“Run!” I screamed. Beside me, Torvi’s feet slipped through the mud as she struggled to gain traction and I grabbed her upper arm, practically hauling her up beside me so that she didn’t fall face first. The rest of my group scrambled behind me, doing their best to make their way through the murky slop of what remained of the ancient road.
“Come on, it’s not that much farther,” I panted, having a hard time dragging my own feet through the muck.
Something roared behind us and I pulled my foot out of the mud with panicked force.
There was some sort of beast coming for us. Its rumbling growl was too close. Each footstep reverberated so loudly that it drowned out the sound of my beating heart and panting breath. The more I tried to pull myself through the murky sludge, the surer I became that it wasn’t just one monster coming for us.
It was a whole pack of them.
My mind raced as I tried to think of what they might be. I didn’t think the area was patrolled by wild elephants or even skotaurs, but I didn’t know this place. I’d never been here before. I’d meant for this to be a reconnaissance mission, but it was quickly spiraling out of control.
There was a city close by that was abandoned many decades ago, maybe even a century or more by now, but it was still mostly intact. The name of the old place had been lost, even to some of the tribes that lived out here along with us in the Wilds. It had seemed like an easy haul. Torvi had scouted out the area, bringing back a whole bag of supplies. She’d found food, ale, wine, and old clothing, but all that paled when she’d shown me the true prize.
She’d brought back suppressant. A whole bottle of it.
It was something that we needed to survive. If we didn’t have it, we would be done for. We would no longer be free.
I tried to move to the edge of the muddy path, using the tree cover to pull myself along. I tugged my foot hard, and it made a sickening sucking noise as the muck released me, but it seemed to work. I did it again and the rest of the women with me followed suit. We trekked as quickly as we could, but the snarling behind us was growing louder and more persistent as if the beast knew it was closing in on its prey.
I knew this was going to be a losing battle. I wouldn’t be able to lead them to freedom and I pursed my lips in frustration. They’d trusted me to lead them and here I was, failing them when it counted the most.
“Keep moving, Fenra. We can make it. We haven’t gotten this far just to be taken out by a bunch of overgrown animals,” Torvi blurted out beside me. She grabbed my arm like I had hers and practically dragged me to a path of dryer mud. My boots started to gain traction and the two of us grunted as we put everything into escaping the filth that threatened to deliver us to death’s door.
A crack of lightning splintered across the sky above us and a terrifying roll of thunder made the ground practically quake beneath our feet.
“Fucking hell,” I spat as the clouds opened above us. Big fat cold raindrops spattered across my forehead and I groaned, knowing the mud was only going to get worse from here on out.
“The old city isn’t much farther,” Torvi yelled, her voice ragged. We were exhausted after hiking through the forest all day, and now with some beastly doom coming for us we had no other choice but to keep going. I didn’t slow down when a branch whipped back and struck me across the cheek. It stung, probably meaning it had cut deep enough to bleed, and I gritted my teeth. I pushed on with my second in command by my side and ignored it. A simple cut wouldn’t kill me. Not today. Not ever.
“This way,” she called out, and I let her take the lead. She knew the territory better than I did. Without hesitation, she pushed a thick branch aside and I caught it, following closely behind her. I looked back, seeing Frida and Sigrid struggling close behind us. Hilda and Liv were at the rear, ensuring that the smallest and weakest made it through the mud before they did. Out of the twelve of us, Hilda and Liv were the strongest fighters. They’d grown up in the warrior tribes in the forest and had to fight for every scrap of food that ever went into their mouths. They’d joined me after I left civilization for a wilder life, a life safe from the cruel hands of the alpha that had stolen my innocence.
I was an omega. All of us were.
We lived on the fringes in the Wilds. We avoided most tribes that were led by alphas and did much of our trading with beta groups. The women with me were fearless. We’d been through so much together. I glanced at Torvi, watching the way her long braid swayed side to side. It was speckled with dirt, but the beauty of her blonde mane shone through anyway. It was long enough to just about reach her waist.
A terrifying roar boomed to the right of us, and we veered left. For about a minute, we sprinted through the thick brush only to have another growl close in on us from the other side. A third sounded at our back.
We were being herded.
My core clenched tight in panic. There was nowhere for us to go but forward. A quiet cry escaped my lips.
This was a trap. There was no way it could be anything else.
My eyes tore around the jungle surrounding us and I searched for anything that might give us an out. I knew the Suna Kava River was somewhere close by on the right, so I banked hard toward it in hopes of finding one of the entrances to the underground tunnels left behind from the Great War long ago.
I prayed for it.
Torvi kept close at my side and the rest of my omegas followed. We raced ahead and it seemed like we were putting some distance between us and the monsters that were on our tail, but just as I reached the riverbank, a chilling beastly shriek splintered the air around us and I cried out, covering my ears and trying to block out the terrible sound.
It felt like my head was exploding from the inside out and it wouldn’t stop. It was like nails against rock, high pitched and horrific. It threw off my balance and I lurched to the side, trying to stay on my feet and wavering. The scream grew louder, more persistent, and I stumbled, sliding down the slimy riverbank in the process.
Torvi grasped at my wrist. I tangled her fingers with mine and we struggled to pull through together. When the scream finally broke, my head was reeling and my vision was spotted with black shadows at the edges. I panted and rose to my feet, taking a quick count of the women with me.
There were still twelve of us. I hadn’t lost any of them yet.
They all looked dazed. I needed to get it together. I needed to lead them to safety. I quickly took stock of the area around us, looking for anything that looked even remotely familiar. Across the river was a ditch and I frantically studied it more closely. I almost cried in relief when I saw that there was an entrance to one of the old tunnels hidden there.
“Let’s go,” I commanded, and there was a chorus of groans behind me, but I knew they would follow. We were running for our lives, and they all knew it. I didn’t tell them that I suspected we were being herded. They probably already knew it, but I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want them to panic.
“What are these things?” Torvi sputtered, and I shook my head.
“I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out,” I blurted as I dove into the water. Quickly, the rest of my omegas followed suit and we swam hastily across the river until I reached the opposite bank. I climbed up it a short distance and sighed in relief.
“Now that’s a sight for sore eyes and even sorer feet,” Torvi whispered, and I nodded.
“Quick, let’s make our way inside,” I replied. I didn’t wait for them to acknowledge me. There wasn’t time. I scurried into the tunnel entrance and burrowed as far as I could before daring to pause. Needing to catch my breath, I looked back and counted.
They were all still with me. I’d done it. I’d saved them.
We sat down together in a group with our backs to the rock walls. The growls outside the tunnel seemed to lessen until it all went quiet. For a while, we kept silent for fear of discovery, but eventually it felt safe enough to speak amongst ourselves.
“We should wait out the rainstorm here. The city will still be there tomorrow,” I said softly, not wanting to raise my voice too much for fear of anything else hearing.
“Some sleep would be great,” Torvi echoed, and I laughed lightly as Liv yawned beside her.
“I’ll take first watch,” Hilda volunteered.
“Wake me up for the second,” I replied, and she nodded.
I closed my eyes and my exhaustion poured over me. My tribe of omegas was small, but they were mine. They trusted me to lead them and that’s what I would do.
When Hilda woke me later that night, I yawned and hastily blinked away my drowsiness. I yearned for a warm mug of tea, but it wasn’t safe to build a campfire here.
“Anything I should know?” I asked sleepily, and she shook her head.
“No. I thought I heard something out by the tunnel entrance at some point, but it turned out to be nothing,” she said.
“Got it. Go get some sleep. You’ve earned it,” I grinned.
Beside me, Torvi blinked awake, and she groaned as she stretched.
“Want some company?” she asked, and I shook my head.
“You don’t need to stand watch with me. You should get some rest,” I replied.
“Well, too bad. I’m not sleepy anymore,” she scoffed, and I chuckled.
Torvi and I had been together for a very long time. I owed her my life and that meant a great deal to me. She’d been the one who had eventually convinced me to start speaking again after years of silence. As if she could read my thoughts, she grasped my hand within hers and squeezed it tight.
“Together forever,” she whispered, and I returned her sentiments. A quiet snore nearby told me that Hilda was already asleep next to me.
I smiled warmly as I pushed myself up to my feet. Torvi did the same and the two of us strode down the tunnel a way. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the peaceful croak of a bullfrog somewhere off in the distance and the constant buzz of bugs outside in the dead of night.
“It shouldn’t be much longer till the sun rises,” Torvi said quietly.
“It sounds like the storm broke too,” I offered, and she nodded in agreement. We sat down on a small boulder together and started plotting out our next moves. The rushing water of the river was soothing as we talked over our plans. We’d keep off the main road and travel on lesser-known paths into the city. If necessary, we could travel at night. The both of us agreed that we’d have to rely on our stocks of dried fish and meats rather than risk cooking anything and being caught out in the Wilds unprepared.
“Many of the buildings are still intact. Any number of them would work for us as shelter for a time,” Torvi continued.
“And the main stocks of suppressant? Where did you find those?” I asked.
“In the heart of it. Mainly in the market, but I came across a few personal stocks inside some old homes,” she answered.
A twig snapped loudly nearby and the two of us stilled. For a moment, we just listened and when all seemed silent once more, I crept closer to the tunnel entrance. I reached behind my back and pulled my sword free from its scabbard. Torvi slung her bow off her shoulder and nocked an arrow beside me.
Slowly, we moved forward and exited the cave. Our steps were noiseless, the both of us used to moving about as stealthily as possible in search of game. Seeing nothing, we climbed up over the riverbank. I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, searching the surrounding jungle for any hint of life.
Another twig broke to my left and I turned quickly, hoping to catch sight of whatever was near but seeing nothing. I signaled to Torvi to follow, and I carefully slinked forward into the trees.
A quiet mewling cry broke through the silence, and I sucked in a breath. I began to move a bit faster, fearful that it would be a child.
In the Wilds, the fear of the unknown and the unexplained reigned free. Superstition was a powerful force and many different tribes lived and died by their beliefs. Some were simple and met by offering a meal to the gods. Others were more ritualistic, an animal sacrifice or a symbolic ceremony meant to bring fortune upon their tribe. In some cases, a virgin omega was sacrificed in their honor. I tried to steer clear of most of them as much as I could, but there were a few instances where that proved difficult, if not impossible.
The hardest ones were the superstitions that involved children. I couldn’t walk away when I knew a child or an infant was in danger.
It was something the Originava tribe was known for. They lived and died by the will of the gods. Whispers of the rituals they performed were as soul crushing as they were terrifying. I didn’t even want to think of the rumors I’d heard. A hard shiver of horror quaked down my spine and I turned my head, taking a shaky breath and forcing those awful thoughts away as fast as I could.
If a harvest went badly or a sickness ravaged the Originava tribe, they’d sacrifice a child to appease the wild ones. I’d found the remains of a baby once and it had stayed with me ever since. I’d been too late, but I wouldn’t be this time.
I hadn’t thought we were close enough to their lands, but maybe we’d stumbled onto the borders of their territory unknowingly. If there was an abandoned child, I would make sure that they didn’t pay the price for the misfortune of being born into such a savage tribe.
I moved faster until I broke into a large clearing. At the center of it was a small basket.
I rushed over to it and knelt beside it, reaching out to touch the pale flesh of a small infant. She was wrapped in a pale pink blanket, but her skin was still clammy and cold. I picked her up and curled her to my chest, using my own body to warm her.
As I hugged my arms around the crying child, Torvi cried out behind me. I stood up and all at once, men in blood-red robes marched out of the jungle. We were surrounded.
Swiftly, I knelt down and grabbed my sword off the ground. I held the baby with one arm as she began to cry in earnest and then a single man walked forward. His face was covered by a black mask. There was a red ruby at the center of his forehead, as well as white paint that hinted of a warrior’s status. I wasn’t certain though. His mask was more ornate than the others and I narrowed my eyes with suspicion.
Whoever this man was, he was likely their leader.
“What tribe do you hail from?” I asked purposefully. I felt Torvi behind me, her back now flush with mine.
“We do not hail from any one tribe, warrior queen. If anything, they bow to us,” he answered. There was an unwavering arrogance to his voice that was unnerving, and I gritted my teeth as something moved in the shadows beside him. The clearing was set in shadow, at least until the clouds drifted apart enough so that the light of the moon shone down upon us.
A dark gray beast slunk to his side. It was covered in scales, its neck far too long as it settled beside him. Its head wove back and forth like a snake, and it opened its mouth to reveal rows and rows of sharp, serrated teeth. It shrieked and I froze.
It was the same sound that had been coming for us yesterday.
Its wings burst outward, skin stretched taut and transparent like a bat’s. It screamed again and my head pounded from the sound. I cried out, unable to cover my ears this time. The baby in my arms screeched and I held her tighter, trying to protect her as much as I could.
“Who are you?” I pressed.
The beast stopped screaming and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“I am the Serpent of the Cult of the Blood Moon,” he said quietly, and I sucked in a shocked mouthful of air. “We’ve been looking for you and your omega women for a long time.”
This was really bad.
The Cult of the Blood Moon was an exceedingly dangerous group. They worshipped gods even darker than those of the tribes of the Wilds. Worse though, the Cult had access to money and power and dabbled in a great many things that were perilous, deadly, and downright evil.
Like the sale of unmated omega women.
The man signaled someone behind him, and a group of red-robed men rushed off toward the river and the entrance of the tunnels. I swore under my breath. The monster slinked forward around me in a way that ensured that I couldn’t run off after them. I snarled, the sound low and threatening.
“I thought I’d lost you and your group once the sky grew dark, so I figured I’d try a different tactic to lure you out,” he explained, and my throat constricted into a tight knot. He cocked his head and peered back at me with coldblooded interest, glancing down at the baby in my arms. I squeezed her tighter against my chest, feeling the need to protect her suddenly overwhelm me.
“Your instincts as a mother will bring a high profit,” he added, and I scowled in his direction. “Although I imagine the King of the North would be very interested in the Omega Warrior Queen of the Wilds. Perhaps he might even want to claim you for himself.”
I raised my sword arm, suddenly wishing to spear him straight between the eyes with it.
“Fuck you,” I spat, and I could tell he was grinning by the emergence of a few harsh crinkles around his eyes. His mask hid his face from me, but the glimmer of ruthlessness in his gaze made my stomach squeeze tight.
He had the look of a man who had just captured the most magnificent prize in the world.
I growled loudly, matching his viciousness with my own because it was my only option left.
There was nowhere for Torvi and me to run. They’d taken over the edges of the clearing, leaving no escape route or viable way out. We were trapped.
“I won’t let you take us alive,” I spat.
“I don’t think you have much of a choice, omega,” he answered cruelly. He lifted his left arm and flicked his fingers in my direction.
The men to either side of the Serpent lifted what looked like a small tube from their robes and brought it to their mouths. Too late, I realized that they were blowpipes. Two red-feathered darts flew toward me, one catching me in the thigh through my thick leather pants and the other spearing right into the pale flesh of my throat.
Torvi cried out behind me, and I could only guess that she’d been shot with one too.
I glared at the man standing before me as my vision started to waver. I held onto consciousness for several more moments, only to have my heart torn apart when I heard the rest of my tribe start to scream off in the distance.
The edges of my vision started to darken. A fog descended over me, making the men in front of me grow blurry and hazy. My heart pounded and I tried to hold on.
The cultist leader’s supernaturally bright green eyes met mine and soon that took over my sight with a darkening emerald mist.
I tried to stay strong.
The tranquilizer proved stronger.
I don’t know how long we were kept prisoner with the Cult of the Blood Moon. It could have been days, weeks, or months, but they didn’t allow us to stay conscious long enough to figure it out. Sometimes I pretended to sleep just so they wouldn’t give me another dose of whatever they were using to keep us under, but they still gave me more anyway.
They’d captured all of us. Torvi was at my side, as well as Hilda, Liv, Frida, and the others. It didn’t look like anyone had been hurt along the way. From what I could tell in my fragmented consciousness, they all looked healthy enough. There was no sign of the child though.
We were traveling in a massive wagon. The sides were open to the air, but prison bars held us all in. The ride was rough, and it jostled me awake consistently.
On one particularly cold night, I was able to feign unconsciousness well enough to look up into the sky under the cover of darkness. I studied the constellations and the positions of the stars, taking note that they differed a great deal from the land I’d left behind.
We were heading north. I wasn’t sure how far north, but the stars indicated that we’d traveled a great distance so far. The air held a different kind of chill than before, sharper and more consistently colder. Wherever we were, it felt like we were at the tail end of fall and perhaps maybe even in the beginnings of winter.
Someone was talking close by, and I shut my eyes, wanting to listen for any clues to our whereabouts before they realized I was awake.
“King Eric will be ecstatic about this new haul of omegas,” one man said.
“He certainly will be. It will be a fortunate gift to celebrate his crowning as king of Daneridge. King Ubbe was a foul king. He deserved to be skewered by that boar,” the Serpent echoed. I recognized his voice and stifled a snarl in his direction.
“King Eric has been fascinated by her story for a long time. She’s avoided capture for years and led her own band of omegas through the Wilds. They were a migrant tribe, never settling in one place for long, but I think he’s mainly interested in her beauty, not her skills as a warrior or a leader,” the Serpent added.
I heard the seat at the front of the wagon creak, and I could only assume that he was looking back at me. The warhorses leading the wagon neighed softly and I kept my eyes closed and my body still.
“With her dark hair, glacial blue eyes, and pale skin, she looks something like a ghost,” the man murmured.
“You could certainly say that,” the Serpent grunted in agreement.
I heard the reins flick and the wagon rolled to a stop. The Cult was making camp and they would soon feed us some stale bread and a glass of water each. After that, they’d knock us out once more and the vicious cycle would repeat itself until we arrived in the northern city of Daneridge.
I woke up to an excited clamor amongst the cultists. Tentatively, I opened my eyes and looked around, seeing that Torvi was beside me now. With an incredible amount of caution, I reached for her and captured her hand in mine. She didn’t move, but her fingers squeezed my hand just enough to let me know she was awake along with me.
I couldn’t see much from my position flat on my back, but I could turn my head enough to see that we were rolling along what appeared to be a wide road surrounded by high cliffs on either side. The wooden wheels beneath us crunched on what was likely gravel and dirt. Eventually, that sound changed, and I guessed that we were rolling along cobblestone.
We were lurching uphill and the air seemed thinner.
Torvi squeezed my hand tighter for a second. Then she released me, and she pushed herself up to sit against the side of our transport cage. We both waited for the cultists to blow another dart and force us back to sleep, but they seemed preoccupied or maybe it wasn’t necessary to keep us asleep any longer. After about a minute, I pushed myself up to join her.
“Where are we?” she whispered.
“We’re approaching Daneridge,” I answered quietly, swallowing heavily as I look around us.
We were surrounded by mountains on all sides. They rose so high into the clouds that I couldn’t discern their peaks in the white hazy mist. I curled my arms around my chest, trying to pull the furs around my shoulders close to fend off the cold, but it was biting all the same. A fresh snow had fallen, covering the ground in a soft white fluffy blanket. Shivering, I looked toward the city of Daneridge and sucked in a terrified breath.
It was a fortress.
The city was built right into the mountainside. There were multiple levels carved right into the cliffs. Each subsequent wall was guarded with a series of archers. There was only one road in, a thin curving path that only allowed for a single wagon to climb it at a time.
That also meant there would be only one way out.
I’d only heard rumors of Daneridge, and I’d disregarded most of them. It was situated in the far north, a city established during the Great War. There were whispers it hadn’t survived the passage of time, but now that I was seeing it with my own eyes, I knew those were very wrong. I could see that it was impenetrable, and it was not only still in existence, but it was thriving.
The roads of the city seemed to spiral up into the mountains. I couldn’t tell how far they went, but it did appear that they ascended into the mountainside itself. The wagon paused at the end of the road, waiting for permission to ascend. A man atop the wall lifted a scarlet and black flag and the wagon started rolling forward once again.
The trip up the road was rather harrowing. I tried not to look over the edges and had to close my eyes several times when the wheels felt like they were slipping. I focused on the constant clopping of the horses’ hooves against the stone and when the climb finally leveled out, I opened my eyes to see a massive steel door lifting to grant us entrance.
The turning of the cogs vibrated the stone beneath us until the door opened fully and we could roll inside. The chains lowering the door back down behind us were so thick that I doubted I could even get my arms around them.
We entered the city, climbing higher and higher until we approached a castle. It rose several stories above us and appeared to be built right into the cliff side. It was as if the castle was trying to escape the mountain’s clutches, only to be swallowed whole.
I hummed nervously as one of the cultists approached the back of the wagon. The lock clicked and he swung the cage door open. He gestured to me and Torvi.
“Wake up the rest and get them out. It’s time to present you filthy lot to the king,” he demanded, and I scowled in his direction. “If I have to come in there and drag you out, I’ll beat your omegas to a bloody pulp,” he spat, looking directly at me.
I wouldn’t let him hurt my omegas. They didn’t deserve to be punished by these cruel bastards.
Knowing I had little choice, I started to shake the women I’d grown to know and love awake. They blinked back at me blearily, some of them with fear and others with furious courage. Once everyone was roused, I met every one of their hard stares.
“We’ll get out of here somehow. I promise you,” I vowed, and they all nodded. We’d been through so much together and brought each other back from the throes of death more than once before.
This time would be no different.
I climbed out of the wagon first and the rest of my omegas followed. I stood in front of all of them, trying to be as brave as I could before the Serpent moved next to me and grasped my arm roughly.
“King Eric wants to meet you,” he said. I resisted him as he dragged me off, but he was bigger than me and far stronger. Next to him, I felt like nothing more than a child.
I turned my head and met Torvi’s fierce determined gaze.
Her fist closed and she pounded it over her heart three times. I gritted my teeth and did the same. It was our solemn vow to each other that we would always be there for one another no matter what happened.
The Serpent jerked me into the castle.
The next few hours passed by in a blur. The Serpent passed me off to a group of beta women. They stripped me and bathed me, cleaning off the filth of the long journey. Beside me, one of the women took my clothes, cleaned them by hand, and laid them out to dry in front of the massive fireplace hearth. The fire snapped and crackled. When the women were finally pleased with my appearance, they dressed me in my clothes. The cultist returned for me some time later and hauled me out of the room.
I yearned to stab him. I’d watched the women clean and shine the leather free of mud and dirt, but she hadn’t run her fingers along the interior of my right boot. There was a small dagger hidden inside it. I knew it was still there.
Now was not the time for rash actions, however. I needed to be patient.
The hallways were cold, carved straight into the rock of the mountain. When I reached out to touch the stone, an icy shiver raced down my spine and I jerked my fingers away. It was dark, but many of the passages were lit by flickering torches. As we ascended a flight of stairs, the air grew a little warmer, but not by much. The Serpent’s grasp on my arm tightened as he led me into a hallway lit by luxurious gold lanterns. Unceremoniously, he pulled me into a massive throne room before I could do anything about it.
The throne itself was made of pure gold and it was at least three times larger than me. It was decorated with what seemed like an endless boundary of gemstones. It sparkled even in the dim light, stones of every color throwing an ever-flickering rainbow on the rock all around it.
There was a single man sitting in it. His head was turned to the side as he discussed something in hushed tones with a man beside him, but I could see a hand-carved iron crown atop his head. The Serpent cleared his throat and the king turned toward us.
His gaze found mine, and in the darkness I couldn’t quite tell the color of his eyes except one appeared to be a little lighter than the other. His lips curled up in a rather sadistic grin as he stared back at me. His glare dragged up and down my body and it made me feel unsettled even though I was fully clothed.
I tugged my arm away from the Serpent and he released me. With reservation, I grasped the edges of the fur pelt around my shoulders and adjusted it to cover as much of me as possible. It didn’t change the way the king’s scrutiny made me feel.
“My ever-loyal Serpent, you’ve brought me a gift,” he murmured, his voice raspy and arrogant and far too entitled. I sniffed the air, able to discern enough about his nature from his scent.
He was an alpha. There was no doubt.
I was an omega, fated to spread my legs to the likes of him whether I liked it or not. I took medication to suppress my nature. I knew that wouldn’t last much longer though. Even now I could feel a simmering warmth percolating deep in my core, and I gritted my teeth.
I didn’t want that to happen again. The one time had been enough.
Vicious memories of his touch flashed before my eyes, and I pushed them away with brutal force. I thought instead of the moment when I’d slit his throat in his sleep. He’d stolen my innocence and I’d repaid him for it with the sharp edge of my knife.
I stared back at the king. I’d do the same thing to him. I didn’t care that he was royalty.
“Indeed I have, King Eric. She was quite difficult to capture, I might add, but I figured out the key to her baser nature,” the Serpent answered. I scowled in his direction. “Along with her, we seized an additional eleven omegas. Their sale will bring you great fortune.”
“How dare you?” I spat, and the king’s eyes flashed in my direction.
“I’ve imagined hearing her voice for a very long time,” he purred, and I snarled in his direction. Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw several guards take a step toward me until the king held up his hand. They stilled and he approached me instead.
He was wearing a thick wolf pelt over his shoulders that descended all the way to the floor. His tunic was made of thick black leather. Burgundy and gold stitching wove along the edges and intertwined across the center of his chest in a grand oak tree design. It was meant to be regal, but everything about him made me feel uneasy.
“Fenra, Warrior Queen of the Wilds,” he whispered as if he couldn’t believe that I was standing before him.
“I am no queen,” I spat.
“That’s not what they sing about you, omega,” he answered cockily. “They say you disappear like shadows in the night, moving from place to place as though you were something of a ghost, but seeing you here before me I am relieved to see that you are in fact flesh and blood after all.”
He reached for me.
“Such beautiful flesh,” he continued, and the food in my belly felt like it began to curdle. I took a step back. It wasn’t enough. His fingers only just brushed against me, and I stilled. It took everything in me not to slap him across the face.
“Don’t touch me,” I spat. I felt like I was ready to snap at any moment. My fingers twitched, wanting to feel the carved wooden handle of my dagger in my fist.
He didn’t listen. His knuckle grazed against my cheekbone and my defensive instincts surged to the surface. I spun out of his reach and knelt down, sliding my fingers into my boot and around the handle of my knife. With practiced efficiency, I pulled it free and leapt upward, slicing at the king. He jumped back, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to fully escape my blade. I cut his right cheek in the same place he had touched me. A thin line of blood quickly grew in size until it dripped down his face. The wound wasn’t deep, but it would likely leave a scar behind.
He roared with fury. I moved to spin out of the way, but he was quicker, and the back of his hand slapped across my face with vicious intensity.
“I have no patience for an omega who refuses to yield to an alpha. Take her down to the dungeons. I have no want of her until she remembers her place,” King Eric snarled and the guards at the perimeter of the throne room rushed at me all at the same time. There was no hope for me to escape them. There were far too many.
I fought as valiantly as I could anyway. I slashed at a great many of them until someone captured my wrist and bent it back hard, forcing me to let go despite everything in me that tried to keep on fighting. Strong hands surrounded me and lifted me up into the air, carrying me off into the dark depths of the unknown. Someone shoved a damp cloth over my mouth and nose and the sickeningly sweet scent of cherry blossoms and wildflowers rattled my senses. For several moments I attempted to hold my breath, but before long I was forced to draw in air.
Blackness edged at the corners of my vision and I tried to blink it away. It only seemed to get worse, and it just crept further and further until I could see nothing at all. I held on for a while longer. I’m not sure if it was for a fraction of a second or close to a minute, but I did and I was proud of myself for it.
The person gripped the cloth closer to my face and the flowery scent became everything.
I blacked out.
It was so cold. My teeth chattered and I curled up in a small ball, trying to conserve heat as much as possible. Even the fur mantle on my shoulders felt cold and when I brushed my fingers against it, I could feel frozen droplets of water along its soft surface. I pulled it tight around me, trying to control my shivering. For several moments I tried to focus on warm thoughts, but when that failed I begrudgingly accepted that this was the way it would be.
My head felt like someone was taking a nail to my skull and hammering it through, over and over with cruel persistence. I groaned and pressed the seat of my palm against my forehead. The pressure made it ebb a little bit, but then it came back with merciless force.
I groaned and curled up even tighter. I wound my arms around my legs. For a short while, I felt warmer but that didn’t last long. Soon enough, I was shivering hard enough to make my bones rattle.
I looked around, blinking several times so that I could see at least a little in the overwhelming darkness. I was in a cell of some kind. The only bit of light came from a round window high above me. The sparkling glow of the stars was a small comfort, but it was the moon that soothed me and brightened the consuming shadows from overtaking the dank dungeon.
There was no other light down here.
For a while I drifted in and out of sleep, until the scrape of a shoe against stone startled me awake. I opened my eyes, seeing a hazy flame swinging back and forth in the darkness. I blinked several times as someone in a dark cloak wandered along. I swallowed hard, hoping it wasn’t some prison guard coming to teach me a lesson after I’d had the audacity to defend myself against the king. By sheer size, I assumed the hooded figure was a man.
I didn’t say a word as he moved closer. My eyes searched for any clue as to who the person was, but when he finally paused in front of my cell, I had found nothing that keyed me into his identity. He turned toward me and I swallowed hard, expecting him to reach between the bars and lash out to hit me just like the king had done.
My hand lifted to my cheek. It was still sore.
The first thing that captured my attention was his eyes. They were so icy blue, and the light of the moon caught them just enough to make them glimmer like tiny diamonds amongst a freshly fallen bed of snow. I sucked in a harsh breath and his scent followed next, jasmine and smoke and candied oranges. It was a heady aroma and a small spiral of warmth blossomed in the seat of my belly.
Whoever this man was, he was an alpha and a strong one at that.
As his eyes stared into mine, I was swept up in the mystery of him. His face was covered with an ornately carved wolf’s mask and a black cloak hid the rest of him from me. There was a thorned crown carved into the mask, hinting at this man’s importance. It was painted with black, gray, white, and burgundy red, giving a dangerous and otherworldly feel. I didn’t know what to make of it.
His stare appraised me with curiosity and perhaps a sense of confusion, but I couldn’t be certain.
“Who are you?” I managed to whisper, and he moved even closer to the bars that imprisoned me. His scent grew stronger and that tiny glimmer of heat inside my belly grew fiercer. The blood in my veins surged, making me feel more alive with each passing moment. I gritted my teeth and pushed it away, not wanting to succumb to whatever was happening yet falling prey to it anyway.
His head cocked to the side as he peered back at me with renewed interest.
“Most know me as the Ghost,” he replied, and I narrowed my eyes. I’d heard his name before, but only through whispers. From what I gathered, he was a secret many would die to protect.
“More important, though, who are you?” he asked, and he reached up, lowering his hood and revealing the dark blond hair he had hidden beneath. It was pulled back into a messy braided top knot, but a few lighter colored curls had escaped along the frayed edges. Both sides of his head were shaved in an intricate braided design to his ears where it looked like a pair of thick sideburns began.
His fingers disappeared behind his head as he untied the leather string of his mask. I almost forgot how to breathe as his wide, rough fingers pulled that away next.
I could see his face now and his icy blue eyes sparkled. He gazed back at me with keen interest and that made my core prickle with renewed warmth. There was something about him that felt almost magical, a certain timelessness about him that spoke to his power.
His chin was covered in a thick dark blond beard. It didn’t fully cover his face, instead being trimmed so that there was a thick tuft of it above and below his full lips. The hard lines of his face looked weather worn and a white scar bisected his left cheek.
Had I met him on the battlefield, I would have thought him a fierce warrior.
But… there was a certain warmth to his roughness, a strange allure that made me want to move closer to him here in the castle depths.
Something about him made me want to reach out and touch him to see if he was real.
“Tell me your name,” he coaxed.
“Fenra,” I whispered. I pushed myself up off the padded steel bedframe, unable to resist the way his presence was calling me.
He whispered my name and it almost felt like he was tasting it on his tongue. My thighs trembled as I stood up. I told myself that it was the cold, but I knew that was a lie. His head cocked a bit further as he studied me.
“The servants of the castle have been whispering that a ghostly being haunts the dungeons, that a girl with pale flesh and hair the color of midnight walks these halls. I came to see if the rumors were true, and here I find you,” he continued.
“I can’t be much of a wanderer from behind these bars,” I answered cautiously.
I took another hesitant step toward him and then another until I was just out of reach of his touch. His blue eyes were so bright that it was as if I was staring into the heavens themselves.
He released the bars with one hand and turned his palm over, offering it to me. I stared at it for a long moment, trying to decide if I was brave enough to reach out and touch it.
“You’re an alpha,” I whispered. I tried to convince myself not to move any closer, but that voice inside me grew quieter as my curiosity and the simmering warmth in my core grew that much hotter.
“You’re an omega,” he answered, as if it was the simplest thing in the world. Beneath the roughness of his features there was a certain gentleness, and I wondered which one would win out in the end.
If I touched him, would he hurt me?
There was something about him that didn’t seem entirely human. His demeanor spoke to a primal sort of power, and for a moment it felt as though I was staring back at something more than just a man. There was a raw savageness to his gaze, and I knew that if the bars hadn’t stood between us he would already be upon me.
His fingers beckoned me closer, tempting me with the promise of their touch and I tried to resist for as long as I could. A reckless wild abandon coursed through me, and I did what I had vowed I would never do again.
I reached out to touch an alpha.
The second my fingers brushed against his skin, my core exploded with heat. I hoped with everything in me that I wouldn’t grow to regret that choice.