Nearly five hundred wolves gathered together on the floor of the hollow. The elder mystic allowed a few more moments to pass in near silence as she stood on the edge, granting time for anyone on the fence about joining to make up their mind. You could have cut the tension with a knife.
When it was clear that no one else would come forward, she descended, the heavy bracelets she wore clinking together as she lifted her skirts and took the narrow granite steps down. The shifters gathered inside the towering monoliths parted like a sea for her as she passed through them.
She climbed the dais and came to a stop at the plinth. Her gaze rose, taking in the crowd seated around her. “Goddess be with you,” she said, her voice magically enhanced.
“Goddess be with you,” we answered.
Those born with magic were rare among our kind, cherished, respected above all others. The woman in front of us now might not come from my pack, or the person’s sitting next to me, but mystics were transcendent beings, blurring pack lines, sworn to aid all wolves when called to. In a way, that meant she belonged to all of us, and many among our number would lay down our lives to keep her from coming to harm.
The lines around her eyes deepened as she smiled. “For those of you who have never witnessed a bonding ceremony, welcome. There will be great power released here today. It is completely natural for that magic to bring on the shift. I welcome you to give into that urge at any time, only asking that you rise from your seats and do so up in the field so as not to disturb the others in attendance.”
Several wolves near me chuckled, one father reaching out to ruffle the hair of his adolescent son. The boy grinned up at him with a bashful expression.
I looked back into the hollow to see the mystic’s hands fall to the belt at her waist, coming to rest on a knife hilt secured there. I recognized the runes carved into the leather sheath. It was the same one I had seen all those years ago at my first ceremony.
When she spoke again, it was to address the wolves closest to her. “This is among our most sacred of ceremonies. It asks the most of those who take part in it.” She pulled the sickle-shaped blade free and laid it on the stone plinth. “It asks you to give yourselves up to the will of the Goddess. To accept that She knows you as no one else does. That She sees you down to the very core of your being. She has heard your every prayer. She knows your deepest desires. Loves your strengths as She does your flaws. It asks you to believe that knowing all of this, She alone can find your true mate. The one wolf among all the others who can come to love and accept you as She does.”
Her expression hardened. “But if you came here today harboring ill intentions in your hearts, know that the Goddess sees you and that She will likely reject and punish you. If you came here hoping for an easy match, be warned. Wolves taking part in the ceremony have found themselves bonded to blood enemies. The path that lies ahead of you is difficult. At times it may seem impossible to follow, the worst mistake you ever made. Look inward now, and ask yourselves if you are truly ready to face such a challenge.”
Several in the crowd below shifted uncomfortably. I couldn’t blame them. Good thing I’d shown Gia tough love earlier. It had prepared her for the much tougher love of this mystic, who offered no words of comfort to soothe the sting.
Minutes passed before she spoke again. “For anyone in doubt, now is your last chance to change your minds. There is no shame in doing so.” Her gaze rose to those of us watching from above, and her tone turned commanding. “The wolves here today will not judge you for your decision, but applaud your wisdom in delaying a lifelong commitment that you knew yourselves unprepared for. By the Goddess, they promise this.”
“By the Goddess, we promise this,” we answered as one.
Down below, the wolves who had doubts started filing out of the crowd. There were perhaps thirty in number. I searched among them for Gia, who I had lost in the sea of taller shifters. She wasn’t among them. I let out a heavy sigh and settled back into my seat.
Once they had cleared out of the hollow, the mystic leaned forward and picked her knife up. She placed the blade of it against the palm of her left hand, and with surgical precision, sliced it neatly across her skin. A thin band of crimson appeared as her blood welled up to fill the wound. She lifted her injured hand and turned it parallel to the dais, so that her blood dripped down upon it as she paced slowly around the plinth that rested at its center.
When the circle was complete, she paused, lifting both hands into the air, elbows bent and palms up as she spoke an incantation in a language that caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end. It was a guttural lupine tongue filled with snarls and yips, punctuated by longer keening sounds. Only our mystics spoke it, though the rest of us could feel it’s reverb in our very bones.
When she was finished, she made a circular motion with her still bleeding hand, ending it with a violent slashing gesture. Magic flared. My skin broke out in goosebumps as an invisible yet still perceptible barrier rose between the monoliths, separating those within from the rest of us.
The mystic returned her hands to her sides, her wound already healing with preternatural swiftness. “The shield in place. We can now begin the ritual,” she said. “Those who remain within it, I ask you to step forward one by one, starting with those closest to me. You will take this knife as I did,” she said, holding it aloft, “and will likewise open your palm. Press your bleeding hand to the plinth, and then file toward the back of the crowd. This may take some time. I welcome you to be seated when your turn has ended.”
A young black woman close to my age with thick, multicolored braids was the first brave soul to step forward. The mystic smiled down at her and handed her the knife. The young woman hissed in pain as she dragged it across her palm, but passed it swiftly to the next in line while she pressed her bleeding skin to the plinth. The smear of red marred the granite for only a moment before slowly being absorbed into what should have been impenetrable stone. Not a hint of it remained visible afterward.
I could tell from the few gasps around me those who were seeing this little bit of WTFery for the first time. A grin tugged at my lips. Gia and I had been so freaked out by this part of the ritual when we were kids that we’d had to be shushed by the adults around us.
You think it might get boring, sitting up here and waiting in silence while hundreds of shifters took turns cutting themselves open. It wasn’t. Between the continuous build of power and my anticipation at seeing Gia, I was locked in, my sole focus on the ceremony unfolding below.
A blonde head moved forward to take the knife. I sat up higher to get a better look. Gia? The figure strode from the crowd, hair cropped short, wide shoulders draped in expensive fabric. Ugh. Nathaniel. I deflated a little and turned my gaze toward where the Kolbecks had been seated. Michael sat ramrod straight, chin lifted as he stared intently at his younger brother. His jaw clenched and then he nodded. I followed his gaze and saw Nathaniel, his hand bloody, nod back up at him before retreating to the back of the crowd.
Interesting. So they came to find Nathaniel a mate. He must have been serious about it if he decided to remain even after the mystic’s warning. I hoped that was it, and that they weren’t here for some nefarious reason. It wouldn’t end well for them if they were. The mystic hadn’t been lying when she said the Goddess would know those who harbored ill intentions.
A few minutes later, Gia stepped forward to mount the dais. She moved with purpose, her motions swift and decisive as she added her blood to the plinth. That composure cracked just a little as she turned, finding me in the audience. She grinned wide and gave me a thumbs up with her uninjured hand. I smiled back at her and returned the gesture.
It hit me then, that after this everything could change. My parents had once told me that the bond had been overwhelming for them at first, everyone else becoming secondary. They’d barely spoken to their families, briefly lost contact with their friends.
I’d been so focused on helping Gia through this that I hadn’t thought about what it might mean for our relationship. She was about to gain a life partner. Someone who might supplant me as her closest confidant, her secret bearer. I could be left alone, forced to slog my way through life without her playing the critical role in it that she had occupied since our first day of kindergarten.
The pain of that thought was like a visceral thing. Tears gathered in the corners of my eyes. I bowed my head and gave myself a minute to wallow in self-pity. And then to accept it all.
I took a deep breath, wiped my tears away, then lifted my gaze back to the ritual. Whatever happened from here on out, I’d be here for her, just as I’d promised. If that meant stepping back and allowing her the time she needed with her new mate, so be it. When the bonding fog finally cleared and she had enough bandwidth to allow me back in, I’d be waiting.
By the time the last few wolves made their offerings, the moon peeked out above the boughs of the pine trees to the south. She was a nearly full, waning crescent. Her soft light fell gently upon those seated along the far edges of the amphitheater, bathing them in a spill of silver that fell just short of illuminating the crowd below us. If not for my preternatural eyes, it would be hard to make them out.
The last wolf stepped away from the dais. I braced myself for impact, remembering this part of the ceremony well. Their blood acted as the final seal on the spell, and as it disappeared into the granite, magic burst out from the plinth to howl over us. I gritted my teeth and leaned forward against the onslaught.
Gasps broke out around me, whispers following in their wake. I wasn’t the only one surprised by the strength of the magic. Gia and I had been caught out in a thunderstorm in high school. The weight of the air pressing down around me now reminded me of that night. All the hair on my arms stood on end, waiting for the lightning to strike. The clearing smelled like burnt aether. If power had washed over my psyche earlier, it crashed against it now like a hurricane-ravaged sea. My skin puckered, fur threatening to punch through it.
“Mom,” a little girl said from nearby, her voice strained.
“Come on, up you get,” the mother said, leading her daughter out into the field so that she could shift.
They weren’t the only ones rushing from their seats. Even grown wolves were among their number. The threat of shifting seemed stronger now than the first ceremony I’d attended. Gia and I had fought it off just fine when we were younger, and I couldn’t remember a single adult giving in back then. What was different this time?
“Do you feel that?” a familiar voice said from nearby.
I turned to see Audrey, one of my mom’s closest friends, with her hand raised. She moved it slowly back and forth in front of her as though brushing it over something. The moonlight bathed her dark skin in hues of purple and blue. Her long braids swayed around her in the metaphysical breeze. She was a mystic, like the woman who led us.
Beside her, her husband David shuddered. “What is it?”
“I don’t know. The magic is…growing. Like Antoinette isn’t the only one controlling it anymore,” she answered.
Her gaze fell to the dais, and I knew then that Antoinette must be the name of the mystic presiding over the ceremony. If she was losing control, then who the hell was trying to take over?
A frisson of fear ran through me as I searched the wolves for Gia. It was bad up here in the crowd. How much worse was it down in the hollow? Gia wasn’t capable of casting magic, but she had an awareness of it that most of us didn’t. Unlike me, she could actually see wards. She could sense spells being cast.
Finally, I found her. She sat with her shoulders scrunched up in obvious discomfort. Her arms were wrapped around her middle, like she had to physically hold herself together.
Antoinette, still standing on the dais, picked the knife back up and paused for a moment. “If any among you has yet to come forth, please do so now.”
No one moved.
“Then we may continue,” she said in a calm, easy tone that belied the smell of anxiety permeating the air around me. Her gaze rose and swept over our seats, a slight smile playing across her lips. “If those mystics in attendance would help to reinforce the barrier, that would be welcome. The Goddess is restless tonight.”
I stared down at her, eyes wide. The Goddess is restless? Was that who was interfering in the ritual? Only She alone would know why, though I couldn’t help but worry over it. Our Goddess was known for Her foresight. Was there some darkness on the horizon that only She could see, and that was why She was dipping Her fingers down to earth? To shift events so that we might have a fighting chance of overcoming whatever it was that She foresaw?
To my right, Audrey rose swiftly to her feet, palms up, chanting softly. Over a dozen others throughout the audience stood along with her, adding their power to the barrier.
Down below, Gia pivoted her head around like an owl, eyes as wide as my own. When our gazes met, she mouthed, “What the fuck?” up at me.
I shrugged, feeling helpless.
Antoinette, now satisfied that the shield would hold and seemingly unperturbed by this turn of events, clasped her hands together in front of her and addressed those on the hollow floor. “As the moon casts Her gaze upon us, I would ask that you welcome Her into yourselves, that you make ready for Her blessing as you open your heart to the one you will soon share it with.”
Many down below bowed their heads in obsequiousness.
She lifted her gnarled hands in a clatter of bracelets and began to chant again, her magically amplified voice drowning out the spells of the other mystics, deafening me to all other sounds. My existence became a muted world dominated by the cadence of her speech, the recurrent rise and fall of her tone and tempo. She started keening, and I had to bite my lip to keep from howling along with her.
Others around me were having less success controlling themselves. More and more people fled the amphitheater to shift forms in the field, and now a ring of wolves covered in fur looked down from the edge of it, watching the ceremony with amber eyes.
If the magic had felt like a hurricane before, the wind wall suddenly compressed around the eye, squeezing what felt like a category five down into the bowl of the hollow around us. The force of it punched through me, knocking the breath from my lungs. My hair pulled loose from my braid and lashed at my face. I had to slap my hands down onto my knees and dig my fingernails into my skin to keep hold of my human form.
As swiftly and violently as it began, the power collapsed in upon itself, detonating with the force of a small bomb over the shifters inside the ward. Many were thrown sideways to the ground. Even up where I sat, I was rocked backward by the force of it.
Silence reigned in the aftermath. Was it over? I couldn’t tell. There was a stillness in the air that felt unnatural. Like it was only an illusion of calm. I shook my head to clear the ringing from my ears, blinked my eyes to chase away the stars that danced across them.
“Was that it?” someone asked from a few rows in front of me.
A cry rose up from the hollow floor. Then another. Sounds of joy erupted from the crowd gathered there. I looked down to see wolves pulling themselves up from the ground to rush at others.
I searched among them for Gia. She let out a whoop and collided with the young black woman who had been the first to offer up her blood. Tears streamed from the woman’s face as she hugged my best friend. I slumped in relief, shaking with spent adrenaline. She had a mate. The Goddess be praised.
This was nothing like the first ritual I had attended, where the drone of chanting had lasted nearly an hour and one at a time couples were bonded to each other.
“Antoinette!” Audrey cried out. She rose from her seat and sprinted toward the dais.
A limp form sprawled across the plinth, gray hair fanning over the granite. I thought she was dead at first, but then her chest moved with a labored breath.
“Is it safe?” someone called out.
“It’s over,” a mystic I didn’t recognized answered. “You can join your loved ones.”
I stood and quickly made my way down into the fray. “Gia!” I called out, my voice nearly swallowed by hundreds of similar hails.
“Layla!” I heard her shout.
I beelined toward the sound of her voice, brushing past Nathaniel Kolbeck and his new mate, a woman half his size, just before I reached her.
“Congratulations!” I yelled over the din.
She hugged me with one arm, her other thrown over the shoulders of her new mate. “This is Natalie!”
“Hi, Natalie,” I said, slinging my other arm around her so that I hugged them both. “I’m so happy for you!”
Natalie grinned when I released them, wiping tears from her face. “Thank you! Why can’t I stop crying?”
Gia, also crying, pulled her in for another hug.
“What the hell was that though?” Natalie asked when they broke apart.
“No idea,” I said. “But it seems like it all worked out in the end.”
A roar of celebration echoed over the clearing. The sunshine smell of happiness filled my nose. From the looks of it, every single wolf had been bonded. The crowd was raucously loud in their relief. So loud that at first, we didn’t hear the sound of the wind beginning to pick back up. It was only when it started to tug on our clothing and lift our hair that we realized something was wrong.
The cries of joy turned to those of fear.
“Out! Everyone out!” a sonorous male voice boomed.
But he was too late.
Power broke over us once more. My legs buckled beneath the strain of it, and I fell to my knees. I dug my fingers into the cool earth and clenched my jaw to keep from crying out. My spine bowed as the magic engulfed me, searing my nerve endings. Unable to hold against the onslaught, I collapsed to the ground and curled into a ball, trying to make myself into a smaller target. The pain was excruciating. Black spots danced across my vision, threatening to drag me into their depths. It felt like an eternity passed while I fought to remain conscious.
“Layla!” Gia called. Her voice sounded far away.
Slowly this time, the magic began to dissipate.
I cracked my jaw open and groaned when it finally released its hold on me. “Ow.”
“Are you okay?” Gia asked.
She and Natalie stood above me, looking down. They seemed fine. Like they hadn’t been affected by it at all.
“Not okay,” I said, the words garbled.
It took both of them to pull me back up. I swayed within their grip, my heart beating a million miles per hour, adrenaline and heat coursing through my veins. As it faded, I became aware of other things. Sounds of outrage and confusion rose around me. The smell of terrified werewolves filled my nose. And there, in the back of my mind, something else, trotting ever closer on four silent paws.
No, not something.
I felt a tug on my psyche. Unbidden, deep confusion became my dominant emotion, where a second ago it had been fear. I tried to shake it off, but it grew stronger instead.
“What’s happening?” I whispered.
The emotion was…other.
My head seemed to turn of its own volition, to the right, my gaze passing over innumerable shifters before it came to a stop.
On Michael Kolbeck.
He kneeled on the ground a few feet away, one foot beneath him like he was trying to rise.
Our gazes met.
I felt a snap within me like an elastic band ricocheting. The reverberation fell away and left a deep sense of peace in its wake, like I had come home after a prolonged journey.
Like he was my home now.
“No,” I croaked.
“Layla?” Gia asked, tone frantic as she looked between us. “Layla, what is it?”
I choked back a sob. “We’re bonded.”
Michael pushed himself up. He tightened his tie and then ran a hand over his head, smoothing back his hair. “Well,” he said, looking and feeling slightly annoyed when next he met my gaze. “This is an unfortunate turn of events.”
Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
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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.