The Return (Part Four)

Three days the storm covered the land,
Nary a creature moving from their dens,
All save one, moving through the sheet of flakes,
Barely leaving a paw print in her wake.

Her pelt was black, her eyes were red,
Though she blended perfectly with the landscape of white,
She could sense her prey many miles away.
Her mouth watered at the faint scent,
Covered by the snow, seasons old, but there it remained,
First, however, there was another she sought that night.

“I have been told you need my services again, black wolf.”

“Great gods,” Baltho gasped, leaping to his feet as the hoarse voice tore into his dreams of power and glory. He cast his eyes about in the darkness, blinking the fog of sleep from them. The dark red eyes burned it away as they seized his gaze.

“How did you get in here? It’s a blizzard out there, worst of the season!” The chieftain looked out the entrance of the cave, finding the darkened world still under assault by nature’s fury.

“I have my ways,” she said. She shook her pelt free of the hill of snow that lay atop it, the flakes fleeing from the wolverine. Her claws flexed as she spoke, scraping across the frigid stone. “It’s been many a season black wolf, I wasn’t going to let some snow stop me from reuniting with one of my oldest associates.”

“I have not needed you in a long time, I learned the art well,” Baltho said, allowing himself a moment of pride. “But this is not an ordinary foe.”

“Yes, your sniveling excuse for a hunter told me as much.” Her eyes focused on a twig as she played with it between her razor sharp paws. “A former alpha male, eh? I can see why you would call upon my claws to deal with this matter.”

“He must never set foot in the Frozen Forest again,” Baltho growled, his hackles raising at the thought. As an afterthought, he added, “Felk, he is-”

“Alive,” the Seeker nodded. “Death is a tool that must be wielded with precision, as you know well. I would gain nothing from killing him, not even the satisfaction of felling a worthy opponent. Not much sport in him,” she shook her head. “Speaking of which, what reasons can you give for this Lars’ death? And I care not about personal grievances.”

Previous experiences with the wolverine allowed Baltho to know exactly how to deal with the hunter. He pointed with his paw to the slope that stretched away above their heads, “Farther up this mountain, there is a point at the border between trees and barren peak where two firs have collapsed upon each other. I have seen that a whole elk was buried separate from our main caches beneath these trees. Kill the disgraced exile, and I shall recall my guards from this site.”

“And what is to stop me from just killing your guards in a few swift blows and taking this elk now,” the wolverine hissed, a coy grin spreading over her muzzle. In that moment, her pelt seemed to darken until she had vanished into the shadows.

Baltho’s hackles raised further as he bared his fangs, “Do so, and your best student shall not stop until I have torn you limb from limb.” He fought the urge to look around, not certain whether he was still facing the Seeker. Her eyes seemed to have vanished in a moment, only shadows remaining in the den.

“Bold, black wolf,” her voice replied. Baltho tried to locate the source, but the words echoed about the cave, rendering his ears useless. “Many have made such threats, and many have tried to make true on such promises. All have failed. Nature cannot best me, the greatest warriors of the packs have fallen before my claws. None escape me, none can face me.”

Baltho ignored her words, casting out his senses. There was a heaviness to his left, a darkness that clawed at his life force, drawing it towards the maw into which all life fell. “You are no different.”

The black wolf lunged forward, sinking his teeth into her forelimb before the slashing claws could near his face. Without even a gasp of pain, the Seeker rolled away, freeing her leg. She shook her paw, three spots of thick, black blood falling onto the stone floor.

“Very good,” she nodded, a rare gesture of respect. “Few have ever managed to draw my own blood, and only one has lived.” Her eyes bore into him.

Roused by the commotion, the brown wolf groaned, turning over in her doze. The Seeker’s red eyes flared at the noise, her form vanishing in a mere blink. Realizing what was happening, Baltho whipped about, turning to find the wolverine’s claws hovering over the groggy Sheila’s throat.

“Don’t you dare touch her,” he growled, his hackles higher than ever.

Her claws stayed extended as the Seeker turned to face him. “This was supposed to be a meeting between me and you only, no outside interference. None can lay eyes upon me, save those I teach, and those I hunt.”

“Stop it with that damn hissing and she won’t see you,” Baltho growled lower. “She’s been asleep the whole time.”

“Certainty is all, and death is the ultimate certainty. One can or can’t any longer once they breathe no longer.”

For a brief moment, Baltho thought he was going to have to fight his former mentor, the one who’d taught him everything he’d ever known. But then her claws slid back into her paws, the wolverine licking her chops with the temptation. Baltho breathed a sigh of relief on the inside; he had no illusions about the victor of such a battle. Even as he started to age, she was still as quick and deadly as the day that forlorn, orphaned pup had slid into her den.

“Really,” she shook her head in amusement, padding to face him once more. Her paws seemed to float above the floor, completely silent, moving so fluidly she was a breeze, not an animal. “To find such attachment in you, it is surprising. I thought all you cared for was personal glory.”

“You’re not wrong.”

“Then what is she doing here in your den?”

“She was necessary,” Baltho said, eyes wistful with the memory of past conquests. “Stealing the heart of Lar’s mate was the most effective blow I ever dealt that fool. It forced his paw, but already her loss had eaten away at his will.”

“You used his own mate to drive him out? Clever, clever indeed.” The wolverine nodded.

“After I had dealt with Lars and banished him from the pack, I realized that I still needed her. Her family is well-liked within the pack, she herself has many supporters. To be bound to such an established blood line was vital to securing my rule as an outsider. Much as I rued admitting it, I needed her. Naturally, my tongue was all it took to convince her my ‘sentiments’ were still true.” He chuckled at the thought, swelled with his own cleverness.

“That was two seasons ago, black wolf, ample time to establish yourself as the legitimate leader. Yet here she still remains.” Her words were laced with venom. “Don’t tell me you’ve grown so weak you’ve allowed yourself to become enamored with another beyond yourself.”

“She is nothing more than a keepsake to me,” Baltho spat, responding to the threat her words implied. “A symbol of my victory over Lars, a trophy of my greatest achievement. Imagine, the takeover of an entire pack by an unknown outsider.”

His eyes were alive with the magnitude of his dream made real. “Few could imagine it, fewer could have done it, but I did it. I, Baltho, the black wolf, now command the largest pack on this side of the Black Sound. This doesn’t end here. Once the Great Thaw begins, when Winter begins her retreat from our lands, when my wolves can move en mass, then it shall truly begin. Whole moon cycles of training, of strategizing, of training have been leading to this moment. It will be glorious.”

“But not if Lars returns.”

“Not if that whelp opens the wounds of the past, not if the old questions are brought from the shadows once more,” Baltho said, his eyes hard. “It’s why I called upon you again, so that this whole issue can be handled subtly before it ever becomes a problem.”

He gestured toward the entrance with his paw. “Go now, while this blizzard still has him pinned down. A tuft of fur is all I require as proof.” She cocked her head at him inquisitively. “His head would be too obvious,” Baltho said. “Much as I would love to see that fool’s final expression.”

The Seeker padded wordlessly towards the entrance. As an afterthought, Baltho added, “Oh, and be certain of it.” She nodded, a slight grin crossing her muzzle. Then she drifted off into the veil of snowfall, vanishing into the darkness. One with the night.

Baltho sighed as he watched her go, any lingering anxiety withering away as the final loose end would soon be tied.

But there was one that Baltho had long overlooked, deeming him no threat. One that held the blood of Lars in his veins, and that of Sheila too. One that had washed his paws of his father long ago, one that refused to follow him and his acolytes into exile. For two seasons Akeal had been steadfast in his loyalty to his mother and her new mate. It was how he had survived.

Loyalty that flows deep as blood is difficult to ever truly sever, even with time as an ally. Akeal had grown restless after so many days dormant. Shaking off the massive mound of snow that had built up, he decided a quick climb would work off the energy. He passed the cave of his leader on his way to Eagle’s Peak, the mountain that rose directly above the pack’s camp.

It was the name he had not heard in many moons, echoing out from the stony mouth of the cave, that made Akeal’s paws stop dead in their tracks. “Lars.”

And so he had remained by the entrance, out of sight, but well within earshot. His leader’s plan, the Seeker’s role, his father’s coming doom, all were heard by the young novice. Wise enough to find a hiding place before the Seeker emerged from the cave and discovered him, Akeal felt two sets of fangs pulling at him, threatening to tear him apart.

One was his mother’s, who had chosen a new mate, whom he had sworn allegiance to long ago on that fateful night. Yet there was new set of teeth that tore at his hide; that of his blood. His father had never shown much regard for him, too busy attempting to suppress the pockets of rebellion that continually appeared. But though he held little love for him, Akeal found himself facing a new question. Am I going to allow my father to be murdered while I do nothing? There was only one thing to do.

Back in the warmth and safety of the cave, Baltho could not see the young wolf dashing off into the blizzard, nor could he imagine the consequences. He merely chuckled in his complacency, attention suddenly diverted as his mate groaned, her eyes opening.

“Baltho,” she said, still laying upon the pelt of the elk he’d felled. “I had the strangest dream. You were there, and this other-”

“Just a dream, my love, just a dream,” Baltho cut her off, dooming the “dream” into the abyss of forgotten memories. “Now go back to sleep. This storm won’t be breaking for another day or so.”

There was a slight twinge in Baltho’s stomach as the two settled down next to each other. What else did she dream? What did she hear? The questions continued to plague him as he tossed and turned, his sense of security fractured. It would only continue to crumble in the coming days.

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