THE DESERT ALPHA

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CHAPTER 33 - KNOX

“What do you know about the dryads?” I started, cautiously hoping to gain some footing concerning what she had been told on the topic. Luna took a hit from the spliff, her shoulders dropping as she exhaled with a long sigh. Eyes closed, she pinched the bridge of her nose, exasperation flooding our connection.

“Can we just assume I know nothing about anything and skip the Q&A bit?” Biting my tongue to avoid laughing, I took her in as she settled, raising the spliff to her lips again. Sitting forward slowly until our gazes met, I reached out slowly and took it from her fingers, a shiver rolling through her body at my slight touch. Placing the spliff between my lips, I watched her watch me as I inhaled, exhaled, and handed the smoke back.

“Forgive me,” I teased, “but I wouldn’t dare waste your time by boring you with the details you already know.” I couldn’t help but smirk at her, so stubborn in her irritation, arms crossed over her chest and face set to wait me out in my silence. These responses were becoming more and more frequent during our conversations, as she began to pick up on the ways I skirted information or left bits out for the time being. I didn’t mean to frustrate her, not really, though I did enjoy the way her honey smell intensified as she rolled her eyes at our collective silence. Finally, she caved with an exaggerated sigh.

“They told me they were dryads, which I didn’t even know existed, by the way, and that they have a different kind of magic. Amalthea told me that they came here during the Culling, and that they were bound to Mira now that you are the Alpha. That she is their protector, or something like that.”

I remained quiet, glancing down to my hands in my lap before meeting her eyes again. “But that’s all I know,” she continued. “Amadrya interrupted before I could ask any questions…and to be honest Mira kinda intimidates me, so I won’t be asking her…” I couldn’t help the laugh that escaped me, even though it instantly caused her eyes to narrow despite the upward tilt of her lips.

“Don’t worry,” I said between chuckles. “I’m not laughing at you. I’ve known Mira forever and she still intimidates me.” Shaking my head, I offered her a small smile, encouraging her to see the humor in our situation. “Though she would never admit it, I think Mira likes that everyone is intimidated by her. That might even be the whole point of all her…you know.”

By the look on Luna’s face, I could tell she knew exactly what I meant. Mira was a lot on the best of days, and definitely an acquired taste as a friend. But she was smart, loyal, and always seemed to know things the second before they happened. She had proven herself time and again before I took up my role as Alpha, and adding her to my Inner Circle had barely been a consideration.

“But the dryads,” I redirected, recognizing the lost look in Luna’s eye as she tried to work through every detail of what I had said. “As the story goes, Amadrya and Amalthea arrived within Pack lands at some point during the Culling, fleeing from burning parties.” Luna looked horrified, her mouth opening slightly as I considered how to explain the circumstances magical creatures like the dryads had once faced.

“The source of a dryad’s life and magic are tethered to the physical tree that their spirit was born from, meaning they cannot travel long distances from their tree before feeling the effects of fatigue, magic loss…their literal life force being stretched too thin. That made them easy targets in matters of conflict…burn the tree, and the dryad within is burned alive.” Luna shivered at the thought. My head nodded in assent, the thought of the old burning parties filling me with a rage that ran generations of blood deep.

“It also meant the dryads weren’t able to flee,” I continued, “as other creatures had attempted to do as the parties moved west.” Something like grief was twisting in the night between us, and I felt my magic thicken as my instincts drove me to reassure Luna. I wanted to reach out and touch her, to close the distance between our loungers with a calming hand to her exposed knee…but I didn’t trust myself to touch her, though the urge had my skin itching. Raking a hand through my hair, I turned my eyes away from her and tried to focus, tried to remember what we were talking about instead of falling headfirst into her eyes. The dryads…

Clearing my throat, I tried to turn my face back to her. She was waiting anxiously, sipping off the spliff to keep her hands busy. “I don’t understand it fully, but the dryad’s magic was as much tied to the soil their roots occupied as the forest around them. Unearthing a dryad…well it would result in essentially the same fate as if you lit the tree on fire. How the two of them managed it and survived, much less made the journey here…to my knowledge, Amadrya and Amalthea have never spoken of that time. Not publicly, at least.” Luna’s expression turned sad, contemplative, and that grief intensified. Sympathy was written all over her face, sympathy I knew the dryads would claim was now misplaced, but I didn’t address that sadness as it ebbed and flowed.

“What I do know, are the facts that were recorded by the Alpha at the time who permitted them to remain within the Pack Territory.” Her face perked up, turning to me with interest. “They arrived on foot, dragging a makeshift sled between them. On the sled were their trees, the branches mingled and the trunks beginning to twist around each other.” Something like realization dawned on her expression, but she did not voice what she had just put together. “A vow was made between the Alpha and the dryads, granting them protection, and their trees were planted together on the Pack’s property.”

Luna’s head cocked to the side, and she slowly digested my words, cycling through her usual pattern of a million potential questions before settling on what she wanted to ask. “So why did the dryads become bonded to Mira when you became the Alpha?” I shrugged off my surprise at her interest, shooting for non-committal in my response.

“Mira had established…a relationship with the dryads over the years as we were coming up…transitioning the stipulations of the original vow to her when I became Alpha was a practical decision that has only made my life better in the long run. It was what they all wanted, and they all took vows of their own during the ritual to make Mira the holder of the bond.” Luna was quiet for some time, mulling everything over carefully. At some point she remembered her spliff, the spell I had used to light it keeping the end lit without burning down in between hits. Another bit of Rafe’s influence in my life, I suppose, I thought absently to myself. Luna inhaled slowly, letting her eyes slide to mine to rest in my stare as she exhaled through her nose. My blood simmered.

Magic was coiling between us, barely visible to the naked eye if you didn’t know where to look. All of my strength was suddenly dedicated to keeping my mental walls intact, desperately shoving Luna’s description of the door through which we had briefly Visited to the recesses of my mind. If I let the image of that door form in my head as we sat, locked in each other’s gaze, I knew we would Visit again…and I didn’t know that I could continue to restrain the Haze screaming through my blood if that happened. To be physically near her was hard enough on its own, but to instigate that mental and magical connection…

Luna shivering brought me back to the present, ripping me out of my dangerous thoughts. I quickly summoned a blanket from my office, the soft fur-like texture draping softly over her exposed legs. She blindly shoved the spliff at me, scrambling to pull the blanket further over her body despite the wrinkling of her nose. With less skin exposed for me to steal glances at, it was a bit easier to keep my focus…as juvenile and adolescent as that was to realize. Her expression was pained as she gently stroked the dark gray fur, and I gave her a reassuring smile when I felt the flush of conflict around her.

“Don’t worry,” I hummed, lowering my eyelids to glance at the blanket. “Mira insists on everything faux. Or ‘reclaimed’...whatever that means.” I could feel the heat of Luna’s flush, the darkness depriving me of that delicious pink to her cheeks. I couldn’t place her confusion, her embarrassment with a hint of sadness, and I once again found myself starting to reach for her…only to divert my hand to run through my hair.

Luna chewed on her lip, reigniting the desire I struggled to control, and she closed her eyes for a few moments. Determination scrawled across her features as she seemed to recall our conversation, whatever irrelevant topic we had landed on before losing ourselves to this…thing. I wanted to go back to that brief moment, to be lost in the heat of our lingering gaze…but I could sense the questions I could never seem to properly answer once again building.

“The tree on her back…that’s the dryad’s tree, right? The two of them together?” I found myself nodding, wondering privately when Luna would have had the chance to see Mira’s tattoo. I knew Mira had taken Luna to her suite to prepare her for the party, thanks to Jessamy’s warning in advance to make myself scarce if I was “still in hiding.” Her biting remark was the only time she had spoken to me in mind since that disastrous meeting, but she had retreated before I could get a word in, mental walls firmly set to keep me out. But Mira and her friends weren’t exactly shy when it came to nudity, as none of the Wolves really were…so it was possible Luna had a chance to see the twisted ink at any point since her arrival, really.

And she had seen mine, I thought quietly, the memory of her fingers against my bare chest forcing me to suppress a shiver. I didn’t know if Jessamy had provided her with texts on glamour magic, or if she would request another magic lesson when the topic of my many tattoos finally came up. I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into the details regarding the rituals that bound me to this Pack, not when I still felt so uncertain regarding Luna’s position here long-term… But I wore the evidence of those rituals on my skin, and she had already seen them. Her appearance in the rings had taken me by surprise, too distracted in her sudden presence to remember that no glamours were in place to smooth my skin.

She was yet to ask about them, though I knew she would, and the promise of that conversation had me shifting in my seat.

“And they all live together, in the Pack house?” Luna’s question drug me from my thoughts and had me looking at her curiously, trying to understand the real question she was asking with her apparent interest in the topic. Mira’s dynamic with the dryads was something that rarely occurred to me, having been such a constant presence in my life for most of it…though Luna had led a relatively sheltered life until very recently. Was it the knowledge of the dryads themselves that had Luna curious about their relationship to my third, or was it something else?

“Yes,” I eventually answered, “they occupy the suite that was at one point intended to belong to the Alpha.” Luna’s brows shot up in surprise, and my words suddenly started coming out faster in response. “She’s made several changes, of course, including poaching one of the kitchens for her damn clothes, turning the house into a construction zone every time she needs more space for shoes she never wears...” I trailed off, trying to gauge the way her shoulders shifted under her blanket. Remembering the spliff between my fingers, if only to provide myself a brief second away from her analyzing eyes, I inhaled the fragrant smoke and attempted to guess at what she would ask next.

I didn’t really want to answer more questions about the dryads, as they generally kept to themselves or Mira’s group, yet I didn’t want to disappoint Luna like I obviously had when I pushed her questions about magic onto Jessamy. Mira would be the better source for deeper questions about them and their dynamic, though I understood her hesitation to approach on her own. I knew Mira wouldn’t be outright cruel to Luna, not seeing through me as clearly as she could, but her limits when it came to conversational boundaries left a lot to be desired. Half the time, I wasn’t up for topics of conversation that would allow for her often personal and invasive questioning…Luna struck me as the same.

“Why don’t you use that room?” she finally asked, once again directing our conversation in a way I wouldn’t have expected. Luna was keeping me on my toes, picking up enough as she went along to narrow down those answers she was desperate for and keep me talking long enough to take more than I had intended to offer. I understood that it was natural for her to be curious about the individuals that comprised my Pack, and I truly wanted her to get to know them…but the information she had requested tonight had been specific in its nature, spurred to life by something…something I wasn’t present for and couldn’t see in her memories with my walls in tact.

Maybe she is better at this game than I thought… The inhaled relaxation that had been slightly clouding my mind seemed to clear with that thought, and I vanished what remained of the spliff as I turned my shoulders towards her. Her face was expectant, reminding me she had asked a question.

“I don’t really have a need for a room at the Pack house. My office is there if I need to be working, but I can be back in my own home in the span of seconds.” I shrugged, feeling a little flustered for some reason. Taking her with me as we shadow traveled had made it feel like something we now shared…yet that persistent guilt at her response to our second trip stirred inside me. Shaking those thoughts from my head, I reminded myself to focus, to provide the answers I had promised. “Mira likes to be in the middle of things, so it made sense to let her have the suite.”

Luna quirked a brow, her eyes silently asking a question she was likely too polite to voice out loud and that I couldn’t help but smile at. Had it really been my decision to give up the rooms reserved for the Alpha? “Yes, she all but verbally bludgeoned me to death during her arguments for why she should have priority over Janus if I didn’t need the space. Eventually, it became much easier to let go of a room I didn’t need than to keep listening to her whine, not all of us have fancy magics to send us home to our own beds.” Luna laughed at that, that same laugh that died into persistent giggles, and I couldn’t help but chuckle along to the sound.

“So, I guess I should learn now that Mira always gets what she wants.” Her tone was light enough, despite a tinge of something sharp in the air, that I chose to bite back any defense I had for Mira…that and I didn’t disagree with her assessment. “I wondered if it was just me that she tends to…direct without room for conversation.” Her intentional choice of words had me grinning despite myself, the smoldering flames behind her tactful comment feeding that part of me that craved her wildness, the part that desired her teeth bared and flooded a sense of pride through my system. We might just make a fighter out of her yet.

Biting my lip to fight back a laugh, I shook my head and ran a hand through my hair. “No, you’re certainly not the only one Mira bosses around. But that’s part of her role here.” My grin turned wicked on my face. “If the Wolves are too afraid of Janus and Mira to cause any trouble…I find a reduction in the number of issues I have to address daily.” I winked at her, trying to skirt around the topic we were bordering on, ignoring the twist of interest in the air at my response.

“Jessamy told me a little about some of your duties…” she started, looking hesitant and biting her lip. “You seem to have a lot to handle.” Swallowing back a bitter laugh, I simply shrugged, folding my hands tightly to avoid tapping on my leg. I had known there was a good chance the two of them would discuss me at some point, what with Luna living with Jess upon my own request. Now that I was here with Luna - despite my best efforts to stay away - I didn’t like not knowing what Jess had shared. I hadn’t received a verbal lashing from Jessamy since that morning on the coast, though I was still anxiously awaiting her strong and likely loud opinions about my Claim. Her business-like manner and unusual silence in my mind the past several days made that feeling of unease even worse.

I wasn’t prepared to field questions from Luna without knowing what she knew…there were too many layers to my position that could have come into question during her days with Jess. Studying her, I took in the way her head was tilted slightly, staring ahead at nothing in the darkness. Her usually-dynamic energy felt more subtle than the flash of fire I craved, and her eyelids were half-lidded as she stared out over the dark pool. Something in me insisted that I remain truthful with her… as honest as I could manage without giving in and completely laying myself bare before her.

“I knew what I was getting into when I came into the role.” She looked back at me, nodding slightly, and I wondered faintly what it was about my statement that she agreed with. “That doesn’t mean I won’t delegate when I can.” I smirked, attempting to steer our conversation from the dangerous waters we were dredging into. From the look in Luna’s eye, I wasn’t so sure that I was successful. The part of me that wanted her to ask was writhing in glee, anticipating the words slowly forming as she spoke.

“All the training and fighting…the rings in the courtyard…I haven’t ever seen defense preparations on this scale before.” She studied me, her expression hesitant. “Why…” she trailed off, seeming to consider her question. “What are you preparing for?”

There it was. I knew she had been taken aback by her appraisal of the courtyard…felt her confusion as her eyes flashed over the racks of swords, the pairs grappling, and Lysand standing stoically in the ring. The truth was violent, more violent than I would have ever wanted to expose her to…but that was the nature of life in the desert. The harsh landscape, the extreme weather conditions…they were nothing compared to the beings that threatened the Pack. If she was truly to remain here, she would need to know eventually.

With a sigh, I glanced over at her. “There are many circumstances that require the Pack to remain at the highest level of preparation.” Luna frowned, clearly displeased with my answer. I couldn’t help but roll my eyes, taking a breath and attempting to stick with honesty. “There are different divisions that specialize in different areas of Pack maintenance and security. But…we all train to prepare for the Sand Wraiths.”

“Wraiths?” Her heart stuttered, and her lip pulled between her teeth. I looked away, trying to focus on the importance of this topic despite the straining in my slacks. If not for my strong hold on my mental walls, the frantic whirring of Luna’s mind would certainly be blasted into my consciousness. I generally tried not to pry…really, I tried…but sometimes it felt like she was screaming every thought and feeling at me. I could guess at where her mind had gone, flashing back to her introduction with Lysand in the courtyard. I had felt her fear, her wariness at being in the presence of the half-wraith.

“Don’t worry,” I started, and her eyes snapped to me. “Lark and Lysand aren’t anything like the Sand Wraiths... They’re actually incredibly useful weapons during the summer.” Her lips parted slightly, like she was about to ask a question, but instead she clenched her jaw and looked down at her hands. She was ashamed, embarrassed, roiling in frustration at her reaction. I decided to press on, to explain what I could, anything to erase the look of tension from her face.“The Sand Wraiths…they’re actually an ancient subset of Fire Wraiths. But they are found exclusively in the Valley.”

“Here. Death Valley.” She whispered, glancing over me to the shadowed mountains that rose around the Pack’s compound. I nodded, keeping my face passive, chest feeling tight again.

“The Wraiths…they emerge in the summer, when the intense heat of the Valley draws them out of their holes.” Luna shuddered, her skin rising in bumps. I understood her reaction, truly, and offered whispered platitudes in an attempt to put her back at ease. “You don’t need to worry about that…we prepare so we are ready when they come.” We sat in silence for a little while, Luna eventually turning her gaze from the darkened landscape

“What happens if they…escape the Valley?” Anxiety flooded the air, tasting acrid against my tongue. I gave her the most reassuring smile I had, hoping to ease her concern. I wanted to touch her, wanted to take her in my arms and swear I would always protect her…but I didn’t dare attempt to breach the space between us. It wouldn’t just be a touch, not when she was looking at me with wide eyes that shone bright and luminescent under the moonlight. Not when the magic of the Haze was ever-present around us, urging me to shift my position to disguise the flex of power I radiated towards her, suppressing that honey scent of hers that had somehow crawled into my senses.

I needed to focus, to keep up with what we were even talking about, and I took a deep breath when I felt the renewed magic kick in. It would fade sooner than I would have preferred - but my wards weren’t strong enough to suppress the Haze forever. It had been too long since my blood was applied, too long since my mouth was at her neck… Focus.

It was easier to clear those thoughts this time, remembering her concern about the Wraiths. Clearing my throat, I said, “That won’t happen. There are…certain failsafes in place to prevent that.” Her face changed to confusion, before she remembered herself and calmed her features. The air around us changed, her essence pulling back as a quiet dread filled the suppressed yet still-humming connection between us.

“What do you mean, failsafes?” Luna’s expression was neutral, detached, less impassioned than before. I shook my head, unsure how to explain in a way that would prevent her any further alarm. What was there to say, when my very soul would be extinguished before the Wraiths breached the magical barrier of the Valley? How could I explain that any failures to protect the Wall would ultimately result in the disintegration of myself, along with all the Wraiths exposed in the Valley? It was deep magic that bound me as the Alpha of this Pack, an agreement that demanded my life as collateral for my success. But I had settled on honestly, on allowing her in as much as I dared, my own personal reservations on the topic aside. I couldn’t lie to her, didn’t want to, not when she was still staring at me with those wide eyes that were slightly filmed but curious.

“My life, my magic…I am bound in blood to protect this Pack.” That suppressed feeling of dread from Luna grew stronger, and my gut turned over. The urge to tap my thumbs against my slacks was overwhelming, but I held back the nervous movement by clenching my fists at my sides.

“What does that mean?” she asked, voice low and breathy. Despite the sudden tension and the less than favorable topic, I felt my blood running to my groin at her tone. It was pathetic, how little it took from her to make my blood heat, mind desperate to reach out to her…Wolf desperate to mark her and touch her and give in to the carnal magic between us. How we had even sat here this long, talking about everything and nothing…I didn’t realize how comfortable it felt, despite the exertion of resisting my draw to her. But I had already known that, had more than figured it out on the Run…Luna was easy to talk to, enchanting even, her reactions and emotions to everything she discovered were like a drug in my veins - every time I could manage to make her cheeks flush was a chance at euphoria.

Yes, she was easy to talk to, even if she had a million questions and was never satisfied with my answers. I didn’t want to keep her in the dark, not on matters that involved the Pack, anyway, but I wouldn’t be able to stand it if too much too soon ran her off. Janus had coined her The Runway, and while I didn’t particularly like the name, I wasn’t confident enough in my understanding of her to test the theory. And this place was more than what she was yet to see…things she would never see if she didn’t intend to stay. But she hasn’t left so far…

These thoughts resurfaced that poisonous guilt, rising like bile in my throat. I could never be sure what her intentions were, couldn’t rely on her continued presence as evidence of interest in me, in anything other than the safety offered to her within my Territory. I needed to focus, to remember who I was…and what was at stake if I failed. Miraculously, I recalled our place in conversation, pivoting my approach and keeping my expression neutral. “It means…while I am breathing…the Wraiths cannot escape the Valley.” Luna immediately huffed in frustration, tucking her arms beneath the blanket and pulling the fur up tight against her chin. I waited for her to respond, to quip something at me about my vague answer, but it seemed that she was going to - however begrudgingly - let the topic drop.

It was then that I noticed the weariness on her, the way her eyelids had dropped to a place of mostly-closed. She was fighting sleep, but I could already feel it rolling over her, leaching away at her consciousness. For a moment, her lips moved, as if she was going to say something, only for her lids to fully close and remain that way. My breath caught in my throat at the sight of her, half-curled on the lounge chair under a blanket of fur…

Wrenching to my feet, I stared down at her, suddenly aware that if I didn’t return her to Jessamy’s house right now, that nagging desire to be close to her would have me justifying taking her home to my house, to sleep in my bed. But the images of her asleep between my sheets were already too-frequent in my mind, too consistent in the endless stream of thoughts surrounding her. There hadn’t been another choice then, not when she had been so fragile from my Claim and the world-bending sensation of shadow travel. No, tonight there was another choice, one I would make in effort to strengthen my resolve to stay away from her.

Tonight had been a mistake, I realized, unsure how to transport her without magic…I was hesitant to use it again without knowing more from Jess about the containments. But I had allowed myself to enjoy her company, to tease and glance and drink in her presence…those were all things I didn’t deserve. She had taken me by surprise, and I had fallen into her orbit without a second glance. Every interaction made it harder to keep my distance, this I already knew, yet I had lingered with her in the darkness longer than I should have allowed.

Gritting my teeth, I positioned the blanket around her bare skin and lifted her into my arms, holding her gently so as not to wake her. It wasn’t far to Jessamy’s house…I could manage to walk her home without succumbing to my salacious thoughts of her lips, her eyes, her neck…

I didn’t have any other choice.

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