“Tell me I’m not making a huge mistake, Layla.”
I looked across the cabin of my truck at my best friend, Gia, trying to find the words to reassure her. The bonding ceremony was only a few minutes away. She picked a hell of a time to get cold feet.
“You’re not making a huge mistake,” I said. “We went over all of this last night. You seemed fine when we went to bed. What changed?”
She made an exasperated sound and raked her blonde hair up off her neck. The tangy smell of her fear wafted through the cabin. “I don’t know. I think it’s just now hitting me what a big deal this is and I’m kind of freaking out.”
“You have every right to freak out,” I said. “Choosing to take part in a mystical ceremony that will bond you to another werewolf for life is a big deal. Just focus on the fact that the Goddess doesn’t make mistakes. She knows you better than anyone else, and it’ll be the same with whoever She partners you with.”
Gia rolled her eyes, blue irises bleeding into the amber color they were as a wolf. That was the biggest indicator for how upset she was; she only ever lost control like this when she was on the verge of tears or violence. Her tone was laced with bitter sarcasm when she answered me. “Right. I’m sure it will all work out in the end for the asexual shifter.”
I leaned over, grabbed her shoulders, and turned her to face the crowd of people streaming past my parked truck. “Look. Look at all of these people. Black, White, Latinx, Asian, gay, straight, bi, queer. And they’re all here for the same reason you are. To find a mate. You think you’re the only ace shifter to ever look for a partner? You think you’re the only one who is nervous or worried?” She was silent in response, so I pushed my advantage while I had it. “The Goddess always knows best. When have you ever known Her to put two people together and have it not work out in the long run?”
She pulled free from my grip and faced me, worrying her lower lip between her teeth. “It’s the part in between bonding and happily ever after that scares me.”
I picked up her hands and squeezed them between my own, wanting to reassure her, to tell her that everything would be roses and butterflies from here on out. But that would be a lie. “You should be scared,” I said instead. “You know it’s never easy or straightforward with our Goddess. She puts people together you would never expect. She tests us. Forces us to change our ways or our minds or to learn some cosmic lesson designed to make us better people. Why do you think I haven’t taken part in the ceremony yet? I’m chicken shit.”
As I hoped, she laughed.
“But you’re braver than I am,” I told her. “Think about what you said last night. You’re tired of dating. You’re ready to settle down with a partner who understands and accepts you for who you are. No, this might not be easy, and yes, it is scary, but I’ve never known you to run away from something just because it’s a challenge.”
Her lips lifted in a halfhearted grin. “I feel like you’re gearing me up to go win the big game.”
“I’m sorry. I swear I’m not trying to psyche you up. I’m trying to remind you of every reason you gave me for joining the ceremony. We’ve been talking about you doing this for months.”
She exhaled heavily. “Trust me, I’m aware of that.”
“Look, I’m not trying to push you here, either,” I said. “It’s not too late to back out. Say the word and I will turn this truck on and we can go home, no judgement. But I just don’t want to see you let this chance for happiness slip through your fingers because you’re afraid.”
Gia’s voice was so soft when she answered me that even with superhuman hearing I had to strain to pick out her words. “What if there isn’t anyone for me? What if I don’t make a match?”
And there it was. The reason that it wasn’t just her fear scent stinking up my truck, but my own mingling in with it. I didn’t worry about her finding a match. Call it best friend bias, but any wolf would be lucky to find themselves bonded to such a superior creature. Still, it wasn’t uncommon for wolves to have to take part in multiple ceremonies before finding a partner. Gia might not see it as pickiness on the Goddess’s part. Between her less than ideal dating history and her Dad leaving her and her mom a few years back, there was a chance she’d see it as a rejection instead. My worry over her potential heartbreak had kept me up long after she fell asleep last night and was what gnawed at me still.
I took a deep, steadying breath. “Listen to me. It would take one hell of a wolf to deserve you. No, stop that,” I said when she tried to shrug my words off. “The only reason you might not be matched is that no one here is good enough for you. And if that happens, I’m here for you. Always. You know that. We will eat all of the ice cream and drink all of the vodka and maybe even start a fight or two. We will be sad together that you might have to wait another year to find a mate. And when you’re ready to, we’ll pick ourselves back up and we’ll keep going. Because that is what we do.”
Gia leaned over and hugged me. “I love you. You know that, right?”
I breathed deeply the comforting smell of my packmate and best friend. “I love you, too. And I meant what I said before. It’s not too late to leave.”
“No.” She pulled away from me and shook her head. “You’re right. I’ve never let fear get in my way before, and I can’t start now.”
“Okay, but I’ll be right here, the whole time.”
“I kno-” her focus shot past me, out the windshield, and her eyes flashed wide in disbelief before her expression flattened into open disapproval. “What are they doing here?”
I turned and followed her gaze, just in time to see a gleaming black Range Rover roll past. It pulled into a parking space across the way from us and came to rest beneath the dappled shade of a large willow tree. The license plate read: KOLBECK.
I leaned forward and peered through the road dust the SUV had kicked up. “No fucking way.”
The crowd of people that streamed past my truck while we talked had slowed to a trickle, giving the stragglers a great view of our latest newcomers. One or two shot glares at the luxury vehicle. A man nearby spit in its direction. Still more started to talk some serious shit, loud enough that I heard them even with the windows up. The name on the license plate told them everything they needed to know. The Kolbecks were infamous among our kind. And not in a good way.
Gia made a sound of derision beside me. “I thought those fancy city shifters didn’t take part in our bonding ceremonies.”
“Why would they?” I asked. “Allegedly, they don’t even believe in the Goddess.”
“My mom said they don’t believe in true mates either. So, what are they doing here?”
I shook my head. “I have absolutely no idea.”
The driver side door opened, and out stepped a man who, regardless of why he was here, clearly didn’t belong. He was on the shorter side for a male shifter, close to my own height at 5’9”. The thousand-dollar suit he wore was perfectly tailored to his form. Wide shoulders, a thick waist and tree trunk legs spoke of a stockier build that would excel in a bare-knuckle match, though I’d bet good money he’d never sully himself by taking part in one.
As if unconcerned that he was being watched by so many eyes, he tightened his tie and ran a hand up over his head, smoothing his palm slowly over dark brown hair that was so well quaffed, I doubted a single strand had been out of place. His attention then went to his sleeves, gently brushing them free of whatever road dust had dared to settle on the dark blue fabric. Finally, his fingers fell to his wrists. He checked over his buttons before tugging at the hems of his dress shirt to ensure a thin band remained visible below the cuffs of his jacket.
There was something about his movements that made them seem methodical. As though this was the same ritual he performed every time he stepped out of a motor vehicle.
He glanced at the crowd passing by, and I was given my first good look at his face. His skin was flawless and pale, with golden undertones that made me think he would tan easily if he spent less time in a board room and more time outside.
The impeccably manicured three-day beard that covered the lower half of his face appeared even darker than his hair, shading his square jawline and framing lips that were so full they seemed in danger of dominating the rest of his face. Only his nose saved him from this, being strong enough to balance them out. His brows were full and slightly arched in the center, framing brown eyes a few shades darker than my own. As I watched, one of those brows arched even higher, his expression the perfect image of aloof disdain as he turned away from the crowd in obvious dismissal.
I frowned at his retreating back. “I can’t tell if he’s handsome or not.”
“He would be,” Gia said. “If someone pulled that stick out of his ass.”
I smothered my laughter. “Shh, he might hear you.”
She snorted in response. “Doubtful. From what I’ve been told, they’re so tame that they’re barely even wolves anymore.”
“Do you really think they only shift once a month?”
She nodded in my periphery. “And only because the full moon forces them to.”
“That’s…so sad,” I said, watching the man round the SUV.
“I don’t feel bad for them. It’s their own doing. They traded the freedom of the forest for money and power in the human world.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“The Goddess only knows. Oh, look, the golden son.” A blonde man well over six feet climbed out of the passenger side. “Must be Nathaniel.”
“Which means the brunette is the oldest sibling. Michael,” I said.
“Yup. Lucky us. This should make the ceremony interesting. Maybe my curiosity over what the hell they’re doing here will distract me from my overwhelming anxiety.”
I turned toward her. “We can still leave.”
She shook her head, a stubborn expression settling over her delicate features. “Nope. I’m seeing this through. Just promise me that you’ll be here to pick up the pieces if it all goes sideways on me.” Her gaze went back out the window, toward the Kolbecks. “And if one of them ends up being my mate, you’ll help me feign my own death to get out of it.”
“Done,” I said, grinning.
With that, we climbed out of the truck.
This year’s annual summer bonding ceremony was taking place on our pack’s land, in a clearing half a mile deep in the dense woods of northern New Hampshire. The cars parked around us had license plates from as far away as Florida. All of the eastern seaboard packs were invited. By the size of the crowd, almost every one had members in attendance. People talked loudly and animatedly, jostled their friends, and smiled jovially in greeting at wolves they didn’t know. Even those at war with each other would keep the peace on a day so sacred to our kind.
Three other ceremonies were scheduled to take place after ours, one in the Midwest, one in the south, and another out on the West Coast. It was the same across the globe. In the fields of Europe, the forests of Russia, the jungles of South America and the Savannahs of Africa, werewolves gathered on the eve of the summer solstice to seek out their mates in a ritual so old, we’d lost the story of its origin.
The crowd around us compressed at the trailhead that led to the clearing. We stood nearly shoulder to shoulder with wolves we had never met as we paced beneath the towering pines. I’d run this path so many times in both human and wolf form that I knew each and every rock and just when to leap to keep from getting tripped up by tree roots. That familiarity was a comfort to me now, surrounded by so many strangers.
Inside the truck, the world had been muted. Now that we were outside, I was on the brink of being overwhelmed by it all. The rhythmic pounding of hundreds of heartbeats filled my ears. The buzz of conversation was damn near deafening. On instinct, I strained to catch the smaller noises: fabric shifting and sliding over skin; the distant slamming of car doors; an army of footfalls marching together toward the same goal.
Beneath the smell of cotton and denim, hints of musk and fur tickled my nose, tinged with sharper notes of fear, excitement, and worry. Me and Gia weren’t the only ones running the emotional gauntlet this afternoon. I glanced heavenward, praying to the Goddess that She would see Gia through this. That one of these wolves was good enough for her. And that it wasn’t one of the Kolbecks.
I strained so hard to pick up on my surroundings that the bonds guarding my metaphysical power loosened. A woman nearby snapped her head around and looked straight at me.
Gia leaned closer, her shoulder brushing mine. “Put a lid on it, will you? I really don’t want to fight anyone today.”
“Sorry,” I muttered, working to cage it back in.
“She’s just nervous,” Gia said to the woman. Her accompanying smile had bite to it, telling this stranger that if she wanted to push the matter, Gia was ready.
Wisely, the woman looked away. She was on our pack territory. If a fight broke out among the crowd, our alpha would be more apt to blame an outsider than one of his own wolves.
We neared the clearing where the ceremony would be held, and power began to break like waves across my psyche. The magic of shifters gathered en masse was electric, intoxicating. I shivered as it seeped into me, filling me with a vibrant, frenetic energy. The metaphorical bars on the cage around my own power rattled ominously. I wanted to run. I wanted to shift. Throw back my head and howl.
As if sensing this, Gia reached out and grabbed my hand, anchoring me in my human form. I looked over at her. She gave me a feral smile, close to the edge herself.
“Think anyone will wolf out?” she asked.
“Oh, yeah. I saw a few kids in the crowd, probably here to support older siblings. No way they’ll keep their shit together through the ceremony.”
She closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. “I love this feeling.”
“Me too,” I said, glancing around us.
Not three paces behind and to the right were Michael and Nathaniel Kolbeck. They looked…perturbed. Highly uncomfortable. Michael wore a contemplative frown and kept checking over his suit for invading dust particles. Nathaniel rolled his heavy shoulders like he was trying to shake free of something. Clearly, not everyone was enjoying the power build as much as me and Gia.
I elbowed her. She opened her eyes and looked at me in question. I gave her that subtle head nod in their direction that says, look over there, but be discreet about it.
“What?” she all but yelled as she craned her head around.
“Gia, for fuck’s sake,” I hissed. “A little louder please, I don’t think they heard you in New Jersey.”
“We heard you in Jersey!” someone shouted from twenty feet ahead of us.
“Thank you, peanut gallery!” Gia shot back.
Several people nearby laughed at the exchange. Shifters. Can’t get away with anything around us.
Gia leaned closer to me as we walked on, dropping her voice so low that only I would catch it this time. “My bad.”
“They looked like their skin was crawling,” I said, mimicking her tone.
“Must not be used to this many of us in one place.”
A lot of our packmates condemned and judged the city wolves for where they chose to make their dens, but I’d never really moved past pitying them. How sad it was that they never got to experience this, locked up in their ivory towers. And to only shift once a month…the thought made me want to cry.
We filed out of the mouth of the trail and into a large clearing. To the west, the sun sank behind the mountains, bathing the crowd in crimson and amber. Our pack had used this place for centuries to worship our Goddess and perform our moon rituals. In the center of the dell lay a natural hollow that we had built upon over time. Now, three concentric rings of amphitheater-style seating were shaped into the grassy slopes, large enough to hold a crowd even of this size. On the very lowest level – that served as the stage – five granite monoliths punched up through the earth like the fingers of a titan breaking free from Tartarus. At their center lay a massive stone plinth. Women had given birth to alphas upon it. The dead were laid out across it in mourning. Afterward, we scattered their ashes over the ground beneath, consecrating the land with the remains of our ancestors.
This was a sacred, hallowed place. Even those unfamiliar with our territory sensed it, quieting their conversation as they entered, so that the clearing was filled with whispers so hushed, they sounded like the sighing of the summer breeze.
Gia and I found seats in the upper row, being some of the last to arrive. The Kolbecks found their own on the opposite side of the hollow. It wasn’t that I’d been watching them, just that it was hard not to notice where they went. Conversation and movement stilled when they neared. Openings suddenly appeared for them to pass through, like everyone worried that what the Kolbecks had might be catching.
The difference between the ease of those around me and that of the city wolves was stark out here in the open. Where they were in three-piece suits, the rest of us wore faded shorts, threadbare t-shirts, and flip flops; clothes that were easy to shuck off if the desire to shift overcame us. While Michael and Nathaniel seemed unnerved by what they’d walked into, the overwhelming mood of the crowd was excitement and anticipation.
Again, I felt a momentary pang for them, but like Gia said, they’d made their own beds, and my focus now had to be on my friend.
I turned toward her. “Are you excited yet, or still worried?”
She grinned. “Mostly excited. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a little anxious, but my mind is made up, so I don’t want to dwell on the negative.”
“Good. Hey, do you remember that bonding ceremony we snuck into when we were in middle school?” It was the last time our pack had played host to one.
She nodded. “Oh, yeah. I’ll never forget that. My mom was so pissed at us.”
“So were my parents.” Mom and Dad had read me the riot act for disappearing without telling them where I was going on a night when our territory was full to bursting with unfamiliar wolves.
Gia’s grin slipped. “How mad do you think they’ll be this time?”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Like last time, we hadn’t told our parents where we would be tonight. First off, we were in our early twenties, so we didn’t really have to. Secondly, Gia didn’t want her mom here on the off chance she wasn’t matched. My parents had been planning a hot date, and even though they’d want to support my bestie, I didn’t think it was right for them to be here if Gia’s mom wasn’t. Hopefully they’d forgive me afterward. I knew Gia’s would forgive her anything if she showed up at her house later with a mate.
Please, Goddess, let her show up with a mate, I prayed.
Gia grabbed my arm. “Look.”
From out of the forest walked a woman. These ceremonies were hosted on a rotating schedule, so no one pack was favored above the others. The same was said for the mystics who oversaw them, and this woman was a stranger to me. She must have been in her eighties, with white hair that fell loose to her elbows and a lined, weathered face. The green dress she wore was sleeveless and long, so that her ankles ruffled the bottom hem with every step she took. Despite her age, her spine was unbent and her legs carried her swiftly toward the edge of our makeshift amphitheater.
“Good evening,” she said, her voice resonating in a way that wasn’t natural. It sounded like she’d spoken from right beside me. The words were so clear that I detected a slight southern drawl to them as she continued. “Welcome to the eastern packs’ annual bonding ceremony. Would those choosing to take part in it please come forward.”
Gia turned and gave me a fierce hug. “This is it. Wish me luck.”
I squeezed her back. “You won’t need it, but good luck.”
She let me go and joined the others making their way down the steps.
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.