I shivered as the cold night air toyed with the loose strands of hair that had managed to escape my ponytail. I glanced over my shoulder at the worn path, then turned my gaze upward to the moon. A frisson of fear coursed through me, settled in my chest, and stayed there like a ball of steel pressed against my heart. I knew what was coming, but I was powerless to stop the change.
“Everything will be fine, Gretchen. I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.” My brother’s hair was a bit too long, but that was the least of my worries. Henry slipped his fingers between mine and squeezed my hand. “I know it’s scary, but I’ll be here for you the entire time. After the initial pain, it’s actually really great.”
I sighed and pointed my body toward our destination. “I find it difficult to believe every bone in my body breaking could be anything close to great, but thanks for the pep talk.”
Henry chuckled, then bumped my shoulder with his. “You know what I meant. Your change has been delayed so many times, I was beginning to think this day would never come. I’m glad you finally decided to accept what you are.”
I kicked a pebble down the path. It skittered along, then slipped and fell into the pond to my right. I wanted to break from my brother and leap into the pond, perhaps swim away and never be seen again, but the pack would hunt me down and drag me back.
“What are you thinking about?” Henry asked.
“That this entire situation sucks, and we shouldn’t have to do it. Do you ever wish we could be normal?” I asked.
Henry shook his head vehemently. “No, not even once. Why would I want to be normal when I can be… well, what we are? We’re powerful animals, Gretchen. And we serve a higher purpose.”
“Yeah, yeah, protect the world from all sorts of evil and bad things. I’ve heard the spiel, and I’ve gotta tell you, it still feels like a hefty price to pay even with the pretty advertisement. Honestly, though, I think I’m more afraid of my role in the pack than the actual change.”
“As the alpha? Why?” Henry’s forehead scrunched, and his eyes narrowed as if the idea of being in charge of a pack of earth-protecting wolves wasn’t the least bit intimidating. Then again, it was never his destiny, so there was no reason for him to fear a role that was not his to play.
“Um, have you met me? I’m the clumsiest person in the world. Dad would be ashamed if—”
“Stop!” Henry said. He tugged on my hand, forcing me to stop mid-stride. “Dad would be proud of you, Gretchen. Everything you’ve given up for the cause—med school, traveling the world—it’s a sacrifice, but you’re doing it because it’s what you were called to do. No one says you have to love your fate; you only have to accept it. You’re the oldest, and with that comes a lot of responsibility. But I also know you’ll be great.”
I scoffed. “Sure. Tell Gramps that.”
Our grandfather had been less than pleased with my decision to take my two free passes—a cumulative ten years I was allowed to defer my change, allowing me time to settle my affairs before I fell off the map to fulfill my duties as the alpha of the Black Forest Pack. We were the last of our kind, a dying breed of protectors that kept the world safe from an evil most people only saw in their nightmares. The deference came with its own pain and sacrifice. The spells used to control the shift were no walk in the park.
“Gramps is… He’s old and cranky. Once he retires, he’ll see the time helped you grow stronger. Besides, I’m pretty sure Zachary is ready to answer to a new alpha.” My heart fluttered when my brother said his name. Zachary, second in command to my grandfather—AKA, the guy who filled my mind most hours of the day—was a brooding beta who mainly served the alpha role so my grandfather could take his regularly scheduled naps.
“Ever since Dad died, Zachary has been pulling more than his weight,” Henry said. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to show you the ropes, including how to convince our grandfather everything is just fine when we’re really just keeping our heads above water.”
I sighed, partly longing for the man who hardly looked at me as anything more than his future leader, someone in a position of authority he might even resent, and partly wishing I could defer just once more time.
“I get it. Hurry up and change so Zachary can take a break,” I said just as something overhead cast a long shadow over the path. The demons. I wasn’t ready to shift, let alone fight the monsters who haunted every shadow and dark corner of the world!
“Hurry!” Henry yelled, then dragged me along behind him. “If we get to the others, they can protect you until the change is complete!”
I tried to keep up with my brother, but there was a stirring in my gut, a deep rumble that caused aching pain to spread outward and into my chest. It slammed into my ribcage and kicked my heart into high gear, forcing the wind from my lungs.
“Ah!” I cried out, then fell to my knees.
“No, no, no! Not here, Gretchen! We have to get to safety! If you shift here, you’re a sitting duck!” Henry tugged on my hand, but his incessant yelling and urges to move on did no good. The beast inside wanted out, and it would not take no for an answer, not this time.
More shadows passed, and in the distance, I heard the pack howl. The change was more natural for them; they’d already done it dozens if not hundreds of times. No longer chained to the full moon, they shifted at will, and with that came a closer bond to their wolf. I, on the other hand, had done nothing but keep it contained. It hated me, and now that it had a chance to break free, it intended to drag me through Hell as payment.
“Gretchen, you have to get up! If the Vamps see us down here, they’ll attack!” Henry’s frantic voice was but a faint whisper as the aching pain sharpened. I felt the beast’s claws inside, scratching under my skin before ripping through my body. I screamed; the sound gurgled by the blood that dripped from my mouth. I somehow found strength and darted toward the line of trees along the path. Henry followed—and another.
Henry spun on his heels, prepared to tackle our stalker, but it was only Zachary.
“What are you doing?” he asked. “She was supposed to be at the ceremonial grounds half an hour ago!” His gaze bounced between Henry and me, but I could not speak out to defend my brother.
“Too late! It’s started,” Henry said.
I was just about to try again, but the pain gripped my stomach once more. I turned and vomited but did not avoid my brother’s shoes. I fell as the pain stabbed me, then every tendon and ligament in my body twisted and stretched and reformed into something else. My muscles slipped and shifted into a different arrangement. I screamed again, unprepared for such intense pain. I had known it would hurt, but my mind begged for unconsciousness… death even, anything to alleviate the agony of the heated, searing pain that took my body, ravaging it until nothing remained but a shell.
“Go! I’ll stay with her!” Zachary said, but Henry would not leave.
“I promised her I’d stay with her!” Henry shouted over the sounds of screeching demons. They were closer, coming for us.
“A senior member of the pack must perform the ritual, or would you prefer your sister not to become queen?” Zachary asked.
“Queen? You and your old school terms. She’s the alpha, Zach—”
“Just go, Henry!” Zachary’s voice flared into a growl, his wolf frustrated Henry would not submit immediately.
Henry abided by Zachary’s order, unable to deny his commander. I clenched my jaw and grit my teeth, but nothing eased the fire in my gut. Zachary placed his hand on my shoulder, gently rubbing as if somehow a single touch would ease the discomfort of my body ripping itself to shreds. My skin slowly stretched, then the bones popped free from their joints, allowing the tendons and ligaments to fully realign as the beast. My skin prickled and itched. I had to fight against myself to keep from scratching it to bits. Soon, Zachary took my hands in his.
“Don’t scratch. Just… just let it happen, Gretchen. Give in to the pain, and it will move quickly.” Zachary’s voice, usually calm and authoritative, trembled. His gaze wavered slightly, but I could not tell whether it was merely submission to his new queen or because he was lying through his teeth. Probably both.
“Wh-what’s wrong?” I asked, praying for a distraction from the misery.
He shook his head. “Nothing. Focus on your task, Gretchen.”
“It’s s-something. Talk… to me… please,” I said through gasps. “Distract… me… please.”
Zachary scowled, his usual look, but I scarcely had time to notice before my skull split—literally. It pulled in two, and from it, the long nose of the beast protruded. I screamed yet again, but it was distorted and wolf-like. Instinctively, I moved onto my hands and knees, which soon ripped apart so four sturdy paws could emerge.
“Speak!” My voice roared, half-human and half-wolf.
“I don’t know what to say!” Zachary cried. “I hate seeing you suffer, and it’s not even over yet!”
The skin on my belly split while that on my arms and legs stripped from muscle. In its place, a silvery coat of fur grew. I could not submit to the pain, as Zachary suggested. It was too much. I was too strong-willed. My skull reformed until it was human again, and I lay whimpering on the ground, half-human, half-wolf.
Zachary lifted my head from the mud, then dipped his finger in the blood I had already spilled. He spread the mark across my forehead, a full moon impaled by a cross, the symbol that defined our pack. “You are the blood of the ancients. You are descended from royalty. You are the queen of The Black Forest Pack, Gretchen Salien.” He stood and stared over me, a crumpled heap on the ground. “Get up! Get up and take your place so that I might have a queen to follow!”
I tried to sit, to stand—anything, but I could not. Zachary kneeled beside me again, but something behind him caught my attention. The vile creature crept upon us, its teeth dripping with deadly venom. I tried to speak, but my words caught somewhere between a growl and whimper. Zachary was too distracted to see what came for him—the demons, the Vampyrs that wanted to kill us all. We were all that stood between humanity and certain death.
My eyes shifted from the monster to Zachary. He pleaded with me, begged me to not only change so that I might fight but to ascend to the position I was born into, one I had not wanted. I could deny my ancestry all I wished, but it would never deny me. It was a fight I would not win. And in Zachary’s eyes, I saw respect. I saw appreciation. I saw a man who needed his alpha to protect him.
Something inside moved, not a physical shift but one of heart and mind. The pain dulled, and as it did, I felt a new strength rise to take its place. It was my duty—no, it was my choice to accept my fate. With or without the beast, I would not allow the monster to harm Zachary or Henry or any member of my pack.
The second I accepted my duty in both mind and in heart, my body exploded. The wolf howled as the last of my skin fell away, revealing a silver wolf. Zachary shifted instantly, only a moment before the demon descended. I darted toward it and leaped, landing squarely on its chest. The disgusting monster with oozing skin and vicious teeth snapped and thrashed under my weight, but it was no match for the alpha queen. I sank my teeth into the tender flesh of its neck and jerked my head. The snap was pleasing, but others like him came to test my resolve.
Zachary was by my side, his black coat glistening under the full moon. One by one, we took them down until we’d cleared a path to our pack. I heard my brother howl and glanced at Zachary. He lowered his head and waited for his orders. I raised my head high and called out—I’m coming! We covered the distance quickly and soon found ourselves deep in the fray. Henry and the others were well outnumbered, but with Zachary and me, the field leveled out.
I scarcely noticed the destruction; my mind was so focused on the task—to rid the world of the vermin that plagued it, to bring peace back to the land of my ancestors. I ripped and slashed my way through the evil alongside my brethren until all that remained of the Vampyrs was smeared across the forest in heaps of rotting flesh and blood and bone. Exhausted and battle-worn, my pack, my family, encircled me just as the moon dipped behind the clouds.
They bowed before me, ready and willing to continue the arduous journey toward a world free from evil. Zachary took his place by my side, my second in command. When his eyes locked with mine, I knew. I knew in my heart and in my soul that we would not fail. We would make our ancestors proud. It was our destiny.
Go… rest—my first order as their leader. Many broke from the circle, surveyed the area, and headed toward our headquarters to recharge before heading into the night again. Others shifted and conversed as they walked while still more darted away to hunt.
Zachary stepped closer, his intense gaze locked on me. Usually, our conversations consisted of a few words spoken in passing, the occasional email to relay pack business, but nothing that would indicate he had any interest in me whatsoever—until then. Now, he looked at me like I was something else altogether, the way I’d always wanted him to look at me. But it was confusing.
What? Why are you looking at me like that? I asked telepathically.
I felt it. The surge of emotion racked my body, exploded in it like a bomb. My heart hummed and thudded against my ribcage like a caged bird as he tilted his head this way and that, taking me in as if he’d never seen me before in his life. He hadn’t, not like that, not as his queen or as a wolf.
Do you feel… odd? I asked.
Yes. His thoughts were so loud, louder than the other pack members. Gretchen… we’re… I thought I would never find you. I thought… I thought I was destined to be alone forever.
I studied his face, softened even as a wolf. Does this feeling, this connection mean… are we…
Zachary shifted, which only made the flutters worse. “We’re mates, Gretchen. That’s what it means. Is it okay? Are you… upset?”
I snorted, which was not my intention, but as a wolf, my chuckle came out as a snort. There was a lot to learn, a lot to adjust to, but if there was anything at all to make the shift and my new position worthwhile, it was that little discovery. The teenage girl inside of me leaped into the air, screaming, Holy crap, I can’t believe Zachary is all mine!
Zachary chuckled. “I can’t understand anything you say while you’re a wolf and I’m human. Can you try to shift? You’ll be dressed.”
I focused on being human, accepted the position, and shifted seamlessly. “Wow. That was surprisingly easy, all things considered. And… no, I’m not upset.” I felt my face flush and warm, sure it was red.
Zachary’s shoulders relaxed as he breathed in the night air, tinged with the scent of blood. He scrunched his nose but shook it off. “Good. Can I tell you a secret?” I nodded, working hard to control my nervousness. Now his cheeks flushed, tinged with a lovely pink hue. “I always hoped it was you. I hoped maybe the reason I hadn’t found my mate was because…” He hesitated, his breaths labored as his forehead broke with sweat. “Because she hadn’t accepted her destiny just yet.”
“But we hardly ever spoke, and you didn’t show any interest—ah, because I was to be alpha, and you thought… Wait, what did you think?”
He chuckled again. “I thought there was no way you’d want your grandfather’s errand boy as a mate, so why bother?”
“Oh, now that’s just silly,” I said, suddenly feeling the confidence my title imbued. “Of course, I’d want you. Want to go back to town and get a bite to eat? Maybe discuss our newfound situation?”
That grin, the one I loved so much, took his face, and he said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
I looked out over the remainder of my pack, ready to leave them to their own devices while I explored my new life with my mate—then my brother tackled me from the side. We rolled down the embankment together, wrestling as we fell. At the bottom of the hill, Henry—still in wolf form—popped up and weaved like a boxer, ready to play. I shifted and shook my fur coat out, then tackled him in return. It was probably not the best way for a pack leader to behave, but hey, it was my first change—and I survived.