"Often the test of courage is not to die, but to live."
- Conte Virtorio Alfieri
Wind whipped my face, drying out my eyes as I ran through the dense forest. My legs had started to burn hours ago, but the test was not yet completed. My father's Pack was looking for me and I swore I would allude them until they gave up the search. Although I was completely exhausted from running, my brain was hot wired and moving a million miles a minute. I was calculating every move, focusing on keeping my thoughts on purely instinct so that they couldn't use my training against me and predict my next moves.
I could hear the patter of cushioned paws behind me, digging into the Earth and the smell of something that confused me: fear.
Desperation, I could understand. Even excitement. But fear was not something that I thought I would encounter during my test. I was born to be the leader of the next generation of Wolves - I had been training for it since I could walk. This wasn't necessarily something I wanted to do with my life, but it was not open for discussion. I was the only born pup to the Pack leaders of Lignum; meaning, I was born to be the next leader for my generation. It was rare to have a female as the face of power, but not unheard of. I would be the first in nearly a century and it was a lot to live up to.
I just had to past a test to prove my destiny. The goal was simple:
Track the prize.
Return the prize (whatever it may be) to the Pack.
Unite with my Alpha.
It seemed easy enough on paper, but the actual task was rumored to be more than just a test of speed, wit, and devotion. It was meant to create a bond with my Pack that was stronger than nothing else - and test my loyalty to my family.
A glimpse of a moving shadow caught the corner of my eye, causing a shiver to run down my spine. Someone was following me. Of course, my Pack was somewhere nearby, but this was not the same. The speed of this figure was unlike anything I had seen during my training. It was as if this person's feet were floating just above the damp ground.
Of course, that was crazy.
I shifted my eyes across the thick forest in front of me, trying to catch another glimpse of the shadowed figure, but they were gone. Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me with all the excitement.
I could smell something nearby. Something not quite human. It was sour smelling, almost like a dead animal, but not quite.
I followed the scent to an oddly dense area of the forest. The smell was overpowering now, filling my nostrils with sweat and fear. I slowed to a stop at the edge of the area, exhaustion slowly creeping over me as I took in the scene of two figures knelt between two trees, tied and dirty and oozing panic from their core. I now understood what was making me feel so tense as I ran, but my instincts lead me toward the fear instead of turning tail and running in the opposite direction.
A wave of nausea overtook me as I realized what the scene in front of me was meant to be: my prize.
I looked around me, straining my ears to listen for the steps of Lignum who had been following me to this point. Had they been driving me in this direction this entire time? Or was it truly my instincts that lead me to find these people?
Warmth and pain enveloped me as I forced myself out of my lupine form, curiosity getting the better of me. I tip toed closer to the figures, careful in my movements not to make a noise that would signal my presence. The two figures were confusing to me and ultimately, I was mortified. I looked them over slowly, noting their features - or the features I could make out as their faces were generally covered by rose colored blindfolds. This was the color of my Pack.
"They're sitting ducks... not much of a hunt.." I whispered softly, looking at the female who strained against her bounds and breathing heavily. It was like looking at night and day - the female, pale and blonde, terrified beyond words, and the male, who simply hung his head as if he knew he were defeated. Both seemed eerily familiar, a pang of remorse running through my consciousness. The male's dark skin didn't glisten of sweat like the girl's did, and he didn't smell of fear, but of guilt.
Circling them slowly, I couldn't decide what my next move should be. After all, my training consisted of hunts of small animals and symbols, not humans. What was the reasoning behind this?
"What are you doing here?" I questioned softly, a hint of a growl sliding through my teeth with the words. There must be a reasonable explanation behind all of this charade.
The girl seemed shocked by my words, but instantly began straining harder against her bounds. I could tell by the red welts on her wrists that she had been struggling for quite some time.
"Oh, please, please let me go! I haven't done anything wrong! I don't know why I am here! Please!" She begged, fear and anxiety gushing from her pores. I wrinkled my nose at the smell that assisted my nose. Guilt. Danger.
"And you?" I asked the male, extending my toe to tap him lightly on the thigh. He did not answer, though he seemed sluggish and unsure of where he was. "I'm talking to you!" I snapped, jostling him again with my foot. He didn't answer.
The female on the other hand, had plenty of pleas of innocence for the both of the figures.
Was I supposed to bring them both back, one at a time? Or was this a test of judgement? I was growing more and more irritated by the moment by the girl's begging. There was no point in having a conversation with these two - one refused to speak and the other wouldn't shut up.
My decision was made. The male would stay, the female would go. While I could smell guilt rolling off him, he did not fear death - he knew he had done something wrong. His punishment would be a long life, full of memories of whatever crime he had committed. I didn't need to know what either of them had done to deserve this - I trusted my Pack with my very being.
I lugged the girl up by her armpit, rolling my eyes as she squealed like a pig being sent off for slaughter. She was loud enough to wake the entire moonlit forest at this point. I pushed her forward, forcing her to fall onto the muddy forest floor. Standing over her, unconcerned with my nakedness, I untied her blindfold and pulled her back by the hair on the back of her neck to rest my lips just a touch away from her ear.
The horror that flashed over her face was overwhelming, but the woman that emerged from the tree line was what stopped me in my tracks.
Her eyes were black, utterly unending black holes. It was as if there were no sign of life left in them - just darkness.
A shiver rose up my spine, sending ripples of pain through my muscles. I was unaware of where the young female had gone that I had chosen.
All I could see was the woman before me with deadly black eyes.
Darkness enveloped my vision, as if the trees around me were crushing in on me. As if they were sucking the breath out of my very lungs.
The woman stood over me, a twisted smile danced across her lips. She was all I could see. She shared my face, though her blonde hair and pale complexion was vastly different from my dark skin and hair.
"Welcome home, my darling. Welcome to the darkness."
I awoke with a start, a sheen of sweat covering my body. The dream that had plagued me since I was a little girl slowly slipping from my mind as I stared off into my dark room, trying to make sense of it for the millionth time in my young life. By this point, I had grown out of calling for my mother after dreams like these. I had stopped crying for help, hoping my mother would come and lay with me and sing me back to sleep. While the dream was still as terrifying as it had been the first time I had it, I had learned to push away the fears of the darkness and the woods.
If I were to be a leader, I knew it was my duty to not be afraid of something as trivial as a dream. Over the years, I had noticed that the more I explained the torments of my dream to my mother, the more worried she became. I had tried to change the course of my dream each time I had it, from saving the girl to saving the boy, never truly seeing their faces. The only face I could ever remember was her's. The woman with black eyes that surely reflected her soul and shared my face.
I laid still in my bed for ages, replaying the dream over and over again in my mind, trying to make sense of the message it seemed to be sending me. But each time I replayed the details, they became less and less clear.
"That's it, it's time to start the day." I whispered to myself, throwing my quilt off of my now chilled body and forcing myself out of my sweat soaked bed and into the morning glow that was now enveloping my room.
I could smell the faint aroma of my mother's breakfast that was coming from the kitchen. Leave it up to her to give a jump-start to my morning. I could always count on her to cheer me up, even when she was unaware of the turmoil going on inside of me.
I threw on a large t-shirt and padded out of my room, stretching out the cramps in my muscles from tossing and turning all night. I couldn't tell if I was so sore from fighting in my sleep or if it was the remains of my training from the day before, but I had to admit that I was surprisingly well rested for running in my dreams all night.
"Morning, Mama." I chirped fondly, brushing my lips against her cheek gently. I had always been a bit of a mama's girl, though my mother often teased that I was the spitting image of my father. "Is dad already at the enclave?" I asked, knowing well what the answer would be.
At this point, I didn't need to hear her answer. My father was an Alpha and it was his duty to always be on guard - and training us pups to take over his place. The test would take place at the last full moon of the year - my 22nd birthday - and we all needed to be ready to take our rightful places. For me, this meant next to my mate, ready to take on whatever threat may come.
"Your father is in the field. He said to send you out after Cage arrives this morning." My mother stated matter-of-factly, though the tug on her lips told me that Cage had already arrived. I felt heat crawl over my cheeks as I heard a familiar snicker from behind me. Suddenly, my pajama shirt was a little too short and my hair was a little too wild.
"Good morning, Ray." The voice behind me boomed, forcing me to sigh with embarrassment. "You look well rested."
"I shouldn't. I slept for shit. And you would know that, if you weren't so busy trying to be coy." I bit out, though it came out more harsh than flirtatious as I had meant it. Being raised to be a tough-as-nails female made it hard to read me occasionally, but Cage seemed to understand me better than anyone. I tried to play this off in my own head as the bond we have as future mates, but I knew it was because he was genuinely my best friend.
Cage had been in my life since we were both pups, always getting me out of trouble and teaching me ways to control my inner Wolf. He knew sides of me that no one ever could.
"Yeah, well, it's going to be a long day. And you know your dad isn't going to take it easy on you - even if you had a long night." He said sharply, though I could tell that there was some sadness in his tone. He knew of the nightmares. While my mother and father were sure the nightmares had stopped shortly after I started my training, Cage knew better. The bond between us was like a silver string, pulling his mind into mine, attaching our souls. "Come on. If you're not going to eat, you might as well get to the field before your dad makes us both do extra shifts tonight."
He had a point with this. My dad was great for punishing us with extra responsibility. While I wasn't complaining about spending uninterrupted time with Cage, I was much too tired to be up all night looking for danger that hadn't existed in years.
"Yeah, yeah." I said softly, avoiding my mothers gaze. I could tell she was silently worried about me. I hadn't been eating the past few days. The nausea in my stomach rolled and my head throbbed as if I had a hang over without the alcohol. Even though the food smelled delicious, I knew it wouldn't sit in my stomach for long. My nerves were too shot to even consider food.
I stood slowly, letting my eyes wander up over Cage's taught muscles and stubble that was forming on his chin. He looked like he had had about as much sleep as I had. I felt a pang of guilt fall over me as I noted the circles under his eyes. Had my dad been forcing him to do extra training? Or was he poking around searching for the answer to my dreams again?
The smirk on his lips told me everything - he had been in my head all day. If the pain in my head was any indication, he was probably in my dreams again too. I knew with the test coming up, he would be trying to help ease my mind as much as he could. We both know this test was make or break for our futures.
"Give me 5 minutes of peace and I'll be dressed and ready to go." I said slowly, shooting him a look to let him know I was on to his stunts.
I went into my room, making a point to dress quickly in sweats and a tank top - something easy to move in - but I stopped just short of my bedroom door as I heard a sharp knock on the front door.
It took me all of two minutes to finish dressing and pulling my shoes on before rushing back to the kitchen to see who had come to visit so early in the morning. Never in a million years did I think I would walk out to see three tall pale figures standing in my kitchen, staring at me.
"Alaray?" The smallest inquired, looking nearly as shocked as I probably looked.
This girl had my face.
This girl was pale with blonde hair and my face.
Suddenly, a flash of my dream returned to me as the girl moved toward me and the world fell from beneath my feet.
Before the darkness took over my vision, all I could see was darkness in her eyes.