Breakpoint is a Shadow Sprawl setting story by Terri Pray
Artwork by Samuel Pray created using Photoshop.
Smoke from the pyre stung his eyes and he blinked, trying to clear his vision, his gaze never leaving the smoking remains of his wife - the Seer - the one who had guided him and his people for so many years. His back straight, head held high, Romulus shut out everything but the crackling, leaping flames of the funeral pyre from his world as they consumed both wood and woman alike.
The name, one seldom used by his people, now echoed through his mind. Wife. Seer. Guide. She had been all of that and so much more. Now she was gone, her mortal life over with and her spirit - well, that wasn’t for him to know. He’d never had the gift of sight, the ability to see things the way she had. Not one member of his pack, true born, had access to such abilities though who knew what the future might bring?
Flames crackled and licked at the wood, dancing high into the sky, smoke climbing further away from the flames. Did the smoke carry her soul? Or would that remain with the ashes?
He frowned at the thought. Did it matter where her soul remained or if it had already traveled elsewhere? Those were matters for priests, priestesses, those who dealt with spiritual things. Not warriors or an Alpha.
Voices, low conversations and tears. Faint wailing in the distance. On the other side of the pyre maybe? Someone who had loved his wife, or someone trying to draw attention to themselves? It didn’t matter in the end. Those who loved her would grieve. Those who loved themselves would act as if they grieved. The only true way to tell the difference was to get close enough to read their scents. Lies were harder to maintain around his people, but it was knowledge the pack seldom shared with those born outside of the pack.
The wailing increased and he turned, picking out the small group of women, wives and daughters of the Senate, his gaze narrowing. Some he knew, had seen in the company of his wife, others - their cries rang of performances given for the benefit of those around them.
Should he say something? No, he’d done that all ready, lifted his voice to send her into the next life - if such a thing existed. Odd, he couldn’t recall what he’d actually said. Something about devotion, service, duty; if there had been more, he no longer knew or cared. Artume would welcome her ashes, once the pyre had burned down, or so his Seer believed. Had believed. Dead, he had to accept that fact. She was gone, there was no coming back from this, no rebirth, no welcoming into the pack that would hunt forever. It didn’t even matter that she’d born his children. His wife had been only that, wife - not mate. Accepted and claimed by his pack, but never quite a part of them.
Whispers, words that he couldn’t quite make out, reached his ears. The occasional one he could understand but it wasn’t enough to make full sense of the conversations. Disappointment, expectations and doubt. He closed his eyes, listening, trying to catch the thread of conversation. He breathed, letting the world fall away from him as he listened.
“He is weakened.” A male voice, one he recognized but couldn’t put a name to immediately.
“Is it time to push for a new King?” A second male voice, younger than the first.
“Yes, he’s ruled too long. We need a new voice, one who is more in touch with the people as a whole.” The first replied. A member of the senate, that part he knew without a doubt.
“The people love him.”
“Some of them do, the small, the young who have been raised with stories of the founding. Children, nothing more.” The older man shrugged it off. “We are ready to push, to take our rightful place. Yes, he helped to found…”
“Not helped, he did found it.”
The older man snorted. “You believe the stories, just like the children do. Founded Rome indeed. He killed his brother in a petty fight, and then claims he built the city with his own bare hands.”
Romulus’ jaw tightened as the conversation moved off, out of his ability to hear the rest of it. Was that what they thought of him? Did they plan to strike him down in the middle of the night? No, not that, they would be careful, knowing that his pack would continue to protect him. The accents, the slight differences in pronunciations, marked the two men as Sabine’s. Well, that came as no shock to him, ever since the taking of their women the Sabine’s had railed against the core founders of his city. Some accepted the blending of people, others wanted to reclaim their independence.
“Alpha?” The voice, though male, was pitched low without making the mistake of whispering.
“Yes?” He opened his eyes but didn’t turn, didn’t look away from the pyre. He owed her that much, the respect of seeing this through to the end. The Sabine’s could wait. His pack, they were the ones who truly mattered, at least for the time being.
“The seconds want to know if you wish to meet after this is completed.”
Of course they did. Tension rippled across his shoulders, tightening the muscles down to the small of his back. “Tomorrow.”
“As you wish, Alpha.”
It wouldn’t just be the seconds who would want an answer, there was another waiting in the wings, one that had been careful to hide his nature from - or at least the full depths of it. They all knew he and his people assumed the form of the wolf, they didn’t know about the slow aging. Small charms had helped there, charms that meant only the pack saw them as they really were, but men like Numa Pompilius were kept from the truth. It was better that way, and gave his people another edge that could make the difference between life and death.
Numa, that was a man who could step into his sandals, and it didn’t help that the Sabine’s wanted him. He was the best of their number, a man even Romulus respected but it had been a relief when the man had left the city.
You have decisions to make, my love. You can’t stay here, not like this. Sooner or later the others, those not pack, will realize there is something keeping you young. They will not accept an eternal ruler, a king who never ages and will not die.
Eternal. Was he that? Even he didn’t have the answer to that one, nor had his beloved Seer. He was the Alpha, the first of his kind, the oldest and yet, without the charms, he looked no older than thirty at this point. A few lines around the eyes, the weathering that came from a man who spent much of his life outside, working, fighting, patrolling. He was the King but he hadn’t stepped back from the other aspects of pack life. As Alpha he couldn’t lead from behind, he’d faced challenges for control of the pack and fought the struggles that had come from bringing the Sabine’s into the mix.
Sabine’s. Numa Pompilius was one of their number. His wife, the only daughter of the King of the Sabine’s, was but one of the many reasons the non pack members of the city believed he would be an ideal replacement for Romulus, once their King was no longer with them. Yet how much longer would they wait? Even though Numa no longer lived in the city, but had retired to the city, that hadn’t stopped the whispers. Had there been pushes that Romulus had traced back to Numa - yes, but the evidence had been little more than whispers.
Not enough to take direct action.
Then there was the Senate.
Bickering men, each one struggling for power, for control. How often had he had to bare his teeth, snarl and bring them back in line? Those who were pack understood, those who were not bucked like an unbroken horse. His mind drifted back to the conversation he had overheard. No mention of Numa, which was a relief. Perhaps that meant the man was not involved in the current whispers.
Of course he isn’t. He’d send word to me directly if he was involved. The man was honorable, patient and spoke his mind. Those were things he could respect about Numa, along with his many other talents.
Find your freedom. This time, it’s yours, not the city’s or the pack’s. It’s yours. Take it. Use it. Live it.
Easy to say, but reality was another matter entirely. Still, his wife had been right, her visions true nine times out of ten, and in this… He sighed and looked away from the smoking remains of the pyre. Hersilia was gone, he had no reason to remain. The new Seers would collect the remains, the ashes, place them in an urn and present them to him. Within a matter of days he would take the ashes to the grove down by the Rubicon that had been her favorite place.
His throat tightened even as he turned away, back straight, head held high before he began the slow walk to his home. No matter what he felt, he would not cry, not where others, non pack members, might see him. Better to grieve in private, when he freed her ashes, mixing them with the rich dirt as she had requested. It was a small thing but after everything she had sacrificed for him, the children she had given him, it was the least he could do.
“Alpha, the mourners have been turned away.” A male fell into step at his side. “Only pack members are being granted access to your home at this time.”
He nodded, not trusting himself to speak. Lucius was a good man, first among his seconds, and the man most likely to become Alpha if he stepped down.
“When will you see to the ashes, Alpha?”
“Soon,” the single word threatened to stick in his throat. Grief. He wanted to let it go, to shift into his true form, howl, whine and mourn his wife. Females would come soon enough, seeking his bed, his position and the children he could give them. Others would come wanting to take the status of wife, knowing that no true mate had ever been found and perhaps never would be. He’d felt no sign, no pull, caught no scent that would hint at a true mate for him. One that would bind him to her for life, for however long they both might live, he’d searched, married his wife with the understanding that he might one day have to set her aside for a true mate. She’d nodded, accepted that, her gift making it clear that such would never happen within her lifetime. So, it had worked for them. She had loved him, been loyal, loving, tender and had spent her energy, her gifts on keeping him and his people safe.
Lucius took a step closer, offering strength. “Our females will keep the others in line.” He was, of course, referring to the mates of the seconds. “We know there will be ones who will come for you - seeking position, or hoping to be the one to trigger the mating bond.”
Romulus snorted, anger flaring through him. None could replace his Seer.
“It… will take time.” He blinked, clearing his vision again. Tears. He had no time for grief, not where people could see him. Pack would understand. Pack knew. They guarded, gathered in strength around him, offering him shelter and companionship. Wolves gathered, pressed together, leaning in close, they ran and hunted together, mourned, howled at the moon, the wind, to sing, to speak from their hearts and souls. No matter what they would be a pack.
Even if he left them.
Not if, when.
“There is much to discuss, but not here.” They weren’t far from his home. A little longer and they would be away from prying eyes - or more importantly, ears.
“Yes, Alpha.”Lucius inclined his head, keeping it lower than Romulus’ for a moment before he raised it once more.
Pack habits, the wolf side of their nature, it was hard to deny even when they were in human form. Small things that continued to bind them together as a pack, habits that their human neighbors either didn’t notice, or never commented on. Considering how blind humans were, Romulus had no doubt that they didn’t know what was going on.
Humans. They didn’t even smell what was happening right under their noses.
Leave, pack up and get out. Have Lucius take over the pack. Not yet. A few small things to sort out first, details with the pack, the senate, small matters that needed to be put in order. Ten days of work, maybe more, a moon at most. Then he would leave and then…
The guards parted at the entrance to his home, two men armed with simple weapons but they were enough to keep intruders out. Pack, like him, their human weapons weren’t the real strength, but their abilities, the shift, strength, speed and agility. He’d never met a pure blood human who could beat one of the pack.
The walls pressed in on him as he walked in. Her scent still lingered here, touching the fabric, wood and stone. He stopped in the middle of the main room, inhaling deeply. Tears pricked his eyes, his throat tightened as he tasted it, letting it roll through him. Not his true mate, but her presence had been a strong, stabilizing force in his life and now - with her loss - the ground shifted under his feet. He let his gaze move around his home, the emptiness - despite the presence of his pack members - struck deep.
“Alpha, we are here for you.” Lucius spoke first.
“We always will be, no matter what you choose,” Iulius added, his head bowed for a moment before he lifted his gaze. “We share your grief.”
A dozen men, pack seconds, trackers, primary hunters, all gathered around him without crowding him. “Your support is welcomed,” but it was time to tell them his decision, to get the story ready to share with the people of Rome, “the loss of my wife is something I will recover from in time, but it has made me realize that things need to change.”
Silence settled over the room as a dozen pairs of eyes fixed on him. No questions, no demands for more information, just patience and understanding. His throat tightened as a weight wrapped around his heart. Could he do this? Walking away from the city and his pack, was that the right decision?
You know it is. If you stay you will never find her. Never discover your true mate.
He frowned. Those words - Hersilia had never said those words to him, yet the voice was hers. The softness, compassion, the very cadence of the speech, they were all hers.
I am, and forever will be, your wife. Death does not end things, does not prevent me from serving you. I swore myself to you, husband. Until you find her, I have been granted permission to stay with you.
There, she was still there. The body burning on the pyre was just that, an empty shell. Her spirit, her wisdom, those would remain, and a true mate? Someone he could bond with, spend the rest of his life with? Was that really waiting for him?
“Alpha?” Lucius prodded, his gaze filled with concern.
He coughed, shaking his head for a moment, giving himself a chance to clear his thoughts. “My apologies, this has been a trying time.” He tried to smile, but doubted it worked. “It is time that I leave Rome.”
Protests filled the room, declarations that they needed him, wanted him, that his grief would ease and that he should wait, give himself a chance to heal.
“No, I have to leave before the others realize that I am still as strong as I was the day this city was founded. That time will come for all of you, and you will find it is leave Rome or find your families at risk. They know we are different, but how different has been kept secret from them.” He took a deep breath, shifting his weight before he continued. “My life isn’t over, and I will establish a pack home for us, beyond the city. Once I have that place settled, I’d send word to you so you know where to come when it’s time to leave the city.” He knew where now, just beyond the Rubicon, close to the home of the river nymph. There the magic of the nymph would work to keep the human residents of Rome away from them. It wasn’t ideal, but it would work well enough. If Rome needed him, he could take another name and return, offering help for that time before he went back to their new home.
“Alpha, I don’t understand…”
He turned, looking directly at Lucius. “Yes, you do. You might not want to accept that right now, but you do understand. I have reached my breakpoint, old friend. Lucius, you will run the pack until it is time for you to leave Rome as well. One by one it will happen to all of you, your children and mates. In time we may be able to return to the city when those who recall what we look like have died. When our likenesses are no longer known to every man, woman and child within the city. But until that time, they must believe I am dead.”
Run, he could run, hunt, stretch his legs. In time there would be a chance to deal with the renegades who had stolen from Rome. An offshoot of the line of Remus had caused problems for them, but only the wolves would be able to track him down.
The renegades are not your concern. Let them be. They haven’t attacked the city or its people in over five years.
Five years was nothing to a race of long lived beings, like his people.
Perhaps, but you need to heal first before you find your mate. You won’t recognize her if you are still wrapped in grief.
Mate. Yes, he would find his mate.
He gestured to the pack, drawing them close. These were his family and together they would plan his escape, their future, and way to protect the pack and its children down through the ages - because at the end of the day that was the only real duty of an Alpha…