It had been a few days since I had arrived in Varcolac, and I was feeling guilty about just how quickly I was settling in. I had agreed to go to the Howling Ceremonial Ball with Bryce in a few days, and I was a nervous wreck. What do you wear to a ball? What even happened at a ball? Was I going to have to dance? Oh, Goddess, did I have to wear heels? And what about a dress? I knew for a fact that I didn’t have anything close to acceptable for this kind of occasion. I was an idiot for agreeing to this.
There was a knock on my door that broke me out of my minor panic attack.
I opened the door to see the spoiled Prince Charming waiting with that cocky smirk plastered on his face.
“Can I help you?” I asked coolly. I pushed past him and into the hallway, letting him trail behind me.
“I figured we could talk a bit. Bryce and Soren have seen more of you than I have.” He called from behind.
I was making my way out of the manor and into the bustling streets of the city. The noise was still deafening and the amount of people around me made me feel claustrophobic. “Well, maybe I like Bryce and Soren more than I like you.”
“Asenna, come on!” Ryker said, his voice getting agitated.
I stopped and rounded on him. “If you want to talk, then you take me the hell out of this city.” My voice cut like steel and I met his eyes with defiance. His jaw tensed and there was a slight growl coming from his throat. He wasn’t used to being challenged like this, but frankly, I didn’t care.
“Fine.” He said with a strained voice. His dark eyes were hardened with anger and he moved ahead of me without looking back.
I followed him silently, keeping close to his heels as he meandered through the busy streets. I was craving the wilderness. Life was easier in the city, but my wolf was ready to tear through the forest freely.
Ryker brought us out of the city limits and continued his path towards the woods. As soon as I entered the tree line, my body relaxed, and my mind was at ease. I felt at home now. The birds were singing, and a cool breeze was brushing through the trees as sunlight danced across the ground. My body was immediately more relaxed.
“That’s better.” I sighed, taking a deep breath of the woodsy fall air.
“You act like Varcolac is a prison.” Ryker said.
I looked at him with raised brows. “Isn’t it?” He rolled his eyes at me and shook his head, but I continued before he could break in. “Besides the fact that your father wants to keep me here whether I like it or not, our kind weren’t meant to be cooped up in cities, living the lives of humans.”
“Just because we aren’t fully human doesn’t mean we have to live the life of a wolf 24/7.” Ryker quipped. “I know that’s what you’re used to, but maybe if you give it a chance, you’ll see it’s not so bad.”
“I don’t sleep well here.” I said quietly. “Everything is too soft, too comfortable. The pavement feels weird against my feet. The smells are too strong and unnatural. There’s too many people pushing through one another to get where they want to go. There’s too much noise coming from all around.” My heart grew heavier with every sentence. “I can’t smell the forest from the city. I can’t hear the squirrels or the birds. I can’t be a wolf here.” I let loose the flood gates on everything I had been feeling and thinking since I’d arrived here.
Ryker’s dark eyes looked at me with sympathy and maybe even sadness. “I know this isn’t easy for you.” He said. “It’s a lot to get used to.”
“You have no idea.” I muttered as we walked through the woods.
“Well, I’m all ears.” Ryker responded.
I don’t know why- maybe I just needed to let it out to somebody, maybe I was tired of keeping everything held in- but I decided to fill him in.
“I’ve been on my own since I was ten. Being around a pack, parents, friends- it’s weird. The way things are done here is strange to me. There’s hardly any training, people don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, they spend their days having fun or talking about meaningless bullshit. It’s just so… pointless.” I was frustrated. This wasn’t anything like home had been.
“Well, you know your pack did things a lot differently from most others, right?” He asked.
I looked at him out of the corner of my eye while picking at my cuticles nervously. “Yeah, I know.” It was new for me to talk about my pack out loud- as if I was breathing life back into them. “I just… miss them I guess.”
Ryker nodded; his eyes trained on the ground. “Do you remember a lot about them? Your family? Your pack?”
“Yeah.” I said as a smile crept across my face. “My mom was really beautiful- and strong too.” I put my hands in my pockets to avoid reducing my nail beds to a bloody mess. “She was a terrible cook though.” A laugh bubbled up unchecked. “I swear she could burn the house down just trying to bake a cake.”
He laughed and the sound gave me a little jolt in my stomach. “What about your dad? What was he like?”
I paused, considering how to respond. My dad was amazing, there was no doubt about that, but how could I get around who he actually was. “He was busy a lot of the time, but he always made time for us. He was serious- a real ‘no nonsense’ kind of guy- but he was also very compassionate. He used to read to me every night before bed, even when I was pretending not to listen.” My heart felt heavy as I spoke, but as the words poured out, I felt like they were both here with me. “They loved each other- I know that. I have never seen anyone look at another person the way my dad looked at my mom. He used to say that the Goddess herself painted the entire cosmos in my mother’s eyes.” I crossed my arms, trying to ward off the images that were coming to my mind. Those same beautiful eyes staring lifelessly in the distance. Their hands too far apart. My father’s short beard stained red.
We had stopped by a fallen tree and I took the opportunity to sit on the moss-covered trunk. Ryker sat next to me, leaning his elbows on his knees with his weight forward. He was watching my face closely.
“What happened?” He asked quietly.
I knew what he meant- What happened during the attack.
“I don’t know.” I said. “It was just another day, nothing out of the ordinary. I was in my room. I could hear the guns- the howls- the screams. It was storming, but I could steal hear the fighting over the thunder. I could see the silhouettes of the figures flash through my windows from the lightning. I had made it outside somehow.” My eyes stared off into space, my mind reaching into the past. “I ran. I ran as fast as I could into the forest. I remember hiding for a long time before I thought it would be safe to come back out. I thought there would be some of us who had fallen, that I would find my parents and we would figure out what had happened. When I got back home though, the bodies were everywhere. They had just left them there. No burial. No ceremony. No rites. They just left them there like roadkill.”
My hands were clenched, claws digging into my palms. My heart was pounding with rage and my teeth were clenched so hard my jaw was hurting. “I saw them all looking at me with those empty stares. It was like they were asking me why I survived. Why was I the only one? Why weren’t they allowed to live? All of them- men, women, children, young and old- they were all gone.” I fought against tears, but one rebellious droplet brimmed over the edge and fell down my cheek.
“I’m sorry.” Ryker’s face looked almost green. He didn’t meet my eyes and I couldn’t blame him. After all, he probably wasn’t wanting to hear me rant about my past trauma.
I wiped away the trail that my tear had left and stood up. “It’s in the past.” I said. “No number of apologies from strangers will change what happened.”
He nodded with a strained look on his face. Taking the hint, he changed the subject. “So, you’re going with Bryce to the ball, huh?”
My cheeks flushed and I looked away from him. “I guess so. He asked and I just figured why not?”
“Are you going to attend the Howling as well?” Ryker asked.
The Howling. The sacred mating ritual. The moment where the Goddess guides you to your true mate.
“I don’t think so.” At his surprised expression, I continued. “After eight years of solitude, I don’t think I’m ready to jump into a mating ritual.” There was no way in hell I wanted to deal with a random guy mooning after me while I’m trying to get the hell out of here.”
“Well, you never know.” Ryker said with a shrug. “Bryce might be howling your way sooner than you think.” He laughed and I punched him hard in the arm. “Ouch!”
I shook my head and started back towards to city with him. He was an idiot, and annoyingly curious about me, but I had to admit it was nice to be able to talk to someone. His talk about the ball rekindled my earlier anxiety. With no money and no options, I was screwed.