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Oo0oO

Josh

They should have drowned him. They should have abandoned him. Let the frost have him, let the wind and snow wipe away the pathetic excuse that was his life. Or better yet, let the hunters do it. If nothing else, they’d give him a clean death.

If they were feeling generous, maybe they’d drop him off in a human orphanage. Give him a few months of peace before they found out. Let them draw their guns the first time he changed. Let them put a bullet between his burning emerald eyes.

But his parents had always been kind. Too good for their own good. And so they kept him. And so they loved him.

Both grave mistakes.

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Josh had always been the weakest. Runt of the litter, born behind his twin sisters, Beth and Hannah. His parents must have wanted a boy, they stopped after him.

 They should have kept trying.

They should have killed him.

But they didn’t. For whatever reason they didn’t.

And their decision gave him -the runt, the weakling - a chance at life. In any other pack he would have been killed. He knew that. But for some reason, they didn’t.

It was immediately apparent that Josh was nothing like his sisters. They were playful, spry, natural hunters. Barking up all the right trees, bright and beautiful in every sense. Clever as the devil and twice as pretty.

Well, then. Josh pondered, years after the fact. Guess that makes me the devil.

He was slow, in comparison. Out of touch, almost. Kept to himself, even around others. Or at least, around them. Because even as a child Josh wasn’t ignorant to the facts. That he was NOTHING like them. And he never would be.

Hannah and Beth grew up on play-fights. Watching their father hunt, mirroring his prowl until it was as natural as the swing in their hips. Josh, for his part, tried. He tried to fight like them, think like them, hunt like them. But their movements always had something his didn’t. They were sleek and sly, agile and precise in every step, every twist and turn. Josh was a mess. He tumbled through his lessons, tripped over his own-two feet. His prowl was awkward and gangly, hips always out of place and his feet thumping clumsily along the ground. His sisters laughed at him, despite their parents’ warnings. It was okay. He would have laughed too.

Fighting, hunting, was his sister’s game. Josh passed his childhood in warm corners, drunk on stories. His mother always told the best. She’d grown up deep in the mountains, far beyond the reach of humans, where frost clung to the land year after year. Food was scarce, friends scarcer. The cold was a more constant companion than her own siblings, or at least that’s how she made it seem. She spoke of fighting, not always over food, sometimes just as a way to stave off the cold. Apparently, she’d been pretty good at it.

But for all the trials of that land, she remained soft. A rare thing these days. So when she ran into a freshly turned half-wolf on the edge of the mountains, she ran away with him.

That was the part his sisters liked the most, when they bothered to listen. When she met their dad. Josh rather liked everything that came before. Living life on the edge, not knowing where the next meal will come from but having enough faith in your own strength that you know it will come…

Josh longed to be like her. His mother. To have even a fraction of her strength. He longed too to be like his father. To master the hunt such as he, mirror a sliver of his silent resolve.

But he couldn’t. No matter how hard he tried.

And he did try. He tried with everything he had. Year after year Josh gave it everything he had, put every ounce of his being into the hunt, the fight, the hunger. He devoted himself to everything that it meant to be a wolf.

And he failed.

His prey heard him coming from a mile away. His fights all ended with him on the cold ground. And the hunger was just…missing. Oh, he would boast about its being their all the time to his sisters, his parents, anyone who would listen. But…it just wasn’t. And without that…how could he even call himself a wolf?

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Years passed, and nothing changed. As he and his sisters reached age, and their family became something more like a pack, he had the proof of his failure shoved right in his face. Omega. A title strung like shame around his neck. Just another word for something Josh knew all along.

His family tried to be supportive. Made out like it didn’t mean anything.

“A lot of packs nowadays only hold ranks as a formality.” Beth tried to appease him. Josh wondered if she only spoke so smugly because she, and not Hannah, had made 3rd.

Besides, it didn’t matter if it was a formality. It was the truth. No matter what, no matter how much he wished or hoped or dreamed, he’d always be the runt. The weakling. Useless.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind.” He spoke the words through a tight smile.

They should have drowned him.

Oo0oO

He should be dead. He knew that. He knew how useless he was, just how much he dragged them down. He could barely hunt, couldn’t fight. Running was about the only thing he was good at.

So maybe I should just run.

Given the woods, given the cold, he was, in essence, choosing death. He made it out a few miles from their cabin. Farther than he’d ever been alone. But Josh had known since half the distance he wouldn’t go through with it. Too weak even to run away. God, how pathetic.

He was on his way back when he was stopped dead in his tracks. Even for all that he lacked, he trusted his nose. And he’d know that smell anywhere. It was blood.

He felt his limbs freeze. Whose blood was it? He knew his sisters were out hunting, it was one of the reasons he was able to slip away. Could it be they had followed him and somehow gotten injured? Or maybe… it was one of the rogues, the packless wolves that passed occasionally through their territory. Fresh out of a fight, itching for more. Josh shivered.

Reluctant, but seeking answers, he tasted the air, opening his mouth slightly and letting the scent flood his lungs. No, it wasn’t wolf blood. At that, Josh sighed in relief. But there still remained the question, whose blood was it?

Fear gripped his chest. If it was kill, then somewhere had to be a killer. And most killers don’t take kindly to outsiders wandering into their hunt. But despite himself, Josh had to know. Just in case…just in case. Slowly, as silently as he could manage, he nosed through the underbrush.

He followed his nose. 10, 20, 100ft. Then the smell was so strong it was practically on top of him. This is it. Josh braced himself, rounding the last tree-

On the other side was a clearing, shoved up against the side of a sheer cliff. Loose rocks indicated the fall, dark spot in the rock face showed the descent. And there, lying in the snow at his feet, was a buck.

Josh couldn’t believe his eyes.

It was dead, but only just. Josh must have missed the fall while wrapped up in his own thoughts. The buck must have taken it wrapped up in its own. It had been a quick death, gone in an instant, its neck broken. Many could only hope to be so lucky.

But as for luck, Josh could hardly believe his. A fully grown buck, in this weather? It would feed his family for a week. Josh grinned. And, more importantly, they’d think the kill was his. He’d tell them how it happened, how he was wandering near the den when he caught scent of the buck. How he tracked it through the forests, slipping through shadows, until finally he cornered it near a cliff. How he fought it back, how it fell. Not entirely a lie. But just enough.

Eagerly, Josh approached the buck, sinking his teeth into the lower base of its neck.

The winter had been hard. They’d been living off rabbits and tree roots. A kill like this would do wonders. And that it was his kill well… Maybe he wasn’t so useless after all.

After adjusting his grip on the deer, Josh tugged. He felt himself gasp. It was heavy, heavier than he thought it would be. While he’d eaten deer before, he of course, had never been the one to make the kill. But still, he never imagined it’d weigh quite so much.

For a second, Josh paused, considering. He should call to his sisters. They were out hunting somewhere, they should be able to hear him, come help. But… Josh hesitated. The lie was still fresh in his head. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to convince them. Where were his wounds from fighting back the stag? How did he notice the buck but his parents didn’t? Since when did he know how to track? In the long haul back to their cabin, he wasn’t sure he could fend them all off. But if he were to arrive with the buck unexpected…

Josh nodded to himself. So it was settled. He’d take it back alone. Bending back down, he took the buck again in his teeth. Then, he began pulling.

It was only a little over 2 miles back to the cabin. But it was slow going, the buck weighed a ton, and the resolve that first spurned Josh quickly faded to the cold and exhaustion. The trek too wasn’t easy, the path home twisting and turning through the woods, over dips and outcrops, underbrush that caught on his prey’s antlers. Everything slowed him down, and it wasn’t long before the sun began to wane in the sky. He heard howls over the horizon – his sisters, looking for him. He ignored them. He’d be home soon enough. And they’d be so surprised, so proud of him…

He trekked on.

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He made it back just as night was breaking. A wide smile to match their wide eyes. Here he was, the runt of the litter, bringing home the largest kill they’d seen in months. He was right. They were impressed, they were proud. There was disbelief too, but also love. So much love. You did it Josh. You did it.

For a moment, everything was perfect. Then the moment ended.

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There’s an old saying about the woods. No matter where you step, where you hide in it, you’re never truly alone. The woods see everything.

That day, they saw the elk, the fall. That day, they saw the young, eager-to-please runt with a clever lie and a lot to prove. That day, they saw an opportunity.

There’s an old saying about the woods. Just as there’s an old saying amongst wolves. Be cautious with your kill. The smell of blood travels fast, and you’re never the only one looking for a quick meal.

That day, Josh wasn’t the only one out in the woods. That day, he was followed.

It all happened so quickly. One moment, everything was perfect. And then the beast appeared.

It was a massive, hulking thing. Dark brown and dusted with snow and dirt. Eyes shining black moons and teeth glinting yellow stars. Its roar was a black hole.

“Run.” Josh’s father spoke the word once, slowly. “Go!-“ He barely finished the exclamation when one of its claws caught his face, tearing through fur and flesh and sending him flying.

“DAD!” Beth and Hannah exclaimed, making a movement toward him.

“Get Back!” It was his mother. In a moment, she’d leaped over them, standing between his recovering father and the beast. “You need to run! Now! Get OUT of here!”

Josh saw his sisters hesitate.

We need to move. He agreed with his mother. But as he tried… To his horror, he couldn’t. He couldn’t move.

No no no no no Despite himself, despite everything screaming in his ear telling him to run, to move, to fight, to hide, to do something….he couldn’t move.

“Josh!” He heard his mother cry out. But he couldn’t, he couldn’t. He was frozen, knees locked, eyes straight ahead. He couldn’t…he couldn’t.

That’s when he felt the impact. A massive force, hard and fast and tearing, slam into his side. Like being hit by a car. Wham! For a moment, the shock overwhelmed him. He was standing. And then he was flying. Then a second collision. A horrible skidding and tumbling. And then he stopped.

He heard screams, he thought. But Josh couldn’t move. He could feel the place of impact, on his torso just past his left foreleg. He could feel himself bleeding, the blood warm and sticky against the cold, catching on his fur and spilling, spilling. He could feel the snow like a coffin around him, hugging his bruised body like a death wish. He was alive, but… He couldn’t move.

He heard their screams. But they felt unreal, far away somehow. Like a passing thought in the back of his mind. Eyes wide, unseeing anything but the blood-stained snow around him, Josh just laid there. The screams continued. So did the roars, bellowing and angry. He felt the ground shake under him. Felt the air scream and bite around him. Once, he thought he felt something splash across his face. Something else warm and sticky. But he couldn’t move. No matter how hard he tried. No matter what he did. He couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move. He just laid there.

Time passed. At least, Josh imagined it passed. He didn’t know how long it had been. But eventually, his knees unbuckled. The breath returned to him. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly he stood up.

One by one. Slowly, ever slowly, his senses came back to him. The pain came first. Even then, it was a half-muted, suffocated kind of thing. But he felt it. The gash in his side, the bruises lining his body, the weight of himself pushing back against the ground. It was terrible, dizzying. But it was something. He felt too, the smaller things. The shiver in his bones, the ache in his muscles, the sticky feeling of his fur. It was something, it was terrible.

Next came sound. It was quiet. Dead quiet. Impossibly quiet. There was the huff of his own breathing against the night air. And nothing else. Aside from him, the world was utterly, completely silent.

Taste and scent came next, hand in hand as always. Both told equally the same, equally as little. Everything smelled like blood. His mouth was flooded with it, his lungs holding it in like a keepsake. Everywhere, overwhelming, was that terrible, heavy copper smell. Like holding the deer, but 10 times stronger. 10 times worse. Josh barely had it in him to resist the urge to vomit.

Then, inevitably, came sight. Only for a half-second. For a half-second, Josh lifted his eyes. And he saw it all. The snow all around him was disturbed, blood soaked and dirty. Fresh powder had covered some of it, but it was all there. Evidence of a fight was everywhere. And its participants…

One half second. That was all. But it was all he needed. There were the bodies. And there was the blood. There was all of it, and there was him. The only one left.

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They should have killed him. If they had, they would have lived. It was his mistake, he should have been the one to pay for it. But instead, he was the only one left. And them: Hannah, Beth, his dad, his mom….they were all dead.

Even the beast was gone, amongst the ruin he’d seen its corpse, a massive hulking thing. He imagined it was his mother’s work. But even she couldn’t save them. Couldn’t save herself.

Of all corpses, hers had landed the closest to him. A trail of blood streaked across the snow to end lying just beside him. She’d used the last of her strength to die beside him. She was missing part of her bottom half.

As for his father, his sisters… The ground was scattered with remains. Wolf, bear, elk. Streaks of blood stained the clearing in all directions. There was nothing left of them.

One half second. That’s how long he stood there, looking. And then he ran. He ran harder and faster than he ever had in his life. He fell once, twice. Felt his wound spill with flesh blood. He didn’t stop. Even when he fell one third, final time, when he felt his leg snap and his resolve go with it, he couldn’t stop. He was crying. Alone, half-dead, still crawling, Josh cried. And then the world went black.

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He would have died there. Should have died there. She should have let him.

But he didn’t. For some God-forsaken reason, the universe wanted him alive. And so they sent her.

She was a rogue. One of the packless. One of those crazy, cub-stealing wanderers his parents always warned him about. He knew it immediately. But he didn’t care. At this point, death, even at her hands, would have been a blessing. She didn’t. For whatever reason, she didn’t.

He was slipping in and out of consciousness. For days, weeks, he wasn’t sure how long. In-between those flickers he saw her. White fur and emerald eyes. An angel, his mother.

It wasn’t for weeks, when the fog in his head cleared and consciousness reacquainted itself with him that saw he was wrong. White fur turned golden, emerald eyes hazel. A wolf many years his senior turned out in fact, to be his age.

“Sam.” She told him, after he met her own questions with silence. “My name is Sam.”

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For months, they lived like that. In one-way conversations, in and out of consciousness, in a small cave just barely big enough to host the two of them.

Slowly. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly, she nursed him back to health. Set his leg, stitched his wound, forced herbs and human meds down his throat. Where she’d learned about medicine he had no idea. He didn’t care. He was as thankful as he was apathetic.

Slowly. Slowly. Slowly she got him to eat. It was hardly more than roots at first, anything even close to the smell of meat sent him dry-heaving. But eventually, he was eating scraps again. Skin then breast then thigh then straight from the bone.

Slowly. Slowly she got him to move. He hardly left the mouth of the case but it was something. And she seemed proud of him for even that.

Slowly. After months of silence, she got him to speak.

“Josh.” After months of total muteness, he deiced to answer her first question. “My name is Josh.”

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