By the time we made our way out of the castle, the party outside was already in full swing. Axel had disappeared from our table somewhere between the main course and dessert. By the looks of it, he already had his treat.
We were scattered around a bonfire, laughing and chatting carelessly when he came strolling towards us with suspicious smudges all over his face. He gave me a knowing look and a wink, before plopping down on the ground close to the fire, casually leaning against a tree trunk. Raiden shook his head, smirked and gave me a sideways glance. There was no way I would inform Axel about the markings on his face. Not yet, anyway.
“So,” Carter, a Shadow Creek warrior, said, “apparently all the Alphas will be out of town next week.” He eyed us with a familiar crooked grin. Carter was known for being an instigator.
Ray pulled me closer against him where I was sitting between his knees. Through his shirt, I could feel his heartbeat rise, excitement rushing through him.
“Ooh! A forest get-together!” Sala practically squealed, rubbing her palms together. She wiggled her brows as she scanned the group of youngsters around her, me and Ray included. We could only laugh, knowing that she had looked a little too deep down the bottle tonight.
Carter slumped over her from behind, reaching for the bottle on the ground in front of her, crushing her slightly under his weight. “Think someone needs to take this little guy off your hands,” he said, grabbing the bottle. She made a strained sound underneath him and gasped for air when he finally straightened. I felt Raiden’s chest rumble as he chuckled behind me. Sala tried to pry the bottle from Carter’s hands but was unsuccessful and ended up slapping his chest instead.
“We’re not allowed to leave pack grounds,” Gunnar snorted, taking a sip of his dark stout beer. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could drink the stuff, but somehow, it suited him. He was rowdy and rough around the edges. Not an ideal candidate for refined wines or cocktails. Gunnar was rugged, just like his drink. A bulk of a man built from pure muscle and dirty jokes. He was also Raiden’s best friend and the future Beta of Shadow Creek. They called him The Tank.
“Alpha’s orders,” he said with a huff, rolling his eyes.
“Oh, come on, you’re not sc-sc-scared, are you?” Sala slurred, ending her sentence with a giggle and a little hiccup.
“Gunnar’s right, though,” Cassius said, his deep olive eyes serious. “We shouldn’t be sneaking out. Not until this rogue issue’s been resolved.”
“It could be dangerous,” Ray whispered in my ear, soft enough for only me to hear.
“What if we all just travel together from the border? If someone dares to attack us, that person must damn well be mental,” Carter reasoned.
“Yeah,” Axel chimed in, “you Shadow Creek folk are beastly,” he said, flexing his muscles and earning a snort and high five from Sala.
“Well, the first step is admitting it, Hollow Bone,” Carter retorted.
He scoffed, taking a drink from Sala’s stolen bottle. “Whatever.”
“No, he has a point,” Gunnar agreed, “we’re a pretty tough bunch.” He sat up, looking around the group, taking in both Hollow Stone and Shadow Creek members.
“Fighting someone in the ring and fighting a feral rogue are two very different things,” Cassius cut in sharply.
“Yes sir, Alpha sir!” Axel mocked, saluting like a soldier. An angry vein popped out of the side of Cassius’s neck and for a moment, I thought he was going to have a go at Axe. Ray’s body stiffened behind me, and I knew he’d prepared himself to jump up and step in between the two if needed. He was the only other Alpha here, the only one strong enough to intervene.
“So, who’s in?” Sala piped up, completely ignoring Cassius’s warning. “Safety in numbers!”
Carter was the first to reply. “Safety in numbers!” He howled, lifting his drink.
Another wolf from Shadow Creek did the same, then one from Hollow Stone and soon, everyone had answered except for Cassius.
“Oh, come on man, this is your last chance to live a little,” Axel tried to convince him. “Once you’re Alpha, you’ll never be able to do any of this stuff.” It was true. Everyone knew it, but only Axel had the nerve to say anything.
Cassius turned to face Axel, his short, dirty-blonde hair turned to a shade of brown in the dim light, his face unreadable. Soon, Cassius would take over the pack from my father and would no longer be considered one of us - a youngster. He would be swamped with work and expected to lead by example. It would mean no more sneaking out, no more illegal drinking and no more midnight make-out sessions with random girls in the woods.
Axel’s words clearly got to him. I could see it in his eyes. He wasn’t ready to give all of this up. All of us and what it meant. He wasn’t ready to let go of his youth.
“Besides, someone has to be the big, bad wolf protecting us in the middle of the deep dark forest,” Sala chimed in again, sending him a little pout.
We stared at him in silence as we waited for his final verdict. Pity and deep-rooted understanding gripped my heart. An uncomfortable knot formed in my throat. I wasn’t ready for him to grow up and leave us either. Once we stepped into our respective roles in the pack, we would have very little time for one another and nights like these would be a distant memory. A heavy silence fell over us. Even Sala had quieted down.
“Fine!” He finally said, his voice hoarse and barely audible, “one more time.”
“Wheeee!” Sala shrieked, throwing her hands in the air and almost toppling over.
“But everyone stays together!” Cassius ordered sternly.
“Aye!” Axel roared, lifting his drink.
The rest of us joined in, cheering and lifting either a hand or drink, paying tribute to Cassius’s last midnight trip with us.
“You owe me for this, Axe,” Cassius grumbled and Axel’s grin widened.