The big-eared boy’s knuckles grazed Riley’s cheek and a frisson of excitement trembled in her fists. Knowing his intent was to knock her on her ass, she pounded her fists into his chest and face. Chest. Cheek. Chest. Cheek. She was small, five-foot-two, and normally had to jump to produce her desired affect when fighting. For instance, right now she desired to prove to everyone that she deserved to be there. The Great Hall was the biggest university in Sath Forest. The biggest school she’d ever attended, period.
Her fists reacted to the tug in her chest, the tears she bit into her pillow late at night when her stomach ached for a scrap of anything. Her whole life she’d fought for food, for home, and for survival. At nineteen-years-old, she knew no other way.
And now, Big Ears, flat on his back knew what she was about. She’d prove her strength to anyone stupid enough to inquire.
A moment ago, the fifty students who occupied the gymnasium had been rife with praise for the wolfskin. Now, all that could be heard was the thump of hard mats hitting the floor and the boy groaning.
The others stepped back, shock written in their faces. Riley couldn’t understand their surprise. She hadn’t transferred from her college in her home town of Hockswith to fail her final exam. As a human, she had more to prove and lose. She was slower, smaller and more fragile. Every day she had to fight to stay at the top, and fight she would.
“Riley Willians.” Her instructor called to her from outside the arena. She spoke through her teeth so almost everything she said was muffled. With a closed-mouth sigh, she ran her fingers through her black ringlets of hair. “Five points deducted for a poorly-balanced landing.”
Riley snorted. She was being nitpicky, finding reasons to take Riley’s points away.
“Otherwise,” her instructor added. “Welcome to the Alpha Competition.”
Riley tightened her jaw. Relief rolled through her limbs and she dropped her shoulders.
Hockswith was her hometown, a strictly human territory. She and her sister had left its comforting embrace to join the Alpha Competition and a better future for her family. Failure wasn’t an option. Everyone back home was counting on her.
And now, as she stood in a gymnasium more like a giant’s playroom staring back at bushy-eyebrowed faces, she knew she’d made the right choice.
A bruise was forming on her belly. She bit through the pain. None of these students knew determination was in her blood.
“Report to Sorting.” The instructor said it with bitterness. She could barely contain her hatred for humans as she helped the boy to his feet.
Inside, Riley smiled. Despite their hatred, she’d succeeded in what she’d come to do. She’d gotten into the Great Hall—the best combat training university in Sath. She’d studied Earth Science, Den Language and Natural Transformation versus Moon Transformation— passed all without restraint. Combat Training had, by far, been the hardest. At first, she hadn’t thought it was worth it to go to bed bruised every night. Now, she couldn’t see herself in any other way.
Without saying goodbye to the puzzled students, she jumped from the platform and headed for the wall of mirrors where her luggage waited.
The whole wall was lined and piled with luggage from other students, Riley’s purple backpack was the same one she’d arrived in a year ago. Its purple exterior was no longer vibrant and the black cat was missing nearly its whole ear. The luggage had accompanied her in and out of cheap motels and temporary housing.
The good thing about the Alpha Competition was that she’d be placed with a family for a percentage of the wages she earned in the Alpha Competition. Hell, she didn’t care. She’d take care of a stranger in the street and her own family if it meant hot food and a warm bed. She would take whatever temporary family would accept her.
The gymnasium remained quiet save for her luggage wheel clicking as it rolled across the tile. She gently kicked open the door and left them behind without looking over her shoulder.
It was time for Sorting. She would find out where she’d live soon.
Chatter and sniffles filled the wide halls. It hit Riley that she wasn’t alone. Many humans had come from all over to compete and, judging by their tear-soaked faces, many were going back home. A girl with pigtails was kicking the door to the testing room she’d just come from, brow wrinkled over a crimson face.
“Looks like she’s gonna pop.” A familiar voice stole Riley’s attention.
She turned to see Trude Hellingwyle, her only friend, falling in stride beside her. Trude closed her eyes and walked with her chin up, her luggage in tow.
Riley chuckled, turning her eyebrows down at Trude’s plush unicorn, under her arm. “Obviously, you passed.”
Trude popped her blue eyes open with a smile big enough to make her chin look two times too small. Blood clotted in a cut on her lip. It looked like she’d irritated it trying to clean it. “I finished first,” she said, loud enough for everyone in front of them to hear.
Riley hadn’t finished first, but she hadn’t been last.
“Oh here.” Trude grabbed Riley’s arm to stop her. She pulled free the red rubber band that held her burning orange locks in a ponytail. She hopped behind Riley and yanked her messy hair back.
“Ah.” Riley grabbed at her burning scalp. “One of these days my hair’s gonna fight back.”
“Oh yeah?” Trude spread her fingers through her own hair and straightened it on her shoulders. A yellow light always seemed to capture the vivid red of her hair. Stray away strands frizzed where she’d tried to pat it down. She needed the rubber band more than Riley. A grin stretched over her face, and her snakebite piercings appeared to shrink.
“I take it you did well?” Trude nodded at Riley’s luggage.
“You’re heading in the same direction.” Riley didn’t know whether to congratulate her or give her a heart-to-heart. Her palms clammed at the idea of Trude fighting in the alpha competition. Trude had the kindest soul she’d ever met. She was the type to stay home, bake pastries. Not the kind to hold a gun or hurt people. Riley didn’t know what Trude would do for survival, but Riley would do just about anything to protect her family.
The quiet hall didn’t stay that way for long. Blue doors flew open, shifting the calm to chaos. Students screamed their achievements, racing with their luggage towards the closed golden door at the end of the hall.
Trude jumped into Riley’s arms, squealing as the students passed. Laughing, Riley pushed her off. They needed to be in there, too. They walked hand-in-hand and Trude held the door open until they were both inside. A few more people entered before the door was closed behind them.
The massive antechamber was like an empty opera house, abuzz with eager chatter. A melodious piano serenaded them from speakers on the walls. Glass candelabras lined a long, empty table, dimming the room with an amber light.
“Leave your luggage at the door,” an older woman called from the stage. She found a microphone stand at the far left of the stage and stamped her foot. Her head darted this and that way as she tried to find the culprit who hadn’t moved it to the center. Sighing, she carried it to the center herself and straightened her gray hair, which was already in a ponytail.
A high box overlooked the audience and the stage, and seated in it were three men dressed in black suits. A fourth chair was empty. High Chamber members.
Riley straightened her collar and tucked the front of her blouse into her pants. They were the people she needed to impress. They were the alphas, the Alpha Competition teams she would fight for. She wouldn’t be there if one of them didn’t think she was worth it. One of them had thrown her name into a hat and given her the opportunity to show herself. She would prove she was as good as they thought.
“All in,” the woman said, bringing her hands in towards her chest. “Closer, closer.”
Riley thought if they got any closer, their knees would hit the stage. She could barely pivot her neck now to see the men in the box. They had taken their attention off the group below anyway.
“We’ll get started right away,” the woman squeezed the remote. An eerie smile stretched across her glittered cheeks. “Won’t keep you for long.” She clicked something on her remote and turned to the projection that appeared behind her.
Riley focused her attention on an old photo of a sobbing woman, covered in blood and holding her dead baby to her chest. “Humans started a war,” the old woman said, her voice sounded wrinkled, like the wrinkles running from her mouth and eyes. “They released a pathogen known as the Zero Shift virus.”
Riley shut her eyes tight. The effects of someone’s poor decision had changed her life. In war, biological weapons were frowned upon, but it hadn’t stopped the humans from creating one. In a matter of years, the pathogen had wiped out ninety percent of the female werewolf population. Those left alive became infertile.
Riley opened her eyes, remembering how her father had set her down and told her, how the tears had welled in her eyes. She recalled her sister grinning and saying: “Now, we have a better chance,” before dashing out the front door to inform all her friends.
“Forever?” Riley had asked.
Her daddy had nodded and run his thumb over her cheek and lips. “Don’t worry, Little Princess,” he’d said, fearing the worst. “I’ll teach you to defend yourself.”
In that time, he’d feared what Riley had been too young to understand. Human females were capable of “breeding” with werewolves. Her father had feared his little girls would be taken from him, beaten and raped. For a while, Riley had feared the same thing. Then, she learned how to throw a punch.
“What’d I miss?” Hart, her sister, was tall and lean with curves for days. Any man, werewolf or human, would be lucky to have her. She’d pushed her brown hair in a ponytail, but it was thick and threatening to pop the thin rubber band that held it together.
Riley looked past her at Trude, who was focused on the old woman on stage.
Riley had missed most of what the woman said, lost in her own thoughts.
The Zero Shift virus had done what it was made for, destroying human lives in the process. Riley had never dreamed she’d be fighting for her family’s survival in some werewolf competition.
After rambling on and on about the consequences of their actions, the old woman clasped her hands together, with a tight-lipped smile. All the blame was given to humans and honestly, Riley couldn’t find any other species worthy of it.
“Now,” the woman said, still grinning. “Listen carefully for the”—
Before she could get started the golden door Riley and the others had come through burst open. Two security guards snatched at the three men entering. The fat guard grabbed the hood of a man who had more freckles on one side of his face than the other.
“Hey, hey!” Another man, his friend, snatched the guard’s hand away and shoved him. “You want smoke?”
The guard was about to say something, but was stopped short by the old woman on stage. She nodded her head in his direction, her silent way of telling him to get lost. The guard obeyed without argument, closing the door, and the shaggy-haired man blinked his gray eyes.
“Is being late a criminal act?” he asked, straightening his plaid shirt.
“No.” The old woman answered him directly and nodded towards front of the crowd, as if they had VIP seats available.
The man tapped the shoulders of his two friends and nodded for them to go ahead of him.
Riley stepped aside, out of their way. For a few seconds, the man looked up from his phone and caught her eye. He chuckled before going back to whatever was on his screen.
“Where were we?” the old woman said.
Hart clasped Riley’s shoulders and Riley jumped, having forgotten she was there.
“New alpha.” Hart nodded towards the box.
Inside, the empty fourth seat was now occupied by a man wearing a white hoodie, stained in fresh blood. He used his sleeve to wipe the blood from his teeth.
Riley followed his gaze to the rude threesome that had entered a moment ago. She’s studied and knew all the pack leaders well. Or she’d thought.
Sitting in the first seat was a representative of the McCarthy pack, led by Suri McCarthy—one of the most lucrative packs. Riley prayed to Higher she was good enough to make his pack. She prayed he would take care of her and her family for the rest of her days.
In the second and third chairs were Rioux and Franc packs.
Riley’s research on less important packs wasn’t as substantial as the popular few, but she searched her brain. Surely, she had studied them, too.
“Thank you for joining us, Alpha Everest,” the old woman said, her eyelids low.
It hit Riley like a boomerang. The least most popular pack belonged to Alpha Aeron Everest. He’d gained power after his brother’s death in the last Alpha Competition. Their tragic story had made headlines even in Hockswith. Riley didn’t know what was so important about one kid’s death when people died in the Alpha Competition all the time.
She’d be the unluckiest woman if she ended up with him. He couldn’t protect his own brother. How was she to believe he’d take care of her family? Or provide the means for her to take care of them herself? She swallowed the hard lump in her throat and shifted her gaze from the box back to the old woman.
The old woman smiled, as if she hadn’t been interrupted in the first place. “Let’s begin.”
[Next chapter posted June 18th]