Dust stung the young wolf’s eyes as he once more made an unceremonious tumble into the dirt. Every muscle seemed heavier than stone, impossible to lift, and each breath came with a thin wheeze—that last toss had knocked the air clean out of him and it took a few moments to finally regain it. He heard more than a few chuckles as the ever-supportive onlookers witnessed his latest failing.
Hope they enjoyed the show, at least.
“Daiga!” A familiar hoarse growl echoed through the clearing. Daiga raised his head, though not without effort, to meet Anzen’s contemptuous amber glare. He was big as a bear and could possibly boast a share of its brutish strength, an immense figure framed by wild gray fur. Daiga had practically spent his whole life being battered by that monster’s monstrous paws.
“Are you just going to lie there, dead as a rock? Get up!”
Daiga responded by rolling over onto his back and staring up toward the orange and yellow crowns of the trees. A cool autumn breeze ruffled their leaves, allowing the watery gold noonday sun to bleed down into the clearing in momentary pools of light. “You should join me, Anza, the view’s nice,” he said, stretching his paws up toward the sky, so far above.
He had to stifle a snicker at the exasperated huff that arose from Anzen. “Stop calling me Anza. You’re to address Hunters by their proper titles—”
“The illustrious Alpha Jomm doesn’t care much how I address you. We’re all family here, right?” It was harder than Daiga wanted to admit to keep the sudden bitterness out of his voice. “Anyway, are we done now? I’m tired.”
Anzen let out a snort. “I don’t even see the point in training you; it’s a waste of everybody’s time if you can’t muster up a basic willingness to improve.”
What would you know? “Well, ya got me there.” Daiga rolled himself to his paws, wincing at his smarting limbs, and shook the dust from his fur.
“Give up, Hunter Anzen.” That was Bayen, a scruffy brown male languidly stretched out at the clearing’s edge to enjoy a warm pocket of sunlight. “Daiga there isn’t going to amount to much more than an embarrassment to the Oma Pack.” A few derisive laughs arose from the wolves around him, agreeing.
Bayen’s sister Alin jumped up from her spot across the open space, the golden rays briefly setting her green eyes ablaze. “It’s a wonder Alpha Jomm hasn’t kicked him out yet,” she growled coldly. Murmurs of assent drifted all around.
Seems I’ve drawn quite a crowd today. Daytime for the Omas was reserved for instruction and relaxation, as well as fellowship to strengthen and secure Pack bonds. What a way to unwind, watching me act a proper fool.
Daiga flashed Alin a sidelong glance and made himself smile. “My father has a big heart; he’d never cast out his precious only son.” He puffed out his chest in an exaggerated display of arrogance, trying not to grimace as he did. “Anyway, what would become of the Omas without these rugged good looks?” Some of the dissent gradually faded, replaced by amusement.
It was a fine line Daiga needed to walk, one between mockery and outright hostility. Better to be seen as a fool than a dangerous liability. “Show’s over, adoring Omas. I’m off!”
Just before he could turn to leave, Anzen’s weary sigh drew Daiga’s attention, mostly because it was free of the condescension he was so used to. The bigger wolf reached him in two long strides, his broad shadow easily engulfing Daiga’s, and leaned his head in close, his voice low.
“You can’t laugh this off forever, Daiga. If you don’t start making progress…”
Daiga clenched his fangs. As though I don’t already know. “Whatever. I’m going to clear my head.” He moved off toward the trees, suddenly very eager to be alone.
“Don’t forget the hunt tonight,” Anzen called after him. “Alpha Jomm said he wanted all available paws to help.”
Daiga threw a laugh over his shoulder. “Even mine?”
The river had been Daiga’s favorite place ever since his mother had first brought him as a pup, when he was somehow smaller than he was now. They always visited the same area, a pocket of empty land free of undergrowth that looked directly over the water. He would come with her to stare into the rushing current for hours and find himself soothed by its steady, lilting melody. The river wound dutifully through the whole forest, once a broad, silvery band that could be as tranquil as it could be wrathful. The Oma Pack had been relying on it for generations, whether that be during the blazing summer months or in the cold throes of winter, as not even the blackest ice could tame its great waters. Now, however, it was hardly more than a tiny stream, chattering feebly within a fraction of its banks.
You’re so much quieter now. Daiga gazed down at the thin trickle, remembering a time when he had to be careful not to get swept into the river’s depths—not that he’d had anything to fear under his mother’s watchful gaze. Sinking onto his stomach, the dark wolf allowed a wry grin. “You probably couldn’t drown a mouse now, eh?”
As the river’s strength dwindled, so too did the forest’s. Even the banks were deathly silent now, the nearby foliage browning and shriveling before winter’s breath could touch them. Daiga couldn’t help the twinge of sadness that settled over his heart. It was almost like losing a friend. Maybe it misses her, too. Maybe the whole forest does. The twinge became deeper and sharper.
“I knew I would find you here.”
That growl, lower than a bellow of thunder, set Daiga’s entire body rigid. The fur on his neck instinctively arose in alarmed spiky tufts, but he smoothed it all down with an inaudible sigh. A practiced movement.
“I thought I had a little more time before Anza ratted me out,” Daiga said, trying his best to ignore the anxious flutter in his belly.
Blunt fangs sank into the loose fur of Daiga’s neck, hauling him harshly away from the river’s edge and flinging him back down. Easier than tossing a rodent.
“Face me when I speak.”
Daiga stood automatically, unthinkingly. Though swaying unsteadily on his paws, his body obeyed the order, facing the hulking presence without protest. Even so, Daiga willfully trained his gaze on the ground, a small defiance. Damn it all, I can’t stop myself from trembling!
“What do you want?” he managed to ask.
The stale smell of rabbit blood and pine needles loomed close over Daiga, cloying together strangely with the refreshing scent of the river.
“Look at me, Daiga,” the voice said in a low snarl, his name spat out like a curse.
Hesitance. If I look…
But he had been given a command, and so his body obeyed. Daiga stared up, up, up into twin black pits of swirling nothingness. In those eyes, he saw his own gangly legs, his gaunt frame, his every past and future misstep—a perfect reflection of imperfection. Daiga wanted nothing more than to run, or sink into the ground, anything to avoid being swallowed by that malicious gaze.
Abruptly, a gust of wind swept down among the trees, curling gently through his fur. With it came smells of water and damp earth. A comforting reminder. He closed his eyes in a long blink, and when he reopened them, he was steadier.
“There are nicer ways to get my attention, Father. Ever tried saying, ‘Hello’ or ‘How do you do?’” Daiga asked with a smirk. He was somewhat relieved by the flicker of disappointment he detected in his father’s face; in a small, insignificant way, he’d won.
Alpha Jomm wasn’t commanding in a brutish, physical sense, like Anzen. It was the way he held his head, angled his ears, swung his tail. He had a pristine ashen coat, lush as a cloud, pale where his son’s was shadowed. Daiga knew the Alpha’s eyes were actually a fine blue, a jubilant winter sky, but ever since that one day, he had never seen them glow any brighter than a starless, moonless night.
“Enough of your foolishness. I expected to find you readying up at the Hollow. The Master Hunters are going over a few strategies; you should be there,” Jomm said, disapproving like always.
No, it hasn’t always been like this, Daiga recalled, pushing away the pang of sadness that followed the thought.
“I…I wanted to cool off.” Daiga shrugged, the smirk fading.
Jomm surveyed the riverbank and scowled. “Here?”
Daiga’s ears swung back against his head. “Like you don’t know why.”
“It’s more like I don’t understand. Dwelling on the past only weakens the spirit.” Jomm’s voice was thornier, more biting. He closed his eyes for a moment, calming, and the world seemed a little brighter in his doing so. The Alpha then swung his wide maw up to the sky, observing the yellow-red tint that heralded sunset. An uncharacteristic thoughtfulness had fallen over him. Daiga wasn’t sure why, but he could somehow tell it was just Jomm in front of him now, his father.
“I can feel her here. Sometimes,” Daiga murmured. It felt like the right time to tell him, try to explain. Maybe talk about that day. Their eyes met again, but neither really saw the other.
“In the wind, in the river, in the earth. It’s hard to explain, but it’s…like part of her remained here.” Daiga shrugged again. The sensation got so strong once that he half-expected her to just be there when he whirled around, but of course, he’d been alone.
Something in the air soured. “She’s dead, Daiga,” Jomm snapped. His gaze had grown impossibly darker. “There’s no way you can feel her.”
“If you stop and listen, you can,” Daiga said, insistent. Jomm snarled sharply, startling a nearby flock of birds into the skies. The Alpha hurriedly lurched toward the riverside, but not soon enough for Daiga to miss the naked pain that flashed across his face.
Unsure if it was safe to approach, Daiga kept still. Nowadays, Alpha Jomm’s moods dimmed and surged like sudden spring rainstorms. When was the last time Father even visited this place?
“As the Alpha Male, I don’t have time to stop.” Daiga was both surprised and unsurprised to hear only a chilled firmness in Jomm’s voice. “I don’t have time to reminisce. With the river drying up, the Omas are counting on me to lead them. As my son, as my heir, they will soon count on you as well.” Jomm glanced back at him. “You need to move on, not stand still.”
For the first time in a long time, a soaring tide of rage set Daiga’s belly aflame. “So you want me to just forget about her?”
Jomm returned his attention to the river. “It’s better if you do, Daiga. I’m tired of seeing you wallow in senseless grief.”
“And what would the great Alpha Jomm know about grief?” The sudden blaze of fury gave him the courage to move closer. “All you do—all anyone does—is blame me for her death! Where were you when she needed you most?” Daiga knew that wasn’t fair, perhaps none of it was, but anger carried his words. I’m tired of pretending like I don’t care! Somehow, someway, he had to make his father understand.
When Jomm spun around, Daiga had been expecting to see outrage rivaling his own, but he only saw raw terror.
“Daiga, get down!” The Alpha lunged at him with a powerful spring, sending them rolling into a thicket of bushes that grew nearby. Not a heartbeat later, the bear burst into view, and Daiga’s body seized up, his breath hitching in his throat.
What are the odds…
It wasn’t the same one, he knew. That other bear had been old and horribly scarred, and far larger. But Daiga couldn’t help seeing it as the same. The whole situation felt all too familiar.
The bear snuffled deeply at the air with its massive snout, catching the wolves’ scent easily. It ranged about the open bank, edging closer to their hiding spot with each lumbering step.
“Stay put, Daiga.” Jomm’s breath warmed the dark wolf’s ear. The Alpha was coiled up like a snake, fangs bared and ears flat, ready to strike. “Whatever you do, don’t—”
“—don’t leave this spot,” Daiga finished, remembering. Jomm paused at that, his bloodthirsty aura wavering, but the moment was brief. Just as the bear reached down to investigate their bush cluster, Alpha Jomm launched himself at its face, fastening a grip right onto its blunt muzzle. A reverberating bellow of pain seemed to shake the whole forest.
It’s happening all over again. Fear spread cold tendrils through Daiga, trying to numb him, render him immobile, but it didn’t work that time. He saw everything with crystal clarity.
The bear reared tall and, with a vigorous shake of its body, sent Jomm flying. Alpha that he was, he recovered with a swift roll as soon as he touched the ground, but the fall had still been rough; Daiga could tell from the way his father grimaced once he’d found his paws again. The bear would lunge, Jomm would miss the dodge—
It’s all the same! And it would be his fault, again. If only he was stronger, faster, if he had been paying attention, if he was like Anzen or Jomm, she wouldn’t be—
Another gust of wind, a mighty one, roared through the trees above. Leaves of red and gold and green cascaded down, gentle as the snowflakes that fell on the day Daiga’s mother died.
His paws moved on their own.
The bear had already started its attack and Jomm was bracing himself, but Daiga was there. His jaws clamped down hard on one of its round little ears, and he gave it a savage twist. The bear careened aside, barrelling straight past Jomm. If things were different, Daiga would’ve laughed at the sheer shock plastered on the Alpha’s face.
He spat out the mangled mess of the bear’s ear and sprang from its broad back just before it could carry him with it into the trees. It’d clearly had enough.
“What was all the commotion?”
Daiga’s ears angled toward Anzen’s gruff growl, which was quickly followed by the rumble of several pawsteps. The Oma Pack had arrived.
“Yeah, we heard a bear roar!” Bayen was breathless but alert, ready to launch himself into battle.
“It was just here,” Alin said after a wary sniff. “Seems Alpha Jomm beat us to it.”
The Pack crowded eagerly around their leader, awed conversation already passing among their number, but they parted as the pale Alpha moved through them. He came to a stop before Daiga, his gaze unreadable.
“If not for my son, I would be dead,” Jomm said, the bass timbre of an Alpha Male resounding through his voice. Those words were for the Omas. Just the Omas. Daiga searched his father’s shadowed eyes for something, anything, but it was the Pack’s turn now. Perhaps I shouldn’t have expected any less.
“No way! What’d he do?”
“How’d you do it, Daiga?”
As Daiga was swarmed by eager faces, he noticed Alpha Jomm stalking off into the woods.
Later, much later, when moonlight had settled over the Pack Hollow and the Omas were sleeping off unseasonably full bellies, Daiga looked up from his quiet corner nest to see Alpha Jomm standing over him.
His eyes were warm and blue.