The wolf is fast like a bullet. She zigzags between cedars and firs. Branches and straggly roots scrabble to catch her, but she vaults over them effortlessly. Not one step is out of place. She is as much a part of the forest as it is a part of her.
She’s fast, but I’m faster.
Uneven soil kisses my paws. A canter echoes in the wake of every stride. The wind sings with the woods: a whisper in the pines, a rustle in the underbrush, wings fluttering, and murmuring waters ahead.
Digging my nails into the dirt, I lunge forward and race beside her. The chestnut wolf glances at me. Shadows waver across fur. One dark brown iris oozes adrenaline. Wordlessly, she dares me to catch her.
A break in the trees bathes us in sunlight. A creek cuts through the woods, rolling across pebbles and stones. In its tide is the sky. Interspersed across jewel blue water, white clouds hug rocks and kiss the shore. They waver beside our misshapen reflections as we splash through the stream, sending droplets in every direction.
We run back into the woods, over a bolder, a rotted log. Wherever she goes, I’m right behind her until she weasels beneath a collapsed tree. I dive after her, and hastily wriggle out from under. She’s gone.
The wind stills, but the tall grass shudders in the aftershock of her. When I breathe, lilac and lavender mix. Intoxicating. I know her scent. I sink low and follow the trail.
A crow caws overhead. It soars across a thin beam of light and steals the day on its wings. Its shadow casts down through the leaves. Its twisty talons are claws scrawled on bark, curling over dirt and rock to puncture my paws. The crow passes. The sun shines again.
Apprehensively, I creep forward.
Where are you, Lilac?
The trees thin. Between branches, in the far-off distance, the green mountains are tinged blue. Row after row they lose pigment until it’s impossible to separate alp from azure sky. The tallest ridge grazes the sun. The storytellers call her Dreamer. What other name do you give to the mountain trying to touch the stars?
There’s a rustle ahead. Something small spasms in the shadow of a tree. I inch closer, sniffing. Lilac and lavender are corrupted by the scent of blood. My eyes sharpen.
It’s a mink. Its leg twitches, repeatedly grazing the low-hanging branch of a bush. The leaves chatter, thunderous against the uncharacteristic quiet all around. Every individual hair on my pelt stands stark. The woods are never quiet. Especially not on a midsummer afternoon.
My ears lie flat. A breath brews in the pit of my chest as a shudder quakes through my legs. I get on my haunches, and whine at the mink.
All it does is twitch, twitch, twitch.
The wind shifts the leaves. Sunlight casts across its dark, matted fur. A gash splits its neck open. The summer-baked soil guzzles its blood, starved for moisture. The mink’s limbs convulse. They’re quick, short spasms, a frantic attempt to run from a death that already came and bled it dry.
What happened to you?
The gash is too cleanly cut. It must’ve been a knife. Which means…human hunters? This far into the forest?
I glance around and hastily backtrack. Wherever Lilac is, I need—
She surges into me from my left. We tumble down a hill. Yapping, scrabbling, and snapping teeth turn into laughter, wrestling, and noisy kisses. We’re a naked mess tangled at the base of the hill.
When I stare back up the knoll, Lilac cups my cheek. I start to say something, but she muffles it with her mouth. She kisses me thoughtless, empty of everything except her. As she reluctantly pries her mouth from mine, I push for more. She presses a long, dark finger against my lips with a grin.
“Macy, Macy, Macy.” She skims her nail down my neck and plays with my beaded necklace. It was a gift from her. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to wander off into the woods alone?”
A laugh bubbles out of me. “I was chasing my girlfriend, but I lost her.”
She mirrors my smirk.
I say, “Have you seen her anywhere?”
She sucks air between her teeth. “What’s she look like?”
I sweep a hand through her dark tangles. “She has wild black hair. Pretty brown eyes. Oh, yeah! She’s also super into lanky redheads!”
She gasps. “What a coincidence! I’m super into lanky redheads! Does she love rolling around naked in the grass, too?”
I shove her shoulders, rolling on top of her. Her laugh is eager and beautiful. She doesn’t fight me when I pin her wrists.
“You are such a loser,” I tell her.
“You love me.”
She pushes me off, and hops to her feet. One hand on her hip, she extends the other toward me. I take it.
She pulls me up. “C’mon, girly, we’re late.”
“I don’t want to go.” I complain.
“Your evaluation isn’t even until tomorrow!” She tugs me homebound. “We can’t sit here and kiss all day. As much as I would love to.”
“We can try!”
She lugs me a little farther with a laugh. Jogging ahead, she shifts back into a wolf. I lag a bit behind. The beast inside prowls anxiously, ready to take my limbs and run.
I glance over my shoulder. The mink flashes in my head, accompanied by a bolt of fright.
The wolf takes control. I dart back home. There’s no fun in our running this time. It’s a dutiful dash toward the future.
We leap over her cabin steps, and into her open door. Our nails leave scratches in the wood, but our calloused, dirty heels are immune to the splintery planks when we shift again.
Lilac shakes her arms out and skips happily into the next room. She returns wearing a shapeless, hand-stitched dress. The sloping neckline reveals the golden beta symbol tattooed beneath her collar bone. It’s grander than the two, bronze omega symbols stamped on my chest. I rub them like it’ll ease the shame.
In her hand is my green, slip dress. She tosses it at me. “Don’t look so miserable.”
“That’s hard to do.” I deadpan as I pull the dress over my head. “They don’t call me Macy Miserable Braddock for nothing.”
She snorts with amusement. “No one calls you that.”
Of course she doesn’t understand. “If I fail tomorrow, Lilac—”
“That’s tomorrow.” She folds her arms. “Today is today. Can you wait to ruin the fun until after the RAE please?”
I scoff through my nose, and march past her. She sighs before following me into town.
Hydrilla isn’t on the map. It’s tucked away in the uncharted forest lands of the North Maine Woods, masked from prying satellite eyes by impenetrable leaves. Far, far away from modern human culture, too deep into the woodland for any intelligent hiker to stray, it’s the perfect abode for my people.
I drudge through our unusually hectic home toward the testing chambers. The entire city is abuzz with this summer’s trials. The pathways are dappled in shadows cast by lofty foliage. Troves of shifters move in and out of shade. They babble about where they’re needed next, or what task they’ve yet to complete. Everyone’s preparing for Friday, and the ceremonies that follow the RAE.
The Rank Alignment Evaluation was established by the very first Alphas after the shifters defeated the vampires centuries ago. Pack-mates (the shifters yet to take or pass the RAE) are required to take it at age sixteen. They earn their rank in the pack and do their part to safeguard the Earth as a full-fledged adult. It’s our duty.
America is made of six packs: Sage, Agave, Poppy, Knotweed, Foxglove, and my pack, Bloodroot. Each is ruled by two Alphas of either sex. They interact with powerful humans to sustain our secrecy. Assisting them, are the betas. They’re a small pool of elite champions, fated to one day battle for the Alpha rank. Below that is the civilian rank, the deltas. Teachers, healers, artists, everything. But the omegas?
They’re lower than dirt. A meritless mixture of the pack’s most inept and dangerous. Criminals aligned with the incapable because incompetency is as irredeemable as murder. All omegas lead lives of servitude.
Tomorrow is my Rank Alignment Evaluation. My third Rank Alignment Evaluation. A hot wash of humiliation flushes my body from head to toe. The symbols on my chest burn. They’re a reminder that I won’t have a fourth chance.
Lilac slips her arm around my waist. “Did you sleep okay last night?”
I shoot her a look.
I’ve been plagued by insomnia for years. It never goes away. It just weakens or intensifies, depending on the moon. She knows that. And I know this is another of her trademark attempts at halfhearted optimism.
I sigh. “No.”
“You always have a hard time closer to the full moon.” She bumps my arm with hers. “But it’ll pass. After tonight you can hibernate with the other animals.”
“In the middle of summer?” I poke her arm.
She grins. “Well, a doe like you needs her sleep.”
I laugh under my breath.
We follow the path to the testing chambers. A pair of massive doors protects the tightly wound labyrinth burrowed inside. Each door bears one half of Mother Nature’s symbol, the doe. Above it are the words: Beast, Breath, and Body for Her.
She speaks to us, messages disguised as soft carols in the wind. Her hands are every tree, shrub, flower, and blade of grass. The animals are her eyes and ears. It’s our duty to protect her. We live to serve. An honorable shifter dies to do the same.
Lilac and I slip inside. We lace our fingers together and follow the flow of people to the arena.
A gray-haired man whispers, “There’s a trail of dead animals from the southern border all the way here.”
The mink’s convulsing corpse unburies itself from the depths of my mind. Its fidgeting claws dig into my flesh, and the glaring red gash blinds me. It’s all I see for a second.
“A human hunter?” Another shifter asks.
“No. They weren’t killed for meat or fur. They were…defiled.”
An uneasy knot twists in my belly. Lilac catches my expression and pulls me further. The gossip surrounds us.
“Can’t be. Aconite isn’t missing any citizens.”
“Another coven maybe?”
The knot in my stomach tightens.
Vampires. The Man in the Moon’s children birthed from his scorn. After being bested time and time again throughout history, they’re now confined to their walled in cities, known as covens. Each is guarded by our gammas, the militaristic rank between beta and delta.
However, vampires are unruly creatures. Some claw their way out to hunt for fresh blood, violence, revenge. We call them rogues. Most shifters are lucky enough to never meet one. I wish I were so fortunate.
“Let’s go.” With one last tug, Lilac pulls us through the swarm.
Sunlight pours in from the colosseum’s open roof. Several verandas have been tunneled into the walls. Shifters lean over the edges with their hands braced on the beams, ogling the spectacle below. On one of the lower balconies, Alphas Althea and Garth exude royalty.
“It already started!” Lilac releases my hand and squeezes through a pair of engrossed men. She rests her elbows on the banister, and eagerly bends over the rail. She lets out a giddy cry of excitement. I drag my feet to stand next to her.
A horde of wolves snarl below. All their pelts are matted with blood, oozing from grisly claw and teeth marks. They all must’ve taken the challenger—the auburn wolf at the center of the fray—one by one. A howl ricochets through the colosseum. Slowly, they retreat to the edges of the arena, where they dip into the caves.
The competitor returns to her original shape. The knot in my stomach tightens. Alanna Hyland. She’s one of the older pack-mates, just like me. She failed the RAE two times already. This is her last chance, too.
I careen closer.
Her sweaty, contused skin glistens, and her hair is a damp, knotted mess. Her shoulders rise and fall; her chest swells and collapses; her ribs push and pull against skin; she makes and unmakes fists. Immediately, my body resurrects memories of bone-breaking fatigue.
“We missed the first phase.” Lilac pouts in disappointment.
“She passed at least,” I say.
“Everyone passes the first phase,” she remarks.
I dig my nails into my arms.
Another howl signals the next trial. Unlike the first phase, which focuses on the most instinctual shifter skill of all, transforming, the second emphasizes complete mastery of your Grounding and Marrow Mark.
Every shifter is born with both. Marrow Marks are where Mother Nature touched our souls and gave us life. They age with us until our bodies are decorated in her artwork. Mine is a scarab beetle stamped between my shoulder blades, and spindly threads branching down my body. Lilac’s is her namesake. Alanna’s is a butterfly.
Groundings are the souls of powerful, deceased shifters, who bind us to Mother Nature. Some are from ancient times, others from more recent eras, but no two living shifters share one. Without them, we can’t morph or harness our Marrow Marks.
Four opponents enter the arena, one from each tier excluding the Alpha rank. They all hold a bowl of paint. Gold for the beta, red for the gamma, silver for the delta, and bronze for the omega. The highest rank she defeats is where she’ll be placed.
My heart hammers at the sight of one of Alanna’s opponents. Lily Dexter.
“Your sister’s one of the testers?” I demand, wide eyed.
Her hair is pulled up in a tight ponytail. The wild curls twirl disobediently behind her head. They’re all topless, but none are as proud as she is, despite her arm. It’s been a year. Her Marrow Mark has grown over the stump. Orange and purple lilies.
Your fault echoes in my ears.
Lilac glances at me.
“I didn’t know…” My breath hitches. “I’m glad she…How is she?”
She doesn’t look at me. “She’s healing.”
A third howl vibrates through the colosseum. The omega lowers his bowl to the ground. He dips his hands into the metallic liquid, and swipes bronze across his chest. He wets his hands with more paint and then stands. The other three testers retreat to the edge of the arena.
Alanna’s shoulders sag before they straighten. She pulls in a breath and closes her eyes. Her Marrow Mark shines gold.
Lilac whistles with the crowd. “Who’s her Grounding?”
“Azad,” I say.
“Never heard of it.”
The omega springs forward. Alanna stumbles away, unprepared. Her shine disappears. He nearly catches her arm; he nearly stains her skin bronze. She trips, falling out of his grasp. The crowd roars when she lands in the dirt. They’re louder as she scrambles away.
Her faded glow builds again. Vivid yellow petals peel away from her skin. They flutter freely in the air, creating a storm of butterflies. The cloud of insects intercepts the omega’s second approach. They nearly swallow him up. He leaps away. Dozens of shallow cuts redden his arms.
Alanna struggles to get up. Every motion is made difficult by exhaustion. Just beat him, I think. Just win. But there’s another fight after this, and another after that. I chew the inside of my lip. Mother Nature, just win.
The butterflies circle back to Alanna. They dance around her and perch themselves on her limbs. Breathless and bogged down, she swings an arm forward. The swarm rushes the omega.
He jumps out of the way. Finally, he plaits his skin in light too. From his faintly glowing Marrow Mark, ethereal maroon snakes detach themselves. They’re flickering ghostly serpents. They burrow into the dirt, and worm through it like tree roots.
One lunges at her ankle. She steps aside and waves her hand again. Another attack.
This time he isn’t as fast. He’s caught in the cloud, and nearly falls over. Alanna sees her opening. She chases it. Sprinting nearer, she parts the swarm of insects to reach him. One of his snakes attacks her ankle again. It wraps around the delicate bone, strong enough to stagger her.
Her focus is broken. The butterflies begin to crumble. The omega emerges from their golden ashes. His glow flickers. She can’t find her footing soon enough, trapped on a collision course with him. The crowd is desperate. Everyone roars until his hand touches her heart, branding her. Their voices are swept away by the wind.
“Oh no,” I whisper.
Alanna glances at the handprint on her chest, bottom lip quavering. The weight of her future sends her to her knees. She wails as she claws at the paint until bronze is mixed with blood.