3 | Good To Me
The fading sun was warm on her back as she pulled into the driveway of her mother’s place. Miranda’s small cottage was situated on the outskirts of Naringa, a tiny town to the north of Obsidian City.
It had taken Mara two hours to drive here, but she didn’t mind the ride through the countryside. It was soothing to be in the familiar area where she grew up, though it had changed a lot. Restrictions on water usage had left the gardens untended and shrivelled, and the grass scorched. The natural rainforests surrounding the town had slowly disappeared while woody scrubland took its place. Fields blackened by bushfires stretched for miles, the horizon red and hazy with heat waves as they shimmered in the afternoon sunlight.
Mara scuffed her dusty boots on the doormat before letting herself in. “Mum, I’m home,” she called out, laying her keys on the foyer table. A vase of wilted flowers sat on the tabletop, and Mara sighed as she took them out the front door and dumped the contents into the bare flower pot by the stoop. In her mind’s eye, she recalled the pretty red geraniums that used to grow there, the scent following her as she brushed past every morning on her way to school.
Shoving memories of a brighter past behind her, she headed to her mother’s room with heaviness growing in her chest.
Mara found her in bed as usual, a weak smile on Miranda’s face as she anticipated Mara’s arrival.
“Hey, honey, how’s your day been?” her mother asked, lifting a pale and bruised hand towards her daughter.
“Could’ve been better. But can’t they all?” Mara joked, pasting on a cheery smile. No use telling her mum how her recent fall caused more problems than first thought. If Miranda knew Mara had been whipped for failing to complete her work tasks all because her mind had been distracted, then Miranda would probably force herself out of bed and have angry words with the Alpha.
And that would surely plunge them into deeper trouble.
Mara tucked an extra pillow behind her mum’s back as she helped her sit up. Taking a deep breath, she pulled the vial from her bag to show her. “I brought you something.”
Miranda frowned at the sight of the blue liquid treatment. “The Alpha doesn’t have to keep giving us favours. I don’t want you to owe him so much.”
“It’s nothing. Your health means everything to me, so I don’t care if I have to work a hundred hours a week to get you your medicine.”
She and her mum had never been well-off in this pack. Before she became sick, Miranda worked in administration to support herself and her baby daughter. Most of her income was saved towards Mara’s education. But now that she was too sick to work, the roles had been reversed and Mara did her best to support them both.
“You don’t have to worry about me--”
“Mum, you’re all I have,” Mara interrupted. “Of course I worry about you. What else should I be doing?”
Miranda narrowed her eyes and wagged a bony finger. “You should be living your own life, not wasting all your energy on me.”
“I’m happy with my life.”
“Are you, though?” Miranda pinned her with a questioning gaze. Though her eyes were weak, they still caught Mara with their piercing intent.
Miranda knew that her daughter had begun a physical relationship with the Alpha, and how much this elevated her social status and added luxuries she never would have been able to afford. But how long would it last? The Alpha wasn’t someone you wanted to end things badly with.
Mara knew how much her mother objected to this relationship, and she always gave the same defence: “The Alpha is good to me. He cares about me.”
Miranda snorted. “So he should. As Alpha of this pack, he should be caring about every member of it. But that doesn’t mean you should read too much into it. I know you’ve given him your body, but don’t give him your heart.”
Mara choked back a laugh. Knowing how this argument always went, she decided the only way to end it was by biting her tongue. She changed topic by retrieving a syringe from her mum’s bedside table. She filled it with the refined and diluted aconite serum developed in Bel’s lab.
“I only want half the dose,” Miranda reminded her, placing a weak hand on Mara’s strong one.
Mara gritted her teeth against an argument. Every day, her mother grew more averse to the side effects of the treatment. In small doses, aconite eased the symptoms of Black Bone disease and calmed the sufferer for a few hours. But it also slowed cognitive reasoning, leading to forgetfulness and possibly dementia. In strong concentrations it caused organ dysfunction and paralysis, leading to death.
Mara wanted her to take the risk. It was heartbreaking to watch her mother -- her rock -- suffering so badly. The disease plaguing Miranda was little understood. Black Bone was a fairly recent disease that now affected fifteen percent of Alpha Lucas’s pack members. No one knew how it began its devastating rampage through the population, but only witnessed the fallout of its insidious progression.
It began in the bones, destroying the marrow and reducing the capability to produce red blood cells. In turn, the weakened blood was unable to carry sufficient oxygen and turned darker in colour. The veins near the surface of the skin appeared black, while the body suffered from fatigue, weakness, and atrophied muscle tissue. Fingers, toes, hands then feet were soon deprived of oxygen, turning gangrenous and eventually needing amputation. The sufferer would be bedridden by this stage, struggling for breath until the organs collapsed and the heart gave up beating.
Researchers couldn’t even determine if the disease was contagious, carried by bacteria or virus, or even hereditary. All one could do was make peace with the death sentence once diagnosed, and give their life savings to buy the medicine that would only slow down the disease’s aggressive advance. A cure hadn’t been found, and the only treatment -- aconite--was expensive and riddled with side effects.
“You’ll take the rest to Marziya?” Miranda asked softly as the blue liquid entered her veins and pushed back the pain of her suffering.
Taking a deep breath to bite back her initial response, Mara closed her hands around the half empty vial and squeezed nearly hard enough to break it. She hated seeing her mother so debilitated from the disease’s symptoms, all while knowing the treatment could erase some of that. She’d argued with her too many times, and knew it was useless. “Sure, I’ll go see her now.”
Without staying to spend the afternoon with her mother, she took off on her Ninja and cruised the quiet streets of the town. It didn’t take her long to find Marziya in her favourite spot under the railroad bridge. The elderly shewolf had lost her savings on purchasing this treatment over the years, and since she was too weak to work and contribute to society, she received no support from the council. Without family to care for her, she’d become homeless and destitute.
She’d have starved to death by now if not for Miranda and now Mara looking out for her.
“Marzi, I’ve got something for you,” Mara spoke loudly as she knelt beside the hunched woman. First she handed her the warm pie that she’d bought on her way out of the city, then injected the aconitum while Marziya gratefully ate her meager dinner.
With creamy eyes, Marziya didn’t turn to Mara but stared out at the unchanging scenery. Weeds climbed the dilapidated fence and graffiti stained the station buildings beyond that. It wasn’t much to look at since drought had driven half the town’s population to the bigger cities and the rest had let the place run down.
“Thank you, dear,” she whispered in her raspy voice as she held Mara’s hand tightly. “You and your mumma have taken good care of me. Lord knows I ain’t long for this world, but you make it bearable. He’s got a mansion waiting for you in heaven, He does.”
Mara always just nodded her head in light of Marziya’s spiritual words. That’s all they were-- words. Amidst a barren, dry town that no longer produced cotton crops, and a landscape that grew more desolate with each passing day, Mara wondered how on earth the old shewolf could hold onto hope of a better future. Whoever this lord was she spoke of, Mara had never met nor felt his presence. What kind of deity would bother with such a place as this--an earth cursed by entropy, and a population doomed by their own reckless actions.
Getting on her bike again, she made a last-minute decision to check out a region of land that was rumoured to be suitable for new development. It was close to the border, likely inhabited by squatters, and swarming with swamp fleas or desert scarabs...depending on the level of water in the soil profile.
She knew Alpha Lucas wouldn’t like her driving so far from his city, but it didn’t take her long to arrive at the region of land in question. Shrubby trees stretched to the horizon, a promise of fertile land. Even the atmosphere seemed softer on her skin, moist instead of harsh and dry. Her sensitive skin had become like a hygrometer, letting her know the humidity and whether rain or a sandstorm was gathering on the horizon.
Pulling out her set of tools from her bag, she quickly collected some samples then trudged further through the forest undergrowth to the border ahead. The land sloped downwards and the trees grew denser, a sure sign of a water course amidst the foliage.
The sun had set and twilight was descending. Soon, the night’s gloominess would obscure her vision, but she planned to be halfway home by then. If she could just set up a couple sensors that would record the humidity over the next few weeks--
“Well, who do we have here? The Alpha’s pet, all on her lonesome.” The snide voice echoed from the falling shadows, accompanied by chuckles that grated on her nerves.
Their approach had gone unnoticed, their sudden stench making Mara’s stomach tighten in disgust. “Baden,” Mara greeted through clenched teeth, turning so she could face her threat head on. The lead warrior Baden and his slimy gang of wolves always had an ugly remark to say to her. They loved making fun of her new status as the Alpha’s bed partner.
“Come to gloat over your latest kill?” she asked with a sigh. It was no secret Baden and his crew prowled the borders, picking off weak rogues who stepped too close to the boundary lines. Whether they’d crossed the border or not was trivial.
“What about you? Further than five miles from the Alpha, I see.” He turned the question on her, crossing his thick arms and raising an accusatory eyebrow. A thick scar ran down the side of his weathered face and along his jaw, giving him a macabre look.
She swallowed, hating the condescension in his voice. The stupid rule made by the Alpha loved to be twisted by anyone mocking her. Besides, it was more of a guideline than a rule. A throwaway comment Lucas had made when upset she’d almost been kidnapped one night.
“It’s a hundred and five. How else would I visit my mother?” she muttered under her breath.
“Tomahto, tomato,” Baden shrugged. “So, how is the Alpha’s little pet going? Getting enough attention?”
His sly question launched his buddies into throwing even more dirty comments her way.
“Does the Alpha’s plaything want a treato?”
“Good little doggy.”
“Lucas’s lil’ doll.”
“Can I have a taste for myself?”
Mara turned her back to them and tried to ignore the comments. But they stung, like always.
When Baden next spoke, she bristled in fear.
“So, who’s gonna get a piece of this cute ass first?” he challenged his men in a rough, lustful voice.
She whirled around, her claws extended. “You wouldn’t dare!”
“And why not? I don’t see the Alpha’s claim on you. What’s stopping me?”
Unconsciously, Mara lifted her hand to her bare neck. It was true; Lucas hadn’t marked her. In these dogs' eyes, she was fair game for all.
“The Alpha would smell you on me.” She tried reasoning with him, hoping that would stop the warriors from whatever horrible things they had in mind.
“Not if we douse her in bleach after,” Greg, Baden’s second in command, suggested. “You still got that drum in the back of your van?” He looked to Baden.
Mara shivered, knowing his words weren’t just a joke. Many crime scenes across the territory had been scrubbed clean of evidence using bleach. There was no end to how far criminals would go to evade justice.
“You bet. Gonna look pretty on her pale skin once we’ve had our fun with her.”
“You’re sick,” she spat, desperate to flee from them but forcing her feet to remain in place. She knew the instinct to chase whatever runs was strong in their veins.
The BIG three--Baden, Inigo, and Greg--advanced on her like she was a cornered rabbit. Written on their face was the clear intent to keep her right where they wanted.
Sleeping with the Alpha might have elevated her status in certain circles, but where these wolves were concerned, she’d become cheap and disposable. A body to use whenever they felt like it, with no thought to consequences or her own desires.
“Listen, I’ve got to get home before the Alpha--”
“Before the Alpha what? Realises you’re not home yet? You really think he cares about you enough to notice?” Greg chuckled, clenching his jaw as though tempering his desire. He looked ready to leap and devour her.
She’d seen this kind of desire on them before, usually before they tore into a group of rogues, or when they entered a club seeking a different kind of prey. The girls they chose for the night never woke up the same.
“He won’t let you get away with this,” she tried again, taking silent steps backward in the direction of her Ninja. Reaching her bike might be her only chance at surviving these ruthless predators.
Just as Inigo ate up the ground between them, a stranger’s voice stopped him mid-stride. “She’s right, you know,” it said, and Inigo's hand dropped from where it reached for her throat.
His claws were millimeters from her jugular vein, while her knee was inches from his crotch. She wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
“Your Alpha will most definitely not let you get away with this.”
All of Baden’s wolves looked at the speaker, a man in his early thirties, wearing a casual T-shirt and ripped jeans and looking completely unremarkable against the shadowed forest. His expression was open, his eyes sincere as they looked with disgust at Baden.
Mara felt herself drawn to him in a sense that went beyond her hope he could fight off these men. There was no chance this slim and wiry stranger could beat the muscular and intensely trained warriors.
“The question is,” the man continued with an almost amused grin at the furious and agitated warriors. “Are you ready to stand up to Lucas’ form of justice?”
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