Larken! Get your ass back over here! I called through the werewolf mind link.
The small, tawny wolf was weaving around tree trunks, pouncing and nipping at bare branches- a typical pup. I was doing my best to keep an eye on him, but the brat was all over the place. At least he was keeping a good pace for us. Behind me, Bryce lurked in quiet solitude.
He hadn’t said much since he found us in the small cavern during the storm, and I had to admit I wasn’t too bothered by his silence. It was awkward and tense, but Bryce was a huge help to Larken and me. He had helped me keep the brat warm while the freezing wind wrapped around the boulders we had hidden in, and his foul, rouge scent helped cover our trail.
We had fled as soon as the storm quieted, moving in single file so our paw prints fell on top of each other’s. We moved quickly, knowing full well that there was a Royal Pack that would be hunting us. As soon as we had reached the borders of the territory, Larken and I darted in different directions back and forth through the trees, creating a labyrinth of tracks before choosing our heading and setting off. Bryce had been following close behind ever since.
It had been almost two weeks since we made our mad dash from Varcolac, and while the winter cold was bitter and grueling, we were making solid progress. We stayed in our wolf forms, letting our thick pelts give us an advantage in the snowy mountains.
How much farther? Larken ran up panting, his pink tongue lolling out of his mouth to the side.
Not too far. I told him, the dread rising in my belly.
Larken had been happy on this trek for the most part, thinking of it more as a glorified road trip. I, on the other hand, was doing my best to keep a straight face. I didn’t know what we would find when we got there. It had been eight years, there was no telling if the town was even still standing. We very well might be on our way to an empty field of snow. The Moon Goddess was adamant though- it was time to go home. If me going to the deserted city that now sat in rubble would get her off my back, then so be it.
We moved in silence, the forest around us peacefully quiet, the way it only was in winter. The birds had migrated south, the bears were hibernating, and even the deer were nowhere to be found. Our hike carried on for a few hours as we navigated the mountain passes. When we came to a clearing that opened against a large, stone mountain face, we stood side by side taking in the haunting scenery.
Buildings stood in ransacked shells across the field, some reduced to a heap of beams and debris. I could see where the training grounds and agility courses once were, but now there was only a pristine blanket of snow. It was nothing like Varcolac with its tall, gleaming houses and shops and the neat and orderly streets. This had been more of a military camp with simple homes and barracks. Everything that was once modest and clean was now in snow covered shambles. The abrupt face of the stone cliff created a natural border behind the town, giving protection from northern invasions. I noticed the crack that ran down the stone, ending in a cavernous opening at the bottom. I wondered if Marcus and his henchmen had ransacked its contents too.
Where are we? Larken asked, his head swiveling back and forth as he tried to understand what he was looking at.
Bryce huffed beside me, his newfound brooding nature refusing to offer much in the way of discussion.
This is Lycanthropolis. I told them. My skin felt icy cold despite my thick fur. This was my home.
We rummaged through the abandoned houses, finding skeletons and dust covered evidence of lives once lived. The boys were silent as we pawed through the contents of rooms until we found clothes we could wear. I split off to phase in privacy, letting my large wolf recede back into my human frame. I shivered against the cold of the drafty house as I quickly pulled on the musty old clothes. Once I donned the jeans, flannel and boots, I dug through one of the closets, ignoring the small skeleton that was clutching a teddy bear, until I found a thick insulated coat.
“Asenna?” A quivering voice called. Larken came up to me shivering and teeth chattering.
“Come here.” I held up another winter coat that was a bit large, but it looked like it would keep him warm. I zipped him into the thick wool material and rubbed his arms briskly to generate some heat. The coat hung down to his knees, but I figured the more of him that was bundled up, the better. I caught him staring at a skull that lay in the corner of the living room.
“Hey.” I said, pulling his attention back to me. “Don’t look at them, okay? Bryce and I will clean the place up.”
His eyes were darker and more serious than I had ever seen them. “This is what my dad did?”
I sighed, looking away from him. “It wasn’t just him.” I knew he was still trying to understand everything that had happened. He was just a kid, after all. He shouldn’t have to deal with this kind of shit.
“So, what do we do now?” I heard Bryce’s gruff voice as he came toward us. He looked dirty and rough. The rogue life hadn’t been easy on him, but I was grateful someone else was here with us. “We’re here, what does she want us to do?”
“I don’t know.” I admitted. “We should probably go through everything, see if we can find anything we can use. Hey brat, do you think you can go gather some sticks and firewood for us?”
Larken nodded enthusiastically, happy to have a job. He took off out of the house and made a beeline straight for the trees that framed the town’s southern border. I looked around at the disarray of the house with its dirt, grime and death.
“We need to collect the bones.” I said to Bryce. “I don’t want him seeing them everywhere. We’ll put them together and burn them.” It would be the best I could do for them, the closest thing to a warrior burial.
While Larken was making trips back and forth to the woods, Bryce and I went through the town and remaining buildings, digging up any skeletal remains we could find. We piled them together, the mound of death growing wider and taller than we expected. As Bryce placed the last of the bones onto the makeshift pyre, I went to work covering the remains in layers of kindling and wood from the pile Larken had made.
“If you’re done, we should probably find something to eat.” I said, maneuvering fronds of evergreen into the pyre. “The brat will be hungry soon.”
“I got it.” Bryce said, wiping his hands on the rough cargo pants he wore. I averted my eyes as he stripped down to nothing, his warm body giving off steam in the cold air. He phased into his sandy colored wolf and loped off into the forest, disappearing in the hazy landscape.
I finished covering the bones with wood so Larken wouldn’t see them and went into one of the houses to dig around for matches. I rummaged through drawers full of baby bottles, cooking utensils, and random cords until I found the little red box I needed. When I got back out to the clear space where we piled the bare carcasses, I wasted no time in lighting the kindling beneath the branches and debris. The dead wood sparked up quickly and the fire spread over the pyre in a matter of seconds.
As I stared into the flames, I thought of all the people who had once lived here with me. Our Beta and his family, my classmates, the Guardians that had trained me… my parents. Their bones were probably in that pile now as it burned. There was no way for me to recognize them, they were just skulls among skulls. This was the only way I could say goodbye to them. Their Pack, their people, their entire legacy had been set aflame. Lycanthropolis was a ghost town of haunted memories. What good could come from being here?
“Hey, Asenna!” Larken called from across the compound. He was standing in a doorway, waving me over.
As I walked over to him, my eyes studied the pale, cream house. There were light green shutters on the windows and the door frame war marred with claw marks and gouges. Larken motioned for me to come inside and I followed slowly, stepping over fallen furniture and shattered decorations. The blue couch that sat against the wall was ripped and yellow foam poked through the holes.
A crunch came from under my foot and I bent down to look at what I had stepped on. I picked up a dusty framed photo and wiped the grime away from the cracked glass. My throat was tight as I ran my fingers over the faces. It was a photo of my dad and Uncle Ezra, our Beta. He wasn’t really my uncle, but I had known him my whole life. Ezra had always been around, always playing pranks on me and giving me a hard time. I had pretended to hate it, but I secretly loved his jokes. They were best friends and he had been a member of our family, just like the rest of them.
“Look!” Larken said with an awe-struck voice. “She’s so pretty!”
I went over to see what he was looking at. He was holding in his hand a portrait of a young man and woman embracing each other. They looked so at peace and content with the moment. They were formally dressed, and her white dress was adorned with Spartan crimson ribbons. Her light hair and blue eyes shined against her ivory skin.
“She’s my mom.” I whispered to Larken and he looked up at me with wide eyes. “This was taken at their mating ceremony.”
“This is your house?” He asked. I nodded and watched him look around in a new state of wonder. He ran down the dirty hall strewn with leaves and fallen wall decor, popping into every room and looking around eager to learn anything about my past.
I followed him to the room at the end of the hallway and leaned against the door frame quietly as he explored the light blue bedroom. He analyzed my little bookcase filled with torn and dilapidated children’s books. He sat on my creaky white bed with a little bounce. He studied my chest full of weapons and sparring equipment with intense interest. Everything was how I had left it, but it was old and musty, a thick layer of dust coating everything. This was my home, my room. I once had only fond memories of this place, now there were only nightmares.
A howl came from outside and I recognized it as our other companion’s call.
“Come on, Bryce is back.” I motioned for him to follow and he complied with a stubborn huff. “There will be enough time to learn about weapons.” I chided him. Hell, we had nothing but time at this point.
I helped Larken put together a smaller fire for us to huddle next to as the makeshift funeral pyre began to die down at the center of the town. We found a few chairs that had been knocked over on a porch and set them by our campfire as Bryce pulled the mountain goat he had killed out of the flames.
I took a knife and cut off a chunk of meat for Larken. The brat had had some rough adjustment to wild game the first few times he ate it. It was different for him and was definitely nothing close to the fancy food he was accustomed to in Varcolac, but he was getting used to this kind of wild existence. He gladly took the meat and chowed down, letting the grease drip from his chin.
“Thanks for dinner.” I said gratefully as I cut some meat off for myself.
Bryce was picking small bits from the roasted goat, taking smaller bites than the brat and me. “No problem.” He grunted, bringing another morsel to his mouth.
We hadn’t talked about anything that had happened between us, and I was fine with keeping it that way. Things were awkward and confusing enough. I bit into the steaming hunk of meat and savored the tender, mild flavor. As we chewed in silence, the sun began to set behind the trees.
“It’s really quiet.” Larken wrapped the excess of sleeve around his little hand and wiped at his grease-covered mouth.
“Yeah.” I didn’t know what to say to him. I was at a dead end and had no clue where to go from here. I filled my mouth with another big bite to avoid saying much more.
The fire crackled, the dead wood snapping and crackling under the heat. We were warm and our bellies were full. We may not know where we were going or what we were going to do, but at least we were okay for the night.
“Do you hear that?” Bryce shot up from his seat, the snow beneath his boots crunching with the sudden movement.
“What?” Larken asked.
“Shh!” I held my finger up to him in a silencing motion and strained my ears.
There was a low hum, paired with a steady grinding.
“It sounds like…” My voice trailed off, my mind still processing the possibility of what I was hearing.
“Vans.” Bryce said tensely. “And their heading straight toward us.”