Heart of a Beast

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Chapter 12 - Crystal (Part 1)

The Underground Market terrified Crystal.

True, strict rules were applied to anyone who entered it, but someone almost always broke them, usually when vampires and lycans or werewolves crossed paths. The thousands of years of hatred and slaughter of loved ones on both sides always triggered one of them.

Most of the merchants were witches or wizards, but there were also elves, fairies, trolls, and Goddess knew what else.

Only the high-ranking werewolves were permitted to go for ointments and tinctures to treat vampire bites and the fevers they brought on. Omegas, especially ones unable to shift, were never permitted to even leave the territory without another member of the pack. Safety was always the concern.

Not only that, but the Underground Market only operated Friday nights during the Witching Hour between midnight and three o’clock Saturday morning. Afterward, the witches gathered between three and four for a ritual ceremony, of which Crystal had no idea, but the thought of it made her skin crawl.

Friday was a few days away and Crystal had to return to her daily routine and try not to over-think and stress about it in the meantime.

The truth about her mate spread quickly when he followed her to the small library next to the community center the next day, where she worked. She did the grunt work of shelving books and cleaning while two pack elders worked the morning and afternoon shifts, operating the front check-out desk and helping those who entered to find books in their system or make suggestions. They also held Storytime in the afternoons, when their shifts overlapped for half an hour, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays for young pups not yet in school. Storytime consisted of reading a picture book and discussion of what the story was about and how it related to their lives as werewolves.

Crystal vaguely remembered Storytime as a pup and loved observing and participating with Storytime now. Watching the pups absorb information and practice important skills like listening and speaking, as well as learning about different topics related to the story of the day was the highlight of working at the library.

The pups will definitely have a harder time than usual listening today, she mused as Tiberius held the door open for her to enter.

As she walked inside, she wondered if he would join them for Storytime or disappear somewhere.

He didn’t seem to mind her niece and nephew staring at him last night. In fact, he was rather relaxed, stayed low to the ground, and tilted his head when they were near. When they reached out to touch him, he licked their fingers, making them giggle, before they patted him on the head and ran away squealing, only to do it again ten minutes later.

The elder smiled when they arrived and didn’t ask about Tiberius, putting two-and-two together, and instead introduced herself to him with open palms.

“Do you know how this customary greeting originated?” she asked Crystal after introductions were made.

Crystal shook her head, while Tiberius grinned.

“Lycans are warriors sent by the Moon Goddess. They greet each other with open palms to show that they come in peace and carry no weapons—not that they need to carry weapons,” she added with a sideways smirk to Tiberius. “It also carries with it an unspoken blessing, ‘May the Light of the Goddess shine upon you.’ That was the first meaning, perhaps, am I right, Tiberius?”

He shrugged and looked around the large open space. Long, double-sided shelves lined up behind the front desk with windows lining the back wall that over-looked a field with the community garden off to the left and a pond with some trees beyond that. The story-circle space was to the left of the shelves with desks for quiet study and chairs for reading on the right side of the check-out counter.

Crystal took her cart of books to put on the shelves and Tiberius followed. His claws clicked lightly on the tiled floor as he read the titles on the shelves while she worked. She finished quickly and was rising up from a crouched position when Tiberius pointed to a book on the shelf above her head a few yards down.

Walking up to him, her brows furrowed. ”The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho?”

He tapped his claw gently against the spine.

She pulled the thin book out. It looked rather worn. “Do you want to read this?”

He pointed to her, the book, and then himself.

Her eyes widened. “Y-You want me to read to you?”

Amusement smiled in his eyes and he nudged the book in her hand with his nose.

“I’m working right now,” she protested in a whisper.

He nudged the book in her hands again, drawing a sigh of exasperation from her.

“Fine, but only the first page.”

Carefully, as it looked as though the book could fall apart in her hands, she opened it to the prologue, which was short and read it softly to him. It told a short allegory of a young man named Narcissus who sat on the banks of a lake to contemplate his beauty when he fell in one day and drowned and in his place, the narcissus flower grew. When the goddess of the forest appeared, she discovered that the freshwater lake had turned to saltwater and she questioned the lake for its tears.

“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful,” Crystal read. “I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”

Tiberius brushed his knuckles across her cheek as her eyes grew larger and slowly looked up into his.

Silver, both deadly and beautiful, caught her and held her in chains. Tying her to him, drawing her closer, constricting, making it harder to breathe as her heart pounded erratically against her ribcage.

She wanted to look away, but couldn’t. Searing sensations coursed through her like fire, consuming, threatening, and terrifying.

In the silver reflection, she saw herself—frightened, weak, pathetic—anything but beautiful.

But he didn’t see her that way. As she drew away from him, she saw the truth as he saw it.

She was his world.

And that scared her even more.

What if this trip to the Underground Market yielded no results? What if she couldn’t help him? What if she couldn’t love him the way a mate should? How could they make this work?

As she stepped away, he took an even larger step closer.

“Why?” she asked in a small voice, unable to tear her eyes away from his. Trapped in the chains that pulled her closer to him.

Stepping back once more, her back bumped against the shelf.

He stepped closer still, on four legs, but shifted his position so that he stood on his knees. She still had to look up to hold his gaze, but his height wasn’t as intimidating as it would be if he rose to his full height.

Cupping her face in the rough pads of his paws that were as big as her head, he lowered his forehead to hers. His breath huffed out and she shivered before he pulled away.

Pain etched across his face as he brushed her hair back. A faint whine seeped out as he withdrew to four legs, tail tucked, gaze lowered, and ears flattened.

He turned and she watched him trudge away and out the door.

The elder watched him and gave Crystal a puzzled look from her desk.

Crystal’s face flushed and she looked down at the book in her hands.

Rereading that last paragraph, she wondered what set him off. Did he realize that the odds were against them? Did he realize how weak and pathetic she was as a werewolf without a wolf?

Who could ever want a mate who couldn’t shift?

Especially when he couldn’t shift as well.

Why did you make me read this passage?

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