I led my people out into the forest, letting the light of the full moon guide our way to a large clearing among the trees. Those who were already mated had stayed behind at the party, so now I was looking out at all the lonesome members of my pack. We were all still waiting for our true mates. Some of us might never find them, choosing eventually to move on and settle with someone else, but every year those still searching were filled with hope.
There were several faces I didn’t recognize- probably members of neighboring packs who came in the hope that their mate was among our ranks. I saw Soren and Samantha, Skylar, even Bryce. But as I scanned the faces gathered in the large circle, I didn’t see Asenna. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. She had said herself she wasn’t ready for a mate.
I took my place in the center of the circle, the Alpha Prince leading his generation of wolves. The others followed my lead as I crouched down, preparing to phase. I let my wolf take over my body, my limbs elongating, my face shifting, my skin becoming covered with thick, black fur. I looked out to my pack and our guests with my wolf eyes, seeing their own wolf forms bowing to me in respect. The time had come, and I couldn’t deny the fact that I was nervous. I always wondered if something might change this time of year, and soon I would find out.
I lifted my snout towards the moon and braced myself to begin the Howling.
I froze in position, at first furious at the audacity of anyone who would dare to take over this ritual, but then I listened to the sound of the distant howl. It was sorrowful, melodic, heartbreaking, beautiful, and above all, lonely. It was a symphony to my soul. My ears swiveled in every direction, trying to pick up where the sound was coming from. I took a deep breath and sent out a howl of my own, calling for a response.
A chorus of howls raised toward the sky, but I didn’t stick around to see who had been paired and who had to wait until the next year to find their mates. I had heard my wolf song. I had heard the one who held the other half of my soul. But where was she? I couldn’t scent another wolf besides those who had been with me in the clearing. I was running through the forest like a mad man, howling in every direction, begging for her to answer me from wherever she was.
I was trying to call to her, to comfort the soul that sang that beautifully broken howl. I’m here! You’re not alone! Where are you?
My paws dug into the earth frantically. I came out of the tree line and saw the city before me. A frustrated whine sounded from my throat and I paced back and forth in frustration. That howl could have come from anywhere, and without hearing it again I had no way to tell where it came from. I let out a final, desperate howl into the cool night air and waited silently, praying that the Goddess would show me the way. But the night remained quiet, the only sound coming from the romping wolves in the forest. My entire body felt like half of what I once was, my soul was split and my heart was empty.
I had heard my mate- and I had lost her before I even found her.
I clasped my hands over my mouth, biting back every instinct to let out another howl. I had heard the Howling coming from the woods beyond the city, but one song had caught my ears. It was strong, powerful, intoxicating. I felt warmth and comfort in the sound. I heard the continued efforts of the wolf, but I couldn’t bring myself to respond. I couldn’t be a mate. I wanted to be left alone after everything that had happened. I didn’t want some new family- I wanted my family. I knew it was impossible, but that was the only connection I wanted right now. Not some stranger I didn’t even know.
But that howl. That beautiful, silky howl. My heart was hammering, and I felt every inch of my being craving to cry out to it. It was a war between my head and my heart, and my head was winning. I heard one more longing howl from the woods, and I could feel my heart cracking into pieces. Tears welled in my eyes as my body shuddered.
I felt like I was betraying my entire being. I wanted to tell the wolf that I wanted him, I wanted to find him, but he didn’t deserve this. No matter who he was, he didn’t deserve someone as messed up as me for a mate. I brought nothing to the table but heartache and complications.
I’m sorry. I thought silently to the wolf. I’m so sorry.
I woke up in the overly comfy bed, eyes swollen and crusty from my late-night cry fest. I felt so broken, so alone, and so empty. I sat up and rubbed my eyes, trying to make the puffiness go away. The sun was shining into the room, making everything way too bright. The events of last night replayed in my mind and I let out a growl as I threw a pillow across the room.
That fucking jackass!
I jumped out of bed and into the shower, my body waking up quickly due to my rekindled hatred of a certain Prince Charming. My mind was stringing together every expletive I could think of to describe the low life. I was storming out of the manor and into the expansive back yard complete with gardens and a pool on the far end when a voice called to me.
“Little Wolf!” My shoulders tensed at the nickname. I turned and saw Bryce running up to me. “Where did you disappear to last night?” He tried to hide the disappointment in his voice, but I could tell he had been hurt.
I winced as a twinge of guilt hit me in the gut. “Oh, I was feeling sick, so I went to my room to lay down.” I lied. “Sorry I didn’t let you know.”
He shrugged it off, but I could tell that it bothered him more than he let on. “No biggie. Think you might be up for a sparring session?”
The thought of throwing some punches sounded pretty damn amazing right about now. My blood was still boiling, and I could feel the adrenaline pumping through me.
“Are you sure you can keep up?” I asked Bryce with a sly smile.
He cracked his knuckles with a chuckle. “I’ve been practicing since last time, Little Wolf. Bring it.”
Without missing a beat, I launched myself at Bryce, using my smaller stature and quicker reflexes to send jabs into his weak points. He groaned, reaching for me with his large hands. I laughed as I dodged his reach, stepping around him to send another jab into his kidney. He growled in frustration, spinning around wildly to face me. I backed up a few paces, giving him ample room to charge me- which he did, right on cue. I sidestepped and sent an elbow into his back as he rushed past.
“Come on now, Bryce.” I chided. “I can’t help but feel like you’re letting me win.” The guy was large and bulky, but surely, he wasn’t this easy to beat.
He looked at me with an energized smile, sweat beading on his forehead. “Are we going all out?”
“That’s the only way I know.” I said with a smirk, crouching into my fighting stance.
“Then let’s go.” Bryce growled before flying at me with raised fists.
I watched them from the balcony, analyzing their movements. Asenna was smaller and much more agile than Bryce. He looked like a clumsy bear in comparison to her. I couldn’t help but feel nervous as I watched the intensity with which they were fighting. The were going full throttle on each other and someone was bound to end up hurt- more than likely Bryce. I tried to warn him time and again, but he insisted he could hold his own against our little Spartan. She spun around him gracefully, landing punches and kicks with ease. I watched as she swept his leg out from under him and as he stumbled, she grabbed one of his arms and flipped his huge body over her shoulder. Even from this distance, I could hear the thud his weight made against the ground and the air rushing from his lungs. He moved to get up but Asenna had her heel positioned right against his throat, her hands still holding his arm tightly, pulling his torso closer so that his neck pressed into her foot.
As I predicted, Asenna had won. I could see the bruises already forming on Bryce’s face and could only imagine what the rest of his body was going to look like after this beat down. The poor bastard.
I turned to see my father coming to stand with me at the edge of the balcony.
“Yeah, I guess she is.” I agreed, letting my eyes wander back to them. She was helping Bryce up off the ground, laughing all the while. Bryce looked embarrassed as he brushed the grass off his clothes.
I could feel my father’s eyes on my face. “How are things progressing?” He asked.
I didn’t answer right away because I knew he wouldn’t be happy with my answer. I took a deep breath, bracing myself for the lecture. “Slowly. She’s been adjusting. It’s a lot for her to get used to and she plays things pretty close to the chest.”
“Ryker you need to be more proactive!” My father barked. “You can’t just take your time with these things! You need to get the information from her, learn from her, spend more time with her.”
“Dad, she’s not going to tell me anything if I push her every step of the way!” I pushed back. Seeing the look in his eyes, I quickly backed down. I may be next in line, but for the time being, he was still Alpha. “It’s going to take a slower approach. If she doesn’t trust me, then she has no reason to teach me anything.”
He regarded my words with a slow nod. “Perhaps you’re right.” His voice was calmer now, his authority more relaxed. “I suppose we can afford some time on this matter.”
I watched Asenna and Bryce walking out towards the city, plagued with another wave of that unwarranted jealousy. My heart picked up pace and I fought to control the urge to rip his throat out.
“How did last night go?” My father asked me with genuine curiosity. “Anything happen for you?”
“No.” I lied. “Another quiet year.”
He nodded, pursing his lips. “Well, there’s still Skylar. She’s the best fit for Luna anyways. Best to have someone we can trust join you in inheriting the pack.”
I bit back the sneer that threatened to take over my face. Since I had heard that howl last night, I couldn’t stand the thought of Skylar. I couldn’t admit that I had lost my mate before I had met her to my own father- the Werewolf King of all people. As if I wasn’t enough of a disappointment to him, that would be the end of it.
He patted me on the shoulder and turned to leave.
“Dad?” I called after him.
He looked back at me, raising his brows in response. “Yes, son?”
“You’d never hurt her, would you?” At his confused expression I clarified. “You wouldn’t let anything happen to Asenna.”
He studied my face, trying to decide how he should best answer me. “The peace and safety of this pack will always be our number one priority, Ryker. Always remember that.”
My heart tightened in my chest at his words. He didn’t mention anything about Asenna’s safety and well-being. If she somehow threatened the pack, I knew what would happen. My father would cut her down in a heartbeat.
I pictured those electric blue eyes staring at me and felt torn between my pack and the Spartan girl who had lost everything because of us.