Once Upon a Time
I died at 11:27 PM in my mother’s arms while Wyatt’s eyes remained fixed on my fading expression. The tears they held back for years of appointments and failed treatments ran free. I sucked in a breath-
Fuck. My skull ached with each one of my mother’s unstifled sobs. I groaned, only worsening the throbbing spreading through my limbs.
“Rae?” Wyatt’s unsteady voice broke through the numbing darkness. His hand found mine, clutching onto it as if he could pull me back to reality. Heat ran up my spine as I tried to respond. Breathless gasps pushed their way through my lifeless body as the room began to spin.
My feet smacked against the stone pathway with each confident step. The wind whipped around me and through my hair while the sun warmed my back. After a year of training, the two mile sprint to our monthly gathering felt like a stroll.
I raced through the trees and off the beaten path. Two more minutes and Gabe, our instructor, would make me run laps until sundown. My ponytail bounced with each stride and loosened as I approached the group.
We gathered on the edge of our old camp. Out of the fifty who were initially infected, only twenty remained. My eyes wandered to the tattered tents where so many of us never woke up. They collapsed under the heat of the first change and didn’t get a second chance at survival.
I was lucky. We all were.
Before Gabe could harass me for how close I came to being late, I slipped into a rare spot between my friends Devin and Maggie, "Did I miss anything?" Neither flinched at the sound of my voice.
She shook her head and curly gold tresses bounced just above her shoulders, "He's been standing there looking intense." She motioned to our ring leader.
The members of the council assigned Gabe to our group as an instructor during the first few years of the change. He gathered the survivors of the first wave and coached us through our new upgrades.
"So many serious faces," He finally addressed the impatient crowd around him, "It’s time to celebrate."
A few of us summoned a half-smile while the rest carried on with the same solemn expression. We all lost friends in the process of getting where we were.
Gabe tried to distract us from those memories by keeping us active--too active. My hip still ached after days of icing it; Being thrown around in combat wasn’t in my wheelhouse.
“Tonight is the last wave before placement begins.” Gabe's smokey gaze held our attention. The last year consisted of nothing but training for one purpose-
Impressing the council.
The change came in parts; an infection leading to developmental improvements. We could run, faster than we ever did in our whole lives, and hear soft whispers between couples from the other side of a room.
After a few months, the first wave would wipe out the infected who weren't strong enough to handle the shift. They'd ache and burn like the rest of us but they wouldn't wake back up. Surviving meant acceptance; It meant defeating death.
“Use the time to work on strategy,” Gabe’s eyes ment mine as the words left his lips, “And don’t do anything stupid.”
I was almost offended.
I cast my gaze somewhere else, to avoid suspicion, and spotted another familiar face. Henry’s blue hair stood out underneath the afternoon sun. I wanted to stand beside him, as usual, but his irritated expression made me fall back.
I chewed on my bottom lip; one of the many habits that even death couldn’t cure. Brief death, sure, but still a flatline.
“You okay?” Devin asked under his breath so there was a chance that Gabe wouldn’t hear. I knew better; Henry wasn’t the only one who developed a keen sense of hearing.
“Nerves,” Not a lie. My placement was my ticket to a successful life within the clan. High marks in each category meant living in luxury while failing meant serving in a low position.
The nagging voice in the back of my head told me to prepare to embarrass myself in front of the whole clan. I had one more wave to develop a heightened skill, if not, I would be placed in a menial job somewhere.
“You have six hours to prepare,” Gabe's rough voice cut into my thoughts, “Be wise,”
His glare translated to a threat. Anyone who dared to annoy him would meet a gruesome end. After a year of tolerating our roughhousing, he was at his wits end and I couldn’t blame him.
The prank wars did get out of hand. Not to mention the wall-destroying wrestling matches.
There were a few murmurs of agreement before Gabe rolled his eyes and dismissed us. I wandered over to Henry and stared at him with my best imitation puppy eyes.
“Can I help you?” His annoyed expression started to lift.
“Yes,” I purred, “Come to Jessie’s with me,”
“You can get orange juice,” I pulled at the hem of my shirt. “You can’t stay upset forever.”
His sideways glance tried to convey otherwise.
I let out an exasperated sigh, “We might die in a few hours, can we just get a drink?”
“And plan for tonight?”
“Yes,” I laughed, “and drink,”
By the third change, we discovered how alcohol numbed the bitter pain that came with shifting. It wasn’t as strong as it used to be and it took six shots to feel the numbing effects, but the benefits of not feeling my temperature rise above one-hundred and seven degrees were a massive payoff.
Henry led the way through the wall of trees. I chased behind the blue-haired lycan with a grin stretched across my face. After our first shift, Henry decided to make the blue dye a permanent feature.
Except, he needed to dye it back to a natural brown for the trials. Blue hair would make him a moving target and I didn’t want to mourn another friend.
The council discouraged killing but the initiates often disregarded their instructions. May the best wolf win.
Twigs whipped at my ankles as we sprinted into town.
A stone archway signified our clan’s territorial boundary. No other clan could enter without clearance from the council and other than for meetings, no one ever tried.
We slowed as we passed underneath the arch. “Out of respect” Gabe's warning and instruction lingered in my head.
Our town consisted of various stone buildings and cobblestone walkways. A fraction of the population lived in the towers connected to the structure we affectionately deemed Alcezar but most built their own homes around the perimeter. All initiates lived inside the cubicles that the council insisted on calling dorms.
Henry fell back and walked by my side to the brick tavern on the edge of our town, barely outside of our clan’s border. Jessie Penderast owned the bar and serviced all lonesome wolves that wandered in.
The packed tavern already held a crowd of tipsy wolfbloods. Henry and I pushed our way to the front of the red-brick building and waved down Jessie. His thick blonde hair was pulled away from his face and revealed a faded scar above his right eye.
In all the years that I'd known him, he hadn't aged a day.
“Hey kiddos,” Jessie tucked a pen behind his ear and sailed over to greet us, “You got a big night coming your way,”
Henry nodded, “So make it a double,”
Jessie snickered and grabbed two glasses off the top shelf of the bar. His shirt lifted and revealed a mosaic of tattoos moving down his torso.
Henry grinned at the sight, “Can’t wait for my first,”
I rolled my eyes at his affinity for traditions.
Since middle school, he'd been spouting facts about the lycan society; how they could cure all ailments with exposure to the virus. I never listened to his ramblings until my diagnosis came back.
I grinned at the smooth-talking bartender, “You have quite the crowd here,”
“You pups always panic before placements,” Jessie shook his head, “Never could figure out why. They’re a breeze.”
“Easy for you to say,” Henry scoffed. "Not all of us woke up being a master in combat."
In our initiate group, no one had.
Jessie laughed, “I’ll admit, it helped. But the real key is finding allies,”
“Gabe told us to trust no one,” I remembered his lengthy lecture on betrayal. It was expected; maybe encouraged.
“Yeah, well, Gabe has his head up his own ass,” Jessie responded, “Always has.” I scrunched my nose. Although Gabe could be a major pain in the ass, he did hold the sixth-highest score in our clan.
It was his cocky attitude that banished him on babysitting duty.
After Jessie slid us our liquid courage, Henry returned his focus to me.
“Put anymore thought into your special something?” He mocked me with a ridiculous wink.
“Can’t say that I have,” I lied.
“You have to be curious,”
“Because you are?”
“Because it’s been a year and it should have been obvious by now,” He said before taking his shot of whiskey.
Our abilities helped all the new lycans start with a leg up in the trials. Henry’s ability to eavesdrop and listen for approaching threats was an asset. But I had yet to show any signs of an ability, even the most common ones.
“Some of us don’t have one,” Mostly those who worked for the council and didn’t mind being subjected to running errands.
“You do,” Henry reassured me as I drank the first Silver Bullet shot of many, “You’ll see,”
I rolled my eyes and stared over the room. Half the occupants belonged to our training class. While the virus saved some of us from the inevitable, the threats we faced every couple of months were starting to take their toll. After the last shift, there would be no more death. No more reason to worry. We clung to that promise.
Before I could sink into a puddle of self-doubt, my phone buzzed.
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