Grayson Armstrong felt like he’d been shoved through a paper shredder. Only half conscious, he struggled to wake up. Pain lanced through him, sharp and hot, and as his brain screamed to let him black out, just for five more minutes, another part of him was sure he should fight his way back to consciousness.
His eyes fluttered open. He became dimly aware, then very aware.
The verdant canvas of leaves, with their licks and whispers of red and gold on the edges gave him a bit of comfort until he remembered why he was flat on the forest floor.
Grayson remembered that he had been walking, fantasizing about all the sex he wanted and wasn’t having, a dangerous thing to do when you’re alone in the woods. Even if you’re a werewolf. Hell, especially if you’re a werewolf.
Grayson carefully felt the edges of the agonizing slashes across his chest. One was over his heart and came close to being perilously deep.
What the thrashaulers did to him was harsher than he anything he ever experienced. Harsher than anything he ever imagined. Not that he spent his time thinking about thrashaulers. They hadn’t been spotted since before his time. Whatever poison had been on, or in, their sharp claws was now a burning toxin, searing his skin where he had been cut, and foaming big, greyish-yellow, seething bubbles along the torn edges of his shirt.
They’d left him for dead. Judging by how he felt, he wasn’t far from it. But he was alive. He was an Alpha; he’d heal fast. A split second wouldn’t be fast enough for him, because right now he felt like he’d been mauled by a bear and then run over by a truck. It hurt to breathe. Grayson concentrated on relaxing his muscles. It wasn’t like he was going to be getting up anytime soon anyway.
Grayson wasn’t going to slide peacefully into the abyss. Even as his eyes fluttered closed again, he knew he had to stay alive long enough to tell his sister about the attack.
Grayson’s sister Kinley was running as fast as she could. Without breaking stride she changed into her wolf. In her wolf form her back stood at just over four feet tall; her legs were long and ate up the ground in a frenzy of speed. The light grey, tan, and white of her coat flashed between the trees.
Grayson. Grayson. Grayson. Grayson.
She stopped and sniffed.
She was close.
Kinley adjusted her path a tiny bit and took off again, weaving between the trees like a Mercedes zooming around oncoming traffic at super speed.
She came to the small clearing and stopped so quickly she had to dig her nails into the dirt to prevent falling forward.
Oh my God, he’s dead. Dead.
Kinley changed back into her human form. Thank God she had enough power to change back and forth so easily.
Slowly she approached the body.
No. No. Not my brother.
Kinley crouched down beside him.
Gingerly she reached out for a pulse. It was weak but there.
“Kinley?” Grayson’s voice was hoarse and weak.
“Thank God,” Kinley said. “What happened?”
“This far north?”
Grayson coughed, and his chest sent exploding pain messages to every part of his body that all his cuts were on fire.
“Apparently,” Grayson said.
Kinley bent down further to inspect the cuts. “What is this?” she asked, looking at the bile-like froth bubbling up from each one. “Why aren’t the cuts healing?”
Grayson was going to shake his head but thought better of it. “Poison, I think.”
“Oh God. Okay. We have to get you back to the pack den.”
“I’m not sure I should move. I’m not sure I can move.”
“I’ll bring Trimmner to you then.”
The idea of the small, kind healer coming through the woods when thrashaulers could be near was enough to make Grayson willing to get up. He groaned loudly as he lifted his head and shoulders.
“Here, let me help you.”
As Grayson slowly struggled up to standing he looked around. The trees were so beautiful, his home, his pack’s land, his sanctuary. All the green and brown with the pale yellow, burnished gold, fiery orange, and deep red, ushering in the fall season. He couldn’t stand the thought of thrashaulers on his land, hunting his people.
Kinley helped Grayson get all the way up to standing.
“Here, lean on me.”
Kinley ducked under Grayson’s arm and propped him up as they started to walk.
“Jeez brother, you weigh a ton.”
“You would too if you were six foot three of solid muscle. Or no-longer-solid sliced up muscle.”
“Yeah. That wouldn’t look good on me. But you, you’re so sliced up we could use you to make sandwiches.”
“Don’t make me laugh.”
“No ‘Mommy, Mommy why do some kids call me a werewolf’?”
Grayson’s stomach convulsed slightly as he fought down a laugh, even though he’d heard the joke so many times before Kinley didn’t deliver the punch line. But it sprang to Grayson’s mind anyway.
‘That’s because you don’t remember to take your friends out of your mouth before you speak.’
Grayson smiled. Kinley always could make him feel better.
“How’d you find me?” he asked. “I mean, why did you come looking for me? You were looking for me, weren’t you?” Grayson grimaced. Talking while he was walking was not a good idea. Sort of like operating a chainsaw while having a root canal.
“I just sensed you were in trouble and where you were. I wasn’t going to ignore that kind of instinct. I ran faster than I ever have in my life. Eventually I could sniff the blood smell and I followed that.”
Grayson weaved and stumbled. His vision browned out and he almost lost consciousness.
“Come on Grayson. Not that much farther now. Come on, stay with me. You’ll be fucking heavy to carry.”
Grayson breathed in fiercely through his nose, determined not to go down.
“Oh fuck,” he said right before he fell.
He was only down for a minute. Kinley helped him get back up to standing. They walked a few more feet. Both of them stopped short, instincts screaming on high alert as the smell of rotting fruit and the crunching of leaves reached them.
“How long?” Kinley whispered.
Grayson frowned, thinking. It was almost impossible to accurately calculate the distance. His fear enhanced his hearing slightly but also made him less sure of his judgment. He tried to judge the play of the wind, and how the strong trunks of the trees might bounce sounds slightly. Then he had to account for not really knowing how fast those foul abominations were going in the first place.
“Three or four minutes,” Grayson said.
Kinley muffled a curse, and then cursed again when Grayson tried to take a fighting stance.
“You can’t,” Kinley whispered.
Grayson’s silver-grey eyes pinned her with a steely glare.
“You don’t have enough energy to change and you can barely stand up,” Kinley whispered