The grass was covered in a thick crimson pool of blood. Gasps and growls mingled with the sounds of the night forest.
Suddenly there came the sound of breaking bones and a wet, meaty rip, followed by a blood-curdling scream that abruptly stopped and gave way to a moment of merciless silence.
The man undergoing the cruelty was barely hanging on to consciousness, but somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that he no longer had an entire hand.
Though the tormentor he was facing was consumed by the darkness, he was obviously the man of myths, the creature in every horror story ever told.
The victim did not need to get a clear look at his face to know who he was.
The man torturing him was the King of All Wolf-Born.
The dying man whimpered in pain with his head bowed, hoping he would die soon.
The alpha king chuckled hoarsely.
The man did not die, and the torture went on. Finally—a blessing—he felt his body begin to shut down.
As the man stared at his tongue, freshly torn from his body and lying in a puddle of his own blood in front of him, the alpha sank his canines deep into his neck.
The king sucked and savored a mouthful of blood, leaving behind his deadly venom.
He let the man’s twitching body fall onto the bloody grass, then turned and disappeared into the forest.
Venom began to burn the man’s insides. He shrieked until his voice gave out, and by then his body was melting.
“Sweetheart, I think it’s best if you go back to the pack house and help your mother with some chores.”
Clarice pushed back her auburn locks and glared at him.
“I’m fine right here.” She didn’t want to leave the training grounds yet, but her father didn’t like her to be exposed to fighting.
“This isn’t the place for you. I understand that this is your first month of shifting, but you’re still too young to be exposed to this fighting and cruelty.”
“I’m seventeen! I deserve to be treated like every other she-wolf. Just because I’m a lot smaller than them and a bit weaker doesn’t mean I can’t train to become stronger.”
Her father groaned before pinching the bridge of his freckled nose. His crow’s feet stood out when his eyes narrowed.
“Come on, Daddy. Let me train,” she begged. “The pack members are waiting, and you’re making a fool out of me.”
“Fine. You can train. But if I hear that you’re hurt or that you’re crying, I will drag you away from here personally. Do you understand me?”
His dark brown eyes left no room for further discussion.
Clarice hugged him before turning and running toward the pack members waiting for her.
She joined her best friend and got into position.
Her legs were shoulder-width apart with her knees slightly bent, her left foot pointed toward where the beta stood, and her left shoulder aimed in the same direction.
Her hands were in loose fists.
She struggled to stay in this position, but her wolf kept her balanced and pushed her to point her chin down and keep her eyes up.
The rest of the trainers were easily standing in their positions, all looking a lot tougher and stronger than her, which intimidated her a bit.
The beta gazed at them, taking in their stances, looking for any faults or deficiencies or any weaknesses that the trainers might show.
When he addressed Clarice, her eyes darted around nervously.
“Clarice, keep your eyes looking up and your chin down. You must always be aware of where your opponent is, because if not…”
He paused when she averted her gaze to look down timidly, and in a swift second he was in front of her.
“…If not, you’ll be dead in a second.”
She flinched when she realized that her beta had reached her quicker than she could have ever imagined and that it only took one look away for him to reach her so soundlessly.
The other trainers snickered under their breath, except for Greta, who gazed directly at her best friend.
“Eyes up. Chin down.” Her beta slightly lowered her chin but locked their gazes.
She nodded while blushing slightly, and he pulled away from her.
“All right, guys. Now we will be pairing up. Find your partners.”
Clarice walked out of her bathroom with a fluffy lilac-colored towel tucked around her petite body and a matching towel wrapped around her hair.
She rummaged through her closet and chose a pale blue sundress that reached midthigh. Paired with white ballerina flats, it was perfect for the pack meeting.
After dressing, she towel-dried her hair and let it fall down loose to her hips.
She had the kind of hair that always remained straight. She had to use a curler to get the kind of hair her best friend had so effortlessly.
“Clarice! We’re leaving!” her mother called, and Clarice sighed when she realized she wasn’t going to have time to do much else.
Turning to face her round mirror, she decided to put her unruly auburn hair into a messy bun.
Once she had her hair situation figured out, she slapped a little bit of blush onto her tan cheeks, a touch of lip balm onto her pouty lips, and a dash of mascara on her already long lashes.
She ran out of her room toward her mother, who was waiting at the bottom of the staircase, looking annoyed.
“Sorry,” Clarice squeaked, and her mother chuckled before ruffling up her hair.
Clarice’s father joined them by the stairwell, wearing a clean blue button-down shirt and black jeans. “Let’s go, sweethearts.”
He took his mate’s hand. Their eyes lightened when their skin touched, showing that they were bonded to one another for life. Clarice was in awe of the mates’ pull.
“Do you know what this is about, Nathaniel?” Kim asked her husband as they walked to the pack house.
Clarice stayed behind them, listening in to their conversation and hoping they didn’t notice her eavesdropping.
“I kind of have an idea, but I hope it’s not what I’m thinking.” Her father noticed her right behind them, where she might hear something he thought she wasn’t ready to hear.
Clarice’s parents blocked her out of their heads and began to mind-link, and she rolled her eyes in annoyance.
They always made her feel like an outsider and treated her like a baby.
Clarice was talking to Greta, waiting for the pack meeting to start, when someone yelled out, “It’s Alpha Crest!”
The pack quieted and everyone bowed their heads in respect. The only sounds were rustling and shoes scuffing across the floor as the alpha took his place at the front of the room.
“Hello, everyone. I hope you’ve all had an amazing day. I know this meeting was called last minute, but I had no other choice but to schedule it right away.”
He paused as everyone straightened themselves out and raised their heads to look at him.
He stood proudly in front of the room. His hair was slightly graying at the roots, and his build was tall and sturdy. His eyes held power like no other.
“What is this about, Alpha, if you don’t mind me asking?” Beta Lance asked him. It was odd that not even the beta knew what this meeting was about. It must have been serious.
“Well, we will be getting a visit. All that I was made aware of was that he would be visiting all eastern packs.
“So far he has already visited Dark Crest, Red Blood, and Opalescent Sparrow. We will be the last pack he visits.”
The alpha inhaled deeply, and Clarice marveled at the slight tremor in his voice.
“…Today,” he finished.
“All right, but who is he?” Clarice’s father asked the question, but everyone murmured in agreement. They all wanted to know.
“He is the Alpha of All Wolf-Born.”
The room went absolutely silent.
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