Waking up and not remembering what just happened to you is pretty awful. It’s a terrible juxtaposition to how one would normally wake up, like in your bed or at home.
But, waking up not knowing what happened to you, and realizing you’re in the back of a vehicle is even worse.
Not just confusing, but terrifying.
Especially when you’re locked up with a bunch of children.
My heart bucked in my chest as the thought hit me again, really sinking in this time.
As I looked around me I realized that, yes, this truck didn’t just house me, but dozens of children.
All of them huddled together in clumps. Hugging their knees or laying on their side. Looking like they'd been in here for a while. Long enough that their faces were grimy. The light that hung in the trailer made them look gaunt. Spooky.
“Hey, lady, are you awake?”
Looking to my right, I noticed there was a small girl sitting there. Crouched, as if she were hiding.
“Yeah, hey, what’s going on? Is everyone okay?” I asked, my thoughts moving from observation to actually obtaining information.
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s just moving day. What’re you doing here? You should already be there, you know? You’re too old to be with us pups.”
“I-I don’t know, really. I was walking down the street, and then there was that guy who jumped out. The guy with big ears on his head,” I said, the memory coming back to me slowly. A ship coming in from the fog. “I… hmm. I heard them shout to stop him. And then… he—he bit me.”
The revelation was shocking. My mind went into immediate disbelief.
He couldn’t have bit me, right? That’s way too weird.
Feeling my shoulder, I caught ahold of the proof.
In my shoulder was a gash. Craning and straining both my neck and eyes, I saw that there was a bite mark there. Very minute, but still.
A bite mark.
“What the…” I was about to say “hell” but then I remembered there were kids sitting all around me.
Sure, I was most likely being toted off to be sold into some kind of slavery or something—and so were these kids—but that didn’t mean that I shouldn’t be a good example for them. Around kids, it was a habit to keep my swear words minimal, or non-existent. A knee-jerk reaction more than anything. Got to be responsible, you know?
“Are you okay lady?” the little girl asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be alright. I’m Jaelyn, but you can call me Jay.”
“I’m Wren,” she said.
“Good. Cool. So, Wren, how long have you been in this truck?” I asked.
Looking down at the floor between us, it seemed to me that she was trying to hide some tears. “Three days.”
“Three days? What in the world…” my brain was reeling. If I had been standing, I’d have fallen over. It struck me to ask,“How long have I been in this truck?”
She shrugged. “Five hours, I think? I haven’t been out in a while, so I haven’t seen the moon or the sun in hours, so I haven’t been able to check.”
“Right, yeah, okay,” I said, thinking. “Do you have any idea where we’re going?” I asked.
“To Vuk’s Academy, of course!”
“Right, yeah,” I said, as if that were something I would naturally know, and something I naturally did know. “What is that?”
She gave me a head tilt—which was so adorable I nearly “ahh”ed out loud. “The academy? It’s where we all go. To grow up. And get jobs.”
“To grow up and get jobs, eh?” What kind of sick psychos had kidnapped us? And why in the world did it sound like this little girl thought being kidnapped was normal?
“I hear it’s scary.”
The voice didn’t belong to Wren.
But to a little boy.
Sitting against the other side of the truck, the little boy with hair like new moon nights got up and walked over to us. Plopping down rather unceremoniously on my left side.
“Vuk’s is scary. The teachers are mean, and you get whipped all the time. Or electrocuted,” he told us.
Wren cowered a little lower, hunkering down into the safety of herself.
Instinctively, I put my arm around her. Part of me was surprised that she immediately huddled into my side, but, then again, I was probably the closest thing to comfort she’d had in at least three days.
It occurred to me that pressing for more info might upset Wren, but, in the end, I thought info was needed. Necessary. Though, still, I did feel a little bad. But, survival was what mattered now. If upsetting Wren meant I could do something to save her, then it was worth it.
Turning to the little boy, I voiced the first question on my mind.
“What do you mean?”
“They make you wear shock collars, like humans do with dogs,” he informed me, his tone factual, but his face dire. “The teachers don’t like the new students for a long time. My big brother came home for a visit once and he told me to be careful. Act nice. Or they’ll shock you until you graduate.”
Without meaning to, my teeth clicked together inside my mouth. I unclenched them a moment later, another question filling my mouth.
“When’s graduation then?” I asked.
“Eighteen. Well, the spring after you’re eighteen, really.”
“So you’ll all be subjected to torture on the whims of your teachers until you turn eighteen?” I reasoned.
It was appalling.
These two kids couldn’t have been older than six. And, clearly, there was some weird cult thing that their families were a part of. A weird ritual that these kids were being sold—or simply thrown—into. For them to know that this was their fate…
It was gut-wrenching.
“Don’t talk like that Stuart!” Wren called from my side. “You’re being scary.”
“It’s true Wren. I’m just trying to help you,” he replied, his face pained.
This situation was getting heavier and heavier by the minute…
Seeing Stuart’s pain triggered my instincts again. I reached out and tucked him into my side as well. He seemed a little reluctant for a moment, but then sunk into me like Wren had.
“No one’s getting shocked. I’ll get us out of here. I’ll think of something,” I said.
“You can’t,” Stuart mumbled. “They’ll kill us if we try to escape. Or they’ll bring us back and make things worse. Vampires are awful like that.”
I was following him up until that last sentence.
That single sentence really threw me for a loop.
For a heartbeat, I was stunned. Completely blank.
“What?” I asked.
But Stuart was unable to answer.
Our vehicle stopped with a lurch, causing all the kids to fret for a moment. All of them displaced for a beat, scrambling to keep upright or not fall over.
In the end, they huddled back together as the doors to the trailer swung open.
Swung open for a big reveal.
Bathed in moonlight was a man.
A man in a uniform.
He looked like some sort of security guard. His black coat was all done up with buttons that were shiny brass and boasted of no-nonsense. His belt and black trousers spoke the same language, as did his boots and the gear on his belt.
From what I could tell, this guy was toting the works:
Pepper spray, a stun gun, an asp, a walkie-talkie, and two different pistols. One looked simple, sleek and black and shiny. The other looked more complex, strange and metallic gray. As I noticed that it had a sight on it, another memory came back to me.
The weird gun, the metallic looking one with the sight?
It had darts.
When that guy stopped and bit me, I kicked him, and he’d flown back a few feet.
I remember now. That ship coming to port was breaking through the fog fast.
His stunned face, his black hair with white streaks, his yellow eyes.
He was completely shocked.
And then something had appeared at his neck. A tiny pop noise and a zipping sound, then there was a dart stuck in his neck. A red floofy feather, starkly contrasting his dark appearance.
Instantaneously, his eyes rolled back, and he collapsed backward. Lying completely on the ground.
That was when I started to get up. When I figured my understanding was, somehow, even less than I’d thought. Obviously something strange was going on here. Something I had no business being a part of. Something I probably didn’t want to be part of. Clearly, I was outmatched, and I needed to get going before I was dragged into the situation.
But, as I turned, I saw the gun. Shining in the street's lamppost. It was the same gun that sat on this guy's hip, inside his holster.
And, in that moment, the gun was pointed at me.
I heard the pop sound again, and the zip.
Pulling the dart from my neck did nothing, it was far too late.
And then I’d woken up in the back of the truck.
But my revelations did me no good, because none of that info was really helpful. The only thing I could use to my advantage was the knowledge that this man was armed with both sleep darts and live ammunition.
Which, really, only stunted my courage.
Just a bit.
“Alright mutts, out of the vehicle. We’re calling off names,” he shouted.
Nearly trembling, all the children filed out. Even Wren. They hopped out, moving like a bunch of scared sheep. Filed out, until the last remained.
Only two people were left in the back of the truck.
“Oi, you mutts in the back, get the hell out here,” the guard-looking dude called.
Looking at me for assurance, I saw the fear in Stuart’s eyes now. The way they shrunk, panicked and uncertain.
Clearly, he’d been holding it in for Wren. Doing his best to be brave so she didn’t have to be. But, with the dragon’s maw facing his way, he couldn’t hold it in anymore.
And how unfair.
This kid shouldn’t have to feign bravery. Shouldn’t be in this kind of position at all. It was all sorts of wrong. Evil, really, is what it was. No kid should ever have to go through something like this. Something like…well… I didn’t know exactly. I wasn’t sure what was waiting for all of us outside the truck.
But, I knew it wasn’t good.
And I knew it wouldn’t be good if Stuart resisted. If I encouraged him to be bold, to resist, something awful would happen to him. And I’d already promised him that I wouldn’t let them torture him.
So, with Stuart’s unsure gaze locked onto me, I gave the most minute of nods.
Stuart got up, limbs shaky, and began climbing out of the truck.
Knowing I couldn’t leave him alone, I followed immediately after. No more than a step behind him.
We were shuffling out, jumping down onto the ground, when Stuart stumbled. Right before his jump out of the truck, he got nervous I think. Or maybe it was because he’d been crammed into a truck for some extended period of time. Either way, when he tried to jump, he couldn’t. His knees kind of buckled. Kicked in when they should’ve extended out. And he nearly toppled out of the truck.
He’d have hit the rocks on the ground face-first.
If it weren’t for me standing right behind him.
I caught him. One of my arms slinging around his waist like a restraint .
“Easy,” I said, in a hushed tone.
The words “let me help you down” were on the tip of my tongue, but they were cut off.
The guard grabbed Stuart.
And threw him onto the ground.
To the ground.
He hit the ground with a solid thump. So solid that I felt it in my shoes.
And Stuart's reaction?
Stuart’s shocked face retreating from me was acid to my eyes, but then, the look of pain and fear he had when he hit the ground?
There wasn’t even a moment for me to think. For me to filter out “do’s” and “don’t’s” in this situation. Rage ripped through me like a hacksaw, quick and sure and tearing, and then there was only one thing:
Leaping out of the truck, I gave the guard what he deserved.
A flying heel kick that landed squarely on his jaw.
As the man flew backward, I landed softly on the ground. Agilely. Just like how Mom taught me. And then, when I was on the ground, I bent over and checked on Stuart.
“You okay?” I asked him.
Eyes wide, he nodded. Clearly, he was still terrified. Or shocked. Or both.
Seeing that fear again triggered me. The anger that powered my kick ripped into me a second time.
Turning, I found the guard was up on his feet again.
So I got up on my feet too.
“You bastard,” I growled out. “How dare you. He’s just a kid. Just a kid! And he was having trouble for crying out loud! Where the hell were you raised? The seventh circle?”
The guard’s eyes narrowed in a glare that I found about as threatening as a glare on a teddy bear.
Which was strange, considering he had a gun. Honestly, I should’ve been terrified of him.
Maybe it was because of my anger, or maybe it was because of his cowardly attack on a kid. I don’t know, but something about him disarmed him in my eyes. Made him less of a monster and more of a shadow puppet.
So I stood tall against him.
I think he could see that.
And I think it pissed him off.
“Listen you mutt bitch, I’m in charge here. I don’t know which academy you limped away from, but you’re mistaken if you think you’ll be allowed another relocation. I’ll kill you first,” he spat.
None of what he was saying made a lick of sense to me. But, I was glad he was focusing his anger on me and not Stuart.
It got my hopes up. I thought he might just leave it at that.
Which means that, of course, I was proven wrong.
I was so, unfortunately, wrong.
“Get on your knees now bitch, and lick my boots as an apology,” the man sneered.
My face twisted in a snarl. Not a pretty look on me, but I knew it to be effective.
“Lick your boots? You lick mine, you dumb dickhead. You’re the one assaulting children out in the middle of the woods.”
Though none of what I said was false, I probably still shouldn’t have said it.
The guard—who I still found as threatening as a mouse—brought up something I hadn’t seen before.
And, as I did see it, it was too late.
It lashed out, striking me across the cheek.
I went reeling.
First and foremost was the burning sensation on my face. The assurance that this guy had struck gold. That I was bleeding. And then came the force of it, knocking my head to the side.
When I righted myself, his whip was already in motion again.
Luckily, I had just enough time to cover my face.
Bringing up my hands was futile though. He wasn’t aiming for my face at all this time.
The leather of the whip bit deep into my shirt, creating a gash of blood that oozed from the new tear in my clothes. Right on my shoulder. The stinging pain lanced through my body just a moment later, agonizing for such a quick weapon.
But still, I refused to back down.
“Apologize before this gets ugly,” the guard snarled.
I knew I should. That I should just end this.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Firstly because something about him still wasn’t threatening enough. It was like watching a cat rage on the other side of some cage. Sure, he could reach through and slash at me, but something in me told me he was being held back. That he couldn’t really hurt me. Not in a serious way.
Plus, I really didn’t want to apologize.
The boot-licking was whatever. I didn’t care too much for it, but it didn’t make me mad like apologizing would.
So I stood taller, unafraid of the kitten.
“You first,” I told him.
The whip moved again.
This time, it bit into my leg. It slashed all the way around it in an unfinished ring.
The pain this time was so severe that I couldn’t help it.
I went to the ground.
Agony tore through all my muscles. My leg felt worse than the time I really pushed myself and ran an extra five miles without a break. Like my muscles were attacking each other. Ripping each other to pieces.
But still, I wasn’t giving up.
Sitting up, back straight, I spat at his boots. At his offer to cease and desist. At everything he was.
I wanted it to be clear.
I wasn’t going to apologize to this scumbag.
At his renewed outrage, I smirked.
“That’s what you wanted, right? My spit on your boots. There you go bud,” I jeered.
Now there was some real fury in his eyes. A real fire in his veins. Though my instincts still told me that this guy didn’t have the power to kill me, or maim me for life or something, I knew that, in that moment, if he did have that power, he’d absolutely use it. If it weren’t for whatever was holding this guy back, I’m sure he’d take that sleek looking black gun from his belt and fill me with its contents.
But, for whatever reason, he couldn’t do that.
And, somehow, we both knew it.
Regardless, it looked like he’d try his damnedest with what he could do. Which, clearly, involved the whip.
As he brought it up, I decided not to flinch this time. To prove that I didn’t care. That it didn’t matter where he hit me, because it just didn’t matter to me.
There was no way in hell that I was going to let this guy break me.
As the whip came down, I was pleasantly surprised.
It didn’t hurt me.
When I realized why, that pleasant feeling went away.
Sitting in between the guard and I was a guy. A guy who was, probably, around my age.
And he had the whip wrapped around his hands.
What I’d just done seemed like nothing all of a sudden. Actually, I kind of felt like an idiot.
Why hadn’t I tried to grab for the whip?
Laaaaaaaame, I thought to myself, about myself.
The boy in front of me stopped crouching and stood.
And then I saw the guard’s expression.
I was taken aback.
The guard actually looked cowed. Maybe even a little afraid. Unsure. Something like that.
Something about this boy had halted the dude’s royal Rage Against the Me.
And that brought up all kinds of questions.
Questions that would have to wait until later.
“I apologize,” the boy gripping the whip said as he untangled it from his hand. “This new wolf is my responsibility. In the future, I’m sure she’ll be less abrasive. However, should this punishment continue, I’m sure it will need to be reported to the Head Master. As a representative of the Wolf Council, I will be forced to be the one to report.”
So, this kid was, like, part of some checks-and-balances type of deal for the guards?
None of the rest of the stuff he was saying made a lick of sense to me, but that seemed fairly palpable.
When the guard backed down, I suspected I was right.
“No need for that, I’m sure she’s learned her lesson. And,” his voice rose suddenly. “LET THAT BE A LESSON TO ALL YOU PUPS. DISRESPECT IS MET WITH SWIFT AND IMMEDIATE PUNISHMENT. IS THAT CLEAR?”
The kids, still too young to be able to speak as one, made different sounds of agreement.
Good, I thought to myself. If I accidentally influence him to be a rebel rouser, I won’t be able to keep my promise to him and Wren. Or live with myself. Their consequences would be on my head.
Speaking of the kids, Wren was…
Ah, in line.
Doing a fair deal better than Stuart or myself. Not injured, and not part of being the center of everyone’s focus. Not part of the shit-show I’d started.
Part of survival was knowing when to fly under the radar. Knowing that spotlight often just marks you as a target.
Which I’d done so magnificently already.
And I hadn’t even been here five minutes.
Boy would Mom be disappointed… I thought, a bit sardonically, to myself.
As the guard walked away, I turned to Stuart.
“You alright?” I asked again.
He nodded. “Are you okay?” he asked, eyes wide with concern.
So sweet, I thought. What a cute kid.
I grinned at him. “I’m fine. They’re just scratches. No biggie.” The smile dropped from my face as I gave him a more serious expression. “I’d get in line though, and don’t back-sass like I just did, alright? Do what they say for now. I’ll come find you later, alright?”
He nodded affirmatively. “Okay, if you say so Jay.”
I nodded back.
I hadn’t given him my name…
Ah, but, then again, when we were in the truck, he’d joined our conversation via eavesdropping. So, more than likely, he’d heard me say my name, right?
That kid must have great hearing.
As Stuart departed to get into the haphazardly formed line the kids had jumbled themselves into, I found myself face to face with a new situation.
The boy who’d taken the whip for me.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked me, voice hushed.
I nodded. “Fine, just bleeding is all. What is this place? What’s going on? And what’s with all that wolf nonsense you were spouting? And Stuart said something about... vampires?”
His head tilted to the side, much like how Wren’s had. “You mean, you don’t know where you are? What’s going on?”
“Not a clue,” I replied.
He made a thoughtful face. “Well, I suppose it’s true. They didn’t tell me we were getting a transfer student, and you’re much too old to be a new student. Are you sure you really don’t know what’s going on?”
“Absolutely positive,” I replied fervently.
His face pinched. “Then, you’re not a werewolf?”
My brain blanked out. As if it were a computer rebooting.
“I’m sorry, I’m not a what-now?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but, who’s a werewolf? I mean, isn’t that super... I don’t know, eighteenth century or something? Werewolves don’t exist.”
For some reason, my statement made the boy in front of me turn pale.
“What?” I asked.
His voice dipped lower than before. “You’re not… I mean… you can’t be… a human, are you?”
I was sure my confusion was plain to see as I said, “Aren’t we all?” And, as the boy slowly shook his head, I began to realize something:
I was way, way out of my depth here.
Way out in the wilderness.