Moonlight filters through the dense canopy of Eldarwood Forest, casting a silvery glow over the ancient trees and underbrush as I pad silently behind Zephyr.
The shadows grow darker; the sounds of nocturnal creatures fill the air. My senses are alert to every shift in the shadows, every whisper of the wind through the trees.
I’m trying to keep pace with my father and the other Pack members, but the silver collar around my neck is slowing me down. Or maybe I’m not in as good shape as the others. This is the first time I’ve been allowed to go on patrol, and my heart is racing with anticipation and anxiety. We’ve been out here all night, wary of signs of trouble.
For weeks, there have been rising tensions among the various packs that call this forest home, and even among the other supernaturals who’ve used it as a safe gathering place for decades.
Nobody wants conflict. That’s the official message from all the leaders, anyway. But trouble inevitably finds us. It’s been this way ever since I can remember. Something sets off members of one pack, and then another and another, and soon the lust for combat has spread to almost everyone. There’ll be outrage and posturing, skirmishes, and a few bigger battles.
And then some wolves will be killed, and suddenly, no one wants to fight anymore. It’s a cycle as predictable as the winter snow.
This time feels different, though. Something is stirring among all the inhabitants of Eldarwood, something ugly and rotten and corrosive. Even I, the half-breed, can feel it.
The forest and the land around it—known to the human world as the vast Eldarwood Ranch—is changing. The enchantments that have kept it safe for supernaturals are weakening. No one knows why, or how to fix it.
He’d never admit it, but my father—the great alpha, a world-famous tech billionaire in his human form—is deeply worried; I can smell it on him.
And if I can smell it, so can the other members of the Pack. Fear is contagious; so is the werewolf contempt for weakness. Zephyr can’t afford to show either.
We move cautiously through the forest, our ears perked for any sound that may indicate danger. I struggle to keep up the pace. My unbitten human blood means I’m not quite as fast or agile as the others, but I’m determined not to fall behind.
A rustle in the bushes catches my attention at the same moment Zephyr and the others notice it. Instantly, the entire patrol goes on alert; instantly, the combined wolf scent of vigilance is strong enough to assail even my nose.
When the alpha comes to a sudden stop, I’m looking off to the side where we heard the sound, wondering what made everyone react as if it wasn’t just a normal sound of the night. Naturally, I plow right into Zephyr.
He lets out a mangled growl. The flash of his teeth and the ice in his blue eyes as he glares at me promises I’ll pay for my clumsiness later.
My father has never physically hurt me. But he can rip me a new one with a single vicious look. He’s always known how to do emotional damage.
I know he often wonders how I can possibly be his daughter. I’m inept, and my reaction time is too slow; I’m too dense to pick up on obvious clues, to think even one step ahead when everyone else in the Pack can devise complex strategies in a flash.
What he really means, of course, is that I’m too human. Too much like my mother.
A small rabbit bursts out of the bushes, darting across our path before disappearing into the underbrush on the other side. I have to suppress a laugh. All of these seasoned warriors alerted over a rabbit? How did they not smell the harmless little thing?
I try to tamp down my sense of triumph; I know it’s silly. But any evidence that the “pure” wolves—especially the tight circle of Zephyr’s closest advisers that make up this patrol—aren’t perfect always makes me feel a little better.
And then three unfamiliar werewolves step into the moonlight, from the same bush the rabbit bolted out of.
Jasper, the Pack’s beta, is the first to react. He growls, leaping to the front and snarling at the intruders, his charcoal gray hackles raised all down his long spine. He rises to his full height and howls, a classic move my father’s second-in-command uses a lot to intimidate anyone who might threaten our safety or question Zephyr’s authority.
The wolf in the middle, taller by a head than the other two, starts to step forward, and Jasper lunges at him with his teeth bared. The intruder is a second away from being torn to shreds, but he stands there unflinching, not trying to defend himself at all, keeping his eyes fixed on Zephyr.
My father lifts one paw just a little, and Jasper drops to the ground, leaving the stranger untouched.
It’s always amazed me how Jasper can correctly interpret every desire of the alpha. The slight gesture Zephyr made meant he doesn’t want this bold wolf torn apart. At least not yet.
I can’t help staring at the stranger. He’s a good-looking wolf: lustrous, dark brown fur over broad shoulders, a chiseled chest, and long, muscular arms and legs. He’s young, only a few years older than me. But so much more sure of himself than I probably will ever be; I can tell that already.
My father’s glaring at the intruders, eyes narrowed, ears flattened, the deep scars on his snout—crisscrossed claw marks from years of battles—shining in the moonlight against his dark fur.
But it’s the unusually strong emotions I’m perceiving from Zephyr—pain, shock, regret, rage, all focused on the wolf in the middle—that have my attention. My father doesn’t know him. Does he? Even if he does somehow, what’s with all the tumultuous feelings pouring out of him?
The alpha is notorious for his self-control; in a pack where emotions often run amok and explode into stupidity, Zephyr rarely reveals what he’s feeling. And he never lets emotion dictate his actions. He makes every decision with cold, detached logic. I’ve never known him to veer from that.
But right now, staring at this tall stranger, my father’s emotions are all over the place and wide open for everyone else to sense.
My jaw drops open in surprise. What the hell is going on?
After a few moments, Zephyr startles as if he’s just come to his senses. I see him struggling to pull in all those unguarded feelings, zipping himself up again, regaining his iron self-control. His eyes scan each member of our patrol; I’m sure he can feel their shock and unease. He knows he has to counter it.
Zephyr lifts his head with a sweeping gesture and grunts at Jasper and Elara, a lithe, agile werewolf with long silver hair, and they instantly understand he wants them to scout the perimeter to see if there are other unknown wolves lurking around.
Jasper nods at the command he’s been given, his eyes flashing, and he and Elara silently slip into the shadows. Then Zephyr jerks his chin toward the intruders, and the rest of the patrol swiftly surrounds them, growling in tandem.
Except me, of course. I’m always a little slow on the uptake. And I’m still trying to process what’s going on here.
Why is Zephyr allowing these outsiders to live, at least for the moment? And who is the wolf that turned my stone-cold father into an emotional mess just by showing his face?
The other two intruders—one gray with a very long nose and extra bushy eyebrows, and the other with reddish fur and yellow eyes—growl uneasily as they glare at the Pack members now in a menacing circle around them. It’s the kind of face-saving growl I’ve heard before: not too loud but with just enough defiance in it that they’re not completely humiliated. Still, it’s a sign of submission. And only the good-looking one is daring to look Zephyr in the face.
He does not appear to fear my father. But he should—Zephyr won’t hesitate to have him ripped to shreds. I’m actually surprised he hasn’t done it already. Trespassing on another pack’s territory is a capital offense.
The wolf suddenly shifts his gaze to me. And I feel him. Inside my head. Behind my eyes, inside my frickin’ brain.
My name is Kaden. We mean you no harm. We need to talk to you.
I yelp and take a step back, shaking my head vigorously because it’s getting hot in there. Like someone lit a match inside my mind.
He needs to listen to me. You need to make him listen. We’re all in danger.
I can’t help letting out another yelp, which earns a ferocious glare from my father. But what the hell? This stranger is speaking to me telepathically in human language while I’m in wolf form. And I understand it.
I can’t even begin to explain how that’s possible. Pack members can sense each other’s emotions; a few can sometimes even transmit images of things that have already happened. But nobody that I know of can just slide into someone’s brain and start up a conversation.
It’s intimate and intense and terrifying. And I did not consent to it.
I glance quickly at my father and the others. No one else is reacting to what the stranger said; no one else seems to have heard anything.
Get the fuck out of my head. I fling the thought at the wolf, not really intending to, not believing it’ll be received because I don’t even believe this is actually happening.
Maybe I’m hallucinating. Maybe I’m horny and this asshole calling himself Kaden is kind of hot, and so I think he’s within me. Maybe that’s what’s warming me up.
I’d actually prefer that explanation because that wouldn’t freak out the Pack if they find out. They’d have a good laugh at my expense, but that’d be as far as it would go.
On the other hand, if it’s true this intruder just put himself right into my damn head and the Pack senses it, they’d see me as something much worse than a silly half-human who needs to get laid. I’d be a threat. Even to my own father.
And then I’d be in real trouble.
Thanks for starting The Bond That Burns! Updates every weekend! Be sure to follow the story so you don't miss anything. And I'd love to know what you think! 😍 CH
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