CHAPTER TWO - ROGUE
The Alpha of the Cold Moon Pack, Gareth the Gray, opened his eyes as the vision released him. The sunlight in the forest glade painted the world gold. He didn’t fight the gold, but embraced it. Instead of trying to see clearly, he let the rest of his senses come back online slowly, relishing the experience of reconnecting.
Though he was in his human form, his enhanced werewolf hearing allowing him to hear the tick of a squirrel’s claws as it scampered up a nearby tree. There was a rustling to his left where a bird was hopping on the ground, searching for seeds and insects to eat. A white-tailed deer fled through the underbrush. In his wolf form these sounds would have been even more pronounced, but they were ten times what the keenest human would have heard.
Once Gareth felt the press of grass and soil beneath his crossed legs and smelled the green, growing scent of the forest around him, he knew he was back in the moment and no longer in the vision. He rose to his feet in a graceful singular motion. The wind and sun caressed his bare back. He drew one hand over the elaborate tattoo on his chest. A tribal design with an image of his wolf was tattooed across his chest. He placed his palm over the wolf to center himself fully.
The Beta of the Cold Moon Pack Nina Ibarra swam into view as Gareth’s eyes suddenly cleared from the vision. Her olive-toned skin glowed with health. Her fall of black hair stirred in the wind. But it was the intent look in her dark chocolate covered eyes that arrested him. She knew he’d had a vision.
“What did you see?” she asked, her husky voice low like the rustle of leaves over grass.
“We’ll be having a new addition to the pack soon,” he said and a ripple of something went through him at that thought. It wasn’t just that he knew that there would be a new pack member, which was always a cause of celebration -- and an essential piece of good news considering all the bad things that had happened to the pack recently -- but there was something about this new wolf that spoke to him. Something different.
He could still smell the other wolf in his nose. His scent had been made up of sunlight and pine with a dash of frost-melt. This new wolf was -- or would be -- magnificent. The wolf had a mixture of black, white and brown in his coat and the most stunning red-brown eyes. The wolf had looked up at him from his position of surrender on its back and immediately, completely, and utterly Gareth had thought, You are mine. Mine.
He told himself that this feeling of possession was normal whenever a new pack member was to be welcomed into his protection. This was the first new pack member since he had become Alpha. But something tugged at him, told him that this was special.
Nina’s hands clasped together in front of her chest. Her excitement lit her eyes from within. “A new brother or sister?”
“Brother. He has not turned yet, but it’s soon to come upon him,” Gareth said and a little shiver of anticipation and regret ran through him. Those red-brown eyes haunted him already. The Werewolf Gene was present in only a small percentage of the entirety of humans and of those who had it, only a small percentage of those actuallyturned. The turning usually happened because of a traumatic experience or exposure to the saliva or blood of another werewolf. So no matter what, this new member of their pack would have to go through something harrowing before he joined them. To distract himself from this sad fact, he said,“He is beautiful, healthy and strong.”
“Beautiful?” One of Nina’s arched eyebrows rose.
He sighed and said, “That is simply a fact, not an opinion of mine.”
“An Alpha should have a Mate. It steadies the pack,” she said with authority.
Gareth’s broad shoulders tensed. “That has not been this pack’s experience, has it?”
Nina though did not back down from his steely gaze. “Mack went Rogue because Eliza died, Gareth, not because they were mated in the first place.”
“He went Rogue because the loss of her caused him to lose his mind, for him to turn against those he considered his children, his friends and family.” Gareth’s back was rigid. “If he had not been mated at all then none of that could have happened.”
Nina studied him in that quiet, all-encompassing way of hers. She saw his pain. She knew that for him Mack had been like a father.
He found me bleeding out on the battlefield and gave me another life. A better life. A family. Friends. Hope. And then he betrayed everything he ever stood for and the love we all had for him.
“So you intend on never mating?” she asked finally.
“I think I owe it to the pack to protect myself -- and them -- from me going Rogue. Not making myself vulnerable by bonding with another is part of that protection,” he answered simply.
Again, there was another steady look from her that made him almost feel like a liar even though he meant what he said. He did not think it would actually be a hard promise to keep. In his over one-hundred and fifty years of living, he had never met anyone that he had dated for very long let alone a potential Mate. Perhaps he was never destined to have one.
“Let us not talk of my love life,” Gareth said as he pulled on a tight white tank top that hugged his muscular frame and accentuated his summer tan.
“Or lack thereof.” Nina laughed and knocked her right hip against his left one.
“We could talk about your lack of love life, too, Nina.” He grinned at her as he dug a hair tie out of the back pocket of his dark jeans and drew his loose hair into a ponytail. The shaved sides of his scalp were tickled by another flower-scented breeze.
“True, that’s why I was hoping you were going to say that we had a new sister joining our group, but alas, another brother for me to train.” She laughed again. “I knew I was right to nominate you for Alpha! You do realize that only half a dozen Alphas have visions like you do? And only Paavo sees as much as you do.”
Paavo was the Alpha of Alphas. To be compared to him in any way was considered the highest of praise. Yet Gareth had issues with Paavo now and the visions that he had were not something he had earned, but instead was something that was innate to him so he could take no credit for this ability. And also, this ability to see what was coming had set him apart from the other werewolves. It marked him as an Alpha of potentially great power, but until tragedy had struck the Cold Moon Pack, Gareth would have been content to have simple remained the pack’s Scout forever. For as much as he had the ability to lead, Gareth needed solitude, too, which was something an Alpha got little of.
And I could never envision leaving the Cold Moon Pack and Mack was never going to stop being the Cold Moon Pack’s Alpha.
Except Mack had stopped being the pack’s Alpha after his mate Eliza had been killed. And it was into this crucial void that Gareth had stepped. He had stopped Mack’s slaughter of the pack members and held the remaining members together after Mack had fled.
“It could have been you as Alpha, Nina. You were Mack’s second and everyone recognized your authority,” Gareth said as he strode away from the sunlit glade towards the large lodge by the lake where the Cold Moon Pack now made its home.
“Like I told you at the time, Gareth, my skills go to keeping things running smoothly. Yours are to get out front and lead us in this new world.” She dropped into step beside him. They walked in companionable silence along the path towards the lodge. Sunlight dappled the ground in front of them and warmed their skin as they passed through it. Just as the lodge’s massive timbered sidewall came into view, she asked with a tightness in her voice, “Do you think our new brother will come to us through some -- some intersection with our other duty?”
The “other duty” she spoke of was the tracking and killing of Mack. A Rogue werewolf could not be allowed to live for a Rogue hungered for human flesh and thirsted for human blood. Killing humans was forbidden for many reasons, but the largest of which was the risk of exposure of the existence of werewolves. Already, the advancement of science was threatening to expose them in any case. There was talk that such exposure was inevitable. But if humanity discovered them after a Rogue feasted upon a family … That was not how they wanted the introduction between humanity and werewolves to begin.
“Though Mack seems the ultimate of calamities of us,” Gareth said evenly, even as his stomach twisted. As Alpha of the pack that Mack had once led, it would be his duty to kill the man who had been his father in every respect of the word, but the least, blood. “But there are plenty of other bad things out there that happen to people. It is unlikely that this new pack member and Mack will ever meet.”
Gareth hoped that he would end Mack before the new pack member was introduced. It was always a complex and fraught time for a new brother to adjust to being a werewolf and a member of their family. To add to that the hunting and killing of a former and beloved Alpha? That would be too much.
Besides the pack needs closure before we bring someone in. Mack needs to be put to rest. If his mind was not poisoned he would want this over before more people are hurt. I must remember that when the time comes to face him. Death is what he would want.
“I hope you are right,” Nina said as the front of the lodge came into view.
The lodge, which was called Fallowmere, was huge. It was a sprawling three-story structure made of huge logs and ancient stone. There were wraparound balconies on every floor that allowed excellent views of Wolf Lake. The sliding doors that led into the soaring raftered great room were open to let in the sweet late summer breeze and Gareth heard a rare laugh -- rare these days though laughter had been as plentiful before.
Fallowmere was built to house a pack of one hundred members. At Cold Moon’s peak they had had numbered fifty with the idea being that they were prepared for the future when Fallowmere would groan to the rafters with brothers and sisters. But now they numbered only twenty-five. Mack had killed twenty-five of his own pack before Gareth had stopped him.
He sent me and Nina to the Alphas Council to represent the Cold Moon Pack while he mourned his Eliza. Only it was revenge he really intended. He slaughtered the humans that had killed her, but then he devoured their flesh and he changed. When he came back here …
The vision of Mack’s fall had struck Gareth in the middle of the Council Chambers. They had thought he was having a fit. It was only Paavo, the Alpha of Alphas, who had realized what was happening to him. Gareth awoke, keening with loss, with Paavo cradling him like he was a child against the Dane’s powerful form.
“He’s killing them,” Gareth had gasped out. “He’s killing the pack.”
Paavo’s sky blue eyes had shut just as understanding flowed through him. “Mack has gone Rogue.”
That pronouncement had rocked every Alpha in the room back on their heels. Mack was one of the most respected of their rarified group. There had not been a dry eye in the house when Gareth and Nina had told them of Eliza’s death. These grim and powerful men and women had understood Mack’s loss, but now he had done what was unforgivable.
“Only you can go to Fallowmere, Gareth. No other Alpha can enter Cold Moon Pack’s territory. Not even to stop a Rogue. That task falls to you and Nina,” Paavo said with great solemnity.
Gareth wanted to scream then. He could hear the screams of his pack in his mind. The vision clung to him like dark cobwebs. Despite knowing that others of their kind were being slaughtered, these great Alphas would do nothing. At least not until every Cold Wolf Pack member were dead and unable to deal with Mack themselves. Gareth had argued often with Mack about how foolish this stance was. If Rogues risked exposure to all werewolf kind then did it not make more sense for all werewolves, the same pack as the Rogue, to go after him or her?
“It is a matter of respect, Gareth,” Mack had answered him. “To have a Rogue at all is a great stain upon a pack’s honor. Letting that pack handle the death of the Rogue is to let it restore its honor.”
“That’s garbage and you know it, Mack. You may be our leader, but each of us have minds of our own,” Gareth had argued. “We act without you. We can do terrible things.”
Mack had clasped his arm. “An Alpha must know what acts his pack members do. He or she must anticipate them and stop them. If an Alpha does not then he or she has failed.”
As Gareth had looked into Paavo’s sky blue eyes he wondered who would be considered to have failed with the going Rogue of an Alpha? Something that had never happened in recorded werewolf history? Was the Cold Moon Pack itself at fault? Was every member tainted by Mack’s acts? And Gareth saw the answer to all those questions in Paavo’s eyes. Yes, the members were all seen as at fault and tainted. He would get no help from the other packs. He saw these Alphas wished he and Nina gone from there. He saw the werewolf world closing the doors upon them. And for a moment, he had hated them all.
But, as was his way, he had said nothing of what he felt. He simply rose on unsteady legs from the Council Chamber’s floor. His face was grim and determined. The only people who mattered were his pack members. The rest of the werewolves could go to Hell.
“Gareth?” A bright and sweet voice called out to him from Fallowmere’s porch. It was Brandon, the Cold Moon Pack’s youngest member. Few could survive the first turn if they were not beyond puberty. Brandon had been only thirteen when he had turned. He was sixteen now, but looked little older than when the pack had found him. The first turn slowed then stopped the aging process. There were some concerns that Brandon might never reach adulthood or that it would take decades. “Gareth, you’re back! What was your vision? What did you see? I can tell it’s something good!”
Gareth found himself smiling so hard that his cheeks hurt as Brandon flew out of the lodge on slender brown legs and into his arms. The Alpha swept Brandon up and spun him around and around until both of them were dizzy. For one moment as he placed Brandon down, he thought of the two juxtaposed moments in Brandon’s short life that had involved violence.
Brandon’s turning had come about when his mother’s boyfriend had killed her and gone after him. He had hidden himself in a closet then to escape the boyfriend’s drunken rage. When Mack had gone Rogue he had done the same, but he had not gone into that closet alone. He had pulled a pack member, Isabel “Izzy” Andrews, who had been badly injured inside with him, saving them both.
Gareth was not surprised when he saw Izzy standing on the porch, watching over Brandon. Since that night with Mack they had been inseparable. Her red corkscrew curls were done up in an elaborate hairdo on the top of her head and bobbed in the breeze. She had a lean, lithe figure and constantly wore sleeveless shirts with suspenders, cargo pants and high boots.
“Brandon, you shouldn’t ask about the visions,” Izzy chastised Brandon gently.
“Oh, come on, Izzy, you totally want to know, too! Besides if it was about -- about Mack, Gareth would look different than he does,” Brandon stammered only a little saying Mack’s name.
Nina and Gareth shared a look. Brandon was intensely insightful. He then passed a hand over Brandon’s head.
“You’re right, Brandon, but this is an announcement that the whole pack should hear,” Gareth said.
Brandon’s brown eyes opened wide and he gripped one of Gareth’s large hands in his slender ones. He looked so hopeful that Gareth’s heart leaped again at the thought of the new brother to join them. The wolf with the unusual red-brown eyes that seemed to float before him even now, staring into his, trying to tell him something.
Where are you, brother? What tragedy will befall you that will bring you to us? I hope that whatever it is that we find you quickly so that your suffering is ended and your new life with our family begins.
“The whole pack is inside.” Brandon tugged him towards the sliding doors.
“Not Cassidy,” Izzy pointed out.
Brandon shrugged. “Cassidy never leaves his bat cave and his computers! He thinks he can track Mack that way. But everybody else is here.”
It was a Saturday so none of them were working and all pack members stayed in the lodge often on their days off. Them being there now made things much easier as he had intended to speak that night at the Circle. A Circle was when the pack built a fire in the large fireplace in the great room and talked of the pack’s past and future.
There had been few of those since Mack went Rogue as none of them could think of anything in their past, but that terrible incident. But Gareth also knew it was important that they find good things in their pack so that they could see a brighter future. The Alpha Council might not recognize them any longer, but Gareth knew that the Cold Moon Pack would be a power in the future just like it had been in the past. Yet seeing Brandon’s face alight with curiosity and hope, Gareth realized he shouldn’t wait to share this news.
“Izzy, would you go get Cassidy? I will share my vision with everyone once you bring him out into the light,” Gareth requested.
She gave an eager grin and nodded.
Brandon let out a woot and said, “I’ll help her!”
Nina smiled at them as they disappeared into the house. “Good decision to share the news now. We need something good to think about.”
“I don’t think I could have kept it secret with Brandon glancing at me every five seconds with a look like the cat that got the canary,” Gareth remarked dryly.
The two of them walked up the wide plank steps and through the open sliding glass doors. The great room’s ceiling soared two stories above their heads. There was a massive fireplace in the very center and deep low slung couches that just begged people to sit back and relax in them. There was no fire yet in the fireplace as the August day was too warm for one. Only when the cool evening fell would the fire be lit and all of them would gather around its merry glow. Right now, his pack looked like a bunch of puppies sprawled in the sun that streamed through the windows.
Taking up one whole couch all to himself was Jacob Mills. He stood over six feet and was close to three-hundred pounds and all of it muscle. He had arms and legs the size of tree trunks. He had protected over ten of the remaining pack members from Mack. His wolf was a massive black beast with yellow eyes. He had been limping on only two paws, both ears mangled and blood streaming from dozens of bites when Gareth had arrived at the lodge.
“Hey, G-man, what’s shaking?” Jacob asked, his rumbly baritone like the purr of a large cat.
“Quite a bit. I see Brandon wasn’t exaggerating when he said you were all here,” Gareth said as he took in the other pack members.
Nearest him was the indomitable yet petite Molly Ivers who hid behind her straight black hair. The Ragsey twins, Ilara and Natasha, both plump girls with quick smiles and quicker wits who were playing chess at a nearby table. Watching the game was the tall and rangey Ollie Finn and beside him was a middle-aged man who looked like he should be mining named Haggerty Grant.
There was the elegant Raj Avninder leaning against the fireplace’s stone side and near him, holding a pool cue, was the wiry Hoshido Hanida. Hoshido was playing against the inscrutable Robyn Wynder, her head shaved and half covered with tattoos of snakes and leaves. Placing a bet on the pool game was the grandfatherly Powell Holmes who turned when he had grandchildren. There were over a dozen more.
He knew all their stories and all their cares. He knew what each had faced when Mack had gone Rogue. He trusted each and every one of them with his life. But it was his job to keep them safe. Killing Mack would do much towards that goal. But he had to give them hope, too. At that moment, there was a clattering of feet and he looked up to see Brandon followed unusually quickly by Cassidy with his mess of blond surfer’s curls and Izzy bringing up the rear. There was something in all their expressions that had caused his tongue to cling to the top of his mouth.
“What is it?” Gareth asked.
Cassidy blurted out, “I know where Mack is hiding. There have been deaths that they’re blaming on a wolf. It’s not that far away.”
All his happiness forgotten, Gareth asked, “Where?”