THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 12 - LUNA

Knox waved a hand and a plate appeared before me, loaded with eggs, fruit, and what looked like avocado toast. He stood from his chair and crossed behind me, leaning to whisper in my ear. “I’m going to go take a shower.” His breath was warm against my skin, and I could swear he had a finger playing with the ends of my hair. “Eat as much as you like, and ask the house for every drink you can think of.” I could feel him straighten at my back, and suppressed a shiver as he moved away. “I’m going to count them when I get back, and then we’ll get to your questions.”

When he returned, he scanned the coffee, water, tea, and apple juice I had managed to make appear between bites of my food. His face was neutral, and I met his eyes to avoid staring at his bare chest or those dangerous sweatpants. Inclining his head towards the bed, he murmured, “Why don’t you make yourself more comfortable?” I froze in my seat.

“Y-you mean in the bed?” The words left my mouth before I could stop them, stuttering out and sounding a bit more eager than I would have preferred. Knox smirked and made his way to sit on one side, propped against the headboard and on top of the blankets. He patted the open spot next to him.

“In, on, under, it doesn’t matter to me.” My cheeks flamed, and I frantically fought my Wolf back. The haze was rearing its ugly head again, springing out from the dark corner of my mind where I’d buried it at the sight of Knox like this. Casual, relaxed…absurdly hot. My feet moved of their own volition, drawn towards him from the table, but I stopped myself at the foot of the bed. Sitting next to him would be much too close and intimate for me to remember everything I wanted to ask. Perching cross-legged on the foot of the bed was the most comfortable I would allow myself to get.

He watched me as I settled, tucking my hands into my lap. I tried not to shiver under his scrutiny and hoped that he couldn’t scent how unnerved he made me. My questions seemed scrambled now that I had the opportunity to ask, and I heard him sigh. Peering through my lashes, I followed the movement of his hand as he waved and made a tray with two bottles of wine appear between us. Knox took one for himself, already uncorked, and pressed it to his lips. “Please, help yourself,” he murmured past the glass.

Wine might help, I thought to myself. Or it might make everything worse. Trembling fingers wrapped around the neck, and I took a small sip. Just as I expected, the wine was the same kind we had shared before. “Where is this wine from?” I asked, drinking more and letting the warmth settle into my chest. Knox quirked a brow, an expression of mild surprise on his face.

“That’s what you want to ask me?” He was teasing, looking at me hotly over his bottle. I shook my head and swallowed thickly, cheeks flaming.

“No, but I would like to know. There’s no label on the bottles, but we’ve had it several times now.” Knox shifted his legs and crossed his ankles, letting the bottle in his hand rest on his thigh. His smirk was gone, a soft smile in its place, and his eyes held a faraway look.

“It comes from a vineyard near the northwest portion of my territory. The Pack owns a majority of the business, which comes with perks.” He inclined his head at my bottle, which I found was once again pressed to my lips. He seemed to hesitate, but softly asked, “Do you like it?”

My face flushed, likely even redder than it already was, and I cleared my throat past the lingering flavor of the wine. “I don’t usually drink much red wine, or any wine at all really, but it tastes amazing. Like…sunshine and cinnamon and…and it smells like you do sometimes.” Knox’s lips lifted at the corners, but he offered no further information. I could already tell how this was going to go - he might answer my questions honestly, but he would only offer enough for the exact questions I asked. I’ll need to choose my words carefully if I want to get much out of him.

“You told me the last house has magic…I’m assuming this one does as well.” I gestured to the bottle in my hand and he nodded, encouraging me to continue. I took a deep breath. “What about your house - the place I stayed on my first night? Your Beta said I only needed to wish for what I wanted, but he didn’t confirm how that worked.” Holding his eyes, I took a sip of my wine and waited. He had tucked his bottle between his thighs and crossed his arms over his bare chest.

“All of my properties within my Territory have magic.” That confirmed my suspicions about the Pack house, but something about the way he said it gave me pause. His properties? Within his Territory? Did that suggest he had other properties outside of the Perimeter? That wasn’t a question I really needed answered, so I mentally moved it down my list of priorities for this conversation. The details could wait until I knew more about magic in general.

The morning was in full swing outside the windows, casting a glow around Knox as he reclined against the headboard waiting for my next question. “How does that work? The food, the clothes, any drink I can think of? Where do they come from?” Running a hand through his damp hair until it pointed in all directions, Knox surveyed the room around us.

“The houses are kept stocked with any and all items you could need for a stay, at any time or during any season.” That made sense, but it didn’t answer my question. I furrowed my brow in frustration, wondering if Knox was intentionally making it difficult for me to get to the bottom of everything. The warmth from the wine had more than settled through my limbs, and my irritation made my tongue a bit looser than usual.

“That didn’t answer my question,” I managed through my teeth. Taking a breath, I calmed my tone and tried again. “I want to know how the magic works. Any house can be stocked with supplies, but not every house can make them appear out of thin air. How does it work?” Lips pulled in a tight smirk, he looked amused by my clarification, as if my line of questioning was about something so common I shouldn’t even have to ask. The silence between us as I waited for him to respond made me shift in my seat, and his gaze turned questioning in response to my obvious discomfort.

“How about this - what do you know about magic?” He vanished his bottle with a wave and replaced it with a new one, taking a sip and picking at an invisible piece of lint on his sweatpants. I forced my eyes not to follow his movement, instead dropping them to my wine and finishing it with a swallow. Knox had it replaced before I could blink, and I realized too late that I had killed the entire bottle. I felt really warm, but not drunk, so I started in on the second bottle before finally admitting what I knew.

“Not much,” I shrugged, placing my wine in my lap. “I had tutors as a girl and we did some readings on Pack magic, but those histories were never part of my studies. Once when I asked about magic, my father told me that the Packs lost most of it a long time ago, before our Alpha’s time. It wasn’t something we spoke about outside of the Season, and even then claim bites were never described as magic. Neither was the Alpha’s power, for that matter. So…” my voice trailed off, cheeks flushing at my ignorance. “That's all. I don’t remember ever hearing a reason for why the magic went away.”

I waited for him to laugh with my head bowed, to tell me I was foolish for knowing so little, but he never did. Instead he sat quietly, occasionally sipping from his wine and collecting his thoughts. I used the time to let my mind wander over my upbringing, the studies I had labored over that now seemed useless, a painful reminder of how small my life had been barely over a week ago. The library at my father’s estate surely had several books on magic, books I could have picked up at any point during the countless hours I hid from my father and tutors within those walls. There had always been other things to read when I had the time to choose my own titles, and tomes on lost magic would never have caught my eye.

Truthfully, it had never even occurred to me to read further into Pack magic since before now I had never seen it used, or even heard it referenced much. With hindsight, it wasn’t surprising that the topic of magic was never discussed at length, as it wasn’t the nature of the males I grew up around to ever acknowledge or admit to shortcomings. The decline of magic would have come with a huge hit to the pride of those alive at the time, so silence on the subject was the most likely outcome.

Just when I was beginning to worry that Knox had changed his mind about answering my questions, he spoke, drawing my gaze to his lips. “There are many theories on why the access to magic faded, but none that have proven consistently true throughout all Packs. Some say it started hundreds of years ago when the land was first colonized, the eventual desecration of the areas surrounding Pack lands not compatible with the magic generated by the Pack’s protection.” His fingers trailed along the neck of his bottle, up and down, and I couldn’t help but stare.

“The most commonly accepted theory, however, is that the loss in access to magic was a result of the Great Culling that took place in the late 1800s. Packs banded together across the midwest to wipe out all other magical creatures, killing indiscriminately and driving any survivors away from their homes. As fewer and fewer magical creatures were left to threaten the Territory borders that made up Pack lands, more and more Alphas reported a rapid decline of magic within their Packs and an inhibited ability to generate Territory magic during a Perimeter run. As it stands now, very few Packs have access to a sliver of the magic we once held.”

Knox turned his head to the side, staring beyond me with his focus a bit glazed. He sipped on his wine and collected himself, eventually re-engaging by waving a bowl of grapes into existence on the tray. Helping himself to a handful, he rolled one between his fingers before popping it in his mouth. My nipples tightened and peaked against my shirt at the motion, forcing me to hold my breath while I waited to see if he noticed. Blessedly, he kept his face down towards the grapes in his palm, a contemplative look etched across his brows. From what I could see of his lowered eyes, his irises were dark and depthless, so indistinguishable from the pupils that I thought I might drown in them.

“The details of where it all started and why the access to magic faded are of little concern to me in the grand scheme of things. This Pack had a vested interest in maintaining their connection to magic, as the Perimeter of this Territory is still actively threatened to this day by creatures born of magic. A solution to the decline was discovered well before I became Alpha, and this solution enabled the Alpha at the time to sustain the remaining magic.”

His explanations left me with even more questions than I started with, my mind reeling with all the different possibilities his admission could create. I wanted to know more about the Great Culling, why it started, what happened, and why I’d never heard of it before now. I wanted to know about the creatures that still existed to threaten the Desert Pack, the solution that allowed them access to magic, and what that access even meant. If a solution had been found here, why hadn’t other Packs used it to save their power too? Did everyone in the Pack have magic, or did the bit that remained fall to the Alpha? Was that why Knox was out running the Perimeter himself, instead of other Wolves from the Pack? What was the difference between a house having magic, the Pack having magic, and the Alpha having power?

A dull throb started in my temples, maybe from the wine or maybe from the convoluted information I was desperately trying to sort through in my head. I understood that the Pack generated magic on the Perimeter through the run, concentrating that magic into a border that provided protection for everyone inside the Territory. What I didn’t understand was how that magic could be translated into homes, into the completion of menial tasks like cooking and bathing. Was it all the same kind of magic, or had the “solution” discovered by Knox’s predecessor created some other form entirely?
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