With Queen of Werewolves up for preorder, the Lost Princess of Howling Sky has almost come to an end. Have you already read all of the books? Maybe you haven’t started yet. Let me introduce you to Phantom Fangs. It’s a free prologue to the series. It’ll give you a taste of what you’re in for if you decide to move on to Taken by Werewolves.
You can read it all right here on my website (see below), or you can download it at any major retailer.
The final battle is coming.
The four-man werewolf squad known as Phantom Fangs has a game plan to end the timeless world war between werewolves, vampires, and humans. The pieces have fallen into place. There will soon be a clear victor. But everything changes when a certain lost werewolf princess turns out to be much more than a myth.
Claim the princess, rule the world.
With a flick of my hand, I signaled my squad to get into position. Aerre and Rodrick moved ahead and out of sight. Their job was to perch in a couple of the giant trees making up this thicket. The height would be advantageous for them to watch unseen; they would also have an easy time sniping the maneaters if the situation called for it.
Todd and I dashed out from our cover of trees and bushes a moment later. Winter was almost over and green leaves were beginning to sprout on mostly bare branches, defying the frigid air for the promise of spring. We plowed through detritus before reaching the small clearing where the enemy’s roader was parked. The vehicle was too big and bulky to go any farther, so the Paws Peak scouts were stuck on foot for the rest of their patrol, easy targets for Aerre and Rodrick. That worked out well for us.
I looked back to make sure I couldn’t see any of the four towering black spires through the tree-branch canopy. I thought we’d be in trouble because of the lack of leaves, but the branches twisted together and choked out the sky with or without leaves. I didn’t have anything to worry about. The roader was deep enough inside of this thicket there was no way Paws Peak could see us. We couldn’t see them from in here either.
“Get to work,” I said, keeping my voice low. “Let me know as soon as you plant those bugs and let’s get out of here.” Today wasn’t about engaging maneaters in a fight. This was pure research. And recon.
“On it,” Todd replied. He was busy at work, sticking ladybug-sized tech on the roader and some of the gear it carried in its short cargo bed.
The commsbud in my ear let off the tiniest hint of static before stabilizing as Aerre’s voice came through. “Pay attention, Caspian. The maneaters are coming back around.”
“Don’t shoot unless you absolutely have to,” I reminded.
“Heard you the first time,” Rodrick said, joining in on the conversation relayed through our commsbuds.
I closed my eyes for a couple seconds, concentrating as I looked inward to the pool of moonlight waiting undisturbed within me; I always pictured it in the base of my stomach, deep blue like a lake. I visualized a drop of water from above disrupting the still surface. It sent out a ripple of light, restoring the dormant energy to its true power as my body buzzed. When I opened my eyes again, a flare of light blue, almost like flames, sparked across my black skin. I sped forward with silent steps as my combat boots barely touched the ground, leaving Todd behind. I came to an immediate halt as soon as my enhanced eyesight zeroed in on the maneaters who were now deep within the thicket.
Crouching down to keep myself hidden, I focused the moonlight in my eyes, observing. I would be able to read into the scouts’ tiniest movements like this without having to waste much of my moonlight reserves. Good breeding made me one of the most powerful werewolves in the world—though that wasn’t saying much, considering how small the world had become. If the Paws Peak scouts headed back too soon, it was my job to distract them without giving us away, to keep them from their roader until Todd could finish his setup.
It didn’t look like that would be a problem either. The Paws Peak scouts, three werewolves in total, were hyper-focused on the trivial gossip they were exchanging. I hadn’t met many wereas in my life since females of my species were rare, even before adding war to the equation, but these careless maneaters and their constant jabbering reminded me of the old wereas back in Wolf Bridge who had nothing better to do than talk.
“I’m done,” Todd commented, his voice warbling through the commsbud.
“Easiest damn mission we ever did,” Rodrick replied and let out a hardy guffaw that made my commsbud screech and me flinch.
“Shut up, you oaf,” Aerre growled. “The scouts aren’t that far away.”
“Yeah, and you see how fucking observant they are.”
Rodrick did have a point though. The scouts were carrying on with their conversation, oblivious to the world around them.
“Regroup,” I said. “And Aerre, don’t call names. Rodrick isn’t an oaf.”
I tucked my remaining moonlight reserves deep into the recesses of my body; I pictured that still blue lake at the base of my stomach before I had messed with it. I needed to conserve what I had so it lasted until I could recharge on the next full moon.
“Okay, Mom. Rodrick isn’t an oaf. He’s an agitator spy and outsmarting all of us,” Aerre growled again, causing the commsbud in my ear to crackle. It must have had a short. I didn’t remember it being so grating on my ear before. I made a mental note to ask Todd about it once we got back to camp.
“Aerre,” I warned, “enough.”
I popped the commsbud out of my ear. It was almost as small as those bugs Todd just planted and looked like a polished gray pebble. I pressed its smooth metallic body lightly between the pads of my thumb and index finger and made my way back to camp. Todd beat me there and was already messing with the branches and camouflage tarp hiding our roader to unearth the keyboard for his pactputer.
After he pulled out his pactputer, a few-centimeters-thick rectangular computer small enough to hold in one hand, from his backpack and attached a keyboard, I approached him. “Think you could take a look at my commsbud sometime? I think it’s shorting out.”
Todd held his left hand open, palm up, as he typed away with his other hand. His skin was pale like he never saw the light of day—which wasn’t true. He didn’t tan. He only freckled. We were on opposite spectrums.
I gave him my commsbud and he pocketed it. Then he continued typing away and tapping the pactputer’s touchscreen without missing a beat. Todd was the youngest of us, twenty years old, three years younger than me. He was inexperienced in combat, not to say he was incapable, but he was the weakest of us in that regard. His technical know-how more than made up for that, though. He was the reason why we were here, in a thicket outside of the wall surrounding Paws Peak, the last werewolf kingdom aside from Wolf Bridge. You’d think being the last we could have found some kind of common ground, but Paws Peak was full of maneaters and Wolf Bridge prided itself as shields. Paws Peak ate humans, we protected them. But that wasn’t entirely accurate either.
“Get a reading on those bugs? They connect?” I asked.
“Yeah, but this isn’t anything new. The scouts’ roader isn’t out of range of anything I’ve tested before. The real test for my tech field tweaks will be when they head back. If the bugs stay connected when they get inside the walls, I’ll just have to figure out how to strengthen my field to reach out to foreign tech and I’ll probably be able to hack into the spires and the entire Paws Peak system.”
Todd’s pactputer was our central hub when it came to the technical parts of our missions. It held everything together. It connected our commsbuds, allowing us to communicate. It uploaded and synced information to our intelibands, somehow bulky and still slick metal bracelets with their own little touchscreens. We had them covered in rubber so they’d be less abrasive since we wore them so often. They were one of Todd’s newer inventions and utilized actual holograms. The holograms themselves weren’t interactive, but we could spin a 3D map using the touchscreen. We often ghosted through missions with the powerful information we could have at our disposal. It was thanks to Todd we earned the name Phantom Fangs.
Todd scratched at the black beanie on his head, revealing stray strands of his fire-red hair. He quickly tucked the strands back under the fabric when he noticed. He never acted like he cared about anything outside of his tech world, but I had been around him long enough to know he was self-conscious about how he looked. I had a theory about that. Redheaded werewolves like him didn’t exist anymore. He was the last, and he was from a line of maneaters. Todd never talked about it because getting him to talk about anything other than tech was like pulling teeth, but I didn’t think I was wrong.
Rustling brush and a string of heated retorts signaled Aerre and Rodrick’s arrival back to camp. Those two never stopped. Rodrick was big and imposing with tattoos and white scars that stuck out against his brown skin, but that brawler look wasn’t what got to Aerre, the blond pretty-boy type with skin that tanned easily in the sun. No one would have ever mistaken any of the four Phantom Fangs members to be related. My skin was almost as dark as coal. Basically, none of us looked anything alike.
Even when Aerre and Rodrick stopped verbally harassing each other, they continued with their scathing looks—meaning Aerre. Rodrick rarely took the bait. Aerre really needed to let this spy thing go.
Phantom Fangs was formed about two months ago. Aerre and Rodrick had plenty of time to get past their differences, but Aerre wouldn’t try. He and Rodrick came from different backgrounds, from a different place, but they also had something major in common: neither of them were actual werewolves. They were tethered. Humans changed by a werewolf, by me. Thinking back on it made my stomach churn, but they chose me. They chose this. In that, they were exactly the same.
Our squad was good. Amazing even. We may have been new players in the Prime War, but we made our name infamous on our very first mission. We had been marked in history for as long as our history would last because we killed the last male vampire. We knew it was true when the vampires fell back, reluctant to get caught in any more squabbles. That wasn’t how vampires played. They were running scared when they used to be big players in the Prime War.
The Prime War was timeless, probably as old as the beginning of this world: Prime. It all came back to werewolves, vampires, and humans. The cycle of killing between and among these three species was the world’s history, and it almost resulted in its end when the Hellfire Strike happened. War was done a little more carefully now that the planet itself had suffered such grievous wounds from the Prime War. Tech was even banned for a time, leaving us somewhere between medieval and modern, but it didn’t stop the war. However, I could see an end. I could also see the hazy beginnings of a world I wanted.
I was twenty-three, surrounded by war my entire life. Nothing new. But, the more I saw, the more I wished it would end, the more I wished the world could change. That was the start of the path that led me to form Phantom Fangs. All that was left was to have patience. I wanted peace and to rebuild a world that was broken almost beyond repair, but the time had to be right. The Prime War finally had to end. That or the entire world would finally end. But I never dwelt on the worst-case scenario. Giving up wasn’t an option. I had a squad and an entire kingdom to protect. Already, I was on my way to accomplishing something because Phantom Fangs had influence despite my father’s attempts to keep me out of politics.
Sometimes, I forgot I was, by blood, a Prince of Wolf Bridge.
“The scouts are heading back inside the walls already,” Todd informed as he pressed a finger to his ear. He must have been listening to whatever audio his bugs were transmitting through his commsbud. “They’re in their roader, moving fast. Signal’s still strong.”
Aerre found it in him to turn off his aggression for once. We all joined him in a neutral silence, waiting for Todd to divulge more information. He was staring at his screen, monitoring a tiny moving blip that consisted of the four bugs he planted. If they moved away from each other, they would become their own blips. Some of the screen had charted area, but once they entered the walls, the blip floated along a dark grid space.
“Still working?” I asked.
“I’m in,” Todd confirmed. “I’ll continue monitoring and recording their conversations while I work on my tech field. Maybe some of the stuff I bugged will get taken out of the roader and we’ll have multiple intel feeds.”
“It’ll probably be a whole lot of nothing,” Rodrick muttered and leaned against a thick oak trunk. “This will be thrilling.”
“Interesting conversations would just be a bonus,” I said. “Todd’s goal is to hack into the spires.”
Rodrick grunted. “Yeah, yeah. Research mission, all about Todd, I know.”
Aerre settled onto a rock on the opposite end of camp, as far away from Rodrick as he could get. He cradled his gun and began polishing it obsessively. He puffed a long strand of blond hair out of his face that had escaped the braids hugging the sides of his head. That was another thing Aerre and Rodrick had in common: long hair. Why couldn’t they try to find something in common? I did it easily enough—even if the hair observation was stupid.
I grabbed a protein bar from the roader for a quick pick-me-up snack and settled down onto the grass. It wasn’t as good as fresh meat, but this was all we had. Eventually, I worked my way onto my back. I closed my eyes and let my mind wander.
My squad was dysfunctional yet effective. I picked Aerre, Todd, and Rodrick for a reason. Because of their differences. Our differences.
There was a world I wanted to see. I didn’t know the details yet, but they were slowly becoming clearer.
Todd’s little tech project was taking way too fucking long. I thought for sure we’d be out of this stupid thicket and on our way back through and down the mountains to Wolf Bridge within a few hours, but no. We wasted the entire day outside of an enemy kingdom’s wall, and now it was hours into the night. Part of the day, I was allowed to hunt for our meals. It kept me from losing my damn mind at least. But it didn’t solve my problem.
I was supposed to meet with Jobe tonight, outside of Wolf Bridge. That wasn’t going to happen, obviously. We had already spent days outside of this wall, waiting for Paws Peak to send out a scout, or someone from inside, we could quietly ambush to test Todd’s stupid bugs and tech field. Apparently, all this time wasted wasn’t actually wasted because Todd’s research-experiment-thing was working. It just wasn’t working as fast as I wanted. He was glued to his pactputer, doing Gods knew what, working his techy magic to find some way into Paws Peak so Wolf Bridge would achieve “High Kingdom” status.
We’d see about that. This was the kind of information I needed to pass along to the rebels.
I zipped up my coat when a cold wind blew past. We didn’t get to use a fire for our camp since the smoke, and maybe even the light, would have drawn Paws Peak’s attention. It was a good thing werewolves and tethered alike could digest raw meat without a problem.
Todd was hunkered down inside of the roader, mostly obscuring himself and the light from his devices with the camouflage tarp. His teeth were chattering and his pale face looked blue—whether from the pactputer screen or cold, who knew—but he made no move to grab a damn coat. Caspian noticed as well and draped a blanket around Todd’s shoulders. He didn’t embellish it, no tucking in of the edges and swaddling Todd up like a kid or any shit like that. If he had, I would have had to call him out on finally transforming into a full-blown mother hen. His dark eyes flickered over to me like he knew exactly what I was thinking. I smirked in response and thoughtfully tugged at my short beard.
“How much longer?” I asked. Huh, turned out I was the kid here.
“As long as it takes,” Caspian replied with the perfect I’m-apparently-the-only-adult-here tone. “We went to the trouble of doing this, so we’re giving Todd as much time as he needs.”
“Yeah, all right,” I muttered.
Jobe would have to wait or leave and then try to meet with me again the next chance he got. There wasn’t anything I could do about it. It was unfortunate I couldn’t find a way to cure my boredom, though. Lying around and sleeping only worked so long before my body and mind rebelled, and they were in full-on rebellion mode.
I turned to a big oak tree and unsheathed my knife from my combat belt. I absentmindedly shaved away at the spongy green moss bulging from its bark at first. Then I started cutting deep into the trunk, chipping away at the wood. I wasn’t really into defacing trees for no damn reason, but there was this restlessness itching its way just underneath my skin. Without a task to accomplish, I was reduced to this state of purposelessness until I could get back on task. I didn’t like waiting, but I’d do it for my purpose, the greater good, the white against the black. Still, I was a better warrior than a spy, and I was better use as a spy than a dead man.
“You’ll ruin your knife if you keep chipping away at it like that. It’s not an axe, dipshit, and that trunk is thicker than you are.” Aerre commented, the condescending tone of his voice was omnipresent. Also, he was still slaving away, polishing every damn one of our weapons he could get his anxious hands on. He didn’t do well with sitting around either. No, it wasn’t that. He didn’t deal with being away from Wolf Bridge for an extended period of time. A couple days away and he started with these tics.
In most cases, I found it best to ignore Aerre. Getting caught in an endless loop of quips with him was just that: endless. But I didn’t have anything better to do right now.
“I know you’re just jealous,” I said and flexed my right arm to show off my bicep. As far as muscle mass went, I beat everyone here. Ironically, that didn’t make me the strongest. It made me strongest when moonlight wasn’t involved, but when it was, the winner in physical strength went to Caspian. It sounded like a bad deal, but moonlight had its limits. Our hierarchy wasn’t as unfair as it seemed at a glance—unless you factored in the part about me being tethered to the Phantom Prince.
“Why don’t you tell us the real reason why you’re cutting through that poor, defenseless tree?” Aerre suggested. “It’s because you can’t contact your agitator buddies out here, isn’t it? How long have you been in contact with them? Ever since Caspian changed you into a tethered and let you join this team? How do you do it? Do you sneak out?”
Caspian let out a heavy sigh. “Not this again.”
Aerre jabbed a finger in his direction. It was such a severe gesture I almost wondered if Caspian could feel it from across the camp. “You need to stop brushing this off like it’s some kind of non-issue. Why do you act like you trust him? He’s a monster, and you never should have made him part of this squad in the first place! He’s an enemy of Wolf Bridge. He’s agitator scum, from the same line of misled humans who almost burned the whole fucking world to ash!”
Whoa, he’s really going for it tonight, I thought to myself.
And I was right. He got up from his seat on that damn rock he claimed and stormed over to me with clenched fists. That kind of aggression meant one thing to me. I sheathed my knife and readied my stance. As soon as he was within range, I punched him square in the jaw with deadly precision. He didn’t see it coming and went down easy. Maybe I misread his body language. Maybe he wasn’t coming over here for a round of fisticuffs at all. I should have known. He probably just wanted to yell and spit in my face, though it would have been more hilarious than anything since he would have had to get on his tiptoes to do it.
“Aerre,” Caspian growled, “to me.” His dark eyes lit up in that blazing blue glow that meant he was using moonlight and his rank as Aerre’s maker in order to command absolute obedience.
Aerre rose from the ground the same way I would have imagined a corpse popping out of its grave. He stumbled over to Caspian before straightening out. His head was slightly bowed in submission and his eyes mirrored that intense blue in the eyes of his alpha—our alpha. Then Caspian turned his gaze on me. My muscles seized up the same instant. It was like my body was crumpling inside of itself or being forced to straighten after being crumpled. It was a painful sensation however I tried to spin it.
“Explain yourself,” he ordered.
“Thought he was going to swing at me. Made the first move,” I replied. My tongue was heavy and my words clipped.
“Fine.” The blue in Caspian’s eyes subsided, leaving only the dark brown of his natural eye color behind.
My lungs begged for air and I sucked in a huge breath of cold. It froze my insides and made me cough.
“I don’t want you two anywhere near each other for the rest of the night,” Caspian said.
That was fine with me. I turned my back on my fucking squad and went back to dulling the blade of my knife against that thick-ass oak.
Amazingly, I didn’t hate Aerre, but I sure as hell didn’t understand him. It wasn’t like he belonged to this werewolf squad any more than I did. If his head was screwed on straight, he would have been part of the rebels too. But he chose to side with werewolves. He chose black, I chose white, and that was all there was to it.
I gingerly rubbed my jaw and winced as I sat back on the rock that was getting on very bad terms with my ass. Rodrick really went for it. That was the first time he actually laid a hand on me—or a fist in this case. Usually, he shot me his annoying grins or flat-out ignored me despite everything I did to try to rile him up and prove my point. All in all, I considered the punch an accomplishment. I figured it was one step closer to revealing the agitator’s true colors. He took the first swing. He did it. There was a reason I didn’t start any fist fights with the brute, and those reasons didn’t include the fact that the tattooed and scarred tethered was a boulder in the form of a man.
My jaw had a welt on it, though.
“Here. It’ll help the swelling.”
I looked over my shoulder to see Caspian holding one of our water flasks. It was plenty cold out here already, but the object called out to me, and I took it. The instant the nearly freezing metal hit my jaw, I winced again. Then relief slowly washed through my system as I steeled myself to endure the discomfort—after wrapping the flask up in my scarf to make the cold less intense. When I looked over my shoulder again, Caspian was still standing there.
“Go away,” I said.
He looked down at me, hands hidden in the pockets of his coat. “A squad, a team, doesn’t work unless we trust each other.”
I rolled my eyes. I liked it better when Caspian was the annoying werewolf kid trying to become my “best friend.” He didn’t give lectures back then. Lectures didn’t suit him.
I glanced at the misfits in our “team.” There was Rodrick, who wasn’t really part of this team because he was an agitator. Once an agitator, always an agitator. There was Todd with his head buried so deep in tech he never came up for air. There was Caspian, the Phantom Prince, basically shunned by his own species when it came to his birthright. Then, of course, there was me, tethered and hater of werewolves, serving werewolves more than willingly, serving Caspian. We were a bad mix in terms of camaraderie, but when it came to getting things done, we were the best of the best. That was the thing that kept this team together. We all had a goal here, and that goal included acing our missions. For now. But I was determined to keep it that way.
“We seem to be doing just fine,” I commented. Then I lowered my voice to make sure only Caspian would hear my next words. “And we’ll continue to do just fine because that’s what keeps my mother and sister safe. I’ll make you see the problem with Rodrick soon enough.”
“I’m sitting,” Caspian replied. I couldn’t figure out why he said it. It was almost like he was asking if that was okay with me, but he also wasn’t asking. He plopped right down on the grass next to my rock.
“You know I’m indebted to you for everything you did,” I said quietly. “I won’t sabotage Phantom Fangs. My goal is to keep it running.” I gritted my teeth. “So yeah, maybe I’ve been a little out of line, but it’s hard being away from Wolf Bridge for this long. It wouldn’t be if he was dead.”
“I know,” Caspian murmured, “but Zecke hasn’t gone near your sister since then. It’s been years. The king wasn’t pleased. I know that’s not enough, but I truly don’t believe Zecke will try anything again. King Philip ve Casst’s words tend to be taken seriously.”
“But he’s still breathing. I know you’re not that naive and you’re just trying to make me feel better, but you, Prince Caspian ve Casst, know better than that.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I should have put the mongrel down when I had the chance.”
“You still could. You’d be pardoned. The king must put one of his sons, even the Phantom Prince, above a lowly guard, but we’re all too comfortable with what’s familiar. That’s why Phantom Fangs will never be anything but the king’s dark horse.”
Caspian went silent. He stared at the grass in front of him for a full minute before standing up. He clapped me on the shoulder. “I think it’s about time to call it a night.”
I watched his back as he walked away. It was dark as dark out here, but I managed to see everything I needed to in the form of their basic shapes. If I really needed to see, I could delve into my moonlight reserves, but turning in for the night was probably the best thing to do right now.
I never used the word “friend” when referring to Caspian. I didn’t know what Caspian was to me. Was he a friend, my alpha, my prince? I did know I trusted him as much as I could bring myself to trust anyone outside of my mother and sister. Maybe I even trusted him as much because I knew him before this. I knew him when he was this five-year-old cub sneaking out of the castle and following me around at seven years old because he was so determined to become my “best friend.” He was unlike any werewolf I had ever known, but I did my best to ignore him since werewolves and humans couldn’t be friends. Since werewolves couldn’t be trusted. I was convinced Prince Caspian ve Casst was trying to lead me into some kind of trap. It didn’t help that Howling Sky went up in flames not long before. But he wasn’t. He was just being Caspian. At one point, I recognized that, and we did become friends, hidden friends since no one would have approved.
Maybe I was starting to see werewolves differently, as more than terrifying masters I would be wise not to anger. I saw Caspian differently after a while. Because he treated me differently. Then I was reminded why werewolves couldn’t be trusted at the age of seventeen. I was reminded of the kind of beasts they were when that bastard did the unspeakable.
My sister was always a beauty, but she only grew more beautiful as she became a woman. Zecke, a guard stationed in the Human Zone, or the politically correct Tech Off Zone, of Wolf Bridge had his eye on my sister for some time. He wasn’t allowed to touch her, but he wanted to. Humans, werewolves, and vampires were all different species that couldn’t interbreed. There were no human-werewolf hybrids or anything like that, but that didn’t mean sex wasn’t apparently pleasurable between the different species. We looked similar enough, were built similar enough, that there were many cases like my sister’s.
Wolf Bridge claimed to be shields as of thirteen years ago. It would have been noble, perhaps, but they were never maneaters to begin with. Maneaters did whatever they wanted to their humans because they were meat. If they wanted to rape their food and then eat it, they did. Zecke didn’t eat my sister, but he did rape her. He hurt her and scarred her forever.
I wanted him dead. I lost it when I found out what happened right along with Caspian. I would have gotten my whole family killed trying to kill Zecke if Caspian hadn’t been there. Caspian took the diplomatic approach, spoke with the king, and managed to get Zecke exiled from the Tech Off Zone. I realized Caspian saved our lives. I realized humans weren’t equal to werewolves even among shields, and Caspian did the only thing he knew how to protect us from Zecke and myself. But it did nothing to ease the hatred festering inside of me. And yet, I couldn’t kill Zecke or my mother and sister would pay the price. So I bowed down to the werewolves. I became their dog, Caspian’s tethered, to keep my family okay.
I wished I could do more, but being a part of Phantom Fangs and watching over them at night to make sure Zecke never returned was the extent of my capabilities. I couldn’t truly save them because I didn’t have that kind of power, and I never would as an individual. But Caspian did, or he would. I risked everything on that, on the belief I had in a werewolf who might be my “friend.”
Creating my own remote access point into any of the four spires was proving to be more difficult than I had anticipated since no one in this world used a universal tech field. Every piece of tech from a different area was built on the same principles, but anything wireless was all floating on different wavelengths. I liked a challenge, but I was getting tired, frustrated tired. I had the suicidal notion of storming into Paws Peak and knocking on a spire door so I could tap into their system locally. The technical side of hacking their system would be easy then, but dangerous physically. No, I needed to improve my tech field. I could beat this challenge, and it would give us the tactical advantage. Not that I cared about that. I only wanted to improve my tech.
I rubbed my eyes with the back of my hand, a bad idea. My eyelids felt like sandpaper. I was tired. And jumpy. I nearly jumped out of my skin when the driver door of the roader I was camped in swung open.
“Time to give it a rest, don’t you think?” Caspian asked as he rested against the open door.
“I’m almost done,” I muttered. I glued my eyes back onto my pactputer’s screen and searched through my lines of code to see what I was missing.
“You’ll do better after you’ve had some sleep.”
Maybe he was right. “Fine. I recorded a bunch of chatter by the way.”
“You did? Why didn’t you say anything? I thought the bugs were sitting quietly on their parked roader. Were they taken to different areas inside of the city?”
“Should have had Aerre and Rodrick actively listening in on that stuff. It would have given those two nutcases something to do.”
“I didn’t think about that. That would have been an efficient use of time…”
Caspian shook his head and had this sort of humorous smile on his face. At least, I thought it was meant to be humorous. I wasn’t good at reading into someone’s body language. “Todd, you’re the smartest guy I know, but you can be unbelievably dense sometimes.”
“I’ve been letting the recordings play as background noise through my commsbud while I work,” I said, feeling attacked “Most of it is just senseless chatter. Rodrick and Aerre would have gotten bored anyway.”
“That wasn’t a jab or a threat, Todd. No need to get defensive. But we are a team. I think you forget that sometimes. It’s okay to rely on us once in a while…”
Caspian was still talking. I was staring at his mouth as if that would help me read his words while simultaneously tuning him out. I had just finished telling him about how there was nothing interesting in the chatter I was picking up, but one line suddenly became very interesting. I turned to my pactputer and singled out a specific feed, the one where I heard the words “the Lost Princess of Howling Sky.”
“Shut up,” I said, interrupting Caspian’s monologue.
He raised a dark eyebrow at me, but he listened. I ripped out the commsbud from my ear and turned up the sound on my pactputer. The thin slits on its sides were homes for decent speakers.
“Think King George lost his mind?” a male’s voice came through. “Sounds far-fetched.”
“He’s the fucking king of Paws Peak, dumbass. He hasn’t lost his mind. You remember the story as well as I do. Everyone does,” another male replied. “And now we know the Lost Princess survived.”
“Aerre, Rodrick, get your asses over here!” Caspian yelled.
One more male chimed into the conversation being played through my pactputer as Aerre and Rodrick joined us at the roader. “Yeah, but to think she’s been living with that witch for the last, what, eighteen years? That’s crazy. The Witch Woods are the only thing untouched in the badlands. It’s unnatural. I think I liked it better when the Lost Princess was just a legend.”
“Are you insane? This changes everything. A werea, the werea, eighteen years old, perfect for mating, is alive. She’s perfect for Prince Charles. Paws Peak has won the war.”
“I don’t see how a single werea of mating age changes everything.”
“Gods, why do I have to spell out every single fucking thing? She changes everything because she’s the Moonlight Child blessed by Lureine. Did you forget that?”
“But she’s an individual, not an army. And a werea.”
“What he said.”
“That werea, if the legends are true, which they must fucking be, is like the embodiment of moonlight. Who knows what kind of power she has?”
“Still sounds weird to me.”
“Fuck what you think. We set out for the badlands and those damn Witch Woods on the last day of winter. We need to be there bright and early on the first day of spring to pick up our new princess.”
“Prince Charles and King George don’t want to do it themselves?”
“Well, there’s still the chance of it not panning out, isn’t there, my little dummies? Of course the fucking king and his favorite son aren’t going!”
Everything went silent after that explosive ending to what had to be the craziest conversation I had been privy to in my entire life. The Lost Princess was real? The witch herself contacted the King of Paws Peak? How? Did she use tech? I had so many questions and no answers to any of them.
“Is this for real?” Aerre was the one who broke the silence.
“There’s only one way to find out,” Rodrick replied.
“Do you know what this means?” Caspian asked.
“Paws Peak will probably become the High Kingdom and rule the world?” Rodrick said with a tone that had to mean sarcasm.
Caspian brushed his response off. “We have to get the princess first.”
“What if it’s not real?” Aerre asked. “What if it’s a trap?”
“We’ll have to risk it. If it is real, if she is real, this will be the most important thing Phantom Fangs ever does.”
Aerre bared his teeth and growled. “The most important thing we can do is throw a werea at a werewolf’s feet and force her to become a breeder?”
“You know that’s what would happen. Fighting for that, racing to get this girl just so she can live as a piece of property for the rest of her life doesn’t sound like you.”
“That’s not my goal,” Caspian defended. “We have to get her first and bring her back to Wolf Bridge, where we can protect her. That’s our territory. And you’re wrong, Aerre. King Philip won’t act rashly. He’ll do his best to win her over, yes, but it won’t come down to force. He’ll want her on his side because she wants to be there.”
“Yeah, because King Philip is a rat.”
I could tell they’d be arguing like this for a while, so I tuned it out. All of it. I tried to get back to modifying my tech field. But I soon found out I couldn’t ignore it. I couldn’t ignore the Lost Princess. I didn’t want to think about things outside of tech. I didn’t know how to relate to things that were alive. I wasn’t sure I related to anything, but I could understand tech. I didn’t understand much of anything else.
But the Lost Princess of Howling Sky held my attention. I knew the legend as well as anyone else. It was impossible not to when Howling Sky was the High Kingdom, literally on top of the world, during a time when tech was practically outlawed worldwide because of the Hellfire Strike. They were physically the most powerful werewolves in existence and had a very special child almost eighteen years ago—eighteen on the first day of spring—just to be blown to hell by vampires who hadn’t completely shunned tech. If the Moonlight Child survived that attack, she must have been like a god, because she was a newborn cub when it happened. I didn’t believe in any gods. I didn’t believe in anything that couldn’t be explained with science because everything could be, including a werewolf’s ability to absorb moonlight during a full moon in order to store that energy for later use. It wasn’t magic.
If the rumors were true and the Lost Princess was the Moonlight Child full of untapped power, the Prime War was going to come back in full force. Everyone would want her for one reason or another. Things would get uglier. Many more would die. The Lost Princess would probably put an end to the world once and for all.
I wondered if I hated her for that.
My powerful black paws padded against the forest floor, but the impact hardly registered. This kind of speed, with no resistance, was like skating on the lake when it was frozen over—except it was much faster, with even more force behind it. This was something I could only achieve in my moonlight form, and I got faster each time I tried it. I was so pleased with my progress I wanted to throw back my head and howl to announce an early victory. However, I didn’t give in to the urge because I needed to focus.
Today, I would escape.
I could see the light, the cracks between the thinning trees showing a hint of the world outside of the woods. This time, I’d beat Babaga. This time, I’d be fast enough.
I was inches away from the light, the door to my freedom, when the woods spun around me. My sensitive ears popped and everything went black for an instant before it all came rushing back and I skidded to a dirt-spraying stop as I dug in my claws. The trees were bigger here. The light was gone. I was back in the center of the woods all within the span of a few stomach-churning seconds. I growled in frustration. Then I threw back my head to howl, not in victory, but in a challenge. Babaga twisted into the space in front of me with the same warp magic she used to transport me here.
I let go of my moonlight form in shimmering sparks of blues and shifted back. My midnight-black fur receded, leaving mostly the long curly hair cascading down from my head to keep me warm against the cold. I stood straight on two legs while the witch standing before me was hunched over. It was freezing in this form, my naked skin broke out in goosebumps, and my breasts ached a little, but I didn’t care. I stomped up to the witch so there was only a small space between us. I looked down at her, feeling a false sense of superiority for simply being taller.
“If you faced me fairly, I would have won by now,” I challenged.
“Our strength isn’t of the same make, my sweet Sorissa, and these woods belong to me,” she replied.
“I just want to go outside, Babaga.”
“We’ve been over this. Over it and over it again.”
“But there’s a world out there! Isn’t there? You’ve told me just enough to get me curious, you’ve made me read their fairytales, so when do I get to see it? If you didn’t want me to try this so often, you shouldn’t have fed my curiosity. I don’t want to leave forever. This is my home. You’re my home. You know that, right? You could make it my eighteenth birthday present. It’s only a week away.”
Babaga took off her shawl and wrapped it around my shivering frame. Then she did something unexpected. She hugged me. Babaga wasn’t affectionate. She had hugged me before, but those were rare occasions.
“Babaga?” I asked as I wrapped my arms around her in return. I thought this whole thing, trying to leave and stopping me from leaving, had become a game between us, like Babaga would honor my request if I finally bested her, but now I wasn’t so sure. Was she really that worried about me leaving the woods?
“One day, you might best me, but today isn’t that day,” she said and pushed me away.
Any doubts I had floated away like they never existed. I just tired her out today. That meant I was getting closer. Maybe she’d even give me that birthday present.
“It’s time for supper,” Babaga announced. “Come home and get dressed so you don’t catch pneumonia.”
I looked at the trees surrounding me, from every angle, a complete rotation, to see if I could find another crack of light from in between the trunks and branches. Nothing. I missed that opportunity. It didn’t matter. I would get out of these woods one day, because there was a world waiting for me. I could feel it on the breath of the wind, hear it in its haunting howls.
But I didn’t know just how much would change.
I didn’t know how broken the world outside was. I didn’t know my own legend. I didn’t know about the four werewolves in my future or how my love for them would change everything.