Kiara woke just after daybreak, stomach rumbling. She’d just moved a year ago from the tiny huts down the lane to the forbidding Loup Academy, and it was rough going. She’d already lost count of how many Hunts she’d participated in, but she did know the number that she’d actually caught something: zero. Some older kid who enjoyed giving advice to younger ones in return for payment (namely doing his homework) had told her that most couldn’t catch anything until they were seven or eight. Kiara guessed she was around six, so she preferred not to think of the long wait for a proper kill.
Food was served three times a day, of course, but there was no meal after a Hunt. It was supposed to motivate you to Hunt better and quicker, but mostly it just left the younger kids hungry.
Kiara stepped out of bed and hopped over the moaning body of a girl who had gotten beaten up during the night. Kiara was by now familiar with the ritual of revenge that plagued the Loup, but she hated participating in it. Fighting was bad enough, but having to look over your shoulder every five minutes for the next forty-eight hours was pure torture.
Kiara pulled on a pair of jeans, a wrinkled T-shirt, and a shabby sweater, as well as the thick-soled boots preferred by all the Loup students. She then crept downstairs, trying her best to keep quiet, as everyone was naturally light sleepers and the slightest noise would awake the whole castle.
It was known to the students that the Master had created them, somehow made them this totally new and unique brand of werewolf. He was only human, and there were no other special werewolves out there to bite them, so the Master had to have some secret. Although Kiara wouldn’t put it past him to use Darcy and the older kids to bite new ones.
Knights could morph at any time of night or day, during any moon phase. They were faster than all prey, had longer and sharper fangs and claws, were more intelligent and in control than the first generation werewolves. But they retained some of their animal traits when in human phase. All their senses; hearing, sight, smell, touch, taste were still enhanced beyond normal humans’.
So Kiara knew by now that normal walking was enough to wake up an entire floor of angry, hungry wolf-people. One kid had dropped a book in the morning years ago, legend had it, and the entire school descended on him. He was literally shredded. The intense strain of added hormones and senses in the Knights made them late sleepers and killers if forced to be early birds.
Kiara tip-toed to the Dining Hall, and then to the kitchens that led off from it. There had always been an endless supply of food, and no delivery truck. Kids simply walked into the kitchen, helped themselves to a raw hunk of meat, and ate.
It was rules that you had to have milk and a fruit or vegetable with every meal if you wanted dessert, and Darcy and her group enforced that. However, unbeknownst to the Master, on weekends, you could have anything you wanted. But the kids ran around so much whether as humans or wolves no one was ever overweight or out of shape.
Yet Darcy liked to sleep until one in the afternoon at the earliest, and so the people who awoke early got whatever they wanted for breakfast. Kiara was one of them. Most of the little kids slept until ten or eleven in the morning, but Kiara was one of the few that went to bed early and awoke similarly early. The kids aged eight and under had only thirty-five minute classes as opposed to hour long ones.
Kiara helped herself to six eggs and scrambled them on a burner. Most kids ate three meals of just raw meat, but Kiara loved eggs and also wasn’t a bad cook. She rarely ate raw things for breakfast.
The door to the kitchen opened and a small, dark skinned boy walked in, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He was Duan, from Kiara’s batch, and her best friend. But today his face was grave, so unlike his usually cheery complexion that made him famous. So many kids were grumpy 24/7 at the Loup. “Thanos is dead.” Duan said soberly.
Kiara gasped. Thanos was in the batch above theirs, and one of the only truly nice people at the academy. He cared for others deeply, and had had the courage to turn away from a fight, even if it earned him disrespect. Thanos had kept a balance of being violent enough to not be murdered for outright weirdness, but not cruel enough to be feared or even dare to kill someone. It endeared him to the nervous younger kids. Kiara had always imagined him growing up to be Darcy’s age, and when she was all gone, he would be in charge, and keep the younger kids from starving on Hunts and stop all the ridiculous fighting.
Duan nodded and helped himself to some milk. “Dwayne was bragging about it last night. Something about Thanos trying to get his prey on the Hunt, and Dwayne had to teach him a lesson.”
Dwayne. Kiara shuddered. Dwayne was in Thanos’ own batch, but as brutal as Darcy and that creep Arnulf with his gang. Dwayne had to be lying, because Thanos would never deliberately anger another Knight.
“I hate Dwayne,” Duan spat, “He ruins everything.”
“Shh,” said Kiara, although they were already speaking in voices softer than a whisper; the kitchen was on the bottom floor, so the other Knights probably couldn’t hear them, but they had to be careful. “Someone could hear you.”
“I don’t care! Thanos was the only good bloke here.” Duan started in on some chicken.
Kiara had no more to say. They already knew that Dwayne was evil, that it was unfair that Thanos got murdered and no one but them would care. In fact, it would be a fact of importance as it meant Dwayne was in second place for most kills.
The two ate in silence, and soon more younger kids filed into the kitchens for breakfast. They whispered about Dwayne for nearly an hour and tried not to clink their silverware too loud, until a latecomer named Dougal piped up “Darcy and her crew are nervous.”
“Why?” everyone crowded around him. Gossip was common in the Loup, but there was nothing more to learn about the Master’s “pets” and everyone was really too scared to talk about them anyway, in case they were overheard.
“They got called up to see the Master last night, and came back all fidgety. Especially Tynan and Zevi, they were whispering all night.”
“Zevi? Really?” Ears perked up. Zevi only ever talked to Tynan, had never even spoken one word to the Master. For her to hold up her half of a conversation for more than a minute was a feat.
“And I was listening, ‘cause they was just in the common room,” continued Dougal, enjoying all the attention, “And they mentioned Dwayne a few times. And they kept on saying stuff about coming from somewhere.”
“What’s coming? From where?”
“I dunno. But it sounded like where we’re from.”
“We’re orphans,” said a high pitched voice, “The Master found us abandoned in the streets and brought us here.”
“I dunno,” Dougal said again, raising his hands in defense, “That’s just what I heard.”
They broke off in whispers. It was an interesting revelation. Everyone knew that the Loup was their only chance of survival, that they would’ve died of cold and starvation if the Master hadn’t found them. But what if they were from somewhere else? What if, what if they had parents?
Older kids began coming in at that point, and the discussion ended. But Kiara could see from the faces around her that it wouldn’t be forgotten.
Kiara and Duan made their way outside, and passed a ball and forth on the front lawn. Soon, when Darcy’s batch was awake, there would be organized obstacle courses and games designed to test everything from strength to wit. There would also be laps around the grounds for when no one wanted to listen to any rules any more.
The boy Dougal soon came up to them and joined in the game. He was a scrawny little kid, with red hair and freckles. He wasn’t afraid to follow around Darcy for gossip, but also a bad stalker and was often punched to a pulp. Even today one eye had the shadow of a bruise and there were the healing wounds of someone’s nails drawn across his neck.
“Do you know where Thanos’ body is?” asked Duan after a minute. Most corpses were left to other predators of the forest, and if they were found in the Loup, they were thrown back into the Proie. But the little ones were still curious.
“Deep in the Proie. Too far to go.” replied Dougal, shrugging.
Just then a cry rang out over the grounds, easily heard by the gathering groups of students. “Someone’s coming!”
Heads snapped up, ears perked and eyes stared down the lane. Sure enough, two tiny dots in the distance were slowly coming up the lane.
“Into the Proie!” screamed the same voice. The people were too far away to hear or see the Knights, but every Loup student would hear and dash into the forest.
Everyone knew the ritual for the rare times when people came. It was simple and just as the voice had said: Transform, get into the forest, deep down where barely any light penetrates the foliage, and lay down on your stomach. The lying down was just a precaution, because no one even dared to get close to the Proie.
This was actually only the second time since the Loup was started twenty years ago that someone had ventured up. The Loup wasn’t on any map, the Proie too dangerous to be advertised as anything but a Do-Not-Enter forest.
Kiara sprinted through the Proie, feeling branches whip across her face. What’s happening? Who are they? Do they know about us? Or are they innocent? Will they go into the Loup? Will they try and get through the Proie?
Nobody except the Master knew what would happen if they were found. The Knights knew being found was bad, but they didn’t know the consequences. They didn’t know if they entire world was like this, or if it was mostly just normal people like the Master. They didn’t know how far beyond the horizon land extended, if they were the most dangerous things in the world or weak compared to its other monsters. They only knew from the Master that they must hide if humans appeared.
And so passed two cold, damp hours lying on the forest floor. Both Kiara’s legs fell asleep and every time she shifted pins and needles shot up her arms. A cramp started in her left foot.
She heard the footsteps and voices of the people drawing closer, talking of boring things like the weather and rabbit tracks. They got to the Loup, commented on the fancy castle for a few minutes, then left, apparently for something that sounded like a helly-copter.
Such idiots. Kiara had expected that with all that fuss, they’d at least try and get into the Loup. But no, two hours were instead wasted lying on the ground listening to small talk. Kiara knew her fair share of curses from the older kids, and she uttered a few as all around her, shaggy wolf forms picked themselves up and headed for the castle.
They would be grumpy at the loss of time and the cold, and the older kids would take it out on the little ones. The Master would come out whatever his hiding place in the castle was and talk to them about the importance of hiding. It would only make them want to bite his head off more. Then classes would continue, people would go to bed, and it would all be forgotten.
Kiara was lost in thought about her late lunch as she jogged back to the Loup. He foot caught on a large, soggy root, and she pulled it away. But the root flipped over.
Kiara glanced down and would’ve retched if she hadn’t seen her fair share of fighting and blood. At her feet, rolled onto his face, was the body of Thanos.
His face was white, eyes wide, hair full of dirt. Dried blood made tracks down his cheeks and from his shredded throat. Kiara let a single tear fall before running away, sick to her stomach from the cruelty of the world she was being trained to fit into.