Excitement sings through my veins, the thrill of racing through the forest on four legs, moonlight illuminating the way, the scent of fresh earth and pine. Running beside me, Derek howls in excitement, nipping Miles before darting away into the trees. With a yip, Miles takes off in pursuit. Isabel shakes her head, snorting at their antics, sticking close to my right flank.
Not all parts of pack life are vicious and cruel. There are some moments that make it almost worth all the bullshit Nikolay puts us through. Moments like this: the companionship of your pack mates, the wild abandonment of running together, playing together, hunting as one unit. In times like this, I almost feel happy. I almost feel free.
The wind shifts, and I inhale a scent that makes my mouth water. I growl a warning to Miles and Derek, and they immediately stop messing around and look to me for instructions.
*Derek, take the right flank, I’ll take the left. Isabel, Miles, flush him out,* I tell them through our pack bonds.
Derek slips in among the trees, disappearing from sight. I do the same in the opposite direction. Miles and Isabel stalk forward, paws almost soundless in the leaf litter.
Careful not to make any noise, I prowl through the underbrush, getting into position. With my heightened night vision, I easily make out the buck fifty yards ahead. Giving him a wide berth so he doesn’t sense my presence, I wait for the others to chase him toward me.
The wind shifts again, and the buck lifts his head in alarm, nostrils flaring. He smells us.
Suddenly Miles and Isabel burst through the trees, causing the buck to flee. He heads to the right, but Derek cuts him off, snapping at his legs. He just misses, the buck managing to change direction at the last second. He heads toward me now, and I put on a burst of speed to intercept him. The buck sees me, but it’s too late; my jaws close over his throat, fangs tearing into vulnerable flesh.
The hit comes out of nowhere; a large gray wolf plows into me and I spiral away from the deer, a hunk of flesh still clenched in my jaws. Violence erupts in my brain, the instinct to protect my kill, attack the interloper.
A vicious snarl tears from my chest. I lunge at the offending wolf, the patch of black on his flank tells me it’s Zak before his scent registers in my brain. With its carotid artery sliced, the buck is bleeding out fast. I won’t let Zak claim the credit for my kill. Before he can sink his teeth into my prey, I pounce on him, my larger size giving me the advantage.
He growls and tries to sidestep, but I sink my fangs into his flank. The animal in me grins in satisfaction at his pained whine, but it isn’t enough. He challenged me publicly, in the middle of a hunt. Tried to steal my kill.
I release him, only to lunge again, this time aiming for his throat. He manages to evade me, but he won’t for long. It’s time he learns where his place is. Baring my fangs, I feint left. When he moves to protect himself, I plow into him from the right, my claws raking his soft underbelly, causing him to hunch down to protect himself. Then I snap my jaws around his throat, using just enough pressure to keep him from getting away, but not enough to break the skin. Not yet.
He whines in distress, realizing that he’s lost this battle. All I have to do is apply a little more pressure and I could tear his throat out where I stand.
Fighting the animal inside me, telling me to do it, punish him, make him pay, I close my eyes and force myself to calm down, to let go of the fury raging inside me.
*Submit!* I tell him, almost hoping he’ll refuse, hoping for an excuse to end him.
Whining again, Zak lifts his chin, giving me greater access to his vulnerable throat. Slowly, he rolls over, exposing his entire throat and underbelly in submission.
Ignoring the pang in me, the one that feels dangerously close to regret, I release his throat, but continue to stand over him, growling down at him with narrowed eyes.
He’s become too bold recently, always looking for ways to test me, looking for a weakness he can use against me. Vasily is right; Zak does intend to challenge me.
Well, this display should teach him how truly outclassed he is. If he insists on challenging me after this, I won’t be responsible for what happens to him…
A high pitched whine breaks into my thoughts.
*Miles!* Derek yells down the pack bonds. *The buck gored him!* He howls, alerting the rest of the pack to our location. *Hurry!*
Breathing harshly, I throw myself off of Zak and prepare to change back. Being the strongest in the pack, it’ll take me less time to make the change than anyone except Nikolay himself, and he’s not on this hunt. I have to transition back and staunch the wound before Miles bleeds out.
Concentrating, willing my body to transform, I breathe through the pain of tearing flesh and snapping bones. The transition from human to wolf or vice versa is never a pleasant one, especially when it’s rushed.
I force my body to change faster, gritting my teeth and letting the agonizing sensations roll over me. I can feel my joints shifting, dislocating, repositioning. My muscles ripping and reforming, nails retracting, burning as my flesh reabsorbs them. My muzzle shortens, the bones in my face shifting and realigning. The face is always the most sensitive, too many nerve endings. Despite the agony, I keep myself from whimpering. I can’t look weak, especially in front of Zak, who still hasn’t moved from his place in the dirt.
Finally, the pain begins to subside and I find myself gasping for air, kneeling naked on all fours, human once more. Not giving myself time to recover as I normally would, I lift myself up and lurch toward the buck and Miles. The buck is bleeding out, but still alive, its eyes wide with fear. A cornered animal on the verge of death is the most dangerous. Miles knows that. Why would he attempt the final kill himself?
I drop down next to Miles, his light gray fur dark with blood from a gouge near his ribs. It’s deep, and it looks like a piece of the antler broke off inside. Panic floods my senses, but I fight it back down. I need to stay calm, keep a clear head.
Miles whines and tries to get up.
“Shh, lie still,” I tell him. The pool of blood beneath him is growing at an alarming rate and I don’t have anything to stop it.
“Tell Vasily we need a healer, now!” I yell over my shoulder to Derek, who hasn’t shifted back to human yet. Our pack bonds only allow us to communicate mentally when we’re in our wolf form.
Using my hands, I press on the wound as hard as I can to keep the two edges of skin together.
“It’s alright Miles, you’re gonna be fine,” I say. He whines again, the whites of his eyes showing with terror. “Just hold on. You’re gonna be okay,” I say again, and pray I’m not lying as I do.
I continue talking to him, trying to keep him awake while we wait for help. Slowly, the other pack members begin trickling in, abandoning the hunt to come to their brother’s aid, but there’s nothing to be done until someone from the coven can get here. If Miles was a dominant werewolf, his wound would have begun healing on its own by now, but Miles is a submissive; a lower ranking werewolf, lacking the strength and aggression of the dominants, as well as our more rapid healing abilities. He still heals faster than the average human, but his body can’t heal this sort of wound fast enough to keep him from bleeding to death.
I’m still kneeling beside Miles, my blood-slick hands doing little to stem the flow, when a huge gray wolf comes bounding out of the forest nearly knocking me over. Bernard, Miles’ father, growls at me when I refuse to back away from his son. Baring my teeth, I snarl back.
Though I’m in human form, the display is enough to get Bernard to back down. Once he’s no longer growling, I tell him sternly, “I’m holding the wound closed. There’s nothing we can do until someone from the coven gets here.”
Bernard drops his eyes and whines, but continues to hover close. Derek stays in wolf form to keep in contact with the pack members who went for help, guiding them to our location. Isabel, back in human form, kneels next to me, her hand stroking the fur on Miles’ head. She meets my eyes and I know she’s thinking the same thing I am: he might not make it.
Eventually Miles passes out, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not. At least he won’t have to feel the pain anymore, but I can’t help worrying that he won’t wake up again.
After an age, we hear Vasily’s howl. “Help is coming, Miles, just hang on,” I say, even though he can’t hear me.
Vasily trots into the clearing, Margie appearing at his side, her long sliver hair hanging loose down to her waist. My shoulders relax a fraction in relief. Most of the coven members have some healing ability, but Margie is by far the most skilled, even if she is a little off. In addition to being the most powerful healer, she’s also tremendously gifted in prophecy, but her visions come at a cost. Decades of seeing scenes from the past, the future, and even the present, have left her a little... unstable. But she’s our best bet at saving Miles’ life right now.
“Move back, let me see him,” she commands, leaning over his still body. I breathe out a sigh. Thank God she seems mostly lucid right now.
Backing up, I force Bernard to do the same. He growls low under his breath, but subsides once Margie begins her healing. Ignoring the rest of us, she reaches out to his damp fur and closes her eyes. I don’t know how long she kneels there, perfectly still, the rise and fall of her chest the only movement she makes.
As I watch, the torn flesh on Miles’ chest begins to knit itself back together. Margie stays there long after the wound has closed, a fine sheen of sweat forming on her brow.
I stand with my pack mates, most of whom have changed back into their human forms, and wait for Margie’s verdict. Isabel wraps one arm around my waist, seeking comfort. Bernard, too upset to change back right now, whimpers at my feet, eyes glued to his only son.
Finally, Margie opens her eyes and sags forward with weariness, but the small smile she sends my way allows me to finally take a breath.
She did it. She saved him. Relief courses through my body and I squeeze Isabel’s shoulder.
“He’s resting now, but he should be fine,” Margie says, keeping her eyes on mine. “There’s still some internal damage, but he should be able to heal that himself throughout the night.” She holds out one blood spattered hand toward me. “Help me up, boy,” she says affectionately. “But watch your hands, or Richard will have your head. He’s jealous, he is,” she teases, her eyes twinkling.
“I wouldn’t want to upset Richard,” I joke back, hiding my worry. Her husband, Richard, has been dead ten years now. Margie sees so much of the past and future, she sometimes loses track of the present.
“Always a troublemaker,” she tsks at me as I help her to her feet. “Don’t worry.” She pats my hand, eyes far off. “She comes soon.”
“Who?” I ask, still smiling as I lead her to Vasily so he can help her home.
“She does. Your moon.”
“My moon?” I laugh, but quickly stifle it when she gives me a sharp look.
“Yes. The one who calls to you, who makes you sing. The moon to light up your darkness, protect you in the night. The one you’ve been waiting for. The one to set you free.”
Margie’s crystalline eyes are as clear as I’ve ever seen them. My smile slips for a moment, a wave of longing washing over me.
Then her eyes cloud over once again and she turns to Vasily. “What are you doing out at this time of night? Does your mother know where you are? She must be worried sick... Come now, child. It’s time to get you home...”
Margie continues berating Vasily as he leads her away through the woods. I shake my head at her crazy chatter, smirking at myself. My moon? I roll my eyes. I should know better than to take her ramblings seriously. Margie is going to need a lot of rest after tonight. Healing Miles seems to have really taken a toll on her. Ignoring the hollow ache in my chest, I dismiss her words and focus on Miles instead.
“Derek, Veronika, carry Miles back to my place. Go with them, Bernard. Isabel, go to Miles’ house and grab some clothes for him. The rest of you, head home. You can visit Miles tomorrow, but for now he needs to rest.”