The full moon hung in the hazy black sky, its beams struggling through shifting billows of gray cloud.
Wind howled through the trees, its shrill cry like the noise of an animal above the rustling of leaves, and the faint, repetitive calls of the forest's many nocturnal creatures.
There was a strange kind of lifelessness to it all, despite the near constant motion of every branch, every twig in the entire woods.
And then- a sudden flash of movement.
A kind of light, flashing on in the darkness.
A jolt of electricity, invigorating the scene, as a being on four legs trundled across the hard undergrowth, moving as fast as its feet could carry it.
His ears lowered to his head, his eyes locked straight ahead, he dipped and dived between the trees, leaping around trunks, shooting through narrow openings that seemed almost too thin for him to traverse. He leapt several feet in the air at a time, and hit the ground with a tremendous force, kicking up a cloud of dust with each and every impact.
God, he thought. He'd forgotten how wonderful it all felt...
The rush of the wind against his muzzle, stinging his eyes and cutting straight through his fur, almost to the bone.
The invigorating sensation of the trees coming at him, and his manic swerving to avoid them at the very last second.
The sounds of the forest ringing in his ears, and the mingling of smells that were as far removed from humanity as anything, and even, simply, the thrill of danger- not knowing what may be lurking around each and every turn, every bend. Hell, for that matter, even behind every step that he took.
This world, unlike the one in which he'd been masquerading, was one of danger. Of unpredictability.
And God, did he love every little thing about it, down to the minutest detail...
He ran and ran, pushing himself to the point of exhaustion, his legs on fire from locomotion, but the pain only pushing his resolve to go faster and faster. He craved the intensity, the urgency of it, and wasn't about to allow himself to let up for even a moment.
In the back of his mind he couldn't help but feel vaguely guilty about just how much he was enjoying all of this. The circumstances of his visit were anything but lighthearted or carefree, after all, and his mood as he made his return to the place of his birth stood in stark contrast to his light-hearted demeanor as he raced across the darkness- more like a dog playing fetch with its owner than an alpha wolf on a life or death mission.
But he found that he couldn't really help it, nor did he really care all that much whether or not his mood was appropriate...
It had taken his months-long absence for him to remember just how much he missed all of this. How large a factor it had all been in his life, even in times where he'd taken it all for granted, or believed it all beneath him.
Now he found himself regretting the jaded attitude he'd come to harbor over all those years, and the way he'd allowed it to poison the otherwise rich and fulfilling life he might otherwise have had.
He couldn't help but wonder, in retrospect, whether he should have left it all behind in the first place?
But no... He couldn't let himself think this way.
He'd always told himself, and still maintained to the best of his ability, that his reasons for leaving it all behind had been anything but selfish. That he'd done it for the pack, and not for his own self-centered curiosity, his need to be free.
After all, he reasoned, how could anyone in the world possibly be freer in life than he felt right now? If he'd really left to be free, as those around him had tried to guilt him into believing, he'd surely made a grave error in his calculations.
But then again, that was far from impossible for an alpha as young and impulsive as himself...
It was better not to let himself think about any of that, though.
Better to focus on the mission at hand, and the immediacy of the sensations now flooding his system, than to allow himself to overthink things and make things more difficult than they already were.
He was sure he'd have plenty of time to feel guilty once he actually got to where he was going...
He carried on through the night, his heart hammering in his chest, his lungs feeling as though they were on the point of bursting. He tried his best to pretend that he didn't have a care in the world, and for a few brief, glimmering moments, he actually made it so far as to allow himself to believe this might be true.
Only when he was on the brink of exhaustion did the feeling start to fade, and his guard begin to creep back up again.
He slowly wound down from his breakneck pace, gradually easing from his lightning-fast gallop, to a gentle jog, and all the way down to a lazy saunter. Finally he came to a rest, standing in the center of the forest with his breast beating heavily, his ears now standing upright, piqued for any signs of activity. His nostrils flared, having taken in the scent of something, or someone, long departed, but almost certainly nearby.
He watched. And listened. And smelled.
He bared his fangs, letting out a low, threatening snarl.
Someone was here... Somewhere... He just couldn't figure out who, or where.
He paced slowly forward, placing one paw softly in front of the other, wanting to hear any sudden signs of movement above the crunch of the leaves beneath him, as well as the angry ringing in his ears from the adrenaline of his run.
Nothing... Nothing... And still nothing...
The longer nothing happened, though, the more certain he became that it would, at any moment, without any kind of warning.
A growl rose up from his throat and intensified as he moved closer and closer toward a cropping of trees- the spot he was certain the danger must be lurking. His fur bristled, his back arched upward, and he prepared to lash out at any moment, attacking whoever it was that was watching him.
And then, from the corner of his eye, he caught the movement of a shadow moving across the ground, cast by the light of the beaming full moon.
“Well hello there, stranger. Long time, no see...”
He spun around on his heel, hating himself for how badly he'd miscalculated the figure's location. In a past life, he would have been able to pinpoint the bastard with complete precision, and he knew that if he'd wanted to, he could have snuck up and ambushed him before he'd even had the chance to notice.
God, his senses had really gone to pot in his time spent divorced from the forest. How much worse would it get from here, assuming, of course, that he made it away from his present encounter in one piece?
The man before him stood silhouetted against the black of the night, but he could recognize immediately who it was. A member of his pack called Raymus, a beta male, and as much of a dick back in the good old days as he still apparently was now.
His eyes glowed in the darkness as he stepped up to the wolf, his footsteps bare but heavy as he came slowly in his direction,, as though he was lording something over the creature now hunched in the leaves before him.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” he clicked with his tongue, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “I think someone's out where they ought not to be, aren't they? Well, almost... Technically, you haven't done anything wrong- yet. But the bounds to our territory is only a few hundred feet from here, and I think you might be aware of that fact. I can't imagine you're just out here for a casual evening stroll...”
Like it wasn't the alpha's own land, his own birthright being referred to.
Of course, he knew that technically the man was right. He'd abandoned any claim to his homeland when he left it behind, according to them anyway, and he was now an intruder as far as they were concerned.
But he didn't see things in quite the same light, and he wasn't about to let this prick's narrative be the established one.
He stood his ground, growling still fiercer as Raymus neared. When he got too close, the wolf let out a severe bark, letting him know that he wasn't messing around. He snapped at the man's hand, and Raymus pulled away, scowling. But then he smiled. And he laughed.
“I see you're the same old arrogant son of a bitch that you've always been,” he said, shaking his head. “I'm kind of glad to know that, believe it or not. It's refreshing, as the world changes around us, engulfing more and more of us with every passing day, that some things never change. Still, though. Things are different now, whether you like it or not. You could get away with being as disrespectful as you wanted to when you were the big man in charge- or the son of the big man, anyway. But you aren't anymore, are you? You're just a disgraced, pitiful intruder, and if I might make a suggestion, I think that perhaps you may care to adjust your attitude accordingly...”
No backing down.
He just stood there, staring the man down, refusing to give in to intimidation.
He was just a damn beta male, after all. Even out of practice as he was, it was laughable to think he posed any kind of threat.
After a moment's further delay, Raymus sighed, and shook his head, like he hadn't wanted to resort to what he was about to do- the alpha knew this was a total act, because of course he'd wanted to. And frankly, the wolf welcomed the arrogance of the challenge...
“Okay then... Here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to let you leave, right now, with what little remains of your dignity intact. No harm will come to you if you turn your ass around in the direction from which you came, and never show your ugly face in these parts again. Or, you can try to keep on going, and I can give you the exact sort of welcome home party that a traitor like you deserves. The choice is up to you, friend. So choose wisely...”
The wolf just stood there, resolute. His eyes glowed a vivid, almost disturbing green in the black of the night, wide and unblinking as he stared up at the scum now blocking his path. Then, after staring him down for a long moment, he took a single step forward, making his intentions known.
Raymus looked down at his feet, then back up into his eyes.
“We were kind of hoping that would be your answer...”
Suddenly Raymus leapt forward, transforming on the spot- his body shrinking down, but then growing larger as it hunkered down onto all four legs. His face became elongated, his padded feet sprouted claws and dug into the earth. Then, to make matters immeasurably worse, two other wolves came jumping out of the darkness on either side of him, completely concealed from the alpha's notice until now. He didn't immediately recognize either of them, but he could tell that they were both beta males- meaning the odds of victory had suddenly become a hell of a lot slimmer for him.
He stood there, rooted to the spot, craning his head around as he took in the sight of them all. The three betas circled around him like birds of prey, and it was like looking into a funhouse mirror- their movements perfectly synchronized, their visages completely identical, and their scents the only thing at all to distinguish one of them from the next.
His pulse quickened, and his blood ran cold.
It had been ages since he'd had to face any kind of conflict such as this. Ages since he'd last sparred with one of his own kind, or been put even remotely to the test in the way that he was now.
But then, suddenly, something changed inside of him.
Without rhyme or reason, he found he was weirdly prepared for this.
Maybe not prepared, exactly, but ready for it.
The invigoration he'd known running through the forest seemed like little more than a preamble for what was about to take place, and somehow the notion of sparring to the death with these three beta bastards seemed like a thrilling climax to it all.
Yes... He was ready... He was still every bit the alpha he'd always been, and he was more than ready to make these disrespectful bitches understand that fact.
Raymus appeared to understand it, in the split-second preceding the attack. His expression changed slightly, like he'd just seen a ghost- or, more accurately, like he'd just seen the re-ignition of a fire in the alpha's eye that had long been dormant, nothing but kindling, on the absolute verge of being extinguished.
The alpha leapt into action.
He careened forward, straight into Raymus, his fangs bared, his glowing eyes frightening as they beamed through the darkness.
Raymus barked at him as loud as he could, and tried to leap back in his direction with every bit the same vigor, but he'd been too distracted by his intimidation to respond quite in time, or with nearly enough force. The full weight of the alpha's body came crashing down on him, knocking away his breath as he hit the ground in a painful heap. He sank his teeth into the beta males flesh, and tore back through the muscle and fur, streams of blood erupting and spilling warm and salty onto his tongue. Raymus howled out in pain, and threw a vicious claw at the face of his attacker, struggling to dislodge himself. The alpha dodged the blow, and returned the attack with a paw of his own, scratching up the side of the beta's face, and temporarily blinding him with streams of his own blood.
Before he could do any more damage, he felt the vicious impact of the other two beta males, coming at him from either direction. Their bodies slammed into him and left him toppling across the undergrowth, away from Raymus' injured and bleeding self. The three wolves spun head over heels across the forest floor, the two beta males struggling for dominance over their opponent as the alpha himself strained to disentangle himself. He felt the hot pain of claws being dug across his chest and stomach, and the heat of his blood pouring across his taut musculature, down between his legs.
He bit at the two animals and thrashed as forcefully as he could, trying to make it as hard as possible for them to keep him pinned down. It grew harder and harder for him to strain against their collective weight, their blows getting fiercer and fiercer with everyone they rained down on him, and his efforts at resistance seeming more and more vain with every digging of their claws and teeth into his skin.
Gradually, though, as they were tearing him a new one, the alpha began to realize something-
The two betas were fighting one another, as much as they were him.
Each of them seemed to be vying for dominance, trying to lay claim to their victim against the insistence of his comrade.
He thought he might just be able to use this to his advantage...
Trying to think rationally in the face of death, and mustering up every ounce of his strength, he threw his weight back as hard as he could- not attempting, this time, to free himself, but to trick the beta male at his tail end into thinking he'd been overpowered by the beta at his head.
Clearly wanting to prove himself the bigger wolf, the rear beta yanked back in the opposite direction as viciously as he could. It hurt like hell as the creature's teeth sank into him, his blood flowing, his heart thundering from the agony of it. But the alpha took full advantage of his position, throwing his full weight back this time, and adding his force to the momentum of the beta's backward retreat.
The rear beta let out a gut-wrenching yelp of pain, which almost might have sounded pitiable under very different circumstances.
Losing control of himself, and with the alpha steering his movements, the beta was tossed back hard against the trunk of the tree, his spine bending around it, and several of his vertebrae audibly breaking in the process. The alpha winced, sympathetic toward his suffering in spite of the situation, and the defeated beta slid down pathetically along the trunk of the tree, his legs twitching, his breathing short, labored, and meager.
Such an unnecessary loss... thought the alpha, though he didn't have much time to ruminate on the fact just now.
The beta's partner seemed momentarily transfixed by the breaking of his comrade's spine, and this, too, the alpha used to his advantage. He lunged forward, and sank his teeth into the creature's neck. It yelped, and tore his head back and forth to free himself. This only made the injury of the alpha's bite even worse, however, and once his grip was settled nice and deep into the creature's flesh, the alpha jerked his head with an almost impossible ferocity, and flung the wretched creature into the air. He flew several yards, then tumbled miserably across the undergrowth, yelping each and every time his wretched body hit the ground.
He wasn't defeated yet, the alpha didn't think, but his chances of coming out a victor in all of this had just been drastically reduced by that single move. He stood there for a moment too long with the wolf equivalent of a smile across his face, but then felt a hard blow against the side of his body, knocking him out of his victorious reverie.
He tumbled through the leaves, Raymus' weight bearing down on him once more, his body seeming almost twice as heavy as it had previously. The head of the betas didn't pull any punches this time. He dug straight into his trapped opponent, clawing deep into his skin, ripping open flesh, penetrating far deeper than either of his two minions had done over the duration of their skirmish. The alpha struggled and strained, trying to block his face and his vital organs as best he could. He couldn't seem to get a single blow in against his opponent, no matter how hard he tried- it was everything he could do just to defend himself.
Then, at just the right moment, he managed to find his opening.
As Raymus pulled back his head, gasping for breath after having inflicted so much damage, the alpha lunged forward, and chomped down on the underside of his throat. Raymus yelped in pain, and was forced to jump back, at the risk of his opponent's razor sharp jaws sinking any further into him than they already were.
The alpha let him go, knowing that he was still too weak to finish what he'd started, and needing to upright himself before going any further.
The two wolves hobbled away from one another, both bloody and winded, both gasping for breath, both struggling to get their bearings about them.
The world was spinning around the alpha's head, the ground swaying beneath his feet.
Maybe he hadn't been quite as ready for all of this as he'd initially thought he was...
He tried to focus. To renew his strength. To gather every ounce of his energy and target it on the bloody beta male standing several feet in front of him.
He knew he had it in him to finish this...
He'd set out on this mission, determined to change his pack and the lives of those in it for good.
He'd gone too far, invested himself far too deeply to let himself be defeated now.
And he wasn't about to let that happen...
The two wolves stood facing one another off, their energy gradually returning to them, the tension mounting to a degree that was almost painful. The night stood still around them, even the winds seeming to have died down in the ensuing period of their battle. The alpha didn't know just when the temperature had dipped down, or whether he just hadn't noticed it before, but he could now see his breath rising up in front of him, billowing white clouds of it steaming through the air, dissipating slowly into the bitter cold of the night.
The two beasts stood. And stared.
Then, at last, they leapt.
But not toward him, as he’d been expecting, as he’d been preparing for up until that very moment...
The beasts, instead, ran off in the other direction, as though having suddenly changed their mind about the whole endeavor. Like they realized he was simply too powerful, too fierce an opponent to be reckoned with, after what they’d just seen him do to their partner.
The alpha stood watching them for a moment, considering what had just taken place. Then he shook his head, still a little bit disbelieving about the whole thing.
Smart, he thought. Their asses would have been kicked six ways to Sunday had they tried to stay around and fight him a moment longer.
Or at least he hoped that would be the case...
The truth was, the outcome might have been very different for him had they stayed, the way that he now felt.
He rose back up onto his haunches, his bones now aching and weary without the rush of adrenaline that had kept him going through the fight. He stood looking into the darkness, past the fog of his breath, shaking his head at the senselessness of it all.
“Pricks,” he muttered. Then he stretched his muscles, working out the kinks that had developed over the course of the fight. “Damn it... I really need to get back into shape...”
He continued to stretch for several moments longer, until he heard the unexpected sound of whimpering, and suddenly remembered the third beta he'd broken against the trunk of the tree.
He turned, and saw the almost lifeless body of the now-human figure lying there, unable to move, his fingers still straining against the undergrowth as though he might be able to drag himself home that way.
“I'm sorry it had to be this way,” said the alpha. “You picked a shitty crowd to run with, though, and you didn't really give me that much of a choice.”
He could see tears welling up in the man's eyes, and felt a stab of guilt in his chest. He honestly did hate it- crippling this man for life- but what other options had he had?
“Please... Please,” whimpered the man, looking at him with imploring eyes. “Kill me. Just kill me...”
The alpha looked at him, considering the request.
“I'm sorry,” he said finally. “I'm not putting myself in that position... If someone from the pack wants to do that for you, then that's their business. If I do it, you know they'll use that as an excuse to come and kill me in return. I just can't risk that.”
“I'll... I'll f-freeze out here,” he said, his voice pleading. “Please, just... Just do it now... Put me out of my m-misery...”
He hated everything about this. Hated leaving the man here, but even more hated the potential consequences of doing what was asked of him. An act of mercy though it may be, there was no way for his former pack to know that was the case. They would simply see it as an act of brutal killing, and come after him seeking blood for blood, as he'd long since known to be their way by now.
He turned his head away from the man lying there, as hard as it was for him to do so, and forced himself to move on, continuing in the direction he'd been going before the ambush.
“I'm sorry,” he called back to him in a low voice. “You brought this on yourself... But I'll be sure to send someone back to come and get you if I remember. Hopefully they'll get here before it's too late...”
“Please... Please!” he wheezed, but he couldn't listen to it any longer.
He needed to get to where he was going, and fast, before any of his other old pack mates decided to come out for another friendly visit like the one he'd just escaped...