My mother once told me that, sometimes, when life was difficult, harsh and unforgiving, know that it was a test. A test to see how long someone would last under its unrelenting grasp, how long they'd survive, and how long it took them to break. Whether you lost a dear one or had succumbed to sickness, it was all just some crazy, twisted test to see if you deserved salvation.
In a storm, my test began.
The sky, a dull grey from the countless clouds that coated it, started to slowly release snowflakes. Fine, insignificant frosted crystals started to sprinkle down from the heavens on the area like sugar caster being sprinkled onto a cake. Delighted, I grinned up at the sky, teeth, dimples and all. I loved fresh snow, gentle and whimsical and so very enchanting. Its softness somehow always managed to seep into my pores down to my very core and calm it, leaving me with a sense of tranquility. It was a wonder how such tiny intricate crystal-like formations could be so beautiful, so calming, and so incredibly magical.
The smell of November air filled my nostrils, the honks of geese flying overhead drifted to my ears and falling snowflakes tapped at my cheeks, leather boots and knits. All those insignificant elements made this rural stroll much more exciting and enjoyable, one I would commit to memory. Wind blew at my hair, the feeling sending a jolt of happiness to dance around my body. Pretty soon, I'd be able to make snowmen and snow angels, something I had been anxiously waiting for ever since winter came. I danced around enthusiastically, tried to mimic the geese's hilarious honks and made snowballs that I threw at any living thing that I happened to come across.
The rustling of bushes nearby gave me pause.
Whatever it was, the way the whole row of bushes shook and trembled hinted at the size of that thing. It was big. Eyes wide and heart hammering furiously against my ribcage, I dropped the snowball I had been attempting to throw at passing geese overhead and waited.
There were many rumors that haunted the Evergreen Forest, chilling tales that were rarely spoken of. It was said that terrible man-eating creatures ruled this forest and watched over it, and that if you happened to come across them, you were to run as fast as your legs could carry you and never look back or return.
Gulping a sudden lump that had formed in my throat, I braced myself for whatever was going to emerge.
A deer jumped out of the bushes and 'gracefully' pranced away, leaving its footsteps on the snow in its wake. Shrugging, I mindlessly continued my fun, paying no attention to how far I had gotten away from my house and how deep into the forest I was heading. Time was of no importance to me either; all I cared about was this golden chance to explore and have fun. Evergreen Forest was truly a breathtaking place, far more beautiful and enchanting than what those strange legends made it out to be. It was nature at its best, that was for certain.
I didn't get why it was such a big deal to enter it.
I finally stopped when reality's cold wind blew at me, sending bone-chilling shivers down my spine, arms and legs. I was getting cold and my hoodie, boots and gloves could no longer sustain me. I suddenly craved a mug of hot chocolate. In other words, it was time to head home. When I turned around, ready to start heading back to my warm house that sat at the outskirts of Evergreen Forest, realization struck with the force of a sledgehammer.
I was far, far from home.
Suddenly and without warning, the falling flakes grew bigger, dotting the road and grass. The wind picked up speed and the now quarter-size flakes flew into my hair and face, tickling me at first, but they quickly became a nuisance, and then painful. I covered my head with my hoodie, hoping to keep some of the flakes away from my face. It wasn't long before the wind blew with huge gusts. I zipped up my hoodie and walked down the path I had used, praying that I hadn't gone too deep into the forest and that I'd reach home as safely and as quickly as humanly possible. Sooner than what I'd anticipated, the ground became covered by layers upon layers of thick, heavy snow. The elements were fighting against me.
I started shaking terribly. The wind roared. The sky was completely overcast by foreboding clouds. The trees I could easily make out a few minutes ago were now difficult to see, white wraiths against a white canvas.
I could no longer see the path. All I saw were piles and piles of white, cold snow. All I could see was snow above me, in front of me, and on either side of me.
I was lost.
How had my rural journey turned into a life-and-death situation in a matter of minutes?
"Help!" I cried out, in the hopes that someone nearby would hear and come to my rescue. "Help, somebody!" But my pleas went unanswered; drowned out by the wind's fierce, monster-like roars. Helpless, I ran to the first tree I spotted. Desperately, I sat underneath its naked branches, curled into a ball, trying to provide as much heat to myself as possible.
What if nobody found me in time? With no protection from the wind, snow, and cold, I was sure to freeze to death. And if I miraculously survived the storm, many creatures called the woods their home; I didn't dare think what they might do to a lost trespasser.
"Please help me! Is anyone here!?"
Time seemed to slow down to a crushing halt, minutes stretched into days and days into months and months into years. The bright white sky grew darker, as if a colossal demon had swallowed the sun, taking away all light, all hope. Weakness and coldness were all I felt as my body heat slowly ebbed. My eyes grew too heavy to keep open. I had never felt so tired in my life; as if a leech was draining what was left of my strength and energy. I lay with my back to the tree, quivering, praying to the Lord above that someone might happen to come across me or that my parents would notice my absence and send a search party.
And then I was slowly slipping in and out of consciousness. In, out. In, out. A dark cloak was being lowered onto me, and soon, it submerged me in its absolute, unyielding darkness.
"Please! We beg of you, find our daughter!" I begged desperately, a miserable, heart-wrenching sound that would have stirred even the coldest most desolate of hearts. But the so called 'Alpha' was unmoved, his gaze as cold and unrelenting as the blizzard that threatened to take my daughter away from us. His two black orbs bore into me, two dark holes that made me more than a little wary. I hastily wiped away the crystal tears that rolled down my cheeks, not wanting him to see me so weak and torn. For the sake of my daughter, I had to stay strong.
"We'll give you whatever you want, just find her." Richard, my husband, pleaded, his voice much more composed than mine was. I could tell, even with his collected look and voice, that he was just as distraught and desperate as I was to have our precious daughter back.
The Alpha stared at us for a very long time. To me, it seemed like he stared for hours.
Time was of the essence! I wanted to scream at him to hurry up and decide because I couldn't bear the thought of my only daughter freezing to death somewhere out in that Goddamned forest of horrors, all on her own with no one to help.
"What if what I want," When he finally spoke, his gaze shifted between me and Richard, and I felt as he his eyes were piercing my very soul, peering into every chamber and hallow. With a frightening smile that chilled me to the marrow of my bone, he finished, "is her?"
Cold, agonizing dread filled me like poison and my heart stuttered in response. I felt my husband's grip tighten on my hand till it hurt. I knew exactly what it meant to agree to the Alpha's condition.
"You want her for yourself? She's eleven!" I asked, unable to hide the malice and disgust from seeping into my voice.
He chuckled, a humorless sound that resembled the sound of chalks being dragged across a chalkboard. "Goodness no; I'm far too old to mate again. I want her for my son."
For a few minutes, I stared at the Alpha, my face blank. It wasn't like I didn't know this was coming, but it was still shocking to hear him declare it. What I didn't understand was why on earth he wanted my daughter -a human- for his son!
I thought his condition through. Would there be any loopholes if we were to agree to this supernatural madness? No, of course there weren't. Agreeing to his terms meant binding my daughter forever to a life of danger, to creatures that were beyond any human's understanding. Could I really do this to her? Would she ever find it in her heart to forgive me when she found out? No, she would hate me forever, but at the very least she would be alive.
There really was no other choice.
"We agree." I said, my tone resolute. I immediately sensed my husband's shocked stare on my face, feeling the accusation in his gaze.
"And what if we find her, but she's already dead? It has been a whole day after all." The Alpha put emphasis on 'has', his expression still the same, his hard jaw set. He sat with his back resting against the long back on his chair and his fingers interlaced before his face, his monstrosity of a black desk the only barrier between us and him. Once again, the spacious room fell into absolute silence. Heads of bears, a mountain lion and even wolves hung on one wall of the gigantic office. The fake animals' glass eyes stared back at me. I shivered when I imagined my head being hung up there with the animals' too. Animal furs of all types carpeted the oak floor, some velvety and soft-looking while others rough and scaly. It was more than obvious the Alpha liked to hunt.
When we failed to answer, the alpha spoke again. "You will pay with your lives for the trouble we go through if she is found dead."
I had heard that these ... things charged a very high price for their services, but I had never anticipated that it would be lives they dealt with, not money! But these beings were monsters after all and we had come here prepared to pay anything to get our only child back.
My husband nodded his head hesitantly, his composed self now gone, "Y-Yes." Even though his voice was shaky, the look of fiery determination in his eyes told me that he was willing to sacrifice himself for our daughter, just like I was. I squeezed his hand reassuringly; feeling proud and fear for the man I had chosen to spend my life with.
"Are you sure you're going to honor your debt, Mr. Wall?"
Richard nodded yet again, this time steadily. When the Alpha's eyes bore into mine, I nodded my confirmation as well, but I made it no secret I despised him for the position he put us in.
"Very well; I will send one of my pack members to look for your daughter and I guarantee you that we'll find her whether she's still alive or dead, if she is in the forest like you claim."
A tear slipped through the terrible cracks in my willpower and cut a wet path down my cheek. I didn't bother to wipe it away this time.
"But remember, if she is found already dead, you'll pay with your life. But if she still lives, on her 18th birthday, we will come for her."