Hollis stared into the leaping flames, arms around her knees, deep in thought. Night had fallen, and Oberon had taken off for his usual perimeter check. She sighed, resting her chin on her knobby knees, eyes slipping closed, the feel of his skin on hers igniting her own fire within, even if only a memory. She felt tugged—pushed and pulled by her impossible emotions. He wasn’t human, he was more predator than anything, yet here he was, choosing her constantly over everything. She wasn’t all too sure why.
What was so special about her to him, aside from the fact she was the only young woman he’d come across in their journey? Was it her looks, her mind? She felt so small when considering such matters, especially when coupled with what he really was. She felt inferior, basic, plain. It made her heart ache in despair, for she seemed to sense that he would someday find another woman—one who was fierce and beautiful and strong, one who could match him in every aspect.
Her eyes flashed open, settling upon Cole’s dark mop of messy hair across the fire. He adjusted his sleeping bag before his eyes found hers, and he gave a skittish smile. Her stomach flipped. He had a sort of boyish charm to him, more gentle and innocent than their other companion. She found she was intrigued by everything he knew—whether from traveling the world or science and medicine. He was like a walking book, and so eloquent.
She straightened, exhausted from her break down this morning and their subsequent trek, but she finally felt some relief, emotionally speaking. They were nestled at the base of a mountain, the air cool and the land lush around them, teeming with life. Oberon had already hunted them rabbits and made them a fulfilling meal, but Hollis missed other creature comforts—chocolate, or soda. Her mouth watered at the thought. They would make a final pit stop tomorrow before entering the scablands, the thought pressing heavy on her heart. Danger always seemed to be lurking around every corner of the great wide world, and she wondered what was next—a human or supernatural foe this time.
She was thankful for Obe, in that sense. In the span of time between the protection rite and now, she’d not been visited by Tiberius. A chill coursed through her at the memory of his unnatural, sanguine eyes, his sneering, sinister face like a sallow hawk searching for easy prey. She shoved the thoughts away, wishing to never relive that pain, or those memories, again.
“Hollis,” Cole whispered, a bit of urgency in his tone that pulled her from her reverie. She stilled, eyes flashing to his across the fire. They were wide behind the lenses of his round glasses, his lips parted. Her brow furrowed, about to ask what had him looking so worried, when he held up his hand to shush her.
A thrill of fear ran through her. Oberon had just left a few minutes ago, and he usually took his time securing their camp. Tyr snorted, pawing at the ground in angst as Winston threw his head. A twig snapped to her left, and her eyes found Cole’s once more.
“Don’t move,” he mouthed, shaking his head slightly. Her heart thundered in her ears like a battle drum. Another twig snapped, this time behind Cole. A scream was beginning to claw its way up her throat, but it was stopped short as a low, rumbling growl met their ears. Cole’s face turned to ash in that short span of time, Hollis’ fingers searching across her plaid sleeping bag for the machete she knew Oberon had taken with him, her eyes not leaving Cole’s face as their hearts both seemed to beat in synch. Left without a weapon, they were an easy target for whatever was out there, just beyond the reach of the flame’s light.
The brush behind Cole trembled before a grey and white four legged beast leapt forth, an animal Hollis had never seen before. She truly did scream now, scrambling back as Cole ducked and rolled away, but the creature’s intents were not on him. It skirted around the fire as the horses whinnied and tugged against their bridles, its mouth full of razor sharp teeth situated along a long, narrow snout.
It paused before her, letting out a vicious growl, its breath warm and putrid on her face, its eyes eerily similar to Oberon’s, a mesh between yellow and honey. The beast’s ears pressed back against its skull, and it lowered the front half of its massive, muscled body, a whine escaping its throat. Her eyes fell to its front paws, close to the size of Oberon’s hands, with thick, black claws protruding and gripping her blankets.
She felt him, then, fingers gripping her bicep and yanking her up. Her knees weak with the surge of adrenaline, she gripped him as he held her to his chest. The beast whined again, rolling onto its back, its puffy tail tucked between its legs. She felt Oberon chuckle, listened as the machete was tossed aside. She let out a long breath, trembling from head to toe, seeming to know she’d almost become this animal’s next meal.
“Would you like to watch me wrestle a wolf, tiny Hollis?”
The word she knew, an animal that had supposedly gone extinct some sixty years ago, but she’d never seen a photo of one, or even heard a description.
“A…wolf?” Cole’s incredulous voice came from across the fire as the wolf continued to whine. Oberon chuckled again, chaffing Hollis’ back.
“He’s a rogue. There is a small pack, forty miles north of here,” Oberon said. Hollis turned her confused gaze to his angelic face. He smirked down at her, and her dread from a few moments ago melted away. She was safe under that gaze of his. She always would be. She leaned into his embrace, her desire for him never seeming to wane.
“Why didn’t he attack?” she said, frowning, returning her gaze to the frightened animal. Even in those beastly eyes, she could see his stark fear. Oberon released her, crouching down, the muscles in his thick arms taut, ready to spring into defensive action if need be.
“Because I told him not to,” he answered, as though it were that simple. Hollis glanced at Cole, his brows rising in surprise. She knew he had a way with animals, had seen it firsthand with the horses, but this…this left her astonished.
“I will kill him and be done with it,” he said, reaching for his machete. Hollis lurched forward as the beast whined, the sound so terrified and sorrowful. She gripped Oberon’s arm with both hands, pulling him back. His golden eyes flashed to her face as he frowned.
“You…you can’t…” she said, her voice pleading.
“Hollis, he will die anyway. He’s alone, starving.”
“Why didn’t he attack me? He was closer to me…” Cole said in wonderment. Oberon sighed, annoyed.
“Because Hollis was the easiest, the weakest.”
She felt her face fall at Oberon’s words, and she crossed her arms. The wolf’s eyes rolled to her, seeming to widen, to beg. Oberon let out a small growl of his own, and the wolf pinched his eyes shut and trembled. She gripped his arm again.
“Stop that, you’re scaring him!” she pleaded. Oberon turned, glaring at her.
“I told him to leave you alone. That is all.”
“Well…let’s just…let him go, if he won’t hurt us,” Hollis urged, staring him down. After a moment of consideration, Oberon sighed, standing and pressing his palm to her cheek.
“You have a kind soul, Hollis,” he said, lowering his voice so Cole couldn’t hear. She felt warmed by his words, giving him a small smile of thanks.
“He will be yours. I doubt he will leave us now. He needs a pack to survive.”
Her heart fluttered at what he was saying. She’d never had a pet before, besides Winston.
“He considers me his alpha, and as such feels my connection to you. He will protect you,” Oberon explained, pushing his fingers into her hair. She beamed, glancing down at the massive wolf.
“How…how have they survived?” Cole wondered aloud.
“Only the strongest survived. As such, these wolves around here will be massive and vicious. Best be cautious for the next night or two,” Oberon said. Hollis bent at her knees, hands clasped near her stomach as she appraised the animal. He was truly a sight to behold; strong muscles under a thick, grey, white, and brown coat, eyes piercing and keen. The stench that rolled off him, however, she could do without.
“He’s…smelly,” she said, wrinkling her nose. Oberon chuckled, settling down into their bed, seeming stiff and tired.
“Go give him a bath at the stream, then.”
Her eyes skirted to Oberon’s, wondering if he was teasing. She realized he wasn’t, and a thrill of fear ran through her. Although the beast seemed tamed enough now, she wasn’t sure she trusted him away from Oberon’s authority. He trailed his fingers up her spine, his eyes boring into hers, desire flitting in those honey-hued orbs.
“You will be safe. Best decide on a name for him while you’re at it,” he said, lips tilting up in a smile as he reclined, yawning.
“Can I…can I touch him?” she whispered, embarrassed at her lack of knowledge, to wishing to have Cole hear. Hands behind his head, eyes closed, Oberon nodded.
“Go on, tiny woman. I’m ready for sleep, and I want to feel your body beneath mine before I do,” he said, voice husky as he peeled one eye open to glance at her. She swallowed hard, nodding as she stood. The wolf rolled, ears back, as he crawled forward. Oberon hissed something in his own tongue, and the beast jumped up, body pointed in the direction of the stream.
Again, Hollis reeled at his utter authority over everything, and with a parting wave, she traipsed down to the stream, her footsteps followed by a wolf.
“How about…Bud?” she said, lathering soap in her hands and working it into the wolf’s thick fur. He whined a bit as he sat still in the stream, obedient and gentle to a fault now, his great yellow eyes constantly watching her face. She was excited—thrilled, to have something of her own, something that neither Oberon nor Cole could claim was also their’s. She was tired of sharing everything she owned with these men. Her and Willow had always begged their mother for a dog, but they were hard to come by and even harder to afford.
“Alright, I agree. Bud isn’t quite right,” she said to the moonlit night, listening to the rush of the stream, the chirp of crickets and low rumble of bullfrogs. The wolf’s ears perked a bit, and he sat up a bit straighter. Hollis used to only fear humans in the woods, and then she learned to fear creatures such as Oberon. But now, with the knowledge that wolves still somehow existed, she was beginning to worry other beasts did as well. Bears and mountain lions and bobcats.
She stilled, waiting for the snap of a twig to indicate another attack, but it was just a grouse settling into the shrubs across the stream, and the wolf relaxed, eyes finding her face again. Stumped for the right type of name for such a majestic, revered animal, she frowned, glancing to her surroundings for inspiration. Slow, a smile curled onto her lips, her eyes catching the beast’s.
“Kenai,” she said, word almost lost on the breeze that stirred up and rustled the leaves. His ears tilted forward, and a long, sorrowful, low howl emitted from his throat. The sound was as enchanting as it was haunting, but she took it to mean he was satisfied with it. She resumed scrubbing through his fur, pulling burs and twigs from it, his long tongue darting out to lap at her cheek.
She laughed, her heart lightened, happy, for the first time in a long time. Oberon watched the scene unfold from a distance, grinning to himself. It had taken him a few days to pick up on the location of this rogue, and a few more days to draw him in, but the work was worth the wait, seeing the smile on her face, feeling the tension ooze from her soul. The beast’s eyes found his through the darkness and the trees, and the wolf stood, shaking himself dry as Hollis screeched out a laugh, before she fell onto her butt into the water. He chuckled.
The wolf moved, standing above her, using his body to protect her from unseen foes, already quite attached to his new companion. Oberon backed away, disappearing into the night, but not before a disconnected voice wavered to him through the trees, stilling him, chilling his heart and the blood in his very veins.
I’ll find you