My feet pounded against the cracked pavement, striking the ground with solid, measured slaps. The footfalls of eight shifters echoed from the left and right. They were falling behind, too far behind to reach Kalei and her pack of wolves in time.
Ducking my head, I pushed for more speed.
Trees loomed ahead, bare branches twisted like claws reaching toward the sky. The wind blew cool against my face, far cooler than normal for mid-May. But I didn't have time to worry about the weather when the battle for life bounced back from the trees in ominous snarls and pained howls. Those sounds blended with the steps of the group now racing two paces behind me, with the way their hearts pounded in a single rhythm―as if they truly were the family I'd fought to shape them into over the last four years―and with the wordless, furious roars of Geri, the legendary wolf currently raging in my head.
Each pained yelp from deep within the press of trees ahead brought another ferocious roar from him. I clenched my hands, fighting against the urge to drop to all fours and let him take over. Fighting to stay me. To stay Dace Matthews. To stay in control.
I hadn't been in control in a long time, though―not since Arionna Jacobs tumbled into my life and changed everything. But I knew one thing: which side of me―wolf or man―held the reins no longer mattered. Somewhere ahead, our kin fought for their lives, and we were always too late, too slow when it counted.
In some fucked up twist of fate that followed us into every life destiny forced us into, haunting us like a wraith keeping to the shadows, we were never quick enough to save those we'd vowed to protect. Even as I ran, I knew this time would be no different.
The call from Kalei had come too late.
Lykaois already hovered perilously close to death. Feeble breaths came in bloody pockets of air from the gaping hole in his throat. His pack mates fell upon his attacker as one defiant tide, fury driving them onward.
The elder wolf shook them off like rainwater, his amusement cracking through my head like the lash of a whip. His laughter stung, but no worse than the truth. We'd been betrayed, fooled, blinded.
Aki ran with the enemy.
The edge of the pavement reared into sight between one long stride and the next. I took a desperate, flying leap over the tangled roots pushing the cement upward in uneven breaks, over decaying leaves and rotted twigs, and landed with a thud in the thick undergrowth choking the woods. I took a half-second to steady myself, and then raced on.
Leaves crunched beneath my feet. Mud splattered the legs of my jeans.
I darted around massive trees and over their fallen brothers, weaving through the woodland without pause. I dodged holes in the ground, instinct and four long years of learning every inch of these woods, telling me where to place my feet.
The shifters entered the trees in a flurry of curses and panted breaths behind me. They tripped and slid, but they kept running, racing to the defense of wolves they didn't understand, yet respected nonetheless.
We were getting closer. Half a mile separated us from the battle now.
The woods thickened, darkening. Everywhere my gaze fell, life fought to break free of the press and tangle blurring around me. Spring scrabbled for a foothold in a wood long lost to the wild and a world still held in a vise by winter. Tiny buds struggled to lift their heads toward the weak sunlight trickling in from beneath the dense overhang of branches.
Lykaois died as spring sought to live.
The pack ahead howled, filling the air with screams of grief and anger.
My body began to vibrate, humming with the force of Geri's response to their rage. Perhaps even with the force of my own.
My vision blurred, blackening.
Fire rolled through me, melting bone and sinew.
My muscles screamed in protest, contorting wildly.
I lost my footing and tripped. Blood rushed through my veins, liquid lava unmaking me from the inside out. My hands lengthened, fingers twisting, taking a new shape. I groaned and tripped again, hitting the ground hard.