The Return (Part Three)

(Part Two)

Lars watched as a form crashed down in the forest before him, freed twigs dropping upon his head. He raced forward, leaping the frozen stream bank in a single bound. A snarl and a show of fangs was all it took to send the mob of crows scattering, Lars prodding at the unmoving figure with his paw. He gasped as the mass turned over, revealing the white head of a Baloran.

The masters of light and darkness, those who fly closest to the Sky Hunters. Tales from his puphood swirled about in his head, his mother speaking to him once more. “It is sacrilege to lay paw upon them, my son. Such is to taint their divinity, to challenge the Sky Hunters’ favor.”

Careful to avoid touching it again, Lars sniffed at the body, peering closely. Revered or not, this bird would die without his help, its breathing already weak and shallow from the attack by the crows and the crash landing. Fate called to him, beckoning him onward, but Lars was not one to abandon an innocent creature to die.

For the next day, he stood guard over the wounded eagle, chasing off the scavengers that foraged in the shadows. Smashing a hole in the nearby stream with his muscular forelegs, the wolf managed to catch a pair of dormant fish. Their limp corpses dripped onto the snow as Lars trekked back through the snow, the sky to the west growing dark with an approaching storm bank as he laid his catch down beside the bird. Nipping off a piece of trout, Lars held it in his paw before the eagle’s beak, hopeful as the bird weakly ate the scrap, though its eyes were still closed.

Above, the sky darkened as the black clouds smothered the sun, its rays vanishing one by one as the storm approached. The shadows lengthened before him, the very air growing colder as a mist rose from the white snow.

Go now, warrior! No time remains for thee here, the veil commanded.

“I shall not leave this noble bird to die,” Lars growled in response. “I am a chieftain. Leaders do not abandon their followers for their own survival.”

You shall be nothing if you do not leave and continue your quest, the mist hissed, Lars’ hackles raising in response. You are a warrior, your way is of the tooth and claw, you follow the spirit of strength. Those who are too weak to follow you are not yours to lead!

“What is this you speak of,” Lars asked, an uneasy feeling swelling in his stomach. “You would have me leave this servant of the Sky Hunters? You are a herald to them!”

The mist drifted silently, thinning to nothing as Lars blinked. “Aren’t you?”

He shook his head. The spirits work in mysterious ways, as his mother had always told him in times of despair and defeat. Lars remembered the last time she had said it to him, from his days as a young Hunter, just after he had returned from his three month trial upon the Split Peak in the worst winter any could remember. The power of memory coursed through his veins.

Yes, I was a young, strong wolf then, determined from my triumph despite everything against me. I was willing to do anything to prove myself, to gain my chief’s favor, to rise above the others.

A foreign voice echoed his thought, one he had never heard before. Willing to do anything. His eyes turned to the bird as its chest rose and fell weakly. No, he answered firmly to the rekindled impulse. I’m not that wolf anymore. And he remembered why.

His drive had carried him far, until he sat in the inner circle, already voting on the actions of the pack at such a young age. Many admiring eyes were cast his way, many more envious ones, but one pair had caught the Hunter’s attention. She had been playful, she had been fun, and she had awoken a feeling in Lars, one that couldn’t be slated by power or prestige. “Sheila,” Lars breathed, allowing himself to savor the name upon his tongue once more.

He continued to say it as the snow began to fall, the cold wind ripping through the barren trees. His instincts saw to survival, directing his limbs as they dug into the snow, his mind fully lost in the nostalgia of those bygone, happy days.

She had laughed at his confusion as he bumbled about, his slick ways that had gained him his place lost as she brushed her pelt against his. Nothing in all his months of training on his own, his endless exercises to build his great strength, had prepared him for this. It had been when he looked the gift horse in the mouth that she told him why. “I can see the good in you, Lars. You serve your pack well, but I feel that there is more beneath.”

Panting, he gazed about at the completed snow cave. Outside the wind shrieked, sending a shower of flakes cascading into the frigid white space, just large enough to fit a Baloran and himself. His thoughts drifted back to those days once more as he pulled the unconscious eagle slowly into the shelter, almost losing sight of the entrance in the near whiteout.

Shivering from his pawful of moments on the surface, Lars settled down across from the eagle, his breathing slowing. Sheila had confessed her love to him, begged him to come away with her and leave the pack. “We’ll start our own, and you can finally be pack leader. Just like you want, Lars.”

Lars shook his head in regret. His eyes had been on larger prey, the cave of Noman and his mate filled his dreams. Sheila was useful to him, her family held much prominence after Noman had taken one of its females as his mate. Lars himself knew not who his father was, it was whispered that Zerall, his mother, had mated with a stray wolf. An omega. It was a damning blow to his ascension, but the female’s nobility could fix that.

She wasn’t a piece of prey, you fool, Lars ridiculed his own actions. But his young self had been too ambitious to see that, too eager to prove all those who thought his impure blood would stop him wrong. They will see how wrong they are when I rule over them all!

And so Lars started to lose Sheila. So great was his thirst for power that he didn’t even care. First, he had refused to leave with her. When Noman had fallen ill five seasons ago, he had leaped at the chance, secretly willing the aging wolf to die. Already he was pulling strings within the pack, gaining supporters and turning his opponents against each other.

Noman finally succumbed to the Autumn Fever, leaving his leadership open to the senior warriors. He had not named a successor, though his closest warrior, Darvak, was assumed to be the chosen wolf to next lead the pack. When Lars had challenged Darvak at the full moon, the time of the Ascendance Ceremony, it had violated all tradition. But he had built such a base of support amongst the younger wolves that Darvak was forced to treat him as an equal, to afford him a chance. Nearly devolving into a civil war, the two had settled the dispute through open combat.

Lars shuddered. I did awful things that night. The memory was fresh in his mind. There he stood, atop the rock slope. He howled beneath the full moon, full of the fire of victory and power, blood staining his pelt as he announced himself as the next pack leader. Still driven by his lust, he had declared Sheila his mate before the pack, securing his power once and for all.

Or so he’d thought. For three seasons he’d ruled through tooth and claw, pushing his pack harshly and ensuring all knew who was dominant. His ambitious move had left him open to dissenters, and Lars had done everything in his power to stamp out these sentiments through iron rule. Sheila was forgotten as more and more threats appeared, mate in name only.

Tyrant! Usurper! Murderer! These were the names they had called him when he and his spies could not hear, and Lars realized they were right. What right do I have to lead them?

But then his blood boiled as he remembered the black wolf and his actions. Baltho had come under the summer moon with several other males and females, refugees from another pack that had been decimated by disease, he had told them. Lars had at first refused to allow them shelter for the good of his own pack, but Sheila had insisted they show mercy, and eventually he relented. The black wolf could be useful, he told himself, a powerful pawn. This thought would be his downfall.

Baltho had his eyes on Lars and his power, but unlike Lars, he did not need tooth and claw to reach it. The chieftain had given him everything he needed, seasons of oppression turning the pack against him. Baltho posed as a liberator to them, a grateful servant to Lars. That snake! For every inch of trust and authority Lars gave him, Baltho came one step closer to infecting all against him.

Paranoia always made Lars doubtful, and soon he was wise to the black wolf’s desires, but it was already too late. The only wolves he could count on were his loyal soldiers and spies, those that he rewarded well, the backbone of his authority. They were only a score in number, but Lars was ready to fight for the end for his ultimate love; power.

Baltho struck the final blow in the cool tundra summer, wooing Sheila behind his back with promises of passion and a better life then what little her rabid mate offered her. Only once it was completely destroyed did Lars remember his love for Sheila. Upon discovering what had occurred, his blood had boiled.

Without the backing of his acolytes, without pausing for a moment to think, Lars had sought out the black wolf, challenging him to a fight. Before the entire pack, the two had struggled, the stakes higher than ever. The life he had built, the time he desperately wanted to return to, hung in the balance.

For all of his great size, for all of his unexpected brutality, Baltho had nearly lost to Lars. The smaller wolf, driven by his mania, had fought to the edge of death itself, not caring to live if he lost. But Baltho had been smart, knowing that killing his opponent would only mark him as another tyrant. Instead, he spared the gray wolf, banishing him from the pack. It had pulled the wool over the pack’s eyes, if only for a few moons.

Soon, however, the black wolf’s true colors had shown. At least Lars had been fair to those he didn’t suspect of treason, and even those he did he only asserted his dominance towards. Baltho’s means were much more grisly, executing conspirators before the pack, permanently maiming and crippling those he “spared.” Yet, so was his persuasive, charismatic personality, that many were still loyal. But not all.

Lars knew this from watching from afar, from listening to the whispers of resistance that were passed secretly from one wolf to another deep in the woods. The message was only passed one wolf at a time to avoid suspicion, but the sentiment was growing. Some wolf was coordinating this.

Baltho’s oppression had made him even more disgusted of his own crimes. Lars would return, not as the tyrant, but this time as a bringer of change. A true liberator. This I swear.

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