The Ghost of You
'At the end of the world, or the last thing I see, you are never coming home. Never coming home.'
My Chemical Romance
Woke, to swaying boughs and the soft calls of birds. The ethereal, pearly-grey light of the predawn drifted over my sight. I was still clutched in the terror of my dream, shivering under the layer of dew on my skin. My right arm trembled in fear until I reached across and gripped it, pushing the weakness into the damp earth. Muttering a prayer to the Goddess-which I knew went unheeded-I rolled to my side.
Over a mile away the roar of cars on the highway remained steady. Even at this hour. Like the faraway whoosh of the wind through the trees, or the pounding of blood in the veins. I listened to it like a lullaby. Perhaps I could have fallen asleep again if my heart wasn't beating so fast. Just leftover emotion. It would fade eventually. Pushing to my feet I brushed the mud off my bare skin, shook the leaves and twigs from my tousled hair.
The trees were familiar under my hands as I passed. Bark scraped my palms, stinging, but ignorable. No one came here anymore. Perhaps once it had been part of a great forest, stretching as far as the eye could see. But the city had destroyed it. The trees huddled together against the steel and concrete, not even protected by the fences of a park, the last stand before the endless fields beside the highway. I was the only one who saw it for what it was. It was my sanctuary. But it was merely a copse compared to the woods I had known as a child.
A rabbit nibbled delicately at my discarded clothes. With little malice I shooed it away, crouching down to gather my things. There was the tiniest hole chewed near the hem of my favorite shirt. I stared at it, poking the tip of my fingernail through. For some reason I couldn't help but think it was the story of my life.
I dressed before I left the cover of the woods. My clothes and skin were damp from dew, and clung together steadfastly. On the horizon the sun was just rising, reflecting its light in the manmade pond behind my apartment building. The complex's two wings folded around the banks of the pathetic pool. It was supposed to look peaceful, like an oasis for the tenants, but it was pitiable. The whole place was pitiable. A depressing shade of grey siding, mixed with the fumes of traffic, and the sparse tall grass drying in the summer heat.
Normally stubborn geese fled from my passage through the field. They complained as they tottered to the pond, and I watched them waddle away. There was something about geese that irked me. The way they always seemed to hold their heads so high. Proud. As if they had anything to be proud of. I fought the urge to wring their necks, with my fangs.
The Johnson children were completing their morning ritual, chasing their escaped cat down the slope toward the pond. I caught a glimpse of the tabby's tail as it bounded after a bird, with the hollering Johnsons in tow. The youngest stopped to wave, as he nearly collided with me, before taking off again.
I passed no one except Mrs. Johnson, who stood in her doorway, smoking, watching her children tear across the field. The scent and look of world weariness clung to her. I drank it in as I strode across the breezeway, skipping up the stairs as fast as tired feet could take me.
My nose wrinkled before I reached my landing. "You smell like wet dog," I said.
The boy sitting by my door glanced up, dropping his knees. "I got pushed in your pond." Water dripped from his short brown curls.
I rolled my eyes as I stood on the balls of my feet, reaching for the key above my door. My fingers grazed through the dust on the frame before I found it. The boy scrambled to his feet, a lidded cup in each hand. I settled back on my heels, sliding the key home, gazing speculatively at his offering.
"Latte. French vanilla and hazelnut," he said. "Your favorite."
My lips pursed in a moment of thought. He was smiling at me innocently, shoulders lifted with a smile. I snatched the cup. "Come on in," I said, unlocking the door.
I replaced the key, and he sidled past. My windows were closed and locked, blinds drawn. The gloom was soothing in the early morning, but the humidity had made the living room a sweatbox. Hair stuck to the back of my neck. I could almost feel the moisture bead on my brow.
"What the hell, Vesper?" The boy complained. "It's like a furnace in here."
"I like the heat," I said, drifting into the kitchen. "What do you want, Ephraim?" I took a sip of the latte, grimacing behind Ephraim's back. It was disgustingly cold. When he wasn't watching I dumped half of it down the sink, so I wouldn't feel obliged to drink it all.
He played with my thermostat, tapping it as if it would change anything. He gave up after a moment, shuffling away in dejection. "Nothing."
"Did Richard send you?" I asked, grabbing a peach from the drawer in the fridge, before slamming the door. "Tell him I'm still angry. And I'm not impressed."
Ephraim was digging for the controller under the couch cushions. "Naw. I've been staying with Carrie for the last few days. Haven't even talked to Richard in awhile." He straightened. "Why? What'd he do?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Want me to beat him up?" Ephraim flexed his thin arms.
I laughed. "I'd like to see you try, kiddo."
"I'd get Thomas or Kevin to help me." He frowned. "…or both." He found the controller, and held it in one small, tight fist as his shoulders slumped. "And I wish you wouldn't call me that," he mumbled, looking at the floor.
The tip of my tongue drew circles along the peach's fuzzy skin, before I bit into it. Juice escaped from a corner of my mouth and I wiped it away with my knuckles, offering a taste to Ephraim. He waved it away with a little sneer. Shrugging, I finished the fruit myself.
"Are you okay? You look pale," Ephraim observed, eyebrows drawn. "Well, paler than usual."
"Bad dream," I answered.
"Oh." There was no need to ask more. He knew which dream I spoke of.
I cast the seed in the trash. "You never answered my question."
"Why are you here?" It wasn't that I was purposefully being curt and dismissive, but I avoided the pack if I could help it. I didn't live in the Den, and I generally wouldn't allow myself to be alone with more than one of them at a time. This precaution extended to even my littermates.
The tone of my voice wasn't lost on Ephraim. "Thomas and I were going down to the Jukebox," he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "I just wanted to see if you would come."
A purple sponge was sidled between the faucet and the back wall. As I spoke, I cleaned the countertop for no discernable reason. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Richard already acts entitled enough as it is, thank you very much. He's a pain in the ass. I'm not going to purposefully make it worse by hanging around Thomas."
"Ah, c'mon, Vee!"
"You can't hide out here for the rest of your life," Ephraim whined.
I could try. What was waiting for me out there anyway? Just more pain? Better to stay here where I was safe. No one could hurt me. No one could touch me, leave me. I glanced down at my hands. My nails were just long enough they broke the surface of the sponge, making the pores larger and larger as I scrubbed. I stopped. Was this what I had wanted for myself? Was this better?
It was just the Jukebox, anyway. Just a few blocks down the street. I was being overly dramatic. And stupid.
The sponge slapped wetly as I cast it at the bottom of the sink. I sighed. "Fine. Let me get changed."
In my bedroom I shed last night's clothes, finding a pair of clean, little black shorts and a tank top amidst the clutter on my floor. I glanced in the mirror to pick a twig from my hair, and smoothed my hands over my flat stomach. To a human I would appear trim, incredibly fit, but any wolf could tell there was little strength in my thin arms. Speed was my weapon, not muscle.
As an unmated female, one who exerted little dominance, I should have been at the bottom of the hierarchy, with Ephraim. But I was a Dmitri. The pack never forgot this, even if I wished to. Every month the elders each tithe to me, in remembrance of my father. And Lucien paid for my living arrangements, out of guilt for leaving me here. I would rather have had him, not this apartment.
There was a sheen of sweat growing on Ephraim's forehead when I met him in my living room. He wiped his upper lip with a hand. "It's cooler outside," he complained.
"Let's go," I said.
We walked up Liven Drive, and turned at the gas station on the corner to make our way along the overpass. Everywhere there was the smell of hot metal, plastic, and the noxious fumes of gasoline. Sometimes I hated it all. Koupher had been a paradise next to this. Small and inconsequential. Perfect. But Eirisburg was different. We didn't belong in the city. My father should have known that.
And now we were stuck. Banished from our territory, we lived on the fringes of what was once ours. We couldn't move on. Every one of us was holding on to a memory.
Even me. Especially me.
There were two strip malls gazing glumly at each other from across an intersection. The smell of Mexican food wafted from a fake adobe complex as we passed by, setting off across the concrete. My black hair was blazing hot by the time we crossed the nearly deserted parking lot.
Smashed between an ice cream parlor and a hardware store, the Jukebox blared music from a crackling sound system. The door was open to the early summer heat, and cold air drifted out to the sidewalk. The whole place had a musty smell that I had never understood, but it was somehow comfortable.
A bell above the threshold was supposed to jingle when the door opened, but Ephraim had hop to hit it with his fingertips. From where she leaned, chin in hand, sifting through a magazine, Carrie glanced up. A breeze whistled through the shop and I caught her scent, and another very much like it. Thomas. And there he was, stalking a human near the stacks in the back who gazed longingly at his sister.
Carrie straightened, swiping back her blonde curls. "Vee! What are you doing here?" She smiled past me, at her half-brother. "And with Ephraim." Her blue eyes darkened with a touch of humor. "Is this a date?"
"No!" I cried, incredulous, just as Ephraim gave a pained, "Carrie!"
She lifted one hand in a nonchalant shrug. "What am I supposed to think? He's the only guy you hang out with."
That's because Ephraim was omega. Safe. He would never demand things I was unwilling to give, and the males couldn't even comprehend him as a threat. They always tolerated his presence at my side. And, though I would never have admitted it to him, I knew Ephraim was too weak to ever be my mate. One of the guys would kill him first. Or very nearly.
I didn't say any of those things. "I can't stand anyone else."
Carrie's eyebrows knitted. "Hey. Yeah, I saw Richard's…"
The human boy reached the counter, smelling of nerves and cheap cologne. When I glanced at him Carrie reluctantly dragged her eyes away from me. She lifted one perfectly sculpted eyebrow, waiting for the boy to speak. He didn't, just held the battered record in his fingers.
"Can I help you?" Carrie finally intoned.
He started slightly, perhaps taken aback by the dismissal in Carrie's tone. "Uh, yeah…" He trailed off, mouth still gaping. Ephraim snorted to cover a chuckle, and I elbowed him sharply in the side. As if awakened by the stifled mockery, the human straightened. "There's a concert at the university this weekend. I was wondering…"
Propping her chin in her palm again, she leaned forward. "Yes?" She asked, drawing the word out with a lilt.
"Carrie…" I warned. I hated when she played with them like this.
The boy didn't hear me. He was captivated by his own infatuation and the seductive confidence Carrie exuded from every pore. "I was wondering…" He glanced at Ephraim and me, aware of his audience for a moment, before pressing on. "I was wondering if you wanted to go with me."
"Perhaps," Carrie replied. "If I'm not doing anything." She held out a hand, palm up. "Give me your number."
He eagerly reached for the pad of paper and pen resting on the counter. But his hand never got far. Thomas' fingers clamped down on his arm, twisting it away and behind the boy's back.
"I don't think so," Thomas said. "She's taken, meatbag."
The boy struggled. "Get off," he snapped.
"You're ruining my fun," Carrie complained.
"Let him go," I said.
"You don't want Kevin to disembowel him, do you?" Sullenly Carrie crossed her arms, looking away. Thomas nodded at the silence of her answer. "Get out of here," Thomas growled, releasing his wrist and shoving him toward the door. I sidestepped, meeting Thomas' gaze as the boy stumbled out. Carrie's brother flashed a cocky smile. "Hey, Vee."
"Saw Richard's face the other day. You clawed it up nicely."
I sniffed in disgust. "I hope he scarred."
"Not even a little."
"Bastard," I mumbled under my breath.
Thomas chuckled, sliding Carrie's magazine out from under her nose, despite her protests. He tried to appear nonchalant as he leaned on the counter, looking down. It was upside down as he gazed at it. "What'd he do?"
"None of your business," I informed him.
"That bad, huh?"
"Don't you have somewhere to be?" Carrie demanded, yanking her magazine back.
Thomas acted as if he hadn't heard. "So there's still hope for the rest of us," he said.
"Don't hold your breath," I snapped.
It wasn't really my choice, though. For too long I had denied Richard's advances. They all knew I didn't want him. In ages past it hardly mattered whether a female desired a certain wolf. The Law existed to preserve my people, not to bring happiness or enlightenment. A Run meant only the strongest, fastest, most cunning could beget their heirs. Only in the last century had a female's preference meant anything to the pack. In Europe I heard they still clung mostly to the old ways.
But I was almost eighteen. My people may have chosen to bend the Law in the last hundred years, but it could never be broken. I didn't know what punishment awaited me if I was not mated by the full moon before my next birthday. I didn't want to find out. The Law could be harsh.
"Two months," Thomas reminded me. "Two months and then it's not your choice."
"We'll see," I said, lifting my chin. My bravado sounded weak and fake, even to my ears.
"You're annoying me," Carrie said, suddenly.
Thomas rolled his eyes, lifting his upper lip in a fangless sneer. "Piss off," he ordered with little malice, before ignoring his sister.
"Buy something and get the hell out," Carrie said. Thomas' thumb stroked his lower lip as he regarded me. The heat of his gaze was stifling. With a snarl Carrie punched him in the arm. "Buy something and get the hell out," she snapped.
Thomas reached for the nearest shelf, picking a record at random. His eyes were on me as I strode back to Ephraim, to hide behind my friend. I kept my hands busy, sifting through the music, my eyes averted. Ephraim's nervous sweat grew sharper, and I laid a steadying hand on his arm. When he glanced at me I shook my head.
His fear was unnecessary and unwanted. He may boast, but Thomas would never lay a hand on me without my permission. Because I was a Dmitri. Because we had grown up together. And because Richard would break every one of his fingers. Still, I felt a bead of sweat trail down my spine as Thomas strode out the door behind me, his recent purchase tucked under his arm.
It wasn't him that made me so nervous. Not entirely. It was what he represented. Thomas wasn't just my littermate. He was a potential mate. Things could never be simple anymore.
"He's such a pain in the ass," Carrie said. But she was smiling, wistful almost.
"More so than usual," I said.
She glanced at me as I went to stand by the counter. Her left eye narrowed a fraction. "Can't really blame him." Her voice took on a strange edge. "You're leading them all on…"
"Carrie…don't," I said. "I'm not leading anyone on."
"It's disgusting. They're practically salivating," Carrie observed. "You can't put it off forever."
"I can try."
"You're almost eighteen, Vesper." Carrie ruined her manicure by biting her thumbnail, until she dropped her hand. The way her leg was twitching, almost nervously, made her bounce up and down. "If you just told them which you wanted, maybe they'd let you be for awhile."
"I don't want any of them."
Ephraim was riffling through a display, but he was watching us. He rocked on his heels. "…doesn't much matter…" he muttered, sullenly. Carrie and I glanced at him and he looked down at the records he was reshuffling. "Richard's all but claimed…"
"Enough!" I snapped. My hand smacked against the counter's display case a moment before I sighed. "Enough. I don't want to talk about this."
The awkward silence was broken only when Carrie waved her arm, her bracelets clinking together. "Whatever."
I played with the notepad on the counter, pulling the sticky notes apart one at a time. They came away easily. I stuck them down in a row, though they didn't adhere well to the glass top. Carrie fumed in the silence as I played. Next door, outside the ice cream parlor, a little boy screamed for chocolate. His shrieks were the only noise for three long minutes.
Almost contritely Carrie cleared her throat. "The guys are having a party…"
One of the sticky notes was askew. I tried to nudge it back into line. "At the Den?" I asked with a wrinkle between my brows and a sneer tugging at one corner of my mouth.
"What's that for?" Carrie demanded.
"You can't have a party if the only people invited already live there…"
"There are others coming," Carrie hedged.
"And you want something from me," I guessed, "Don't you?"
"Can you come?"
"Carrie!" I groaned.
"You know I hate parties."
"I'll never ask anything else of you as long as I live," she swore.
"Yes you will."
Carrie flattened my fingers with a hand, to stop their dance across the countertop. "Will you stop that?" She demanded. There was a water stain that had spread across the ceiling in a corner of the shop. I obstinately stared at it instead of Carrie. She knew I was ignoring her. There was little a wolf hated more than to be ignored. "Just listen…okay?"
"I'm listening." I didn't need to roll my eyes. It was all in my tone.
She pulled her hand back, sighing. "I miss you. You're my best friend, and I love you, but you have got to get out of that apartment," she insisted, stressing and dropping the words sharply.
"I like my apartment."
"No," Carrie said, "You like hiding in your apartment. There's a difference."
"Oh, and drinking copious amounts of alcohol is going to help my situation?
"I'm not asking you to go on a bender," she chuckled. She let the smile fade, heaving a breath. "I'm just asking you to…come by the Den. Please?"
I glanced away. "We'll see."
Whenever I was with her Carrie sighed a lot. "Fine. I guess that's all I can ask for." She rummaged under the counter for a moment, coming back up with an album. It slid across the glass smoothly. "Here. Found this yesterday. In the Court of the Crimson King. I know you've been looking for it."
The Den sat on a lonely hilltop, standing sentinel over the river that ran into the park. At its back huddled a small development, but where it rose from behind the fence and the fir trees it was alone. The brick monstrosity was imposing in its aloofness. Even when the lights were on it exuded an eerie otherworldly air, as if of things ancient and forgotten. It had lain empty for decades before my father bought it. Perhaps it had never shrugged off that solitude.
It wasn't fear of the pack, my littermates, but so many unanswered expectations that kept me away from the manor. This had been a place meant for my parents. They had intended to live here, for years to come. And something about them lingered. From the little touches of my mother littered around, to my father's books in the study. I hated it, and yet missed it all with a dull ache that never faded.
Carrie stood on an island of grass in the middle of the circular driveway. She puffed smoke into the air as she leaned against the neglected fountain, watching her handiwork drift into the sky. As I came up the walkway she blew out one last stream of grey, before stamping the cigarette under her heel.
"I thought you quit," I said.
"Bad habit," she answered. "Just nerves."
"What do you have to be nervous about?"
A thin layer of dead leaves lay like a cover over the rainwater that had gathered in the fountain. Carrie picked them out one at a time, casting them on the ground. "I don't want you to freak out," she said.
"Why would I freak out?"
A sopping wet leaf stuck to her shoe when she dropped it. "The guys aren't the only ones here…"
"I expected as much," I answered dryly, crossing my arms.
"Well…" Carrie shook her leg, ridding herself of her adornment. "The elders are here."
That's all I needed to hear. Without a word I turned on my heel.
"Vesper, wait!" Carrie called.
She caught up, matching my hurried stride. "It'll be fine," she insisted.
"You don't know that," I snapped.
"This is your family, Vesper," Carrie said. "They'd never judge you…"
In pairs they were my family. Ones and twos, I could handle. But together they were like any Tribunal of the Law.
I knew they hated me. They had to. There was no reason for them to feel anything but contempt. I was the daughter of their fallen alphas, the man and woman that had failed them. My father had sworn to protect them, and had paid for his lie with his life; a fitting punishment under the Law. And they had the right to exile me for the deficiencies of my clan. Lucien had chosen his exile rather than bear his shame. I carried mine like a cancer in my chest.
And they would hold it against me if I gave them the chance. So I denied them that chance. They may have feared the weight of the name I bore, but I was a pale specter of my House. There was nothing in me to fear, and so much to despise. If they couldn't judge me, they couldn't cast me out.
It was cowardly to hide. I was a coward. That was the simple truth of it.
Carrie held her hands up to me, but didn't touch my arms. "Just…come around back," she begged. "They want to see you. I promise."
I shook my head, glancing up and away. "What if they…?"
"If they were going to, they would have done it a long time ago. They won't." She reached for me, and when I didn't flinch away she hooked her arm through mine. "It'll be fine," she repeated. "I. Promise."
With her arm around mine, I let her tug me along. My heels were reluctant, but not dug in; a sign of my unenthusiastic trust. I had to trust that what Carrie said was true. She wouldn't betray me. I was safe here. The pack had always been my family. They were supposed to love and care for me. These assurances were scrounged up from somewhere, like weak voices. Lies, lies, lies, a fearful part of me cried back in jubilation.
I could hear their voices, joined in a calming clamor. A myriad of conversations that meant little, but were the lifeblood of a normal life, assaulted my senses. Each of their tones was familiar to me. I had heard them sing lullabies, teach, lecture, pledge loyalty to my father, long ago. Just the sound of them brought a rush of memories both dear and sickening.
Robert was laughing when we came around the corner. It exposed his teeth in a bone deep mirth that I had not felt in years. The reality of it cut deep, and I stared at their humor, appalled. Perhaps some had found it easy to move on after all. It was foolish, overshadowing the blatant fear I had felt earlier, but I hated them right then. Not for being happy. For being happy without me.
There was a leaden moment when they saw me. Carrie's arm kept me from doing an abrupt about-face, and fleeing at a brisk pace. The faces that were turned on me were carefully blank, and meticulously neutral.
Six years felt like such a long time. To avoid them all, every day, all the time, was an impossibility. Our lives collided here and there, in ways I couldn't avoid, but never like this. They knew the care I took in remaining distant. They glanced amongst themselves and I tried to back up, but Carrie's grip went rigid. The silence was broken only after my fists had begun to tremble.
"Vesper, honey," Trisha greeted. She gave me a one armed hug. I stood stiffly to accept it. "We haven't seen you since…" She struggled to remember. "Well…in months," she finished with a wan smile.
I had to swallow twice, painfully, before I could speak. "Trisha," I said.
"Lyn has been asking when you'd come around to tutor her some more," Martin said. He smiled at his daughter where she played with the other pups. "Soccer camp starts in a few weeks. She wants to impress."
When I wrung my hands I tried to make it seem less nervous and more like something I was doing to occupy my hands. "I'm sorry," I said. "I haven't been feeling well."
"Nothing serious I hope," Isaac said.
"No. Just some bad dreams." I glanced at their faces. No one was condemning me. Not yet. "I can come by in a few days."
"She'd love that," Caroline replied.
Carrie, still at my elbow, leaned forward to whisper in my ear. "See," she murmured, and I could practically feel the smile curling her lips, "I told you."
Renee joined us, urging the young Elizabeth away from her hip. With the girl safely racing down the hill, to the other pups, she finally turned. "Hello, Vesper," she said, smiling. "You get lovelier by the day. More and more like your mother every year."
"Th-thank you," I murmured. Carrie's fingers were bruising and biting my arm.
There was an air of nervousness, hesitation, uncertainty. It came from them, as well as me. We didn't know how to be around each other anymore. There was no telling what words might show aggression, weakness. Which gestures might cause offense, a flinch. These people had once populated my world. But now they were as alien as strangers.
It felt comical, standing there watching their faces as we listened to the birds in the trees. I clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. Carrie rocked on her heels, pulling her lip into her mouth before smiling.
"So…" she began. The word was drawn out, an invitation for someone to say something, anything.
Simon took the bait. "News from the east," he said.
"What now?" Isaac groaned.
"It's been confirmed. Hinrik is dead."
"What?" Trisha exclaimed.
With three words Simon had put an end to my time in the spotlight. He watched my face as I let out the breath I had been holding, relieved. Carrie tugged on my arm and Simon nodded. Was I that transparent?
"When did this happen?" Isaac asked.
The grin he had been wearing for me flittered away as Simon turned. "Last August, as I understand it."
"Damn," Caroline murmured.
"What now?" Martin raised his beer bottle, but merely stared at it.
"Who knows?" Simon answered.
I swept a hand through my hair, pulling the tresses back. Beside me Carrie was hopping, giddy. The smile she flashed was smug. If my hands hadn't been shaking I might have taken a swipe at her, but the adrenaline of fear was still rushing through my veins. No matter what Carrie thought I knew they could still turn on me.
But let them talk about the war. Talk is all they would do.
"I thought that was you. Does an old woman get a hug?"
Carrie gave my arm a squeeze, before she went down to the pool. I watched her go until Aunt Magritte shuffled to a halt by my side. I smiled the first easy smile of the night, turning to face her. "You're not that old, Auntie," I murmured with a chuckle.
Sickness and torture had aged Aunt Magritte beyond her years. The laugh lines around her mouth, worry lines across her forehead, and crow's feet spoke of a full life, but the wrinkles and scars on her hands and throat told of a hard one. An accident long before my birth had broken her spine, and she had never healed properly; hunched, she walked with a cane. And when she spoke it was slow and aged, a byproduct of her youth spent in Europe, close to the old ways and traditions. Superstitions that had never found their way over the Atlantic.
She was our ki'haila. She knew the Law, and the old Rites, the Treatises. A rare breed in this time and place. When I held her I did it with care, a touch of reverence, and more than a little genuine fondness. She was the only one I had never feared, ever in my life.
"It's nice to see you here," she said in my ear before I pulled back. Her hands patted my arms in rhythm as she smiled up at me. "It was time you learned you've been afraid of nothing."
"Maybe," I said.
Aunt Magritte sighed, shaking her head. I watched her walk away, hugging my arms to my chest. The pups careened around me, absorbed in their game of Pack and Rabbits, and I sauntered down the hill toward the tree line. Fireflies darted from the light of one torch to the next, in search of darkness and the open night. I cupped one, carrying it with me to the guest house.
The guys smelled like the sun; sweat and tanned skin. Just the perfect tang of testosterone was in the air, and I savored it on the tip of my tongue. They were laughing and joking, lounging on the recliners beside the pool. I wanted to join them, but I couldn't.
Carrie leaned over the back of Kevin's chair, wrapping her arms around him. She noticed me, standing in the shadows. Her one raised eyebrow was an invitation. The firefly tried to escape from the gap between my thumbs, and I ducked away.
A good summer rain was on the way. I could smell the edge of it, feel the hairs on my arm rise with the charge in the air. It was still a few hours off. For now the clouds were thin shrouds over the stars and moon.
The wrought iron trellis at the edge of the woods framed a hidden and trodden trail. The arched gateway was a remnant of my mother, put here sometime before her death. She had loved things like that. Like a doorway to another world, she would say. There had been one behind my childhood home in Koupher. My mother had little touches of romanticism when she wanted.
"Come for a run with me," Richard said. His tread was careful, nearly silent. He had been stalking me, and even now, knowing he was there, I could barely hear him. "I promise not to insult your sensibilities again."
Scenting lies was a subtle art. My father had been adept at it, though such skill had not fallen to me. The overlap of emotions and nuances was not a simple thing to read. But some lies were easy to detect. Richard would insult my sensibilities again if he deemed it good fun; he would. Just as he would likely enjoy it when I tried to claw his face again.
"No thank you," I muttered.
I hated inevitabilities. The elders expected that Richard would win me eventually, just as he did. He had always been the strongest of my littermates, even outstripping his twin in skill. And Richard had convinced himself he wanted me. It was considered only a matter of time before I either gave in to him or he won the right of me during my Run. With every stubborn bone in my body I would resist, if only to see them all wrong.
He stood beside me and I felt the air stir as he breathed in. "It's a beautiful night," he said.
"I can admire it just fine from here," I replied.
"Why wait?" he said. He touched my hair. It was just a little brush of his fingertips as he swept a tress off my shoulder; my skin still itched at the contact. "You can't put it off, you know."
"I can. There's always tomorrow night." I was being obtuse.
"That wasn't what I was talking about…"
"I know," I said. "I was trying to ignore you." Opening my hands I finally let the firefly go. It blinked away. I tried to keep track of it.
"Would you rather Thomas…"
I growled, whirling to face him. Even though he was already pulling his arm away I slapped it aside. He didn't try to stop me. "I would rather be left alone," I snapped.
"Not going to happen. And you know it."
"What do you people want from me?" I demanded.
Richard smirked. "You people? You make it sound as if you hardly know us." He cocked his head, sauntering around behind me. I turned my head, but didn't watch him. "And maybe you don't."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You never come around…"
"I see everybody," I insisted.
"Here and there," Richard answered. "It's not like it used to be. Not like before."
My shoulders slumped as I sighed, looking up at the waning moon. "It'll never be like before. My parents are dead."
"But we're still family. All of us."
"Some family," I mumbled.
He was oddly silent. I had half expected some pithy retort, perhaps a speech on the bonds of family and pack. The same ones I had heard from my father, years upon years ago. Only…the words had never been spoken to me. My father had probably never imagined that one of his children would need to be reminded of it. But I would disregard whatever Richard threw at me with the dismissive air I had been cultivating for just such an occasion.
I didn't want them to stare at me anymore. I just wanted to be left alone.
When I turned to speak Richard's hand fell across my opening mouth. I shrieked indignantly into his palm, clawing at his hand. My cry was like a hum being shoved back down my throat. "Shut up," Richard finally hissed. "Do you smell that?"
He dropped his arm, and I wiped my hand over my lips. Though I glared at him, I still drew in a breath in reaction to his inquiry. A lung full of the scent of chlorine, oak, bird droppings, the smell of an owl and its kill, and something else trickled through my nose, down the back of my throat. I was still deciphering the anomaly when the crack of a twig threw Richard into motion.
"Vesper, run!" Richard commanded, shoving me roughly away.
I tottered forward, my fingernails scraping the dirt, before I found my balance. Only a step away from Richard, though, and he grabbed my wrist. A wolf came from the stand of trees that curved out into the yard, less than thirty feet away. I twisted my arm to break Richard's hold on my wrist, simply to clutch his hand.
Two more wolves joined the first. They stepped from the woods like phantoms, each pace calm and assured. There was one last joyous shriek from Lyn that echoed in the quiet of their appearance before she was hushed. Shouts from the elders heralded the emergence of the last wolf. He phased as he strode from the trees, letting his pelt cloth him for merely a moment.
He stood adorned only in scars, cruel mouth turned up in a sneer. "I am Korser, speaker for Kire."
"Stay back," Richard warned.
The wolf regarded him, unimpressed. "Call for Lucien. We would have words with the Dmitri."
"Lucien isn't here. He's gone," Richard gritted.
Korser swept the yard with narrowed, suspicious eyes. "The scent is diluted, yet lingers. A Dmitri is among you." Richard's fingers tightened on my wrist. Korser eyes flicked from the gesture to my face. "Ah, I see."
Richard was watching Korser when one of the wolves attacked him. We fell together, the three of us, to the sound of my breathless cry. The weight of Richard's body crushed the air from my lungs. My right arm was caught underneath me, my wrist bent at an awkward angle. I felt it protest the pressure. A moment before it may have snapped I twisted it free.
Levering himself up, Richard held the wolf at bay. It lunged at me, but he caught its jowls, holding them apart for merely a moment. I scuttled backwards. Korser moved for me and I swiped wildly at his face, turning the motion into a roll. One of my flats slipped from my foot, lost in the desperate attempt at flight. Richard was snarling in anger and pain.
The backyard was a blur of lights and motion. Screams of terror echoed in the musty air, colliding with each other into absolute horror. My stomach was cramped with it. The muscles of my legs coiled with the instinct to change.
Simon had his shirt half unbuttoned, flanking Isaac as they came down the slope. "Cowards!" Isaac shouted. I stood as he grabbed my arm, steering me behind him. "Leave the boy alone."
"He is of age. And no boy." Richard was gripping the wolf's upper lips, trying to pry the fangs from his flesh. "But you bring up a fair point. Drop him," Korser commanded sharply. With the heel of his foot Korser shoved the wolf away. The creature rolled easily, offering neither fangs nor snarls as he returned to his place, but the way he walked suggested smugness. He had tested our reaction, and found weakness. "After all, we came to talk, not to fight."
"We have nothing to say to Kire," Isaac growled. "Crawl back to your master and…"
One of the wolves leapt to his feet, jowls snapping together. A staying gesture from Korser forced him back to his haunches. "You're awfully arrogant for a leaderless pack," Korser sneered. "Your bravado means little. Kire has something to say to you, so you will listen, mongrel." His comrades sat in the grass, staring challenges at the pack.
I reached out to Richard, pulling him close to inspect his wound. The blood was thin, but plentiful, trickling over my fingers as I held his arm. Ripping the hem of his shirt, I bandaged it, shaking my head and laying a hand over the stain that spread.
Richard bent his head. "I'm fine," he murmured.
"You're not fine. I'm not fine," I snapped softly. "None of us are fine."
Aunt Magritte put herself between the wolves and the pack, and Richard gazed over his shoulder as the old she-wolf's voice carried. "Speak your piece," she said.
Korser mouthed something to the wolf at his side. The creature turned like an obedient dog, disappearing back into the woods. "A wolf flees from Kire's justice," he said, finally. "He has plotted treason, and must face punishment. Were he to come to you it would be to your benefit to turn him over."
"That's it?" Thomas scoffed.
Isaac held up a hand; I'm sure we weren't the only ones that noticed how it trembled. "Hold," he murmured, before looking back at the wolves. "No one has approached us."
"Kire's justice?" Thomas demanded, despite Isaac's warning gesture. "How can you use those words in the same sentence?"
"Thomas!" Carrie snapped. "Quiet!"
"Listen to the little bitch," Korser snarled.
"Don't be stupid," Richard growled lowly, too soft for Thomas to hear. It thrummed through me, though, the palm of my hand feeling the rumble in his chest.
"I'll handle this," Isaac whispered. Thomas sneered at the elder as he was pushed back. "This is no concern of ours," Isaac said. "Or is Kire not strong enough to handle his own affairs?"
"Watch yourself," Korser warned.
"Kire's a fucking coward," Thomas snarled.
"What did you say?"
Carrie whimpered. "Thomas!" She shouted.
"Hiding behind you and your threats," Thomas said. "He's a fucking coward."
"You impugn my alpha's honor?" Korser asked. The shock on his face was a mockery. "You forget yourself, boy. Since Kire is not here to defend himself, by the Law that task falls to me."
"I'm not afraid of you," Thomas vowed.
"Thomas, please…" Carrie begged.
"Unwise," Korser said.
Isaac grabbed Thomas by the back of the neck, shoving him down. "Shut up!" He shouted. The elders stepped in line between us and Korser, desperately seeking to undo the damage Thomas' rashness had begun.
Thomas broke away, snarling in Isaac's face. "You're just going to let him stand there?" He shouted. When he lunged forward Isaac caught him. Korser lifted his lips as Thomas glared. "I'm not afraid of you!"
"You want a fight, boy!" Korser's claws grew, wicked, ugly things. The mouth that spoke was edged with fangs, and half changed, morphing his voice into a nearly indistinguishable growl. "Come on!"
"Thomas, no!" Isaac threw him back.
"I'll fight you! I'll kill you!" Thomas spoke with the tears thick in his voice, not on his cheeks. "I'm only disappointed Kire's not here himself. I'd love to sink my fangs into his throat…"
"You're confidence is embarrassing, boy," Korser said. "You should run back to your mother's den."
Carrie grabbed her brother's arm. "Thomas, please!" She pawed at his arm, her fingers slipping down his sleeve. "Don't do this."
"I'll kill you!" Thomas bellowed. His vow echoed from his changing mouth.
"No!" The pack cried as one being, watching as he threw Carrie aside. Korser matched Thomas' metamorphosis with a killer's glee.
Thomas ripped his shirt over his head, changing as he did. When he leapt forward he came down heavily, his back legs tangled in his jeans. He twisted, jowls closing on his pants, and Korser went at his unprotected side.
"Thomas!" Carrie screamed.
Someone else was screaming. Belatedly, I realized it was me. I stuffed a fist in my mouth to stifle the shrieks. Richard held me behind him, an elbow digging into my stomach, and his fingers clenched against my hip. But it was less to keep me in line, than himself. I could feel the tremble in his arm, the restraint it took. Claws unsheathed, I clutched him. He couldn't interfere. The Law forbade it.
The denim of Thomas' jeans was resilient. Strings of it were caught between his teeth when he was forced to roll to face Korser. Kire's wolf went for the throat with little fanfare, his teeth seeking a quick end. Thomas tore away, leaving a hunk of fur behind in Korser's jaws. A little blood dripped from the clump.
Thomas bucked, throwing his hind legs into Korser's jaw, sending the male hurtling backwards. Finally free of all restraints Thomas circled his foe. He danced close, then pulled away, testing Korser's defenses. Kire's wolf barely blinked as Thomas feinted. They clashed and rolled. Thomas continuously pulled away, unable to remain locked with Korser for long.
Hands gripping her elbows, Kevin held Carrie back. Her face was red with weeping, her mouth an ugly slash. The cries she made were incoherent, wordless. My hair stood on end, and my throat ached to howl beside her.
When Thomas attacked again, Korser easily tossed him aside. Thomas landed on his back, and I bit my tongue to hide a sickened sob. The elders paced along an invisible line, tottering on the brink of the disaster playing out before them, unable to stop it. Korser outweighed Thomas by a noticeable margin. This was no fair fight.
"Get up," Richard breathed. I found myself repeating him under my breath, over and over.
Thomas floundered and the world narrowed. It was so obvious, though perhaps only hindsight made it seem so. I could see Korser, fangs bared, could see the way he moved, long, slow strides, and I knew what was coming. My palms were clammy against my face as I peeked between my fingers.
When Thomas jerked up he found a paw against his neck. He bucked, but Korser weighed him down. Holding himself over Thomas, Korser taunted him, licking his stomach with languid amusement. Thomas' snarl was merely a whimper the moment before Korser snapped.
He screamed. My hands cupped my ears, but I couldn't keep the shrieks out of my head. Richard turned away, hiding his face in my hair. I fell into him as Thomas' cries went hoarse, yet still continued. When I gazed past Richard I watched him shudder as Korser chewed his gut. Carrie was suddenly silent.
What once had been the smooth expanse of Thomas' stomach was sickeningly distorted. The moonlight glinted off something wet and round, seeping out of his belly. The death change back to his skin was agonizingly slow, and enlarged his wound, spilling his insides out on the grass. It took all the strength I possessed in that desperate moment to glance away from Thomas and gaze at his murderer.
Finally standing, Korser did it on two human legs. The blood on his chin and chest dripped down his stomach like paint on a wall. I couldn't look away from it now, as if that were really Thomas and the body on the ground was nothing anymore. My stomach heaved, but I pressed a hand to my mouth, tasting bile and the blood from my bitten tongue.
"Let this be a warning to you," Korser said. "You seem to forget who it is that suffers you to live." He dug his toe under Thomas' arm, nudging his body so it rocked. "Consider this a reminder."
Korser spit on Thomas' corpse, before twisting. He hit the ground on four paws, leaping toward the tree line, and disappearing behind the brush. His guards followed reluctantly. Their jowls were parted in toothy grins, the white of their fangs bright in the meager moonlight.
We stood in eerie, cicada broken silence. Thomas lay alone and gutted, his blood glinting in the last meager light. It was a perfect, crystalline moment, suspended in the certainty of death. And like the certainty of death nothing could ever make it right.
With an inhuman scream Carrie tore away from Kevin, stumbling across the yard. She scrambled on her hands and knees the last few feet, all her strength wasted on the sobs that shook her body. When Carrie fell across her brother she slapped him sharply.
"Wake up!" She shrieked. "You stupid…!"
Ephraim's fingers were clenched in his hair. "…Carrie…" he sobbed.
She half stood, shoving him back. "Get away from us!" When she turned away she collapsed, crushed.
The scent of vomit mingled in the air with the hot aroma of blood. With a whimper Carter dragged his arm across his chin, meeting my eyes as I glanced at him. Spurred into motion Renee lifted Elizabeth into her arms, hiding her daughter's face in her shoulder. She corralled the children, taking Carter's hand and leading him away. The other pups followed in a daze. Their fingers clutched at Renee's belt loops, reached for her arms, anything to give them purchase. Lyn was the only one to look back.
I recognized the numbness sliding over her features.
Swallowing, I glanced up at the faces around me. Nothing seemed familiar. "I want to go home," I whispered. No one heard me.
Carrie screamed when Kevin moved to draw her away. I watched as she tried to stuff her brother's intestines back into his body. She didn't need me. Isaac knelt, closing Thomas' eyes, throwing his jacket over him. Aunt Magritte leaned on her cane to caress' Carrie's hair as the elders drew in close to comfort her, their voices nothing but soft murmurs.
She didn't need me. She had them. People better suited for this.
"I want to go," I whispered. I took hold of Richard's arm. "Take me home. Please."
Richard looked at me, scanning my face. I wouldn't meet his gaze, but out of the corner of my eyes I saw him nod. He held my arm, gently, turning me around. Wyatt followed as we trudged across the backyard.
Most of Eirisburg was still asleep. Quiet houses with dark windows were the only witnesses to our passing. The sun would dawn on another lazy summer day. For so many people their lives were no different this morning than the night before. Some people would never understand how quickly everything could change. How fleeting peace and security were.
Three blocks from the Den we passed the first traces of life stirring in the little suburb. A young boy, dressed in hockey gear, came down from his house and clambered up into a minivan as we walked by. His mother stood close, downing coffee vigorously from a tall thermos, her eyes trained on the pink horizon. She gave us a gentle smile, as one might give to another stranger. And then it occurred to me.
She didn't know.
Thomas was dead, and this woman knew nothing about it. Would never know anything about it. His death would no more affect her than the demise of a flea or a cockroach.
I stumbled. The sidewalk rose to greet me, until Richard checked my fall. He swung me up easily, and didn't question the tears that had finally decided to fall. Not to be questioned was the smallest reprieve I could expect. Gratefully I wrapped one arm around his neck, burying my face against his shoulder.
Wyatt waited in front of my apartment complex, hands in his pockets, watching the dawn fight the clouds for dominance of the sky. It began to rain as Richard carried me up the stairs, and the first few drops splattered against my hand, swept in by the wind through the breezeway. The storm was closer than I thought. I was wrong. What a terrible feeling.
The sound of sobs invaded my dreams. Rolling over, I lifted myself with my elbows. I couldn't remember turning the television on, or leaving it on. With a groan I rolled out of bed, trudging down the hallway. I wiped the sleep from my eyes, staring at the dark screen; the sound of weeping was too real.
My shirt stuck to my back as I stood behind my couch. Helplessly, I looked back down my hallway, searching for something. The stark white walls seemed to glow in the darkness, barren and blank. Gathering courage with the clench of my fists, I slipped into the corner of the couch. Carrie reached for me, and I let her hold on. She pressed her face against my stomach, soaking my shirt with her tears. My fingers caught in clumps of dried blood as I stroked her hair.
"He's dead," she whispered, her voice muffled.
There was an awful tension in my shoulders as I held Carrie close. I didn't know what to say to comfort her. The days after my parent's death were a blur to me. What had the others said to soothe me? I couldn't recall. And would it have helped if I did? Their words couldn't have meant much. I opened my mouth, to try something, but everything I could think of would sound false.
I licked my lips nervously before I could think of anything to say. "Don't think about it," I managed. It sounded stupid, to say something like that. As if Carrie could forget that she would never see her brother again. As if any of us could forget. But I was at a loss. I was not prepared for this.
Hugging her close, I tried to soften the shuddering that racked her body. It was all I could do.
"Wake up! Vee, wake up!" Ephraim's voice drifted into my dream.
"Mm…go away…" I mumbled, trying to turn over. Something heavy was lying across my stomach. I pushed it away.
"Hey," Carrie murmured, indignant, but sleepy.
Ephraim shook me again. "C'mon, Vee!"
"What is it?" I demanded. My tone lacked the necessary venom for anger. I was too tired to care.
The confusing statement caught my attention. I pried my eyes open. "What?" My eyebrows furrowed. "Who?"
"The lone wolf!"
I sat up sharply, pitching Carrie onto the carpet. "What did you say?"
Carrie flailed briefly on the floor, caught off guard by my sudden movement. When she finally sat up her eyes were puffy and swollen shut. She had to rub at them furiously to stare at Ephraim. But there was nothing drowsy in her expression. She had heard Ephraim; she understood.
"Hurry!" Ephraim insisted loudly. He crashed out my front door.
I collided with Carrie as I rolled off the couch. We hit the coffee table together before we managed to untangle our limbs. She was the last one out the door, and slammed it closed behind her. The sound of it echoed in my ears as I tore down the street after Ephraim.
Every breath I drew in was full of fire and fear. The air was a muggy blanket. Traces of heat lightning flashed on the horizon, the faint reminder of the retreating storm. We seemed to chase the thunderheads. The cleansing scent of summer rain steamed up from the sidewalk, invisible but potent.
This path was familiar. Not five hours earlier I had fled from the Den down these same sidewalks, brimming with the terror of death. And here I was, flying back the way I had come, the same dread filling up every corner of my soul. What had we done to deserve this?
I wove through the maze of cars in the driveway, bursting out the other side and hitting the front door with enough force to knock it open. I paused on the stoop, gripping the threshold, only long enough to take in the emptiness of the Den. The door was open to nothing. No elders. No pups. No one. Somewhere in the dark recesses of the manor I could smell Thomas' body. But no one living.
"Hurry," Ephraim cried, catching up at last. He hurtled around the side of the house.
Carrie stopped behind me, sucking in heavy breaths of anxiety. "C'mon," I said, grabbing her hand.
We found Ephraim not even half a mile into the woods. He was clambering over a fallen tree, disturbing the brush with frantic swipes of his claws. I almost begged him to stop, sure that whatever was in the woods would hear the commotion, until I caught two eyes staring at me from between the branches. Mud streaked and disheveled, Lyn stood slowly from the bush.
"They led him away," she murmured. There was blood on her shirt.
"Where are the others, Lyn? Where's Kevin?" Carrie asked.
Bryan and Alexander parted the branches of the bush, coming up from the trench under the fallen tree. "They led him away. All of them," Bryan said. Alexander pointed, continuing, "That way."
The blood on Lyn's shirt was still wet, fresh. I smeared two fingers through it, lifting my hand to my nose. It wasn't hers. The scent was unmistakably kin to her. Kevin's. Carrie grabbed my wrist, when I offered my hand, and took a sniff as well. She met my gaze desperately.
Lyn watched our faces. "We're going to die." It wasn't a question.
"No," I said. "Take the others back to the Den." The pups crawled from their hiding place. They were still dressed from the night before, clothes rumbled and dirty. I sighed. "Whatever happens, you'll be safe there."
"Come with us?" Elizabeth murmured.
I glanced over. "Ephraim?"
"No way," he snapped. "I have to see this."
Carrie shook her head when I looked to her. It shouldn't have even crossed my mind to send the pups off alone, but I couldn't take them myself. And neither Ephraim nor Carrie would allow themselves to be ordered. "Lyn, you can do this. Take the others."
"You…you have to come with us," Lyn begged.
"If we're not back in an hour, or if you see this rogue coming, run like hell," I instructed. They stared at me, hopeless and terrified. "Keep to public places. Even he wouldn't dare harm you in front of so many humans. Call Aunt Magritte and she'll come for you. She'll take you to Columbus. Calvin will watch out for you."
Lyn whined in the back of her throat, but she didn't argue. As scared as she was, she was still a wolf. If it came to it, she would fight, but until then instinct demanded that she obey. I felt cold hearted as I gave Lyn a gentle shove.
She took Elizabeth's hand. "Let's go," she said.
The pups didn't argue. She was the eldest, and they would follow her until they were safe. Even Bryan and Alexander offered no protest, disappearing into the woods after her. We listened to the sound of their passage until it faded away. A few moments of nothing but the sound of crickets chirping passed before we were sure they were gone.
"Hurry," Ephraim gritted, at last. "They could be dead already." Though he turned as if to go, he still waited for me.
I stared at Carrie, transfixed by the blood in her hair. She had changed her shirt, before coming to me, but had not thought to wash out her hair. Thomas' blood glued it together in reddish brown clumps near her temples, and down the side of her face, from where slick fingers had tucked tresses behind her ear. The scent was becoming diluted, a pale specter of the brilliance of the life that had been Thomas'. It was old, and like a memory, would eventually fade from thought.
I couldn't remember what my father smelled like. Maybe if I had had some warning I would have tried to memorize it. But I was far beyond maybes. He was dead and rotting.
Ephraim's claws dug into my shoulder. "Vesper!" He cried.
With a gasp I whirled, stumbling into a sprint. As we ran I prayed as if I believed the Goddess was listening. We wouldn't be able to survive another death. There were already too few of us. It would be the end of us, not just emotionally, but as a pack. It was a wonder we had managed to hold together this long without an alpha. Whatever ties that bound us were weakening. Too much stress and they would snap.
The sounds of battle reached us, before we found Connor. He was still in his pelt, alive, but his back leg was mangled, almost broken. At Carrie's touch he woke briefly, whining. When Ephraim tried to move him Connor howled in agony until the pain forced him under again.
"We can't stay here. The others must be farther in," Carrie said, standing. "Let's go."
My prayers became halfhearted attempts to keep my sanity. We found them in ones and twos. Kevin and Renee. Then Simon. Trisha. Diana and Caroline. My lips began to move in tandem with the words in my head. I couldn't believe that one wolf could cause this much pain and chaos. No wolf but Kire. The air was a confusing host of scents, and there was no time to understand it.
It was small consolation that they were all still alive. Beaten as they were it would almost be better if they were dead. If we all fell, then we would belong to this rogue. And he could do with us what he willed.
An unfamiliar pelt took flight from us as we came upon Martin and Robert. The wolf disappeared into the forest, but I could still smell him. I stood near the elders, surveying the trees cautiously.
"Was that him?" Ephraim murmured.
"Shh…" Carrie whispered.
We were close. I pressed a finger to my lips and Carrie and Ephraim nodded; Ephraim swallowed his fear noticeably. Our hands found each other as I led them through the brush. The scent of wolves drew us in. Not just one, but three separate and distinct spoors. This rogue had aid. We were doomed.
Wyatt crashed through a bush, scattering twigs, leaves, and blood. Carrie screamed. When she recoiled she pulled me off balance, throwing me into Ephraim. We went down in a floundering heap as Wyatt struggled to his paws, his muzzle wrinkling with a snarl. The wolf that had fled from us barreled after, falling into our midst.
Carrie's voice was cursing loudly in my ear. Under me Ephraim was spluttering, sucking in the air my body had knocked from him. I should have stood, but Richard was swerving around a tree, pursued. Even with a wolf on his heels he still leapt on the one attacking Wyatt. The four of them rolled back into the glade, biting and scratching.
I stepped on Ephraim's stomach, launching myself after them. My mouth went dry as I settled on my heels. The branches of the bush parted under my fingers and my heart leapt, then dropped. Instinct warned me to run, but I was too paralyzed to move.
Isaac fought the rogue as his allies battled the twins. Richard threw one aside, moving in to help Wyatt with the other. They danced him across the clearing, farther from Isaac and the stranger. Together the brothers were one being. Years of hunting side by side had made them aware of little nuances of movement and sound.
Alone they were formidable. Together they were beautiful.
Yet Isaac was faring poorly. Oblivious to the struggle behind them Richard and Wyatt dispatched one of the stranger's allies. Harder than killing a rabbit, but he was made of flesh and bone, and could be broken. Not without cost, however.
The white of bone peeked from under Richard's pelt. Wyatt favored his left foreleg. When they turned it was not precise and controlled. It was the desperate movements of weariness and blood loss. Still, they would fight until they fell.
His last ally fled to his side, and the rogue tackled Isaac. He held Isaac's throat in his jowls, his fangs bared in an obvious threat. Richard and Wyatt drew up short, their snarls mixing in perfect concert. But they didn't attack. They wouldn't, not with Isaac's life hanging by a thread. I watched their fur bristle and muscles twitch as they sank to the dirt.
When he stood, I could see the cruel scar running down the side of his face take shape. It was starker against the pallor of skin rather than fur. His voice was colored by a throat that had been mauled, and never healed. "A wise choice," he rasped to the twins. The male put a foot against Isaac's neck, holding him in submission. "You'll have to do."
So, here is the edited version of the Prologue and Chapter I. There are still some things I'm not completely happy with, but overall I am pleased with the TONE and DIRECTION of these new chapters.
For new readers: I'm sorry but there will be no more after this. If you're interested in the story, the world, and/or the characters you can check out my tumbler (evindell. tumblr .com) and my livejournal (evindell. livejournal .com). However, be aware that these sites (more my livejournal than my tumblr) contain spoilers.
For returning readers: Welcome! I am very interested in learning your opinion of the new Prologue and Chapter. That is, if you can remember the old versions well enough to compare them. Also, the same invitation that I extended above is given to you. Check out my tumblr and livejournal if the mood ever strikes you. I always welcome questions and discussion.
Also, for those that offered to help me through this editing process, I would be very grateful if you could send me your email addresses. I probably won't be on Fictionpress much after this, so I prefer to do everything through email from now on. A native German speaker, or someone of equal skill, would be very welcome. My limited knowledge only extends so far. Two quarters in college hardly makes me an expert.
I offer this as a gift to my loyal readers. Many of you have been with me since the beginning. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and soul. And I'm sorry that I failed to reply to every review I received from the final Chapter. There were so many, and I was so tired after that finish. I hope this makes up for it, to everyone that is interested.