kai as he rounds the head of the table, wheeling the massive dry erase board behind him. He draws Superlunar’s logo on the board, “Lucan and I did a lot of research on the triple moon goddess symbol once we saw what was on her forehead.”

“That’s nice and dandy but did you assholes ever think that maybe she’s another Ancient?” DeLoren bites.

Kai’s back is to us as he erases Ian Malory’s name from the board, “Well, she has all the characteristics appearance-wise, but it wasn’t until tonight that I thought it was truly relative.” He turns, arms open wide, “I mean, Goddess, she had us on our knees! No other being, save one, can do that.”

“She is not the Moon Goddess if that’s what you’re implying,” I argue flatly. The Goddess is our creator, thus the only being who can bend our knees. I refuse to even consider that fucking bitch is somewhere inside Lina.

No. Fucking. Way.

Kai snorts, “Of course she isn’t, she fucking likes you too much.” Chuckles and giggles resound throughout the room indicating I am the butt of this joke. I, on the other hand, find no humor. Lina places her hand on my shoulder, a reassuring smile gracing her perfect lips and I understand exactly what Kai means.

It isn’t unpopular knowledge that the Goddess and I have a severe dislike of one another; Her for making me what I am and me for making her regret that decision... and yet, here I still stand. Still alive. Still using all those Goddess-given fucking talents to torture and murder.

Her fault, not mine.

“But what if she is representative of the maiden, the first symbol of the three? You said the queen called her that, yeah?” Kai wrote Lina’s name above the first symbol, “The Maiden. The beginning. ′She who runs with wolves,′ or so they say, and those wolves maybe us. The second symbol, The Mother... whether that’s her mother or the Moon Goddess, either works—means that there is a Crone.”

“The queen told me Crone is coming. She called her the feral female,” Lina’s voice cuts in, suddenly giving me a bad case of attention deficit disorder. I raise my brows at her revelation, “You did not tell me this.” Not that I had given her the chance. I’m sure my aura on the way back from our excursion did not scream ′lean on me.′

Ah, the return of guilt.

Fucking awesome.

“Crone brings an end to things, the last symbol of the life cycle... death in its simplest form,” Kai scribbles a question mark above the last symbol on the whiteboard.

DeLoren sits up straight, “Are you saying Lina is to die?”

“I don’t know, honestly,” Kai’s sad eyes land on Lina. “It could be her... it could be us, our species, the entire planet, fucking Santa Claus—who really knows? If the vampire queen is correct, it sounds like it’s someone who will bring death... but to who is up in the air.” He collapses into the chair, pinching the space between his eyes, “What I think, and what Lucan also believed, is maybe Lina is a deity.”

“I’m sorry--what did you just say?” Obviously, I heard him but... no.

A deity?

Pft.

“Think about it,” he urges, “She smells of the moon and our instincts are to protect her. She pulls you in... and her aura is more powerful than anything we have ever come across thus far. Is it so unfathomable to consider that maybe she is our queen and we are merely her warriors? Sentries? Guardians?”

All heads turn to Lina. The flush on her cheeks suggests this is not something she suspected or even wants and yet, maybe, Kai is onto something. We do not just bow to anyone and if she isn’t the Moon Goddess herself, she is close enough to it that our beasts know their rightful place. If that’s the case then we can assume our Goddess sent her to us... though even then, there’s a part of me, and not a small part by any means, that feels she was sent for me. Whether this was grace by that fucking whore Goddess or revenge is yet to be seen.

Marius finally comments, as if Lina herself is not in the very same room, “Can she shift to lycan?”

“I haven’t seen any sign that would point to that but if she was a created Ancient, I would think it’s entirely possible.” Kai contemplates, “If she can, she doesn’t know it.”

“Try it, Lina, go lycan on our asses,” DeLoren grins mischievously.

Lina laughs, half-heartedly, and I feel it deep within my soul; a nervous sadness, weighted down by the pressures of what has just been assumed of her, “I doubt I can, DeLoren. I’ve only ever been a werewolf.”

“That’s because it’s a different shift,” Marius inserts himself, fucking shitty eyebrows and all. “You feel the werewolf, it’s natural, like breathing... but the lycan side is more aggressive so it needs a trigger, like rage.”

After all this woman has been through in the last week I would think either the death of her father, the decimation of her home, or the devastation of not having a mate would have caused an explosion of pure, fierce lycan but none of those, singularly nor combined, brought forth a beast... the odds are not favorable.

Maybe she’s not a deity.

But Marius won’t give up so easily. Why should he? The thought of another so similar to us is tempting. Sometimes being stuck with the same three people in a ragtag band of brotherhood needs a reprieve. “We’ll practice,” he promises. Lina looks to me for advice but I have nothing to give. I can see the appeal, although I did not desire a sister added to our little family... and not Lina as I have a hard time considering her as such.

She is not my sister.

So I leave the table, not a single solace word uttered, and while it pains me to miss yet another opportunity to be the friend she needs, I just cannot on this particular topic. Once again, proving I am unworthy of her. That’s not even throwing in the idea that she’s possibly a Goddess sent deity meant to save our species. Way to swing for a fence totally out of my league.

The chatter in the room is only background noise now as I pull a bottle of water from the refrigerator. The only thing that seems more out of place than my thoughts is Rhys, who suddenly appears behind the refrigerator door I just closed, “Hey man, can I talk to you for a quick sec?”

While it is kosher to ask, something tells me there isn’t a genuine choice in the matter. Lina’s pointed look from across the room confirms my suspicions.

I do not even attempt to contain my light growl of annoyance. The absolute last thing I ever want is a private conversation with a fucking candy bar and was it not for the intense insistence of Lina, this would not be happening now, or ever for that matter.

“Look, I just...” Rhys stares at the floor, dueling emotions evident upon his features, “I just want to apologize for earlier. Lina told us what you did for her... what you’re still doing.” His eyes meet mine, no threat of dominance, “Thank you for that.”

Both our sights avert to Lina, engrossed in a conversation with Marius. No doubt he’s dishing out empty reassurances of her ability to shift to lycan.

This is the moment.

My moment of realization.

Watching her take in what he’s saying, hanging on every word in what I assume is an honest need to be more than what she thinks she already is. I want to tell her, more than anything, that transforming into lycan doesn’t make her perfect. Her failure to be a true Ancient in every sense of the word will not taint my feelings for her. Those will never fade. She is who she is and who she is already the epitome of perfection.

And one day, I will tell her.

“You love her?” I ask Rhys. I do not actually need him to answer me, I already know. The way he hangs around, the looks he gives her, the desire to protect her from anything and everything even the slightest bit threatening—I just know.

He looks at me, eyes searching mine, “Don’t you?”

Don’t I?

That is the question, isn’t it?

And even if I can’t comprehend my feelings, even if the words don’t flow and never seem close to appropriate for explaining what I feel for Catalina Bakkas, it’s still a good fucking question.

Do I love her?

Taking into consideration over a decade’s worth of killing and torturing in what I assumed, at the time, was revenge, I suddenly looked at it in a different light. “Revenge” is my mantra and yet what keeps me motivated to continue is not that particularly. Everything I do, and every day I do it, has been fueled by the tiny, yet powerful voice deep within me that chants continuously, “protect Lina.” The only thing that has ever been an example of me thinking of someone other than myself. And for the first time in my long and torturous life, I suddenly have a purpose. I suddenly have a reason for being.

A reason to stay.

So yes, I love that little spitfire.

The real question should be, am I in love with her? Because that question, specifically, I do not currently have an answer for.

“Touché, kid,” I simply reply, “touché.”

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