Willem graciously allows me to shower, change my clothes, and eat breakfast before forcing me to work with the wolf priest. Lawton and Tanner are posted outside of Mathéo's personal chamber underground. The stone walls are draped with thick black curtains. A worn wooden chair sits in the center of the room, outfitted with leather straps and shackles to keep its occupant in place. There is an altar draped in deep purple cloth, laden with pewter bowls, guttering candles, and sticks of burning incense, set up along the wall. The wolf statue that I'd been told about on my first day here rests proudly amidst the candles and incense. Something like moonlight glows around it; the magick is quite palpable.
I am drawn to the small carved wolf. Its energy reels me in, but before I can examine the statue further, Willem barks, "Don't even think about it! Only Mathéo and I are allowed to touch the Great Wolf. Got it?"
"Got it," I echo, rolling my eyes. "So who are we summoning?"
"The alpha of Wimborne, Frederick Bachelet. He's the pompous bastard who's out to get me. We'll see just how tough he is once I'm through with him." Willem smiles nastily.
The wolf priest is shrouded in a long ash-grey robe. His hood is down and he fixes his creepy, milky-eyed stare on me. "You have mated with a wolf. I can smell it. In my day, a witch who dared to lay with a wolf was immediately put to death."
"Thankfully we don't live in your backwards court of yesteryear," Willem intones. Smirking, he steps closer to me and trails a pale finger down the side of my face. "Hell, if I wasn't wholeheartedly committed to Lilah, I might be tempted to take you as my own." I fight down the bile rising in my throat and muster up a smile.
"But that is blasphemy, my liege. I strongly advise -"
"Oh, shut up, Mathéo. And never question my decisions ever again. The pack needs all of its members right now; I will deal with Tanner later as I see fit." Willem goes over to the cloaked priest and jabs him in his narrow chest. "Now stop talking and get Frederick in here."
With that, Willem goes to stand expectantly in front of the wooden chair.
"How do you want to do this? Use a circle of flames? Or water with malachite? I hope you have a wand," I say, getting down to business.
Mathéo pulls a long, thin wand from the pocket of his frayed robe. It looks to be made of dogwood, with strands of silver pounded into the wood. An opaque orb is attached to the end. Many witches use wands to channel and amplify their magick, but I don't personally own one.
Using the wand and chanting in Latin, he draws the flames from the candles on the altar into a circle around the chair, just in front of Willem's feet. I can tell this task uses up a lot of Mathéo's energy. I reluctantly focus on the flames and join his chant, but I use Gaelic. Our voices rise to a crescendo and seconds later, a powerfully built man appears in the chair. Mathéo rushes forward and straps the man's arms and legs down, uttering a quick spell to strengthen the bindings. Spent, the wolf priest falls back against his altar. Willem does not seem to care that his beloved priest is half-dead on the floor; his attention is completely focused on his new prisoner.
"How are your wounded pack members, Freddy? Are they healing well? What happened is so terribly disturbing. Have you any idea who the perpetrators are?"
Frederick strains against his bonds. His blue eyes reflect the fiery circle that surrounds him. "You son of a bitch! I know it was your inbred little family that planted those bombs," he seethes. "You are a spoiled child unfit to rule a pack. Hand over Starling right now and I will be lenient with you."
Willem laughs in the other alpha's face. "Your insults are meaningless. You do realize that you are only alive because of my good grace? I could snap my fingers and have your neck snapped, you bastard. Sign our treaty and be gone."
The trapped werewolf begins to shift. Thick black fur sprouts from the top of his head and down his chest and over his arms. His mouth pushes out into a snout and his teeth elongate. Willem has prepared for this, however. Whatever dark magick that has been worked in this chamber before my arrival inhibits Frederick's change. He howls in fury and reverts back to his human form. Knowing that he truly is trapped, fear springs to life in his eyes. He surveys the chamber and glares at me. "Who the hell are you?"
I cast my eyes down and keep quiet. The summoning spell will not last for much longer, especially without the added energy of Mathéo, who is now completely unconscious on the floor.
Willem steps over the wolf priest and retrieves a couple of metal tools from the altar. His aura pulses completely black. Noxious waves of malice roll from the very depths of his soul as he smiles slowly, lifting the metal branding rod for Frederick to see. He wears brass knuckles on his left hand and swiftly punches the other alpha in the face. The crunch of metal against flesh and bone is sickening. Frederick spits blood but stays silent. He does not want to give Willem any sort of satisfaction. Willem hits him again and again.
Wincing, I back away from the horror until I am against the door. "Tanner, you have to get in here," I whisper, pressing the side of my face to the slight opening where the hinges are. "Please. Willem's going to kill him, please, you…" The words die in my throat as I watch Willem dip the metal rod into the magickal flames before thrusting the burning end into the middle of Frederick's chest. The brand burns through the material of the werewolf's shirt, straight onto his skin. The scream that rips from his throat is something out of a nightmare.
Tears run down my face. My knees buckle, and as I sink to the cold floor, I gather up all of my energy and break the summoning spell. Frederick goes back to his pack and I am left staring at a murderous Willem, high on bloodlust, holding a scalding metal poker with an 'S' for Starling on the end. He advances toward me and I slip into darkness.
I wake up with a throbbing headache. My vision swims and fades in and out to the march of my heartbeat.
"Emrys? Can you hear me?"
Tanner's gruff voice gives me something to focus on. He is sitting on my bed beside me, holding a cool cloth to my forehead. I bat his hand away and sit up, ignoring the dizziness I feel. "Willem almost killed that other alpha. Oh, Goddess. He's insane, Tanner. I can't stay here, I just can't take this." Tears burn behind my eyelids but I refuse to cry. Thinking back to the last memories I have before passing out, I scan my body for any injuries – especially anything resembling an 'S'.
"He didn't brand you," Tanner says quietly. "He hit you pretty hard on the head, though."
"So he realized I broke the summoning spell," I mutter, rubbing the side of my head. "Damn. I figured he'd think the spell ended on its own…"
"Yeah, well, you're lucky all he did was hit you." I look closer at Tanner and see that part of his bottom lip is swollen.
"He went after you, too?"
"Willem's not a fighter. He wasn't much of a match," Tanner replies. He holds up his palm with the pentagram. "As soon as he hit you I was pretty much compelled through the door. I got him to back off and brought you up here." He glances at the clock on the bedside table. "That was almost three hours ago."
"So where is he now? Plotting my demise?"
"Nope. He's with the rest of the pack, downstairs, planning the final attack."
I bury my face in my hands. "I'm beyond tired of this, Tanner. I need to get out of here for a while. Is there some way for me to sneak out?"
His dark eyes regard me for a moment before he answers. "You can't leave town, you know. Not yet."
"I know! I know, okay? I just need some space from all this insanity!"
"Head down the hall. There's a back staircase that goes right outside. It used to lead to a servants' quarters back in the early 1900s. " He pulls his keys from his pocket and hands them to me. "Here. Take my truck. Just try not to be gone for too long."
Keys in hand, I toss back the blankets and move slowly to the doorway. As much as I want to avoid this awkward conversation, I also want to get it out of the way. "What is this, exactly? Between us, I mean."
"It's whatever you want it to be."
"You don't think we should figure this out? Label it or something?"
Tanner joins me in the doorway and pulls me into his arms. The top of my head barely grazes his chin. "We're grown-ups, Emrys. We don't need to label anything."
I step back and kiss his cheek. He's right, but we will need to hammer out the details of our relationship sooner or later.
I am able to leave the property unopposed. I ride into town with the windows down and the radio turned up as loud as it will go. The music does nothing to improve my headache, but it doesn't make it worse, either. Clouds have rolled in, blocking out the sun. I park the truck in Tanner's driveway and wander over to the Old Crow.
Inside, two older guys are seated at the far end of the scuffed mahogany bar. It's barely after three o'clock in the afternoon but they're pounding back beers. The television mounted in the corner shows a muted baseball game. I pop a few quarters into the ancient jukebox and smile as the opening notes of Make Your Own Kind of Music by the Mamas & the Papas spill out.
I take a seat at the opposite end of the bar from the townies. I slap down my driver's license and a twenty dollar bill and wait for the bartender to notice me.
'You're gonna be nowhere
The loneliest kind of lonely.
It may be rough goin',
Just to do your thing's
The hardest thing to do...'
"You Tanner's latest fling?" the bartender asks. He throws a towel over his shoulder and sidles up to my side of the bar. He's pale and built like a swimmer, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. His white-blond hair is slicked back and his left eyebrow is double-pierced. He looks to be barely out of his teens.
"How is that any of your business?"
He chuckles. "It's not. But I saw you get out of the guy's truck. So what's the story?"
"You're going to have to ply me with alcohol to get the gory details."
"Your wish is my command." He gives my driver's license a cursory glance and hands it back. "What'll it be, Red?"
"Let's start with a bottle of Corona and go from there."
A/N: Thank you for reading! Keep those reviews coming :)