The air was thicker than he remembered. Like soup in his lungs. Moist. Hot. Stifling. Kyter tipped his head back and inhaled, dragging it over his teeth. It carried a thousand scents unique to the rainforest, smells he hadn’t experienced in centuries.
A blend of sounds teased his ears, a cacophony of insects chirruping, birds singing and primates calling. His jaguar side shifted beneath his skin, a product of his restlessness. He wanted to let the change come over him and take to the trees, prowling along the branches to stalk the monkeys and the parrots. A band of bright blue and yellow macaws broke cover, a stunning flash of colour against the green canopy as they flew to another tree.
Kyter drew in another deep breath, holding this one in his lungs, and calmed himself, shaking off his nerves and trying to see the beauty of this place he had once called home.
The trees loomed above him. The monkey chatter mocked him. Everything closed in and his throat closed with it. A deep need to turn back and escape this place and what awaited him at the end of his journey filled him. He exhaled hard and pushed onwards, taking another step towards his destination. Each step was more difficult than the last. Each stride brought him closer to a place he had vowed he would never set foot in again.
But he had to be here.
He had set out from London a week ago, the same night he had received the news via a call from a satellite phone. That news had knocked his entire world off kilter and left him reeling in the middle of his nightclub, numbed from his skin down to his soul.
He had travelled non-stop since then. Through every plane journey that had carried him halfway across the world, all the boats that had taken him down the mighty Amazon river and its tributaries, and every step he had trod during his trek into the rainforest that had followed, what had brought him back here hadn’t sunk in.
He still felt numb.
He scrubbed a cloth around the back of his neck, wiping the sweat away, and shoved it into the back pocket of his black combat trousers as he took another hard step closer to his destination.
The forest closed in again, covering his tracks for him, even though he had made sure to conceal his path so humans couldn’t find the village nestled far from civilisation. Protected by nature.
Kyter trekked up a steep incline, the path becoming difficult. He struggled to lift his mud-caked boots over each root that threatened to trip him and clung to each tree he could reach, using them as support as he pushed onwards, battling through the fatigue.
The pack on his back was soaked from the sweat that rolled down his spine beneath his black tank. He had emptied his canteen a day back but hadn’t stopped for water. Just as he hadn’t stopped to rest nor to sleep since he had left the river behind two days ago. He couldn’t stop.
Not until he saw the truth for himself.
He wouldn’t believe a thing until then.
He wouldn’t feel a thing until then.
Not how his feet throbbed and burned from the non-stop trek across harsh terrain. Not the sting of a hundred insect bites. Not the ache in his bones.
Not the agony ripping his heart to pieces.
He reached a vertical wall of mud and bushes, and grabbed a thick root, using it to haul himself up the final few feet of the hill. He planted one knee up on the bank above him and grunted as he pulled his bodyweight up and set his other knee down on the ridge.
Kyter dragged himself onto his feet and clutched the tree to his left for support.
The scars on his back ached as he stared down the other side of the hill, through the trees and the scrub to the clearing in the valley.
The village of his pride.
He couldn’t call them family. They had never been family to him.
They had made sure of that, treating him as the outcast he was, ensuring he felt it every day of his long existence. He breathed hard, fighting the memories of this place as they surfaced, shoving them back down inside where they belonged. They had no place in his life now. He had banished them and his pain years ago, or at least he had tried. His fingers tensed against the tree trunk, his claws emerging and tearing through the thin bark to the wood beneath. It curled beneath his fingers, the fresh scent of it filling the air for a moment.
No. They weren’t his family.
If the news was true, then he had no family now.
Kyter pressed a hand to his soaked chest and dug his nails into his pectorals. He ground his teeth and chuffed, the short coughing noise escaping him before he could stop it.
No one would answer that call now.
The backs of his eyes burned and he growled, baring his emerging fangs as he stared down at the village, a flicker of grief piercing the numbness within him and setting fire to his heart.
The smaller wooden single-storey buildings stood on stilts on the earth, without glass in their windows and only shutters to close over them. The thatched roofs hung wide from the sides of each building, providing shelter for the windows and the long porch across the front. They looked so basic to him now, with none of the modern conveniences he enjoyed back in England at his nightclub in London, but one had been his home for most of his life, and he remembered that he had been happy at times.
His golden gaze sought the small residence on the outskirts of the village to his right, near trees that he had climbed as a cub and still bore his claw marks from when he had matured and had raked them to scent them. The house looked so small now. Desolate and lonely. Cold.
As cold as he felt inside.
Kyter straightened and took hold of the straps of his backpack. He sucked down another deep breath into too-tight lungs as his gaze swung back to the main area of the village, to the largest building that stood proudly in the centre of a wide open area. He avoided looking at the left side of the building, where a thick wooden column rose from the earth, and focused on his kin gathered in the square.
They filled the area, encircling a sombre scene that made his numb yet burning heart ache. He had no choice but to believe what he had been told now that it was right before him. Many of the buildings were damaged and, in the middle of the circle of his kin, bodies lay on individual stacks of logs and a cushion of palm leaves, all of them dressed in brightly coloured ceremonial tunics.
The flicker of fire in his chest exploded into an inferno that coursed through his veins and ignited his emotions, bringing them back full force, so powerful that they overwhelmed him. He wanted to throw his head back and roar out his fury and his pain as it ravaged him, but he refused to break with tradition even when he despised it.
Instead of unleashing his rage and grief, he clenched his trembling fists at his sides and vowed that he would hunt down whoever had done this. They would pay. By all that was dark and unholy within him—they would pay.
Kyter took one last deep breath and started down the hill, his step faltering as he approached the village. The hill was more a part of him than the village had ever been. He had spent most of his life up on it, looking down on the village, watching from a distance as ceremonies took place. Especially when they were mating ceremonies.
He never could bear being in the village for those. They only reminded him that he would never have such a thing.
There was no fated mate for him out there.
Now he had to take part in the worst ceremony of all.
He entered the boundaries of the village and kept his gaze fixed straight ahead, on the main building and the people gathered there. The acrid scent of smoke still filled the air, reminding him that only a week had passed since the attack on his kin. A week ago, she had been alive and now she was dead.
Had she been afraid? Had she tried to fight or escape? Had she begged for mercy? For her life?
What had he been doing?
Laughing over a glass of Hellfire in his bar with a pretty little mortal female who had been trying to get his attention all night.
She had been fighting for her life, and he had been laughing while it happened.
Tears burned his eyes and he scrubbed them away, refusing to let them fall. He should have been here. He never should have left.
He reached the edge of the gathered and all eyes turned to him, a hush falling over the village. He ignored them and averted his gaze to the earth, shutting out the pointed looks and the silent accusations that pressed down on his already trembling shoulders.
Kyter glanced at the lead elder of the pride, a tall slender male with short greying hair, and caught the coldness in his golden gaze. More ice than usual.
It had been a long time since Kyter had left this place behind, but he hadn’t forgotten the hostility of his pride. He could never forget. They had made sure of that. His back burned, each laceration feeling as if it had only just happened. The lash of the whip rang in his ears. His own pitiful cries followed it.
He closed his eyes against the memories and turned away from the older male.
The gathered parted for him, which was more than he had expected from them, and he swallowed hard, his throat tightening by degrees as he lifted his head and approached the dead.
Males. Females. Children. All laid out in rows. They numbered in their twenties. Almost half of the pride, and all of their strongest males. Their finest warriors.
Kyter looked at one of them and stopped dead as a vision of the male as a boy filled his mind. A violent collision of fear and hope flooded Kyter’s heart as he stood before the boy, eye-level with him, and the boy pointed at him. The big elder male beside him signalled to two other adult males. Kyter backed away, shaking his head. They clamped strong hands down on his arms and dragged him across the square in front of everyone.
To the column.
The sound of females sobbing yanked him back to the present and he breathed again, his hands shaking as his heart thundered against his ribs.
Kyter stared blankly at the women off to his right, the village of old disappearing to reveal them to him as they clutched each other, consoled by their shared grief and bonded by it.
He flexed his fingers, filled with a need to tell them that he was sorry for their loss, even when he knew that they wouldn’t listen to a word he had to say. They would only look upon him with scorn and disgust.
He hadn’t come for them anyway.
He had learned long ago not to give a damn about them, because they didn’t give a damn about him.
He had come here for one person.
Kyter’s eyes shifted to a small form on a pyre off to the left of the square, her body laid apart from the others and covered only in a piece of pale cloth. Ice and fire speared his chest, freezing and burning his heart at the same time. His throat clogged. Tears stung his eyes.
Not only born of grief.
They were born of fury too. Anger that even in death they were punishing her and holding her away from them, when she had loved them all so dearly. All because she had made a mistake. Duped by a male.
A growl curled up his throat, his anger growing as he realised that they blamed her for what had happened to the pride.
He knew they blamed him. They always blamed him.
The product of her mistake.
He slowly walked towards her, his eyes locked on her, his heart labouring in his chest. His legs shook with each step, his strength leaving him as he drew closer to her, and then gave out when he saw her bruised and lacerated face.
His beautiful mother.
He collapsed to his knees beside her and pulled her cold body into his arms, gently lifting the top half from the palm leaves. Her scent filled his senses and he gathered her against him, buried his face in her throat and cried out the grief ripping him apart inside. Tears spilled in an unstoppable flow as he breathed in her scent with each ragged inhale. He shook to his core and clutched her closer, unable to stop the words from spinning around his mind, damning him.
She had been fighting for her life.
He had been laughing.
Kyter rocked with her, with each hard sob that racked his body, and growled against her mottled skin.
“I should have made you come with me. I shouldn’t have left you behind.”
He chuffed, the low coughing sound that begged for reassurance and comfort reverberating in his throat, but she didn’t answer him.
She would never answer him again.