The night was still.
A precarious serenity seemed to hang over everything. A sense that, for the moment at least, all was well, but that this could change at any time without warning.
Like the calm before the storm...
A family of deer crept through the undergrowth, ears piqued, their eyes glowing dimly in the light of the full moon. A doe and her three fawns, on the lookout for predators. Their steps were cautious and halting—every so often the crackling of a leaf beneath their feet would bring them to full alertness, putting them on the lookout for some imaginary danger.
Yet always the stillness would return, and the family would continue on its way, more on edge than ever, but safe, for the time being.
At last they arrived at their destination, the babbling brook that zigzagged through the forest. Two of the fawns galloped up to it immediately as it came into view, while the third stayed behind with its mother, approaching the stream at a much more guarded pace. They got to the water's edge, however, and still no danger presented itself.
Only the chirping of crickets.
The occasional bellow of a frog or the call of an owl.
Encouraged by his mother, the third fawn lowered his head, and drank. The doe did the same, more on edge than she let on, and every so often between gulps of cool water, she made a point of looking up, scanning the area, and making sure that nothing had changed.
There were no signs of predators anywhere. No concrete reason to believe that things were about to take any kind of abrupt turn.
Yet she knew from experience, or perhaps from instinct, that the moments when danger was the least expected, were the same ones at which you placed yourself at risk of the greatest vulnerability.
For another minute or so, things remained as quiet and as calm as ever, and the family of four continued to drink in peace.
But then—a sudden flash of movement from the corner of her eye.
Her head bolted up, and lingered on the spot just long enough to process the vaguest impression of what was happening.
Something on four legs, rocketing toward them, its huge body a shadow in the darkness that seemed to cascade across the forest floor like a ghost.
Then, if that wasn't enough on its own, several more like it came roaring up behind in its wake, their movements wild and frenzied, indicating an unmistakable taste for blood.
Another deer perhaps, being chased down by predators.
Except the thing being chased looked the same as the ones chasing it, outnumbered, overpowered, but fundamentally similar.
Whatever was going on, this mother wasn't about to put her children's lives in danger by sticking around to find out.
She leaped from the spot, and her sudden movement spurred the children to action, oblivious as they'd been up until now as to the approaching danger. No sooner had the four of them cleared the area than whatever it was emerged from the shadows, trundling down the hillside and into the area where they'd just been drinking.
Its muscles strained as it raced for its life across the undergrowth, its legs beating as hard and as furious as it could against the ground. It was panting furiously, its heart beating an out of control rhythm in its chest, its eyes wide as it analyzed its surroundings at lightning speed.
It plunged into the stream where the deer had been drinking, inundating its blood-matted fur in the frigid, ice cold water. An immediate regret, as the beast's core temperature plummeted, and ice crystals began to form on its pelt nearly the instant it made its way back out on the other side of the stream.
Shit... Shit... Shit! it thought.
It already felt so weak, driven only by adrenaline and a will to survive. Now there was the danger of hypothermia to contend with, made a million times worse by the soaking of its fur. If it kept on running through this freezing air at the pace it now was, it would only continue to keep getting colder and colder, until it essentially froze its way solid, like some once-living ice sculpture caught in space in time in the middle of the forest.
But it knew it couldn't stop running...
One look back over its shoulder and it saw the five other wolves coming toward it, looking every bit as mad as ever, their eyes glowing fiercely in the darkness. They had the good sense—not to mention the strength—to jump clean over the stream instead of plummeting into it.
It was clearer than ever, now, that it couldn't slow down.
Couldn't relent for one second, for fear of being torn to shreds in an instant, or worse.
As bad as things might have been up to now, it knew that they could indeed get much, much worse...
It closed its eyes, and thought for just a fraction of a second. It imagined a face. A smile. The warmth of a body wrapped in its arms. The flavor of lips it hadn't tasted for so long now, and might never taste again.
But it knew it couldn't operate under that assumption.
Knew that the being of its fantasy needed to be alive and well, if only in its mind, if there was any hope to be had of making it out of this alive.
It filled the creature with a new sense of purpose...
It remembered all that it had once had, and all that had been taken from it.
All that it had loved and lost, and exactly who had been responsible for it.
The bastards now closing in on its tail, closing in to take the remainder of whatever it still had left.
There was no way in hell it was about to let that happen...
The creature now fleeing for its life had once been an alpha, after all. Had once had everything, before it was all taken away.
It wasn't about to let them finish what they'd started...
Newly determined, it doubled down as it thundered across the forest. Its body temperature rose, resisting the cold chill of the ice now crystallizing across its fur.
It tried to think... Tried to figure out any possible advantage it might have had against the five raging canines now hot on its tail.
And that was when the idea hit...
It knew these woods far better than anyone, and in particular, better than the brain-dead Midnighters that had been tasked with its apprehension.
Their cries were now ringing in its ears, their barks and snarls, the sounds of their padded feet as they boomed across the earth.
But it wasn't about to let itself be caught, for the sake of its pack, and for the sake of the one it had been forced to leave behind...
It veered from the path it had been taking until now, rushing up a slope that seemed to crumble beneath its feet with every step it took. The wolves followed after, tearing apart the frozen ground as their claws dug through the earth, but their determination as sure and as firm as ever.
It crested the top of the hill, and gazed with frenzied intensity at the mouth of the cave.
It took off like a rocket, hoping to make it there with enough of a head start for its plan to be set perfectly into motion. Behind it, though, it could hear the panting of the wolves getting louder and louder, the distance between them narrowing with every torturous second that passed.
It could practically feel their hot breath on its heels as it billowed up as steam through the frigid air. Could practically feel their fangs tearing into its flesh, ripping it apart as punishment for its escape.
Could practically feel its life draining away, and the hope of ever being reunited with all that it had lost...
Driven by an almost unparalleled sense of determination, it hurled its weight into the mouth of the cave, inundating itself with shadow, its nails clacking against the stone floor as it continued onward, not letting up for a second.
It could hear the other wolves behind it, their grunts and growls echoing off the walls, their distance now impossible to gage.
It almost, almost seemed like it might be able to pull this off; as though there might truly be the narrowest hope in hell of escaping their wrath.
But that was when it found itself at a fork in the tunnel, two separate paths branching off in either direction.
It froze, its head darting back and forth, the decision it now had to make seeming an impossible one.
It tried to remember, but couldn't—it had been so long, or at least it seemed that way, that the information simply refused to materialized in its mind.
The left trail seemed right... Or, maybe the right trail was the one it had always been taught to avoid, and the one it now wanted, while the left one had always been the safe one.
Why now, of all times, couldn't it recall this piece of fundamental information it had once known since childhood?
After far too long of a delay, it took the plunge and took the left tunnel, knowing as it did so that it was already too late.
It made it about halfway through the path, racing at top speed, when suddenly it felt the weight of one of the other wolves bearing down on it, crushing down with every ounce of strength it possessed. It knocked the wind clean out of it, and sent it tumbling across the hard stone floor. Dazed, winded, it lifted its head to try and retaliate, but could already feel the hard tear of a claw through its flesh, ripping open a bloody red gash in its side.
It issued forth a hideous yelp of pain and snapped back at its attacker, its teeth closing down on what felt like the top of a leg. It tried to sink its jaws in deeper, endeavoring to cripple the bastard if possible, but now a second wolf was bearing down, sinking its teeth into the scruff of its neck.
As fast as it had run, and as hard as it had fought, there no longer seemed like any possibility of escaping.
This was the end of the line...
All five wolves were upon it now, sinking their teeth into its hide, crushing it beneath their weight, scraping its flesh nearly to the bone as their claws dug against every square inch of its weakened body. It fought back as best as it could, kicking and scratching, working up every ounce of strength that it could.
None of it was any use, though...
The blows just kept coming.
The pain coursed through its body like a drug.
Its strength continued to diminish with every new hole opened up in its flesh, the warm blood pouring from its wounds quickly freezing in the chilled air, until finally it could resist no longer.
With a deep shudder, its head fell back against the hard stone floor, and an opaque breath of exhaustion billowed up from its muzzle.
Its body began to change, the energy it had needed to sustain its transformation flooding away on the spot. Its frame began to shrink, its power to deteriorate. Its matted fur receded into smooth white flesh, revealing a nude, muscular body beneath that nevertheless appeared drained and defeated. The long snout, finally, flattened out into a human face, handsome but broken. Its eyes draining of light, its nose bloody, one of its eyes so black and swollen that it was almost alarming, even to the attackers.
He lay there, panting on the cold ground like the animal he'd been mere seconds ago, barely able to see past the clouds of his breath, and the cold sweat now rolling down into his stinging eyes in painful, salty rivulets.
The other wolves paced around him like buzzards, as though moving in for the kill, but then stopped, flanking him on all sides, but not yet attacking.
Instead, the most powerful of the group in rank rose up onto his haunches, and transformed on the spot as their victim had done. His body, however, contrasted heavily with the one of the wretch now lying at his feet. His injuries were minimal, his skin largely unbroken. Power seemed to course through the perfection of his muscles, his chest rising and falling as he sneered down at his victim, clearly savoring every last second of his downfall.
“A noble effort,” he said, sneering at him with unchecked malevolence. “Really, I applaud your delusion, and the depths of your commitment to failure...”
“Fuck you,” spat the man on the ground, attacking him in the only way he still could.
The man standing in front of him simply laughed.
“Play nice, now... After all, you've brought this upon yourself. We were going to let you live. Hell, for that matter, we might even have let you go in time, if only you'd been a good little boy, and behaved like you were supposed to. Your power is undeniable after all—you are a true alpha, if ever I've seen one. You could have been of great use to us, once you'd had time to learn the rules of the game. The only problem was, you didn't feel like playing along. You had the audacity to think you could possibly escape. But I've got news for you, friend... No one escapes from the Pack of the Midnight Umbra... And this is what happens to anyone who thinks that they're the exception.”
He'd been sitting up until now, but felt himself being shoved back onto the ground hard, the oxygen draining from his lungs. He wheezed, and struggled to breathe, but his attacker's foot was pressing harder and harder on his chest—he thought he might feel his ribcage being crushed into powder at any moment.
But he couldn't just give up... Not like this...
“You'll... Never... Win...” he gasped, using every breath of air he could still lay claim to.
His attacker actually tilted his head back at this, and boomed with laughter.
“My dear, deluded friend... Can't you see that I've already won? That we've already won? The only question that remains to be answered is whether I should kill you now, or whether we should deliver you up to Ronan himself for punishment. I'm sure that he would most enjoy making a public example out of you...”
Whether he actually felt any sort of dilemma about any of this was unclear, as he could feel the man's weight getting heavier and heavier atop his chest, becoming so unbearable that he thought he might pass out from the lack of oxygen.
But then, just as he thought the end had come, he heard a sound.
So did the wolves standing around him, as well as, finally, the man whose foot was on his chest.
It was a low, swelling sound, deep and intimidating. Like the sound of an animal much larger than any of them, stirring from the grogginess of sleep.
“What the hell?” asked the man on top, his brow furrowed.
His prisoner stiffened beneath him, braced for what he knew was about to happen next. He only had one shot at this, and he was more than aware that it wasn't a sure thing. But he had every intention of being ready for it when it happened, his muscles tensed, his senses piqued as he counted down the seconds in his mind.
“One of you... Go see what that was,” he said, pointing nervously toward the darkness. The wolves looked at one another, all clearly unwilling to volunteer for the task at hand. Then at last the smallest among them, clearly an omega, made his way grudgingly along through the tunnel, fading into the darkness of the unknown.
The leader watched after him for a moment, clearly concerned. Then he jerked his head back toward his prisoner, his brow furrowed.
“Where the hell did you bring us?!” he demanded, and again he felt the pressure intensifying against his chest.
“I-I swear I don't know,” he pleaded, shaking his head. “This is the first time I've been here...”
“Don't lie!” he shouted, and only just restrained himself from stomping out his prisoner's lungs right there on the spot. “I saw you veer off and make a run specifically for this cave! You meant to bring us here!”
“No, I...I just saw that there was a cave over the hill... I just thought maybe I could—”
Before he could finish his lie, however, a deafening roar boomed through the cave, accompanied by a howl of canine pain so sickening that it even made the prisoner feel nauseous.
There was silence after that.
It ensued for moments on end, oppressive, deafening, and terrible.
The man on the ground felt his heart beating relentlessly in his ears. He prepared himself for the split second that would make or break this entire plan, sliding his hands up so gradually across the stony ground that the man on top of him didn't even notice it happening.
Very slowly, the sound of deep, heavy breathing rose up from the stillness. Nasal and animalistic, laced with passion, fury, hunger...
Then, the, steady, persistent dripping of some viscous liquid against the hard floor.
The wolves' nostrils flared at the scent of blood...
At last, out of the darkness, a form materialized. Massive and hulking, its frame seeming to eclipse the whole of the tunnel behind it. The wolf that had been sent in to inspect it hung lifeless in its grip, entrails dangling from its open wound like a garland. Horrifically, its lungs still seemed to be functioning, blood spurting from its mouth as it twitched and spasmed in the mouth of the grizzly, clinging to the remnants of a life that it already knew without doubt to have reached its conclusion.
For a brief second, nobody moved.
Then, a dizzying rush of activity, happening so quickly and in such rapid-fire succession that it was impossible to tell what was what. Either the bear leaped forward to attack first, or the three wolves charged forward in retaliation for the death of their friend. But one way or another, a jumble of bodies now toppled across the floor, furious growls and terrifying roars filling the air. The bear's massive claws were pounding through the air, smacking away its attackers right and left, before they even had the chance to do any significant damage to him. Their teeth sank into its flesh and pulled on his muscle, but it didn't seem to affect the creature at all, as though its entire body was encased in some unbreakable steel.
It swatted away its attackers like a movie monster knocking helicopters from the sky, the wolves yelping as they hurdled across the cave and smashed against the walls, only to be back up on their feet the moment they landed, and heading right back in for more.
The standing Midnighter simply lingered there, his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide, and his head spinning as he struggled to think of what to do.
That was when the man beneath him sprung into action.
He grabbed his attacker by the ankle, and pulled back on his leg as hard as he possibly could. Before he could even piece together what was happening, his body was plummeting, his head smashing against the stone floor with a gut-wrenching CRACK!
“Ah, fuck!” he swore, and his prisoner sprung up on the spot, mustering up a strength he didn't really possess to shift back into his wolf form and begin running headlong back in the direction of the cave's entryway.
“Get back here, you son of a bitch!” the Midnighter roared. He managed to leap into the air and transform, despite what appeared to be a massive amount of blood loss judging by the growing red pool on the floor where his skull had landed. But the escapee was already back at the entrance of the cave, and before his pursuer made it anywhere close to catching up with him, the grizzly had leaped forward and tackled the Midnighter to the ground. The fleeing alpha heard the sound of the struggle and the wet crack of teeth penetrating skin, but had no intention whatsoever of sticking around to witness the outcome of the fight.
The escaping alpha ran as quickly as his weary limbs would carry him through the forest, panting, exhausted, feeling like he could collapse at any moment. Yet he knew that was a luxury he couldn't truly afford right now—he had to keep going. Had to keep running for his life. Had to make it as far away from his attackers as he could before even thinking about letting up his pace.
He felt light and ephemeral, like he wasn't quite real as he drifted across the ground. Seeing himself as he made his escape, but not feeling as though he was truly present, or as though it was truly him doing the running.
He made his way through territory that was vaguely familiar to him, into an area of wood that he didn't recognize, the features and landmarks all totally unfamiliar. He tried to decide whether the strangeness of the place was a good thing or a bad thing, but decided in the end that, under the circumstances, it really didn't matter all that much.
At last, after running for so long that even his adrenaline tanks were running on empty, he decided it was imperative that he find a place to stop and rest, before he collapsed right there on the spot and made himself an easy target.
He scanned the horizon until he came across another cave in the near distance. It was up a wicked-looking incline that made his legs ache just to look at it, but he decided the advantages of the location generally outweighed the many hindrances of making it there.
By the time he'd made his ascent and arrived inside the mouth of the cave, his body felt as though it was on fire from head to toe. His open limbs burned, his arms and legs ached, and he thought he might hack up a lung at any moment, his throat now sore and scorching as it was. Yet all this internal heat seemed to contend with the cold air crushing down around him like a weight, so that at any moment it felt as though his body might collapse in on itself, one way or another.
Summoning the final reserves of his strength, he crawled deep enough into the heart of the cave so as to secure himself from the oppression of the outside elements. He should have gone all the way in and made sure it was unoccupied by anything larger and more powerful than he was, that might not take so kindly to uninvited guests, but in that moment he didn't genuinely believe he had the strength to make it in even a single step further.
In any case, he didn't know what the hell he could possibly do to defend himself if there was any kind of danger. Whatever energy he might still have had left for survival had been all but drained by his escape. If there was still anything around that really wanted him dead bad enough, they were more than welcome to be his guest...
He slumped back miserably into his human form, then dragged his tattered body across the cold stone, wishing to God he had some way of covering himself up. All he could really do was wrap his arms around his legs, and hug his knees up to his chest, as he lay in a weary heap across the floor.
He lay awake and alert for a long time, still a little on edge in case danger should come calling for him. But then, very slowly, he surrendered to the pressure of his eyelids sinking gradually downward, bringing the darkness that now ensued him to its completion.
As he slowly faded, perhaps for the last time in his life, he allowed his mind to wander to times long gone. Times that had been so much happier for him and for everyone around him. A time before war, when all the world had been at his feet, and the future was spread out before him, bright and promising—a future, most importantly, with the man he loved by his side.
That time had been stolen away from him, before he could ever see that promise brought to its fruition.
And now he didn't think there would ever be a hope in hell of going back to those days again, except inside his mind...