"Are you sure you want to join our little group?" Kia demanded. A smirk marring her perfect features as we looked around nervously at the woods.
Angel and I exchanged glances and nodded together. Being 19, Lara was the eldest. Next came Kia at 18, me at 16, Angel at 15, and Star at 13.
With an abrupt nod, Lara led the way. We climbed up a steep Cliffside. Ghostly winds shrieked and howled at us, while an icy fog played around our rapidly freezing ankles. Dressed in flowing white robes, with candles flickering in the dark, silent night, we continued our climb.
Of the five of us, I was the only redhead. My fiery hair was my pride, as it lay heavily past my knees. Except for Angel, the others had short hair the shade of onyx and mahogany. Angel had been blessed with a silvery shade of blonde. Her locks were so pale they rivaled the color of new fallen snow. She also had glacial green eyes and a whimsical smile, complete with dimples. Angel was the only true friend I had ever had.
Suddenly the path veered off and the tall trees grew even thicker. The undergrowth caused us all to stumble more than once. With a muffled groan, I tripped over a huge tree root and went spiraling on the forest floor.
With a shriek the wind picked up and blew out all of our candles.
"You all go on, I'll stay with Sabrina, and we'll catch up in a few moments." Angel drawled to the other girls, with only a faint trace of a southern accent to show that she wasn't a born and bred northerner.
I heard a few mutters then the girls left me alone with Angel. As I lay on the icy ground; with the wispy fog flowing over me, I didn't want to get up. The clouds broke up for a moment and a full, silvery moon peeked down at us. While I tried to get my breath back something icy closed over my numb ankle. It tightened in spasms, forcing me to moan in pain.
I looked down to see what was clasped so tightly around my numb ankle. There with a grasp tighter than an iron band was a skeletal hand. The scent of decaying flesh was overpowering in the mountain air.
I drew in a shaky breath and heard someone start to scream. It was so blood-curdling that I didn't recognize myself. Before I succumbed to hysteria, someone slapped me hard across the face.
"What happened?" I croaked.
"Thank God your all right." Angel cried out as she knelt beside me.
"Did you see the hand?" I asked, begging her with my eyes to say yes.
"What hand?" She asked in surprise.
Instead of trying to explain my Gift or Curse (depending on how you looked at it,) I started to get up. Once I stood on my own two feet; and regained my balance, I leaned over to pick up my candle. Taking a box of matches out of one of the robe's numerous pockets, I tried to light the candle. But the wind kept blowing the match out, over and over until I was about to cry with frustration.
A spooky red glow surrounded the burnt wick of my white candle. An acrid stench of sulfur arose as the wick burst in to flame.
I looked over at Angel with a slight mocking smile. The crimson glow still twirled around her fingertips. Had I been a "normal" person, I would have run away, screaming in terror. But as Shakespeare says' "What fools these mortals be", I just smiled mockingly at her.
"Thanks Angel, What would I do without you?" I catechized sardonically.
"You'd get along, I suppose." She retorted, repressing a smirk.
"Yeah, well let's catch up with the others, All right?" I asked, embarrassment flushing my face with heat.
With a sighing gust, the banshee wind died down, leaving us in silence as we climbed upward. Everything in the forest was silent, as if listening to us talk about our fears.
"Okay, let's go!" Eagerly Angel led the way up the Deer trail. On our way up the fog became thicker. It covered our path with ease. The iciness of the misty vapor clung and swirled around our numb feet. It broke up slightly for a moment then closed together fast, almost as if it to mocked us.
I looked over at Angels' uneasy face and knew that I wasn't the only one with strange thoughts. As if it sensed my thoughts, the wind picked up and yowled at us like a wet cat. We trekked upward, now more scared than ever before. The forest was around us like a tall forbidding fortress that we had wandered into. It was so dark that even the moon's pale face couldn't light the way.
With a stumbling fall; I tripped again, landing hard on my right arm. My stomach heaved and rolled at the sound of bone being snapped in two. With Angels' help, I picked myself up. But once on my feet, pain and queasiness made me sit back down. I brushed the dead leaves and twigs off of my robe as best as I could with just my left arm.
"Angel, I think we could use some light." I moaned through the thick cloud of pain that swirled around my head.
Angel stood up and, within a matter of moments, we were surrounded with a reddish-gold light. I held my arm out, so she could see how bad it was broken.
With a gasp, Angel sat down and started tearing strips off of her robe. It was completely broken. Bone pushed through the skin like pins into a voodoo doll. The bone blocked most of the blood from spurting out of my arm. But the drops that did spill fell onto the lap of my white robe.
My aching head started spinning, faster and faster, until it thumped on the moss covered ground.
I was slightly aware of Angel wrapping my arm in the strips of cloth she had torn off of her robe.
"Thanks Angie." I murmured thickly, trying to get my lips to work properly.
Angel searched through her pockets and pulled out a bottle of Advil. From around her neck she took off her canteen. Angel then handed the Advil and water to me and watched as I put the pill on my tongue and swallowed it with a gulp of water.
With Angel's help I stumbled back to my feet. I then lurched my way back to the path.
After a few moments of silent travel, I broke the silence.
"Angel, I'm very glad your here with me. I don't know what I'd do with out you."
"Well, you are my only friend, I couldn't just leave you alone, now could I?" Angel asked in a puzzled voice.
"Be that as it may, I'm still glad you were here." I drawled in a sleepy voice, the soft Kentucky drawl that I hid so well showing through. As we walked onward I felt blood drip down my wrist, off my fingers, to puddle on the cold ground.
Without any warning, my legs gave out. The last coherent thought to filter through my mind was filled with dread, "Oh, God, please don't let the wolves pick up the scent of my blood." While I floated in a sea of darkness, I heard a pack of wolves caterwauling. I vaguely heard Angel welcoming somebody. With a deep sigh, I let the sea carry me away.
I woke up hazily at one point, burning up. All I wanted was to get up and cool off. Someone put water to my parched lips, but after a sip, the water disappeared. The burning of my skin was cooled off slightly with a cool, wet rag. As if someone took joy in tormenting me, the wet bindings on my forehead kept slipping down into my eyes.
Finally, I came awake and was able to sit up without feeling dizzy. I felt warm but not overly hot. With a groan, I got to my knees. I squinted, looking for Angel. She was no where in sight. But something else was.
I gasped in shock, I wasn't in my room or even in the woods. I appeared to be in a fairly large cave. The pallet I had slept on was covered with a wolf's pelt. On the ground surrounding my pallet were eight large wolves.
My eyes widened with fear. It was my worst nightmare come alive. With an in drawn breath I whirled around and tried to run.
Unfortunately for me, one of the wolves woke up and twined itself around my ankles. I moved my arms, trying to keep my balance. With a shriek I fell backwards on the pallet. It was then that I noticed the heavy splint on my right arm. It kept the bones straight and my broken arm stretched out.
Pain radiated up my arm and brought tears to my eyes. The wolf that had twined itself about my ankles pounced on my chest. My breath rushed put in a whoosh. As the wolf licked my chin his (or was it a her?) eyes went dark with worry.
Once it was assured that I was all right it began to twitch. With a quivering sigh, its body fell heavily on top of mine. As I watched in shock, it's fur disappeared and, after a few moments, a teenage male lay sprawled on top of me. His clothes were made of wolf skins. He stared down at me through his raven black hair with burning silver-gray eyes.
I felt my eyes widen as he lay on top of me. As he smiled at me, recognition sparked. He was a figure from my past, at least 12 years ago. He had been my playmate all through elementary and middle school. But then his parents moved on; and soon after, mine did also.
"Riley, it's nice to see you again." I stated calmly trying to hide the fact that my heart was racing.
"Yeah, isn't it though?" He asked sardonically, with a smirk on his handsome face. I knew that he could feel my racing heartbeat.
"Boy, you freaked me out when you shape shifted." I murmured softly, trying to get him to let down his guard.
It worked, he smiled down at me with sardonic humor, "You never change, do you?"
"Nope." I smugly whispered. He tilted his head to hear me. With a mischievous smile, I heaved up and he flipped off and landed on the floor.
"Oomph." Riley lay on the floor with his hands covering his face.
"Are you all right?" I asked, worried for him despite everything.
"Nope, you hurt my back." He replied with a touch of hurt in his voice.
"I'm sorry." I tried to sound remorseful. But couldn't keep the smirk from my lips.
"Are you laughing at me?" Riley demanded taking his hands off of his face and glaring up at me.
"Who, me? Never!" I told him laughing.
"Help me up." He appealed to me, looking helpless.
I couldn't resist. I got up and reached down to help him up. With a quick grin, Riley pulled me down on top of him.
"What do you want." I scowled down at him.
"Nothing." He smirked.
"I'm getting up then." I pushed up with my hands, poking him in the chest.
With a sigh, I got up and sit back down on my pallet. That little bit of play had taken the breath from me. I yawned and lay back down.
"Come on Sabby, you have to meet the rest of the pack." Riley sat down beside me, watching me closely.
When I groaned, he reached out and started tickling me mercilessly.
"Oh leave me alone, I'm tired." I wheedled, trying to put off meeting the rest of the pack till I was felt better.
"Let's go. You've got to meet the rest of the pack. That's an order, by the way." Riley instructed as he pulled me to my feet and watched as I weave around getting my balance back. When he was sure I could move without falling, he moved away from my pallet.
He led me through the cave, pointing out pictures and cots that were set up for company or a "wolf" that was sick. An uneasy silence fell on us as we moved soundlessly down the halls.
To break the silence, I hesitantly asked, "So, when did you become a shape shifter, as I assume you are?
"Oh, a couple of years ago, why do you ask?" Riley answered congenially.
"Well I have a question, can you do this?" With that challenge stated, I raised my arms into the air and started twirling faster and faster. I was going so fast that everything around me began to blur together. And then, suddenly everything grew huge.
Riley loomed over me, and watched as I chased my tail. I had become a red-tailed fox. I ran in circles around him, and then jumped into his opened arms.
"I must say, you make a charming vixen, but then that's a role you play all to well." Riley remarked. He placed me gently on the ground, and watched for a while as I chased my tail. With a grin, he shifted into a black fox, and joined me.
We tugged on each other's ears, and played chase. We were having a ball, when he accidentally bumped my arm.
With a slight groan, I abruptly shifted back and sat on the floor, cradling my broken arm. Riley changed back, and sat down beside me. A worried frown marred his features as he wrapped his arms around me.
"What did you do to her?" A sharp, shrill voice demanded from the end of the hall. Looking up, I watched as Angel ran down the hall toward me, followed by a blonde-haired guy.
I gave her a wan smile and leaned against Riley's strong shoulders. Angel looked down at us, her face a turmoil of emotions. With a sigh, I reached a hand toward her, and got back to my feet. Riley jumped up and grinned at Angel.
"Well?" She asked, but without the animosity that had been there before.
"We were playing, and he bumped my arm. No more, no less." I stated, cradling my arm against my chest.
"You could say she's a little clumsy." Riley joked as I moved away from him.
Our conversation had brought the rest of the pack forward. There were a number of good-looking males, but none as handsome as Riley, or the stranger behind Angel.
"Well Sabrina, I don't know how you do it. You've been bedridden for the past four days, you should look like hell...but you don't. I've never seen you so relaxed." Angel drawled teasingly. Giving her a hug, I returned my attention to Riley.
"Yeah, she's a beauty all right." Riley said with a mocking grin.
"Riley...I have a question for you..." I purred with mischief.
"OK, what is it?" He returned, falling into my trap so nicely.
"Do these people happen to know your real name?" I asked just loud enough for Angel to hear.
"His real name, you mean it isn't Riley?" She demanded with a puzzled frown.
"Nope, it's not." I replied with a grin
"What is it?"
"Sabrina you wouldn't!" Riley threatened, looking a little worried.
"It's...Oh my God it's Josh!" I exclaim, my eyes fixed on the blonde-haired guy who had his arms wrapped around Angel's shoulders.
"Riley, your name is Josh?" Angel asked, looking at him with interest.
"No, his name is Julian, mine is Josh." The blonde-haired guy smiled down at her.
"WHAT!" Angel shrieked and turned to me.
I was laughing at the irony of the situation, so I didn't see the trap till it was too late.
"And I suppose your name isn't really Sabrina, is it?" She demanded, exasperated.
Before I could answer, Julian replied. "No, her name is Sara Elizabeth."
"Riley!" I shouted, blushing bright red at being caught in that white lie.
"How do you like them apples, Sarabeth?" Josh asked me teasingly.
"Not very well." I replied with a grumpy look at Julian.
"Wait a second, how is it that you all have different names than the one's you use. And how do you know each other?" Angel demanded, glaring at each of us.
"Well, it's kind of a long story." I hedged, not wanted to give away to much information.
"Then you better get started. I want to hear it all!" She stated, still glaring at us.
"Honey, why don't you wait till after Sabrina's feeling better, OK?" Josh murmured, kissing her neck.
"Oh all right. If I have to, then I will. But be warned, I'm going to get the whole story, one way or another!" Angel threatened. She spoiled the threat by smiling up at the blonde giant who had his arms wrapped around her.
I yawned. The excitement and little exercise had sapped my strength. When I started to sway on my feet, Riley picked me up and carried me down the hall. I smiled up at him, noticing how gentle he was with me. When he sat me down, I finally saw the room we had stopped in.
The walls had been painted a deep blue; a very peaceful color. I wondered at the touches of color in this room that had been missing in all the others. In addition to the color, there were pools of spring water. They gleamed in the deceptive way all pools have, never showing the bottom, only the smooth surface. I stared at it, knowing that Riley watched me. It was a vaguely uncomfortable feeling, as if I were being hunted.
"Stop it Riley!" I snapped, still looking at the pools.
"Stop what?" He asked, with a feigned innocence.
"Who is the pack leader? The alpha male?" I sneered, expecting him to say Josh.
"As you know, Josh and I are twins. So we both are." Riley said in a thoughtful voice, as if thinking about something.
"OK, I've figured out that Angel is Josh's mate. So where's yours? I demanded, knowing that he had to have one, and that it probably wasn't me.
"Well, I thought she was in my arms." He said loftily.
"WHAT! No, I can't be your mate!" I screamed, scared that he wasn't joking.
"I've claimed you. Your mine." Riley growled, kissing my neck.
"I belong to no man, human or other wise! You're going to have to look somewhere else!" I snarled, storming out of the room. I walked for what seemed like hours, but was probably only minutes.
When I paused to catch my breath, I was in a high ceiling cave that sort of resembled a ballroom. The whole area was clean, with a slight scent of roses in the air. I couldn't believe that this place existed in what had seemed an ordinary channel of caves. Relaxing, I sat on the floor. Before I realized what was happening, I fell asleep.
"Oh thank God. Sabby, wake up!" Angel cried, leaning over me.
"Wha.... what's wrong?" I mumbled, still half asleep.
"Nothing, now that we've found you! Where have you been?" Angel demanded.
"Here, I think. Why?" I muttered.
"Besides the fact that you've been missing for sixteen hours?" Angel cried.
"WHAT?" I shouted, not sure if she was joking or not.
"It's true Sabby, you've been missing for sixteen hours." Josh insisted, talking to me like a child.
"You have to be kidding. There's no way I could've lost sixteen hours. I mean, I should remember something, right?" I mumbled. I couldn't remember what had happened after I stormed out of Riley's arms and into the strange cave.
"Are you ok? You look as if you've lost your best friend." Angel asked softly as she knelt down to give me a hug.
"I don't know, I feel very weird." I cried, hugging her back. "Don't worry, it'll pass. Trust me! I know a lot about this sort of thing." Angel joked, looking down on me.
"So why are you out here and not inside with Riley?" Josh asked, trying to bring me back to focus.
"He said that I was his mate, and I didn't want to be, so I ran." I mumbled, blushing.
"Why? I thought you loved him. I mean I know he loves you. He always has." Josh blurted.
"He never told me that. I don't want to belong to any man." I wailed, trying to think of something intelligent to say.
"Your right, I never told you that I love you, and that I have always loved you." Riley's husky voice whispered along the corridor.
I looked up and stared into his silvery eyes. I knew that I was home. Riley would take care of me, till death do us part.
"I hate to break this up, but if Sabby is feeling better, we really need to be leaving. At least for a little while." Angel said in a wavering tone.
"Why?" I asked with a sigh.
"Don't you remember Lara and the rest of the girls. They're probably waiting for us at the top of this mountain. Our orientation into their group is scheduled for tonight." Angel reminded me in a rush.
"But you have to be a virgin to join, remember? I demanded.
"Well, I can't join, but I'm not letting you go there by yourself." Angel retorted hotly.
"All right, let's go. The sooner we get there and explain why we changed our minds, the sooner we can get back to our mates." I decided quickly.
Leaving the cave was one of the hardest things I ever had to do. I knew it was for the best, and that I would soon return there, but I couldn't shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen.
Upward we traveled. Finally we found the clearing where the little church stood. I sighed as I realized how very little joining Lara's group had meant to me.
"Are you ready to go in and face them?" Angel asked with a smirk.