Death crept through shadows, through the darkest corners of the mind and society.
It was merciless and cared not who it took as its prey. The old, young, weak, and strong—it didn’t matter. If Death wanted you, then Death would claim you.
Darkness fell swiftly two hours after they crossed into Wisconsin from Minnesota.
They left a few hours behind schedule because Brooke insisted on shopping at Mall of America for a bit, asserting that they couldn’t go all the way to Minnesota and not go to Mall of America.
For a strong female warrior, the twenty-five-year-old werewolf sure loved to shop.
Crystal, not so much. She didn’t like crowds and noise—they made her anxious. Their mother, thankfully, took her to an art gallery nearby for a bit before meeting Brooke at the mall.
Brooke hadn’t been anticipating the multiple construction zones outside the city when they left because she forgot to take her phone off silent from the wedding yesterday and didn’t see their father’s message. Their father and older brother, Justin, left earlier that day to return home to Chicago and reported back an extra hour drive total because of it.
Sometimes, Crystal felt like the Moon Goddess had turned her back on her.
Justin became the Beta of their pack, the Lancaster Pack, two years ago when Alpha Jackson turned twenty-five. Justin and Jackson grew up together, were best friends since they could walk as their parents were the Alpha and Luna and Betas of the pack. Justin and Jackson were very athletic and won awards and trophies in the various sporting events they took place in.
Her older sister, Brooke, two years younger than Justin, became a warrior and was just as successful in athletics as Justin.
Although her sister hadn’t found her mate yet and Justin did seven years ago, they were both successful and grew into their positions in the pack well before the time they finished high school.
Crystal felt like the black sheep in the werewolf pack.
She lived in the shadows of her successful and highly respected older siblings, and what did she have to show for it? She wasn’t athletic. She didn’t win trophies and ribbons and make her family proud.
She was eighteen years old and had no wolf.
How could the Goddess be so cruel?
She only had a few months left to shift into her wolf for the first time—otherwise, she never would. She would have no role to play in the pack beyond menial work because that was the fate for those born with no wolf. If she didn’t shift by her nineteenth birthday, she would become an omega. A pack member to protect and pity for their helplessness.
No one wanted to become an omega. Their pack of fifty-eight already had two omegas—a brother and sister whose mother was a human and their father was born from a werewolf and human union. Their bloodline was too weak to give them a wolf, but Crystal was of a strong, beta bloodline. An omega was never born of a beta bloodline.
The shame hung heavier on her shoulders every day since she became a teenager and didn’t shift into her wolf.
Instead, she had seizure-like panic attacks that often came out of nowhere.
The car shuddered on the highway and her mother cursed.
After spending the last four hours listening to music and staring out the window, Crystal pulled the headphones from her ears as she gripped the handle of the door with her other hand. While looking around, her mother eased the shaking car to the side of the road.
“Call your father while I get out and check the engine,” Ma said as she pulled the switch under the dash to pop the hood.
Crystal watched her mother climb out and go around to the front of the car before she disappeared behind the raised hood.
Swearing under her breath, Brooke pressed her phone to her ear and began to tell their father what happened.
“Yeah, we’re about halfway in Wisconsin,” Brooke reported. “Hold on, let me check.”
She unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out of the car to hover over the engine with Ma.
Heaving a sigh, Crystal unbuckled her belt to climbed out as well.
As soon as she opened her door, her mother ordered her to stay in the car.
“It’ll be safer for you in there, hun.”
A car was approaching, so she did as her mother asked and got back in her seat and pulled the door shut. There was nothing she could do anyway. She didn’t know anything about cars. Didn’t even get a license because her seizures made her unfit to be on the road.
The sky was getting darker with indigo and rich purples reflecting off the clouds and it was only a matter of time before darkness would consume them completely.
Several minutes passed before a car pulled up. The driver got out and spoke with their mother before Brooke came around to Crystal’s side of the car. She rolled her window down.
“So, we called Triple A. It’s going to be a while though before someone can get out here, so get comfy,” Brooke told her, leaning on the window frame.
Crystal nodded, swallowing the lump of anxiety creeping up her throat.
“We’re probably going to have to stay in a motel or something,” Brooke mumbled. “Good thing we’re not too far from Madison. I bet we can get the car fixed first thing in the morning, and if not, I’m sure there’s a car rental place somewhere.”
Ma slammed the hood down and talked with the other driver a bit more before he nodded and returned to his car and drove off.
Brooke got in the front passenger seat ahead of Crystal before Ma got back into the driver’s seat.
“Well, doesn’t that just suck? Not to worry, though,” Ma said, seeing Crystal stiffen in her seat. “Triple A will be here before you know it.”
Taking a few deep, calming breaths, Crystal put her headphones back on and switched to her soft classical music playlist before reaching for the backpack at her feet and pulling out her sketchbook.
She had to keep her mind busy. Focus on other things.
Her hand was shaking when she reached for her pencil case and drew out a pencil.
Quickly getting to work, she got in the zone, letting the music drown out the distractions around her and forcing her eyes on the page before her.
She often didn’t know what she was drawing, and just let her subconscious take control of the pencil. As a form began to take shape, someone turned the light on over top of her and she murmured a thanks without taking her eyes off the wolf’s head on her page.
She drew a lot of wolves. Sometimes Brooke’s wolf, Justin’s wolf, her parents’ wolves, but never her own.
Because she had no wolf. It hurt, but she’d given up hope now. If her wolf hadn’t come now, what difference did it make over the next few months until her nineteenth birthday?
“Cris,” her mother called in a gentle voice, knowing that she shouldn’t startle her when she was in the zone.
Tearing her eyes off the mystery wolf looking back at her, she saw two men and a woman standing outside their car. Looking around them, she saw no other car in the darkness that enshrouded them.
“This is Beta Will of the Matheson Pack. They live in this area and have offered us a place to stay for the night while our car gets repaired.”
Nodding, Crystal put her pencil back in its case and closed her sketchbook before putting them both in her bag.
“Oh, no, she can’t shift,” she overheard her mother whisper to the Beta standing outside her window. “Is it far? Could you bring another car out here?”
Hanging her head, she squeezed her eyes shut. Inhaled and exhaled.
Her chest felt tight.
“Hey, Cricket,” Brooke whispered from the front seat, using the pet name their father gave her a long time ago. “You okay? Want some water?”
Her eyes prickled.
She hated this.
She glanced up to see Brooke holding a water bottle out to her.
“Thanks,” she croaked weakly and took it from her.
Brooke even cracked the seal for her.
Taking another deep breath, she exhaled loudly and straighten up in her seat.
She unscrewed the loosened cap and lifted the bottle to her lips.
Be strong. Don’t be such a scaredy-cat.
When she lowered the bottle, she tried not to let all the eyes staring back at her intimidate her.
“Good now?” her sister asked.
“Alright, so here’s the plan,” Brooke said. “You and I are going to get into the car the Matheson Pack is sending and should be here soon. Ma’s going to stay here with Beta Will until the tow truck comes and then they’ll come back to the pack house when they have everything sorted out with the car. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.”
Crystal rolled her eyes at Brooke. She wasn’t a kid anymore, did her sister still have to treat her like one?
But she knew why, and couldn’t even get angry at her. Her condition made them all tiptoe around sometimes. Afraid to set off another one of her seizure-like attacks.
The fact that she hadn’t had one since last night was saying a lot. She felt like a ticking time-bomb now. They were becoming more frequent with each passing day.
The part that scared her the most was wondering if could it get any worse. Would she wind up having seizures every hour? Every minute of her waking life? How much worse could it get? Would things ever get better? Go back to normal?
She pushed that terrifying thought from her mind. She couldn’t think that way. Couldn’t give into that fear and allow it to control her life.
Maybe everything would stop once she turned nineteen?
As horrible as the thought was about living the rest of her life without a wolf, she’d rather have no wolf than to continue having these episodes multiple times a day.
They only had to wait a few minutes before a car pulled up. She and Brooke climbed in with one of the other male wolves of the Matheson Pack and they drove off.
Darkness blanketed the land and the clouds had thickened, briefly concealing the moon as they drove a minute on the highway before exiting and turning around to go the opposite direction. After a couple of minutes, they got off the highway and onto a dark side road surrounded by trees.
Crystal listened to music in an effort to lower her anxiety.
She knew she would be safe with the other pack, but it was the unfamiliarity that made her nervous. She didn’t handle change well.
Brooke stiffened next to her. She gripped the seat as her nails extended and dug into the cushions.
Crystal didn’t miss it and she felt her chest tighten again.
“Keep going,” Brooke urged the driver in a soft, but firm voice. “Don’t stop.”
“What?” Crystal asked in a whisper—as if the two males in front of her couldn’t hear a word she said. “What’s wrong?”
In the darkness, Crystal could vaguely make out Brooke’s clenched jaw. She didn’t answer her, but instead asked the drivers, “We’re almost there, right?”
“Eight minutes or so.”
She cursed softly under her breath. “Do something!”
The male in the front passenger seat rolled down his window and leaped out as the car slowed a bit.
“Brooke, tell me what’s going on,” Crystal demanded as the window rolled back up and the male disappeared in the darkness. There was a tremble in her voice despite the assertiveness.
A snarl ripped through the air followed by a howl directly beside them.
Her heart jumped in her throat as her chest constricted even more.
“Dammit,” Brooke muttered under her breath before heaving a sigh as the car sped up. “There’s a pair of vampires—”
“Four of them, actually,” the driver interjected.
Crystal gripped her seat, feeling light-headed and dizzy.
She’d never been near vampires before. Everyone took extra precautions to keep her safe at night.
“You’re not helping,” Brooke gritted out through her teeth before turning calmly back to Crystal. “There’s nothing to worry about. The Matheson Pack is handling it.”
“Where did they come from?” Crystal asked.
“Madison,” the driver answered. “We were chasing them out and they changed course last minute.”
“You can’t sense them, Cris, but there are two Matheson werewolves around us—protecting us. Everything will be fine.”
“Shit,” the driver muttered.
“Will you shut—” Brooke snapped before something jumped onto the roof of the car, cutting her off as Crystal screamed.
The driver slammed on the breaks to knock off the creature on top, making them all lurch forward in their seats.
The seat belt cut into her as pain slashed through her skull and spread down. Her body stiffened before convulsing as they came to a screeching halt.
“Mother-fuh—Hang on Cris, I’m here!”
Crystal could feel her sister’s hands holding her still as her muscles jerked violently within. She could hear herself gasping, wheezing, as spittle flew from her open lips. Pain rocked through her, tearing her apart from the inside out.
Crystal never knew which was worse—being conscious throughout her seizure-like episodes or not. She was always conscious and could never take her eyes off the pained expressions of her family hovering over her, holding her steady and making sure she didn’t choke on her own saliva or hurt herself.
Darkness was a thinly-veiled friend, though she could still envision the look on her sister’s face as a bang-thump-crash echoed around her dimmed senses.
“Holy shit,” Brooke uttered repeatedly in a low voice. “I’m right here, Cris. I’m not leaving—”
A snarl cut her off and she whirled around and disappeared.
Darkness was no friend now when a strong, cold hand grabbed her and pulled her from the car as unfamiliar voices laughed in her muffled ears.