A Cursed Embrace Page 25

Aric distributed a flag football belt to each of my sisters, keeping one as he returned to my side. His steel gaze took in the crowd of young weres, silencing them and bringing them to attention. “Last month, we lost three strong weres.” He paused. “This is unacceptable.” The wolves growled low in agreement. “We can’t bring them back. But we can kill what killed them. We believe a demon lord walks among us and has aligned himself with rogue vampires.”

A few students spit on the muddy ground at the word “vampire.” Good thing I didn’t invite the Catholic schoolgirls along.

Aric continued, his voice growing curt. “Our quandary remains that we don’t know where the demon is, or what he can do. We have to prepare for the unknown.” He put his arm around me. “Celia and her sisters represent the unknown. Each will wear a belt with two flags attached. To pull a flag represents proximity close enough to the enemy to cast a lethal blow.” Aric’s face turned fearsome. “I don’t have to remind you that these ladies are not the enemy. But I will. If you harm them in any way, you’ll have to deal with me.”

The students shuddered at his threat and lowered their heads. A wire-thin kid about fourteen raised a shaky hand. “Can we change?”

Aric gave a stiff nod. “Except if you’re chasing Celia. The belt won’t fit her if she’s in her other form.”

Koda stepped forward. “For those who choose to fight as beasts, no biting or clawing allowed. If we yell, ‘Freeze,’ everyone must immediately stop. Once we whistle, the exercise is immediately over.”

“Do we need both flags?” a big guy with a Mohawk asked.

Gemini came out of his Taran stupor. “No. One will suffice. As an incentive, those who succeed will be exempt from latrine and kitchen duties for the next month. Those who fail to catch a flag have to return to the Den on foot.”

An excited murmur spread across the crowd. Nothing like a challenge and a hunt to enthuse a pack of wolves.

Liam smiled down at Emme. “Don’t underestimate your opponents,” he said to the students. “The girls aren’t as innocent as they appear.” Emme could’ve set the field on fire with the heat from her cheeks. Liam laughed. “That’s not how I meant it, angel.”

Shayna stood apart by a battered lodgepole pine. She carefully scanned the ground before selecting two dead branches. Light flickered from her platinum necklace as she transferred the element into the pieces of muddy wood, transforming them into long silver staffs. She twirled them with the grace and speed of a cheetah, warming up her wrists. A few of the wolves nudged one another and pointed her way. Liam had cautioned them against underestimating our skills. Yet it took a little Shayna action to heed his warning.

Taran stepped along the field, careful to avoid the extra-squishy parts. “Celia, I’m not sitting in the goddamn mud. Do you have something I can use?”

“Take my sweatshirt. I don’t need it.” No sooner had I pulled it off than Aric had it wrapped back around me.

He zipped up the front. “What are you doing?” he asked firmly.

I zipped it back open. “I’m going to get hot once I start running.”

He leaned in close to my ear. “So will I if that’s all you wear.”

I considered my outfit. It was a perfectly respectable sports bra and a pair of cotton shorts. Granted my shorts were a little on the small side, but so was I. I laughed. Had I known this would spark Aric’s attention, I wouldn’t have spent so much on lingerie. I smiled playfully, and spoke just below a whisper. “I’ll tell you what, wolf. Pull my flag and I’ll wear whatever you want.”

I yanked the belt out of his hand and dashed into the woods. What sounded like a herd of elephants charged after me. I cleared a rusting barbed-wire fence with ease while wrapping the belt around my waist. Some of the students weren’t so graceful. They swore when they became ensnared in the wire, but I didn’t stop. They’d heal fast.

I sprinted amid the trees, weaving to the left before summoning extra speed to cut right. My tigress wanted to tackle and claw, but as her mischievous side spawned, she contentedly leapt and evaded, dodging fallen trees and gorges. I scented sweat, and ambition, decomposing leaves and royal pissed-offness. Weres should know better than to believe a tigress easy prey. The awkward clamor of the wolves only lightened my steps, spurring my inner beast to a more graceful, nimble cadence.

I skidded to a stop, allowing the momentum to sweep my hair over my shoulder before doing a little tigresses-rule, wolves-drool dance. My flags rustled and snapped as I surged forward. Judging by the throaty growls, the wolves hadn’t appreciated my shimmy.

Five miles later, the odds evened. In true pack formation, the wolves worked collectively, one pursuing me at full speed while the others hung back, and a new leader emerging each quarter mile. I’d known they were finely conditioned and intelligent, but their teamwork impressed me. I panted through a field of waist-high grasses, wondering how much longer I could run at full speed.

Three of them gradually passed me, cutting me off and trying to encircle. I shifted before they could strike. Their breathing hammered loud as thunder and their grunts merged with their pounding feet. They’d begun to tire. Hell, I was tired. My hair pasted to my face, my leg muscles threatened to tear off my bones and find a place to nap, and my tigress begged me to just eat one of the students and call it a day. But Aric hadn’t stopped the exercise, so we weren’t done.

A large stand of tall trees near the far end of the field caught my eye. My strides veered toward the strongest and widest trunk in the cluster. I protruded my front claws and quickly scaled upward, my breath escaping in rapid bursts. I stopped to rest atop a thick branch about halfway up. Below, the small pack of wolves circled the tree, growling in frustration. Some had started to climb, but most fell. Poor little puppies.

“Impressive,” Aric said, panting next to me.

I jerked back, barely keeping my footing. Of course wonder boy could scale a tree with his bare hands. He just missed grabbing my flag when I vaulted away to the closest tree. I continued to spring off branches until I ran out of limbs. When I teetered about fifteen feet from the ground, the students started jumping up at me. Aric chuckled as he got nearer. “Watch out, little kitty. Here comes the wolf.”

There was nowhere else to go but down, so I flipped and shifted a few feet away from them. The moment I surfaced, I felt a pull on my belt. Aric stood over me, dangling his trophy in my face as he grinned. The look in his eye wasn’t that of a wolf who had caught his prey. It was how he looked at me in the bedroom—impish, aroused, and oh so sexy. He cleared his throat before facing his exhausted students. “Haul ass. You have a mountain to conquer.”

The students disappeared with a few swears and a lot of grumbling. Aric closed the distance between us and kissed me. His sweet taste demanding that we lie down. His hands pressed me tighter and tighter until someone yanked my remaining flag. I lurched back, surprised. A scrawny little werewolf danced in circles shaking the flag at us. I recognized him as the young wolf bold enough to ask the first question. “Thanks for distracting her for me!” he said to Aric.

Aric furrowed his brows.

The were dropped his head. “You didn’t say, ‘Freeze,’ and you never whistled,” he mumbled.

I smiled at Aric. “He’s got a point. Good job, little guy.”

Aric winked at me, but when he turned back to his student, he was all business. “Fine,” he snapped. “John, wait by the car. I’ll give you a ride back.”

The kid hopped around like a crazed Easter bunny before running off. Aric turned back to me. “As for you, come here.” He grabbed the waistband of my shorts and pulled me to him, kissing me softly. “You were amazing. Thank you for doing this.”

I immediately lost myself in his gaze. The training had been Aric’s way of introducing me to his pack, the equivalent, I gathered, of meeting his family. “Thanks for letting me.”

We returned to the training field with our arms around each other, teasing and joking about which of us was bigger and badder. Our good humor faded when we heard a whistle and what sounded like a wolf howling in pain. We raced back at full velocity, stopping when we reached the edge of the clearing where a few wolves had gathered.

Liam’s group huddled in a tight cluster, staring at something on the ground. I quickly shoved my way through the group when I couldn’t spot Emme. I found her in the center, bent over a large red wolf.

The wolf sprawled in the mud next to a large granite boulder smeared with fresh blood. Emme must have thrown the wolf against the boulder, but I couldn’t figure out why she’d reacted so aggressively. The young were whimpered and jolted as his ribs realigned beneath his blood-soaked fur. By scent, I recognized him as the big kid with the Mohawk. He’d acted arrogant then. Now he seemed young and helpless.

“Oh, gosh,” Emme said quietly. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

Liam fumed, majorly pissed. He pulled Emme behind him, his face red and volatile. “Don’t apologize. Devin deserves it for the stunt he just pulled.” He motioned Aric closer. “He went after Emme with his claws protruded. He wouldn’t stop even after I whistled.”

Devin cowered at Aric’s feet. When he changed back to human, Emme and I averted our eyes. “I’m sorry,” Devin sputtered. “I lost control.”

The students around us let out a collective gasp. Liam growled deeply and took a step forward, but Aric stopped him by putting his hand against Liam’s chest. “That was the wrong thing to say, Devin,” Aric said. His voice sounded threatening, but with an undertone of concern. “You could have hurt Emme. Your actions are inexcusable. But in the field, against a real foe, you would have been killed.” Aric’s hard stare brought his students to their knees. “Losing yourself to your beast won’t be enough to protect you against what’s out there waiting for us. You have to use your heads. You have to stay in control. Paul didn’t. And it cost us three lives. Get back to the Den.”

Aric turned back to Liam and locked eyes with him, prior to removing his hand from his chest. I guessed it was Aric’s way of warning Liam against retaliating against Devin.

Devin took off, glancing nervously over his shoulder. Although his apology sounded sincere, I worried for my other sisters’ safety. I chased after him until I reached the area closest to the path. My fears, it seemed, proved ridiculous.

Several wolves surrounded Taran. Some lay on their sides snoring loudly, having been zapped by her sleeping mist. Others whined and paced anxiously, trapped in rings of fire that shot upward to the sky. Taran casually sat on my sweatshirt, leaning back on her hands, legs crossed. She swung her top leg teasingly as she flirted with Gem. I shook my head. I continued to pant, and dripped with perspiration. Meanwhile Taran had spent the past hour sitting on her ass looking like an ad for Viagra.

Shayna, in contrast, was a blur of movement, her light blue T-shirt clinging to her sweaty torso. Mud caked her jeans as she dodged, weaved, and rolled. She twirled her silver staffs like giant batons, hitting any wolf that tried to reach her. With each strike, she knocked her opponents off their feet and maneuvered around them. Her eyes appeared savage, her laugh maniacal, mimicking the persona she embodied behind the wheel. Koda watched her carefully, cautious of anyone who might harm her. He seemed proud, and probably a little turned on.

The wolves obviously weren’t getting anywhere alone. A few of them finally realized as much and coordinated their efforts. Four jumped Shayna at once, with one successfully pulling her flag. It was impressive; he managed to hang on to it even after she broke his fingers. Koda whistled, bringing the test to an abrupt end. His group collapsed, clearly exhausted, and probably not looking forward to their hike back up to campus.

Shayna congratulated the flag-wielding wolf when we heard Gemini yell, “Freeze!”

A skinny little guy with bright red hair froze in an awkward position, inches from Taran’s flag. He had listened to Gemini’s order and stayed put.

Gem examined him closely. “Bryson, how did you manage to jump through fire and not get burned?”

Taran answered for him. “There was no fire, baby. It was an illusion. This kid is the only one who figured it out.” She motioned to Bryson and stuck out her hip. “Go on, you can take it.” She offered the flag. The love-struck kid reached out, but stopped when Gem glared down at him like he might rip out his spleen. “It’s okay,” Taran insisted. “You deserve it.”

Bryson must have felt Taran’s attention was worth dying for, because he grabbed the flag and ran like the dickens. “I got it from the hot chick!” he yelled to the group of students, pumping his fist in the air.

Emme addressed one of Liam’s wolves. “You can have one of mine, too,” she said softly. “Out of everyone, you worked the hardest, no matter how tired you were.”

Liam agreed. “She’s right, Nehemiah. You showed tremendous heart and a great deal of skill.”

The wolf smiled shyly at Emme and took a flag. “Thanks. You did good, too.”

Koda put his arm around Shayna and addressed the remaining students. “Those who have flags, you earned a ride and your privileges. Everyone else, start running. I’ll meet you at the Den.” He kissed Shayna. “I’ll see you back home, baby.”

Shayna joined us as we collectively angled toward the path. I couldn’t help noticing she lacked a skip to her step, and the sadness that dulled Koda’s irises when she left his arms.

“That exercise went well,” Gemini said. “It tested their endurance and the skills they learned this past term. I’m impressed that the majority didn’t allow their beasts to dominate. That tells me they’ll maintain their focus in battle.”

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