Burn BrightBy: Patricia Briggs
A Tale Without an Ending
Once upon a time, there was a small spring that, touched by the earth’s spirit, bore a scattering of magic sparkled in its cold, pure water. It was only a little magic, but it brought good things into the world—tiny bits of goodness born of the tiny bits of magic.
There is a certain sort of evil that cannot abide happiness, even such humble joys as lived in that spring.
Such an evil came to dwell at the spring, culling victims from those who came to seek the little surcease it offered. Eventually, even the earth’s magic could not cleanse the evil from the water, and the spring’s small magic was turned to darker uses.
Thus died a little joy in the world, and evil was satisfied for a time.
This evil held the now-polluted spring, one way and another, for a very long while. Time changed, and the evil changed with it, grew more clever about drawing prey to it. Sometimes it fed upon innocence, sometimes magic, sometimes beauty—but the evil always took satisfaction in robbing the world of any good it could find.
It became aware of one who sought, like the spring once had, to do a little good in a world now bleak and dark. On the evil one’s webs came whispers of a monster who fought other monsters. The evil deemed it no more of a meal than a thousand others like it. Still, it could not, by virtue of what it was, allow such a one to live. It set a snare to catch one who was a hero—for heroes are delicious when they fall. It set a snare to trap a monster because even evil fears monsters, a little.
The one who sprang the trap was truly a monster. The one who triggered the snare was also a hero.
But this one was also an artist, and not just any artist. Such an artist, he was, as found beauty and joy in the world and shared it for all to see. An artist who, like the spring had, spread little magics around and left happiness where there was none before.
An artist such as that was a bigger mouthful than evil, even such an old and wicked evil as this, could swallow easily.
Much was lost in the battle, and it cost both sides dearly. As far as anyone knows, the fire of the battle burns still.
This was bad. This was so very bad.
He ran full tilt, ghosting through the trees. The branches and brambles reached out and extracted their price in blood and flesh for running at such speed through their territory. He could feel the ground absorb his blood and his sweat—feel it stir at the taste. Dangerous. Feeding the earth with his blood when he was so upset was not wise.
He almost slowed his feet.
No one was chasing him.
No one had even known he was there. They’d seen the trees who’d obeyed his will, but they had not seen him. The trees … he might have to answer to her for the trees.
She’d told him to run, and he had paused to call the trees. That was not how their bargain was supposed to work. But he couldn’t just let them take her, not when it was within his power to stop it.
Think. Think. Think. The words were his, but he heard them in her voice. She’d worked so hard to give him rules. The first rule was think.
It was funny that everyone believed that she was the danger, that she was the crazy one. Very funny—and his lips stretched in a grin only the forest could see. It wasn’t amusement that caused his feral smile. He wasn’t sure exactly what the emotion was though it was fueled by an anger, a rage so deep that the earth, aroused by his blood, rose eagerly to do his bidding. The earth, out of all the elements, was the hardest to wake but the most eager for violence.
He could just go back. Go back and teach them what they got for touching someone he loved …
Her voice again, ringing in his ears with power. She was his dominant, though he was so much older, so much stronger. As such, she wielded power over him—a power that he’d given her out of love, out of despair, out of desolation. And their bargain, their mating bond (her word, then his) had worked for a very long time.
Anyone who cared to look around would know how well her hold on him had worked—there were still trees on this mountain, and he could hear the birds’ startled flight as he ran past them. If that bargain had failed, there would be no birds, no trees. Nothing. His was an old power and hungry.
But their mating had given him balance, given him safety. His beautiful werewolf mate had brought love to his sterile existence. When that hadn’t been enough, she had brought order to his chaos as well.
Order … that word … No, orders was the word that sifted through his roiling thoughts. She had given him orders for this situation.
He vaulted over a deadfall with the grace of a stag.
Call the Marrok, she had told him. And also, Right the hell now. That was the correct task. Call the Marrok for help. But the reason for his speed—his right the hell now—was because if he allowed himself to slow, he would turn around and …
The mountainside groaned beneath his feet. A soft shift that only someone like him—or like his true love—would feel.
His fleet footsteps … which had slowed … resumed their former speed. She was alive, his love, his mate, his keeper. She was alive, and so he had to call the Marrok and not raise the mountains or call the waters.
Today, he had to call the Marrok and tell him … and his mate’s voice rang in his head as if she were running by his side.
I know who the traitor is …
• • •
CHARLES TIPPED HIS father’s computer monitor so that it was at a better angle and wiggled the keyboard until it felt right.
He’d told Bran that he could run the pack just fine from his own home while Bran was gone, just as he had the last dozen times that the Marrok had to be away. But this time had looked as though it might last awhile, and his da had been adamant that it was important to keep the rhythms of the pack the same.
It wasn’t that he didn’t understand his da’s reasoning—some of the hoarier wolves under his da’s control weren’t exactly flexible when it came to change—but understanding didn’t make it any easier for Charles to function in his da’s office, his da’s personal territory.
Charles couldn’t work in the office without making it his own—and wasn’t that just going to set the fox among the hens when his da got back and had to reverse the process. But Bran would understand, as one dominant male understands another.
Charles had to admit, if only to himself, that he’d moved the mahogany bookcases to the other side of the room and reorganized the titles alphabetically by author, instead of by subject matter, just to mess with Bran. Anna, he thought, was still the only person on the planet who honestly believed he had a sense of humor, so he was pretty sure he could make his da believe the rearrangement was necessity.
Charles hadn’t moved the bookcase until Bran called him this morning, a week after he’d left the pack in Charles’s keeping, to let him know that his initial business was concluded—and Bran had decided he would take another week to travel.
Charles couldn’t remember the last time Bran had taken a vacation from his duties. Charles hadn’t realized that his da was capable of taking a vacation from his duties. But if the rearrangement of Charles’s life was no longer essential, just required, then he felt free to make some changes to make his life easier. And so he’d rearranged his da’s office to suit himself.
Even in the redecorated room, it took Charles longer than normal to lose himself in his work, his wolf restless in his father’s place of power. Eventually, the hunting game that was international finance grew interesting enough that Brother Wolf let himself be distracted.
It was a complicated dance, to play with money at this level. The battle pleased Brother Wolf, the more so because they were good at it. Brother Wolf had a tendency toward vanity.
Eventually, drawn in by the subtle hunt for clues in the electronic data on his screen, he sank into what his mate called “finance space,” chasing an elusive bit of rumor, stocks rising for no apparent reason, a new company seeking financing but there was something they weren’t saying. He couldn’t tell if what this company was hiding was good news or bad. He was running down the background of an engineer who’d been hired at what looked to be abnormally high salary for his title when he was pulled out by the sound of the door hitting the wall.
He looked up, Brother Wolf foremost at this interruption to his hunt. It didn’t help his temper that it was his da’s mate who’d barged into (what was now) his territory without permission.
“You have to do something about your wife,” Leah announced. She didn’t react to his involuntary growl at her tone. When she spoke of Anna, she would do better to talk softly.
He didn’t like Leah. There were a lot of people in the world he didn’t like—most of them, even. But Leah had made it very easy not to like her.
When his da had brought her back with him, Charles had been a wild thing, lonely and lost. His da had taken his much-older brother Samuel and been gone for months off and on. Half-mad with grief at the death of Charles’s mother, Bran probably hadn’t been the best person to raise a child when he was home.
Charles’s uncles and his grandfather had done their best, but Brother Wolf had not always been as willing to ape being human as he was now. A werewolf child born instead of made, Charles had been (as far as he knew) unique; no one, certainly not his mother’s people, had any experience dealing with what he was.