The man cut a striking figure against the backdrop of a starless night. The trees waved in the breeze lightly, the branches brushing against one another and sending small acorns to the ground in a clatter. Other than those sounds, it was as quiet as a grave despite the rather large collection of people staring up at the man on the makeshift stage.
He was clearly someone of import. He wore a brown trench-coat draped over his broad shoulders, a hat obscuring his hair and face. The only light shining down was that of the moon, a quarter full and hanging in the sky like a massive lantern. Still, it seemed to those in attendance that even the shadows were held rapt by the man on the stage, who so far hadn’t said a word. He had simply paced back and forth along the stage as if waiting for the opportune moment to speak.
Slowly, the man came to a stop in the center of the stage with his hands held lightly behind his back and his head downcast. Even so, when he spoke it seemed to carry across the clearing as if he were shouting. “My brethren,” he began, “We have been cruelly mistreated by the witches—made to give up our land and territory not just to the human scum but to the fey and vampires as well; we were told to be quiet, to get along, to remain idle, while the witches took more and more land for themselves and we simply allowed it to happen.”
Soft murmuring fluttered through the clearing, most of the words in agreement though some were grumblings of discontent. “But no more!” the man continued, silencing the crowd. “We have suffered in silence long enough. Some of us may have achieved normal lives through secrecy, but what life is there when you are not free to be who you are? They fear us; and so they should, for who is more powerful than us when we join our hands in alliance? They will quake out our feet, beg our forgiveness, but we have suffered enough! Their legacy ends now! And we shall rise!”
A cheer went up, sending several bats in the nearby trees into flight. Their ungodly screeching rose over the din of the crowd, mixing and meshing until it was hard to distinguish one from the other.
The man, who called himself the Shepherd, grinned at his triumph, the gold of his eyes igniting and long canines extending over his lip. War was coming and soon, ultimate power would be his. He had achieved on his own what others had thought was impossible; he’d brought all the werewolf packs in Savannah together. Before long, he would have the witches on their knees and he could hardly wait.
Jules had never believed in the supernatural. Magic, monsters—all of that belonged to a world that was so far removed from reality that it barely deserved mentioning. It couldn’t help him, couldn’t advance his goals, so why bother with it?
First, he believed in work. He believed in a world where if you worked for something, the world would give it to you. That, as long as you were a good person, your hard work would pay off in a big way.
Second, he believed in facts and science. Everything had its place in rationality and there were certain laws that governed everything from the smallest atom to the largest creature on earth. If you didn’t understand something, you could research it; you could figure out what it was through empirical evidence and come to conclusions that fell comfortably within a certain parameter of logic.
Third and most importantly, he believed in the power of music, in art. If science was how everyone came to be born in a certain place at a certain time and hard work was how you got by, then music and art were the reason for it all. Creating beautiful things was the highest calling, and he wanted a hand in all of it; it was how each individual could make a mark that would transcend the ages, the reason for humans to be placed on the planet at all.
But when the time came, science had failed him; hard work didn’t transform into success; art and music couldn’t heal him. When everything you believed about the universe couldn’t save you, where else could you turn?
For Jules, it was either die…or make the leap of faith and try to believe in the things that he never could before. Maybe he would still die, but if he didn’t try, he would perish for sure.
What he hadn’t counted on was how involved in all of it he already was. Can you know what it’s like to hear a single word and know that you’re probably going to die sooner rather than later? Do you know what it’s like to have your whole world, everything you knew, fall to pieces around you, only to find out that the world as you knew it was a lie anyways? That the people you trusted most were lying to you?
Because now, Julian did.
And as he stood beside those very people, seeing the world for what it truly was fully and without any filter, his new reality finally settled around him. The Shepherd had caused all this; and even though his loved ones had lied to him, he now understood why. For better at worse, this was the world as it truly was and he was now a part of it; he had to fight.
All Teddy ever wanted was a normal life.
That may seem like setting the bar low and maybe that’s true. But for him, it was the highest ambition. It was an unattainable goal, and had been ever since he was ten years old.
Because that was when he was bitten, when his whole life took a different direction than he ever imagined it’d go.
Others may have thought that being a werewolf was exciting. Maybe they even wanted to be one. Maybe you’re sitting here, reading this thing, and you’re wondering ‘Who is this guy kidding? Being a werewolf has got to be the coolest thing.” But to Teddy, it wasn’t.
See, the thing they don’t tell you about is the agony. Imagine falling from a twenty-story building onto the pavement below, every bone in your body shattering on impact. Now imagine those same broken bones twisting inside of you, changing their shape. Then imagine thousands of needles exploding out of your skin in the form of thick, wiry hairs. Now add in sensory overload—every stench, every subtle movement, every sound, pounding through you all at the same time. You lose your mind, your sense of self. Everything you thought you were—gone in an instant, replaced with some insatiable desire to hunt, to serve the pack. You aren’t you anymore, but something else entirely, some part of a bigger whole where your individuality and free will are gone.
That’s the other thing: if you’re not a Lycan, those few lucky enough to be born with the ability to shift into a wolf at will, you’re nothing more than a beta. You don’t matter. Your role is only to serve the Lycan alpha.
Because Teddy was afraid of losing himself entirely, he clung so desperately to what little of his normal life he could and almost lost everything because of it.
And as the Shepherd—the alpha he was meant to serve, the one who had ripped his normal life away from him in the first place—spoke of what a normal life was worth, taking his experience and twisting it to serve his need for more power, he felt his resolve harden. This was war.
Grey’s father always told her a person’s greatest weapon was her heart. She never understood what he meant. How could a heart be a weapon? If anything, wouldn’t it be a liability? Her mother would certainly say so. Hearts could be broken; they could be manipulated. Beauty? Sure, she could see that. Men underestimate a pretty face. They think that someone so delicate and pretty couldn’t possibly be dangerous. They let their guard down. But a heart?
Such a soft, malleable thing. Fickle. Unpredictable.
But she thought she understood now. A heart can start wars; it can finish them. If you wear it on your sleeve, people notice. If you hide it away, bury it in an icy façade, people notice that too. How you’re perceived, the choices you make—all of them are tied to your heart and, perhaps just as important, who your heart is attached to.
He was everything to her. From the minute she saw him, he mattered. Maybe she couldn’t see at the time why he mattered; maybe she should have. It would have stopped so many of the things that went wrong after she met him.
Or maybe it wouldn’t. The thing is, even now, even after all that has happened, she didn’t think she’d change a single thing.
Because she chose how to wield her weapon; she chose how to wield her heart. And no matter what happened now, what came of her choices, she chose.
Before him, she was afraid. Afraid of making choices, of living with them. Afraid to use her voice, to chase after what she wanted. She was afraid to be herself. Now? She wasn’t afraid anymore.
And as the consequences of her choices rose before her, she knew she would stand by her choice; she would stand by him. Even if it killed her, if it killed both of them, at least she had finally become Grey.
As the Shepherd spoke, his honeyed words inciting violence in the crowd of werewolves gathered in the clearing, she clutched Malach’s hand and waited for the wave to rush over her.