As they ran through the forest, Tessa and Dainin took the lead while Milo remained securely in the middle, safely surrounded by everyone else. Tessa was so delighted to see Milo keeping up with the group. His breathing was labored, but his eyes shone bright with happiness and freedom. “He’s come a long way,” Dainin said through their mind link. “Let’s just hope he’s strong enough to survive this ritual,” Tessa said as she glanced to the full moon, hoping the Moon Goddess was smiling down on them.
The lake came into view, and Tessa felt it was a good idea to rest and let Milo catch his breath before the ritual. As she glanced around, Tessa expected to find Milo panting on the ground, but it surprised her when she saw him bound straight for the water. She was happy to see him play, and she found herself watching over him as she did when he was a child. When he splashed Leah, Tessa couldn’t help but chuckle. The she-wolf didn’t feel too bothered by his actions, but Tessa still observed her behavior closely. Leah had been on edge since Milo’s arrival, and even now she was pacing parallel to Milo’s movements on shore, like a predator stalking its prey. If Milo went too far, she would growl, but when he grew too close, she avoided him. Tessa hadn’t missed their exchange outside of the hospital either, and she found the behavior odd since Leah was usually calm and collected. “Can they be,” her wolf started to answer, but a movement out of her peripheral caught her attention.
Tessa’s senses became filled with his citrus scent. “I know what you’re thinking,” Dainin linked her, brushing himself alongside her body as he laid down. “And what’s that,” she playfully challenged. “After seeing him at the prison and finally at the hospital Leah told me they’re mates, but she’s afraid to accept him,” Dainin explained, causing a low growl to rumble through Tessa’s chest. Zander and Cadence looked to her in question, but she dismissed them with a shake of her head. “Why is that? Is he not good enough for her? It’s not his fault,” Tessa argued, failing to mask her protective nature. Dainin sighed with a wolfish smirk. “No, not at all. She’s afraid to accept him in case he dies tonight,” he clarified honestly, and Tessa grew quiet.
While she was busy watching him enjoy the run and now splash an obviously annoyed Leah, the fact that this could be his last night slipped her mind for a moment. “You’re right. There is that chance isn’t there,” she sighed, leaning her large body against his. “Don’t think like that. Our brother will be fine,” her wolf assured her as they continued to watch the two wolves together, but the moon was getting higher in the sky, and it was nearly time. They’d know his fate soon enough.
Tessa sat taller on her haunches and howled to the moon, signaling it was time to move on. They all took their previous formation and ran to the clearing where Ingrid had built a wooden altar. They all stopped at the edge of the forest, eyeing the unfamiliar objects in the field. Tessa heard Milo release a whine beside her and saw his ears drawn back in fear, so she shifted into her human form.
Thankful for the fact that they didn’t shift back naked, Tessa straightened out her clothes and moved in front of her brother. Taking his head between her hands, like she’s done many times before, Tessa looked into his eyes. “Listen to me. You’re going to be okay. I’ll kill the witch if anything seems off,” she promised him with a smile. Milo gave a small nod but still glanced nervously at the altar in the field. It was illuminated with torches, casting a warm glow over the wooden slab where Milo was supposed to lay during the ritual.
Her thoughts drifted to Ingrid’s words. “I will build an altar that will sit directly beneath the full moon at its highest point in the sky. Then we must surround Milo with four different Crystals. A Moonstone will intensify the powerful energy from the moon and enhance good fortune. Depending on where your brother’s spirit is, Labradorite will help with astral travel. Then we’ll have Goldstone on either side of his head to remove any spiritual blockages. Finally, I will place Selenite above his head to cleanse his aura and provide mental clarity,” Ingrid explained at the last council meeting.
Everyone sat in wonder as if she were speaking a different language. “Who knew a mere Crystal could hold power,” Alan said, amazed. “You’d be surprised,” Sonia sighed, placing each crystal on the table. “But that’s not all we have to do. We have to hope Milo is ready to forgive his captors,” she added grimly. “Why should he forgive them,” Tessa growled. She would never forgive them for what they did to him. “This is a cleansing ritual. If he harbors any malice and is not ready for a fresh start, he won’t make it. His human spirit could be lost forever, or his body will die,” Ingrid clarified.
A warm hand rested on Tessa’s shoulder, sending sparks down her arm, and she found herself back in the woods. She had no idea how long she’d been staring into her brother’s eyes, but he met hers with the same emotion. They were nervous about the unexpected outcome. “It’s almost time, love,” Dainin spoke quietly, then left to join the others in the field, leaving her alone with Milo.
Taking in a deep breath, Tessa met her brother’s gaze once more. “I know the thought of forgiveness is preposterous after what they did to you, but please try. You don’t deserve to live haunted by these memories and consumed by pain and fear forever. I want you to live a happy life with us here. So, please don’t give up. Fight to come back to me, to us, no matter what. You have people to live for now and I couldn’t bear to lose you a second time,” she admitted with tears forming in her eyes. Milo rested his forehead against her body to comfort her, and Tessa embraced him in a strong hug. “I won’t give up,” he said quietly in her mind. “Good. Now, let’s go,” she smiled and led him to the altar with her hand tightly grasping his fur.
As Ingrid directed Milo to lay on the altar, Tessa warily watched the witch while taking her place at Dainin’s side. “He’ll be okay, love,” Dainin whispered, placing a soft kiss on the top of her head. Tessa met his eyes and saw the warmth of the torches flickering within his chocolate hues. “I know,” she responded, watching her brother’s body disappear beneath a white sheet. Milo had to be okay. It was now their family’s chance to find happiness after John ripped their lives to pieces.
Once Milo was covered, Ingrid directed everyone present to surround the altar in a circle. She took her place near Milo’s head and lit a white candle, which was on a small table surrounded by an identical set of crystals she had placed around Milo. A golden bowl, filled with warm water, sat beside the candle in the middle. While she sent a silent prayer, Sonia handed out the same white candle to everyone else before taking her place at his feet.
When the moon reached its highest point, a warm wind blew the torches out, sending a blur of smoke throughout the night sky, with only the dim light of the candles casting a soft glow over the white blanket. Ingrid’s eyes followed the haze as she rose her hands to the sky. “Moon Goddess! I am here to speak on behalf of one of your children, Milo Hayes. He has fallen victim to those who wished to erase your will and act as their own god. Now his human spirit has grown weak, locked away in the prison of his mind, and his wolf has been forsaken,” she started, her hands lowering to lift a small paper from the table.
Tessa’s eyes never left Milo’s form. She could barely make out his soft breaths beneath the fabric, and she could feel her nerves beginning to rise. Ingrid folded the single piece of parchment in half and rose it to the moon. “In your name, release Milo of all his hatred and fill him with your positive energy! Cover this young wolf with the gentle light of your moon’s rays and wash away his fear and pain from the past so he may be renewed! Erase all doubt he may have about his spirit, which was bestowed upon him through the heinous acts of evil. Fill him with your grace and strength to find peace and serenity! In your name, I now release him, and so he shall be free,” she finished, lowering the edge of the parchment into the flame of the white candle.
As the flames grew, Ingrid dropped the parchment into the warm water, and a harsh wind encircled the group, extinguishing all candles but the one on the table. Tessa’s eyes widened as Milo’s body convulsed beneath the blanket, rising from the altar. She couldn’t hear anything above the storm of the wind, but Ingrid and Sonia remained fixed in their positions with hands raised and murmurs of prayers under their breath. “It’s up to him now,” her wolf said within her mind. “Forgive, Milo. Please find the strength to forgive them,” Tessa begged, wishing he could hear her.
Moments passed, and everyone was still stunned at what they were witnessing, but soon his body began to lower to the altar where he laid unmoving. Ingrid and Sonia stood still, taking in heavy breaths as they looked over his body. “Why isn’t he getting up,” Tessa asked, moving to his side. She lifted the blanket to reveal his face and found her brother’s pale human form, but he wasn’t breathing. “It might take time,” Ingrid claimed, placing a gentle hand on Tessa’s back. “No, it can’t. He should be back by now,” Tessa panicked, and Dainin quickly joined her side.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tessa saw Leah slowly approach his body. “Milo,” she whispered with her hands clenched at her side. Her gaze raked over his half-naked body, taking in his thin form. A growl escaped her lips while a tear slipped down her cheek. Before Tessa could stop her, Leah rushed to his side. “You won’t do this to us, to your sister! You need to wake up, now,” she yelled beside him. “You can’t come back and tease us with the hope we may have a life together,” she cried, throwing her body over his chest.
The warm breeze returned, and Milo’s body jolted as if he were shocked with electricity. Tessa knew it had to be the shock from the bond. She remembered the first time she felt the sparks with Dainin, and he must have too because he encased her in his strong embrace. “Milo, wake up now,” Tessa ordered, and in seconds a harsh breath filled the air, and Tessa found herself staring into wide hazel eyes, which were similar to her own.