Chapter 25 ♕
“Alaric please, you really need to wake up,” said a soft voice.
I turned and opened my eyes with a groan. Magnolia stood at the edge of the bed. She had a smile on her face and shook her head. “How long did you plan to stay like that,” she said. I chuckled, still half asleep. “That depends on when you decide to lie down next to me,” I answered her. That made her laugh even more. There was really no more beautiful sound. I sat half up, with the full intention of pulling her into bed with me.
I reached out my hand, but when I reached for hers, it went right through her. I stared at her. She seemed equally stunned. Her face was now full of fear. I wanted to reassure her. But before I could tell her anything, she had already disappeared into thin air.
Within a second my eyes were open and I snarled loudly in response to the nightmare. Close by, I heard a startled cry and the sound of footsteps recoiling. I looked at the source of the noise and saw Bethany sitting against a tree trunk ahead. She looked shocked and her chest rose and fell at a dramatic pace. I looked at her for a moment, then around me.
We were deep in the woods, in a clearing.
My head was pounding and I struggled to think clearly, but even I saw the obvious destruction. Trees had been pulled up from the ground, root and all. And the few trunks that were still standing bore the deep imprint of my claws. Scattered in the grass were some animal remains.
“What happened here?” Bethany asked, watching the destruction. “Take a wild guess,” I said, whereupon Bethany looked at me with a look that answered enough.
I took a deep breath, let my thoughts flow over me, and then immediately regretted it. Because suddenly I remembered everything and realized the unbearable truth.
Magnolia still wasn’t found.
I ran my hand over my face and felt a rush of nausea. I hadn’t eaten, slept, or rested from the time of her disappearance, at least until now. But I think there was a difference between sleeping and falling into a full blackout.
In all those years without her, I still managed to somewhat function. That was absolutely not the case now. I was running out of time.
I got to my feet, while trying to maintain my balance by holding on to a branch and gave my head a second to calm down, then I turned to my sister and reached out to help her up.
“Sorry,” I said in a growling voice.
I didn’t want to scare her. She shook her head as a sign that it was all right and let me pull her up. My forehead was covered with sweat and my whole body was protesting.
“I’ve been looking for you for a while, Alaric,” she said.
I gave her a blank look. I knew she had been following me for several days. Her scent was just as good in my system as my mate’s. Again I felt a vile pain running through me at the thought of her. I reached for my chest and groaned. Immediately I felt Beth next to me. She put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me to my feet. Her face showed that she had slept as little as I had.
Although it was abundantly clear that I was not alone in suffering from Magnolia’s disappearance. I just couldn’t bring myself to worry about Bethany right now. My whole head was filled with my mate.
“We’ll find her, Alaric,” she said firmly.
Of course she was right. Especially because there was simply no other option. I needed her next to me, breathing, happy, alive. But several days had passed and still nothing.
No investigation had been necessary to identify the culprits. From the moment Magnolia and Rowan hadn’t arrived at the appointed minute, I had known something was wrong. Max had taken control and we had followed her scent until it brought us to the car. The vehicle was destroyed and smoke was coming from under the hood. When I got closer and glanced inside, I then saw blood on the passenger seat. Her blood.
Driven mad by sheer desperation, Maximus then ran into the forest without thinking. He had run on for days, had turned every stone, but without stopping for a second and listening to me. And now, thanks to him, we had lost precious time. Who knows, maybe it was just too late by now and she could no longer be saved.
That thought alone was enough to focus all my blazing hatred on Maximus. I had tried everything to bring him to his senses. Trying to convince him that we were doing this completely wrong, but he wouldn’t listen to me.
It wasn’t like the relationship between me and my lycan had improved in recent times, but it hadn’t gotten worse either. The only damn reason behind that was that Magnolia had been there. Her presence had plagued him. Maybe almost make him forget his hatred of me.
But now that she had disappeared, the feeling had returned, but this time not only on his part. This time it was like a nuclear reaction from both sides.
Maximus had gone from zero to a hundred so fast after seeing the blood that even he couldn’t hold control. He’d run around for days and then destroyed this whole field. After that he realized he had gone too fast, too far. He had gone down and had no more energy to hold his shape, so the control had been giving back to me.
But now he was silent.
I saw him in my head, hiding quietly in a corner. He knew it was his fault this time. That if we didn’t find Maggie, he’d be blamed entirely. It broke him. Never before had I seen Max like that.
There was a voice saying now was the time to get him back. To make him suffer as he made me suffer. But that again would be nothing more than a waste of time.
I knew there wouldn’t be a chance of finding Maggie without him. But even when I tried to make that clear to him, he wouldn’t listen. It was as if he gave in. As if he no longer cared.
I heard the rustle of bushes and looked up. On the other side of the field, erected to its full length, stood Arcane.
It was impossible for humans to have the same physical shape as that of a lycan. That was what made them mythical and us human. But when you ever compared me and Ascian’s lycan to each other, you had to admit that I was getting damn close. And he had always hated that.
In the past, the rare moments when my cousin and I saw each other, that had always been his trigger. But the last time I’d seen Arcane was decades ago, and sadly I now had to admit that the difference between mythical being and human was once again obvious.
He was still nothing compared to Maximus, but the fact that he had grown so far beyond me did mean something. I thought back to when he sat across from me at the breakfast table. I had known exactly what went on in his head when he saw Magnolia sitting on my lap.
It was that one feeling he’d always had for me. Because I was the one who would inherit the title. I was the one who always finished first. And now I was the one who had been given a mate.
In silence, I had always been proud that it bothered him so much. The relationship between me and Ascian was much like that between Maximus and me. We couldn’t be with or without each other. Because whatever he would do. Or how long I didn’t see him. He remained family.
Although it wasn’t family love that I saw on Arcane’s face right now. He was perhaps a head shorter than Maximus in length, but it was close in width. His pupils were so narrowed that they had become thin slits. The muscles in his upper arms seemed to make the stumps on the ground look like twigs. Drool dripped between the sharp teeth and his breath was so hot it created clouds of steam. He held his drawn claws clenched into fists and his shoulders rose and fell at a dramatic pace while his full attention was focused on me.
And it was ancient rage he radiated.
It suddenly occurred to me why he had returned. He had wanted to challenge me. He wanted to prove that he had changed, got stronger, stronger than me. After all these years, he was still looking for my approval. It was almost pathetic.
At any other time I could have happily accepted the challenge, but now I had absolutely no time for it. When I finally managed to stand on my own two feet, I straightened up and looked at Arcane.
I might feel weak from the absence of my mate, but I was still an alpha. I pulled the bond between me and Max so hard that he had no choice but to join me. He fought it hard, but in the end we were on the same page. Something that had rarely happened in our entire life.
I pushed Bethany back slightly so she was shielded from the pissed off monster a few yards away. But his anger was nothing compared to mine. I was so tired of it all. I just wanted to find Magnolia, hold her in my arms, and murder with the filthy witches who had taken her from me.
Every ounce of alpha I had in me surfaced. I had been challenged by many to a match in my life, but that had all been child’s play. Even though they had always paid with their lives in the end, I had never otherwise thought of it as an innocent way to pass the time. But that had been then. Now everything was different.
Now it was a matter of life or death. Worst of all, it was about the life of the one I loved most on this whole rotten planet.
“Listen and listen carefully. I don’t have time for this right now. Magnolia has been kidnapped and before she is found again I have no time for your pathetic games. So let’s take care of this right now. It’s pointless for you to keep trying this, Ascian. You will not be able to beat me in anything now, or never better said. Second place is what you will always be. I’m giving you two choices here now. One, you take what is left of your pathetic ego together and run away. Or two, you help the only family you have left to find my mate”.
I threw the words at his head with such sharpness that I would hardly be surprised if the last few of the logs also split in half. I heard Bethany gasp softly behind me. She had heard me say heartless things more than other people, but even I knew this was perhaps the worst thing I had ever said to anyone. That is why I immediately suppressed the tiny feeling of regret. Instead, I watched my cousin’s mythical side expectantly. Awaiting his answer.
This would be when he could show me if he had actually changed. The Ascian I knew would either fly to my throat and then disappear and never show his face again. Thinking he’d finally overpowered me that way. That’s why he surpassed all my advantages when he took his human form and took a step in my direction.
“Where do we start looking?” he just said.
I had not had an answer to Ascian’s question of where to start looking. Mainly because I had already searched everywhere, without ever finding anything.
It should have made a difference that Ascian had now joined us, but it didn’t. It wasn’t his fault, it was just like Maggie was nowhere to be found. As if she had disappeared from the face of the earth.
After searching every inch of my terretory, I had focused on those of packs around me. I hadn’t waited for their measly alphas to allow me to enter their ground. It was all mine after all. Normally, I didn’t care much about the packs around me, as long as order remained intact, but now everyone was a suspect. I had no idea who else I could trust. As far as I knew, anyone could have helped the witches kidnap my mate. So before I knew it, I was slowly getting more and more suspicious.
But even expanding the search area had led to nothing. At one point, Bethany suggested going back to the palace to come up with a new plan. Unable to come up with anything better, I agreed.
I was home for two days now. Two days had passed. Two days filled with agony, outbursts of anger and pointless consultation with my best warriors. I had the idea to look at the boundaries that separate my land from that of the witches. I had even sent some guards there to check it out. None of them had returned.
Control was slowly slipping away from me and I couldn’t stop it. Every night I let Maximus take over and we ran out of the castle and wandered around in the woods all night. Alone and drowning in how worthless we were.
We couldn’t sleep. Not only because we had destroyed our entire sleeping quarters and there was nothing to sleep in, but because Magnolia wouldn’t be next to us. It felt wrong to allow myself to rest until I had her back.
Although she was all I was thinking about right now, I tried not to take it too far. I had closed my eyes for a few seconds after we returned, and while it hadn’t been long, it had been enough to have the most intense nightmare ever in which Maggie was murdered over and over in front of my eyes. Each time with a different cause of death. Head cut off, tortured, maimed, but every nightmare ended in the same way. My mate at my feet as the light dimmed in her unique eyes.
I had woken up and instantly lost myself in the greatest rage attack I had ever experienced. I had been so disturbed by those images that without even thinking I handed over control to Max, who had gone on a warpath through the palace.
It had taken Cayden, Ascian, and several of my best warriors to overpower Maximus. And even with that, my lycan had managed to seriously injure some of them. Somehow they had managed to knock me out, because a moment later I had woken up in the dungeon. My hands and legs chained in thick solid steel chains.
I sat on the floor, my knees pulled up and my arms then leaned over. I stared at a bunch of rats fighting in the corner. Through the closed door, Bethany had told me that Giselle had escaped several days ago, but no one had dared to tell me. With that message my last hope was gone. As a last resort, I had thought of using Giselle as a means of exchange. She would be released if my mate was returned to me.
But even that hope was now gone.
I had no sense of time left, but knew that at least more than five days must have passed. Five days since the day Maggie disappeared.
At those words Max started to wail softly in my head. I had already started to think he was capable of nothing more than grunting. Yet I felt nothing about it. Not while I was just as badly off myself.
“I can’t believe that I will finally get this chance, but this time it is really your fault” I could not resist in the end.
He snarled devastatingly, but soon stopped when he realized I was right. But Maximus wouldn’t be Maximus if he agreed with me, so he went into battle instead.
“Nice try, human. But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. If you hadn’t allowed Maggie to leave, she would still be here,” he threw at my head.
I laughed scornfully. “You know as well as I do we couldn’t make Maggie stay. Not if we really want a future with her. It had to be her own choice”.
Max didn’t want to listen and decided to go one step further. “This is not your first mistake. Why does everything always go wrong with you around. If you hadn’t been here, not only would our parents have been here, but Maggie too. You should have given your life for theirs, in that case it would have still meant something,” he said.
Those words really hurt.
But I had started thinking while Max said those things. In the past I had not hesitated for a second to agree with him, but this time it was different. Instead, I was reminded of one of the last things my mate had said to me before she left.
“Don’t forget why I’m leaving now, Alaric. I’m going so I can come back afterwards and be with you. I’m going to be with you. Then we have plenty of time to get to know each other, up to the point that we are completely tired of each other”.
She wanted to be with me. With us.
Magnolia had said she wanted to get to know me. That we would give this a fair chance. But to give this a fair chance, things had to change. Specifically between Max and me. I wouldn’t let our toxic relationship get in the way of a happy life with my mate. But before I could draw any conclusions or go in full attack mode myself, I needed an answer to a question. I had to know the truth.
“Do you really think that, Max” I asked then, “is that really how you think about all this. How you feel about it. That the world, and your life, would have been better if I had never existed”.
It remained silent for an awful long time.
“No” he said then.
Those words triggered something in me that I had not known was there. But when I opened my mouth, wanted to respond to him, something had changed about the space. It was as if the darkness was growing thicker.
“Where is she” a voice broke through our conversation and Max was no longer the only one whose voice I heard in my head. I came back to my senses and stared up.
Raisa stood in front of me.
Her hood had flipped back, allowing me to study her face better than ever this time. She looked paler than ever and her skin was taut. It was as if she were made of paper and could tear at any moment. The look in her eyes was also more lifeless than I could remember, emptier too. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, but it was almost as if Raisa was suffering too.
“What are you talking about?” I just asked.
I let those words sink in for a moment. It was as if hearing those words made things worse, more real. Almost as if when Raisa couldn’t feel her anymore, no one could. I couldn’t feel her anyway, not from this distance. Again I regretted not having marked her from moment one. In that case, I could have tracked her down in no time.
“I can no longer feel her” she continued, “where is she”.
“She’s been taken,” I said, hearing my voice crack halfway through.
The expression on Raisa’s face didn’t change, but I would swear it instantly felt colder in the room. As if those words actually did something to her. Which I personally found strange. I always thought there was nothing that made Raisa feel anything.
But it had to be, because Raisa turned her back to me and raised her arm, revealing her hand. With a simple gesture, the door flew open and hit the wall with such force that small pieces of stone descended on us from the ceiling.
Then she started to walk. Her footsteps made no sound, as always. In the doorway she stopped and looked at me from over her shoulder. Although she said nothing, I knew exactly what she meant. She was going to help me save Magnolia.
Raisa was no longer in my debt. She didn’t have to do this for me. Although this may not have been about me at all. Suddenly I remembered how Maggie had stared at the spot where Raisa had disappeared.
“What are you waiting for, King” said Raisa.
I had to be sure.
I couldn’t afford to harbor false hopes.
“Where are we going?” I asked softly.
“We’re going to take her home. Where she belongs,” she said.