Prologue_Part 1 - Nat
Monday 30 November
“Only another half an hour, Audrey.”
I looked at Dad with my eyebrows raised and my eyes wide. I didn’t believe his calm demeanour as he sat next to me for a second.
He laughed as he placed his broad hand on the top of my head and ruffled my hair. “Honestly, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” His laughter dropped away, but his ever-present smile remained. He looked over at Mum, who was standing at the entrance to the courtyard with Alpha James. “We’ll both be with you the entire time. Everyone goes through it. You’ll be fine.”
I pursed my lips and sat back, wrapping the scratchy black robe I had on around my bare skin just that little bit tighter. “I know. Doesn’t stop the nerves, is all.”
“I know, sweetie. The first shift is always the hardest because you don’t know what to expect.” He patted me on my knee. “You’ll see. Once you’ve finished, you’ll wonder why you were so worried.”
I shifted in my seat as I chewed the inside of my cheek.
“He’s right, you know. All you need to do is get through this first one, then it’s smooth sailing.”
I let out a huff as I listened to Alex, my wolf. As always, she was a wealth of support, but for some reason, tonight she sounded slightly worried.
“Is everything okay, Alex?” I asked. “You seem a little off tonight.” I frowned slightly when I felt a nervous tension run through her.
“Yeah, everything’s fine, kid.”
I leaned my head back against the wall behind me and closed my eyes so I could concentrate better. “I don’t believe you,” I said in a sing-song voice, before getting completely serious. “Something’s got you worried. What’s up?”
“It’s Alpha James.”
My eyes fluttered open as I brought my head back level. I let my eyes slowly wander across the courtyard until they found the man in question, still chatting to Mum. He was in his usual clothing: a black fedora on his still dark, but greying hair, and a long, dark-grey woollen trench coat with the collar flicked up around his neck, over his thick black jumper and black trousers. His goatee elongated his lined, leathered face, and his dark eyes met mine before he shifted his attention back to Mum, who was chattering about something. They were both too far away from me and Dad to hear clearly, though.
“You think he’s doing it again?”
I felt Alex hesitate before she responded. “I don’t know. It feels the same as the last few times.”
I frowned and turned my head away from Mum and Alpha James. “You think he’s got something planned?” I let my mind wander back over the odd shifts that Alex was referring to.
Being the Beta’s daughter and living in the pack house, I was privy to a number of things that most Kinglake pack members weren’t. Being present for first shifts was one of them.
All eighteen-year-olds were brought to the pack house to shift for the first time, then sleep in the guest quarters once the night was over as a gift from Alpha James. I would see them the next day at the first meal, usually exhausted, but always thrilled that they’d shifted.
Over the last couple of years, though, I had taken note of a few instances that just felt off. Alex said that she’d picked up on it soon after we had arrived in Kinglake five years ago, but she couldn’t tell me about it until I turned sixteen.
Our pack was small, so we never saw more than around a dozen first shifts a year total, but it seemed like out of all the females that shifted, two or three would end up mated the night of their first shift.
It thrilled all of them to have found their fated mate, but something felt wrong to Alex, and as I began to observe it myself, I could see what she meant.
Alpha James was the complete opposite of my dad. Where Dad always had a smile on his face and was quick to chat to anyone in the pack, Alpha James wore his gruff exterior like it was part of his everyday wardrobe and preferred to communicate through a variety of grunts and grimaces that took at least a couple of years to learn how to interpret.
But on the days that felt off, Alpha James always had a smile on his face, like he’d won the lottery somehow. It was unnerving.
Tonight, the corners of Alpha James’ lips were turned slightly up.
“It’s the smile, isn’t it?” I closed my eyes again so I wouldn’t be tempted to look at the person I was talking about when I spoke to Alex.
“Got it in one.” I could feel Alex’s agitation run down my spine.
I sighed and turned to Dad to talk to him about it when I started feeling strange. My eyes widened as I felt my spine grinding. I fell forward, off the bench seat I had been sitting on next to Dad and onto the grass in front of it. My hands clawed at the earth, before I let out a shriek of pain, when the grinding intensified.
“Brennan, it’s started,” Dad called to Mum. He reached out a hand and rubbed my back before he got on his knees in front of me to bring his head down to my level. “It’s okay, Audrey. Breathe through it.”
I felt the air shift when Mum walked past me, sitting in the spot I had just vacated. “We all go through this, Audrey. You’ll be fine,” she said in an offhanded manner.
Staring at the ground in front of me, I narrowed my eyes at her words, but said nothing in response. For the past decade or so, she’d been cold in her interactions with me. It was like someone had flicked a switch; one day she was a warm and loving mother, the next she was calculating and ruthless. Her words tonight were nothing more than what I was now used to or expected, but I had to admit it was difficult hearing her talk like that when I was writhing in pain in front of her.
Instead, I focused on Dad while I was panting from the agony. His calm words of encouragement slowly made their way through the roaring in my ears.
“It’ll be over soon,” Dad was saying. “Just breathe. Breathe with me, Audrey.” He tapped the ground twice to get my attention and when I looked up at him, he nodded to me, counting out loud with each nod until he got to five. “Now breathe out. Come on, Audrey. You can do it.”
The grinding continued, but now I could feel my bones breaking apart and shifting around under my skin and muscles to find their new place. I screamed when the pain got too much, a long mournful wail that slowly morphed into a howl the longer it went on.
I heard Mum scoff behind me. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me. It’s not that bad.”
I was still watching Dad nodding his count to me, so I clearly saw him glare at Mum in anger before he returned his focus to me, never breaking his rhythm. “I promise it’ll be over soon, Audrey. Just a few more minutes. You’re doing great.”
Squelching sounds filled my ears as my body spasmed, my back arching as my muscles moved into their new positions. I could feel my teeth elongate into fangs, my nose lengthening and my skin felt itchy as white fur began sprouting through my skin. I raised my head and screamed one last time as I felt my body almost explode alongside the burst of light emanating from me.
But something was wrong.
It wasn’t the bright white light I was so used to seeing at full moon pack runs. The light shooting out from my every pore was a kaleidoscope of colours; blue, purple, red, orange, pink… Every colour in the rainbow was projecting out from me, before rotating, then fading away to let another colour pick up where the prior one had ended.
I panted heavily as the coloured lights faded away, leaving me standing in front of Dad, who had scrambled back from me.
“Uh, Alex? What the fuck?” I blinked several times as I took in the courtyard from this different viewpoint. “What’s with the colours?”
“I’ll explain everything soon, kid. Can you give me a minute to get my bearings first, please?”
“Sure, Alex. Whatever you need.” I let Alex take control, feeling my consciousness take a backseat as I felt a shudder run through my body, starting at my spine before exiting out of each of my four legs. Both my tail and ears twitched as I watched Dad stare at me in stunned silence.
He stood motionless as I took a step forward to butt him with my snout. “You’re male?” he asked softly. He tentatively reached a hand out to scratch my ears. I leaned into his open palm, nudging him.
“Male?” I asked Alex as confusion filled my mind. “What?”
“I’m male, kid. I know you’re a female human, but I’m a male wolf spirit.”
I could feel my brain trying desperately to absorb this new knowledge. Okay. Focus on one thing at a time. Alex was still the same voice I was used to hearing in my head, the same spirit that had shared my body since birth. Nothing had changed. Just that Alex was a ‘he’ instead of a ‘she’. I could work with that. “Is that why I shifted in colours instead of the usual white?”
“It’s part of—”
“Do you have any idea how much money you’ve just made me lose?”
Both Dad and I turned our attention to Alpha James, but where I was curious about what he was talking about, it seemed my dad already knew.
Dad got to his feet and turned to face Alpha James; his eyes narrowed. His fingers were still running their way through the fur between my ears. “What are you talking about? You agreed she was to be exempt. You swore to us she wouldn’t be a part of this, otherwise we would never have moved here.”
What? I looked up at Dad in confusion. “Alex, do you know what’s going on?” I turned around to look at Mum, who was still sitting behind me. The colour had drained from her face, and she didn’t move.
“Not a clue.”
“You stupid son of a bitch,” Alpha James scoffed, his face hard. “Of course, she was going to be sold. When you moved here and became Beta, she became Beta stock! What did you expect me to do?”
A low growl sounded, bringing my attention back to Dad. He had removed his hand from my head and took a step forward to block me from Alpha James.
“Sold?” The confusion I was feeling before ballooned. “What?”
“It can’t be…” Alex trailed off. “Surely, he wouldn’t?” I sensed Alex drawing conclusions I wasn’t seeing yet. “But all those girls… It would fit…”
“Alex? What am I missing?”
“I think Alpha James is in the slave trade, Audrey,” Alex said quietly. “And I think you were next.”
“We never agreed to this, James,” Dad growled, his body growing tense. I felt my ears flatten because of the anger roiling around the courtyard.
“You should have expected it, Carey,” Alpha James snarled. He took a step to the right as he took his coat off. “Titled women are hot commodities because they’re so rare. You should have anticipated it would come to this.” He folded his coat and lay it on the bench against the wall opposite us.
I sensed Mum silently coming up beside us before she joined Dad in front of me. She never touched me, but placed a hand in Dad’s palm and squeezed it once. He looked at her and she nodded. Dad grimaced, took a deep breath, and nodded once before returning his attention to Alpha James.
“I did right by her, you know,” Alpha James said, lifting his hat off and placing it gently on his folded coat. “Her mate was to be a European Alpha. Quite taken with her, he was.” He rolled his jumper sleeves up before taking his cufflinks off and laying them on top of his hat. “She was a remarkably hot commodity. The winning bidder outbid hundreds of others. She was the most valuable piece of meat I’d ever sold.”
Dad snarled. Mum let go of his hand as it turned into a claw, his nails lengthening. I always loved how effortless Dad made shifting appear, how he could control certain parts of his body to shift when the rest remained human. Very few people had the discipline to do what he could do.
Alpha James held up a finger and shook it at Dad. “Now, now, Carey. Think about what you’re preparing to do to protect that freak of nature.” His eyes narrowed and glared at me. “The transaction became null and void as soon as she turned into this… abomination.” He balled his hands into fists and placed them firmly on his hips. “That thing has to die. Do you really want to lose your own life in an attempt to protect it?”
“Better than just letting you kill my daughter,” Dad snarled. Quicker than I could track, Dad swivelled on the spot, opening his palm, and slicing it with one of his claws from his other hand.
I heard a roar from where Alpha James stood, before he leaped forward, shifting into Sloane, the gigantic black wolf that everyone from the Kinglake pack knew, and followed.
As the blood dripped from Dad’s palm, he sliced my ear open before grasping it with his bloodied hand. “Audrey Whelan, I hereby revoke your membership of the Kinglake pack.” As soon as the last syllable had been uttered, he pushed me back and used the momentum to cartwheel over Sloane, who had rushed us from behind. Dad shifted into his light-grey wolf, Riley, in mid-air, landing on his front paws. He grabbed at Sloane’s tail with his teeth, pulling him back and away from me, just as Sloane’s jaws came crashing down at my snout, missing me by millimetres.
For the first time, I felt Mum’s hands on me, pushing me back from the brawl that was now taking place in front of us.
“Alex, what do we do?” I was panicked. When Dad had revoked my membership, I had felt my connection with the Kinglake pack sever immediately. I was now eighteen years old and a rogue wolf in the middle of an unfriendly pack house; not a situation anyone ever wanted to find themselves in.
“We need to get out of here, but your mum is blocking us.”
I took stock of our surroundings. Just as Alex said, Mum stood in front of me, guarding me from Riley and Sloane but also blocking me from the exit of the courtyard. The only chance I had was hoping Riley would overcome Sloane, giving me an opening where I could get past them.
I watched the brawl from around Mum, listening to the snarling and tearing from both sides. Fur was flying everywhere as they careened into the trees in the courtyard, obliterating the smaller ones from their impacts. Occasionally, a whimper would sound, usually when one of the two enormous wolves slammed into a larger tree, showering the ground with leaves and bark from the impact.
As the fight raged on, Mum slowly inched us around the courtyard to keep us away from the battle, but she always stayed between me and the door, leaving me no room to get around her. Every now and then, a chunk of flesh would be thrown our way, accompanied by a growl, with flecks of blood showering us as the piece flew over our heads.
My eyes were still analysing the best exit strategy when I heard Mum gasp. I looked up at her before I heard a sickening crunch. A low growl filled the courtyard, one that could only have come from Sloane.
Dread filled me as I dared to look past Mum to where Sloane was growling. Riley was lying in a growing pool of blood a few metres from where Mum and I stood, his glazed eyes trained on me as the air rattled from his lungs one last time and the life went out of his eyes. His body was torn to shreds; chunks of muscle were hanging by threads of sinew as he lay on the ground, some wounds so deep bone was clearly visible. His throat had been torn open and was now leaking the last of his life’s blood onto the ground.
Sloane wasn’t without injury. His jaw still held a chunk of Riley’s flesh between his teeth as he took a staggered step toward us, his front left leg faltering as he tried to put weight onto it. His beady black eyes narrowed further as he focused all his attention on me.
I locked his eyes with mine as I spread my front legs and lowered the front of my body in an attack stance, even though my mind was screaming. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mum collapse silently onto her knees, her shoulders sagging as a wail left her. The shrill sound floated into the night air, growing ever louder as the seconds dragged by. My ears flattened as a small whimper left me at the knowledge of what we had just lost, but now was not the time to lose my mind. I still needed to get out of the courtyard.
“Alex. Help me. Please.” My heart felt like it was breaking into a million pieces at the tableau in front of me—Dad’s wolf in pieces in an ever-widening pool of blood; Mum crumpled in a heap in front of me, wailing for her lost mate; Sloane stumbling towards me with death in his eyes as he spat the last chunk of Riley out from his teeth, before growling at me.
“Let me take control, kid. I’ll get us out of here.” I felt my mind retreat as I let Alex fully come forward. He slowly stepped to the side to test what Sloane would do. As expected, Sloane matched our movements.
“Run, Audrey,” Mum muttered as she paused for breath. Gulping for air as a wracking sob left her, she turned her tear-streaked face to me and screamed.