Gone Hunting - Chapter One
Her name was Celia. I never saw her coming. I didn’t know I’d needed her. But isn’t that how love is supposed to work?
I hop downstairs. I don’t mean I take the steps one or even three at a time. I mean I hop over the railing and leap from the second floor to the first, landing almost silently in a crouch, the backpack on my shoulders barely brushing against my spine.
I’m a were. A wolf to be exact. I can get away with leaping from landings physically, but not so much with my mother.
“Aric,” she calls, turning away from the stove. “You’re a were, not an animal. Take the stairs.”
Dad looks up from reading his paper and smirks. “Listen to your mother, son.”
I return his smirk and walk toward the kitchen. “Yes, sir. Sorry, Mom.”
All eight burners are going on the stove. The smell of several pounds of bacon and more pounds of eggs stirred my senses when Mom first opened the fridge. Yeah, I’m that sensitive to smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. And at fifteen, I’m always hungry.
I plop down next to my dad, allowing the pack to fall to my side. “Smells good,” I say.
Dad sighs and turns the page. “It always does when your mother’s in there. Not so much when we cook.”
“Nope. We suck,” I agree.
Mom’s laugh draws my smile. My parents are supposed to lay into me and drive me crazy, force me to rebel, and scream at me when I do things they think I shouldn’t. Except, jumping down a flight of stairs and leaving my mostly destroyed clothes on the floor aside, I’m a pretty decent kid with awesome parents.
I reach for the pitcher of freshly squeezed orange juice, yawning a lot louder than I intend. “Sorry,” I say, yawning a second time when I fill my glass.
My knife slices into the butter the second Mom drops several pancakes on my plate. I’m ready to dig in when the scent of fresh buttercream finds my nose. Instead, I blink several times, trying to brush off my fatigue.
I didn’t sleep much last night. My head spun with weird dreams that didn’t make sense. I was wrenched backward and away from her. No . . . that’s not right. She was ripped from me. They were taking her away from me. Whoever she was. I frown, remembering how bad it tore me up. I tried to hold on, tried to see her face. All I could make out were her delicate hands in mine. She sobbed, afraid to let go, while my eyes burned with rage-filled tears.
I was pissed and sad and . . . broken, except nothing I felt made sense. I didn’t recognize her and I couldn’t fathom why she meant so much to me.
The only thing I’m sure of is that a part of me left with her. And the way I feel this morning, it’s still missing.
“Are you all right, son?” Dad asks.
I don’t realize how hard I’m gripping my knife until I open my palm and all that’s left is a warped piece of metal. My anger at losing her lingers and I took it out on the stupid knife.
“Sorry. I was . . .” I was what? Angry that I let some girl I didn’t know go? “I didn’t sleep well,” I admit.
Dad folds his paper and places it aside, closely analyzing me. “Did you sleep with the window open?”
I don’t remember leaving it open, but I nod when I remember how the cool spring breeze swept against my back when I stumbled into the bathroom this morning.
“There was a bad windstorm last night,” Dad says, his dark eyebrows furrowing. “Earth’s energy travels in the wind, as well as the memories of those long forgotten.”
“The wind also carries magic,” Mom quietly adds. She leaves the stove, a large pan of eggs gripped in her hand.
“Yes,” Dad agrees. “A great deal of magic.”
Mom scoops eggs onto Dad’s plate, forming a large pile. “In the future, when the wind is that rough, I’d like you to sleep with the window closed.”
The scent of cheese, carefully diced onions, and minced garlic seeps into my nose in a mouth-watering sweep. I dig into my eggs the moment the first scoop lands on my plate.
“Why?” I ask, swallowing quickly.
“You’re different, son,” Dad reminds me.
My chewing slows. It’s the same thing I’ve heard all my life. Yeah, some things come easy for me. I’m stronger than older and larger weres. I’m a better tracker and more agile than anyone around. But I don’t feel different. I’m just me, I guess.
“I’m serious, Aric.” Dad tells me. “You achieved your first change before you were two months old. We went to sleep with an infant between us and woke with a wolf pup. Two months. I still don’t think you comprehend the significance.”
Maybe I don’t. The most powerful weres achieve their first change at six months of age following a full moon. The weakest, closer to a year. If you don’t change in the first year, you’re more human and that’s how you’ll stay. It’s something weres who mate with humans deal with. Not pures like us.
My fork hovers over my plate as I give Dad’s words some thought. I shove the large helping quickly into my mouth when I sense him noticing. No were had ever before achieved a change at younger than six months-old. It makes me uncomfortable to be perceived as omnipotent. I’m not. Cut my head off or shoot me up with gold bullets, I’m just as dead as the next were. People around here forget that. They look at me like I’ll single-handedly save the world, or some other impossible stunt. They fall all over themselves, cozying up to me, filling me with compliments they can’t possibly mean. The kissing up, the bowing, the groveling…I hate it.
“There’s no telling how strong you’ll become or what powers you may inherit because of it,” Dad says.
“I had trouble sleeping,” I mumble. “It’s no big deal.” I don’t want anyone making a big fuss over me. It bothers me more when my parents do it. Aside from my small and close-knit circle of friends, they’re the only ones who still see me as Aric, not the savior others have come to expect.
Mom scoops another large helping of eggs onto my plate. Tendrils of steam drift from the pan. “Perhaps. Perhaps not,” she says. “But if you’re this sensitive to what the wind carries, sleep with the window closed. I don’t want to risk a mental attack, or worse, while you’re at your most vulnerable.”
I open my mouth to argue. It’s not that I can’t shut the stupid window or that I need it open. I suppose I just don’t want to focus on how different I am. I’m already weird enough.
Mom jerks. I cringe. My parents sense my discomfort and move on. Not that I like what they’re up to.
“Aidan, behave,” Mom whispers.
“What? Can’t a wolf show his mate a little affection?”
She slaps Dad’s hand playfully off her backside.
I make a face. “I’m right here,” I remind them. “Can’t that wait until I’m gone?”
“Not at all,” Dad replies.
He pulls Mom onto his lap. If she were human, Mom would have spilled the eggs across the wooden floor.
“Eat with me,” Dad tells her. “You’re doing too much.”
Mom kisses his cheek and places the pan on the table, allowing Dad to feed her. It’s a mate thing. A protective thing. I’ve been exposed to it a lot in my life. But it always strikes me as intimate and something I shouldn’t watch. I leave the table, returning with a large serving tray topped with bacon. I frown when I find Mom’s arms wrapped securely around Dad’s neck. Her shoulder length, white hair brushes against his chest with how hard she clutches him.
“You’re going hunting again, aren’t you?” I ask.
Mom lowers her eyelids as if in pain. Dad smiles softly at her, stroking her hair until she opens her eyes. She doesn’t return his smile. It bothers me to see her upset.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“There’s a dark witch causing trouble in Lesotho,” Dad replies, continuing his slow strokes over Mom’s hair.
I reach for more bacon and eggs. “Where’s that?” I ask.
“Africa,” Mom replies. “It’s a territory known for diamond smuggling and dark magic.”
“Cue the witch,” I guess. Not all witches are dark. Last summer, I met Bellissima, one of the strongest light witches of her kind, along with her daughter, Guinevere, or was it Genevieve? It was something like that. They were okay. But dark witches really suck and give weres plenty of problems to chase.
As Guardians of the Earth, it’s our job to protect the unsuspecting human populace from things that hunt them. Those creatures that go bump in the night? We eat them.
I shove a forkful of eggs into my mouth and stab a few more pieces of bacon. “How’d you hear about the witch?” I ask.
“She’s protecting the diamond smugglers in the area,” Dad explains.
I feel my eyes darken and a growl build deep within me. “In exchange for what?”
Dad doesn’t blink. “Sacrifices, mainly human women and children.”
I look to Mom, not liking where this is headed. “The women are deeply oppressed throughout the region,” she explains. “When you find women fraught with worries of violence and struggling to feed their families, they tend to be more pure of heart and intent, and therefore easier to victimize. The children . . .” Mom straightens, passing her fingertips along the gray peppering Dad’s temple. “There’s nothing more sacred than a child’s soul.”
“Which makes the blood sacrifices she seeks more valuable. The purer the soul, the more power each kill will grant her,” I finish for her. They nod. “Can I go with you?”
“No,” Mom answers at the same time Dad says, “Maybe.”
I perk up, my inner wolf totally losing it. “I can go?”
Mom shoots Dad a reprimanding look. “Aric is almost of age, Eliza,” Dad gently reminds her. “He’s far surpassed seasoned weres in strength, ability, and cunning.”
Mom leaves Dad’s lap, taking the empty pan with her. “No,” she says.
Dad and I exchange glances. I know better than to speak up. Mom walks to the large porcelain sink and dumps the pan, gripping the edge. “Our world isn’t what it once was,” she says. “It’s changing in ways even the wisest among us never predicted, Aidan.”
Dad gets up slowly, briefly pausing behind her before his hands encircle her waist. He kisses her shoulder. “The world is changing,” he agrees. “But it’s our duty to maintain it, so good continues to prevail.”
“There are many weres across the globe now,” she reminds him. “Unlike generations ago, when our kind struggled to breed and flourish.” She looks up at Dad, her soft brown eyes pleading. “Request that another pack or Leader go in your place. I hate it when you hunt. I hate it when you leave me. Please, my love, don’t take our son, too.”
“All right,” he tells her.
“Wait,” I interrupt. “Don’t I get a say?” I don’t know who’s more bummed, me or my wolf.
Dad turns around, keeping Mom against him. “I need you here to protect your mother,” he says.
I raise my eyebrows at him. He grins and so does Mom. She’s almost sixty and Dad is seventy-five. Although they tried, they didn’t have me until late in life. That doesn’t mean either couldn’t wipe the floor with anyone who messed with them. And if I wasn’t around, Mom would be the one hunting alongside Dad, just as they did for years before I came along.
“Aric,” Dad says. “I’m not yet sure I’m going. There’s already a local pack assigned to track and kill the witch.” He looks at my mother. “But in the chance I go, I won’t upset your mother further by taking you along.”
“Nothing’s going to happen to you,” I insist. “And if I’m with you, nothing will happen to us.”
I mean what I say. My dad is unstoppable. A king among weres and my hero.
Dad offers a lopsided smile. “Aric, your mother is worried enough.”
“I know, but—”
“Especially with all those females knocking on our door, seeking your company,” he interrupts.
I roll my eyes. The females I know are annoying at best, looking to get with me for all the wrong reasons. “I don’t even like them.”
Dad barks out a laugh. “Not yet. But you will, son. It’s just a matter of time.”
“I just hope it’s not any time soon,” Mom quietly adds. She’s still upset.
I rise, recognizing they need time. “Where you off to?” Dad asks.
“Hunting,” I reply, excited for our plans and that we finally get a few days off from school. “Liam swears he scented elk near Mount Elbert.”
Dad leads Mom forward, his fingers threaded in hers. “Is it just you and Liam?” he asks.
“No. Gemini is coming and so is Koda.”
Mom exchanges a worried glance with Dad. “How is Miakoda?” she asks.
I shrug. When it comes to Koda, I walk a fine line between betraying my friend and keeping things from my parents. For the most part, I’m allowed free rein. They trust me, and I want to keep things that way. So, I tell them just enough to stay true to my friend.
“Koda’s all right. He mostly stays at Liam’s. The other night, he was with Gem.”
Dad’s voice grows an edge. “Do I need to pay his father a visit?”
My gaze lowers to the floor to hide my growing resentment of Koda’s father. Except, resentment, anger, any emotion carries a scent my folks will recognize as easily as they take their next breath. It’s the reason weres are so good at sniffing out lies.
Koda’s relationship with his dad isn’t like mine. Where I’d take a spray of gold bullets to keep my parents safe, Koda would run the other way with tears of agony mixed with relief likely streaming down his face.
“Aric,” Dad says, his tone more severe. “Is Koda’s father hurting him or his mother?”
“No,” I answer truthfully. But only because Koda hasn’t been around to let him.
Dad is a pureblood and Leader, just like Mom and just like me. Dad is also our pack alpha, the one who oversees weres and their activity within his territory. As formidable as he is, he’s often tasked with solving matters outside our region that other weres can’t handle. But his responsibilities are first and foremost to his pack. The same pack Koda and his family belong to.
“Aric,” Dad says, this time more gently. “I’m only trying to help Koda and keep him and his family safe.”
“I know.” I meet my father square in the eyes, something most weres wouldn’t dare do. “I’ll try to talk to him today and see where he’s at.”
Dad nods, but he doesn’t appear any less concerned. I can’t blame him. Not after everything Koda’s been through.
“Tell Miakoda he always has a home with us,” Mom says.
“I will. Thanks, Mom.”
My wolf stiffens when I bend to hug her. We have company. I release her slowly and turn toward the front of the house, my excitement building when I hear the voices of my friends.
“They’re here,” I say. “Gotta go.”
“Be careful,” Mom says.
I grin. “I’m going hunting, Mom. What could happen?”
I glide down the steep incline on four paws, digging my claws into the thick forest bed to keep my balance. The weight of my three-hundred-pound wolf form leaves deep indentations in the soil. There wasn’t just one elk. There was a massive herd. We separated them as a pack, targeting the eldest and weakest, as nature demands.
The one I’m chasing stumbles down the ravine, his immense body crashing into the river bank and sending waves of muddy water to drench my face. I shake off the thick drops blinding me and hurtle forward. I’m almost on him, my excitement of snapping his neck and bringing home a feast propelling me faster.
I bare my teeth at the scent of his fear. Despite his weariness, he’s fighting the kill. I can respect him as my prey. That doesn’t mean I’ll let him go. My supernatural strength jets me faster, ghosting over the slippery rocks when the elk stumbles. He quickly recovers on wobbly limbs. It doesn’t matter. I have him. My family will have a sweet meal tonight.
We round the bend as I leap toward his neck. My fangs barely graze his tough pelt before I crash into what feels like an invisible wall. The force flings me backward, slamming me into the river bed. I whirl up, wondering what happened, and pissed that it did.
The sound of beating hooves grows distant as the elk disappears. I ignore his escape and growl with murderous rage.
Something’s here. Something different. Something magical.
My paws keep my footing over the uneven and rocky bank as I stalk forward. I poke at the air with my nose, trying to sense the wall or whatever it was that caused my fall.
My nose twitches, latching onto something . . . weird. It’s not elk, not deer, not even rabbit.
I smell predator.
A challenging growl rumbles through my torso and down my legs, causing a ripple across the water. My eyes sweep my surroundings, up the incline where the woods are thickest and back down where small, gentle waves splash over the river rocks.
Where are you? I growl again.
I angle my body to the left and frown. Something like rot permeates from the forest. It reeks of dead prey and danger, but then it moves further away from me and the predator I seek.
My eyes round with surprise when I hone in on a different scent. In the breeze, cascading along the bank, the fragrance of water misting over roses overtakes the aroma of pine, rich soil, and thick beds of moss, ensnaring me in its beauty.
An excited chill runs down my spine, standing my fur on end. I shake my head, trying to clear a scent that has no business latched to another predator . . . especially one warning me to keep my distance.
My ears perk up and my eyes hone in on a thick mound of blackberry brambles a few feet away.
There you are . . .
I prowl forward, my steps quiet and purposeful and my jaws set to sink into bone.
This isn’t a cougar. They run from us.
This is hungry.
My body quivers with growing excitement and my thunderous growls echo. I snap my jaws in challenge, letting my prey know I sense him.
It’s time to flee or fight. The choice is his. I’m not going anywhere.
The brush shifts. Slowly, very slowly, my prey rises. My lips peel back, yet the next growl dissipates before it can fully form.
Instead of fur, wet, wavy brown hair with streaks of gold catch the faint sunlight, spilling over slender shoulders and flawless olive skin, while droplets of river water trickle around large green eyes and full pink lips.
I stop breathing.
And she’s naked.
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