Cold water dripped a pool in the corner of Aeron’s cell. Ash and dirt left a grainy feeling on his tongue. When the guards didn’t bring enough water, the drip was his salvation. He’d spent several months adapting to the taste. Soon, that would be all over. Tomorrow marked a year since he was locked up. He’d tallied each day on the cobblestone walls with a broken tip of a key, next to where he’d scribbled his brother’s name.
He’d gotten used to the stench of sweat and blood. He’d gotten used to the cries spilling in from the lobby of prisoners pass their breaking points. He’d gotten used to the food, which tasted like old boiled shoes. But what he would never get used to was the eerie quiet when all the lights powered down, the cries halting simultaneously, or the conversations and inconsequential muttering. In solitary, Aeron hadn’t seen much but he’d heard it all.
Tomorrow morning, he’d be free.
Mirrors took up the ceiling of his cell, made for prisoners to watch themselves and live with their mistakes. Lying supine, Aeron realized his only mistake was trusting Suri McCarthy, a man who could be trusted as easily as he could walk through fire. Suri McCarthy had chased him onto forbidden land. Suri McCarthy’s pack had killed his brother. While Aeron lay mangled in the mud, his brother had bled to death. He’d woken up in cuffs, arrested for trespassing. A year in jail for trespassing while Suri roamed free.
Aeron turned onto his side, and the cold concrete pricked his cheek. He sighed and closed his eyes to the char breeze coming through a high-arching window, wafting through his strands of honey brown curls. He couldn’t bear to think about it now. It would only drive him crazy all over again and he’d just gotten control of his anger.
His dreams carried him through the abysmal night. In them, his brother’s red fur brushed his own as his paws pounded on moist forest bed. Aeron was never fast enough, but he always raced to keep up, panting against harsh wind. Sometimes, being in his werewolf skin was more comfortable than his faux-human flesh. Sometimes, he didn’t mind ripping himself apart, transforming again-and-again to escape the world. His dreams carried him, but a clang woke him.
His eyes popped open wide and he jerked forward. He locked eyes with a familiar guard rapping on the iron bars with a baton.
“Rise and shine.” She twisted a toothy smile onto her face and hit the bars again. Dove Leadstone was the best witch in Sath and the best officer in the precinct, period. With the force of a goddess, she brought criminals to their knees.
Her black uniform fit her too tightly around her waist and bosom. Aeron knew she liked it that way. She liked to turn heads.
He held his hand above his eyes, shielding them from fluorescent light spilling in from the hall. “Morning already?”
Dove ran her slender fingers through her black hair, which cascaded like a waterfall over her shoulders and down her back. “Long night?” She carried herself like she already knew how life would end, and was bored with the result. It was as if she wanted to care, but couldn’t bring herself to. Biting her nail, she played with the keylock. “Sure you wanna leave us?”
Funny, Aeron thought. He pulled his key tip from his pocket and scratched another tally into the wall.
“Don’t—why would you—”
“You can let me out now.” Grunting, he climbed to his feet and stretched his arms and legs.
“I’m gonna miss our convs.” Dove rolled her eyes hard enough to ricochet off the back of her skull. She stuck the key into the hole, turned it, wiggled and turned it some more. The rickety bars clicked and slid open. She stepped aside. “You’re free to go.”
Aeron smirked, wondering why she was wasting time getting on his nerves. He wanted to get out of there! He wanted meat and real sleep in an actual bed. He wanted the aroma of dying rabbit to merge with the clean springs in the deepest depths of Starlit Forest. “Those bars couldn’t hold me if they all came alive and banded together, if one was reaching nether and the other was reaching into the heavens. Higher Himself wouldn’t give them the strength to hold me.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” With a sinister grin puffing up round cheeks, Dove waved her hand above her head. The air shimmered where she held her arm, releasing the barrier that had caged him for so long. “Now, you’re free to go.”
Eyebrows arched in skepticism, Aeron poked his leg out and in. He hopped through, close enough to kiss Dove.
“I have full faith, Al,” Dove said, brushing off his shoulders and flicking his curls, “you’ll be back.”
“Wanna bet on that?” Aeron ducked under her arm and strolled down the hall towards the door at the end. The hall smelled and tasted cleaner even though he was only a few feet from his cell. Former cell. The white walls on either side of him were covered in photos of humans who had taken authority over the precinct. Humans had infected his home, Sath, with their wars and migration. He had to live alongside them, but he didn’t have to like it. “And my friends call me Al. You’re not my friend.”
“I used to be,” Dove said, no traces of humor in her voice.
They arrived at the door and she ducked around him to flash her badge before a scanner. The door chimed twice before clanging open.
“This’as been fun.”
Dove grabbed his shirt and pulled him to her height. “Stop treating me human.”
Aeron shrugged and plucked her hands from his shirt. “I’m not treating you human. I’m treating you like an ex… which you are.” He’d been out one minute and already she was trying to recant all the cruel things she’d said? She was a great witch, but a terrible girlfriend.
“I just meant… don’t go retaliating on humans.”
Telling him not to retaliate against the family who had killed his brother was like telling the sun not to light the sky. Aeron squinted, pretending he didn’t understand what she meant. Deep down, his disdain for humans overshadowed reason. He knew two things—the McCarthys had killed his brother, and he wouldn’t rest until they knew his pain.
No matter what Dove believed, humans were all the same. They were destructive, selfish beings who spread their destruction like a contagion. Suri McCarthy was the worst of them.
“Let’s get drinks tonight.” Dove said it with a sigh, like she was already exhausted at the idea.
“No, thanks.” Aeron pulled the door open and faced the empty lobby. A brief moment of fear and uncertainty made him pause. A row of yellow seats and a desk sat between him and a glass door. Sunlight broke through the glass and glazed orange across wood-tiled floors.
He’d entered that place with a broken nose, shoulder blade, swollen eyes and lips, and a mangled leg. Now, as he limped to the short woman standing behind the front desk, he couldn’t help smiling. She’d registered him a year ago. In that time, she’d cut her hair just below her ears and dyed it blue. She wore the weight she’d gained under a sexy pink dress.
“Name?” She dug her hand into a pack of zesty beef jerky and came back with a perfect square.
“You don’t know my name, Jay?” Dove and Blue Jay were sisters. Fraternal twins, but their attitudes were identical. Bored, with miniscule bursts of expression in the rarest moments.
Jay chewed hard on her beef jerky. She smacked dried meat from her teeth and sprinkled pepper from her fingers onto the counter. Her gray eyes would’ve been piercing if her heavy eyeshadow didn’t darken them. “Aeron Everest?” she asked, popping her lips.
Aeron gently smacked the counter. “That’s the one.”
Her eyebrows shot up on her head, as if this information was new. She’d known Aeron since they were ten racing each other through the forest—he in his wolf’s skin, she on her broom. She knew he was the first of his name to lead a pack. She knew his pack was one of the lowest.
“Oh, that’s right.” She started to click away on her mouse, looking left at a flat computer screen. “The Everests.” She said it with a snarky tone and a chuckle. She ripped her jerky with a grunt and clenched it between her teeth, squinting at the screen. “Al-pha Aer-on Ever-e-s-t.”
“Okay, cool.” Aeron squinted his eye and stared at her with all the irritation he could muster.
She tapped away on her mouse and scrolled endlessly.
“It starts with A. You’re not serious.” Aeron turned when he heard brakes squealing outside and metal banging trashcans.
Out the window, two men were hopping onto the hood of a lifted Chevy pick-up, while another reversed it from the trashcans he’d knocked over. One pretended he was shot and rolled over the top and off the other side. He hit the ground like a slab of meat. Dean. What an idiot, Aeron thought.
“Looks like your pack’s waiting for you.” Jay stepped to a sputtering printer, snatched a paper and walked it back to Aeron. Gnawing profusely on her jerky, she folded it five times before holding it out to him.
Aeron snatched it. “Thanks for taking your time.”
“Psh—s’the only time I know,” she rolled her eyes and went back to clicking her mouse.
Aeron hadn’t spent much time in the lobby, but on cold nights when loneliness crippled him, he held on to lobby laughter and the thuds of shoes, of free men and prisoners. He wasted no time saying goodbye. He shouldered through the door into the torrid sun and traipsed to the pick-up.
Two of the three men who’d been jumping on the truck were now lying in the bed, staring at the sky through dark sunglasses. One tilted his head slightly and peeked over his. “My, Grandpa, what saggy eyes you have.” His voice sounded half-finished, as if the other half would make him the twenty-two-year-old he was.
“Raven.” Aeron drawled his name. “I want nothing more. I’m hungry and exhausted. Let’s go.” Aeron packed all his elation and relief in a bundle and stuffed it down. He could show them how glad he was to see them, but he’d never been good at expressing his feelings.
The shaggy-haired one was Edkir. He turned to Raven, who was still staring over his sunglasses. “Rude,” Edkir said, popping forward. He was wide and beefy, and rocked the whole truck when he jumped up.
And he was right. Over the years, since they were kids, they’d defended Aeron. They’d fought along him and for him. They’d written and sent videos after his brother died, and gone on taking care of his parents. Even now, they hadn’t replaced him as alpha. They had waited for him and greeted him with merriment. They deserved more than his impatience.
Raven sat up. His hair had finally grown long enough to keep in a ponytail, but he covered it with the furry hood of his nylon jacket. “I agree.”
Aeron curved up his lips. “I missed you guys.”
Dean popped his head out of the driver’s window and slapped the hood of the truck. Moist mud covered half the freckles on his cheek. “That’s all we wanted’tuh hear!”
Raven slapped Aeron’s shoulder on his way to the passenger’s seat. “Shotgun,” he whispered, hopping inside and closing the door after him.
Aeron hopped into the bed and stood next to Edkir. “You got a smoke?”
Dean pulled out a pack of sweet and spicy Vap Thins and tossed them to Edkir.
He shimmied back into the window. “Where to?” he called.
Edkir was in the middle of lighting the thin-rolled paper when he answered. “I’m hungry.”
“Me too,” Aeron said and puffed hard on his cigarette. He sat against the vibrations of the revving engine. “Let’s go hunting.”
[Next chapter posted June 4th]