He hated this.
Every step alongside the drums grated on Reth like a claw drawn down his spine.
He knew his people needed the ancient traditions, to feel the instincts of their ancestors speaking in the tribes. But the Rite of Survival was brutal. Uncivilized. Deadly. It appeased the flesh, but did nothing for the mind.
So, he dreaded every step he took towards the circle. And hated that as King he couldn’t denounce it—the opposite, in fact. He had to protect the traditions no matter how terrible they were. This night would end with blood on his hands, with the copper tang of it in his mouth.
Reth let a low growl flicker in his throat. The drummer next to him eyed him warily.
Slowly, slowly they made their painful way towards the bloodbath. While there was no doubt he’s seen that the Pure humans were often marked by weakness of both body and mind, it was also true that were he a human ruler he’d likely never find himself overseeing a fight-to-the-death in which the females fought to become his mate.
There were some things the purists got right.
The drums pounded on until finally Reth took his first step into the clearing, turning, nodding to show himself to his people, who murmured and chattered their excitement as they bowed their submission to him. Most of them. He knew some bowed with gritted teeth and unsheathed claws. But, at least for now, they disguised their treason.
Reth scanned the circle slowly, letting his scent call the devotion of the loyal.
Until he reached the northern end of the clearing and his eyes landed on the Pure One that had been chosen.
It was like a set of claws to his belly. Only years of training and discipline stopped Reth’s jaw from falling open in shock.
“Elia?” he breathed to himself.
It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be possible.
It also couldn’t be a coincidence. Yet, no one knew. And if she was here… she was destined for death.
The thought turned his stomach cold.
She froze in his gaze—not because she recognized him, but because some long-buried instinct within her understood the danger he posed. She responded to his presence, not his person.
How was it possible that she was here?
Instinctively he turned to look at the wolves. He was certain this was their doing. But he couldn’t let himself show her any special attention—or let them know they’d succeeded in unsettling him. So, after he’d met eyes with every single Alpha in the packs, he moved on to the other tribes. But his mind turned back to her with every passing breath.
“Welcome, Anima!” he called across the night to the answering chorus of barks, coughs, calls and applause. “You come tonight in memory of your ancestors. The sacrifices you offer will ensure the strongest blood continues to flow in the veins of Anima’s Rulers. These offerings will be honored for generations. The Clan Leader and his father, and his father’s father thank you.”
He paused for effect—and to receive their applause—but he was forced to suck in a deep breath to brace himself. “Tonight the future of Anima will step forward. Tonight the Tribes receive their Queen!”
The response would have sounded chaotic to human ears, but Reth could pick out the Chitter of warning from the birdlike Avalines, the nicker of submission from the horse-blood Equines, the snarls of the wolfish Lupines—even the toadlike Amphines raised their croaks, along with the other tribes. All of Anima was represented tonight, and despite their different hopes for this night, all anticipated the next step.
He didn’t know how the Wolves had found Elia, but he knew the Lupine battle strategy was second to none. He could do nothing to save her without weakening the position of the entire Kingdom. The thought tore a snarl from his throat that echoed across the chatter and silenced the crowd.
He let the silence hang in the air to remind the wolves who was in control.
He kept his face blank of emotion, knowing they’d be watching him closely. “Only on this night, once per generation, do we bring the Pure to Anima to offer them the chance to prove their blood. And so, I call on the Tribes to recognize our human sister, the Pure.” He swept a hand toward Elia, and the Tribes answered with their hisses, croaks, barks, and bleats, each calling to her ancient human blood in their own tongue.
It was tradition to give the Pure sacrifice a chance to speak words to be remembered by. And so as they quieted, Reth held his breath, forcing himself to pretend disinterest in what she might say, despite his entire body yearning to lean closer.
She stared, open-mouthed at the crowds, and at him, as they all waited. It took her a moment to realize they wouldn’t speak until she did. But it was with a sinking heart that Reth heard her words.
“I… I don’t even know you people! Why am I here?”
Murmurs rose in the circle—some with discomfort, others amused. There was a great variety of opinions about continuing the tradition of bringing a Pure One into the Rite. But no matter how soft-hearted, Anima would never respect a show of fear.
Reth didn’t miss that as the crowd murmured their thoughts to each other, Lucine—the Lupine sacrifice—widened her eyes at Elia and drew a hooked finger across her throat. To anyone from Anima, she would have clawed her belly to make the threat. But she knew enough of humans to understand that they would miss the reference to the wolves’ practice of disemboweling prey.
“Let’s get this shitshow on the road,” he muttered under his breath. He nodded once and the drummer next to him snapped his stick down on the drum three times in quick succession. “Let the Rite begin!” Reth roared and was answered by the crowd as the women within the circle leapt to life—or rather, to death.
Elia didn’t deserve to die because he had been too weak to finish his enemies.