In the past, I was sixteen when I first realised I had feelings for Aleric, eighteen when I knew I was in love with him.
All my life I’d grown up believing that he would be mine one day, hoping I would make him proud. I was groomed, controlled, and moulded to become the perfect Luna from the moment I was born.
I remembered my first shift, how it felt once I saw him with the mate bond connecting us. It was like the air around him shimmered, beckoning me forward, demanding that I gravitate around him.
If I focused enough, I could even still recall how his skin felt on mine; like tiny sparks of pleasure wherever it touched. So strong, an incredible leader, and capable of feats in battle no one else had accomplished. Those were the good memories of Aleric I’d buried.
So why was my mind surfacing this now? Maybe I was trying to justify to myself that at one point in my life I’d wanted this. That the old Aria would have revelled in this moment.
To wear an Alpha’s mark was regarded as the highest point of honour any female could achieve in a pack. So what did I want now?
…Did my wants even matter anymore? What choice was there if it was this or war?
Though, if there was anyone else in the room whose desires should have been taken into consideration, they were standing by Tytus’s side… looking furious.
Aleric’s eyes held that same glint in them that I’d seen right before he’d killed people in the past. The look of cold fury you didn’t want to find yourself the subject of.
“No,” was all he said to Tytus, his voice like ice.
Several people around me flinched and I couldn’t blame them for feeling that way. If you weren’t used to seeing Aleric like this, it could be a scary sight to behold the first time. And from what I’d seen of him in this life, it was rare to see him like this now.
But rather than flinch, a combination of mixed feelings swelled inside me instead. I didn’t want him to mark me, sure, but a small remnant inside me stung at hearing the same rejection from him again that I’d repeatedly heard in the past.
“No, I’m not doing that,” Aleric continued.
“Alec, I’m not asking you,” Tytus replied flatly.
“I should have a choice.”
“You did have a choice,” Tytus interrupted. “You chose to help Aria cover this up for the last few months. You didn’t think that I realised that already?”
The two stared at each other with such silent hostility that the lower ranks in the room shifted uncomfortably under the pressure. It was like a tangible air of enmity filled the room around us.
Finally, Aleric broke first, turning his face to the side in frustration, his teeth gritted.
It was submission.
Without further argument, I watched as he then walked towards me, eyes cast down, every step making uncertainty churn inside me the closer he came.
What was he feeling right now? Anger? Frustration? No… this felt like something else.
He finally met my eyes when he stood only a few feet away and I saw something unexpected as I searched for my answers. His face softened immediately from the ice that had been there only moments earlier… and instead he looked ashamed, embarrassed… maybe even guilty.
And as he halted in place, I looked back as stoically as I could. It wasn’t going to make it easier for either of us if I betrayed how I felt at that moment. How terrified I was of tying myself to the future of uncertainty I’d tried so hard to avoid.
But, without a word, I silently gathered my loose hair up in my hand and brushed it to the side, giving him clear access to the area he’d need.
If this was the price of saving thousands of lives, of saving Cai, then so be it.
I’d always imagined growing up that this moment would be special, more intimate. I guess all of that could have been disregarded and I would have just settled for someone who actually wanted to mark me. Maybe I should have found someone from the Winter Mist to do it months ago.
After all, it wasn’t like Tytus could un-mark me and a person from this pack wouldn’t cause a war.
But, deep down, I had to believe that Aleric had changed, that we had changed. Perhaps he still didn’t want me in that way this time around, but maybe the friendship we’d forged over the last few years would prevail enough to ensure it wasn’t a repeat of tragedy.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered when he finally stood next to me.
He rubbed at his face uncomfortably before sighing. I wished the Goddess had given me an ability to read minds rather than the cursed vision atrocity she’d bestowed instead. How I so badly wanted to know what he was thinking.
Aleric shifted before hesitantly placing one hand on my shoulder, the other supporting the side of my head, and slowly, he moved in. I could feel his warm breath along my neck and my body reacted, tensing up in anticipation of what was about to happen next.
“Breathe,” he reminded me softly and I nodded my head ever so slightly. He must have realised I’d been holding my breath since before he leaned in.
Could he feel my body trembling? Hear my heart racing? Surely he’d have to since he was so close, courtesy of his enhanced senses. Or maybe he was too preoccupied with the task at hand, focusing on bringing his wolf forward enough to complete the job.
His grip suddenly tightened on me and I squeezed my eyes shut, knowing what was about to happen next.
…But nothing came.
“Do you trust me?” he whispered, barely audible even to myself.
My eyes immediately flew open in surprise but I didn’t know how to reply. It was already a loaded question even without the many eyes of the ranked council watching, expecting this marking to be happening. Where would I even begin to start answering that?
Before I could reply though I felt him exhale.
“I suppose it doesn’t matter,” he whispered. “You’re probably going to resent me either way.”
He then pulled away from me and I caught sight of how dark his eyes were, proof of how close he’d been to marking me. Nervously, I swallowed, unsure what he was planning next.
“I’m not marking her,” Aleric declared. “She’s not even of age yet. You’re asking me to mark someone who can’t even shift.”
Tytus narrowed his eyes. “Alec, this.”
“No,” Aleric said coldly, interrupting Tytus this time. “I’m not doing it.”
With how close his wolf was to the surface, mixed in with his absolute determination to disobey our Alpha’s orders, it was a dangerous sight. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Aleric was planning to take this as far as challenging him. Was this his alternative?
To create civil war instead?
The sound of someone clearing their throat then sounded out; what felt almost like an intrusion to the display occurring in front of us. Immediately, everyone’s eyes turned to the direction it came from.
It was Elder Luke.
“Alpha… with all due respect,” he started, “I’m inclined to agree with the young Alpha heir here. Putting aside the more morally questionable arguments to be made about marking someone underage by force, I would also like to point out that we don’t hold much information in regards to the ramifications that biologically it would hold. By nature, the marking process is laying claim to the other’s wolf, an instinct derived from our beast side.
I feel as though we would be ignoring the obvious here if we went ahead with this, noting that Aria having no wolf yet is a possible risk.
I don’t intend to tell you the best course of action here, of course, but it would be wise to keep in mind that this would be unknown territory, even potentially fatal.
Because… well… I’m no doctor, but I imagine the girl’s healing ability isn’t yet equivalent to someone of age… and we’re planning to rip into her neck.”
I’d never been so relieved in my life to hear that I might have just died moments earlier. It was enough to almost make my legs give out from under me.
I knew this man was far too good for this pack. How many times had Elder Luke tried to rescue me now?
The room was quiet, everyone realising that there was truth to his words. And this was probably what worried them as they held their breath, waiting for our Alpha to speak.
Tytus didn’t seem pleased with this reasoning, his mind probably focused on ensuring I was contained. In his head, it was probably still worth the risk or he’d kill me anyway to guarantee no one else got their hands on me.
“This is the way it must be to ensure the prosperity of this pack,” Tytus concluded. “If we need to call for a doctor then so be it, but I don’t see any other way apart from completely chaining her up… and we all know her status will make that difficult to maintain.”
He was referring to those who would see my obvious imprisonment within a jail cell as a direct insult to the Goddess.
I wasn’t sure if hearing his concern about it made me hopeful or scared.
“Then we think of something else,” Aleric said. “Even if it means keeping her in silver handcuffs, I’m sure there is a compromise to be made here.”
His words had been said in over exaggeration, not to be taken literally, but some hadn’t picked up on the undertone.
“…What if we did something similar…,” a different Elder spoke up. I recognised them as Elder Nathaniel who typically was a voice of opposition for me.
“What if we applied the same principle as silver cuffs, but adapted it to a more mobile and practical form? Say… a collar, for instance? Something to ensure that area of the neck remains untouched.”
“…That could work,” Tytus replied in thought.
I took a step forward. “Wait… hold on a second.”
Aleric’s hand grabbed mine to get me to stop speaking and I looked up at him in outrage.
“They want to collar me like a pet dog,” I hissed.
He leaned over, his body towering over as he moved towards my ear. “Do you prefer the alternative, Aria?” he asked in a low voice.
…Was this really worse than being marked?
Instantly, I bit my tongue and turned away, pulling my hand out of his grip forcefully.
In front, I could feel Tytus’ eyes watching me but I refused to look at him. Was he gloating inside knowing I hated this idea?
“Alpha, prolonged exposure to silver may also have unknown results,” Alpha Luke chimed in.
“I’d hardly see the mild sensation that silver causes to the surface of our skin as anything of dire consequence,” Elder Nathaniel argued back. “So long as she doesn’t keep any open wounds near it, I would think the whole thing is harmless enough.
No one here can deny that it would be the most effective way of containing all her abilities, all the while allowing her to still move freely. Within reason, of course.”
The continued silence in the room was only more proof that everyone was actually considering this, that they were all in agreement that this would be the best way to proceed.
I turned to Elder Luke, desperately hoping he had some other argument to counter Elder Nathaniel, but he looked as though he was holding his tongue.
Perhaps he did know of how best to argue back but considered this to actually be the only viable alternative to the marking. Was this mercy or a slow torture in his mind?
“Fine, then it’s settled,” Tytus said. “Elder Nathaniel please work on having a collar fashioned for Aria immediately.” His eyes then narrowed towards me. “Not too loose though. I don’t want there to be room for any… stray Alpha heir teeth to get in.”
He was referring to Cai. It looked as though he was refusing to let his hunch about us go.
“Oh… and one more thing,” he added. “I’ve shown leniency today, noting the advice from the council, but that will not be the case in the future. Upon Aria’s eighteenth birthday, she will be marked by Aleric.
That is not up for discussion. The collar is merely a means to ensure we get to that point without issue.”
Less than a year. I had less than a year before my real punishment would be carried out. What could I possibly do in such a short amount of time and with all my freedoms stripped from me?
But there were still more important matters yet to be taken care of.
“Does this ensure the release of Cai safely back to The Silver Lake pack?” I asked. “That we won’t be participating in a war with them?”
Tytus sighed in annoyance, as if already tired of my existence in his presence.
“Yes, yes, fine,” he conceded, waving me off. “War is far too expensive anyway.”
He then gave the order for Cai to be let go and escorted to the border immediately, giving me at least some comfort that all of this hadn’t been for nothing.
I exhaled, the fatigue finally hitting me as the weight of all those lives came off my shoulders. Things could be set right now, even if it still left many more challenges ahead.
The hours that came after consisted mostly of sitting around in handcuffs, surrounded by several guards whilst they forged the silver collar for me.
Since I had no idea what the silver process involved, the hours seemed to drag excruciatingly slow as I had no indication of how long it would take.
At some point during the wait, I realised Cai would have made it over the border and would be on his way home already. Was he thinking of me? His last memory of us was going to be in that meeting hall, fighting for his life as he was almost killed by my pack under false charges.
A part of me hoped he did hate me.
At least it would make things easier to think that. I hoped that he would return home and continue on with his life… I hoped that he would be happy.
Because if all of this had taught me something, it was that the best thing I could do for the safety of myself, as well as others, was to try and forget about Cai… even if it broke me little to even consider that.
The Goddess had said that she couldn’t change my mate, that the destiny of Aleric and I was set in stone. It was starting to feel as though the more I tried to stray from that path, the more damage it was leaving in its wake.
How in depth was the radius around that fate? Did it mean I was meant to return and play the role of Luna as well? Be the docile, quiet girl I’d been in the past? Don’t ask questions, be obedient, act only in the interest of the pack and your Alpha, never yourself.
Serve your mate to the best of your ability. What exactly was I meant to be changing if not the entire circumstances that lead to my original demise?
I suddenly felt exhausted, now tired of fighting for the future.
Couldn’t someone else take over? Thea would be banned from the pack within the next few days and I couldn’t see Aleric falling for her any time soon. Maybe that would be enough… enough to stop whatever it was Selene wanted me to prevent.
The Elders finally arrived then, the collar in hand, and they began the process of fastening it around my neck.
I could feel the very mild burn sensation it caused to my skin but it was no worse than the cuffs that had been on my wrists only moments earlier. I was sure that soon I wouldn’t even notice it at all once it became the new norm.
“I wouldn’t recommend trying to remove it,” Elder Nathaniel said, eyeing me off as I gently felt around the contraption. “It’s been enforced with the strongest metal we could find so you’ll only hurt yourself if you try anything.
The only way to remove it is with the key and I believe Alpha Tytus said he will be keeping that on his person at all times.”
Brilliant, I thought miserably to myself.
The only thing I wanted to do now was go home and sleep. Maybe never go outside again. This abomination around my neck was an eyesore and not exactly discreet.
The thought of the pack seeing me contained like this was degrading and humiliating enough.
In a daze, I followed as they escorted me out of the meeting hall and into a car. Several warriors followed and I assumed that was always going to be the case from now on. They might have stripped me of all my abilities but they hadn’t technically tied me down here yet.
A mark would have caused me pain had I strayed too far from Aleric for an extended period of time, thereby tethering me here. But a collar wouldn’t do that. They would need to keep an eye on me still.
“Time to get out,” a voice said from the driver’s seat, cutting through my thoughts.
I looked up and exited the car without paying too much attention… only to realise we weren’t at my home.
“W-why did you bring me here?” I asked nervously. “I thought you were taking me home?”
“We did,” one of the warriors replied. “Our instructions were to take you to where you’ll be residing from now on.
The Alpha has advised that you’re to be moved to the packhouse immediately in order to ensure, not only your own safety, but also to allow an easier transition for when you’ll become Luna one day.”
Lies. They just wanted to keep an eye on me, confine me to an area that would be harder for me to escape from.
I knew from previous experience in the past just how difficult it was to run away under the eyes of the packhouse… and that was before I had a collar on me.
“Come along,” a different warrior said, guiding me with a hand to my elbow.
Without hesitating, I quickly snatched my arm away from their grip. “I can walk by myself, thank you.”
I followed behind as they led me forward, all the while wondering which of the spare rooms they’d be having me stay in until Aleric became Alpha.
I vaguely remembered someone once telling me about a smaller room on the second floor that had nice sun in the morning.
Maybe I’d be lucky enough to have somewhere like that to wait out the time until my eighteenth birthday.
But as they led me through the familiar hallways and stairs, a pit of uneasiness began to grow in my stomach.
…Because they weren’t taking me to a spare room.
They were taking me to my old room. The Luna quarters.
The very place I’d suffered abuse for years.