Lan Yibo couldn't even bring himself to care that he was in a cage. Five hours ago, he'd been one of the Two Jades of the GusuLan wolf pack, on his way to becoming an alpha and ruling the pack alongside his brother Xichen.
But the vampires had come again. Not out in the open, as they had the night his parents had died, but sneakily, ambushing all three of the Lan leaders in different locations. His Uncle Qiren had been out on a hunt, Xichen returning from a meeting, and he had been on his way back from school. The alarm had gone up, but before he could respond strong hands had forced a sweet-smelling sack over his head, and he'd fallen into darkness.
Only to wake up caged, naked, thirsty, and certain of the fact that the rest of his family was dead. His pack-link no longer existed. If either of them had survived, he would have felt them. Now the pack was leaderless, and he was alone. In a cage. On a loading dock.
It was no place he recognized, but he could guess where he was - an underworld auction house. Wolves weren't trafficked like fairies or even vampires, but lone wolves, especially omegas could fetch a high price. Alpha wolves were too hard to control; sometimes the vampires captured them and hunted them for sport. As he had not yet presented his subgender, he assumed he'd be kept locked up - and then shot when he turned out to be an alpha.
But instead of being taken inside, men came, threw a tarp over his cage, and loaded it onto a vehicle. Perhaps they weren't going to wait to shoot him.
The ride went on forever, with the road eventually turning bumpy and steep. He didn't think they'd need to go to such lengths to hide one wolf carcass.
Was it possible... he'd been sold?
The first thing he noticed when the doors opened was that it was much colder than it had been in Gusu. He couldn't see anything for the tarp, but the air felt thinner in his lungs. Which made sense. They seemed to have been going uphill for hours.
What was uphill from Gusu? He wasn't sure. He sniffed, but couldn't pick up anything other than the human handlers who were once again moving his cage.
They put it on the ground and left, seemingly in quite a rush. As they scurried back to their truck, he heard one of them say "vampires."
The blood in his veins ran even colder than the early morning air. Delivered to vampires? He was as good as dead. Fury rose alongside his fear, and he vowed to take one with him into hell.
Wen Qing nodded to her brother to remove the tarp, and Wen Ning stood on the other side of the cage and did as instructed.
Inside, a dirty, frightened, angry young wolf glared out at her, but the knowledge of all he had been through and all he had yet to face made her look back at him with pity.
His expression went from anger to bewilderment after he sniffed the air. "You're not vampire," he said.
"No." She beckoned to her brother. "I'm Wen Qing. This is my brother, Wen Ning."
"Where am I?"
She took a deep breath. "You are safe."
Wen Ning opened the cage door and draped a coat over the young man's lean frame.
"What's your name?" she asked as Lan Yibo stood and stretched. She knew his name, of course. But he wasn't to know that.
"Yibo." He pulled the coat tight enough to be decent. "Where are we?"
"You've been purchased by the Yiling Patriarch."
She saw him gape and then shiver. That was good, she thought. He needed to be afraid.
Lan Yibo spent the entire day with the two Wen wolves. They were from a distant branch of the Wen clan and had been orphaned and abandoned, for reasons he wasn't clear on. Probably because the brother seemed so weak, he thought. He was the meekest beta he'd ever met.
The sister was quite strong. And a healer. She'd treated his wounds and given him a strange concoction to drink, and he now felt much better. Strong enough to entertain thoughts of escape.
He'd even asked them about it. Wen Qing had frowned, and her brother had actually spoken. "Why would we want to leave?" he'd said. Like that made any sense.
The Yiling Patriarch was the oldest, most feared vampire on the entire continent. Why would they want to stay?
He must be compelling them. Yibo thought some vampires could do that.
So, while it was in his nature to trust the two beta wolves, he knew he could not.
"Maybe it's different for you," he said, "because you're betas. But I'm going to be eighteen next month. And when I present as an alpha, no vampire is going to let me stay alive."
"What makes you think you'll present as an alpha?" Wen Qing asked.
Lan Yibo shrugged. "I'm the last in my family," he said. "It has to be me."
Wen Qing bit her lip. "You are no longer in your Lan family."
"I know that," he bit out. "They're all dead. Vampires, probably sent by your Yiling Patriarch, killed them."
"Not the Master," Wen Ning said.
God, was he a simpleton?
Wen Qing continued her explanation. "Wolves are gendered to keep the pack in balance. You will not present as alpha here. This pack already has a leader."
Yibo heard a roaring sound and knew it was blood rushing to his red ears and his pounding heart. Not be an alpha? He wanted to call her a liar. He was supposed to be an alpha. Everyone knew that. It was destined.
Except her words reminded him of things he'd long forgotten. Rules that hadn't been relevant to him. He had a pack and a place in that pack. He'd known who he was supposed to be.
And he'd forgotten the other reason young, ungendered wolves were sometimes bought by vampires or powerful alphas: when faced with a dominant leader, an ungendered wolf could be made to present as a beta or even an omega.
And he was about to meet the most powerful vampire alive.
Lan Yibo had to swallow his spit as he entered the library. Night had fallen. He knew it without needing a clock or a window. Just as he assumed his new owner knew it.
The voice was smooth and deep, but he couldn't see the speaker. A large leather chair sat behind an even larger desk, but it faced away from him.
He bit the inside of his cheek as he approached. What would a vampire as old as the Yiling Patriarch even look like? He grimaced, imagining thin skin over blue veins, white hair, and wild, beady eyes.
Don't make a face, he told himself. That's a stupid reason to get killed.
The chair spun around, and Yibo found himself staring into an angel's face. Almond eyes, a heart-shaped mouth... But when the man stood, a wave of power washed across the room and forced Yibo to his knees. The very cells in his body seemed to vibrate with it.
He grunted, and the man smiled a cold smile.
"I'm not the patriarch for nothing," he said, holding Yibo's gaze as he rounded the big desk.
The closer he got, the harder Yibo fought to keep his eyes up. Murderer, beast, killer, evil. Chanting these to himself made little difference. By the time the vampire stood before him, Yibo was trembling and looking at his shoes.
He'd never felt so humiliated.
A cool hand touched the back of his neck. "Little Lan Yibo."
Yibo bit his lip. He knew what the vampire wanted. He would not give it. Not even if he had to die right here.
The hand tightened at his silence.
Yibo bit deeper into his lip. He would not say it.
The hand hauled him up by his neck, leaving only his toes touching the carpet. "I can smell your bloody lip, you know. If you resist me, there will be a lot more of your blood in this room. I will destroy you, paint the walls with your drippings, then heal you and do it all over again. Do you want to play that game with me Little Lan Yibo?"
Yibo shook his head, more to cover the fact that he was shaking than that he wanted to answer.
"You have two choices, Lan Yibo. Acknowledge the Yiling Patriarch as your master or be our blood sport. Choose the first, you may suffer for a moment. Choose the latter, you will suffer unimaginably."
The trembling in his limbs had gone beyond his control. When the Yiling Patriarch met his gaze and ordered him, in what Yibo could only describe as his alpha-voice, to "choose," his wolf made the choice for him - letting loose a stream of urine down his leg.
He felt it, smelled it, and knew the other did, too.
The vampire dropped him to the floor, and Yibo put his head on it, squeezing his eyes against hot tears.
"Say you're sorry," the vampire commanded.
"I'm sorry... Master." The words rushed shamelessly past his lips, and his tears turned to sobs.
The hand returned, this time to caress his hair. "Good boy."