It was right before dawn when the black wolf Heller found his pack.
The verdant blue-green of the forest was how he remembered it, shadowed, fogged and deadly to any that didn’t belong. What would have been a simple wood was magically enhanced by his pack’s sorcery. Heller had found the warnings of new traps, scents that spooked his wolf and kept him from trails that two years ago had been safe. He found the remains of those less lucky, shredded bodies of the cursed that had dared to stalk in their territory during the full moon. There were more than a few picked away corpses left as a warning to those that might come next moon. It made Heller uneasy. The werewolves had rarely dared into their territory before. What had changed that made the crazed howlers think they could stand a chance?
The group of shifters was occupying one of the many private estates belonging to Vale. It was the west facing villa built right by the steep ravine, fortified and protected by both magic and the natural lay of the land. It was another concern because Vale had refrained from opening this last house for years because of the sentimental association it had for the alpha. Something had changed in the dynamic while Heller had been away and he hoped he had not lost his pale leader while he had sat in prison.
As Heller slipped into the manor, his dark paws padding near silent on the tile, he was overwhelmed with the scents of his pack. Breathing in, he could feel the last two years try to seep out of his bones and fur to be replaced with warmth and a feeling of security he had long thought gone. Home. It didn’t matter which building be it hovel or mansion; as long as his pack was there he was home.
He found his pack in the middle of the common room, the group of men, shifted wolves and dogs stretched out on the floor in a pile of fur, limbs and pillows, a few human mates and females among them. Heller recognized nearly all of them. Even though Vale was not among them, he had no fear that his alpha was nearby for the man’s scent was everywhere, still fresh and vibrant. Pack life was like no other. It provided many with a family beyond what they had been born into with stronger bonds and deeper loyalties that connected them together through magic and beast. Heller had not truly felt the loss of such a life until finally returning home.
Stepping surefootedly between the warm, hard bodies of his pack, Heller was greeted welcomingly if not sleepily. He took the spot between Blade and a fluffy Rusty and promptly curled up on the hardwood floor and sighed heavily. With his pack around him, it was nothing for him to close his eyes and slip into the darkness, for the first time free of the fear that had haunted him the last long months. Finally, Heller let himself sleep.
Heller felt his pack leave him while the light of day warmed him, their scents clinging and keeping him safe. There were more than a few wet tongues kissing his snout as they left, hands petting him gently before they slipped away to go about their day. Shadowed and familiar, it was the kindest dream he’d had. He wasn’t roused from his deep sleep until hours later and only because of the pale, bare feet of his alpha standing before him, patiently waiting for him to awake. It might have been two years, but Heller was not one to deny Vale anything.
“You made it.”
Heller stretched and then shifted into his human form, sitting for a dazed moment on the floor as he adjusted. “Barely,” he grunted, peering up through his long, black tangle of hair to take in the form of his pack leader. It was strange to see Vale immaculate as always, his white hair sleek and thrown over his shoulder, aristocratic features calm with a hint of haughtiness that only added to the man’s charm. His muscular form was toned and compact and currently dressed in a thin pair of white pants, downplaying the power the man held physically and magically. Vale was a force and even if his human form showed him to be serene and still, his wolf form was a white beast of size and strength none were able to match.
Vale looked the same as always while Heller knew the man saw a different story as he gazed down at him. He had been changed; too thin, face unshaven and dirty. His blue eyes were different as if prison had drained a vitality from him and replaced it with madness. He had always been hard to tame but Heller was now more wild and manic than ever. He felt very much unworthy to kneel before his beautiful alpha after all that he had been through, all that he had survived and ruined to make it this far.
Silver eyes assessing the brunette for long minutes, Vale reached his hand out. The warmth of the man’s hand was a jolt to Heller’s senses, his fingers curling and gripping his pack leader’s palm tightly. He allowed himself to be pulled to his feet, avoiding Vale’s piercing gaze as he swayed unsteadily for a moment. His alpha refused to release his hand and Heller didn’t complain, drawing strength from the simple connection.
“How was the escape route?”
Heller huffed. “I had to go through the entire cursed town. Ended up in the Wastes and nearly lost my nose… and my mind. There was nothing easy about that route.” He dared to meet the man’s patient gaze, glaring back almost challengingly as he waited for whatever judgment Vale had for him.
None came. Reading his gaze for another silent moment, Vale pulled Heller into a fierce embrace, wrapping the taller brunette so tight, Heller wasn’t sure he’d be able to breathe. Still, he hugged him back just as tightly, a desperation in his movements and the sting of tears to his eyes that threatened to have him fall apart if he let go too soon.
Heller sank into the feeling of Vale scenting him, the blond breathing him in deep and ingraining him into his memory. The man was always quiet—except when he was angry, then Vale was quiet and bloody. Very much a ghost, the pack leader had moon pale skin and nearly as white hair, his long silky locks looking to belong to a much older man. Many shifters aged differently, some were even thought to be immortal. Heller didn’t know Vale’s true age but he knew he looked only in his late thirties, all tall, limber muscle and cold, icy silver eyes. He had looked the same when Heller had joined Vale’s pack over twenty years ago when the brunette had turned fifteen. There was no one he trusted more than his white wolf alpha.
Vale pulled away all too soon, Heller left feeling lost and confused to no longer have the man’s warmth and strength around him. “Have you eaten?” Vale asked, eyes again reading something on his face he wished he could hide. “Flint saved you some breakfast.”
“I’m starving,” Heller admitted brusquely, summoning a pair of loose drawstring pants to step into. Two years had filled him with such coldness and he couldn’t find the words for anything just yet. He was home but he didn’t know if it was the same, if he still fit after so much time. Vale seemed to sense his distress, the shorter man wrapping an arm around Heller’s back and holding his bicep as they walked towards the kitchens as if afraid he would disappear if he let go.
“I didn’t expect to find the pack here,” Heller muttered, glancing around the manor as he tried to gain his bearings. He had been to the villa more times than he cared to remember, always alone with his pack leader. It had not only been a fortress to keep enemies out but also to imprison those that were too dangerous to let loose. Knowing his pack was living there was a concern on a different level for Heller.
“I had little choice in the matter,” Vale said simply. “The potion is still effective.”
Heller glanced sideways at the man, wondering how many months Vale had spent wondering if his pack would be wiped out from inside the manor instead of from without.
Shifter wolf packs were more necessity than tradition. There had been a time when shifters hadn’t felt the need to stay together beyond family, especially when the world had opened up with technology and communication. Magic and a simple internet connection could give every available luxury a shifter could dream of. But that was for other shifters, ones that didn’t have to face the cursed.
No one was sure exactly where the source of the werewolf population sprang from. There had of course been legends as far back as humans had been able to write, and before that, when they shared their tales around the fire. Werewolves had always existed in small numbers as had shifters, but something had changed less than a hundred years ago that had spread the werewolf infliction through the population. For a time, every month a new town was infected, the epidemic threatening to take out all of Europe and America until someone had finally made a stand.
Magic users were not the type to work together. They were freelancers at their best, egomaniacal and power hungry on a normal day; sorcerers and sorceresses were more likely to exploit a situation than save humanity. Shifters, not always strong in magic but magical enough to transform into their inner animal, were less prone to self-centered thinking but still preferred to be left alone. If the cursed hadn’t been enraged by the scent of all canines, including the shifters that transformed into the four-legged creatures, the wolf packs may have never taken on the task of destroying the werewolf population. But they had, and after word had gotten out that the cursed were systematically hunting and murdering every canine shifter they could find whether the moon was full or not, they’d had little choice. They could either fight back or be wiped out.
Packs had started to form beyond just family bonds, growing out of a need for survival. Sorcery was taught to every member no matter how little they had the skill. Werewolves had a magic to their cursed forms and physical attack alone could not harm them when they were transformed. Defenses and ways to single out a werewolf in the light of day and far from the full moon were adapted over time. They had even started working on potions in the hopes of finding a cure for the cursed, and if not that, at least a way to keep them from their beserker, howler ways when the moon did hit them.
The shifter wolf packs had come a long way in a short amount of time and while they had struggled to survive, the werewolf population had started to balance from their full out murderous assault and began to police themselves as only their kind could. Leaders had risen up among them, more intelligent and in control of their instincts than the untamed cursed. They had formed gangs that controlled territories, demanding loyalty from the werewolves and humans that if not given was met with ruthless, joyful violence. The shifters had not stopped their war for survival but they enjoyed the lull while the werewolf gangs fought each other for dominance of the cities.
Of the twenty-some shifters that made up Vale’s pack, they consisted mostly of wolves and a few large dog. All of them were accomplished sorcerers, powerful in magic in a way few shifters could claim. Most lived with their spouses and children, a few choosing to move as far away from Dogtowne as possible once they had bred even if it meant losing the pack’s immediate protection. Pack life was unique but it wasn’t always healthy for families. Their days were filled with magic, strategies, and patrols, ever watching the moon and anticipating the bloody fight to come.
Vale had one of the most powerful shifter packs around and Heller had once been second in command to his charismatic alpha. But that had been before the murder of Lorna by the werewolves, before he had been falsely convicted and imprisoned. Heller had no idea where he stood with his pack anymore or the enigmatic man he called alpha.
“I saw the dead cursed in the woods,” Heller remarked, his eyes sliding to what could only be a mounted cursed head. Someone had taken the time to preserve the hideous piece, the strange distortion of human and wolf face twisted in its final death throws. “Fresh. No older than a moon.”
Vale nodded, his grip on Heller’s shoulder tightening for a moment. “I had a room set up for you,” he said in his quiet way, eyes fixed straight ahead. “All your things are there; instruments, spell books, clothing. Even that dreadful ficus that you refused to let die. I need to leave soon—We’re in the middle of a crisis. But I thought you could settle in, get caught up with the pack for now. I’m sure you’re tired.”
Heller growled, trying to pull away, only to have Vale hold his arm tighter.
“I’m not excluding you. You’ve been on the run for weeks, Heller,” Vale said calmly. “You need rest and there is little of that outside these walls.”
“It was prison, not a retirement home,” Heller snapped. “I can help. I… Well, I actually might need your assistance for something.”
Vale raised a pale eyebrow, releasing the brunette once they reached the kitchen. The room was huge, tiled and filled with stainless steel appliances to go with the three large refrigerators and walk-in freezer. Shifters required a lot of food to handle their advanced metabolism. What they hunted and didn’t eat, they froze for later. Food was already out, meat and vegetables waiting at the kitchen island making Heller’s stomach growl at the scent.
“Is this someone from the prison?” Vale asked while Heller threw himself across the room at the plate.
“No, nothing like that.” Heller summoned his jacket one handed while grabbing a fork with the other. “Upper left pocket. Vial. I ran across some sort of… Well, I’ll let you decide what the hell he was. Small, likely a runt if anything.”
Vale caught the long coat when it was thrown to him, picking through Heller’s pockets until finding the item he was talking about. “Sperm?” He asked, his voice reflecting growing confusion.
“Smell it,” Heller grunted, his mouth full. Food had been sparse the last month, nonexistent his last week running for his life. That he felt hunger he took as a good sign that his body hadn’t given up just yet. Each bite was a return to himself, a reminder he wasn’t starving, wasn’t running. Home. He had made it home.
Eyebrow again raised, Vale stared curiously at the small vial, eventually popping the lid to give the contents a hesitant sniff. “Son of a—Fuck!” He snarled, immediately capping the vial and grabbing onto the nearest stool to keep from falling to the ground. “Heller… What the fuck are you trying to do to me?” He snapped, silver eyes flashing warningly.
“Just tell me what he is, Vale,” Heller said, not looking remotely apologetic as the pale man swayed and grasped the kitchen island hard. “I need to know I’m not going crazy here.”
“Bitch,” Vale gritted out, his glare only growing as his trembling arms gave out and he fell chest first against the marble top. “Fuck… Fuck, Heller, you know what that scent does to me.”
“It’s stronger, right? Stronger than a normal bitch scent?” Heller pressed, dropping his fork as he reached over and took the vial from his alpha’s fingers before the man accidentally crushed it.
“Yeah… He has some sort of magical enhancement. Whoever he is, he’s powerful.” Vale continued to glare, his breath coming out in ragged gasps as he tried to gain control of himself. “Who is he? Is he in our territory?”
Heller grinned, his fangs glinting as he leaned down next to the panting man and met his gaze. “He lives in the Wastes.”
“What?” Vale wrinkled his nose in confusion. “In the dump?”
“He doesn’t even know how to transform. His parents are dead. Lives with some dick that thinks shifters are the devil.”
Vale furrowed his brow, trying to focus on what the brunette was saying. “But he’s a shifter… How could he have been left behind? We always collect our own.”
“He said werewolves killed his family.” Heller paused, fingers combing into Vale’s long, white hair, his alpha exhaling loudly from the touch. “He doesn’t know he’s a shifter. He’s confused, scared… He begged so pretty when he took my wolf’s knot. Wanted it so bad.”
Vale whimpered, turning his head so he was face to face with the brunette. “Heller.”
“Made me think of you, beautiful. How much you need it at times.” God but his alpha was beautiful like this. Heller tilted his head so he was resting it on the table, his mouth brushing close to Vale’s red lips. “You get so desperate to be filled. Do you want that, Vale? Do you want me?”
“Please,” Vale whispered, arching his back with a moan. “I missed you. Need you.”