Authors: Cassie Wright
Naomi smiled, and wanted to ask, but who will protect you? She stayed silent however, and when Dylan took her hand she followed.
Kayden stretched. Joints popped. Muscles unsnarled. He raised his head from the pine-needle strewn floor. Blinked and frowned. For a moment he didn't know where he was. A small cave. Natural, untreated rock. The smell coming in from the entrance was pure, carrying the scent of tree pollen and sap. Despite his supernatural health, his body felt sore, ill-used. Vague memories came back to him. The violence. The despair. The pain. How he'd risen at long last, a shadow of his former self, and without thought, operating on instinct, slipped into his wolf form and left the city. Loped for endless miles through the night till reaching the forest line and plunging in. Climbing the rocky slope that led to this, his old cave, his getaway spot high up on a ridge of rock.
He rose to his feet. The ceiling was too low for him to stand in his human form, so he stepped out into the morning sunshine. The view was as stunning as he had recalled. The white and gray rock of the exposed ridge, with the woodlands of Manistee laid out around him. To the far left he could make out the glinting waters of Lake Michigan, the edge of Fort Brixton just poking around. If he climbed the peak of the ridge, he knew that on a clear day you could sometimes see all the way across the waters to the south to where Chicago's towers rose. A clear day like this one.
To stand still meant to think. He wasn't quite ready yet, so he turned and grabbed hold of familiar rock handholds. Heaved himself up. It felt good to stretch, to reach, to exercise. He scaled the ridge face, rising with growing confidence and speed till five minutes later he clambered up onto the narrow peak. A point no larger than the seat of a chair. Up this high the winds buffeted at him, sought to pluck him from his perch, but he rose to his feet unafraid. One foot planted on the peak, the other a few feet lower. Most people might feel vertigo to stand there, but not Kayden. He'd never been afraid of heights. Hands on his hips, cold wind licking at his naked body, he stared out across Lake Michigan. The waters were dark. Despite the morning sunlight, storm clouds were coming from the west.
And there - the faintest of smudges to the south west. Chicago. At almost sixty miles distance it was barely discernible. Kayden snorted. He remembered the first time he'd climbed up here. It had been with Runs~with~the~Wind and Dylan. There had been a moment of tension when they'd realized there had been room at the top for only one. The three of them had been the strongest of the Silver Song's newest members. One of them destined to become alpha, and in that moment they had looked at each other, wondering which would take the peak. Force the issue. Then, without words, Dylan and he had risen to the very top, but neither had stepped on the very peak. Runs~with~the~Wind, with his wolf-born and wolf-raised heritage had remained below, acknowledging their primacy, but neither Dylan nor he had wanted to press their claim at that moment. So they had shared the peak and stared south, and both had let out a whoop at the sight of Chicago, and having won their bet with Gerard that they would be able to see it.
Kayden smiled. A long time ago. The memory of those young werewolves blew away like mist before a wind. He stared down at his foot, firmly planted on the peak. Who could have guessed that one day both Dylan and he would have been alphas? Gerard and many others dead and gone. The land growing poisoned. The packs weak, divided. Kayden ready to kill Dylan, if that's what it took.
Kayden turned and sat. The wind still pulled and howled around him. He rested his chin on his fists. What had brought him back here? What instinct? Naomi had urged him to share her with Dylan. To divide the city. And in the heat of the moment, her words had made sense, seemed possible. He closed his eyes and breathed deep. The first clean air he'd breathed in forever.
Could he share the city? Share his mate? Everything within him said no, but he was tired. Battered. Emotionally worn out. His primal wolf worn so low by so much time in the city, so much pain, that it could barely raise a growl. Perhaps he could. It would be better than the slow death he was living in Fort Brixton. And in these moments of silence and reflection, Kayden had to admit he was getting nowhere with the Vengeance pack. Their numbers were too small. So he had a choice: kill Dylan and pursue his vengeance in the same style he had been following ever since Gerard died, wounded and furious and alone despite his pack... or return to werewolf society. Bring his pack back in contact with the Silver Song. With Anna's House. Socialize as wolves do. Split the land in half. Take a mate. Accept Illixy's patronage, bring the spirits back into his life.
Start seeing the world in color once more, instead of his single-minded black and white.
Movement down below. Kayden looked down. Two figures were climbing the narrow trail that led to the cave. He could have recognized them at any distance. Dylan in the lead, hair pulled back into a rough ponytail. Naomi behind, sleeves of a red plaid shirt rolled up, her laughter reaching him, sound thin at this distance.
His heart tugged. His oldest friend. The woman whom his heart desired. He had to make a decision. There was no more putting it off. He didn't need both packs to watch if he was to kill the other alpha. He could do it here, on the ridge. It would be fitting. To kill him where they had created their favorite childhood memories. Doing so would cement his transformation into the alpha of the Vengeance pack. A solitary, brutal creature.
Or he could clasp Dylan's hand in friendship. Agree to try this mad idea of the human's. Give living a second chance. Return from the land of the dead.
Kayden rose to his feet, swayed as the winds buffeted him. Down below, Dylan paused and looked up. Across the distance their eyes met. They stood still. Two alphas. Two dominant killers. Heart filled with pain and hope, bitterness and loss, Kayden realized he was perfectly balanced on the cusp of a decision. In a moment they would meet. In a moment he would know. And then there would be death, or their would be life.
Resolved, he began his descent.
Dylan shielded his eyes and gazed up at rough slope of the ridge. The gradual rise had become a sharp ascent once they'd emerged above the trees, and like a cresting wave the last of the ridge grew steep enough that he and Naomi had been leaning forward and grabbing rocks for handholds. The morning sun was intense enough that sweat ran down his temple, and he felt a healthy burn on his quads and hamstrings. He loved this climb. He and Kayden used to come tearing up here when they were younger, Runs~with~the~Wind at their heels, laughing and yelling as they fought to be the first to reach the top. To gaze out over their world, all of Manistee and Fort Brixton and Lake Michigan.
There he was. A slender figure at the very highest point. Kayden. Dylan's instincts had been correct. His hunch. His former packmate had returned to the one point where everything seemed simple. Returned to a time when everything had made sense. He knew Kayden had spotted him. Even at this distance he could notice the tension. The faint air of menace.
Dylan dropped his hand and looked back at Naomi. She was red in the face, gorgeous hair tied back into a messy braid, resting and blowing hard. This was a fun climb for a werewolf. For a human? In this heat? Tough. He grinned. He liked watching her sweat, liked watching her push herself. He'd wanted to see if she'd ask for a break. To rest. To show weakness, but she'd hung in there. Had matched his pace without complaint. He was impressed.
"Kayden's up there." He turned back. The alpha of the Vengeance pack was already descending from the peak. "He's going to meet us by the cave."
"Oh. Good." Naomi didn't sound too sure. "I mean, is that good?"
"One way to find out." Dylan loosed his hair, ran his fingers through it and then pulled it into a pony tail once more. "He hasn't turned away. It means he's ready to talk. Or fight. Either way."
"Oh." Naomi seemed focused on getting her breath back. "Well. I guess we'll figure that out soon. Is the cave close by?"
"Just over that ledge up ahead. We're almost there." He paused. "Want to rest a little?"
"Me?" She grinned at him, all teeth. The kind of smile that was dangerous. "No. I'm good." She unscrewed the water canteen that hung from her belt and took a gulp. Poured some over her face, and then grinned at him again. "I freaking love nature. Who misses air conditioning? And escalators? Not me."
"Ha." Dylan nodded. Turned back to the slope. There was no set path, no easy trail. Just instinct to guide them up to the small cave. A cave that by tradition belonged to the young males of the Silver Song pack. Where they could drink alcohol for the first time. Howl at the moon without fear of being corrected by their elders for being off-note. Could wrestle, could lie and bathe in the light of the sun or moon. A safe place.
He hadn't been up here since Gerard had died. Not since he'd become alpha. His boyhood retreat hadn't appealed. Dylan took a deep breath. He couldn't deny the knot in his stomach. A knot that demanded violence to dissipate the tension. He was the alpha. Nobody was above him. To meet an equal - it felt not only strange, but wrong.
"Ready?" He began to move forward again. Not going too fast. Naomi was proud, so he set an easy but constant pace. Paused occasionally to show her a good handhold. Where to put her foot. The last twenty yards were almost vertical, bare rock draped in lichen, the occasional wiry bush growing improbably from a bare cleft. A slip here could be trouble. A broken arm or back for a human - one that would not heal. So he went slowly, and when it got steepest he allowed Naomi to go first. That way if she fell he could try to catch her.
Naomi's scent was colored by fear. They were high up. But she never hesitated. Kept going at it. Dylan occasionally reached up to guide her foot to a lip of rock, but for the most part she managed alone.
Finally they reached the edge. Dylan reached up to boost her over, and for a second she was gone from his sight. He bunched his muscles and sprang up, clearing the edge and landing in a crouch beside Naomi, who was pushing herself up, breathing heavily, her cheek smudged with grit. They both looked up. Kayden stood there, fists on his hips, chin raised, eyes glittering. He wore a pair of faded drawstring pants, dusty and torn. His tattoos were very black against his pale skin, ferocious glyphs that Dylan could read. Permanent markings of warning, vengeance, honor, and hate. Powerful glyphs, the kind that few werewolves would ever dare brand into their own flesh.
Dylan took Naomi's hand and rose smoothly to his feet, helping her up. The air crackled with tension. Dylan could almost see small arcs of electricity flickering between him and Kayden. To think they had once been friends. Easy companions. Now they were alphas. The most elect, the most powerful of all the Earth Mother's warriors.
"Kayden." Dylan fought to keep his voice from being imperious. Fought for a neutral tone.
"Dylan." Kayden made no such effort. Instinctively Dylan felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. They stared into each other's eyes. Any other wolf would immediately look down. To hold an alpha's gaze was to initiate a challenge. Was to presume too much, forcing the alpha to either lash out to establish their authority or look away and cede all power.
Neither alpha looked away. Dylan felt his fingers tingle with the urge to pop his claws. He breathed deep, expanding his ribcage powerfully each time. Adrenaline coursed through him. His body was ready for battle. Hungered for it. To beat this rival down. To force him to show his throat. He was the alpha. How dare this insolent wolf meet his gaze?
Naomi stepped between them, breaking their line of sight. "Hey! Enough! We're here to talk, not to tear each other apart, yes?" She turned to look at Kayden over her shoulder. "Right?"
Dylan kept his eyes on Naomi. It was safer than the risk of meeting Kayden's eyes again. Risking another stare down. The silence stretched out dangerously long, and then he heard Kayden's speak, his voice a rasp, "Yes."
A small measure of tension went out of his frame. His mind raced. Eye contact was too dangerous. So instead he turned and stepped to the edge of the ledge before the cave mouth. Barely large enough to park two cars, the flat rock ended in the sharp edge that dropped almost straight down. He crossed his arms over his chest. Kayden could easily shove him. Send him tumbling down onto the rocks. Such a fall wouldn't kill him, but it was still a gesture of trust on his part. What did the humans call it? Extending the olive branch.
Pregnant silence, and then Kayden stepped up next to him. A good two yards away to the left. Crossed his arms over his chest as well. They stared out over Manistee. The park wasn't vast enough to reach the horizon, and the canopy was broken by lines that indicated roads running through it, but it was still sacred. The home of the Cairn. Or could be, with Illixy's help.
Neither spoke. Slowly though, the tension bled away. By gradual degrees they grew used to the other's presence. Their scent, thin up here in the cold air. Dylan felt his heart beat slow. Felt the tingle in his fingertips lessen. The words came to him unbidden. "We're losing the war."
Out of the corner of his eye he saw Kayden clench his jaw, and then reluctantly nod.
Dylan continued. "I can barely keep Stark out of Manistee, much less attack him in the city. Have you had any luck weakening him on his own turf?"
Rough silence, and then, as if the words were being dragged out of him, "No. Not yet."
Dylan rubbed a rough hand across his face. "Kinfolk are steering clear of this area. Word has gotten out that we can't protect them. Anna's House is almost empty."
"Good. Kin should be in a war zone."
Dylan shook his head. "The Cairn is still dead. No spirits walk amongst the trees. We've no shaman amongst our packs."