Alpha Ascendant (Wolf Rampant Book 3)By: Aimee Easterling
Charred remnants of the pack’s former compound stood like ominous sentinels in the springtime dusk. Beneath my feet, a thick layer of ash muffled my footsteps but the sound of voices drew me deeper into the burnt-out timbers.
“No, dude, I’m pretty sure she went that way.”
Blaze, the most youthful yahoo, sounded just as jittery as I felt. Our young-adult pack members had headed over the mountain an hour earlier in search of the fire-proof lockbox Wolfie hoped might have survived last winter’s flames. And, against my better judgment, I’d allowed Ember to tag along. After all, it was next to impossible to deny the precocious wolf pup anything.
Now I regretted my lax parenting. Because it sounded very much like Ember had been mislaid.
“Do you think she might have fallen down a hole somewhere?” Keith asked, focusing my own worries on images too horrific for words. Our beloved wolfling impaled on a shattered floor joist, unconscious from blood loss. Or perhaps she’d hit her head while plummeting to the ground, so her brain was now swelling dangerously within her tender skull. I shivered...and heard a similar sentiment expressed in my fifteen-year-old nephew’s voice.
I couldn’t spare much sympathy for the teenager, though. Not when a tiny wolf pup was unaccounted for within a conglomeration of burnt-out trailers that might as well have been a mine field.
In human years, Ember would be around nine years old, just about ready for fourth grade. Definitely not ready to be set loose unattended in an area where one false step would see you falling through the floor or bringing down the walls around your ears.
I’d been slowly pacing forward as I listened, so I was close enough now to make out the forms of each yahoo as I stepped up behind them. In addition to Keith and Blaze, the slightly older Glen and the new-recruit David were both present. Fen was too female to be a true yahoo, but she’d stepped into the role of older-and-wiser guide after the yahoos’ previous ringleader had died in battle the winter before.
“She didn’t fall down a hole,” the alpha-in-training told my nephew firmly. The boy’s shoulders relaxed at her words...and so did everyone else’s. Despite her youth, Fen had that ability to assume control in such a manner that the shifters around her felt buoyed up rather than trodden down, and I felt momentarily jealous of the ease with which she assumed command. I was still struggling to find that happy middle ground between being a pushover alpha and turning into the overbearing taskmaster my father had been. Maybe I needed to take lessons from Fen.
“I’m sure she’s just playing hide and seek,” the female yahoo continued. “But if we don’t find the pesky little puppy before Wolfie and company get back, we’ll all be in the dog house. So, Glen, you look in what used to be the computer room. Keith can take the common areas, Blaze can hit the sleeping chambers, and David and I will walk the perimeter. When you find her, holler. And get a leash on the rascal so she stays found!”
The male yahoos chuckled at Fen’s final admonition, and I couldn’t help doing the same. My laugh was really just an extra-loud exhale, but Fen’s eyes still met mine from the other side of the charred studs, her eyebrows raising in question. I shook my head subtly—no, the young woman was doing a fine job and I didn’t feel any need to take over the search.
I did feel a need to hunt down my ward as quickly as possible, though. So I headed to the one part of the compound that Fen hadn’t included in her game plan—the atrium at the center of the rectangle of mobile homes.
When I’d first walked into Wolfie’s pack compound eight months earlier, this central area had contained a greenhouse brimming with life. The clan’s resident gardeners, Galena and Quetzalli, had proven themselves pros at teasing armloads of produce out of a small space and I’d watched in awe as the pair babied fig trees and grapevines like the children they’d never have.
Now the clear plastic roof had melted into piles of hardened goo beneath my feet and only the burnt-over metal hulk of a wheelbarrow remained as evidence of the former paradise. So even though Galena was my closest ally within the pack (besides Wolfie, of course), I was glad that the shifter had chosen to stay in Haven rather than following us back to this demolished compound. There was no need for my friend to see all of her hard work turned to ashes.