It was late. Very, very late.
“Excuse me, Kairo?” Imogen groaned.
We were sitting in my den. It was past moon high when Imogen, Dakari’s friend, had arrived breathlessly to tell me that I was going to have a pup with my now ex-mate.
“Can you keep a secret?” I pleaded for the second time. “I swear, you can’t tell Dakari. She will… I don’t even know.”
“She already left you,” Imogen pointed out dryly. “What do you care if I tell her?”
I cocked my head and stared at her. “Come on, Imo.”
Imogen shrugged. “Fine.”
I stared at her curiously. She looked like some of the sheepdogs I had seen in the fields I hunted in. Maybe she was part sheepdog. She had sparkling, curious green eyes that shone in the moonlight. She was beautiful, and I had loved her for much longer than I had loved Dakari, but that was not the secret that I was going to tell her that night.
“I was going to leave Dakari. But it wasn’t because I didn’t love her,” I confessed, staring into Imogen’s deep eyes.
“Then why would you leave her?” Imogen demanded.
Because I love you, not her, I thought. Instead, I said, “Because my pack won’t allow me to have a mate anymore.”
“Your pack? Since when did you have a pack?” Imogen quired, eyes wide.
“I have for a long time, and I’ve been able to keep Dakari a secret for a while. But my friend finally found out about me.” I sighed. “They’re very selective about who we let into the pack, and since I kept her a secret for so long, I was going to have to get rid of her eventually.”
Imogen shook her head. “You have to leave this pack.”
“What?” I spluttered. “Imo-they’re my family!”
Imogen gave me a skeptical look.
Suddenly, an idea flickered in my head, and I grinned.
“Imogen. You should come with me tomorrow. We have a meeting,” I told her. “You could pretend to be my mate, then I could mend things with Dakari after the meeting, say we got back together, and introduce her to the pack!”
Secretly, I had no intention of involving Dakari. Maybe, I figured, if Imogen saw me with my friends from my pack, she would fall for me.
Imogen shrugged. “Why not?”
The next day, when the sun was setting, Imogen and I arrived at my pack’s camp.
It was a small clearing surrounded by pine trees. Josen and Mari stood guarding the gates.
“Kayiro, de ty buv?” Kairo, where have you been? Josen asked, smirking.
“Khto tviy druh pani?” Who’s your lady friend? Mari sneered.
I rolled my eyes, and I felt Imogen stiffen at my shoulder, biting back a sharp retort. I admired the fierceness she had.
“Mari, Josen, let us in. It doesn’t matter who she is,” I growled.
The guards exchanged a glance, then stepped aside. I led Imogen into my camp.
The den was a large circle with stone dens lining the tall pine walls. Wolves milled around, talking, eating, and laying in the sunlight. My best friend, Besnik, a white wolf with yellow eyes, padded up to us.
“Kairo,” he greeted, dipping his head. “I see you have a new friend here. What happened to Dakari?”
“Your friends are very nosy for being a secret society,” Imogen hissed in my ear, but luckily, Besnik didn’t seem to hear.
“Dakari and I separated,” I explained briefly. “This is Imogen.”
“Ah, hello.” Besnik gave Imo a warm smile. “Welcome.”
“Thank you,” Imogen replied, faking sweetness. I nearly snorted with laughter but I held it in.
Besnik nodded. He turned to me, his face all serious. “Tse toy, koho ty spravdi lyubyv?” Is this the one you really loved?
“Tak.” Yes. I murmured.
Besnik nodded approvingly. “Are you going to introduce her to Roark?”
Roark was the alpha of the pack. I gulped, picturing his piercing amber stare, and nodded. Imogen’s eyes brightened with curiosity as Besnik dipped his head and moved away. “Who’s Roark?”
“The alpha,” I replied shortly. Imogen looked slightly hurt at my abrupt response but didn’t say anything as we padded towards the Cliff, a rock that jutted out of the wall of pines. A den was carved underneath it.
We padded inside. My heart thumped.
It was dark, but I could make out a dark brown timber wolf was sprawled on his side with two white wolves beside him. One massaged his back and the other his stomach. The timber wolf’s eyes were closed as he breathed slowly, in and out. The smell of mint wafted from the corner, where it was cooking over a tiny fire. I inhaled the sharp scent and choked a little, but Imogen sneezed, waking up the timber wolf.
The two white females cried out and escaped from the den in a flourish. I raised an eyebrow at the wolf who sat up blearily and called, “Girls, girls! Come back!”
They didn’t return. The timber shook his head and caught my eye. His mouth split into a pleased grin.
“Kairo. Finally. You have come home to the meeting! It’s been a while since we have seen you.”
“Yes, Father,” I said softly. I felt Imogen stiffen at my shoulder at the word ‘father’.
Roark grinned. “It is a pleasure. Let us go outside so we can start.”
He led the way out and leaped onto the Cliff before letting out a loud howl. All the wolves below arranged themselves into a circle as Roark leaped down, leaving a conspicuous spot for Imo and me to sit next to him. I groaned inwardly but sat.
A large pile of wood sat in the middle of the circle. Roark raised a paw, pointing it towards it, and murmured, “Ignite.”
The wood immediately lit up, starting a roaring fire. All was silent except for the crackling of the flame. The sky was dark, so the fire illuminated all of our faces with amber.
“Alpha,” everyone murmured in reply. Imogen and I stayed quiet.
“The Flame unites us,” Roark announced slowly. “It is the mark of the alpha to unite with the Flame. We use it for our superiority. Who shall fall to the Flame next?”
“The Wind Pack,” many hissed.
“With the Flame, they shall fall,” Roark growled. He stood up, and everyone followed. Imo and I scrambled to our feet.
“Where are we going?” Imogen whisper-shouted in my ear as my eyes went wide.
I didn’t think it would be an attack meeting tonight!
“We,” I breathed, “are going to attack the Wind Pack.”
The wolves started to flow out of the camp like a raging river, sweeping Imo and I up in the current. We jogged along, surrounded on all sides, into the night.
“What are we going to do?” Imogen whispered.
We were crouched outside the bramble wall of the Wind Pack camp, and everyone around us was tense and waiting for the order to attack.
“Okay,” I breathed back. “When we’re told to attack, we’re going to duck to avoid everyone, then get the heck out of here as fast as we can. Okay?”
Imogen nodded, a lump in her throat. Without even thinking we pressed our sides to each other nervously.
Suddenly, I heard my father’s howl. “Attack!”
Instinctively, I wrapped my tail over Imo’s back and ducked my head down. She bent too, and we waited breathlessly for the stream of warriors to run past.
“Okay, now!” I barked.
We both stood up as the last ones ran past us, and then we sprinted in the other direction, eyes wide and panting. We ran like our lives depended on it, our hearts thumping fearfully, until skidding to a stop a few hundred yards away from the attack.
“Ahem. Where do you think you’re going?”
Imogen and I exchanged a terrified glance, then whipped around. Besnik was standing behind us, an eyebrow raised.
“We’re leaving,” I replied as smoothly as I could.
“Mhm.” Besnik snorted. “You’re not leaving. You’re one of us, Kairo. We attack, you attack too.”
“And what about me?” Imogen demanded, her eyes fiery.
“You can go. You’re not one of us.” Besnik flicked his tail dismissively.
I gave Imogen a terrified glance, fearing she would leave, but she didn’t move. She didn’t tear her gaze from Besnik.
“If he were one of you, he would be attacking. He’s his own person,” Imogen continued, snarling.
“Really?” Besnik lashed his tail and narrowed his eyes.
Imogen nodded, her eyes slits.
“If you two aren’t some of us,” Besnik snapped, “then get out and never return.”
Imogen smirked. “With pleasure.”
She poked me with her tail, and we exchanged a fleeting look before sprinting away.
“Wow. Thanks for saving me back there.”
The sun was just starting to peek over the hill, and Imogen sat across from me in front of my den. The dawn light lit up her fur beautifully.
“Yeah. It was nothing.” Imogen blushed.
I swallowed. I needed to tell her.
“Imogen,” I said softly, “There’s something I’ve needed to tell you.”
Imogen met my eyes.
“I…. I never really loved Dakari. I mated with her because… because I wanted to get closer to you.”
Imogen’s eyes went wide, and she pressed her lips together. I felt my heart sink at her expression. “Let me guess. You don’t feel the same way.”
“No, no,” Imogen breathed. “I do.”
The two of us stared at each other, then pressed our noses together.