It was dark in the valley by the stream.
Rain fell in a never-ending sheet of frigid droplets. Lightning flashed, occasionally striking one of the trees in the forest and setting it ablaze, a rapid claw slash of fire which was quickly extinguished by the rain. The heavy wind roared, an invisible force sweeping through the trees, uprooting the ones with the weakest roots.
Inside a hole dug into a small hill near the stream was a shivering wolf. She crouched at the back of her den, head lying flat on the damp soil, fur draped in shadows. Lightning streaked her pale gray pelt with brightness, momentarily illuminating yellow eyes wide with terror. Her name was Lora.
She wasn’t shivering from the cold. Wolves had thick coats, and hers was especially dense, as her ancestors were from the far north. In winter, she was as bushy as a bear, and her tail streamed out behind her like a wild horse’s when she ran.
Lora shivered because she was giving birth.
All she could hear was howling wind, battering rain, and cracking thunder. And for a moment, she felt alone. She knew her pack was just outside the den, waiting and worrying, but in her pain, she couldn’t sense them. She felt only the warm, sweet brightness of oblivion tearing harder and harder at her mind.
As her vision flickered and dimmed, the thought of her mate and daughter pulled her away from the light and back into the darkness of the world.
Outside the den, three wolves paced, paws slapping against the thin fingers of water that rolled down the hill to the stream. Their ears were pricked, though they could hear nothing but the storm, and their eyes glowed in the darkness as they watched the small entrance to the hole in the ground where Lora was birthing her pups. A fourth wolf stood in front of them, larger than his packmates, quiet and still.
This wolf was a magnificent creature, though his fur hung limp and wet from the rain. He was dusty brown with streaks of copper and gray, like a sheer cliff face. His back was heavily flecked with color, his belly almost white. He seemed to slump just a bit, as though the burden of leading his pack for three long years was weighing him down. His eyes were the color of springtime leaves, and now they were narrowed to slits as he stared unblinkingly at the den.
This was Alric, Lora’s mate, the alpha male and leader of the Willow River pack.
Another thin web of lightning partitioned the sky, striking a tree in the forest. Alric turned his head and watched as the fire blazed for a moment, glowing like a torch in the rain, before the water snuffed it out in a haze of smoke.
The storm was wreaking havoc on the entire valley. The forest on either side of the den site was constantly assailed by lightning, its trees blown over by the wind. On the other side of the stream, the meadow where the herds often grazed had been reduced to a muddy wasteland, pockmarked with holes where the elks’ sharp hooves had penetrated the ground’s sticky surface.
The den itself had been dug into the side of a hill facing the stream, with a long stretch of open area between it and the willow trees that lined the water’s edge. The fronds of the willows were tossed about in the ever-changing wind, desperately clinging to their trees as the storm whipped them through the air like thin, leafy banners. Their trunks were submerged in a foot of water, bending but never breaking.
In the five years Alric had lived, he had never seen a storm like this. It had to be the work of the ancestors. They sent storms and famines to show their displeasure and brought clear days and elk herds when they were happy. If they were angry at Alric and his pack, what did that mean for Lora and her pups? Would the ancestors steal their lives, rip them away from their packmates like willow fronds ripped from their trees?
Alric pricked his ears, listening for a sign. But he could hear nothing over the wind and rain. He could smell nothing above the scents of fire and water and his packmates’ fear. And he felt alone.
Alric had been leading the Willow River pack for nearly three years. All the wolves obeyed him, even his mate Lora, though she was older than him and probably wiser. But it was the alpha male, not his mate, who led the pack. And his strongest son would follow him. That was the way it had been for generations, the Old Way.
On the surface, the Old Way was a collection of laws, ceremonies, and customs that governed the lives of the wolves that followed it. But it was also a system of belief, an entire way of thinking, all guided by a strict adherence to the will of the ancestors.
Alric’s father had taught him to respect the ancestors, to heed their signs and follow their laws. Some neighboring packs did things differently, but they had always been Alric’s enemies. The North River and Mud Lake packs had been rivals of Willow River for generations. They had cast aside the ancient customs of the wolf and betrayed the ancestors, proving their depravity time and time again. The new leader of the Mud Lake pack had gone so far as to exile her own father.
The thunder crashed again, like the horns of rutting bull elk cracking together in a rhythmic dance for dominance. Alric shivered, then reminded himself that he had to remain perfectly still. A leader who wanted to keep control of his pack could not appear weak.
One wolf was watching Alric with hard golden eyes, as though already plotting his downfall. Alric sensed the hostile gaze and whipped his head around, glaring at a black male with a white patch on his chest. Hawk. The alpha rumbled out a low growl. It had been three seasons since Hawk joined the pack, a summer, fall, and winter of growing animosity. Hawk was already the pack’s beta, Alric’s second in command, but he wasn’t content with his position. He wanted more.
Alric’s bright green eyes stood out like shining emeralds in the darkness. Hawk looked away. He wasn’t ready to challenge the alpha male. They waited on the birth of his litter now, but should Alric die before producing an heir, Hawk would become the new leader. And the storm was not an auspicious sign for the alpha’s pups.
Alric watched as Hawk’s eyes narrowed to slits. He knew his beta wasn’t loyal to him, but Hawk was the only other male in the pack. The benefits of having a strong second-in-command outweighed the risks. For now.
A piercing yip sounded from within the den, louder than the wind and rain, cutting through Alric’s mind like a tooth. His ear twitched.
Beside Alric, a small gray and silver female whined, her thick fur clinging to her ribs like sap to tree bark and her ears pinned back. Her eyes were the same color as Alric’s, bright green, but they were glazed over with fear.
Irritated, Alric turned to the female and shoved his ears forward, baring his teeth. That was all it took for her to quiet down.
This wolf was Rynna, Alric’s daughter and the sole survivor of Lora’s first litter. She had her mother’s unusual fur, not a hint of brown or red in it, only a bluish, misty sheen. She stared down at her paws, wondering if Lora would live.
After what had happened the past two springs, no wolf was sure.
Memories bombarded Rynna: wet splinters digging into her paws, a cold current dragging at her fur, fear and pain, and the sound of her siblings’ whimpers from somewhere behind her, out of reach.
All three of her brothers had died. And the year after that, Lora had given birth to just a single stillborn pup. Rynna could still hear her father’s sorrowful howling.
Rynna wondered what Alric would do if Lora failed again. An alpha female was only just past her prime at six years of age, but Lora was now a weaker wolf than most. Like many alpha females, she led the hunt, and she had been kicked countless times by elk. She had also barely survived two births, and an illness had almost claimed her life the previous winter. She walked with a wavering in her step, like a strong gust of wind could blow her away.
Alric glanced first at Rynna, then at the den. He knew why Rynna was worried. He would have to find a new alpha female if Lora was unable to give him the male heir he so desperately needed. The favor of the ancestors was crucial to their survival. If he were forced to abandon the Old Way, the long-dead wolves in the sky would not be pleased.
Their fate was already in doubt. There were four wolves waiting in the dark outside the den, and they were each as silent as a shadow. They and Lora were all that remained of the Willow River pack, with only one pup surviving to adulthood over the past two years. Alric was thankful for Hawk and Wyanet, the dispersal wolves who had joined his pack. Without them, he and Lora and his timid daughter would have to hold down a territory far too big for them to defend.
Finally, the wind began to fade, and the thunder sank into the distance. The willow fronds, no longer in the storm’s grasp, swayed gently on their branches as though nothing had happened. One, torn from its branch by the wind, landed as soft as a feather at Alric’s paws. The only sound now was the gentle patter of rain. No noise came from the den. Alric couldn’t move. He couldn’t breathe. His fear kept him frozen.
And then a dappled gray and silver head emerged from the hole in the ground. Lora’s pale eyes were dull with exhaustion, but there was a hint of triumph there as well. Her ears were pricked up and her tail held aloft and wagging, signaling that all was well.
The pack suddenly came alive. All of them, even Alric, began shivering with excitement, wagging their tails and spinning in circles like they were pups themselves. Joyful whimpers filled the clearing, and playful paws slapped against the muddy ground as the wolves danced. Their belly fur still dripped, and raindrops still drummed thick and fast on their skulls, but they hardly noticed. Rynna and Wyanet, the pack’s young subordinate females, began a game of wolf tag, which was enthusiastically joined by the two males.
None of them went near the den. None of them dared. Lora would drive away any wolf who got too close to the den before the pups were ready to emerge. This was an Old Way tradition which Alric had no choice but to respect. It would be three weeks before he would meet his offspring.
Lora would leave her pups only to feed off previous kills, or pack members would drop choice bits of meat at the den mouth for her. In her absence, Alric would lead the hunts.
For Willow River’s alpha male, it would be a long three weeks.
Shadow of the Pack Book 1
by Nicole Austen
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
The once-powerful and proud Willow River pack is struggling. But when a special litter of pups is born, hope of a bright future returns. Mala, born different, will never be given a chance to prove that she can be anything other than the runt of the litter. Some say her differences may even put the pack at risk. Now, her parents worry how the rest of the pack will react. Will they mistreat her? Will they fear her? But Mala doesn’t think she’s a threat to anyone, least of all her own family. Before Mala can change the hearts and minds of her pack, she must find out once and for all exactly why she is so different. In her search for the truth, Mala discovers something surprising about her pack and herself. Could she be the one wolf who changes everything?
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Nicole Austen is a 19-year-old writer from Los Angeles. A lifelong love of animals and fantasy inspired her to begin writing Black Magic when she was thirteen years old, a draft of which won a National Scholastic silver medal for novel writing in 2019. Black Magic was published by Month9Books on August 30, 2022. Besides writing, Nicole loves hiking, playing piano, and spending time with her family and dog. She currently attends college in Boston.
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