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Hannigram Ravenstags

Chapter Text

The two hunters were perched up on a large rock-like shelf, overviewing the herd sleepily grazing.

“You must be very quiet.” Mr Hobbs whispered to his raven-haired daughter, “The slightest noise beyond the beat of a fairy’s wing will alert the herd of Ravenstag, and we’ll return empty handed.”

The young girl looked down awkwardly at her gloves, taking to picking at a loose leather thread, “You sure this is okay?”

Mr Hobbs looked to his daughter, “Nothing is going to go to waste Abigail. Their racks are going to be mounted proudly upon people’s walls, their pelts stripped to become fine rugs, even their sinews are going to be used- the best form fitting material available on the market can be made from a Ravenstag’s sinews, and any spare can be torn into strips and used to make rope, bowstrings, sewing thread, animal glue. Do you see that big alpha-stag over there?”

Pointing to one of the larger stags the furthest away, Hobbs indicated towards a Ravenstag which was dark blond in colour with what appeared to be only the jagged stumps of antlers resting upon his head, a gorgeous plumage of almost gold feathers slipping majestically from the crown of his head and falling beautifully down his neck settling around the shoulders much like a lion’s mane. The ears a medium dull blonde, flickering lightly with the heartbeat of the herd, taking sniffs up into the air occasionally, the stag was wearily looking around. Turning towards them, they hid behind the ledge Mr Hobbs releasing a small chuckle.

Abigail watched the creature, bringing his human-like hands into fists and releasing a snort of frustration, calling out to another alpha. The sound was so strange, mixing between that of a snort and a dull cough.

The huge alpha-stag of the group looked towards the sound maker- he was a very silvery stag, with large plumages of platinum feathers which seemed to sparkle. Abigail observed the alpha-stag whom just appeared to shake his head at the other alpha in an irritated manner, setting on nuzzling his mousy-brown omega mate instead of acknowledging the younger seriously.

Looking back at the other alpha-stag, Abigail observed that he seemed to bristle at the ignorance. Perhaps he thought the whole exchange ‘rude’. Abigail smiled to herself at that thought, imagining an uptight Ravenstag having a hatred for the rude.

If only she could introduce him to her teacher at school.

“I want you to be ready Abigail.” Mr Hobbs said softly, making Abigail look up from her observations “I’m going to take out the mature alpha-stag, because he controls the herd, if he goes down, then the whole herd goes down okay? I want you to take the beta on the left there.” Abigail followed the direction of her father’s outstretched finger, and found herself looking at a lithe ebony-coloured Ravenstag, finally understanding why they were called as such.

She looked energetic, with a fitting shape set for maturity perhaps the next season. She had a mixture of glossy black feathers and soft patches of long trailed fur which seemed to slightly curl in the gentle breeze. Resting beneath a bed of fluffy white chest fur were her small breasts- only detectable by the way the long ebony fur seemed to dance down her chest from the mane of feathers settled upon and around her shoulders. She was beautiful.

“She will make a beautiful rug.” Abigail whispered in awe.

Mr Hobbs chuckled, “She will. Be ready now, that’s it, load up your gun. That’s my girl. Remember, exhale and inhale. Aim for the head and try not to spoil the pelt, otherwise it’ll be ruined.”

Abigail looked up to her father, and nodded in understanding, turning back to the herd she squinted in disappointment. “Oh, Moody has gone.”

“Moody?” Mr Hobbs questioned.

Not looking away from the herd Abigail scanned the whole area, there was no sign of him. “The blond alpha-stag, with the broken antlers seems to have gone dad.” She said in disappointment.

Mr Hobbs smiled at his child, “He’s probably going to get away, unlike the others. It makes it easier for us in the long run, because we have less to pick off after the main alpha, the betas will rush and perhaps if we’re lucky we can down them before they encourage the herd to move. Then there’s only the omegas left and they’ll go... Paralysed, immobile in the state of panic at being alone and unprotected.”

Mr Hobbs carefully lifted his gun, and evened his breathing as he looked down the dark scope. He geared himself up, planning his shot route, first he’d shoot the mature platinum alpha-stag, then he’d be able to shoot the startled omega-mate next, and with Abigail taking out the beta runner on the left, that just leaves the tangled confusion of the omegas in the centre, the betas by the brook and the wayward adolescent.

Hobbs found the mature alpha-stag’s head, holding onto the knowledge that taking the largest opponent out first would make slaughtering the remaining herd easier, he levelled the crimson cross-designed reticle with the alpha-stag’s eye.

This could go well.

“Ready?” Mr. Hobbs asked his daughter.

“Ready.” Abigail replied as she looked down the scope.

Two echoes of death rang through the forest, creating a void of silence.

Chapter Text

*Two days earlier*

Hannibal couldn’t help it; he was always the first of the herd to wake in the mornings. He would rise even before the hungry fawnletts latched upon their carrier’s teats, even before the moon- Elohim Luna, had fully seated herself upon the silky hammock of the western horizon, even before the first bird was set to serenade the rise of the glowing sun- Elohim Sol.

When asked, the only answer he could find, was that he only found it polite to wish farewell to Elohim Luna, and greet Elohim Sol on her journey into the sky. Bracken would just huff half-heartedly and scold him for wasting precious sleeping time.

Still, it didn't change the fact that Hannibal was always the first to wake in the mornings.

He supposed it gave him some satisfaction to watch over the herd when they were in such a vulnerable state, despite not being their alpha-stag like Robertus was- or in fact ‘any’ stag within the herd for that matter since the incident, he still felt some responsibility to look out for them, despite their distaste of him... Perhaps it was just his alpha instincts kicking in?

Whatever it was, it gave Hannibal a peace of mind to watch the world of yesterday transform into the world of today... It was calming.

The morning provided time for meditation, a practice Hannibal valued immensely for the sake of his mental contentment. He did so by utilizing the quiet of the morning to soothe himself into a peaceful state of complete relaxation. Repeating this simple practice daily, allowed his mind’s self to gently wander from the vacantness of the present moment, and back into the comforting memories of happier times spent with his kin.

Hannibal took deep and even breaths, inhaling through his nose, exhaling through his nose, gradually fading the sight of the colouring morn with the softened closure of his sleepy lids. He emerged into his mind-space, colours blooming brightly as he looked upon his vast palace of forestry he’d collected and stored throughout his many cycles.

Stepping forth, he began to walk through his mind’s glorious kingdom. Treading gracefully along the golden paved paths of autumn leaves his mind was crafting out of naught.

Set on no course in particular, he just allowed himself to slowly submerge into the scene like one would gradually lower themselves into a steaming pool of water, and soon enough a memory tumbled forth and began to blossom into being- a ‘happy’ one, Hannibal recalled with a small smile as familiar squeals of joyful laughter filled the air like jingling bells.

Taking a gentle inhale, Hannibal found himself reunited with the scents he’d greeted all those cycles ago; the scent of the babbling stream, fenced with the odor of the musky nests of fungi scattered around the damp banks- which ultimately cradled the smell of absolute purity belonging ephemerally to fawnhood.

Stepping lightly, he maneuvred himself between the bleached birches and delighted at the sight of his younger self and his sister, Mischa, dwelling happily upon and within the shallow stream.

“Hanni! Hanni! Look’et.” Mischa called out, pointing her water-dripping hands to a point further on in the stream where the Killifish had dashed onwards. Hannibal observed how his younger self seemed to be half consumed by the water bush near-by, and at the sound of his sibling’s voice he pulled himself back out with a collection of neatly picked flowering river plants. The golden-blond fawnlett looked up to his equally golden sister, perched excitedly upon a rock, pointing somewhere further on.

Looking on fondly now, he saw his younger self smile at how excited his sister was. “They’re swimming real fast huh?” He chuckled, wading back over to Mischa and sitting in the shallow water beside the rock she was perched upon.

“Those fish faster than you Hanni?” She asked, looking down to her brother from her slightly elevated height.

His younger self grinned, “I bet my tail on it. One day when we’re older we’ll have a race and see if the Killifish are truly the speedsters of the stream!"

Mischa giggled at that, then looked to Hannibal's hands at his reaping.

Noticing his sister's gaze, his younger self smiled holding the flowers up "I’ve brought you some flowers.”

Mischa cooed, looking at her brother in excitement “You gonna’ put em’ on me?”

He watched himself nod and rise out of his crouch within water and stood now gently tilting Mischa’s head forwards and taking to wrapping the soft, long stems of the neatly gathered flora around the small barely-budded antlers on his sibling’s golden head.

“There.” He said in a satisfied manner, to which Mischa grinned up at him, “Take a look.”

The two fawnletts had taken to looking down at their askew reflections floating upon the stream, their small faces lit with awe at the beautiful decorations resting there. To which Hannibal found himself smiling at from the side lines.

“Can I dec’rate yours too Hanni?” Mischa asked, looking briefly back up to her brother, and then back down to her own reflection in fascination. “I can make em’ look pretty too.”

Hannibal recalled the next movement which his younger self enacted with a humorous chuckle, feeling the same warmed huff of embarrassment blossom within his own chest just watching the replay. “Sure. I’ll be over there.” He pointed, over to a spot upon the embankment where a bolt of sunlight was peeking through the canopies above.

Squealing in delight, Mischa trudged through the water to the embankment on the other side and gathered hands full of the flora with the aggressive innocence of youth, tearing the roots of the small flowered bushes along with the rest of the plants with her brutal plucking. Grinning, with her fists-full bouquets she quickly scrambled back over to where Hannibal had now perched himself on the lower bank.

“Pick me up Hanni.” The omega-fawnlett happily demanded, taking advantage of her brother's alpha strength and positioning. Hannibal watched his younger self reach over the edge of the bank, placing his hands under his sister’s arms, gently picking her up from the watery clutches of the stream and placing her within his lap- ignoring the dampness of her fluffy-feathered coat now soaking his previously dry torso.

She scrambled up his body clumsily, placing her head just so she was about level with his.

Hannibal mused from the side, how even at a fawnlett age the dynamics gave such advantages and disadvantages to the beholder. It was as if nature intended the whole cycle of a Ravenstag’s life to be one major competition of survival.

His sister was an omega, it could be recognised easily by just looking at her height and slim build. He could identify easily, even from afar, that his younger self was an alpha, noticeable by the slightly larger growth of his rack, the stockier build he carried and the increased height he graced.

Mischa was happily spoiling the previously tidied rack as she contentedly dumped hands full of the roughly picked flora around each spike, giggling more and more at every additional flower she tangled around his once previously golden head.

“See.” Mischa cooed, placing her slightly damp, muddy palms on either side of his younger self’s face, “Pwetty. Pwetty as... as... Elohim Sol”

Hannibal recalled looking upwards at that moment, and seeing his rack sporting a mixture of muck, roots and gap-petal flowers, it truly looked a mess.

“Pretty.” Both Hannibal’s repeated softly with a smile "Like Elohim Sol.".

Hannibal watched the scene begin to fade from existence, commencing firstly with the stream slowly dissipating into a seamless transparency, moving on to the surrounding fungi disappearing from their beds one by one, joined soon by the preening flora whom were receding back into their buds, their beauty vanishing from the scene petal by petal until only the stems remained, which were now swaying like wounded soldiers upon the battle field, until they slowly collapsed upon the grass and faded away with a tumbling wave.

All that remained were the recollections of his younger-self and his dear sister. Whom now held each other within a warm embrace, purring in unison at the comfortable aftermath of an afternoon’s play.

Quietly turning away from the fading memory, Hannibal slowly allowed his glorious kingdom to diminish into the gradually building light as he walked back towards his mind’s eye and into the present.

Lifting his head from his folded arms, he sniffed up into the air and hummed in acknowledgement at the mixed scents of the still sleeping herd which greeted him, the most prominent were the scents of exhaustion mixed with hunger and stained with worry, it made his stomach swirl uncomfortably to think that they were all still suffering.

Yawning into the crisp morning air, the golden alpha-stag uncurled himself from the makeshift nest of leaves and grass he’d made the previous day, and sleepily brought himself up into a sitting position. Blinking away the yellow sand from his eyes, he set to stretching out his hind legs, expressing satisfied huffs when the cramping muscles softened.

Hannibal found that meeting with the memories of his kin provided some semblance of completion he had yet to find from the several stages of grief he’d endured.

Death, Elohim Mortem, was a misunderstood mistress. Many seriously feared death, and it caused many a night terror from all areas of his previous herd.

His sire, and their Shaman, seemed to have a grasp as to what purpose death actually served, death's meaning. They'd explain such matters, during semi-cycle festivities with stories, songs and ritualistic sermons- common place activities which built a herd into a tribe, and transformed a tribe into a strong, united community of like-minded and well-fitted Ravenstags.

In bleak times such as these, where Ravenstags in his current situation were being thrown to their deaths by an incapable and lazy superior alpha-stag, he drew back on such lessons and teachings, drawing comfort from them as he watched the continued suffering of the innocent at the expense of the ignorant- the rude.

Hannibal tried desperately to see her murderous nature as something potentially beautiful in his attempts at understanding the meanings of life his sire found. Although, the tragedy of his kin was long ago now, some memories still clawed at his mind with painful progression, the meditation allowed for mental recalibration, gifting him with the reasoning that perhaps there was more to the construction of a person than just the marring recollection of darkened times, that in fact there is guidance to follow his life's true course, and that there is some essence of beauty in every moment, despite how dark, which can be utilised as the perfect fertiliser for personal growth.

They would be proud.

Taking a look at his surroundings, Hannibal recalled the area they’d been settled for the past week, a little clearing in the middle of the woods, which had several obstacle-like surrounds; including a rocky ledge towering above, a small brook which seemed to just dribble across the earth to the south of him, a slight hill making its way northwards, accompanied by tall grass which just spilled across the entire area, which within they’d made their nests and finally the clearing was framed by thickets of silvery birch trees which gradually increased in density until becoming one with the woods.

It wasn’t exactly an ideal place; he wouldn’t have chosen it if he was in charge, there was already a striking vulnerability about the place, ledges too high to see over, there was no over-head cover which was a nuisance to the herd as it provided no cover from the cold or the elements found in the current months they were in, the brook much too shallow to fend off the frost and they’d be without water, there was no food besides birch-bark and grass.

No, Hannibal wouldn’t have chosen this place.

Despite being an alpha of good breeding, he was merely the inconvenience to which Robertus found himself attached to, he was looked at like a wart by the more prominent stags of the group, but what could he do to change things? He was already a strong fighter, it came with being an alpha-stag so he’d impressed many of the betas and even made friends. But still, for as long as he could remember, he’d just been the ‘tag-a-long’ stag. The orphaned Alpha fawnlett they'd happened upon, and reluctantly taken in at the insistence of Hail and the compassionate nature of Rommel- the previous alpha-stag.

Pushing himself up onto his hind legs, Hannibal set onto making his way to the brook, quietly tiptoeing between the slumbering forms of the herd, he found kindness ghosting his features as he beheld them in passing, despite how negatively and hostile some received him. Mates cuddled together in bundles of warmth, fawnletts tucked tightly into their sire’s manes, others cradled within their arms, Hannibal mused how beautiful the concept of ‘family’ was, how lucky one is to be a part of it despite how short-lived it was.

Taking a seat at the brook, Hannibal began to dip his hands into the crystal clear water- when he was nudged playfully in between the shoulder blades.

Flicking some water at the beta-stag in lax reprimand, he couldn’t quite smother his smile as Chiyoh settled beside him.

“Always the first to rise Hannibal.” She mused, looking into the deep maroon eyes of the larger stag before her. “Even before alpha-stag.”

He snorted softly into the air, “Rising early, allows you to see the wonders of the day from its very conception. It would be shame to miss such a wondrous sight.”

Chiyoh chuckled softly, reaching into the water herself and bringing hands to her face to wash. “Such talk will acquire you a million omegas, my friend. Turn, I’ll groom through your mane.”

Rolling his eyes, Hannibal turned obediently, presenting his friend with his back (an intimate affair considering) because lord save those whom dared disobey the demands of a set-minded Chiyoh.

From the moment he entered the herd, he found himself and the unruly beta becoming friends despite all of the consistent reprimands she received from speaking with the ‘stray’, nevertheless, she was stubborn and in no way, shape or form, resentful of him like the others. Her character screamed loyalty, to which had gotten her into many-a-scuffle with the other betas, but she remained true to him.

Hannibal knew she wished to talk about something. If it wasn’t obvious in the way she was pushing the closeness of a thorough grooming, it was in the way her scent seemed to flicker like a worried flame lapping at a limited source of oxygen. To listen to her woes was the least he could do for his friend.

Betas were known for their jitteriness, it came with the enhanced biological drives to protect and scout- which meant their minds were always on the subject of ‘danger’ seeking out foes.

'It must be mentally exhausting', Hannibal thought.

Hannibal knew that Chiyoh, even from the time of fawn-hood, had been a proficient fighter and held an uncanny ability to sense the unknown beyond the usual standard of betas. This fact made her somewhat of an outcast too, not so much that she was kept at arm’s length like he was, but enough to make a few eyes roll and curses to land.

'Perhaps that’s why she sees ‘friendship’ in me'. Hannibal mused, 'Empathy from one outcast to another, seems that there is safety in numbers after-all.'

“Do you think we’ll make it?” Chiyoh asked, snapping Hannibal from his thoughts. She was delicately pressing her fingers along the ridges of Hannibal’s shoulder-blades, finding and lifting the trapped feathers which were crumpled between the bone and the bulking muscle there. “To the nesting grounds? I fear for the herd’s survival through the upcoming winter on the road, with no set course or lodgings, it's going to be bad Hannibal- I can feel it. We can’t stay here, we can’t we have to go-”

Hannibal winced at the fragile manner of the beta’s tone, and released a comforting pheromone in aid to calm her somewhat, “Shh.” Hannibal crooned in a soothing manner, turning to the distressed beta-stag and pulling her into an embrace.

“He’s no good for us Hannibal, he’s no good, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t know, he won’t listen. We can’t stay here.”

He held her closer in response to her panicked ramblings, coupling cooing and rubbing her shoulders to give her the comfort she should be receiving from their superior alpha, or better yet, not feeling at all- because a beta should always be cared for by their superior alpha. Since without betas there was no defence! How was a soldier meant to fight for their commander when they never communicate? When there is a strained bond at best? Betas usually calmed when within a mentally bonded herd, or when within a tight knit loop of family- Chiyoh’s condition spoke that their supreme alpha was awfully missing the concept.

Hannibal didn’t know from a personal level what it was Chiyoh was feeling, since he held no mental bond with their alpha and as a consequence, held no bond with the herd. It was an impossible feat, for Hannibal to have a bond with the current herd, for he is of the alpha rank like Robertus. It was either the Elohim or nature's intent that no alphas could co-exist in the same bonding circle- which had caused all the problems in the first place.

In one herd, there couldn't be multiple alphas- for there was only room for one alpha within the bonding circle to have 'supreme' ruling. It was common for successful supreme alphas to sire multiple fawnlett litters with their mate (either an omega or beta carrier). It is unknown what orientation a fawnlett is until their seventh to eleventh cycle, and even then some bloom earlier or later than others, so with siring litters, there's the high possibility of multiple alpha-orientated fawnletts being born. The very way bonds work suggests that nature intended that the alpha fawnletts battled through ceremony, until the strongest was found and accepted by the herd. The victor, would then follow their sire's footsteps and learn about being supreme alpha, preparing to take over the current herd to which they were born, the other alpha-fawnletts which were not victorious, were supposed to disperse like dandelion seeds and plant themselves and grow their own herds.

Depending upon what the social structure of the herd was, depended upon whether those particular steps were carried out, although there could be no more than one alpha-stag residing within a herd bond, it didn't mean that cohabitation of alpha-stags was impossible. Instead of dispersing or becoming nomadic, the alphas could either surrender their claims to the role of 'supreme' alpha, and become bond-outcast advisors for their chosen supreme kin. Or follow through with the option to leave the herd and become nomads, and battle for the placement of supreme alpha in other herds, lesser herds, smaller herds, socially there were options for kin if it was to be allowed.

It's more common, to see an unchosen alpha-fawnlett mate with a beta or an omega and leave the herd to start a new. Though, that depended upon the nature of their supreme alpha sibling, some were kind enough to allow their lesser siblings passage on with mates from the herd they controlled, however some we're more selfish over the matter and wouldn't allow a bonding ceremony between their lesser siblings and their chosen, and instead exiled them to the mercy of the wild and as a result, preventing their siblings success and survival rate.

It was the way of things, nature was a cruel mistress.

“I fear we’ll not get to the nesting place in time, perhaps not at all.” She whimpered fiddling with the fall of Hannibal’s feathers on his shoulders, “Can’t you feel the weight of the air? It feels oppressive, like oncoming thunder, a sudden darkness befalling us… Like an echo is about to corrupt our existence. Anything could happen here Hannibal, we’re so vulnerable.”

Sniffing the air, Hannibal looked around the clearing once more, spotting no threat upon their surroundings despite the weaknesses. “There will be no thunderstorms today.” He soothed, running his own fingers through her ebony feathers in a gentling manner. “I do however, acknowledge your worry. Robertus is becoming increasingly incompetent beyond his usual measures. If we do not move, we may find ourselves trapped in a cold snap yet...”

“If not a cold snap, then a death trap.” Chiyoh snapped coldly, looking away from Hannibal’s concerned face in shame for such a manner of outburst. Hannibal watched her for a few still seconds, and then proceeded to cup her cheek softly, stroking his thumb in soothing circles in an attempt to reduce her tension and fear. 'This should not be happening.' Hannibal thought despairingly.

Huffing, Chiyoh spoke again softly; “This place feels odd to me, I don’t like it here Hannibal, I don’t like this place. We should be further on than this, further than here, yet he’s keeping us here to do one bastard thing. I fear many fawnletts shall be lost this cycle due to this fact... We may even lose some of the betas this time, we’re exhausted from running and scouting such dismal places, our constant mental anguish is breaking us down. Please Hannibal, do something, he won’t listen to us-” she babbled hysterically.

Crooning softly, Hannibal cupped her cheeks and looked her deep in the eye. “You’re seldom wrong about these things, perhaps if I can manage to get in to see him, I can have a word with Robertus hmm? See what he thinks about our current predicament? Although, I must make it clear that he’s not going to take the presence of another alpha, whom he feels owes him a debt, pushing into his space and making demands too well Chiyoh.” Hannibal murmured into her ear, rubbing his large hands now down from her cheeks to across her worried shoulders.

Chiyoh sighed, shrugging “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t have to. We’ve tried everything Hannibal, maybe sending you to try talking to him, might get through to him. We know how he is... Just please don’t get yourself into a mess, promise me you’ll walk away if it comes to it Hannibal.”

Hannibal nodded in understanding, “I shall try my best.

Sitting in silence for a few moments, both lost in their thoughts Hannibal shifted awkwardly.

“This was the worst grooming ever. I apologise Hannibal, your coat deserves better.” Chiyoh breached, breaking the stagnancy of the air.

Deflection, Hannibal could still detect the inner-fear which seemed to eat away at the beta. It left him to question whether there was something more… Something more disturbing than the expressed thoughts lurking in the recesses of her mind, yet she tried wholly to hide it. She wasn’t her usual self by any means, the calm, collected and seriousness gone and replaced with this vulnerability which put him on edge, because if the betas were ailed, then the alpha should be too.

“Perhaps.” Hannibal replied softly “I shall groom myself again later if your attempt offends you so much. All is well.”

Chiyoh sighed, looking up to the alpha “Do you think you can convince Robertus to move us on?”

Making to get up, Hannibal contemplated his reply and then proceeded to deliver; “I feel we both know that Robertus will not move the herd beyond his decision point, I fear that no essence of reason can be processed through his thick skull. Maybe we won’t move at all, since he has little inclination to move from here, we’ve been here a week now already.”

“That’s not good enough, many will die if we stay here.” She whispered harshly peering up to Hannibal angrily.

Hannibal found himself amused, staring down at the beta’s unremorseful face from his lofty height. She was being incredibly bold about her distaste with the alpha today, maybe her reasoning held some truth. “Do you really feel such darkness here beyond the fragilities of the terrain?”

“Yes.” Was the one worded reply, it’s delivery sure enough to ripple a shudder down Hannibal’s spine.

“I’ll see what I can do.” Hannibal finished, nodding his head in gesture for his need to rise.

“You should be alpha-stag.” She blurted, looking Hannibal in the eye with vindication. "You're better than him."

“Such talk will get you trampled Chiyoh.” Hannibal replied, to which Chiyoh nodded solemnly, allowing the alpha to stand.

“Where are you going?” She asked, worried she’d upset him.

Hannibal chuckled at her concern, making his way to the trees, “I believe the term ‘nature calls’ will suffice as an explanation.”

**

Hannibal decided to graze, taking to laying upon the grass in his usual spot on the outskirts of the herd. The worried concerns of Chiyoh from earlier in the morn had unsettled him somewhat, he found himself looking around the area constantly as if waiting for something to break the strained mask of peace the herd held.

Sniffing the air and only finding the scent of the far away downs, the decay of the leaves and the soft scents of fawnletts spilling their noon feed, he grunted in dissatisfaction with himself.

His m'adar had always complimented him on his keen sense of smell when he was a fawnlett, stating it was ‘a great survival trait’ for an alpha-stag to have- maybe it was because he could pinpoint sickness before it set seed into its victim, or perhaps because he was a successful tracker of flora or wandering fawnletts whom had strayed too far from their sires, or more-so centred around the fact he would be attentive to all members of the herd with such a vast sensory output; despite being the herd outcast, if a omega was to go into heat- Hannibal knew days before, if an alpha was to go into rut- Hannibal could anticipate it weeks ahead, if there were fires, Hannibal would pick up the depression of the forest and suggest a change of course- 'suggest' being a key word thanks to his standing, hunting was a successful affair for Hannibal which was imperative to his survival since the herd would not willingly share with him after... Well, after it happened. Danger was unfit to lurk in the vicinity of Hannibal’s nose, for he would smell the tenseness in the air and pinpoint his attackers.

Having such a sense of smell gave Hannibal an advantage beyond other Ravenstags, he was thankful for his good breeding.

Despite how wondrous his sense of smell was, it still bothered him that some of the herd could feel a looming sense of disaster and hating the fact that he couldn’t mentally connect with them to discuss it, or physically detect it… Now he couldn’t ignore the foreboding presence, much akin to a shadow in the corner of his eye, it was there but it was not obvious to him.

He sighed, Chiyoh had really done a number on him today, he found that trying to physically shake away the negative feelings she’d planted was proving to be a farce. Chiyoh spoke upon the horrors of the upcoming season, a foreboding thunder and soul darkening echo- perhaps she was merely stating the effects of losing the fawnletts would do that to the herd? Hannibal, no questions asked, knew how it felt to lose one’s family. Still, he couldn’t help looking around in search of any sign of said 'darkness', in the hope he found this ‘echo’ before it successfully prowled upon them.

It was laughable, in the few minutes he was looking for danger, all he found himself seeing was the neglect of the surrounding herd- weary omega’s feeding their fawnletts with their mates weakly grooming their little tufts of fluff which were waywardly set, the hulking form of Bracken fawn-sitting in the clearing with the treble-cycle fawnletts, other betas scattered around on sentry duty, and finally Chiyoh with a couple of other betas making their way out of the clearing on another scouting mission.

If he didn't laugh, he'd cry. The whole thing... It was tragic.

This herd had no life in it, the Fawnletts should be playing and exploring the world around them with no worries or cares- yet these fawnletts wouldn't leave their sire's sides, they wouldn't play together or even communicate... They were just skin and bone, underdeveloped scabby skeletons with dull eyes waiting to die- This was no life for a new soul, new souls should be happy and free spirited and they just weren't. It made Hannibal sick.

The omegas should be bonded with their priest- yet they have no priest, no shaman either. The omegas should be doing the collective things omega's thrived on doing; singing, dancing, chanting, painting, grooming, playing, feeding together, schooling their fawnletts on the world around them. They should be having the 'dynamic' initiation ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, bonding ceremonies, full moon ceremonies, every annual cycle worshiping, paying thanks to the gods for the passing of each season with beautiful dances and pretty songs. Yet there were no celebrations of any kind, there were no food gathering expeditions, no fires or sacred festivals. The omegas here were dead to the world, there was no happiness in them. They spent their days with mindless chatter and nothing more, sitting in the vulnerable open spaces freezing with their fawnletts awaiting the kiss of death- This was no life for a precious omega, this was tragic.

The betas should be bonded with their alpha- yet they have no alpha worth bonding too, for Robertus did not listen to them and treated the like dirt. The betas should be sporting their war paint proudly- yet these betas wear none. They should be attending weekly bonding sessions with their alpha-stag- yet they do not. They should be going on hunts together in joyful kinship, yet they are not permitted to go for they were 'protection'. They should be going on annual hunts, returning to the herd with plentiful bounties of food- yet they are forbidden to go. They should be holding their training and recruitment with vigour, yet they train hardly any and they enjoy no time together. These betas were sad, they had no leader and they had no purpose other than to defend the alpha-stag, they had no bond with the omegas, and have taken to bonding to each other instead. It was pitiful to watch.

Hannibal decided he couldn’t take looking at such a miserable sight any longer, swallowing his current mouthful of the dry acidic autumn flora, which almost successfully made his eyes water, he set onto his feet and decided to make his way over to Robertus’ abode.

Upon arrival he caught the icy eyes of Thistle and Marrow. Marrow, an almost ghostly white long-haired stag, and Thistle, a long haired grey stag. They were both sat in front of the alpha-stag’s door and blocked his way.

“State your business.” The Thistle asked sternly, placing a heavy palm upon Hannibal’s golden shoulder.

“I must speak with Robertus, it is of the greatest importance.” Hannibal replied curtly, “The herd’s lives may depend upon it.”

Marrow looked contemplative for a moment, looking over their surroundings and then back to Hannibal, Thistle, disinterested replied; “The likes of you, will not be seen by the alpha.”

Hannibal rolled his eyes, “The the lives of the herd be upon your shoulders then.”

Thistle looked sceptical, whereas Marrow on the other hand looked concerned, “Wait Thistle… You’ve seen him fight, he butchered a wolf remember? Surely if he thinks there’s danger then there must be.”

Thistle grunted, looking undecided. “A matter of life and death, It better be. Alpha's in the middle of something right now and he asked to not be disturbed.”

Hannibal sat himself down and really looked at the pair, “It’s urgent, I wouldn’t risk coming otherwise.”

The snowy beta raised his brow, “Urgent you say, anything we should know?”

Hannibal shook his head, “Until I speak with him, I shall truly know if it is ‘urgent’ or ‘extremely urgent’.”

“You’re going to get me trampled for this.” Marrow grumbled, turning towards the temporary shelter behind him and going inside. Thistle just watched Hannibal like he was a stain on the windshield of his very existence.

Hannibal heard a few murmurs from within, and some rather vicious snarling. To which really set the tone of the situation before it even set into being, it was going to be heated, and boy was he ready.

Marrow pulled himself back out of the shelter and looked to Hannibal with an unimpressed face, “He’ll see you, but you’re going to wish you weren’t going in there.”

Hannibal rose, undaunted by the pathetic excuse of an alpha within; “Thank you Marrow, Thistle, although I feel your feelings are misdirected.”

This earned Hannibal a sarcastic snort. “Go on then, he hasn’t got all day.”

And with that, Hannibal made his way inside the make-shift nest- which frankly looked awful as it was constructed of rotten woods and reeked of decay.

Snorting softly in address to his ‘superior’ alpha, and his winter-fling omega, the two Ravenstags acknowledged him. Robertus with an irritated glare one would give to a fawnlett pulling at the ears of another, but surprisingly the omega- not looking up from her 'mate's' underbelly, greeted him.

“Good day, Hannibal.” She spoke softly, returning to licking and stroking through his Robertus’ wild ice-grey chest fur delicately, making the other alpha rumble warningly.

“Good day, Sorell.” Hannibal replied, watching with disgust the laziness of the herd’s alpha, knowing that he should be the one being run ragged on his feet watching over the herd- not just the betas, he should be out there conversing with all the omegas, meeting the future members of the herd, keeping tabs upon their condition- after all many of them were of his kin, assessing the terrain for unscrupulousness, calming the betas down with reassurances through the ‘bond’ they were supposed to have. Internally huffing- knowing the concerns he was about to give would, appraisingly for him, strike at the superior alpha’s unwitting state of calm and shatter it.

Hannibal couldn’t help but recall Chiyoh’s earlier concerns about Robertus. Noticing how his body- although still bulked with muscle, was flabbier, his fur starting to exhibit a startling dulling colouring, the once gleaming platinum ruining to a dull silver, perhaps Chiyoh was more than right to worry…

“Why are you here Hannibal? It is uncommon for the outsiders of the herd to have such an audacity to demand an audience with the alpha.”

'How rude' Hannibal thought.

“Chiyoh and I feel an… Unsettlement.” Hannibal watched as the greying eyes of the alpha opened abruptly, and set upon his own eyes with a look of annoyance.

“You’ve interrupted my bath Hannibal.” Robertus commented displeased, laying his head back down and motioning for his ‘mate’ to continue. “Perhaps you should reiterate your statement and start speaking some sense, the time is ticking.”

Grumbling internally, Hannibal sat himself down in front of the infuriating alpha-stag and took to remembering why he was here “This place holds an unsettlement, it isn’t safe. The betas are on their fourth scout only this morning, they’re skittish, they’re unhappy with this place. Can’t you feel their unease? They describe it like a ‘foreboding darkness’, like there is some sort of illness of the land, like poison has been spilled upon it.” Hannibal replied, looking back to the ignorant alpha, whom in response only glanced at the doorway with an uninterested fashion.

“I can’t feel anything.”

Sorell seemed to acknowledge what Hannibal was getting at, pausing from her licks; “If I may alpha…”

Robertus glared down to the speaking omega, displeased that she would breach into such affairs which were not her concern, releasing aggressive pheromones in an attempt to warn her off of the current path she was taking.

Hannibal sensed the tension and aggression leaking from the superior alpha-stag, and wishing to spoil the pathetic display of authority, turned to Sorell and smiled in kindness. “Please do.”

Wearily looking between the two alphas she looked down at the ground for a moment, contemplating the consequences of ignoring her alpha’s demands, but one shy glance up to Hannibal’s soft, red eyes saw her choosing her course of action and allowing a ‘To hell with the bastard’ look of rebellion to sit pretty upon her features.

“It is almost the winter season- where the nights draw in closer… Are you saying that our time is running short to get to the nesting grounds? Or that our time is running short in reference to our lives? What is the context of this ‘darkness’ you speak of?”

Robertus growled displeased, reaching out and splaying his larger palm behind the back of Sorell’s head, and applied pressure, pushing her head back down to his chest to have her continue with his bathing and not concern herself with the conversation, omegas needn’t worry about such nonsense, nor talk to other alphas. “If you’ve come into my quarters to explain to me that the winter is coming, you’ve sniffed upon old news. And I was foolishly pushed to think better of your nose.”

Hannibal grit his teeth at the rude comment, holding himself physically in check for the sake of Chiyoh and the poor omega whimpering in front of him. “I am concerned right now about many things. The first being that we are not prepared for the winter this year and many shall suffer because of it, the second, that you will not communicate with the rest of the herd who is desperately trying to reach you- this herd is DEAD- there is no life here and third, that the betas are strained beyond measure-”

The alpha-stag grunted harshly, cutting Hannibal off and gripping Sorell’s scruff with his fist making the omega whimper in pain, pulling her harshly up and off of his body in an attempt to threaten Hannibal. After all, Hannibal could smell the angry, mine and fight pheromones pumping into the small crowded nest.

“Are you insinuating that I don’t know how to look after this herd? That I don’t know how to prepare this herd for the winter? You dare question me? You of all others in this herd, the tag-along at best, has had the audacity to stride into my nest like it’s his god-damn right, frighten my omega and then proceed to ruin my afternoon because you have the disrespect, the NERVE TO COME HERE AND QUESTION ME?!”

Hannibal glared at the enraged stag, letting the coolness of his current state channel through with his next reply “Perhaps, if caring for others is considered disrespectful, Robertus, then please forgive me for my crimes.”

Snuffing in a mocking manner, Robertus settled back down and pushed the startled Sorell roughly back into his chest to continue cleaning him- he had set on enjoying the soft ministrations of Sorell’s tongue and massaging fingertips in his fur all morning, and this pathetic excuse of a stag had seemed intent on riling him further today than beyond his very existence any other day.

“You and that unruly beta-stag have much to learn about being in a herd, and about appropriate decorum within- this herd is not 'dead', they do as I tell them. You’re lucky I tolerate you for my sire and Hail's sake, and Chiyoh is lucky she hasn’t been trampled yet. I am not my sire, I'm not yet an incompetent senile shadow of a stag like him- this herd needs me. You worry for the herd because not all of them will make it, that is of little concern to me. No matter how well prepared the herd is, many will die anyway. The fawnletts that don’t make it through the winter, will take the walk across the golden meadow and no longer hunger for warmth nor nourishment, feel no pain nor sadness. If it’s not meant to be, it won’t be- tis the cycle of our lives. That and the survival of the fittest, if they die, they just weren’t good enough and that’s that.”

Hannibal grit his teeth, snarling “Just because you hold no means to move, Robertus, doesn’t mean that the whole herd should suffer due to your incompetence. You’ve driven them so far from where they should be that they’re not only late to nest, but they’re dead before they die- they do not live full lives anyway, despite the fact they're not going to make it, I bet they wish for death. Your betas have been expressing their concerns about the scouting of this place, yet you will not listen, you will not acknowledge their desire to move on, undermining their worth and time. They speak not to you no longer because you will not be spoken with, you will not see reason, you know you will survive and hold no compassion because of that fact. This herd doesn't need you."

"They do need me, I'm their bonded alpha, I am to be protected- my life is sacred. If they die, they die-I repeat myself, it is survival of the fittest. The betas are jittery, and their consistent prattling ails me, it gives me aches of the head which I cannot be dealing with.”

“Something just doesn’t feel right; it won’t be expelled from my mind.” Hannibal said finally, “I can’t smell it, I can’t see it but some of your betas can- there is a darkness creeping upon us, darker than the clouds already above us, like a plague and you would be a fool not to believe them.”

Robertus huffed, “Nonsense, you’ve let that pathetic, good-for-nothing, beta with the jitters get the better of you. Maybe you should go and have a lie down, Tag-a-long, because you’re definitely delirious.”

Hannibal glared unimpressed by the rude and demeaning dismissal, it was one thing to insult him but to extend such awfulness to the beta who has done nothing but good for the herd, was infuriating, she deserved much more respect than that. “That ‘jittery’ beta you speak ill of, protected your omega with her life only a few weeks ago. The Elohim must be ashamed of you.”

Growling in agitation Robertus finally snapped, “I don’t appreciate such absurdities right now. This herd functions exactly how I want it to- there are no Elohim ceremonies because there needn't be none, there are no annual hunts because there needn't be none, there is no shaman because there needn't be one, there is no omega-priest because well... You know why, I didn't need Tommen. At the moment, all unnecessary baggage I've thrown away, the only thing left is you! There needn't be another alpha-stag in a herd Hannibal, see to it you remove yourself from my presence before I remove you myself- permanently. GET OUT!”

Sighing, Hannibal rose snuffing a ‘goodbye’ to Sorell and he left the pair. There was nothing he could do to move the herd without Robertus’ co-operation, so it looked like they were stuck here for a few more days, he’d break it to Chiyoh later, even though they both knew the true outcome of that conversation beforehand. He even tried to improve the herd's lives at the expense of this own. Bastard.

Exiting the nest with a huff, Hannibal passed by a displeased Thistle looking at him with pretentiousness. “I knew letting the likes of you in there would only bring me trouble. Now I’ve got to deal with-”

"I went in there with the best intentions." Hannibal shrugged. "You cannot tell me you like this way of life. Or that seeing the herd die around you is a sight worth seeing."

Before either beta could argue, the irritated voice of the alpha echoed from within the nest; “Marrow! Thistle! What was that?! When I say guard my door, I mean guard my door especially from the likes of him.”

Ignoring the conversation, Hannibal moved from the scene with an aggression which made him restless. He wondered angrily why he put up with such blatant mistreatment and belittlement from such a pathetic excuse of an alpha.

Truth of the matter was, Ravenstags struggled to live alone. They could, but it was hard. Hannibal decided if it really did come to it, he could live alone. He'd managed it before, once.

Robertus had the nerve to try and suggest that it was that HE who adopted him when he was just a blood-covered, miserable fawnlett. He tried to suggest that it was he who’d shown kindness in allowing him to ‘tag-a-long’ with this herd when they found him. Robertus looked at Hannibal as if he expected Hannibal to be grateful to him for his life, that without him he’d have died.

No. He owed the alpha no debt of ‘saving’ his life, he’d already managed to outwit death multiple times alone, before he was found by them. No, he didn’t owe Robertus for granting ‘permission’ for his continued presence among the herd,- when it was only to become nothing more than the new scapegoat, the punching-bag for all the poor decisions Robertus made. He already had membership here in this herd, he'd never caused any harm, Robertus had... It wasn't his fault Robertus killed their priest. It wasn't his fault there were no more celebrations. It wasn't his fault that there was no bond between beta and alpha.

Hannibal did, however, feel he owed the omega-stag who decided- for some unknown reason adopt him, to pick him up and carry him when he couldn’t walk, feed him when he wouldn’t feed- it was a shame the omega, which showed such kindness and selflessness, was in fact the previous scapegoat of the herd, left to dwell on the edge of the pack like a trailing coyote until someone needed healing or instead, felt the need to kick and bully their frustrations away.

Hail was the one that no beta or Rommel or even Robertus would mate with. Hannibal supposed it was loneliness which drove the old omega-stag into adopting him, it saddened Hannibal to remember him being treated increasingly badly because of the herd's encouraged cruelty. The treatment only seemed to get worse after Tommen's death, when Hail was caring for him and defending him from the sneers and attacks of the others in the herd. That defence didn’t last long though, since after a season or two the old omega-stag died taken finally by Elohim Mortem, after battling the slow and painful illness which grew from the inside. Hannibal found that he was alone again and now the new scapegoat for the herd.

Until Chiyoh broke the barrier of course and brought him some semblance of ‘acceptance’ from a few others.

Yes, Hannibal owed Hail, he was a wonderful surrogate and he would hold onto Hail’s memory and treasure it along with his family’s.

Making his way down towards his friend, Bracken, a hazel coloured Ravenstag with remarkably blue eyes, acknowledged him with a soft snort. “How wonderful to grace us with your presence, oh golden one.” He teased lightly.

Hannibal playfully cuffed the beta, “I see you’ve been busy Bracken.”

Nodding towards the two younger treble-cycle betas he was previously wrestling with, he smiled at Hannibal. “Just minding them whilst I’m off duty, their carriers are busy see, and thought I’d try an' start on toughening em’ up. They’ve gotta’ be strong against the potential foe, to survive in the big tough world despite what Robertus says. They need training and initiation, otherwise they'll be no good.”

The two still-fluffy fawnletts looked up to Hannibal with challenging smirks. “We’re better than Bracken already!” the young lad, Granite, exclaimed, “Look.” The speckled-grey fawnlett charged towards the prone beta-stags’ chest and wrapped his small arms around the elder’s neck in what Hannibal supposed was an attempt at a choke-hold.

“See… ugh- argh! I got him!” the youngster yipped excitedly, to which the other youngster, Coal, seemed to take as a sign to join in, and with a flash of ebony feathers the youngster joined the scuffle, clambering up and over Bracken’s shoulder and gripping at the beta’s hazel mane and battle torn ears. Bracken stood from his seated position, and the two fawns just seemed to dangle from his antlers and neck, little growls and grunts escaping their tiny throats in playful aggression as they pathetically pulled at Bracken’s thorn coloured fur and feathers.

Placing protective hands upon and around the youngsters, Bracken gently spun around set on disorientating his ‘attackers’ to which they squealed in delight, feeling quite dizzy himself, Bracken seated himself again gentling his support to two very dizzy fawnletts which were now resting and cooing against his chest and back.

“Maybe next time chaps.” Bracken grinned, petting the fawnletts’ backs softly, Granite huffed looking in some semblance of address to his peer, “Still got you Bracken.” He grouched.

Bracken chuckled, picking up the fawnletts and placing them on the ground. “I’m sure me and Hannibal can show you a good scuffle, give you some pointers, what’dya say?”

The two youngsters yipped in excitement, looking at him and Bracken longingly for some entertainment- after the boring life they lived, Hannibal didn't have the heart to deny them some entertainment. He also found the younger’s acceptance of him supported the theory that a child isn’t born with hatred towards others. It was a behavioural thing learned vicariously from others.

Thinking back to the present, Hannibal supposed having a scuffle would help channel his previously fuelled aggression and clear his ailed mind from the sombre thoughts that had claimed him since the morn. His p'adar always did say that ‘Play was healthy for the body and the mind.’ and Elohim Laetitia was never far from giggling fawnletts. The fact these fawnletts never did laugh, made Hannibal frown disgustedly.

Hannibal raised a brow at the brawn beta-stag Chiyoh seemed to favour, “If you’re prepared to lose.” He quipped, nodding his head in acceptance to the challenge.

One thing Hannibal could say about Bracken, was that he was a loyal beta, efficient on the defence and a very good runner- he was so physically on form that he could run back and forth down the herd without relief all day, the hard-lined muscles on the beta unmissable even at a glance, muscles which served successfully as one visual confirmation of the outlet of pure power the beta-stag had to give.

“Alright-y then! Get ready to be pummelled Hannibal.” Bracken grinned at the golden alpha-stag, he turned to the fawnletts. “Watch and learn kiddo’s because this is a one-time affair okay?”

The two Ravenstags set themselves up into defensive stances.

Hannibal automatically took to sizing the strong beta up, from his muscly hind legs which were powerful enough to provide punishing blows to the head and ribs- to the beta’s narrowed behind which seemed to hum with the excitement of the fight- Hannibal supposed it would be hard to land a blow to such a swift mover, even now, the strong hoofed feet of his opponent worried the acidic grass beneath as he moved slightly back and forth never quite stilling, the beta-stag’s forearms seemed to ripple with muscle as he brought them up defensively over his chest making tight fists with his hands, and finally the manner in which Bracken was tipping his head forwards suggested he was going to utilise his rack to its full capacity, and quite so, as the rack was thick with growth and thornier than a bramble bush.

“Ready Hannibal?” Bracken cooed, fluffing his feathers in a show of dominance, to which Hannibal returned with a grunt in confirmation.

Hannibal observed, first how Bracken tipped his head a full ninety degrees and ran forwards with brutal spurts from his powerful back legs shooting him across the space between them. Hannibal, deftly moved to the right, allowing the momentum to continue to carry the strong beta forwards beyond its target, and into the nearest tree.

Yes, Hannibal was going to use the beta’s favoured qualities against him, his strength, the momentum, his power and his cockiness. Despite Hannibal being in top physical form himself, he supposed the fawnletts could do with a lesson in ‘brains over brawn’, it would perhaps teach them something valuable today, rather than just how to munch on bark until it somehow started to taste ‘good’.

“Too slow Bracken.” Hannibal taunted, turning himself around and walking backwards towards Bracken’s starting point. “Maybe you should run a little faster hmm?”

The two fawnletts giggled from the side, grinning up to their alpha-stag peer. “I thought Bracken was the fastest in the herd?” Coal laughed.

“SSSHHHH!” Granite reprimanded, “Watch you’ll see that he is.”

Huffing, Bracken used both his hands to rip his rack from the bark of the tree, he turned around and set onto stalking up to Hannibal, this time utilising his height and muscle mass in his attack.

Realising that Bracken had changed tactics, Hannibal stood tall on his back legs and bared his chest for a blatantly open target fit for hitting. Taking six menacing steps forward, Bracken reached towards Hannibal’s chest with his right arm and buried it tightly into Hannibal’s golden mane, to which Hannibal suddenly dropped his head down using his rack as a shield as Bracken pulled Hannibal forward by his fur. The beta grunted as his chest made contact with Hannibal’s sizable rack, making little nicks to his chest and allowing blood to bud upon the white fur there.

Reaching with his left arm, Hannibal grabbed Bracken’s right arm pushing his grip further upon himself reducing the pressure of Bracken’s hold upon his mane, in response, Bracken used his left arm to grab onto Hannibal’s rack and using his strength he sent on pushing Hannibal downwards to the ground.

Gritting his teeth, Hannibal allowed Bracken to push him down, but usurped the positioning to his advantage allowing his body to suddenly flop backwards. The move allowed Hannibal to utilise the momentum of the fall which pushed Bracken off balance, freeing his own powerful back legs which were previously trapped supporting him, and planted his hooves into Bracken’s inner thighs, uncoiling his legs like wound up springs he threw Bracken up, and over his own body- Hannibal managed to successfully dislodge Bracken’s harsh grip from his mane and throw the beta-stag at the cost of losing a couple of golden feathers.

Grunting at the slight pain, Hannibal quickly rolled to the side and sprinted his way forth upon the almost crawling Bracken. Hannibal grabbed Bracken’s antlers with both hands and twisted the direction of his head, kicking out bracken’s supporting hands beneath him with one of his hind legs, he pushed Bracken onto his side, then his back baring the beta’s belly, then childishly, Hannibal decided to sit on him pinning both his arms now either side of him.

“I win.” Hannibal grinned, looking down on the pissed beta.

“Oh no you don’t!”

Suddenly Hannibal’s world did a three-sixty as he was pummelled from his left by the swift tackle from the ebony beta-stag. Causing all three of them to tumble in an unsightly pile of ebony, gold and hazel fur and feathers.

From the bottom of the pile Bracken groaned into Hannibal’s elbow, to which Hannibal quickly adjusted around the neck of the rude Chiyoh and scrubbing unforgivingly between her small antlers with the knuckles of the other hand.

“Cheeky.” He reprimanded, to which she snorted in reply “You should remember oh golden one, that beta-stags seldom fight alone.”

“Oh yeah? Well, you should take note that outcasts don’t play fair.” And that was when he began to tickle her.

Chiyoh laughed, a chorus of bells chiming into the air like a winter’s merriment, whilst struggling with vigour to pry her way out of Hannibal’s unforgivable grasp. “STOP! STOP! HAHAHA!” she cried, taking to licking all of Hannibal’s forearm with extra amounts of saliva in the attempts to repulse him.

“DO YOU MIND?” Bracken grouched from beneath the pair, huffing into the grass breathlessly as the two struggled upon his chest. “I’m a beta, not a bridge.”

Hannibal grinned, still holding one struggling Chiyoh within the choke hold, looking down to the reddening face of Bracken, “No, of course, absolutely not- you’re not that useful.”

Bracken’s eyes widened in rage, bucking and struggling beneath the two almost fully matured stags, which only brought more laughs from the huddle.

Hannibal finally released Chiyoh, and rolled off of an exhausted Bracken he looked back over his shoulder to the two fawnletts whom held mixed expressions of awe and excitement. “And that-” Hannibal breathed, “Is why you never underestimate your opponent.”

“That was amazing! When Hannibal flipped Bracken, and then Chiyoh came storming in-” Coal chirped outwardly.

“No way! The best part had to be when Hannibal was wrestling them in the dog-pile at the end, that was awesome- did you see that head lock!” Granite exclaimed excitedly.

Hannibal chuckled, noticing the some (not so pleased to see him) approaching omegas coming for their fawnletts.

Bracken nodded his head in acknowledgement, he nudged the two fawnletts to their feet. “Run along now, your parents are calling you.”

Groaning the pair whined up to their peers, looking at Bracken longingly; “Do we have too?”

Bracken nodded, rubbing his chest gently “Yes, you mind you carriers now. Go on, off y’ toddle.”

Sulking, the fawnletts followed their carriers, and resided further into the long dying grass nests made yesterday evening.

Chiyoh lightly punched Bracken’s shoulder, sitting beside the brawny beta-stag “You’re good with them.”

At this Bracken snuffed softly, “Just doing my bit for the herd, someone’s got to mind the ‘not-so-little-ones’ when the first cycles are taking all their carrier’s time…”

Chiyoh nibbled Bracken’s ear affectionately, leaning into the beta’s embrace when he wrapped an arm around her.

“I’ll see you both later perhaps, when you’re not busy staring into each other’s eyes.” Hannibal remarked, already leaving the pair and moving on towards the outskirts. ‘Where he belonged’ he chuckled.

Chiyoh shot him a playful glare before turning to bury her face into Bracken’s broad chest.

Bracken just scoffed, and called loudly; “Y’know I let you win right?”

Hannibal shook his head, not looking back “That’s something a loser would say.”

Following the turns of the small brook which seemed to half the small clearing, Hannibal strode towards the top of the hill, allowing himself to seek a position which allowed him to look up and over the rest of the herd.

Laying down in the yellowing grass, Hannibal spied a woodlouse skittering across a dampened log of wood and thought to how simple it’s life is. The small creature would just worm its way from bark to bark, tree to tree, log to log until it found itself a nest and hatched off its eggs. Perhaps it’s life wasn’t all that simple, it had six legs for a start… He wondered if moving them cost a lot of mental energy, or whether it got tiring manoeuvring so many limbs.

He decided as the woodlouse scuttled out of sight, that perhaps all ways of life are difficult, despite what role you happen to play. With that thought in mind, he turned to look at the herd he ‘tagged-along-with’.

Robertus and Sorell were now drinking at the brook, and Chiyoh was with Bracken feeding from the silver bark of a birch tree, the two betas Roe and Soot had returned from their scout in the woods and were making their way to the brook also- to probably quench their thirsts, and the omegas had taken their fawnletts for a grooming session beneath the shade of the rock ledge over by the far right.

Their way of life, to Hannibal’s understanding, was fickle- it was constantly subject to changes which were outside of their control. Hannibal learned through his experience, that it is how you deal with change which determines your outcome rather than the change its self, perhaps he’d have to wait a while for others within the herd to understand that concept fully.

An example could be when a mated pair lose one of their young, that is a change which can be considered to be outside of their control- the fawnlett was possibly killed by prey, or frozen to death by the sub-zero temperatures or malnourished to the point its internal networks fail.

But how the mated pair would then deal with that change would determine the future outcome, for example, the mated pair could go on to mate again once heat rolls around and conceive another litter of fawnletts, and this time round, learn from the past mistakes and have a successful rearing. If the pair were to give into despair, no legacy would be left, no continuation of their family lines and no family-orientated joy would be found.

Content with his enlightenment, Hannibal set to laying his head down upon his crossed arms and curled up once more to doze the mid-afternoon away.

**

“Here.” A familiar feminine voice said, nudging his face. Hannibal blinked tiredly, looking up to a face full of a beta-stag’s snout and the scratchy texture of tree bark scratching his nose.

Wrinkling his nose in disgust, Hannibal sat up rubbing his forearm across his face effectively waking himself up.

“You’ve been napping all afternoon Hannibal.” Chiyoh mumbled, looking to the hulking alpha, “You should eat something.”

Hannibal looked down to the beta’s hands full of bark with distaste, “Thank you.”

Taking the bark from her soft fawn coloured hands he began to nibble on a piece, the texture was akin to a mouthful of porcupine spines and woodchips fallen from a buzzard’s nest. The taste was like a stale cardboard, which Hannibal thought he could easily go through life without ever trying. Grimacing he forced himself to eat more, knowing despite how foul it was, there wasn’t much more to get your fill upon at this stage in the world’s cycle.

Chiyoh settled down beside him, laying in the grass opposite her superior alpha, hiding an amused smile as Hannibal begrudgingly ate the bark.

“Did you speak with Robertus?” she asked after she’d watched him consume two strips of the bark. Swallowing, Hannibal met Chiyoh’s dark eyes and nodded.

“I did. I think you know the answer I received.” Hannibal sighed, “Do you still feel it?”

Chiyoh cursed, “It feels ugly Hannibal, like there’s danger all around us… its stronger now.”

Hannibal frowned, swallowing another mouthful of bark “We hopeless right now?”

Chiyoh shrugged, “I suppose we are.”

At that grim thought, Hannibal put the remaining bark down and assessed his beta’s stormy face. “Has Bracken said anything about this?”

Chiyoh nodded her head, “Yes. He digresses that it would be more beneficial for the herd if Robertus was no longer.”

Hannibal frowned, “Are you saying I should kill him?”

Chiyoh looked up to him then, really looking at a true stencil of what she believed an alpha should look like. “Yes.”

Huffing in amusement, Hannibal reached for the beta’s hand “The torch cannot light itself, there must be fuel- and there is no fuel. I’m the outsider at best, the ‘tag-a-long’ to control a herd, the herd must at least respect you. They don’t have to like the alpha, but they do need to respect him, and that respect is something that cannot be found within this herd for me. It’s no good, they would not follow.”

The beta shook her head in disagreement, “We’d follow you, be able to settle with you… We’d be able to LIVE Hannibal. This is not living, and if it is, then take it away and I shall lose nothing, because existing in a life with no love or care or safety or family in, is not a life worth living.”

“If I were able to kill him without causing so much damage to the herd, I’d have done it seasons ago.” Hannibal snapped, “But the omegas would die, the betas would be lost and the fawnletts would wither into nothing but skin and bones and then proceed to die. They will not except my bond to them, they’ve too long belonged to Robertus.”

“That is not true Hannibal. Delude yourself into thinking so, but it is not true. They’re too scared to treat you any different than they’ve been told to, they all hate Robertus, and they have no choice but to follow him. They’re trapped in the dynamic of the herd until it’s very head is severed; you could do it.”

“it seems Robertus is on his way over.” Hannibal said, looking at their alpha-stag heading their way with Thistle and Marrow behind him. “We may be able to represent our case.”

“Alpha.” Chiyoh stood, acknowledging the alpha with respect, nuzzling the ground he was about to settle upon, “Marrow, Thistle.” She bowed low in a pose of submission, it was a beta thing. Hannibal did not rise and would not rise to the appalling alpha. In response Robertus passed him a disapproving look, which Hannibal returned.

The silver alpha sat with the pair with an air of aloofness which forced Chiyoh to become uneasy. “I’m informed that you sense some kind of foreboding foulness beta, tell me, that it is a lie.”

Chiyoh looked up to the alpha, to Marrow, to Thistle and then back to Hannibal; “I cannot lie, this area isn’t safe.”

Hannibal nodded in agreement, to which his Robertus was not impressed by as his face turned sour. Thistle grunted, “I see nothing wrong with it. Marrow do you see or feel anything wrong with this area?”

The bulky-beta stag looked around emotionlessly, meeting the desperate eyes of Chiyoh and the nonchalant look of Hannibal.

Hannibal noticed in the way the scent just seemed to stab with small pricks of fear and anxiousness, but then faded into nothing. “Nothing that we wouldn’t feel in any other area.” The beta replied strategically.

“Strategic indeed.” Hannibal thought, knowing that Marrow, holding the second highest rank in the beta-hierarchy, had replied in such a manner, in the knowledge that he’d be best off not lying to the alpha, but even better off not displeasing him by embarrassing Thistle and Robertus with a disagreement or contradictions to their ‘superior’ beliefs. So he combined the two. Hannibal knew full-well that the beta channelled the unease from his beta-companions, he would know exactly how Chiyoh felt through the mental bond of the herd, which Hannibal was not a part of, but still would not heed the warning bells ringing in their heads and grow a rack.

Chiyoh shook her head, “I cannot explain it coherently about what it is that I feel prowling about this place which makes me feel so negative about it, but I am certain about the fact that there is something coming. Not only that, but this place provides little in shelter or defence for it’s arrival. And because of that, I’m worried for the safety of the herd, I feel they will suffer, if not die. You can feel it Marrow, why won’t you say so?”

Ah, she hit the nail on the head. Hannibal thought, which must have been echoed by the three other stags in the vicinity.

Marrow sculpted a reply, “Because if Alpha says there is no issue, then there is no issue.”

“You are poison Robertus!” Chiyoh screamed, “You will kill us all!”

Robertus growled in warning to the beta, pounded his fist upon the ground; which made Chiyoh’s body spasm “You dare insult your superior?” Thistle roared, leering over her whilst Robertus was using the bond to its full capacity to force her submission, so she could not fight back.

“If Marrow deems it no greater than previous stops, then it is fine, if our alpha says we stay, then we stay. There’s no danger here, you’re talking absolute nonsense!” To this Thistle struck the vulnerable Chiyoh, hitting her in the eye which immediately began to blacken.

Robertus smirked, “You, beta, have clearly lost your mind, then again, grazing with an Elohim heretic how could I think any different?” smirking at the actions of his beta-guards, to which Hannibal jumped to his feet slamming his body into Robertus’ pinning the weak alpha to the ground, powerfully bringing his fist into Robertus’ face repeatedly, revelling in the feel of the bridge of the other alpha’s nose smashing beneath his knuckles before Marrow and Thistle struggled to wrestle Hannibal off of their Alpha and back to the ground.

Hannibal didn’t go down without a fight though, swinging one of his arms around and successfully smacking Thistle across the face, Marrow managed to push down Hannibal’s shoulders from behind, to which Hannibal responded with his rack, digging the barbed points into Marrow’s chest. Thistle and Marrow both reeling off of Hannibal in pain, soon returned one attacking from the front the other from the side pinning him beneath them.

“YOU!” Robertus roared in absolute rage, climbing back to his feet and wiping the blood from his now broken nose. “Picking you up out of the mud was the biggest mistake, looking at you has never been my favourite pastime and breathing the same filthy air is not something I’m getting any fonder with. I should've had you killed, least you can do now is be thankful that I let you live-”

Hannibal scowled up to the alpha in a glare of venom “How dare you think that you had anything to do with my survival or existence, Hail picked me up, Hail took care of me, Hail not you” He grunted as Thistle stabbed his elbow agonisingly into his ribs. “You hold not even the slightest understanding of what it means to be ‘alpha’.” Hannibal spat with venom, pushing back against Thistle and Marrow’s unrelenting grip. “You hide behind betas because you’re weak, you use betas as shields because you are pathetic at defending yourself! You bully and beat omegas because they will not willingly couple with you. You killed Tommen because you were jealous, fearful of your omega sibling and the bond forming between he and I.” Hannibal sneered into the mud “You’re no alpha, you’re a stain.”

“This is MY HERD!” The alpha-stag snapped, “RAISE HIM UP, RESTRAIN HIS ARMS!” Robertus commanded viciously, “Yes, hold him right there, so I can show him exactly who truly wears the rack in this herd. We shall have a celebration all right, the whole herd would be invited to come along whilst we hold a bonfire, with your carcass on it.”

Chiyoh was grunting between her high-pitched whimpers as she writhed on the floor in agony, the mental bond of the alpha forcing her to submit. Trying to get to her feet was an impossibility, the mental shackles of the bond between them were too strong to break physically. She could only watch her friend suffer, and it tore her up inside.

The two cracks that echoed through the little clearing, had many of the herd looking up and seeing the limited yet askew view that ‘justice had been served’ there was nothing else they’d think over their alpha’s actions, despite their quiet bitterness growing towards him, Robertus would always have their respect.

Robertus, smiled sickly holding Hannibal’s antlers in either hand “Speak to me again before I have you burned and I’ll do more than snap your rack, I’ll snap your neck” He whispered bitterly to Hannibal. “The next time you breathe in a manner I dislike I will beat you. Unlike those wolves Hannibal- when I’m done tormenting you, I shall not fail to kill you.”

And with that, he nodded to Marrow, who slammed Hannibal’s head back to the ground and Thistle who reared up and slammed his elbows down into Hannibal’s back, making sickening cracks erupt into the silence.

Robertus’ ruined face was blurred through Hannibal's watery vision, but the alpha snorted in finality close enough for Hannibal to feel the warm spray of blood across his bruised face, the two betas dropped their hold on Hannibal and the trio staggered away, leaving Chiyoh to finally manage to scramble to her feet and to Hannibal’s side.

Hannibal was already sitting, awkwardly manoeuvring his body assessing the extent of the damage caused by the two bastard betas. “Hannibal don’t move.” Chiyoh cried, reaching to him in concern, his golden face bloody and creasing in pain, his once powerful rack now resembling the stubs of two broken branches, his ribs already blackening where he was brutally bashed.

“I’m fine.” Hannibal replied, spitting blood to the floor.

Chiyoh frowned, “You are not fine! You’ve busted all your forehead, your face is teeming with blood, I daren’t even think about your ribs Hannibal. This is all my fault” she choked out between her tears.

“My only regret is that rather than spilling blood from his nose, I should’ve been drinking the blood from his throat.” Hannibal scowled. “They struck you, are you alright?”

Chiyoh gently pressed Hannibal to the ground, so she could see to his forehead wound. Gently licking the area, before giving Hannibal an answer- “I fare much better than you right now.”

Hannibal chuckled softly, allowing Chiyoh to lay him down so she could access him better. “I didn’t want it to come to this, I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have defended me, you’re an idiot, I’m an idiot.”

“Yes, I’m an idiot. Elohim be damned, I should have killed him when I had the chance.” Hannibal murmured.

Chapter Text

Chiyoh lightly punched Bracken’s shoulder, sitting beside the brawny beta-stag “You’re good with them.”

At this Bracken snuffed softly, “Just doing my bit for the herd, someone’s got to mind the ‘not-so-little-ones’ when the first cycles are taking all their carrier’s time…”

Chiyoh nibbled Bracken’s ear affectionately, leaning into the beta’s embrace when he wrapped an arm around her.

“I’ll see you both later perhaps, when you’re not busy staring into each other’s eyes.” Hannibal remarked, already leaving the pair and moving on towards the outskirts. ‘Where he belonged’.

Chiyoh shot him a playful glare before turning to bury her face into Bracken’s broad chest.

Bracken just scoffed, and called loudly; “Y’know I let you win right?”

Hannibal shook his head, not looking back “That’s something a loser would say.”

And with that, the golden outcast strode away, leaving Bracken pouting and Chiyoh smirking. “He looks like a stag who has the world on his shoulders, Chi.” Bracken whispered into her cheek, lightly nuzzling her with affection.

At this Chiyoh huffed, pulling away from Bracken; “Yeah, that’s my fault.”

Bracken snuffed, in confusion at both Chiyoh’s statement and actions. He looked down at Chiyoh in a questioning manner, “Is it now? What did you do?”

“This morning… We were both by the brook and I just expressed our concerns about this area. He listens Bracken, he feels and sees the weakness which has befallen the herd under Robertus. Ever since the deaths of Rommel and Tommen, this once supportive herd has become a stag-tatorship. So, I asked him to speak with Robertus-”

Bracken wiped a hand down his face in disbelief, “Y’didn’t seriously do that-”

“I did. I had no choice, the fawnletts will die, WE will die Bracken. How long are we to keep going on like this? Following this clueless excuse for a stag, who has no care for his herd! His sire was a remarkable stag, befitting of royalty, Rommel didn’t just look the part- he acted it too. We stuck to the route we’ve travelled for generations, we had a trainee omega-priest in Tommen- we had an actual BOND with Rommel. But Robertus... Robertus only ensures himself- his own protection with Thistle and Marrow- because he lacks his own strength and heart in battle. Robertus puts more effort into ensuring that an omega of his choosing is forced into his nest so he can ‘have his way’ with them, and we both know how that ends! And finally he always ensures that the herd constantly hate Hannibal. Why Bracken? Because he knows that in comparison to Hannibal, he is a mere shadow of a stag.”

Bracken looked unimpressed, snuffing irritably. “You speak to me as if I don’t share the same hatred for Robertus. He may be royalty in this herd, but he is not deserving of it- he killed his own brother- he killed Tommen for what reason other than the ugliest jealousy. Despite the fact it ‘cannot be proven’ I think it’s blatantly obvious what that bastard did! He hated that Tommen’s birth killed their carrier, but that was not his fault! He hated Tommen because Rommel adored him, spent more time with him t’ try’n teach him how to be an omega-priest- yet again not his fault. Thanks t’ that bastard- we have no priest, we have no healer and I question what kind of soul can live with themselves after having killed an omega? Or better yet, their own brother? If he can do that to Tommen, then I hate to imagine what he’d do to Hannibal. An’ that’s what concerns me Chi, YOU KNOW Robertus hates Hannibal! An’ we know why! Because Robertus knows that Hannibal is a threat to him, why d’ya think there’s only one alpha in a herd? Hannibal wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for old-man Hail an’ Rommel’s favour for life- and now this? You’ve sent him on’a path of destruction! Oh the moon an’ stars above bring me strength!” Bracken cried into his palms.“Hannibal’s ass is grass! if we don’t stop him before he gets to Robertus-” Bracken stressed, starting to his feet, when Chiyoh caught his shoulder.

“I fear it’s already too late.” Chiyoh said regretfully.

Bracken slumped back down. “I thought y’ cared ‘bout him Chi. Y’know Robertus doesn’t fight fair- never could, never would. He uses the mental bond against us-”

“But that’s the beauty of Hannibal- he won’t be affected by it, alphas can’t attack other alphas with the mental bonds of the herd- you know this, no two alphas’ can belong to one herd.” Chiyoh retorted, looking into Bracken’s blue eyes earnestly. “I do care about him enough to believe in him, and what he can do for our herd. He is everything this herd needs Bracken” Chiyoh implored earnestly. “I won’t go another season watching another omega be wrecked by Robertus for not being able to carry his fawnletts, that brute is of the grey-fade- I’m sure of it! He’s definitely infertile, not the omegas, it’s not their fault. They don’t deserve the treatment they’re getting. I won’t go another season watching Hannibal outcast just because he is better fitting for the role than Robertus.”

“Maybe we can do something next-” Bracken began, only to be cut off by his hysterical mate.

“This herd won’t last another season- you know this Bracken! Why are we at this place which reeks of death, when we should be at the nesting ground? Why are we being made to stay in a place which is so dark? I’ve been sent out on patrol with Soot and Roe three times today, how many times have you been sent?”

“Twice. I’m on again mid-afternoon ‘til evening. Same shifts tomorrow.” Bracken replied sullenly.

“Exactly, that’s too much. It’s physically destroying us to run so high on so little and for what reason? Other than for him to bed poor Sorell.” Chiyoh snapped. “He won’t produce an heir Bracken; and he’ll kill Sorell for it, just like every other omega he has laid his hands on. Flint, Clover, Marigold, Willow, Ellwood, Pewter, Garnet… Tommen. He will blame the omega, and kill them for their incompetence…” Chiyoh began to pace, her frustration levels radiating off of the charts. “Their innocent blood is on our hands. We did nothing to help them Bracken!”

“We couldn’t DO anything Chi! Within the constraints of the mental bond of the herd we can’t DO anything! We can’t just leave the bond, we can’t successfully take down our alpha without maiming the herd, we can’t fight Robertus, we can’t win!”

“But we can.” She replied softly, looking Bracken in the eye. “You see that blossom tree over there?” she gestured with a nod of her head. “It’s so beautiful, such a stunning facet of nature, yet there it stands caged in by the silvery bars of the birches. I don’t live in a cage Bracken, not like that poor tree. Soon it’s roots will be strangled by the roots of the birches, and it will wither and die thanks to the selfishness of it’s surroundings- they steal its light, they steal its water, they steal its comfort. But it stays there, because it cannot move. It, unlike us, has NO choice. We have a choice.”

“It’s too dangerous Chi, you’re going t’ get Hannibal killed, then yourself.” Bracken said softly, sitting himself back down and watching Chiyoh pace her frustration out. “An’ then me. D’ya seriously think I could take running even one segment of a cycle without you? D’ya think I could allow myself t’ live in the present when my heart would’ve gone with you? Don’t be cruel t’ me Chi.”

“You speak of death, yet I’m going nowhere.” Chiyoh replied, “You speak of cruelty and find no means to stop it? I want to stop it, I ultimately want what’s best for the herd and for Hannibal. I want our omega’s fawnletts to grow into a loving herd. I want our own fawnletts Bracken! I want Hannibal to take his rightful standing- its pitiful to see such a strong and befitting alpha sat on the side lines like a grey-fade! It’s wrong! So what if we have to sacrifice our lives to make a change, we’re not exactly living in the first place. Nothing changed, nothing gained.”

Bracken sighed. “So Robertus has already spoken with Hannibal?”

Chiyoh nodded, “I think so, although there was a definite chance that Robertus wouldn’t see him anyway.”

Chiyoh spooked and looked to left, seeing the approaching beta-stag Briar and his burly mate Laurel, nodding to Bracken.

“This is me.” He replied softly, nuzzling her shoulder and rubbing his side against her. “I’ll meet y’ when I finish- stay out of trouble… I love you Chi.”

Chiyoh nuzzled him back, kissing his head. “I’ll eat and then I’ll take some to Hannibal, see what he says. I’ll be up there.” She indicated with her head. “When you come back. I love you.”

Giving Chiyoh one last glance and nod-over, Bracken left the clearing following Briar and Laurel towards the west side, slipping through the arthritic birch-trees they made their way onto the third scout around this day.

Keeping his footfalls light, Bracken kept well balanced as he swiftly weaved between the thickets of trees. Dodging stones and leaping over mud, using both his hands and his powerful back-legs to help him climb the loose terrain of the confused earth.

Bracken found he didn’t mind running patrols too much, he knew that Chiyoh wasn’t very appreciative of the task, especially when the weather was bad. But Bracken felt some sense of relief and freedom with his given job role- because when you’re a part of a mentally-linked herd it was hard to achieve some reflection of privacy. Having always some constant mental babble running in the back of your head didn’t allow for much relaxation. Huh, maybe Hannibal was lucky in that respect. It doesn’t take him two hours to get some shut-eye at night with the omega’s prattling on about unnecessary tid-bits… What was it last night again?

Oh, Moss’ fawnlett said ‘bird’ yesterday. But from what Bracken could recall, he’d said it the day before that, and the day before that, and the day before that. It wasn’t exactly news. No, the omegas in this herd were very sad and deprived. Bracken supposed that it was their fawnlett’s innocence to the world which is their escape from such dismal circumstances. That made Bracken sigh, that’s why he guessed he was lucky. He could leave the herd, even if just for patrol, the omegas couldn’t.

“You pouting back there Brack?” Laurel asked from his forward flank.

Bracken snapped his head up, never slowing down or losing the pace. “Just thinkin’ about the fawnletts.” He replied.

“You sure? I’m sensing some pretty dark stuff back there.” Laurel challenged, quirking a brow looking from his mate back to Bracken.

Bracken looked back over his shoulder at the swift trail they were leaving in the red and golden spotted ground of the forest floor. “Y’ feel it too?”

The speckled grey and brown stag snorted in answer, yes he felt it too. “Can’t do nothing about it though Brack. You know that.”

“If we could do something, would you?” Bracken asked, pushing heavily with his forearms to pull his body up the now steepening terrain. “If you could change herds would you?”

Laurel furrowed his brows in concern, twisting his body in order to turn their little formation to the left in aid of them getting up the embankment. Laurel noted that Bracken was seriously acting more melancholy than usual, almost revolutionary... But it was an impossible spectacle, why would you torture yourself over such unsolvable means?

The speckled grey and brown stag started slowing down, allowing the trio time to sniff around the peak of the hill and fully take in the area assessing for possible danger. “Yeah, I would change herds if I could. That bastard hasn’t got a clue.”

“Laurel!” Briar exclaimed, looked between the two beta-stags in surprise. “Such talk will get you trampled! Or worse!”

Bracken sat then, huffing. “Doubt it, that bastard can’t walk ten-feet. That’s why we’re out here and he’s not. We can rely on his laziness at least.”

Laurel snorted in amusement, looking out at the surrounding land from his vantage point of the hill. “Indeed. This place we’re at right now is all wrong, it feels all wrong. We shouldn’t be there anyway, we should be at the nesting grounds by now and quite frankly its wearing me out doing these patrols.”

Briar looked to Bracken, the frightened green eyes meeting sparkling cobalt. “I know what he’ll do if he finds out Brack.”

Briar didn’t look comfortable at all, his shoulders were raised high as he sat, his legs jittery and unsettled, looking up to his mate’s back with an unease which spoke volumes. Bracken felt a little guilty about it, Briar’s carrier, Clover, was trampled to death a few cycles ago for non-other than being one of Robertus’ many omegas. It seemed seeking the wrath of Robertus wasn’t something the young beta-stag was fond of, and to this Bracken crooned softly in apology.

Sighing, Laurel moved from looking over the hill and laid beside Briar in the mud, despite his distaste of getting himself ditched, and took to nuzzling his albino counterpart.

Yes, Laurel knew all too well that Briar knew the consequences, his carrier and all being one of Robertus’ many victims. If anything, it allowed the herd to see his true colours, that he, would happily murder omega-stags if he found cause to- or felt threatened. It scarred poor Briar for life, and rightly so. When right in front of your eyes you find your carrier being trampled to death for a ‘crime’ which wasn’t even committed.

Cruelty. That’s all it was.

“More means to stand up to the bastard then isn’t it?” Bracken muttered, sniffing the air. “I mean, it clearly shows that he’s just blaming the omegas for his inability to provide an heir, it’s wrong because- well it’s just wrong, and also that it’s not them who are at fault here, your carrier could clearly carry. You’re proof of that.” Bracken motioned with his arm. “It’s a crock of fucking shit.”

Laurel nudged Briar to his feet, “Yeah, well… What do you propose we do?”

Bracken sighed, “The only thing we can do… Hannibal, and allow him to kill Robertus-”

Two gasps met Bracken’s ears, “ARE YOU INSANE?!” Briar hissed, “Laurel, I’m not having it, this idiot is going to get us all killed. Follow Hannibal you say? HAH! Madness, complete madness I tell you. Fit for the Elohim alright. Half the herd won’t go near him; you know why? They’re afraid, you go near Hannibal you’re asking for death, you talk about Hannibal you’re asking for a beating, you mention Hannibal to alpha-stag and you’re going to get executed. They want to keep their bones whole and their racks full and I’m with them on that-”

Laurel cooed softly, releasing a calming pheromone to appease his frightened and agitated mate. “Hush now love, hush. We won’t do anything rash, we’re okay. You’re okay. Alright?” pulling Briar into a hug and gently nuzzling his glands in appeasement.

“No I’m not okay, you can’t utter such things! We can’t abandon alpha without him not knowing, we can’t follow an alpha we’re not bonded with, it won’t work, it can’t work” Briar whined softly into Laurels comforting embrace. “Just... Scared right now. Don’t want to lose anyone else.”

“You won’t I’m not going anywhere okay? I’m here, I’ll always be here.” Laurel soothed, kissing Briar’s forehead gently. “Good boy, that’s it come on. Let’s get on down the hill, and towards the old dirt track. We have quite a bit of land to cover before our shift ends.”

Bracken stood, watching the comforting exchange- but he couldn’t diminish his aggravation. There was honestly nothing wrong with Hannibal, he was an exceptional stag! Great at combat, he could easily beat Robertus alone- maybe even if he had one guard. Hannibal had good listening skills, a sensitive heart, an impressive intelligence which seemed to give him an edge other stags couldn’t meet and of course, he had a phenomenal nose. Yes, Hannibal was a fine example of a true alpha-stag… And that’s perhaps where the fear comes from. But nevertheless, he couldn’t kill Robertus alone! He needed the support of the herd to try and fight the bond’s calling, so Hannibal could fight Robertus and assume power. Damn fighting the bond was impossible, the excruciating feeling of paralysing poison ripping throughout the muscles when Robertus called 'halt' was enough to subdue the most powerful beta-stag, never mind the poor omegas and the fawnletts. There shouldn't be a need for such brutal, torturous force... If Robertus was any alpha to be followed, there wouldn't be any use of such force, because everyone would be willing to follow him.

Pathetic bastard.

Laurel nudged Briar on his way, turning back to Bracken. “I apologise, friend.” He said softly, “His mind is riddled with fear, and I believe he just wishes to live. Even though our quality of life is decidedly shit, he just wants to live. If it comes to a fight, I’d be with you, but my first priority is with my mate. If we stood with you- Robertus could use the bond again to hold him still and make him watch another horror- it would frighten him to death. Knowing this, I can’t willingly put him in that situation. It’s unfair.” He said adamantly, then finished softly with “And I promised I wouldn’t leave him alone… And that means in decisions too.”

With that, Laurel set off after Briar down the hill with a down-trodden Bracken in tow. Footfall after footfall, hoof after hoof until they reached the carpets of the autumn-riddled land. To where they continued to dash on, leaving imprints of their hooves along the land like stickers, watching the silvery birches lurch by as they sprinted on through the forest and to the old dirt road.

Bracken noticed the run seemed to have calmed Briar’s earlier nerves, and grounded the beta-stag fully. He took Laurel’s reply seriously, he was a loyal stag and found his loyalties with his mate, much like himself. There was nothing wrong with that, except, Bracken recognised the fact that nothing was going to change if they didn’t do something, ignorance could very well kill the herd at a much quicker pace than Robertus could.

That’s what Chiyoh was saying. He felt he was beginning to understand the issue more and more.

This place for example, wasn’t ideal. Sniffing the old dirt road and noticing two strange indents worked into the ground quite heavily suggested recent movement, heavy loads too. The scent was still quite vicious to the nose, pushing forth that the thing was occupied. Two legs? Most likely, no other things used metal contraptions to get around- Tweeters didn’t need them, much too small and they had wings anyway, what happened to good ol’ fashioned legs? No, t’was definitely recent-ish, the smell of poisonous fumes from the back of the metal thing had clung to the living land around it. Contaminating it.

Gross.

“Two legs, and one of their metal things.” Laurel announced aloud, stating what everyone was thinking.

Briar followed the two trails a little way, “Look like giant slug trails, don’t they?”

Nodding in agreement, Bracken looked then to Laurel. “D’ya think they’re gonna’ come back?”

Laurel shrugged his shoulders, “Can’t be sure. Maybe. Although, they’re more than half a mile away at this point alone. We’ll mention it in our report when we get back, nothing more we can do than that. Come on, let’s get going before it gets too dark and Thistle thinks he can chew our ears off.”

Setting back on the trail, they moved off backtracking a small while, then turning off to the left allowing themselves to go full circle around the area. Bracken allowed himself to ponder, could the two-legs cause them to pick up enough of an argument to get the herd moved? It’s a good enough excuse, falling victim to the fire-sticks of the two-legs was fairly common amongst their kind.

Brief conversations with other herds, friendly or not, told tale of the dreaded fire-sticks and the damage they could deliver to the victim. T’was apparently a pretty narrow escape considering the seriousness of the injuries, some stags suggested one hit could stop even an alpha from running. He shivered just thinking about it.

They rolled into the clearing, gradually slowing pace. Laurel and Briar exchanged a brief glance, of anxiousness and reassurance. “Nothing upon the hill will be expressed my love, hush now, soon we’ll be done and we can relax by the brook and perhaps curl up for the night? Give you one of those massages you like?”

Bracken snorted, alerting Laurel and Briar that he was done with their talking, anxious himself to get their report filed with Marrow and Thistle, then proceed on back to Chiyoh and Hannibal- tell them of the news.

The trio made their way through the clearing, seeing face after face after face of weary stags looking a mixture of frightened and hard-faced. Sniffing up and scenting the air, Bracken could smell the conflict, it was like kissing static- a somewhat tickling sensation upon your skin and then the final surge of power pushing in and making you recoil. It wasn’t pleasant.

Looking into the herd’s mind, all he could read was “Justice, Justice, Justice.” Which heavily suggested some poor soul had gotten on a higher-standing stag’s nerves. Ignoring the sullen faces, Bracken crept onwards towards Robertus’ make-shift sheltered nest, the figures of Marrow and Thistle sat outside looking smug.

“Shift nine, you’re late.” Thistle cooed, in between licking his fur. “Any reason as to why?”

Laurel shifted subtly in front of Briar, allowing himself and Bracken to take centre-stage. To which Bracken decided he’d had enough of the stag-shit, and relayed his concerns. “We found two-leg tracks, on the old dirt road. Fresh.”

Thistle paused mid-lick and Marrow snapped his attention from the bark he was nibbling on. “You did aye?”

“Yes. They’re at least half’a mile from here, but the tracks were still sludgy- meaning it was recently travelled an’ the scent was disgustingly fresh.” Bracken replied honestly.

Marrow shot a look to Thistle, scrutiny turned to concern, to flicker to guilt and then to determination.

“Jeez, don’t hurt yourselves there.” Bracken snapped, as he watched and assessed the two twits thinking. Bracken was willing to bet his rack that a fawnlett of only a cycle was a more mentally adept than the pair of Neanderthals before him.

After suffering through what seemed like a cycle, the two begin to speak. “Alpha will be informed, patrols will be doubled tomorrow.”

Robertus as if on cue, snarled from within his nest “What!? This better be very important, after what I’ve dealt with today I’m in no mood to tolerate more.”

Marrow and Thistle exchanged another pathetic look, before Thistle replied with. “Shift nine has reported two-leg tracks, half a mile away- sir.”

Robertus’ face came into view as he pulled himself from his sheltered nest.

‘Fuck’ Bracken thought bewildered, as Robertus’ nose appeared to be completely shattered upon his face, dry-crusted blood settled within and upon his face trailing down, his front and upon his forearms.

“Is that so?” Robertus questioned, sitting regally despite his appearance. “And you saw these, ‘two-legs’ to be sure?”

Bracken and Laurel shook their heads, which made Robertus smile wickedly. “Then you have no proof it was truly two-legs. Laurel, Briar you’re dismissed, Bracken will see me in my quarters.”

Laurel looked to Bracken worriedly, sending small waves of comfort through the bond, to which Bracken just nodded his head in encouragement for them to leave. Laurel timidly set on to nudging a shaking Briar lightly and set on their way.

Watching both the albino-tag and the grey-speckled stag walk away, Bracken was soon brought back to the present by Robertus’ irritated snort, wincing in his finding of a pointy rack suddenly digging unforgivingly into his back from Thistle, and another thorny rack pointed at Bracken’s neck and chest.

“You and that jittery mate of yours have been thorns in my hide for a while.” Robertus began, “And I feel I’ve neglected to teach her a true lesson.” He purred.

At those words Bracken became wide-eyed and began to struggle, “If you’ve laid one hand on her I'll-"

At this Robertus chuckled, the sound akin to rabbits caught within the shining-wire, as the congealed blood in his nose created wheezy crevices for the air to squeal from within unable to escape. His eyes lit up in a challenge, and his fist pounded the ground in hilarity. "You'll what? I'm afraid you're in no position to make threats Bracken."

"I'll kill you." Bracken grunted, to which in response, Marrow applied more pressure to Bracken's chest, digging the unforgiving thorns of his rack into the softer skin of his pectorals.

“Will you now? I doubt you'll be successful.” Robertus said with a pride, “Many have tried, even the omegas put up a fight before I bed them. Some are quite resilient too… What was his name? Clover? Oh yes, it was Clover- spunky little thing he was, got a few good swipes in too and well... We all know how that turned out, don’t we?”

Robertus looked at his blood-blackened nails as if they were the most interesting spectacle, and quite rightly so, because Bracken’s glare could possibly freeze molten lava at this moment in time.

“You’re poison.” Bracken Spat, lurching forward to smack Robertus with his fist, earning himself a painful chest full of Marrow’s lethal thorns and two of Thistle’s arms around his elbows in restraint.

Backing off a little ways with a chuckle, Robertus sat himself further away from the fuming beta-stag he was enjoying tormenting, he found himself chuckling getting louder and more sinister with each vicious sound. “You know, that’s exactly what your mate said.” He started softly, looking up to meet Bracken’s deathly stare. “Before she got her punishment.”

Bracken lunged forwards, pulling his chest through Marrow’s rack once more, and earning himself painful bruises from Thistle’s unrelenting grip.

“You know, I don't know what the herd see's in you. I hear constant mental babble about you and it just makes me wonder what exactly it is that makes the omegas so flustered, and the betas so interested. It can't be your brain, no, you're much too dense for that. Yes, you've always been more brawn, so bull headed and unrelenting... Must be this." Robertus grinned sickly, gripping Bracken's chin harshly between two blood-matted fingers, and tapping the dirty digits upon the side of his lip. "Perhaps THIS is attractive to some hmm? Your eyes so open and honest, cant help but charm the others into acts of rebellion- I mean, we all love a good looking hero don't we?" "Well, we'll see if they'll be so devoted after I'm through with you. I’m going to enjoy ruining your face Bracken, every time they look at you now they'll see exactly what happens when you disobey me, you'll be a constant living reminder of what's to come of rebellion, you'll no longer be a symbol of liberation, or an idol to the younger- you'll instead be a walking advertisement for punishment, the reinforcement model for loyalty.” Robertus smiled, bringing himself forth and leering over Bracken. Bracken hacked in the back of his throat, and spat phlegm into Robertus’ eyes.

Robertus stood stock-still as the white and yellow substance slipped down his broken nose disgustingly. “That wasn’t wise.” Robertus whispered dangerously, swiping his clawed fist across Bracken’s face with brutal force, he dug his claws into Bracken’s skin, and dragged his hand downwards causing deep gouges of flesh to rip from his forehead, into his vulnerable eye, down the bridge of his nose, through his lip finishing at his chin.

Gritting his teeth in pain, Bracken cried out loudly as he felt his skin rake from his face painfully. The ragged wounds across were like lashes of fire, searing pain through all his nerves leaving the gouged flesh to throb achingly and drip with blood.

"Hold his face, that's it." Robertus cooed, turning to a thorn bush nearby. Bracken started to shake, breathing heavy as he tried to keep his composure despite the hurt he was feeling. His eye was burning, running thick drips of salt down and onto his cheek trying to wash away the irreparable damage. Before Bracken knew it, Robertus was holding his damaged eye open, whilst incapacitating his muscles with liquid poison belonging to the bond. He held up the largest thorn Bracken believed he'd had the displeasure of ever seeing and slowly pushed it into his weeping eye.

Bracken screamed out into the clearing, his desperation slamming from all ends of the area and out in to the forest. Birds screeching from their perches and many a stag grazing turned and looked their way. Small whimpers escaped between his clenched teeth, his ears folded back upon his scull in agony, his large fists clenched in desperation to punch the bastard's body until it was beaten bruised and bloody. It felt like the pain was never ending as Robertus constantly twisted the thorn, pulling the instrument of torture out and sliding it back in without mercy, severing through the crunchy mass of his lens, pupil and tarring the delicate muscles either side. The bastard wasn't done until his eye was a weeping mass of blood and jelly and Bracken was reduced to a shivering, weeping mess.

“There.” Robertus smiled, pulling the thorn out and tossing it aside he brought his hand to behind Bracken's ear and stroked there with mock-care. “You call me ‘poison’ and I will wound you slowly, each day I will pick at you until there is nothing left, until there is no feeling in your body besides the pain. Why? You may ask.” He paused his soft ministrations, and looked down at the blood-dripping face of the beta before him, “Because I can. You will be used as an example to the rest of the herd, your very face will show those idiotic fools who dare even think of defying me, that there are consequences. Here's something specific to you though, and hopefully our little lesson here will serve as a reminder. That you see nothing but what I see, you go beyond that and I will blind your other eye.”

“Just because I’d no longer be able t’ see the damage you cause, doesn’t mean it won’t be there. You take my eyes; you take away protection.” Bracken replied brokenly, looking into Robertus’ eyes. “I tell ya’ there’s two-leg tracks nearby, you will not listen. This area is not safe, you can see that, so why won’t y’ listen?”

Robertus smiled, turning away from the bleeding-blind Bracken, making his way into the nest. “Survival of the fittest, fittest being you no longer. I'd watch your back if I was you Bracken, if it's possible with one eye.”

"YOU FUCKING PIECE OF SHIT!" Bracken screamed, "YOU'RE GOING TO KILL US ALL!"

"QUIET YOU!" Thistle reprimanded, slapping Bracken around the back of the head harshly before starting to shove and wrestle Bracken away from Robertus’ make-shift abode with Marrow dragging Bracken forwards by his rack. “Disgraceful.” Thistle sneered in Bracken’s ear, “That'll scar you know, so everyone can see justice when served. They'll know never to disobey alpha again, and I dare say that with the state of your face, none of them would risk to try.”

Bracken finally managed to shrug out of Thistle’s grip and push Marrow's hands from his rack, turning upon the two-stags. “The pair of you should be ashamed.” Bracken sneered, “You’re guilty of more murder, than Robertus is. Your hands are just as dirty; I hope y’ know that. Not just that, but you're going to get the whole herd killed. And when there's no one left, but you two and Robertus... I wonder which one of you he'll fuck first." Bracken chuckled menacingly, "You're so brown nosed, you look like shit with a snow-cap on. You think you're going to live because you hang around Robertus like flies around shit? Well I'll tell you something for nothing, that's how you'll die."

"Why you insubordinate fucker." Thistle spat, making to smack Bracken.

"You going to hit me ay? Like you hit my mate?" Bracken snapped, "Go on then, I fucking dare you."

Thistle was about to hit Bracken, when Laurel came into view. "I think you've caused enough of a disturbance here Bracken."

"Stay out of this!" Bracken hissed at Laurel, "You don't want to get involved remember?"

Laurel shook his head and sat in front of Bracken, blocking the divide between him and them. "I don't, I'm just going to sit here on my arse and do nothing. While these very fine gentlemen, are left to get on with their jobs. What do you say fellas?"

Thistle grunted irritated, and Marrow patted the older stag on the shoulder, to which Thistle shrugged off roughly. "If I hear one peep out of either of you over the next few weeks, I'll trample both of you." And with that, the pair left, leaving a panting Bracken and a stone faced Laurel to regain their composure.

"Sow' us the seeds." Laurel said swiftly, concern sweeping the beta "What the heck happened?"

Bracken sighed, "What more is there to say, than 'justice has been served'?"

"You're a mess, an absolute state." Laurel shook his head and tutted, peering at Bracken's bleeding face and frowning as blood was dripping down and into Bracken's fur. "That's fucking disgusting."

"Well thanks for the vote of confidence Laurel." Bracken mumbled, spitting a glob of blood onto the grass- which Laurel scrambled clumsily to avoid. Normally, pushing Laurel's obsessive need to remain perfectly groomed and clean would've made him some manner of humour, but well... Right now his face fucking hurt.

Laurel grunted apologetically, placing a hand onto Bracken's decidedly clean shoulder. "I call it as I see it, what can I say? Er... Look, blood ain't exactly my forte- you know that, but Briar could-"

Bracken weakly shrugged Laurel's hand off of his shoulder, "Stop- hurts." The beta-stag mumbled. And he wasn't lying, Thistle's grip was unforgiving, Bracken was surprised his shoulders were still sitting intact within their sockets. "Nothing anyone can do to fix this, I know that and I cant even see it to assess the damage. I can't fucking see."

"I could get Briar to make you some essence of the yarrow-" Laurel began, turning away in search for his mate.

"Don't talk wet." Bracken snapped, watching what he presumed to be Laurel's bleached grey furred body, snap back around to address him "We're no-where near any place that yarrow grows. That's way up north and at the moment, we're not doing too well in the travelling department."

Laurel sighed, "Then you need to do the next best thing, you need to bathe it. Get it clean, try to stop any infection before it begins.

"It's my mess, and I'll fix it." Bracken said in finality, dragging himself up, ignoring the protesting Laurel and set on stumbling blindly onwards as his right eye wept terribly, and his face bled profoundly dripping vicious lines of crimson down his chin and into the hollow of his neck. Pulling himself towards the brook, Bracken tried to look to his reflection. Seeing his face a blurry mess of blood and mud.

Gasps from around him alerted him that the others could see the misery set upon him and his face, concerned omegas looking back and forth mentally enquiring for danger, ‘was it an attack?’ followed with ‘are there wolves nearby?’ coloured with ‘Did he fight, is he okay?’

Ignoring them all, Bracken reached into the brook cupping the crystal clear water within his wrought shaking hands and pressed his wounded face into the little pool. Hissing as the wounds seemed to sting like acid, his eyes weeping salt due to the pain.

Gasping into the evening air, he allowed the blood to drip from his wounds. Letting the cool water soothe the burning lacerations, he blinked in an attempt to clear his blurry vision, his right eye now ruined and his left eye mourning the right with tears of sympathy.

“Bastard.” Bracken thought angrily. That bastard was going to get them all killed. He knew it. He wouldn’t heed the warnings he desperately gave, he had no care for the herd’s survival. It made his bones tremble with fury that the piece of shit was so willing to murder everyone.

Bracken didn’t notice Coal who’d come to sit beside him. “What happened to you?” the fawnlett asked him, voice high-pitched with youth. “Did ya fight with a monster Brack?”

Bracken gently ruffled the kid’s hair, “Yeah, biggest monster I’ve ever seen. He crept up on me y'know?"

Coal looked sceptically at his adrenaline shivering form, "I thought you were the bravest warrior ever, how could you get sneak't up on?"

"Listen up kid, cause' this might be the most important lesson y’ever learn in your life. Not all monsters look like monsters y’hear me? Nod your head, good lad. Some monsters look just like you n’ me. Gotta’ keep yer’ eyes open and your wits about you. Follow yer’ instincts lad, and don’t be blinded by the norm.”

'Ironic bastard'. He thought, trying to work out what was least painful way of resting his face, yet he couldn't find it. The whole thing felt like a nettle bush had drop-kicked him. He'd done enough dilly-dallying, he had to get himself to Chiyoh and Hannibal. The bastard said he'd 'punished' her, and if he was honest with himself, he didn't know how far 'punishment' could go, considering what he, himself, had just endured.

Picking himself up, Bracken left the confused fawnlett by the brook, in no mood to drag the kid into herd ‘politics’ and ‘revolutionary’ movements when he was barely out of the womb. No, no. it wasn’t his place to do such a thing, but the advice was sound enough. He wished he’d been told such by his sire, maybe he’d have been better prepared for this. With blurry sight, he made his way slowly up the slight hill towards where Chiyoh and Hannibal were supposed to be. Ignoring the stares of the herd as he passed them by, the whimpers of the fawnletts hiding from the view of his now scarred face.

The now semi-blind and scarred beta-stag raced forth in frustration, meeting Chiyoh who looked wide-eyed with concern but before she could utter a word Bracken cut in, his tone evident with worry. “What has that bastard done t’ you?! He’s hit you!”

“Shh Bracken- Please I’m fine, I’m fine but please shh, you’ll wake him." She gestured to her left, at the sorrowful looking state which was Hannibal, whilst trying to gently push off Bracken's prying hands unrelentingly checking her body for injury. "He’s only been asleep for an hour; he needs his rest.” Chiyoh whispered quickly, reaching for Bracken’s face. “What has happened?”

Bracken looked over to Hannibal, who looked a state. His rack snapped, his chest ripped open, bruises forming over his sides and arms… “That bastard, he said he’d taken care of a few things. Sadly, I felt I knew what he was talking about, and I was right. Although, in the state Hannibal's in compared to you, I don't know whether to thank him for protecting you, or smack him for bringing attention to you.”

“I'd say the former option.” Chiyoh said softly, "Robertus did this?" she questioned, looking disgusted, angry and sad all at once. The network of gross lines marring Bracken’s once chiselled features, he looked like a warrior now for sure. Although, his heart already spoke of that, as he consistently carried honour and loyalty with him, endorsing love and pride into every spectacle of his being.

“That’s not our biggest concern Chi.” Bracken replied softly, taking her delicate hands in his own and putting them by their sides, stroking his thumbs along the backs of them.

"Not our biggest concern? You've damaged your eye Bracken!" Chiyoh hissed, "Can you see anything out of it? Shapes, shadows, blurs, colours?"

Bracken shook his head, "Nothing, I see nothin' out of it- but please, please listen t' me Chi. Me, Laurel and Briar were talking… About fighting the bond and allowing Hannibal to kill Robertus. They had cold feet, Briar did anyway, and he was definitely not swayed by Hannibal’s leadership either.” Sighing, Bracken sat to the floor wincing as his wounds twinged uncomfortably.

Chiyoh allowed him to sit, gentling him by nuzzling his shoulder. “That’s what Hannibal said.” She whispered sadly, “But I pushed and pushed and I pushed until I caused all this.”

Bracken immediately enveloped her crying form within his arms, “Hannibal retaliated when Robertus hit me. I pushed him too far, and he took it out on Hannibal. Look at what they’ve done to him Brack.” She cried into his chest, “And now, because of me, he’s ripped your face. You’re blinded now from the world around you and it’s all my fault. If only I wouldn’t have pushed, if I’d have just shut my mouth like everyone else none of this would’ve happened.”

Bracken shook her firmly, grasping her chin gently and looking down into her watery eyes. “You listen here Chi.” He began, “Y' were right, about everything- don’t look away, I’m being serious. Y' are right. There is a darkness here, they can all feel it- everyone feels it. It isn’t safe here, they all think that Robertus is shit as his role, and he has no idea what he’s truly doing. They know he kills the omegas, they’re not stupid, and he just admitted it to my face, he enjoyed killing Clover. He refuses to move on the grounds of ‘survival of the fittest’. He’s proven his ignorance, and his unwillingness to protect this herd…” He kissed her forehead, wiping her tears away with his thumb. “Silly girl, you didn’t cause this to happen to my face, I did. On the trail, we found two-leg tracks from their metal contraptions on the old dirt road, no less than half a mile away. You know the place Chi. They are there, it’s dangerous that they’re close! There’s no saying if they know we’re here, if they’re coming back or what. But I told Robertus, an' he won’t move us. We tried Chi, you tried, Hannibal tried to make him see reason, but he wouldn’t budge. If anything, we’re just battered leaves flailing with the howling wind. I fear there’s nothing we can do.”

"But-"

"No 'buts' you didn't hurt Hannibal either. He did what any respectable stag would've done, he fucking defended you when you needed defending, he stood up for beliefs that needed acknowledging and he fought for a cause worth fighting for. I'm more grateful to him right now than I thought I'd ever be, because you're safe and you're okay." He brought his blood streaked lips to Chiyoh's soft and kissed her slowly.

Softly releasing her lips by mere millimetres, he whispered "You're my everything." before bringing his lips to cradle hers once more, interlocked in a moment of sensual acknowledgement of intimacy between them. "You're worth every aspect of pain." he breathed, against her cheek. Kissing the salty tears which had collected there. "You mourn for my eye, or perhaps my looks. But you..." He breathed softly, kissing her forehead, "Even if I was blind, I'd still see you. When you're beside me, no-ones looking at me, they're looking at you and so they should, for you're all the beauty I need."

Bracken cupped Chiyoh's cheeks with both of his giant hands and stroked the fresh tears away with his thumbs, "Let's settle." He whispered, "C'mon we've got to try and nest for the night. I've already cleaned my face, i'll let you bathe it again tomorrow?"

**

Hannibal awoke the next day, feeling sore. Gritting his teeth, he pulled himself up into a sitting position at an angle which didn’t put too much strain on his broken ribs. Gently slipping calming breaths back and forth to ease the pain, he coached himself into a state of relaxation, allowing himself to clearly interpret the world before him and the state he sat within.

The herd was actually awake before him, which was odd. That never happened, he was always up at the crack of dawn. He supposed the mental and physical strain of the day before had taken its toll on him, so much so he needed to catch up on the rest he sorely needed.

Feeling with cautious fingertips, he lightly traced the cuts which littered his chest using wise hands to understand how well he was healing.

Hannibal knew his physical injuries were not ideal, but they were starting to heal fairly well. Healing did come much faster to alpha-stags than their omega and beta counterparts- it was just biology and energy stores put to use differently in each body. Omegas tended to push their energies into keeping themselves and their fawnletts warm, or into supportive physical movement- they had to carry heavy loads, their fawnletts and also their increased weights when pregnant. Betas were all about speed and pushing forth with their physical endurances, their energy was mostly spent there and if it wasn’t there then mental energy was constantly running as the beta’s minds bounced from stag to stag to keep surveillance high and communication consistent. The alpha’s energy was mostly put into controlling the bond itself, what messages were going back and forth, what they said, their bodies were much denser physically meaning they had more energy expenditure on movement than the other stags and finally their bodies were built for the heavy lifting, the dutiful work of all functions of the herd running, digging, carrying, scouting, fishing, hunting, working, healing. It never ended.

Unimpressed with the congealed blood still littering his once golden-snow coloured mane, Hannibal shrugged off meditation for the day. It was unusual for him, but he found himself too unimpressed with his physical appearance, as the gloopy blood in his mane looked appalling, and the smell of dirt, blood and vomit just seemed to be bathing within his nasal cavities.

Hannibal decided that a bath would be fitting right now, he slowly pulled himself to his feet and shuffled along towards the brook. Taking a deep breath, he looked upon his reflection and found himself introduced to the disgusting filth which lay upon him.

His sculpted face was littered with small cuts, his forehead looking decidedly wretched as the cut looked wide and stretched down towards the bridge of his nose. His nose looked miraculously undamaged in its form, but was actually now slightly leaning towards the left but it wasn’t an image marring thing, he’d still look presentable after some healing. Perhaps if it bothered him that much, he’d break it and set it again himself, but the appearance was such a fickle thing which diminished over time. One would be wrong to think their outside appearance reflected the beauty from within, since the most beautiful souls tended to belong to the most terrifying of creatures.

That thought however didn’t really apply to the distraught looking stumps upon his head, his antlers looked like ragged icicles formed from an unsteady solution. They were an eye-sore in the least, and honestly radiated a cry of shame upon his shoulders, that he wasn’t good enough, wasn’t strong enough in comparison, although Hannibal knew in his heart that wasn’t true, it couldn’t be. That bastard had to use his bond to bend the will of his betas to get them to defend him, one punch to Robertus’ shit-spitting snout and he was on his back.

Like the weak piece of shit he was.

No next time, and there would be a next time- he was going for the throat. Every drop of his blood within his veins was borrowed from the innocents he’d killed, all those omegas, all those fawnletts. Borrowed.

And who was Hannibal to not raise a toast to the lost ones, over a languid sip of the finest red vintage one could taste?

Looking around, he felt the clearing was tainted even further than the day previous. The weather was passive, although warmer for an autumn day the wind was irritatingly spinning around the clearing and passing up and over the rock shelf, rather than the other way round. The smell of hopelessness and fragility was too much to bare, if only the breeze was coming from the other direction, he’d be able to scent the openness of the forest and the pure air beyond.

No, nature wasn’t on his side today, the shadows of the clearing seemed to cut into his soul.

It was discomforting to say the least.

The stares of the other stags didn’t sway him from his thoughts. He didn’t care for their ‘disapproval’ he knew it was only social-deep. In a world where the opinion of one controls the majority, there isn’t much leeway for the outcasts.

Gently lowering his hands into the water, he softly brushed them over his chest washing away all the jellied blood and ruined feathers with a clinical hand. Cautiously washing out and rinsing each tiny cut with precise hands, Hannibal set on preening his feathers and fur back into place.

Picking himself up, he made his way back to the hill. Allowing himself to test and pull each muscle softly to see where the pain was most prominent. Laying beneath the shade of the tree, he allowed himself to scan over the herd once more, catching sight of Chiyoh and Bracken on the far side of the clearing. Hannibal debated going to them, but found himself trying to regather his thoughts wondering back to where the situation seemed to go pear-shaped.

Remembering back to yesterday, he found Chiyoh’s temper to be an amusing quality in play or upon a scout, but when exposed like it was, it put him on an edge he couldn’t quite escape from.

Chiyoh’s words were popping around his brain like pesky weasels, he took to looking around his surroundings again for any tell-tale signs of this ‘darkness’ she’d claimed to feel looming, whilst listening intently for any indication of this ‘echo’ she seemed adamant about.

Slight shuffling caught his attention, making his blonde ears bob and flicker, he turned to the rock-ledge towering high above the clearing, and stared at the rock as if it were contaminated, like some sort of poison was clinging to the rock. Taking a few sniffs into the air, he found that the breeze wasn’t on his side, blowing from the other direction rather than from the rock-ledge itself.

He suddenly felt crowded, as if thick smoke was swirling around his lungs, lounging within his chest like impenetrable clouds, fisting his hands in frustration he looked towards the ‘superior’ alpha who was resting beside the brook with poor Sorell.

“Robertus.” Hannibal called in alarm, to which Robertus seemed to glance at him and ignored him with an irritated shake of the head before taking to nudging his grazing omega.

Clenching his fists even tighter and bristling in irritation Hannibal pulled himself to his feet and strode away from the herd and into the nearby thicket, something was wrong and everything just pointed towards the rock ledge. Leaves and twigs crunched underneath his angry footfalls as he struggled his way up a rather imposing embankment. Decided, Hannibal set to climbing it and getting to the top despite his wounds protesting against the movement.

Maybe they were missing something, something about that rock-ledge was putting him on edge…

Hannibal noticed how all the nearby trees were getting thinner and thinner the higher he climbed, the terrain was irritatingly getting thicker underfoot causing him to slightly sink into nature’s natural autumn compost mix.

And that’s when he heard it.

It was as if someone had placed fuses in both his ears and set each of them aflame. The heat of the sound burning down his ear canals, to then suddenly explode within his skull. The sound burned him, deeply in his heart and absolute panic rattled his nervous system.

Hannibal knew from that moment; he would never forget the sound of those two deathly echoes. He knew that in some way, those echoes had created a change in his life.

Between the beating of his heart and the first two echoes, another set radiated through the forest.

Hannibal faltered in his step, falling forward and mucking up his hands and chest fur. Scrambling to his feet, ignoring his painful body’s cries, he turned back and started sprinting down the embankment, trying to think clearly around the pounding of his heart in his ears, all his appendages felt like they were humming, as if an all too powerful force was pumping through his system, he knew he was travelling faster than he’d ever travelled before- despite his injuries, his mind and body both working at the level of the lightning cracks in the sky.

The alpha’s instincts were running riot in his hazy mind, his ears ringing morosely as terrified cries, screams and whimpers accompanied by more rapid deathly echoes serenaded his sensitive ears.

Breaking through the trees, he quickly raced his gaze across the clearing the herd had once occupied and his heart gaped like a chasm in his chest.

In the middle of the clearing, he could clearly see the hulk of Robertus’ body standing stricken by the sight of a lifeless Sorell who had dropped to the floor in a heap. Dead. The bastard was using her body as a shield! Evading hits somehow.

Nearby, was Thistle and Marrow, who were next to where Robertus was previously. The pair were squealing in agony as their limbs seemed to be incapacitated, derived of the strength and power they previously wielded cruelly upon others within the herd. Hannibal watched how they pathetically clawed at the bank beneath them in the attempt to gain some traction, their weak limbs unable to support them once they had managed the strength of rising. “ALPHA! ALPHA!” was being screamed into the clearing by the terrified herd looking for instruction.

Robertus however, didn’t wait, he didn’t hesitate, ignoring the cries of his most ‘loyal’ betas, he high-tailed it out of the clearing, heading straight for the trees to which only a small fraction of herd was able to follow, mostly betas and the most furthest away omegas from what he could see.

Bang after bang, after bang ran through the air. Paralysed in absolute horror, Hannibal watched as the unlucky tharn omegas and their fawnletts were being picked off one by one, their faces going blank as sparks passed through them and their bodies toppling to the ground.

Pile after pile of innocence falling to the ground. Borrowed blood soaking into the soil, feeding the cursed place they were stalked and preyed upon.

There was a mixture of scents in the air, the oppressive charcoals of fire, the spillages of thick blood now staining the acid-autumn grass, the yellow streaks of utter despair crisscrossing the clearing and then ultimately- the putrid scent of organic silence.

Recovering from his shock, Hannibal set onto stepping out into the clearing he had to find Chiyoh and Bracken, try and help some of the tharn omegas- when a sudden pain struck him hard, knocking him from his stance and sending his world into a loop. A shot of fire ran straight through his left ear, a numbing sensation coursed through his body, which soon turned into a burning pain and then proceeded to erupt into a series of punishing pulses screaming crimson shooting through his nerves.

He couldn’t see, his vision blinded by this agonising white which enveloped his being completely.

Getting down low to the ground, Hannibal held his poor ear willing the throbs of the fire to ease away and his mind to focus through the adrenaline.

The barks of the guns wouldn’t stop, they just kept raining down like the worst storms he’d heard as a fawnlett. How he’d bury his face into his carrier’s chest and allow her to coo at him, soothing him from the thunder, assuring him it would end and it would eventually stop. When would this stop?

His auditory senses slashed into consciousness all at once, dizzying him further. Pushing past his internal and external agony Hannibal pulled himself up despite his body’s wails of protest.

Then his blurry body received a sound which must have spawn from the darkness of hell.

It was a blood curdling roar of hopelessness, the roar of agony cliffs made when they crumbled, the spine tingling sounds of tree branches snapping in two, the howling of the wind as it whipped by the mouth of a damp, dark cavern. It was the sound of a broken heart.

Looking bewilderedly, Hannibal found the image which matched the sound. Bracken was roaring in agony, wailing like someone had gutted the beds of his fingernails with splinters.

And that’s when the colour completely drained from Hannibal’s face. As the heartbroken beta-stag he could almost call ‘brother’ was cradling a limp body to his chest, the body of an ebony-Ravenstag, the body of his dear friend.

“Chiyoh…” Hannibal whispered in disbelief, motor neurons forcing him to make his way forth to aid his dear friends, when another bolt shot through the clearing and embedded itself with a bite, into Hannibal’s right arm.

The impact of the shot sent him backward, back into the bushes and onto his poor bruised back, his world cascading around him, spinning him around until he could no longer see a reality.

Hannibal’s maroon eyes began filling up with salty tears, which made his retinas sting even worse. He found his involuntary weeping soon accompanied by the quickening trickles of scarlet running down his face and into his eyes, slipping past his cheek, jaw and cascading down upon his chest. His arm began to stream blood, to which Hannibal found himself watching acutely as the wound poured multi-tonal colours of crimson.

Hannibal weakly looked up towards the rock-ledge, and there he saw them. Even when disorientated by the adrenaline, the grief and the blood-loss, Hannibal could clearly see two humans, pointing their fire-sticks upon the remains of the herd.

Hannibal forced his dizzy head to find Bracken’s form once more.

Hannibal watched helplessly as Bracken was caught too high in his grief, his scarred face buried into Chiyoh’s neck, scenting her body as if to disprove the fact her heart beat had diminished, into a flat-line. Desperation, that’s what it was he was desperately searching for- signs that she was still with him, denying the evidence that the main component of her was fleeing towards the golden-grassy meadows, where the sun always shone and there was no danger.

Hannibal couldn’t watch another friend die, despite the fact it would perhaps be crueller to save him now from the inevitable bullet, when his heart clearly stopped beating when Chiyoh stopped running. It would be a walking death, to keep one stag alive in a mated pair, as the other half of their soul was gone, just leaving a void to occupy their previously shared mind-space, a chasm within their heart where warmth and love once was.

Hannibal wanted to be selfish here, he didn’t want to be alone, he couldn’t allow himself to be after all this time. He needed revenge, he needed help with said ‘revenge’ because Robertus’ had somehow managed to evade death, and sign the warrants for everyone else.

Hannibal didn’t even realise he was now standing, or even running for that matter until he was three quarters across the clearing. He can’t even recollect how he managed to avoid tripping over something as the once lively space was not littered with landmines of feathers and fur, how did he hurdle his broken body over the fences of bodies strewn across the acidic-autumn grass like rag dolls left upon a field by careless children.

By some means, Hannibal evaded shot after shot, taking difficult routes across the clearing, pushing his body beyond the limits he never thought himself capable of. Closing his eyes Hannibal Braced for impact, as he threw himself into Bracken’s hysterical body, slamming the distraught beta-stag, and sending them backwards into the trees just a meagre five feet away from him.

The impact of Hannibal upon Chiyoh’s body within Bracken’s arms knocked the breath out of Hannibal’s already incapacitated chest, he found his body rapidly losing strength as his seemingly ‘unlimited’ energy source of an alpha standard was trickling away from his veins alongside his life force.

Hannibal weakly picked himself up, barely getting himself up and off of both his dear friends and exhaustedly laid his body off to the side, allowing his poor body to try and cool down and sort through all its pained-adrenaline based confusion, and gifting Bracken with his much needed room to come to terms with everything.

It took no observational genius to see that Bracken was not dealing too well, in fact, it was probably the most broken thing Hannibal had ever seen in his life. And that goes beyond beaten omegas, slaughtered siblings and executed innocents. It tore at his heart strings to watch his friend cradling the body of his mate, his other dear friend for that matter, and begging for the impossible.

“Do y’ seriously think I could take running even one segment of a cycle without you? WAKE UP! DON’T LEAVE ME! PLEASE.” Bracken sobbed into her ebony feathers. “PLEASE CHI, PLEASE!” He roared hoarsely into her, as if it could kick-start her core once more. “Don’t be cruel t’ me Chi” he whispered, nuzzling her glands in bitter-sweet hope of finding a flicker of something. “This can’t be it for us!” he cried cursingly into her fur. Fisting broken handfuls of blood and feathers from around her neck.

Bracken brought his face back down to Chiyoh’s cold throat, “You were right... We never lived.” He gasped on a sob, “We never lived.”

“She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead. She’s dead.” Bracken was whimpering, cradling the dead-weight. He was clearly in a state of shock, over the whole ordeal. “That bastard.” Bracken whispered softly, “THAT BASTARD CAUSED THIS! THAT BASTARD KILLED HER, KILLED ALL OF THEM. THAT BASTARD TOOK HER FROM ME!”

Bracken roared in anguish, so loud it echoed within the clearing and filtered up and over the rock ledge. As if the cry was warning the two-legs they’d broken the wrong beta, the game wasn’t up yet.

“Brack-” Hannibal choked viciously, hacking blood up and onto the ground, “If we’re going to do, ah, something- we’ve got to do it now.”

It was like lightning had shot down Hannibal’s spine, as the sound of agony ripped from within Bracken’s throat, freezing Hannibal’s already cold heart. Imagine someone grabbing an icicle, pressing the tip into your flesh and dragging it from the top of your naked spine, tracing the prominent line all the way down to your coccyx.

It burned. It was so agonisingly hollow it ached. So stale his blood curdled. That’s what Bracken felt grief was, a nettle wedging its self within the hem of your nest. Sticking you with its stinging needles every time you tried to move on, tried to come to an understanding, tried to come to terms with it.

All Bracken could feel was bitter anger. There was nothing more for him to do he’d already failed his baby, he failed to protect her when he promised he would. He failed to do that. They couldn’t DO anything, he couldn’t bring her back or turn back time.

“What can we do?” Bracken snapped at Hannibal, his face a mixture of blood and scabs, snot and tears. “We can’t go back and fix this-”

“We... Will kill Robertus. Kill him for this, I promise. Even if… it takes my last- ugh, dying breath.” He gasped between brittle breaths. “Bracken… We have to move, right- ah! Now, we’ll not be able to avenge her.”

“We can’t leave her here Hannibal, they’ll take her, they’ll take her away from me.” Bracken snapped.

Hannibal reached out with his hand, gently cupping Bracken’s shoulder making the beta-stag turn and acknowledge him, as if for the first time. “They’ve… already taken her. If you can’t feel her in that thick. Augh! Skull of yours- then she’s- ah- stopped running.”

Bracken swallowed uncomfortably, looking down at the lifeless body of his mate. “We make him pay… I want to rip him limb from limb.”

Hannibal weakly sat himself up, holding onto his poor aching head. “We break each and every bone, have him broken and screaming for the pain to end, but we won’t grant him such. We claw his face, we trample his chest, we break his rack and then- we feast.”

Bracken looked at Hannibal, the striking blood/white-blind eye and the sapphire blue shining in the dampness of the retreating light. “And then, we feast.”

“But first.” Hannibal grunted, wincing as he attempted to gain a steady footing. “We’ve got to find the cowardly bastard.”

“I know where he’ll be.” Bracken said, picking Chiyoh’s body up carefully. “The old dirt road, beyond it is the rest of the forest, it expands at least another four or five hundred lots.”

“The herd which is with him will be too tired to move much further than that.” Hannibal reasoned, nodding at Bracken. “We should bury her.” Hannibal said gently.

Hannibal manoeuvred himself over towards an almost autumn-gone blossom tree, its branches hanging low and weeping over in sad state of its trapped beauty shrinking between the caging birches surrounding.

“We could bury her here…” Hannibal said softly, reaching with one hand into the soft earth cushioned in front of the sad blossom tree. “The soil is soft, and the tree is recognisable if we wished to visit, or retrieve her body later on.”

Bracken took his wet gaze from his mate’s sleep-slack face, trying to ignore the growing cold which was gradually seeping into his limbs from their touch. The blossom tree. The tree that Chiyoh spoke about earlier… It was significant. It represented more about them than possibly Hannibal realised, and Bracken couldn’t sway himself from the idea that burying her here amongst a kindred spirit wouldn’t be such a distasteful thing.

Dragging himself closer, Bracken softly deposited Chiyoh’s body down beside them. And began to dig his hands into the soil with Hannibal, hollowing out the ground to match his heart.

Hannibal couldn’t determine exactly how long they were digging for, but somehow the pair of them had managed to create a sizable plot, one definitely suitable enough to place their beautiful dear friend within. Bracken was softly arranging her to lie on her back, fluffing her feathers down a little neater, whilst Hannibal made his way off to the side, looking intently at the pink-dulling blossoms of a low branch.

Limping back over, Hannibal patted Bracken’s back looking for permission to proceed. Bracken nodded slightly, tears soaking into his facial-fur.

Hannibal allowed himself to reach and peer to Chiyoh’s beautiful face, even beautiful and sweet in death. Many would say she is now a meagre husk, a shell, skin and the embodiment of her vessel which made Chiyoh- Chiyoh, was no more. The light behind her eye had gone, the rose within her cheeks withered and her touch no longer soft or gentle. She belonged with the Elohim now, for Mortem had taken her.

Hannibal decided within that moment, that if death was supposed to be ugly, then was this death? He had to question whether the act was perhaps labelled wrong, because even with the coldness settled within her cheeks- where there was the once capability of a blush, there was now a blue hew of the finest bluebell. Even with her limbs stiffening like curled leaves in ice- where there was the once capability of a loving touch, there was a calmness as serene as the ever watching, sweet Luna. Even with her eyes lightly closed- where there was the once capability of them opening, Chiyoh-like a statue, radiated the fantasy of which she could be merely sleeping. With every cold facet of lifelessness that was death, there was a kiss of tranquility that provided beauty.

Elohim of Mortem... Had clearly been here today, she had her purpose, for it was her job to take the dead from the land of the living. He sickly wondered momentarily if mortem was pleased of her reaping today? She had successfully harvested dozens of innocent souls, and guided them into the light of the golden meadow although Hannibal loathed to admit it, Mortem was beautiful. In this moment he understood that he could make Elohim- Mortem an ally, or an enemy, for death just loved to play with it's pawn's lives and emotions. And if she wanted to play, he swore upon an old vow, that he could be a formidable opponent or, an unexpected ally. Hannibal, although grief-stricken and angry, couldn't ignore the fact that all courses have thus far, pushed towards one outcome- this was the final signal for him to accept the path that was always in front of him.

In the realisation he was taking too long, Hannibal carefully set the wilting blossoms upon her rack, decorating the once dangerous points with the soft petals of an autumn cycle. Allowing her body to bloom even when it was no longer capable. He would do her this honour in the least. Silently and symbolically thanking Vitae for granting Chiyoh life, and honouring Mortem for escorting Chiyoh through the darkness of death into the light of the golden meadow upon the other side.

Bracken watched Hannibal in fascination, almost losing himself to his emotions once more at the sight of such an honouring. Allowing Hannibal to finish, with a soft kiss to her gently intertwined fingers, he stepped forth.

Looking upon his baby for the last time he’d walk this life. His heart cried out as if it were being hounded by wolves, ignoring the wind that howled through the cold clearing. He took to caressing Chiyoh’s cold face with his shaking fingertips, sniffing lightly, wiping his fallen tears which had trespassed from his blood-mushed cheeks and down upon her soft fur, he kissed the bullet wound as if to pull the pain away. He bowed his head, Kissing his beloved’s cold forehead, her wintery cheeks and her blue-tinged lips. For the last time.

“I love you.”

Chapter Text

Abigail pressed the trigger- finding herself surprised as the gun recoiled harshly against her shoulder in recognition of the bullet springing from within. The very sound of the shot slamming down the length of the rifle sent shivers down her spine, leaving her breathless as the bullet erupted from the barrel and into the present moment, unravelling at a speed virtually untraceable.

With piercing cobalt eyes, she trailed the intricate movement only physics could execute, as the bullet embedded itself into the ebony beta-stag’s neck and proceeded to throw itself through and out of the other side with deathly force. Reality seemed to sit in a perspective of slow motion, as the hit-mark exploded with a spit of blood, showering the grass crimson before the beta-stag’s beautiful body could make the final curtsy upon the dirty autumn floor.

The Rimmington-700 rifle sitting pretty within her grasp, revealed itself truthful to its guaranteed accuracy when downing such large game, Abigail could find no lies here. For she knew, however hesitant she was, that she still arrived here in the truck yesterday, camped in the tent last night with the promises of death before the next sundown- and oh how she’d remained truthful.

Abigail couldn’t drag her attention from the sorrowful heap of blood and ebony fur, which was scrambling helplessly for some sort of solid purchase within the land of the living, calling out with a shrill scream, before falling flat against the acidic autumn grass.

There’s nothing more truthful than death, especially when one is to hold the instrumental part in the occurrence. For an individual, found with their fist within the ribcage squeezing the heart themselves, could not lie about their participation.

She couldn’t help but be entranced by the now unmoving form she’d ripped from life itself, dissecting her body apart as she recognised what would be done with each segment of her. The initial ebony pelt from tail, to back to rack would be made into a beautiful rug, fit for the centre piece of any respectable living room. Her now useless fawn-like back legs could easily become draft excluders, or perhaps the initial thigh fur could become a pair of matching circular pillows, the bones within would be hollowed for garden decorations- a set of delectable wind chimes perhaps, or a trio of bones glued together in a line- fill them with wax and you have a set of candles. It was amusing how even after death, Abigail could still make the beta-stag’s body sing, and bring joyful light to a darkened hour if need be.

Although, however spectacular the thoughts of recycling such beauty was, Abigail couldn’t escape her superego’s recognition of the deathly sequence that had just played before her. She had just participated in murder.

Replaying the scene over, she recognised that the whole thing held similarity with a ballet she’d seen one time, where the star of the show was playing the role of the dazzling swan, bounding around the stage with grace and joy, watched by all, envied by all- yet the role of perfect beauty was ultimately kissed with the promise of demise, crumpling flat upon the wooden slats of the stage beneath their once lively steps.

‘Pretty hurts?’, ‘Beauty kills?’, she supposed that both of those sayings were valuable in this context, for she knew that if you were pretty in this world, you were a target for a predator much larger.

Abigail finally understood that death was all around her, she had just happened to turn a blind eye to its presence in her life, it had always been there lurking in the darkest corner of her mind scraping its claws along the walls of its confinement, howling fiercely into the wind unable to grasp her attention- that was… Until the events of the past few seconds, now she could no longer turn away from death’s cries for acknowledgement, for death had wielded itself as an instrument within her hands, which she had summoned the masterful control of and utilised for reasons of a selfish kind- none other than her very nature to exercise her god-gifted deadly weapons- faster movement, stronger strategy and smarter capacity by demonstrating her power upon the worthiest prey.

With merest power to fight against nature itself, she learned that- it was simply just a matter of time before a predator chanced its gaze upon one of God’s fair beauties and found its sick interest peaked, locking on, entranced by the obsession of owning such a marvel and defiling it.

The predator would take great pleasure in quietly stalking after the beautiful prey until vicious, killing claws found painful purchase upon soft virgin flesh, staring its helpless prey down, watching sadistically as innocent tears pooled, and trickled bitterly down trembling cheeks as the monster relished in the smaller creature’s ruin.

She finally understood, after all this time, after all the signs she’d been shown and turned a naïve blindness towards… Her father had taught her the same lesson, she just chose to ignore the teacher’s true intentions and saw just the vague outline, ‘That the world is a cruel place.’ Instead of the true inner meaning, ‘That in this world, you either consume or be consumed. You take, or be taken. You hunt, or be hunted. You kill, or be killed- for this beautiful world she lives in isn’t fair, the world isn’t just, the world is just- a cruel place.’

It was possibly the most truthful thing she’d ever learned, since, it actually applied to the situation at hand. She wouldn’t have picked the beta-stag to be her most definite kill if her father didn’t find her beautiful, it wasn’t hard to see why, if Abigail was honest. The sunlight had reflected from her raven-coloured feathers with a blue hue that dazzled the eye, her body lithe-pretty with youth and energy stood stark in contrast to the blandness of the herd. There was so much life in that beta-stag, that taking it away brought a beauty in itself.

Taking the life of that Ravenstag, gave Abigail a sense of greatness she didn’t expect to feel. The action of killing the beta-stag made her limbs fill with a burning fire, a natural power of such ferocity and destruction which echoed in her fingertips like that of a God.

The shot reflected all that she had learned, it effectively, placed the key into the lock of the darkest door of her mind she’d been blind to and opening up a whole new room of possibilities. The room had no windows, for there were no opportunities here, just the possibilities of understanding why. Like skeletons in the closet, there was something she had kept a secret within her and finally unleashed. It was like she’d been wading through the darkness all these years and suddenly found a glowing candle, she was no longer tumbling in the murky black, she had found herself a halo of light now able to navigate her way through the void with some semblance of direction to an end goal.

She finally understood.

‘Is this why dad does it? Kills those girls because he feels powerful?’ the unspoken question only continued to plague her mind as she tried to justify such means, for he killed and he rejoiced with the fact.

She had just killed. For the first time, she had been the one to personally pull the trigger and take the life, unlike usual, when she was merely the lure, an instrument used to reel the prey in for the trap to snap and the blade to slice and the body to fall flat.

Killing was supposed to be the most disgusting feeling in the world, there was supposed to be this thick gloopy guilt to fill her stomach like she’d swallowed several stones, yet all her stomach could produce was several excited bloody butterflies warming her from the inside out. Looking down to her white knuckled-grasping hands, she looked to find the blood that was figuratively upon her hands and found nothing but freckled skin.

Confusion clouded her, killing was supposed to feel shameful, blood should be winding around her fingertips like a vicious inky poison, cruelly biting into her palms like tattoo needles, digging the colour in deep and leaving it to stain… Yet she felt none of it, she just felt an elevation of absolute surety that she was definitely the predator here and the prey didn’t stand a chance. There was no guilt for nature’s true course.

She felt no guilt for killing, but she felt guilt for not feeling guilt- that was what was wrong here.

The only way she could justify her lack of guilt… Was through religion.

‘Was killing the will of God?’ She questioned herself. ‘If man is made in God’s image, then surely the contents of that image reflected such. If man had a heart, then so did God. If man had a brain, then so did God. God takes life, so does man. God gives life, so does man. If man’s occupation is as God’s shepherds, then is all other life just livestock? Ready for the slaughter?’

All of those questions and conclusions were reasonable given the circumstances, she did just make one of God’s most beautiful creatures bite the bullet, but such thoughts couldn’t halt her in her connection with something of a greater purpose.

She picked up her rifle once again, “Because if God didn’t permit killing.” She whispered. Throwing the gun up to her face with determination, swiping the red reticle across the clearing meeting the feathered crowns of retreating heads. “Then he wouldn’t do so himself.”

As another body dropped to the floor, she smiled with pride at the amazing feelings coupling within her mind and traveling to her heart, it felt good.

“Killing must feel good to God too.” She thought, sliding the bolt of her rifle across and pulling the metal out, she slipped the now empty cartridge loose, and restocked it with new pepper-coloured bullets, before sliding it back in, and locking the bolt back into place. “For he does it all the time… And are we not created in his image?”

Shrugging as she snapped the rifle’s catch closed, she supposed it depended upon who you asked, but there was no denying the fact that God is terrific in all his forms- he dropped a church roof on 34 of his worshippers’ last Wednesday night in Texas, whilst they sang a hymn.

“Did God feel good about that?” She questioned herself. And smiled with her understanding of such. “Well, he felt powerful.”

The ringing sound of shots continued to echo through the clearing, trailing the herd in its decent into panic mode. Horrified bleats and flighty footfalls followed as many of the less neurotic Ravenstags jumped to their feet and attempted to flee into surrounding thickets.

“Shit.” Mr. Hobbs called, unbolting his rifle with speed, snapping Abigail out of her inner musings.

Abigail looked from her father whom was reloading, to the middle of the clearing where she could clearly see the alpha-stag retreating off into the thickets.

A complication it seemed, for the Rimmington-700 wasn’t perfect for its bullet capacity at only a magazine of 6+1. Looking to the area her father was focusing intently upon, she found that he had successfully killed the omega-stag, and wounded both of the big burly beta-stags residing nearby.

“What happened?” Abigail called, to which her father shook his head disappointed “The alpha-stag was more aware than we thought, slipping behind the omega-stag in stance it was impossible to hit him. So I did the next best thing, I struck the omega- killing it, and then the beta-stags rushed into protective mode- causing more problems in hitting the alpha-stag, so I had to wound them to get a chance at him. That didn’t work, obviously, the betas are tougher than I thought.” He mused, “And now, half of the herd have scattered with the alpha, so we change tactics.” He called, looking momentarily up from his scope to meet his daughter’s eye. “We’re going to maim as many of the retreating herd as we can- that also means the little ones, see if we can get a price for some of em’ alive, and if they die we can get them stuffed.” He said carelessly, looking back down his scope and spitting bullets once more.

With a nod of confirmation, she pointed her barrel of death towards the squealing heap of feathers and blood which were the two beta-stags her father had wounded, fixed her keen eye within the scope with the grey beta-stag’s head and smirked as she pulled the trigger.

Dead.

Her father quickly followed suit, killing the other beta-stag.

Watching the life rip from her kill made Abigail grin with glee, as the shudder of complete mastery ripped through her veins made her giggle with elation. Forcing her will to follow more of the stags fleeing the scene, and stopping them from doing so.

She didn’t even flinch when her father continued to spray the clearing with bullets.

She just proceeded to skim her scope from body to body, sieving through her targets with a predator-keen eye until she found a wispy white pelt of the most glimmering frost tumbling frantically with the moment of escape. It just wasn’t fast enough, the shot threw itself from the gun and across the clearing and knocked the albino-stag down flat, and now it would become a nice new rug for her bedroom floor.

Mr. Hobs was chuckling in amusement at how immersed in the task his daughter really was, it spurred him into thinking about how his beautiful little girl had grown into this black swan, capable of such deathly means! It was something spine-tingling and- he shook his head, he had to throw the thoughts aside, he couldn’t think of such things. Not about her, it was beyond wrong. Another, he’d have to take another soon. She would help, unknowingly, but she would- she always did.

Mr. Hobbs picked up his rifle again, and popped off some of the omegas whilst Abigail was scanning the outskirts of the herd.

“He’s back, he’s back. I see Moody dad.” Abigail called, looking quickly back up to her father, who had his eye keen on the scope and his focus set upon his targets, firing away with progression. “Shall I take a shot?”

“Yes, go for it squirt, alphas are tricky to take down, but it never hurt to try did it?”

Nodding absently, Abigail set on task. Looking down the scope and lining up the golden body with the red reticle. Gentling her breathing, she aimed for his head, just on the left side where his heavy cheekbones rested, in the knowledge that, a hit anywhere in that area would surely kill the stag- alpha or not.

Exhaling slowly, she pressed the trigger twice.

Hit- Yes! she hit the alpha, and he was stumbling backwards! Smiling with triumph she looked to her father, who was now looking around the herd for stragglers.

“I think I’ve got him.” Abigail grinned up to her father, “Shot him in the head, just like you told me too.”

Mr. Hobbs satisfied with his kill count turned to his daughter with a smile. “Your mother will be proud, just wait until we tell her-”

The little celebration party was quickly disrupted by the most infuriated roar, looking over towards the sound, Abigail knew she’d never forget what she saw.

A hulking beta-stag which had muscles which rippled within his biceps, ran towards the ebony beta-stag she’d killed, and lifted her up into his arms with heart-breaking sorrow.

It was agony, grief and disgust mixed into one ugly blister of existence. The ebony beta-stag she’d killed was mated, and that could clearly be seen by the absolute misery plastered on the brown beta-stag’s face. He was paralysed with the looks of it, in some sort of shock which would enable her to at least put the poor thing out of its misery.

“Jesus, it’s face is a mess.” Mr. Hobbs observed looking down his scope, “It seems the left eye is ripped to ribbons, he more than likely can’t see, or see well… I bet he doesn’t even see us never mind the damage over there- Oh shit! I don’t think you killed Moody squirt.” Mr. Hobbs called, “Get your sight on him, see if we can down him now he’s out in the open.”

And with that, the pair, father and daughter, set to shooting the determined golden alpha-stag, catching him in the right arm before he took off like a hare across the clearing. Bullets just didn’t seem to touch the thing, he raced and vaulted over the bodies of his kin and smashed straight into the bulking-brown warrior beta holding their prized ebony pelt, pushing them out of range.

“Shit.” Mr. Hobbs exclaimed, grabbing his hat and slamming it down beside him. “We’ve not only lost the best pelt of the herd; we’ve lost our chance to mount the warrior stag’s rack in the hallway!”

Abigail frowned, looking to her father. “They couldn’t have gone far. If you listen, you can still hear them scuffling.”

The two paused for a while, listening at the stags clearly squealing in distress.

“You’re right.” Mr. Hobbs huffed, taking to sitting back down in his fold-away chair. “We wait for a while; they could come back out. It’s no good hefting several carcasses onto the back of the truck at this time of day- we’ll get caught when we hit the main road, they reckon these things are endangered and rare so we gotta’ be careful. We pack up camp, and wait until it gets dark and we can drive straight out of here.” Mr. Hobbs decided, nodding to his daughter. “We can wait, the money’s worth it anyway. You’re talking over seventy hundred dollars per coat, never mind the fact that if any of them are alive, we can sell them off for even more- them being endangered and rare an’ all’.”

Abigail frowned at that looking over the field of bloody bodies, what was that about guilt?

**

Hannibal discovered first hand that it was hard to function with a broken body. The slight pained twinges of raked away flesh, mixing harshly with the deep pangs of broken bones, coupled with the scalding brands of heat- thanks to the fire-sticks the humans used, all accumulated into one huge physical burden making it demanding for him to function at a level he found acceptable.

That, and also trying to maintain a positive understanding of their surroundings was proving difficult, as his head swam and his vision flew.

He silently thanked his p’adar for gifting him with his nose, for without it, he’d be truly vulnerable right now. That- and the musky-blood smell several leagues back would’ve thwarted him and he’d be none-the-wiser to the darkness which silently prowled behind them.

Putting one foot in front of the other was like trying to walk on stilts, his world swaying one direction, his body tumbling in the other direction. The whole thing was a complex equation of physics and took a certain level of mental calibration, which, both he and Bracken, seemed to have little-to-none-of at this specific moment in time. Which was unfortunate, because they were walking away from a carnage, followed by one of the deities’ demons and hobbling into a new fray.

It wasn’t looking good.

Hannibal wasn’t alone in that struggle though, he was only able to forge forwards at the pace he was by balancing his weight on his equally broken companion, with his uninjured left arm wrapped securely around Bracken’s shoulders, whilst they took shaky step for shaky step, winding between the cold birches, putting distance between themselves and the blossom tree grave which cradled their dear friend and lover.

Hannibal looked to Bracken, seeing his broken face which the beta-stag had made no complaints about, his ripped chest which he’d uttered no words for, his skin-stripped spine which he barely winced at… The stag was in agony, it was no surprise due to the squadron of wounds, but his agony wasn’t from any physical wound alone.

It was from the pain of a broken heart.

“We’re gonna’ get him.” Bracken panted breaking the semi-silence, bracing his weight momentarily upon the trunk of a peeling birch he halted their movement. “Consequences be damned. No second chances this time, for either of us. We kill him, or he kills us.”

Hannibal grunted in acknowledgment, sniffing up in the air once more with a grimace.

“We can rest for a while right?” Bracken panted. “You’re shaking like a leaf, and no wonder why, you’ve been shot… You should be dead; I mean Chi is, so-”

“I was lucky.” Hannibal turned to his friend with a sympathetic face, “If it would give you better conscience, we can stop for a little while. But I dare say, that if we stay here longer than our tenancy and we’ll regret it.”

Breathing deeply, in some attempt to catch his breath, Bracken gently wrapped one large, warm hand around one of Hannibal’s bloodstained golden hands and rested his other hand gently against the base of the alpha’s spine, helpfully guiding him to down towards the floor for his own breather.

Hannibal didn’t miss the beta wincing in sympathy for him as he gasped in his descent to the dampening forest floor. The broken ribs were seriously impacting his capacity for breath, and his shoulder was throbbing angrily. It didn’t take any genius to recognise that he was in a bad way, the wounds from the fire-sticks were hell to deal with, his ear was ripped-ragged sending pulses of pain into his skull, the pain irritatingly blossoming into a headache.

“We haven’t got long here.” Hannibal breathed deeply, “So make the most of it.”

“Speak for yourself” Bracken shook his head, “I’ll be fine as soon as I get my hands around his filthy neck. And I will, even if I die trying, I’ll die squeezing the life out of that fucker’s carcass.”

“Many have died today Bracken, I’m sure many more will. Don’t be so careless about the worth of your life.” Hannibal replied knowingly in between a pained gasp. “Elohim Mortem is not one to be taunted my friend, so don’t.”

“Careless? I think out of the two of us, you’ve been the most Careless! What were you bloody thinking when you charged over the clearing where so many died? If anyone is taunting Elo-Mor- whatever, it’s you!” Bracken scolded.

Hannibal looked up to his friend’s angry, scarred face. “I was thinking, that I didn’t want to lose anybody else, my previous herd, my family, now my friend and then you on top of that? After already being shot at twice, I thought I’d die, so being shot at one more time for the sake of a dear friend’s life? That was nothing. Your life has worth; if not to yourself, then to others.”

“Your life is worth somethin’ Hannibal. You can go on and find your own mate, have your own fawnletts- your own herd if everything goes right. You have much more worth than I’ll ever have, you’re an alpha for a start- some foreign herd’s princeling. Me? Well…” he paused, crumbling a leaf between his fingers, “I’m just a beta. I’m no foreign prince, nor am I a priest or one of those fore-sighted stags. I’m nothing, my life is worth rack-all. What does a broken, bereft and blind beta have left to live for Hannibal? Right now I feel fucking empty, like one of those two-legged bastards have shot me in the fucking heart, all the good that I am- that I was, was thanks to Chiyoh! She brought out the very best in me! Now she’s gone I feel like nothing, I feel like a shadow of my former self. What fucking worth has a shadow Hannibal? If I die today, that’ll be just fine I no longer care.”

Hannibal raised a brow at the beta, swallowing heavily. “Your resignation to the end, my dear friend, is quite understandable considering most recent events- but allow me to be the voice of reason. That Chiyoh wouldn’t want you to become a shadow, there’s much more to you than that. You were more than a mere shadow before you met Chiyoh, and she loved you for who you were. She could see what you had to offer at least, if you find validation of yourself within the opinions of others it is quite blatant that it’s only you who holds doubts about your worth. Being an alpha doesn’t make me better than you, being a dead alpha-chief’s quarry doesn’t make me more privileged than you, for I have nothing in this world than our friendship.” He paused for a second, looking at Bracken’s scarred chin. “If it is a purpose you need, then, be my beta captain.”

Bracken looked down at him with his one blue eye, staring him down in a manner which screamed insanity. Which the whole conversation only made Hannibal question Bracken’s sanity… Understandably the beta has barely begun to adjust to his most recent predicament of losing both his sight and his mate. It was tragic, but it was understandable why his mind-set was so shaky right now. But the real concerning questions were if Bracken was really set on pursuing the possibility of dying today? And, was Bracken’s self-esteem so naturally low? It was an issue Hannibal believed he could take a stab at solving, or at least healing.

“Chiyoh said to me that you’re good with the fawnletts, and you are. I’ve seen it- you play with them, train them, get on with their carriers, you have a warrior’s courage and a lover’s heart, you know of the ceremonies, you believe in the mentality of a united and strong herd. So with this, I think, together, we can make this herd a better one. You help me end this, and we can begin something new- together… It’s what Chiyoh would’ve wanted for us.”

“What Chiyoh would’ve wanted was a better place to raise our own fawnlett, but we can’t have that now.” Bracken snapped.

Hannibal schooled his features, unwilling to let the harshness of his grieving friend’s words hurt him in any way, he understood that every stag grieved differently and that grief twists people in its own way. With that in mind, he couldn’t help thinking that the whole thing was just… Sad really, that Bracken wouldn’t be able to have his dream family; he wouldn’t be siring his own fawnlett despite the fact he was probably the most capable and loving member of the herd. After years of outside observation, it wasn’t hard to see that unlike most of the betas in the herd, Bracken, although looking brutish in size and frightening to look upon sometimes- perhaps especially now with his ruined face… was the most engaging member of the ‘beta’ rank. The brawn beta actually enjoyed rough-housing with fawnletts unlike other betas which would just grunt at the youngsters in disapproval.

Hannibal stared at Bracken crumbling leaves in his agitation, a grimness sitting upon his features at the realisation that there was more to grieve than just the loss of Chiyoh, for there was the loss of the beautiful future Bracken had before him. The loss of opportunity and future happiness, the loss of the continuation of such fine breeding. Chiyoh would’ve made an amazing m’adar, she had such a fierceness which would’ve been something profound to see embodied within a smaller child. And Bracken- he would’ve made one excellent p’adar, his litter of fawnletts would’ve had the best sire in the world.

“Your grief stands testament to your true nature.” Hannibal replied slowly, looking up to his clearly upset friend. “Because you are more fitting to be a sire, a p’adar, than any stag I know.” He paused, gaging Bracken’s reaction to the use of his native tongue. “And because of recent events, that opportunity has been pushed aside for you- which is unacceptable. However, I say ‘pushed aside’ for a reason, do not try and hide away from the fact you are still capable of such things. Time… As I’ve learnt, allows wounds to heal, and also allows for you to do something to make a changes, although it sounds unquestionable right now, you could still find a new mate in the future. I believe in your abilities Bracken, question many things, but do not question that.”

“Fine.” Bracken sighed, and started to lick at a particularly vicious scratch on his forearm. “I’ll question this instead. Say I don’t die today, and everything goes our way, what use will I really be to you? You telling me that you can find use for a stag with a limited visual in the herd? I’m as good as dead, being blind like this, never mind ‘captain’ Hannibal, be real for a second instead of trying to be nice, because you’ve never been good at it. As much as I’m going to enjoy ripping Robertus a new one, it still doesn’t bring my sight back. You say there’s things for me to accomplish, so I ask you what?” Bracken laughed coldly.

Assessing Bracken’s freshly groomed wound, Hannibal hummed looking up to the scarred beta, “I want to make you my ‘beta-captain’, the position of highest beta would suit you nicely, and a seat on the herd council would be welcomed, you have a lot of ideas and an insight on a level uncanny.” He said honestly, giving Bracken’s wound one last decisive lick. “I’m honest, not ‘nice’. At the end of it- I’m just not a conventional stag, thus I don’t do conventional things. I can see that there’s much more to being a leader than sitting on your hind and ordering people about- you know this, and you know that with or without an eye. You don’t need sight to see into others hearts, you have an innate gift to see the best in a stag and bring it out. You don’t have to look amazing to get people to follow you, you’re honest and the embodiment of what any beta should strive to be. You have a soft heart and a tough exterior, and right now this herd just needs some care after what it’s been through. I’m sure when this is over, you’ll be more than capable of that, after all, it’s in your nature.”

Bracken sighed.

“I’m sure that right now you’re feeling incapable of care. Do not worry so much. I’m not asking for care right now, I’m asking for your rage, give me your rage Bracken.”

“Believe me I’m furious, but I cannot swallow my doubt… Hannibal, you do know I can’t get close to the bastard while we’re linked by the bond right? He’s gonna know I’m coming and put a stop to it. S’wat are we gonna’ do about that? Because worst case scenario, you’ll be fighting me and the herd instead of him.

Hannibal twisted his lip between his fairly prominent canines, looking at the floor and then up to his shaken, dear friend. “I’ll have to rip his throat out, or at least the glands there and eat them, ending his reign for good. No glands, means no pheromones, and that means he can’t control the herd any longer. So it’ll solve your problem and he can’t send the herd out to kill me or incapacitate me.”

Bracken scoffed, “Yeah, and how’re you going to get close enough to do that huh? Because from where we’re sitting now, you’re in no fit state to take on the bastard alone, you barely have a rack to defend yourself, not forgetting a limited physical movement thanks to your wounds AND it would be silly to think you’re going to be fighting just one opponent, since Robertus is as cowardly as they come, he’ll use the bond for sure and you’ll be fighting the whole herd.”

Hannibal shrugged, “I have an idea… It’s going to be risky, but I think we’ll be able to pull it off, it will make the whole process much easier, it should allow me to get him alone, or at least with less. We need to run into some ‘trouble’ along the way.”

“Hold on. I have questions because you’re making next t’ no sense Goldilocks.” Bracken looked perplexed, scrunching his face in confusion. “Firstly, trouble? What kind of trouble?”

Hannibal sighed at the nickname, Bracken was possibly the only person who could call him such a thing without getting a punch in the teeth. Still, it was endearing in an askew fashion to find some semblance of a platonic relationship beyond the reaches of family. Secretly he was thankful, to have something, someone, although his pride wouldn’t allow him to admit it.

Applying a mask of nonchalance, Hannibal scanned his surroundings carefully, sniffing with his sensitive nose once more. “Don’t panic. But we’re being followed.”

Bracken looked unimpressed, scenting the air desperately “By what exactly?”

“Cougar.” Hannibal replied, chuckling sardonically, “It’s hungry.”

Bracken looked sternly to Hannibal, “You can’t be bloody serious!”

Raising a brow, Hannibal replied seriously “Does it look like I’m joking? It’s been on our trail for a while now, and I know it’s not going to lose our scent at all and we haven’t the strength to draw it off for miles in the other direction. We’ve got to get closer to where Robertus is, and finish him for good.”

“And allowing a cougar to follow us is the perfect way to do that!?” Bracken growled, taking to pacing out his frustrations, not that Hannibal could blame him, he supposed that he’d dumped the role of ‘caretaker’ upon the beta without much care, and it was only polite for him to manage the inevitable fallout of such a demanding task.

“You’re fucking nuts! Did you bang your head earlier?” Bracken snapped, “What a fucked up thing to suggest.”

Well, that’s quite enough of that.

“Before any of that can be considered, I need to know Robertus’ location, the terrain, the density. You know the place he’s at, you can see it through your mind’s eye, through the bond. Is there anywhere you could possibly think of being able to hide without being spotted by first- the herd and second- the cougar?” Hannibal tried gently, watching Bracken pace agitatedly.

Pausing, Bracken scowled, “Yeah if I had wings like a tweeter and could fly!”

Hannibal awkwardly staggered to his feet, finding himself unable to prevent the pained grimace spreading across his features at the effort. He moved forward to the pissed beta-stag’s hulking back and placed a gentle hand on Bracken’s unscarred cheek, meeting Bracken’s one blue eye.

“You needn’t any eyes to see the depths of the mind. Allow the imagery to gently flow through you, look hard, my dear friend, for any plan would be useless without you and the herd’s safety depends on you.”

Hannibal kept the ‘unless you wish to be cougar chow’ from his encouragement, but maintained however, an earnest gaze on his friend as Bracken closed his one crystal-blue eye and really concentrated hard, whining low as his head ached bitterly with the effort of connecting with the alpha across such a distance.

“Field… they’re in a field… and there’s a ditch-like banking.” Bracken spoke softly, “It goes semi-way around the field they’re in.”

“Atta’ boy.” Hannibal patted Bracken’s cheek gently, “Now, we’re going to get to the clearing with said cougar in tow. Beasts like that keep following until they are satisfied; they don’t give up... And they don’t abandon their prey and I do not plan not to be its dinner.”

The colour seemed to drain out of Bracken’s face, “You’re still considering that idea? What about the herd? Bringing a cougar could mean the end for any of them!”

“I know.” Hannibal looked openly to his friend, “It may take a few lives, but I’m willing to take the risk.”

Bracken scowled, long and hard. “A few lives that needn’t be lost Hannibal.”

“It’s one of them, for the price of all.” Hannibal snapped, “Robertus wouldn’t think twice about killing any of them, I on the other hand, am thinking more than Robertus has possibly ever thought in his life. If you don’t make the hard choices, then you’re unfit to demand change.”

“I’d rather leave here knowing I didn’t fucking kill someone thanks to my selfishness and carelessness.” Bracken retaliated. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Tell me then, what is your idea?” Hannibal snapped at up at the beta. “What is your plan? Huh? I don’t hear you suggesting anything!”

“For fucks sake.” Bracken growled, crossing his arms and taking several assessing seconds to scowl at Hannibal’s face. “No I don’t have a fucking plan okay? I don’t know what to fucking do, I could go and meet the cougar, save them before it gets there.”

“Sacrificing yourself like that allows for no change.” Hannibal stated, “You die meeting a cougar, I die when I get there, Chiyoh died for nothing and Robertus lives on to kill more and more. You think yourself noble- brave perhaps, by going back to that monster and allowing it to chew on your bones like you’re nothing? You said earlier, that you’d be fine if you could get your hands around Robertus’ filthy fucking neck, well going to feed a cougar isn’t going to make that happen is it? Actually going to Robertus, and sticking to the plan could save more lives in the long run, than going back there, Elohim damn it, I have a fucking plan.”

“You’re absolutely insane.” Bracken frowned, looking to Hannibal’s angry face and noticing the blood-clotted wound upon his forehead, and his heavily blackened eyes from fighting. “What’re you planning on doing with this cougar? Because surely this ‘plan’ of yours doesn’t mean we’re just leading the cougar to the herd to pick off them instead of us… Right?”

“It’ll be the introduction.” Hannibal said softly, patting Bracken’s shoulder. “Do you think you can run? Because my plan depends on you being able to bring the claws, can you do that?”

Bracken nodded, “I can do that.”

“Good, because this whole thing will depend on you.” Hannibal rose to his feet steadily, allowing himself to tread the ground beneath his feet until he found a balance of his own. “You’re going to let the cougar chase you into the clearing, and make the herd startle. Robertus is as cowardly as they come, and the herd will be much too tired to move, he’ll send them to attack it, and he will retreat to some place safer. And that’s where I’ll make my move.”

Bracken frowned, “Right… So we’re going to get to this clearing, with cougar in tow, and you’re going to hide in the ditch, whilst I- at the right time, coerce said cougar to follow me and lead it upon our own herd? Whilst you, use the distraction of the cougar to slip past the herd and Robertus’ notice until you’re close enough, and he vulnerable enough, to be attacked by you.”

“You’ve got it.” Hannibal grinned, “And if this all goes well, we’ll have a story fit for the Elohim- and you’ll be the one to tell it.”

“Tell it indeed… I don’t exactly feel comfortable leading a cougar upon the helpless.” Bracken mumbled, “Sometimes I think your moral compass isn’t exactly thorough.”

“Someone’s going to die today Bracken, whatever path I choose, and I find myself to have chosen already.” Hannibal shrugged, “Perhaps that’s why I’d be unfit to lead.”

“You know that’s barely an option, I have no choice but to do as you say. I’m just as much trapped under your command as I am Robertus.” Bracken snapped, although instantly a mask of regret sat negatively upon his face. “Sorry, I didn’t mean it. I’m sorry. I just… Don’t feel good about this.”

Sorry indeed. The outburst in Hannibal’s opinion wasn’t necessarily ‘called for’ but in all honesty, he could understand why Bracken had his doubts, he would effectively feel people dying in his head and that thought alone was unpleasant to stomach. Alas, death was just one of those things which was unavoidable, it is naïve to think that things never come to an end. Mischa taught him that, everyone’s cycle was the same in structure, but not in size. For there would always be a beginning, middle and an end. It just happened to be that some met their ends close to their beginning whist others had overly extended middles and long winded ends. Still, it was always a circle. Some get to control their end; others have their ends orchestrated for them- thus was the way of nature.

The world was cruel that way.

With that ideology in mind, he gave Bracken a hard and assessing stare, “Despite what you think, my friend, you are not leading the cougar upon them voluntarily, it would follow us anyway for the Elohim gifted it a strong nose and an endless hunger. It has to eat, and it only eats things that pour blood and taste like flesh, thus things die. My conscious is clear, and my moral compass balanced- for no stag is helpless. It is said that the Elohim gave the seven alpha siblings of the world racks for defence, strong arms with nimble fingers, intellectual minds and strong back legs. Is it so wrong of me to expect stags to put their gifts to use? Despite whether they wish to fight the cougar or not, I’m giving them the choice to fight for their own lives, Robertus is just going to make them fight and give their lives for the sake of his own. I don’t see why my moral compass is being picked to a fault here.”

“I understand.” Bracken replied softly, “Don’t exactly agree, or feel good about it, but I understand.”

“Initially we’re making the best of a shit situation, Elohim be damned. The cougar will follow us despite where we go.” Hannibal sighed, “The predators are cruel that way.”

“For a stag willing to take the risk of killing innocents, you don’t half talk about religious shit.” Bracken snorted incredulously, “You believe in the Elohim? That’s the kind of thing my sire used to babble on about when I was a fawnlett, I never really listened to him, but I know he wouldn’t have condoned killing.”

“He babbled for good reason.” Hannibal chuckled softly, “Great Elohim Sol and his servants Mortem, Vitae, Odium, Malum, Luna, Stellae, Amare, Tempus-Vernum, Venatu and Jarilo.”

He paused assessing Bracken’s shocked face seriously.

“I know them all from my fawnlett years- for it was my job to know. I was to be the alpha-stag after my p’adar’s passing. I was taught much in my fawnhood about the aspects of ruling, my p’adar had much respect for the Elohim’s stories and teachings for they taught him many things, and in time, they also taught me. I was taught that all things are created, and all things are destroyed and destruction isn’t something we can necessarily control. We can avoid destruction for a time, but cannot run from it forever. I discovered very young, that the image of the great Elohim Sol sat at an altar of wrangled corpses, sipping coppery vintages whilst watching me through his ever judging eyes waiting to either create a path for me, or to destroy me in some shape or form, never did bring me much comfort.”

Bracken snorted, “I don’t think any fawnlett’ would be comforted by that, though I still see no justification for what you’re wanting to do.”

“No it didn’t bring comfort. However, it brought me an understanding. The older generation before Robertus knew the importance of the Elohim, for they gave insight to the meanings of life, fragility and the consequences of being weak. Whether the individual believes in the existence of the Elohim is of no concern to the Elohim’s purpose- for some die believing, and some die disbelieving in the end they all still die. I was taught that belief acts as a guide to providing a purposeful life in this world, and opportunity in the next, at least, in a religious sense that if any died today for our cause then they’d have had a purposeful end rather than a pointless one, as their sacrifice would’ve allowed for others to live, thrive and for change to come and new ideologies to grow. The Elohim’s stories brought about social acceptance and also gave many stags something to strive for- purpose. P’adar thought it unwise to believe that we are in complete control of our lives, being a warrior himself, and governing a war-tribe he had to believe in something. He would sit upon Lark’s Point and watch Elohim Sol rise, and Elohim Sol set daily. He did so, to silently thank Sol for the pleasure of lasting one more day. I look back on him now, and I can only think he sat upon the shadows of borrowed time.”

“Shadows of borrowed time? There’s so much shit about you I don’t know, and don’t understand, I see no purpose in these Elohim.” Bracken replied.

“We learn things through our lives, and we learn things through the lives of others, current and past. Through experience, my p’adar and herd’s priest found that by putting a face to death, we accept it much easier for ourselves and our loved ones. By putting an opportunity to death- that there is more once we perish, we find less fear, and more comfort in the event than total devastation. In a war-herd where fawnletts were taught to fight before they could talk, it was necessary. Thus was Elohim Sol’s purpose. To give hope and to provide aid and council in our darkest hours, teach us of nature and her will.”

Bracken punched a tree. “You think by putting a face to death it makes it easier to kill innocent stags? No fucking Elohim came to help me when I needed them then, no one helped me save her. Thinking she’s now stuck with some dead Elohim freak doesn’t make me feel any better.”

“Do you perhaps find comfort in pain then? I’m sure that tree would not thank you for that.” Hannibal said knowingly. “I came to help you, I was too late to save Chiyoh, but I managed to save you... If its any consolation, I find little comfort in the death of my kin either, despite my upbringing of believing Sol’s faithful servant, Mortem, had personally taken their hand and guided them into the world after of no pain, or suffering. I still find that there is little comfort in that, for there is no pain or suffering when there is no life. It’s hard to find comfort in the fact that they are gone to a place I cannot be gone with them. Where is the joy from remaining here alone, whilst they’re away and together? I do however, find comfort in the fact, that I’ve been gifted the knowledge of what makes someone powerful. According to the creation story, we have been given abilities from Elohim Sol, and it is only those who choose to wield such abilities who shall thrive in this world. I am able to wield my body as a weapon; and fight against any foe this world has to offer me. I can escort my enemies to their deaths, like Elohim’s finest servant, Mortem, should I have the strength and nerve. I can create light to fight the darkness, like Elohim Sol, should I have the mind to do so. I can remain still and watching vigil over my kin for hours, like Elohim Sol’s most loyal vigil of the night, Luna, should I have the patience to do my duty. I can produce an army as vast as the Stellae should I reflect my intentions upon those whom balance me. I can create life, like Elohim Vitae, through my own seed my precious omega shall grow mine fruit, and the land shall flourish. Comfort, social security and order are not such terrible things really.”

“Hannibal…” Bracken sighed

“You wouldn’t know much of the Elohim beyond your sire’s say-so, since I’ve seen nor heard any ‘ceremonies’ taking place since… Since I actually arrived around sixteen cycles ago, I do believe, that Robertus given his lack of intellect and comprehension of the world around him, never bothered to learn anything from Rommel on the matters of society and social conduct.”

“Robertus is nothing but a killer, always has been.” Bracken said softly. "I don't think you did it, Chiyoh was adamant that you didn't. You might have been found with Tommen's body, but you didn't do it... Did you? You've always been so tight-lipped about it..."

"If I'd have done it, I wouldn't have killed Tommen like that. It was tasteless." Hannibal replied casually.

"So it was Robertus then? He killed Tommen after all..." Bracken said, "I knew it." He finished adamantly looking Hannibal in the eye. "And you were wrongfully scorned for all this time, punished for something you didn't even do-"

To this Hannibal grunted, “The penalty for killing the herd's future omega priest was always going to be high, for the penalty for the mistreatment of omegas is already great- and that’s in a justice orientated society. From what I remember, I got off lightly, it could be worse than having the whole herd resent me... If anything, their hatred of me caused the murder of Hail... That was punishment enough."

"Robertus always knew. That's why he hated you so much, because Rommel refused to have you killed, or cast out."

"I suppose he was afraid, jealous, envious that I had gained Tommen's affections so easily, whilst he, the elder fawnlett struggled profoundly to get along with his younger sibling, he saw future conflict. That I, an alpha, would receive Tommen's affections romantically, and perhaps bond with him. The hierarchy of power in the herd would've been given as a dual-reign, between Tommen and as a result, myself, along with Robertus."

"Well Elohim be damned." Bracken scoffed, "This is some fucked up shit, and I'm only just hearing about it now because?"

"It would've bought conflict." Hannibal stated.

"We're dealing with conflict as it is." Bracken responded, "You're from a warrior herd for Elohim's sake! You could've pissed off at any time and never looked back or you could've killed him, you could've ended this ten cycles ago!"

"There was too much at risk." Hannibal chuckled, "When in conflict with other herds, the omegas are claimed by the new alpha, and they became a part of a new herd. My p’adar, had a strong sense of society. No harm ever came to omegas; he was adamant on that front- there was an untold reason, but it was made clear to me from before I could comprehend my right from my left hoof, that, omegas are sacred. I would've damaged and killed so many omegas for naught but my own selfish reasons, bond sickness doesn't so easily heal Bracken, you know this, many omegas may whither in the strain of it yet... I couldn't just waltz in there and kill Robertus, when the herd believed so profoundly that I had murdered their omega priest, their omega princeling. I've bided my time, so much so, that Robertus be resented by the herd; yes, he was the one whom killed Tommen, yes, he was the one whom murdered so many omegas in cold blood thanks to his inability to mate. I'm in the belief that because he received no physical punishment from the herd for such atrocities, there are consequential forces ready to do so instead. Grey-fade is an uncommon ailment, and it stands testament that Rommel was so easily able to sire when Robertus was not.”

“Do you think that’s also why this herd has befallen such tragedy?” Bracken asked distraughtly, “I mean, we’ve suffered death, drought, attacks, plagues… Is it because we’re cursed or something? Because of Robertus?”

“It’s difficult to say really, depends if you believe- those things could just be coincidence. My p’adar however, believed highly… Still, it doesn’t mean that tragedy doesn’t befall those who do worship and acknowledge the Elohim, my past speaks evidence of such, though I was technically too young to understand what actually led to such tragedy. I believe we have absolute control over our actions and that determines the outcomes. Perhaps an example of this would be that if Robertus would’ve just waited for the ‘passing of bonds’ ceremony, then he’d have been legitimate alpha, had the proper training to be alpha and not only that, but he’d have had favour of the herd and also would’ve had an omega priest to channel and control ceremony, to balance him in the best possible way, pleasing the Elohim should they exist, and also creating an orderly society where its’ occupants could’ve flourished.”

Bracken sighed, “Speaks volumes doesn’t it, I know fucking nothing when it comes to any of this crap, how the fuck have we even managed this long...”

“Well technically you haven’t. Since I’ve been here you’ve lost at least half of your original herd, and now after today, I’ll be surprised if there’s more than twenty left.” Hannibal huffed, “If I happen to over stretch the boundaries of belief, slap me. I still hold on to the fact that everything happens for a reason.”

“You think Chiyoh died for a reason?” Bracken said lifelessly, “I don’t quite know if I’ve had enough of listening to your shit, or whether I’m more intrigued. Don’t offer me the opportunity to slap you, because I think I actually would.”

“I do believe everything happens for a reason. Otherwise the deaths of my previous herd would be for nothing, I’d be orphaned for nothing, I’d have witnessed horrors for nothing. Why do you think of all herds to stumble upon, I stumbled upon this one? Was it just fate? Or was it all part of some grander plan? They’re all suitable questions, but we shall truly never know. It seems to give me comfort to think that... Perhaps they didn’t die for nothing, they died for change or something better. From originating from a warrior-tribe myself, the act of life and death was of great importance. Remembering back to the stories my p’adar told me, within them the Elohim, demanded sacrifice, they demanded blood in exchange for their creation, blessing and sanctuary. Why do they crave blood so? Well… Gods don’t bleed.”

“That’s fucked up.” Bracken commented lowly, “You sure your p’adar wasn’t just pulling your leg? I mean these are just stories after all, and as deep and mind-spinning this whole thing is, I actually don’t see what you’re trying to tell me here, what has any of this got to do with our situation?”

“I can tell you my whole previous way of life wasn’t just some ‘joke’ and I’d appreciate it if you were more tolerant of the fact since I’m stood right here spilling my guts up for you.” Hannibal said angrily. “To cut this short, from what I was told, all bonds, past and present, must be relinquished and consumed by the successor. He said to me, that one day- when he grew old, that he’d have to pass the herd along to me. A senile stag cannot provide the protection the younger alpha- now grown stag, can and should be providing for the herd, thus the herd must be passed along to them when it is time. Until that time is over the herd still belongs to the p’adar, until the alpha fawnlett is mature enough to take over.”

Bracken nodded, “So the controlling role of ‘alpha-stag’ still belongs to the sire- I mean p’adar until the alpha fawnlett is ready.”

“Exactly.” Hannibal paused looking down at his hands, “My p’adar was training me for the role, he told me how it all works and how I’d eventually be alpha-stag, until I became a p’adar and passed it onto my own fawnlett. Although now, I do question… Whether I actually have it in me to take on this herd after all this time… They dislike me greatly as we've established the reasons for. Perhaps I’m unfit to tackle that issue for I may have been too long alone, for such a reliant and important role to be thrust upon me. I know I could successfully live alone if it called for it, despite belief on such a thing, I would survive.”

“You can’t abandon us now, grow a rack Hannibal, if all this shit you’ve been saying doesn’t ring true to the fact you’re more understanding and worthy of leading us, then I don’t know who would be...” Bracken growled, “They will follow you despite what you think, Chiyoh knew they would and do you know why? No of course you don’t, because you have no idea what goes through their heads, but I do. And believe me, it isn’t always pleasant. Stags think about you more than you think of them, I’m sure. They will believe in you, even though most are too proud to admit it, and others too weak to show it.”

“If you’re sure. If I manage to succeed in killing Robertus, but bonding is impossible, then I will be content for I can live a life of solitude, others in the herd… Perhaps not, but that’s why your participation is vital anyway, if I find myself unable, or somehow unfit, they’ll listen to you at least- of that I’m sure.”

“Need a hand or a shoulder? I imagine we haven’t got much time.” Bracken offered apologetically with a smile, to which Hannibal accepted gratefully with a nod. “I could use the conservation of energy for the time being. It’s going to be rough fighting with the wounds I have.” Hannibal said softly, motioning them towards the nearby trees “The burn in my shoulder is heavy, but I can assure you, my dear friend, that my jaw works just fine.”

“Oh I know that, you’ve been yacking my ears off for the past quart.” Bracken chuckled good-naturedly. “What’re you doing?”

Hannibal lifted his fingers to his shoulder wound, where the bullet had pierced his alpha-rough flesh and winced as he scooped his fingers within the congealed blood there, “Satisfying our company. Do not think I don’t take your points into consideration. If the cougar thinks something is wounded, it’ll follow that specific scent, and thus any other caught scents would be seen as an unnecessary excesses of energy to the thing- if it catches up to us, it’ll be more likely to attack me instead of you.” And with that, he wiped the blood upon the tree bark.

“You’re such a fucking sap Hannibal, a story fit for the fucking Elohim alright, this is the kind of shit that’ll give the fawnletts night terrors.” Bracken frowned, licking the wound on Hannibal’s now re-disturbed shoulder in a notion of comfort. “That’ll do, save some blood for when you’re fighting Robertus- you’re going to need all you have.”

“Pull out two of my feathers.” Hannibal commanded, to which Bracken raised a brow “You’re not fucking wired properly I swear.”

Hannibal rolled his eyes, impatient “Just two, I’m sure I’ll lose many more later anyway, why worry about appearances now?”

Bracken grumbled something intelligibly under his breath, plucking two blood golden feathers from Hannibal’s back and handing them to the alpha-stag.

“Thank you.” Hannibal replied, lacing the flexible shafts of the feathers within a slit of the bark where he’d wiped his blood.

Nosing the blood on the tree, fixing his scent upon the silvery bark, the two stags once again braced their shoulders together carefully, and set on once more through the woods passing pine, sycamore, birches and ferns. The travelling seemed slow going, but they were covering quite a lot of ground thanks to their growing adrenaline- thanks to being followed by one of death’s finest hunters and fuelled rage for the long-awaited conclusion to this nightmare. They kept going, for nothing pushed two men further than their race to bathe in the wonders of revenge.

The thought of abolition made Hannibal’s blood begin to run on some high, pumping him further and further, disregarding his need to recuperate anymore, there would be no cause to stop again for his goal was set and his plan was laid.

The light shining through the trees was getting duller with the setting blood-red sun, forcing the shadowy bars of the surrounding birch prison to lay upon their blood stained pelts as they strode on towards the edge of the thicket, meeting the unnatural pathway of the old dirt road.

Nature sometimes created its own cages, Hannibal supposed. Understanding that there was always someone out there searching for absolute control, there was this innate drive in some to just create ‘order’ and to achieve this ‘order’, there had be a hierarchy to which one resides affluent at the top and the innocent rest squabble at the bottom for their lives.

Such was the nature of some.

And a shallow nature at that, creating a cage for others and keeping the key to their freedom, happiness and dreams.

Alphas held keys to their own golden cages, how pretty they look, like regal doves with unfaulting feathers and protection of the most concrete kind- yet they were trapped within the confines of their own making. T’was their blood which made them so special, yet also so weak.

Robertus was just that weak.

Hannibal found that the demand for complete obedience through the justification that ‘my blood is better’ is of the most ignorant sort. If one is to push the notion of survival forth and say that it’s ‘survival of the fittest’ then they too should include themselves in that ranking. Robertus did not do that, and that would be his downfall today, he may believe that he will live to see the dawn of tomorrow, but, Hannibal vowed that the sound of another screeching bird would not reach his ear, Hannibal promised that the feel of the icy-bite breeze would never again caress his flesh. Even if Hannibal had to give his own life to see such means through, Robertus would die today- by his hand or nature’s mouth.

Such was the life of residency within a gilded cage. When you rely upon others to feed you, to care for you, to clean you, to complete you- you’re relying upon getting yourself killed, and that’s exactly what Hannibal was going to exploit here, because Robertus was too deeply rooted on self-preservation that he would send his herd away to fight the danger, relying on them to fill the cougar’s belly, leaving the coward to live another day.

Such cowardice would be his end, and Hannibal was going to make it painful.

Hannibal didn’t believe in Robertus’ definition of control, but that didn’t mean Hannibal didn’t believe the concept void. There was much to gain from control, but Hannibal had very specific goals from it- in becoming the next alpha-stag of this sorrowful bunch, he knew that he had to be strong and strict in his ways in order to keep them together, but he had to be concise about it- keep his mind focused on what he wished to gain, and what paths he desired to take to get there.

He wanted succession.

A true alpha looked for the succession of three key things, ‘People’, ‘Policies’ and ‘Pedigree’. What Hannibal had planned for his soon-to-be-people was going to be beautiful, perhaps it was a bit ‘forward’ to think like that, just earlier, he’d suggested to Bracken that he’d easily be able to wander alone if all bonds to him should fail. Nevertheless, it was just a tingling sensation working its way contentedly in his stomach every time he thought of ‘his’ people.

His people would always come first to him on his priority list, he would shape them into the conquering force of a true herd-tribe like he’d been a part of before, and he wasn’t going to stop there, oh no, he was going to make this sorrowful, beaten bunch into a warrior herd-tribe capable of striking down foes like they are mere ants, Ravenstags, wolves, mountain lions, elk, black bears and man alike.

They’d be recognised by other herds as something to be allied with, or something to be severely feared. The other herd leaders wouldn’t be able to turn him away from a seat upon their council, he’d be so powerful, that to turn him away would be a sin to the Elohim.

Bracken’s rough panting brought Hannibal back into the present, turning to the poor beta beside him, he gently soothed his palm across Bracken’s shoulder.

“Not much further” Hannibal whispered softly, his tone showing encouragement, acknowledgement and care as they crossed over the dusty old road and met with the steep incline of the banking leading off into the wood’s other side.

Bracken released Hannibal’s shoulder for a moment, sliding down to the ground he slid himself over the edge of the incline, utilising his buttocks to absorb the friction of the dry crumbled stone beneath him, he allowed gravity to pull his body down to the ground, landing with a soft thump.

“We’re close, it’s getting easier to feel them in here... They’re all so tired and exhausted Hannibal. They’re not going to be much help against Robertus or the cougar.” Bracken sighed between pants, pulling himself back to his feet, he looked up to Hannibal still residing upon the road, with his marred face he inclined his head. “How about our friend back there? Still following?”

Sniffing Hannibal winced, sitting himself down on the road and sliding his body to the edge of the incline “Scent is getting stronger.” He stated, sticking his fingers once more into the bullet wound upon his shoulder, gritting his teeth in battle with the agony, he wiped the crimson droplets onto the road, pulling lose two more golden feathers from his chest and interlacing the sticky rust-like essence with the feathers. Satisfied with the scent pile, Hannibal set onto gentling his body down the rock-rough slope, allowing himself to meet Bracken at the bottom. “She’s not far… I’d say she was merely a quart out from us.”

Bracken nodded softly, “Just through here, and we’ll be meeting the ditch.” Holding out a hand for Hannibal to take. “Thanks.” He grunted, taking Bracken’s hand, the two stags now standing quickly made their way into the thicket in front of them.

Moving forwards at a quickening pace, the pair made their way to the edge of the thinning thicket, and started to lower their bodies softly down to the dirty forest floor.

“You just nestle down in the embankment for a moment and I’m going to-”

Their ears perked as they heard roaring coming from the nearby field, Robertus was wailing louder than a banshee.

“QUIET, YOU UNGRATEFUL, WHIMPERING CARCASSES!” Robertus roared, “YOU DARE DEFY ME?!”

He felt Bracken wince viciously into his side, the poor beta keening at the bond painfully enveloping him in like an elastic band. The beta’s strength seemed to dissolve into the likes of nothing, his once supporting legs now crumbled beneath him like burnt matchsticks in the wind, sending the battered duo cascading down into the unforgiving drop of the ditch.

“The bond Hannibal.” Bracken whimpered, thrashing his body around in aid to find Hannibal’s blood-golden face with his one bleary eye. “I can’t get any closer, not when he’s-” He cried... “I can’t move… Until he stops.”

Despite his poor bullet-clad arm and ribs’ painful protests, Hannibal scrambled back up to a sitting position, pulling Bracken’s writhing form into his lap and clamping one hand over the poor beta’s mouth to muffle his screams and the other hand enveloped tightly between Bracken’s squeezing hands.

“Shh.” Hannibal soothed, rocking the beta slightly, “I think Robertus has halted the whole herd’s motor-ability, not just yours. If this is the case, blink twice.”

Bracken blinked his bleary blue eye distinctly two times.

“Good.” Hannibal praised, “Blink twice if you’re in any physical pain to which you’d be unable to control your vocal reaction, surprise is the only ally we have right now.”

No blinks followed, so Hannibal assessed Bracken’s limp form carefully and then nodded. “Alright, I’m going to take away my hands and you’re going to tell me what you see. Okay, do you understand?”

Bracken blinked twice in the affirmative, and Hannibal couldn’t help but expel an exhale of relief removing his unpleasantly bloody hands from Bracken’s scabbed face.

“I… see lots of wounds.” Bracken whispered brokenly, “I can see… the aching sores of loss.”

Hannibal looked slightly worried, knowing that the cougar was almost upon them and if they didn’t come up with something to knock Robertus back a little… They’d be cougar chow-

“Only death follows you Robertus!” Hannibal heard some brave stag snarl above them. “Slaughtering all of us in its wake, back there we lost half of the herd, back there I lost Briar.”

What?

Bracken flinched heavily in Hannibal’s lap at the onslaught of emotions slamming into his mental walls and flooding his psyche like a river. Laurel, Bracken recognised, was defying the alpha-stag even when being assaulted mentally by the bond, and had fucking lost his mate Briar back there in the clusterfuck of a shooting, it set Bracken’s teeth on fire as a rabid growl filtered up his throat.

“It’s Laurel.” Bracken growled. “His mate is dead.”

Hannibal flinched as Bracken growled loudly, warningly putting his finger to Bracken’s snarling lips, in a plead for him to remember their cover required silence. Meeting the blazing glare of Bracken’s watery eye, he shuddered.

It took no genius to recognise how hurt Bracken must be feeling, hearing and seeing his friends- his herd mates in pain, asking for silence was going to be a hard task for Hannibal knew that Bracken loved dearly, and such love extended to his friends and it would make him an idiot to not know that Bracken felt sorrowful that his fellow friend, was suffering mentally and physically alone.

Bastard.

“YOU BASTARD” Another stag roared, the sound of heavy hooves slamming into the yielding earth echoed in Hannibal’s ears.

He looked to Bracken, whom looked shocked and shakily reported. “Roe. He’s attacking. Soot too, Ginger, Maple, Reed…”

He felt the flinch first within his lap, followed by the collective wails of agony echoing into the field. The cries assaulted Hannibal’s sensitive ears like a thousand wasps fighting over his ear canals, only to be dismissed by the sickening thuds… Clumsy, heavy thumps of bodies collapsing to the ground.

“Oh Elohim help us.” Bracken sobbed around Hannibal’s palm.

Robertus was demanding absolute control, releasing a scent which seemed to wind around every member’s mind with a squeezing grasp of poisonous spines effectively bringing each stag down relentlessly as he exercised his torturous power over them making them all gasp and cry in pain.

And he had a front row seat, in his own lap.

It brought tears of anguish to his eyes to have the body of his best friend writhing in a helpless mental torment within his embrace but receiving no hug, crying to his skin seeking comfort, but receiving his unforgiving hands prying his jaw shut as to not expose them, effectively muffling Brackens wails of pain. He hated that he had to look into Bracken’s agony-scrunched face, and one weeping sapphire eye, and watch on as Robertus abused him.

Sorrow burned his eyes.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Hannibal chanted in a whisper, pressing his lips to Bracken’s forehead in apology allowing his bitter tears to fall amongst the brunette’s wild hair and rack.

The feeling was sickening to Hannibal; his limbs were thrumming with adrenaline fuelled by the purest brand of hatred available, his ears twitched irately at the sound of enraged screaming coming from the occupied field nearby.

“ONLY DEATH FOLLOWS ME? I’M A BASTARD AM I?” Robertus roared with laughter, “OH YOU PATHETIC BUMBLING FOOLS. YOU JUST LOVE PUNISHMENT DON’T YOU? WELL- WHO AM I TO DISSAPOINT SUCH AN AUDIENCE? I’M GOING TO SHOW YOU WHAT BECOMES OF THOSE WHO DARE DEFY THEIR ALPHA.”

Hannibal shook Bracken’s form gently, “What’s happening? Brack? Tell me? I need to know; our time is limited.”

The beta-stag just stared up at him, and keened in a wounded fashion, gasping in panic “He’s got Laurel by the scruff.”

“ANY LAST WORDS?!” Robertus screamed, to which the sound/s of muffled thumps and wails of agony could be heard in response. “HAVE YOU GOT NOTHING MORE TO SAY?” Robertus snapped.

Bracken flinched once more in Hannibal’s lap, bringing the golden-stag’s undivided attention.

“Oh Elohim, the bastards beating him! He’s beating him!” Bracken cried, looking up to Hannibal’s disturbed ruby eyes. “We’ve failed Hannibal… What can we do?”

Hannibal grit his teeth, stroking his palm along Bracken’s temples soothingly as he closed his eyes in despair, flinching in sync with his friend as a brave and dear stag was brutally struck above them.

“I’m going to have to meet with the cougar.”

Chapter Text

Bracken looked up to Hannibal in watery disbelief, “You can’t go hoof to hoof with the cougar Hannibal! That wasn’t the plan. Earlier you said we shouldn’t-”

“Unlike earlier, I haven’t the choice.” Hannibal replied coldly, “I can’t just sit here and wait for it to come to us, with you laid prone like this you’re an open target- and despite my willingness to sacrifice a few lives for this attempt, yours wasn’t one of them.”

Sliding his hands under Bracken’s arm pits, frankly ignoring if he pulled or ragged any of the beta’s feathers, Hannibal hefted him into a sitting position, with a barely concealed grunt of pain as his shoulder throbbed in agony.

“Ah- feathers- fuck g’steady there- What’re you-”

“Got to support your back so you don’t choke.” Hannibal hissed, dragging Bracken’s limp form across the ditch. “I can’t sit here holding you up, rubbing your back, nursing you until the cougar comes or Robertus- it’s just not productive.”

“Choke? We’ve got bigger problems than that possibility right now.” Bracken Snapped. “This isn’t productive either!”

“Well it doesn’t take a genius to know that.” Hannibal snapped. “What can you do? Can you move yourself? No. Can you fight? No. So, my hands are tied!”

“Don’t keep reminding me! I know I’m fucking useless!” Bracken cried, his form beginning to shiver pathetically beneath his hands.

Fuck.

“Like this.” Hannibal said softly, pausing his attempts at moving Bracken for the moment to allow his weeping shoulder some respite. “In this position, there’s nothing to be done. That does not mean you are useless, the situation is useless.” he decided that it wasn’t exactly fair to take his frustrations out on Bracken, despite how annoying the beta could be in times of crisis, he knew Bracken meant well and… He didn’t mean to hurt the beta’s feelings so cruelly, never mind aiding the beta into the anduic shock.

To give himself some credit, Hannibal was keen to believe that when in emotional distress, most stags either acted irrationally, radically or just plain stupidly. The situation can either bring out the best in a person or the worst, apparently- it brings out some of the worst in himself, go figure.

In the analysis of the situation, could he blame Bracken for being so angry? Distressed? Self depreciative? No, not really. If the positions were reversed, he knew he’d be stuck in the same cycle of hatred and the same depressive tangent of should’ve-would’ve-could’ve.

Did he really have a choice in this though? With how close danger was on both sides of the prairie, did he actually need the extra stress from how badly Bracken was working himself up beneath his fingertips? He could definitely do without- that’s for sure.

Still, it couldn’t be helped, Bracken was heading back into the territory of another emotional hysteric, with the more than probable consequence of the beta-stag falling into anduic shock and that, whilst in bond-paralysis, could prove absolutely fatal.

Anduic shock, was common in fawnhood. Where fawnletts are left unattended by their sires for mere minutes, left sleeping on their backs or laid in that manner of placement and found themselves in anduic state at the sudden realisation of their sire’s perceived abandonment, many suffocate on their own panicked chokes, then their vomit under the anduic influence, the pathetic immobile forms of new-borns provided nest deaths... Absolutely horrendous for both sire and carrier alike.

Pushing Bracken into anduic shock- not ideal. Leaving him alone, whilst immersed in bond paralysis? Even worse.

Biting his lip, Hannibal patted Bracken’s shoulder in the grim understanding that if he didn’t move him and support his back, then It wouldn’t be the cougar that had killed the beta-stag, instead, Bracken would find his demise from choking on last nights’ regurgitated supper.

Overall, they were not doing so well.

And the reality was, it was only going to get worse.
As much as Hannibal wanted to sit and support Bracken through his attack, he could not, for time was not his ally this day. With that thought in mind, Hannibal slid his hands beneath Bracken’s arms again once more, and started to pull.

“Perhaps I may advise a change in your diet.” Hannibal chastised lightly, attempting to hide the discomfort he was feeling once again under the strain of his bullet addled shoulder.

“Are we just going to ignore the fact" Bracken wheezed weakly, “That you’re making fat jokes at a time like this?”

“What better a time for jokes, then the bleakest of times?” Hannibal replied flatly, looking over the bloodied beta with some newly-found satisfaction as he placed Bracken against the wall of the ditch.

“Can you breathe now?”

“Can I breathe?” The beta gasped in irritation, “Don’t talk wet-” he quipped over a chest-aching gasp for air.

Hannibal took the beta-stag’s dirty hand within his own bloodstained gold, and placed them both upon his chest, minding the pressure on his broken ribs from the previous day. He allowed the flat warmth from Bracken’s palm to find comfort and stability in the strong thumping of his own heart, and the smooth strokes of his diaphragm expanding and retracting the space within his abdominal cavity.

“You feel that? My heart and steady breathing?” Hannibal asked seriously, “You mirror yourself on that. Take a deep breath- that’s it, that’s good, very good. Can you feel yourself developing a rhythm with me? Good. In and out, out and in. That’s it… Look at me if you can. Deep breaths.”

Bracken slowed himself down, breathing smoothly in and out with Hannibal’s rhythm, his paralysed form quickly relaxed into the mind-linking bondage, and everything became much easier to deal with.

“M’okay now.” Bracken breathed, looking at Hannibal surely.

“Good,” Hannibal remarked, as he took to standing tall once more. He started sniffing up at the ledge above, where the cougar would be, Hannibal frowned “I haven’t got much time-”
“No, no- wait goldilocks hang on.” Bracken protested underneath his mask of snot and tears from his shock.

The beta steadied himself enough to look up to Hannibal earnestly, “What kind of friend would I be? What kind of beta-captain would I be- if I allowed you to waltz up to a cougar, on your own, in an attempt to put yourself on the menu or worse fight the damn thing?” He frowned at the alpha-stag.

“It’s all in good taste.” Hannibal replied casually. “I don’t plan on going down, if that consoles you. However, if I happen to- I can promise you I wouldn’t have gone down easily-”

“Don’t you even dare-” Bracken hissed “You may be an alpha, and you may be swimming in high and almighty adrenaline pheromones right now, but you will listen to me and you will listen damn fucking good okay? I’m not losing anyone else- Chiyoh was enough, Briar’s gone and now I’ve probably lost Laurel and there’s a fucking good chance I’ll lose you too if you decide to fight a cougar in this state- with a ruined rack, broken ribs and wounds from the firesticks- which, by the way, you should’ve cleaned and removed by now!” A disappointed glare passed between the two friends and Hannibal opened his mouth to speak, but was cut off as Bracken lurched into his chiding once more. “Don’t try to play koi with me Hannibal. I know Hail taught you about that kind of crap, how to clean wounds and set bones, for fucks sake what was the point of being raised by a healer if you don’t heal yourself? Not forgetting we just fell into this bastard ditch, getting mud in a wound like that won’t do it any good.”

“You fight that thing, with an arm like that, and you’re going to come off the worst- maybe even die. What good will that do for anyone? What did you tell me earlier about fighting these things alone? You told me it made for “No change”. You might think you’re saving me, perhaps the herd from the cougar, but instead, you’re just essentially sacrificing yourself so we can die at the hands of that bastard up there. So, you’re going to take one of those” Bracken nodded weakly towards a scattering of large bricks. “You’re going to throw one- imagine, just for a second, if you could smash Robertus in the head with force and stun him enough.”

“Throw it?” Hannibal hissed, glaring between Bracken and the banking above searching for the cougar. “And what would be the point in that?”

“The point would be that you’re at least a good ten-racks away from the danger- you need to start taking care of yourself, learn something called ‘self-preservation’.”

“Self-preservation has got us into this bloody mess.” Hannibal quipped, “And exactly how tall do you think I am? I can’t see over the ditch to hit him.”
“Don’t give me that lip goldilocks, you’re the best aim I’ve ever seen. You’ve smashed tweeters down from the very sky above us with your throws.” Bracken scolded, “Can’t you, like, estimate or something?”

“No, I cannot.” Hannibal snapped, “I have to get out of here, and lead the cougar off. I haven’t got time for sticks and stones Brack, it’s too weak a possibility.”

Wasting no more time, and ignoring Bracken’s curses and protests Hannibal looked to the ditch- wall which they unceremoniously fell down.

Hannibal frowned looking to the walls on either side of him, as he stated previously, the walls were much too high to see over- he could perhaps scale it? Give climbing a try…

From the perspective he was given, the wall looked colossal in comparison to he, and that was quite a feat considering he was an alpha of a foreboding size. The question was, how much bigger?

Briskly walking over to the ditch-wall, he simply observed. The colour was that of a pale brown, insinuating that the soil was likely going to be flaky in texture and incredibly yielding to pressure. His concerns were quickly confirmed as a thick, black millipede wriggled its way between the grains and disappeared.

A survivor’s cuisine.

“Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve said?” Bracken said disdainfully, “You’re going to hurt yourself, you’re going to get yourself killed.”

Ignoring that comment, Hannibal continued eyeing the structure of the wall once more. He assessed that it was generally vertical- if not annoyingly overhung. Small shoots of ivory could be seen creeping through the overhanging mass, indicating that the ledge was loosely structured- understandably since they fell through it earlier.

That was going to make any climb challenging, and the pressure to the shoulders and higher torso would be unavoidable. Fuck.

Bracing himself against the ditch, and trying not to frown as soil trickled into what was left of his feathery-mane, he took to sizing up the gruelling height difference, coming to the conclusion that, at least- his height, plus that of four decent alpha racks stood between himself and the flat land above. Not that he could truly judge the latter part of that estimate.

Sighing, Hannibal rubbed the jagged remains of his rack absently, as he knew he had to at least try and climb the ditch, meet the beast and draw it off.

The cougar wouldn’t wait for him to get there, it would just arrive and then they’d both be dead- he could go around, he supposed… But then shook his head, negative, it would take too long now to scout the length of any ditch and by the time he’d gotten to the other side, he’d never be able to get back in time before the cougar...

He shook his head to remove the distressing thought of Bracken’s eyes remaining wide and fearful, his fawny-coloured throat ripped open and bubbling like a bloody brook into a series of frenzied streams trickling onto the ground.

He buried his blood-stained fingers into the Earth above him, testing the give. Hmm. There was definitely potential for concern, as a whole handful of the muck came away with the action. Still, he had to try, for the consequences of not trying were too harmful to think of.

Perhaps if he leapt part way onto the wall… It would give him a substantial start.

He prepared himself by raising his hands ready to grasp overhang of the ditch, whilst moving his focus onto coiling his legs as if charging the energy, ready to latch onto the wall.

With two quick false bounces, he thrust his body upwards on the third. Leaving the ground at profound speed, his hands instinctively anchored into the earth now available to him, whilst his long back legs drew up into his stomach, hooves implanting into the wearier layers of the wall around navel height, giving him a platform to push from on the next movement upwards.

‘One hand, then the other… Gently… Gently.’ He coaxed himself as he began to manoeuvre upwards, all the while his more wounded limbs trembled under the strain of holding up his unforgiving bulk. Grunting in frustration, he reached up with his wounded arm and placed his hand upon a protruding rock, applied pressure to further progress his assent, only to stop as he felt the rock slip from the wall’s grasp, down into the ditch with a thump.

Panic.

Both hands were clawing desperately at wall, constantly fighting with the now crumbling surface, his finger nails hording the mud as they scraped through the earth he was unsuccessfully trying to cling too, before falling ungracefully back down on his rump with a barely concealed grunt.

‘Grand, just grand’, Hannibal growled internally, wincing as a jolt of pain raced up his spine and back down to his tail.

With an annoyed huff, he rolled back to onto his hooves and even took to jumping pathetically up and down to try and throw himself over the damning ditch, all to no avail.

He couldn’t do it.

Panic crawled into his chest and made a nest there.

It was surprising that Bracken had even managed to keep his mouth shut after seeing him thoroughly bested by a damn wall, nevertheless, the beta-stag remained quiet and observant perhaps thoroughly understanding after years of friendship when and if to make wise-cracks, or rather he was too pissed to give comment.

Stupid thoughts aside, the ditch, was much too high for him and climbing it proved to be a farce, and a painful one at that.

He cursed himself for not thinking of the potential problems with the hiding place- then again, he didn’t exactly foresee the possibility of Bracken becoming a dead weight and pushing them into the ditch leaving them trapped like rats... He didn’t think too much about the walls of the ditch, and oh boy was he paying for it now. The walls on both sides of them were much too high to scale alone thanks to the weakness of the structure.

Yet here he was, trying to scale the walls.

‘That really has put the nettle in the nest.’ Hannibal thought in frustration, ‘If I can’t climb out of here, I can’t get to the cougar before it comes… Meaning, we’ll be trapped in here with the beast… I’m running out of time- and options.’

Hannibal, stalked backwards until his back hit the ditch-wall they’d ungracefully fallen down upon arrival and sighed.

“Go without me.” Bracken said surely, looking at Hannibal with stern eyes. “Go on, you can survive this yet. You can run along the length of the ditch, and run far away from here… Leave all this shit behind, like a bad dream, like it never happened. You can leave Robertus, this herd, the events of today… You can leave here Hannibal.”

Hannibal just stared at the beta-stag blankly, his hands fisted in frustration.

“You can escape, there’s no bonds to bind you, no herd or alpha to find you- so do it. I’m your friend Hannibal, it’s my job to help you, take care of you. I’ve been doing a shitty job at it as far as it can be considered, I should’ve stood up for you when the others were trying to rip you down, I should’ve fed you when you were left to starve in order to feed ungrateful others, I should’ve believed in you.”

“You did all you could-” Hannibal interjected, only to be cut off by Bracken’s scoff.

“Don’t you dare defend me, don’t insult me with pathetic excuses.” Bracken hissed, “I’m turning it around. I know that If I wasn’t in bond-paralysis, we wouldn’t be in this situation, the cougar is going to come Hannibal, and I’m done thinking of stupid, impossible alternatives. Of course, you can’t smash Robertus’ face in, you clearly can’t get up there to see, and throwing a rock from down here? Impossible… I expect way too much of you. Always have.” The beta paused, disappointed in himself “The cougar… It’s going to come and we’ve already established that someone’s going to die today- you, me, Laurel or Robertus- let it just be a someone, it doesn’t have to be some ones’.”

“You’re a hypocrite.” Hannibal said darkly in Bracken’s direction, “You’ve given up, resigned yourself to the end, as you did earlier. You’ve allowed death to play with your life, as if it was a story with a pre-scripted finish. Sometimes our ends meet us abruptly. But, in situations like this, we are allowed to orchestrate our own ends, fight against each variable until we find our successful outcome. This doesn’t have to be your end, I won’t let it.”

‘If I can’t get to the cougar.’ Hannibal internally decided, ‘I’ll have to get to, Robertus.’

Hannibal stood straight, right up on the tips of his hooves letting his limber legs stretch before coiling tightly, he sprinted across the small space, and sprang up and upon the vertical ledge. His hands, like grappling hooks, sank cruelly into the wall, his hooves digging into the muck like weights crushing into concrete.

Almost immediately, his wounded limb felt like it was on fire, like someone had planted a coal from a forest stove into the deep incision. Causing the nerves to cry out from his arm up, up and up until the pain made a nest within his skull.

The entirety of his body was now trembling under the weight of the vast inferno of pain he was unwillingly carrying, hell, he felt like a martyr being burned upon a pyre for merely following the hardened path of righteousness. Yet, all Hannibal could do was grit his teeth against the overwhelming waves of agony he was feeling as he forced his wounded shoulder to hold his bulk against the ledge.

“Well I’ll be damned” Bracken gaped from the floor, “In a previous life, you must’ve been a frog.”

Hannibal would’ve rolled his eyes if he could’ve, but found himself unable to grant the beta-stag with the response as he crunched down with his teeth against the agonising squeal trying to wrench its way out of his abused throat.

He panted for several seconds, before he was able to school himself enough to lift his head, to angle it in such a manner that he could achieve some focus on the bloody scene in front of him. He tried to ignore the irritating blades of grass which tickled his nose as he anchored himself to the ledge by his chin.

He could see, first and foremost, the sight of Robertus’ leering over a wrecked and bloody body- ah that was probably Laurel. The weak, wider visual he’d barely gained told Hannibal that the two stags were surrounded by the rest of the incapacitated herd. Their forms laying limply in their paralytic horror, having to indulge in the obscure feelings of one of their own being ripped apart, would apparently do that to a stag.

‘Bloody wonderful.’ Hannibal thought. ‘Better get up there now whilst he is distracted…’

Hannibal moved one hoof slowly from the wall, only to find the structure crumble pathetically beneath his tread. Shifting slightly to the side, and planting his hoof quickly back into the muck, he winced as he felt the wall stabilise.
Shit.

“Shit, Goldilocks.” Bracken called reproachfully, “You’re going to break your neck-”

“What do you want me to do? I’m stuck here, and you’re stuck there.” Hannibal hissed.

“Climb up! you’re closer to the top than you are the bottom, if you drop down now- you’re not gonna’ get back up there again, heck, you might even break something!”

Hannibal worried internally, what was he supposed to do?

Climbing up wasn’t a viable option, because his shoulder wouldn’t allow that, and moving his legs would just bring the wall down.

Then again, the positioning wasn’t ideal for what Bracken proposed he should do. If he did manage to throw that rock and strike Robertus down from within the ditch, Robertus’ unresponsive body could easily land on someone- that someone more than likely being Laurel.

He was within the knowledge that should Robertus’ unforgiving bulk land on the flight-light stature of the already brutally beaten beta-stag, would result in non-lenient injuries. He understood that he had the task of weighing up options- options which meant the life and death of those whom surrounded him, interestingly, those whom meant something to those around him.

He applied more pressure to the wall with his hooves, hoping to be able to take away some of the strain from his now erratically shaking hands entwined within the flora surrounding his person. All the while, speculating how unfortunate- yet fortunate it was that Laurel was subject to the aggravation and brutal attention of Robertus. If not for Laurel, he and Bracken would’ve been noticed ages ago.

Hopefully there would be some reward for the reluctant hero.

For, Laurel was innocent of the acquired distrust and unkindness directed towards him that many of the other Ravenstag wore like second coats- not forgetting that Bracken had a fondness for the snowy-beta stag which slightly coloured his view on the devastating matter at hand.

At the end of it, allowing Laurel to be possibly impaled or crushed beyond repair seemed to be a slap on the nose- if a slap on the nose was comparable to finding your best friend a fountain of blood and feathers, whilst cuddled by a tanned coat of teeth and claws.

There was the snag, the defining point to this whole mental debate. There’s the obvious consequences that, if he didn’t try to hit Robertus, and didn’t value the herd’s lives over one life, then the outcome wouldn’t be welcomed. It would prove, not only to himself but to others, that he was unfit to make those crucial decisions for the greater good of the herd, unfit to be alpha.

So, it was decided, that point being the last acorn in the winter food bank. One life potentially lost for the price of many lives potentially saved, was an offer he couldn’t refuse- the alternative being the loss of many, the loss of a dear one, if not, the loss of all.

He slid down the banking once more, letting his shoulder finally relax, thankful of the fact the wound, despite how painful it felt, it was not spitting blood- but merely beginning to bud with crimson thanks to the strain he kept forcing upon it.

“Why the fuck didn’t you climb over the edge?” Bracken demanded harshly. “You could’ve got away, you could’ve run!”

Hannibal turned to Bracken, and didn’t refrain from what he had to say “Truth of the matter is; I didn’t want to leave you. I don’t regret my decision to stay with you, like you do not regret your decision to stay here without me. I’ll admit… things up there are dismal, perhaps they will all die.”

“My shoulder is weak, and will not support my body any more from where I was, and if I try to scale this again- I fear I will succumb to the pain.” He gestured with a lax hand, to the ditch wall.

Bracken just stared at him, his face looking white as the frost while he panicked.

“I can’t climb up the other side of the ditch to meet the cougar either, as we’ve discovered, the wall is too weak, and now I’ve strained my damaged shoulder beyond such activities.” Hannibal said with seemingly no qualms. “I’ll have to do something else, now I have the image implanted in my mind it could be possible.”

“Your mind palace?” Bracken questioned softly, to which Hannibal graced with a delicate nod.

“When I always used to say you were day dreaming, Chi always said you were ‘absent from the present moment, and instead at your mind palace’ she said that you collected ‘imagery’ from day-to-day life and stored it. She said you could travel there and waltz between images and memories like a stag could run between trees within the wood.”

Hannibal gave Bracken a small smile, “I’m going to try, and utilise an image from the subconscious and map it onto the conscious. I can only try.”

“Then try.” Bracken replied confidently.

“Whilst I am there Bracken.” Hannibal said crouching before the beta, and picking up the rock he’d ragged out of the ditch-wall earlier. “You cannot interrupt me or touch me. To interrupt me could force me to make a mistake, the task I’m partaking in… It is difficult. Translating a mental image and mapping it into the present is one of the most straining things to do… I’m not entirely certain it can be done in favourable circumstances, never mind under pressured ones like these.”

“What about when the cougar comes?” Bracken said carefully, barely able to contain the wobble in his voice. “it’ll be here anytime now.”

“Let the cougar come.” Hannibal replied thoughtfully, taking the rock and turning away from his friend. “Let us lay witness to, the battle of the claws and the thorns”

Hannibal took two deep breaths in appeasement of his screaming lungs, slowing down the imperative moment he was trapped within. Although he wished that said moment, hadn’t the sour enemy of time to whittle against it, for he knew the stakes and cursed himself for lacking the time to ensure his victory. He knew he couldn’t miss. One false move here, and the ethical debates he’d been trawling through would have been a waste. The stakes were disgustingly high, should he miss, Robertus would know of him and it’d be game over. For without the advantage of surprise, he and Robertus, would undoubtedly be tangled around each other and the battle would be reproachfully bloody. It was crucial to his conscience that he understood that this was his shot to saving not only Bracken, but also the herd from, eventually, two murderous dangers be it his life on the line for said chance.

Sighing in dejection, he concluded that despite how beautiful blood looked when trailing from a carefully carved wound, there was only so much blood which could be spilled at any one time before it became a waste.

Satisfied with his conclusion, Hannibal took the rock and moved to the centre of the ditch, facing Robertus’ and the herd’s direction, he took a deep breath to appease his withering lungs and closed his eyes.

He expected darkness to lie beneath his lids, yet didn’t find such. All he could see was the redness of his inner lid, and the flickering of a thousand thoughts, images, emotions, memories whirring over his mind-space. Trying not to growl in his agitation, he slowly exhaled between the crevices of his teeth in an attempt to soothe himself of the pressures he’d unfortunately been building.

Focus… calm… hook onto familiarity. Imagine the morning sunrise over shrike’s point…

The flickering membrane-red ruthlessly snapped into that of a deep blue. A familiar blue. Taking a deep breath, Hannibal tried to summon the calmness that only the morning skies of childhood could provide as he psyched himself up to peer upon his mental-body.

Looking down at himself, he grimaced as his mentally materialised body was grotesquely under-developed. His skin was almost no-where to be seen- and where it was, he found only that of a withered, sticky crimson. His bones we’re lined with weary muscles, resembling that of the soft inner regions of a fiery-coloured fruit he’d beheld as a fawnlett, gripping futile to that of his red-stained bones.

Looking around him, however, proved to be just like being in a nightmare- especially when he was unable to summon the mental strength to excel his self-materialisation forward. Meaning he was stuck here, paralysed, trapped, alone with horrors of his own making, and what a horror that was.

Hannibal was forced to lay witness to the numerous memories forcing themselves to unravel their happenings, the build-up like a rabid river, deathly picking up pace and pawing with giant sweeps at the emotional dams he’d built around his mind. It unnerved him to discover how close he was to drowning beneath the unforgiving emotional pressure.

There were stags of gold running, hand crafted weapons of war slung upon their backs and arms filled with fawnletts as they sprinted across the icy plains within his mind. The intense howling of dogs and the wailing of hunting-horns sending shivers down his puss-soaked spine as thick snowflakes burnt into his mauled skin.

Voices. There were voices, filled with anguished authority.

“STAY HERE WITH MISCHA!”

“DON’T LEAVE P’ADAR, PLEASE.”

“WAIT FOR ME, I WILL COME BACK FOR YOU.”

“P’ADAR PLEASE!!”

“DON’T YOU DARE MOVE FROM THIS SPOT, DO YOU HEAR ME?”

The harrowing screams burned him like acid dripping into his eardrums, it was more distressing that he couldn’t see his herd around him in the woods. The snow, was falling heavy like chunks of ivory flesh, with such thickness could only hear the deathly devastation of the past.

What a cruel twist of irony that was.

Looking at his hooves once more in his strife, he noticed his crippled stumps he called ‘hooves’ had materialised enough to attempt to move.

“Move... Huh? Why am I struggling so? This is usually a daily task which is of much ease, yet here I am, where every movement feels like I’ve been submerged underwater, with boulders leashed to my ankles….” Hannibal thought with distress.

Sluggish.

Time.

Panic.

Grabbing onto everything he could possibly reach, be it malformed-saplings dying in the winter tundra, frost-bitten rocks or the palm-slitting grass bushes, Hannibal sought leverage to pull himself up and set on his journey through the maze which was his disturbed and addled mind.

“Come on. Come on.” Hannibal chanted to himself, as he dug deep for the power to move. “You can do this, channel your anger and your grief into mental strength.”

Lifting, he was lifting! Finally, despite the phantom pains in his withered limbs, he was making some progress! And about time too, because he was taking way too long. He’d be lucky if he’d awaken and Bracken would even be alive.

Okay. Definitely not the thoughts he needed to be having…

Once up, wobbling on the brittle bones, he set off into a run, sprinting through the barely recognisable forest through the snow, in search of the memory of the clearing that was previously above him. Not daring to stop, in the fear that if he did- like a weary wooden structure against a brutal gust, would just collapse.

Speaking of collapse.

One minute he was standing, the next, he was in a heap upon the floor. Squinting, Hannibal peered around his body, trying to work out between the thick flakes what had essentially sent him sprawling.

Reaching out with a hand, his fingertips soon followed by his palm met with a solid lump. He immediately regretted pulling it towards him, as his hand held an infantile ebony-furred ankle and following that the contorted bloodied body of a fawnlett frozen solid in the snow. The fawnlett’s blue eyes, frozen completely open capturing the unparalleled fear the infant held witness to in the end.

Trying to snatch his hand from around the dead child’s body- was a painful task. Painful, because the raw muscles within his barely developed hand had already started to fuse to the frozen skin of the corpse. Ripping his hand away, alongside most of his mental muscle tissue, Hannibal scrambled backwards from the corpse until his back smacked into a wall.

Using the wall for support, Hannibal dragged himself up again and turned tail weaving through the unyielding mass of albino forestry, he desperately tried not to look as he ran by an omega-stag whom was audibly wailing in agony over their crunched ankle in a strategically planted two-leg trap, he tried desperately to tune out the tortured high-pitched squeals whilst the domesticated hounds swarmed and ripped at the stag until its legs were nothing but bones and ribbons of fur and skin.

Running past such grotesque memories was something he ever wanted to do again, but they were there. These images haunted him and were very much a part of his mind. Seeing them, however, was not common-place, not anymore. Rationalising that the grief was only happening now due to the stress of the situation, the loss of his best friend and the pain he was in from the earlier skirmish with the human’s deadly firesticks. It was stressing his mind; the unyielding mental and physical pressure was going to kill them both, if the cougar, or Robertus, or the humans didn’t manage first.

Two legs ruined so much in the world.

In the near-distance he could make out a familiar sight: Shrike’s Point- home. The central landmark to his mind-palace, which he’d never fail to recall. Such a solid structure, with its intertwining mediums of greenery and rockery.

Coming upon the threshold, he didn’t dare stop or pause for fear of total mental collapse, thus he continued on, having to ignore sights which made him feel both sick and content, instead, he continued his hurried weaving between the sculptural pieces, crafted by a long bloodline of his Ravenstag kin and into the initial entry of the place he once called ‘home’.

The rooms were not dark per-say, as hundreds- if not thousands of amber, gold and green colours cradled the room in a warming embrace. The memories past, present, imagined were stationed like captured mirrors, pinned to the walls with twig-snapped thorns. The hearty feeling of comfort proving successful in driving the anxiety and stress well away from his form; making it much easier to concentrate on the initial task.

Hannibal walked directly to the centre of the room, and looked around the circular structure of the space carefully, he had to find that one specific memory, that one image… There. The newest memory leaf stood stark in contrast to the older memory leaves stuck to the walls of his comfort zone as it bathed the room in golden tendrils.

Briskly walking forwards, Hannibal plucked the golden memory leaf from the wall, allowing himself to be consumed by the golden light.

And with that, he closed his inner eye and was able to see.

**
Bracken. POV

The problem with being within a soul tying alpha-beta bond, was that, you had little dominion over your own free will and mind-space. You were expected to be content with the fact that someone else, whom may not necessarily have any empathy, intelligence or decency about them, has more control over your mind and your body than you- yourself did.

That was the primary reason why alphas were supposed to have a more communal sense of understanding, and a driving instinct to protect not just their offspring or mate, but their whole tribe. That was where Robertus failed, he lacked the calibre of a true alpha due to the fact that, he had minimal understandings of responsibility and not even a scrap’s worth of comprehension on the subject group-wide survival.

“That’s why the current situation is so poor in the first place.” Bracken mused with disgust, before feeling the sinking notion of shame. He was so useless like this, paralysed in his own body unable to do squat other than watch as Hannibal stood before him in the middle of the ditch, eyes closed and body stock-still.

It had only been a few seconds, but it seemed like hours watching Hannibal just, essentially, stand there, whilst hearing Laurel getting the racking of his lifetime and a cougar was mere minutes away. Oh, how the whole situation seemed so bleak! His temptation to voice said opinion was growing strong, the only thing keeping his tongue restrained was the warning he’d received by Hannibal.

“Whilst I am there Bracken.” Hannibal said crouching before him, and taking up the rock he’d given to him earlier. “You cannot interrupt me or touch me.”

Interruptions were not an option right now. Bracken didn’t know how close Hannibal was to completing the task, he could only trust and wait for the alpha to do something.

Ah, movement, something was happening!

He watched Hannibal raise his left arm upwards and then coiling it back like a Slither poised for the strike of an unsuspecting rodent, effectively charging the raw power in the adrenaline-fused muscles. Bracken was pleased to note the alpha looked deadly, and was keen to believe that the hatred Hannibal carried inside would pose as a remarkable- yet deadly venom if the shot remained true.

Without any further ado, Hannibal threw his body forward, launching his arm the full one-hundred and eighty degrees, exerting the powerful shoulder and back muscles genetics had borne the alpha.

The rock was released from Hannibal’s blood-stained palm with an agile flick of the wrist. The both of them proceeded to watch tensely as the rock soared through the air before slamming downwards like a diving hawk, colliding brutally with a skull-smashing force against the platinum crown of Robertus’ cranium.

Chapter Text

Hannibal P.O.V

 

 

The satisfying clack of Roberts' skull smashing was all the confirmation Hannibal needed.

 

 

'That would've been the time to live up to having a thick skull.’ Hannibal thought, allowing a moment to collect himself, he could have a moment, right?

 

 

Forget could  he needed a moment.

 

 

Upon assessment, his shoulder was, to put it bluntly- in agony. His weary muscles were on the verge of collapse, after being so thoroughly strained. His chest was aching, every panting breath sending lancing pain dancing up and down his sides, irritating his black-bruised ribs.

 

 

Slow and steady, gentle breaths.’ He told himself, allowing small pants to pass, as he coached himself through the adrenaline.

 

 

A mere moment would allow him to relish in Robertus’ sweet ear-withering scream, still echoing around the place.

 

 

With a tiredly-blissed expression, he imagined the likes of Robertus’ body crunching to the floor and his muscles contorting in their confused agony.

 

 

‘Headache?’ Hannibal chuckled to himself.

 

 

His revelling, however sweet, could not last. For nothing- no investment, no action, no choice in life comes fully packaged without cost. Hannibal winced as the first wheezy whimper from a long tally of broken squealings, called into the blood-soaked morn.

 

 

As speculated earlier, he’d managed to successfully drop Robertus- on top of Laurel.

 

 

Hannibal grit his teeth, bracing himself against the shameful reality of the double-edged sword he had willingly impaled himself upon, the rusty blade of shame slicing through flesh and unforgivingly wedging itself between his already black-blue-bruised ribs.

 

 

Is this what shame feels like? Or is this merely pity? Do I have the capability to feel that?’ Hannibal wondered.

 

 

On one hoof, Hannibal felt elation as he watched the once pitifully downed herd suddenly start to revive, on the other hoof however, Laurel had been thoroughly squished and it was... A shame.

 

 

His thoughts on the matter were slashed, by the sudden blistering warmth resting testily upon his unscathed shoulder.

 

 

“You did it!” Bracken exclaimed, wiping the crusted blood-snot from his nose with the back of his other hand “I could bloody kiss you right now-"

 

 

“I wouldn’t celebrate just yet-” Hannibal began, to be cut off by a dark purr rumbling from behind them.

 

 

Freezing in position, with Bracken’s suddenly vice-like grip upon his, thankfully, good shoulder- the pair’s muscles became tighter in their collective fear, accompanied by their feathers splaying almost amusingly in their recognition of a threat.

 

 

There it is. The beast.’ He mentally introduced. ‘Elohim Mortem in one of her most destructive forms.

 

 

Its back arched mockingly, showing off the bulging muscles surrounding its sturdy structure. The cougar’s forepaws curling cruelly into the weary earth above them, its anticipation crawling into the cracks of their slack certainty, making crimson coloured plans.

 

 

Suddenly, calloused hands shoved Hannibal forwards, making the alpha grunt unappreciatively as his chest smacked into the earthy barrier between themselves and the recently downed Robertus.

 

 

“You get Robertus Hannibal.” Bracken said firmly, never taking his eye from the slitted amber voids above him. “I’ve got snarly here.”

 

 

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Hannibal snapped, placing his hand upon Bracken’s shoulder imploringly “You were so adamant not five minutes ago that you don’t take these things on alone, not only that, I didn’t go through decades of mental anguish to spare you such a painful demise, for you to just prostrate yourself before death when it comes to call.”

 

 

“I’ll keep it entertained whilst you, go and deal with Robertus.” Bracken said surely, “That was always the plan.”

 

 

Hannibal glared at Bracken in disbelief, before meeting the hungered gaze of the leering cougar above them once more. The prowling form, was pacing back and forth along the steep ledge of the ditch, assessing the path it was intending on, all the while it’s tail swinging like a pendulum, symbolic of their time pouring away. The beast purred loudly, baring its fangs, rolling its tongue mockingly, basking in the attention of its chosen prey. The melody rippled effortlessly, it's tone reeking dark and dangerous as the throaty notes rolled from between the cougar’s tanned jowls, and tumbled across the ditch in promising ruby waves, the thrumming sound almost paralyzing in its hypnotic beauty.

 

 

'Terrific, would be the word.’ Hannibal mentally supplied.

 

 

This entire situation made him feel chewed, gnawed upon. Like death was merely tasting him, holding him upon the lip tauntingly and slowly prodding. Touching, gliding, poking, prodding but not yet tarnishing.

 

 

‘Could my soul yield such an exquisite flavour, for death to prowl so promisingly in my shadow?’ Hannibal despaired. ‘Is it foolish to entertain the thought, that the very network of my existence, is nothing more than a continuous cycle of the eaten and the eating?’

 

 

‘Am I nothing more, than a mere slave to the unyielding desires of Elohim Mortem? Could I be the inspiration for her sickly symphony of crimson cries?’ Hannibal mentally pained. ‘She’s always there, lurking cruelly, waiting… Waiting, for the moments to devour everything I hold in my heart. Until I’m left, bereft, hollow, isolated, empty with so much nothingness that I simply prostrate myself before her alter and scream myself hoarse in my pleads for mercy.’

 

 

A placemat for Mortem, a placemat for himself, utensils framing either side, the center-piece his very heart, pulled, drawn and quartered in ruby delight. Berried burgundy just pouring from within, spilling to the floor in wasted wallows of wetness.

 

 

'If it’s a feast Elohim Mortem requires.’ Hannibal mused, ‘Then let me provide the entertainment’

 

 

Defensively, Hannibal snarled long and low, purposely flashing fangs underneath his curling upper lip showcasing to death, that he too, had sharp teeth which he had no qualms in using should he require to do so. That gesture was quickly accompanied by the aggressive flaying of his blood dipped golden feathers, which were now standing very much on end, with the purpose of making himself appear much larger- portraying himself as a deadlier threat to the obnoxiously proud beast leering at them.

 

 

“GO NOW HANNIBAL!” Bracken shouted impatiently, roughly pushing the alpha and almost making him choke on his snarl. “The herd will help you, you won’t get another shot like this- GO NOW!”

 

 

Hannibal growled in annoyance, flashing canines once more in warning- he couldn’t deduce exactly as to whom the aggression was aimed at, as his adrenaline had more than spiked and his alpha hormones had exceeded that of the canopies.

 

 

Locking eyes with Bracken’s bruised, feather splayed back. “You are NOT doing this alone; Do you want to die so badly?-” He tried to gripe, before being quickly cut off by the blurry brown flashing past him.

 

 

Bracken launched the projectile of both rock and soiled roots with force, up and into the beast’s face with a soil spray to finish. The result was an infuriated blood curdled cry from the cougar as it was knocked off kilter, clawing at its face in agitation- then before Hannibal knew the sky from the ground, he was painfully grasped in a pair of hands, surrounded by arms and he was going up and up at great speed. The journey was a sickening one, as the ground was ripped from him and his stomach was still earthed, the emptiness of it making acidic bile swish around nauseatingly.

 

 

“Fuck.” Hannibal growled, finding himself almost nose-to-nose with the grass of the free open field above. Wincing, he peered down, and became acquainted with Bracken’s strong oak-colored arms curled around his black-bruised waist, supporting him.

 

 

'That explains the pain.’ Hannibal gratingly surmised.

 

  

“Hannibal!” Bracken cried, making him flinch in surprise. “Climb up onto my shoulders, make the most of a boost will ya'?”

 

 

Bracken's positioning was strange, with the beta’s spine-stripped back and shoulders pressed against the ditch-wall, bracingly, forcing him to face the cougar from between Hannibal’s unsteady thighs.

 

 

Quickly grabbing the overhang of the ditch, he started to shimmy the weight upwards in an attempt at a climb.

 

 

As he did so, the alpha-stag could feel the support of the beta-stag transferring from his broken ribs, to his thighs, allowing him to guzzle some respiratory relief and make a reach with his ruined arm.

 

 

The sure feeling of Bracken’s huge calloused hands quickly transferred to wrapping around his back legs, just above the ankles. Almost immediately taking to thrusting his form upwards, allowing the alpha-stag to further clamber up and onto the beta’s thick, brawn shoulders like a stepping stool.

 

 

“Hurry.” Bracken wheezed. It’s coming. Left unsaid.

 

 

Hannibal snarled at that, unable to grace his companion with a reply as he scrambled to quicken his climb, enduring the conjoined agonies of his shoulder and that of his nails ripping from their beds as he frantically dug his stinging fingers into the grasses above to pull himself up and vertical.

 

 

A dirty thud, accompanied by a horrendously vicious cry rang out into the clearing, the sound echoing harshly like a record on repeat until perhaps even the nesting birds could commit the scream to memory.

 

 

Sickeningly bereft of Bracken’s support, his heavy bulk dropped haphazardly. Prominent canines angrily speared into his vulnerable inner lip, as anger, fear, frustration and outright agony slashed through his body like an electric charge, starting from the one limb he was now solely hanging from- the one limb preventing him from the crippling drop on top of Bracken’s deadly throng of thorns.

 

 

'Speaking of which…’ Hannibal looked across, and the sight left him with an ice-shard dancing menacingly within his heart.

 

 

The cougar was no longer on the ledge.

 

 

‘Bracken.’ Hannibal tried to look down, he really did. Between blood, sweat, dislodged eye-lashes and obstructive limbs he could only see blurry flashes of brown and tan beneath him in a screaming scuffle.

 

 

As much as it pained him, he knew that he couldn’t drop back down into the ditch. If he did, he’d never be able to summon the strength to get back out again, even worse, he’d seal both his and Bracken’s fates to that of a snarling beast and the herd’s to that of a slaughter-loving alpha

 

 

'What is this miserable farce which happens to be my entire fruition?’ Hannibal hissed forlornly. The pained grunts and disgusting snarls of his friend's demise beneath him, would forever leave his ear-drums stained with the blood-soaked serenade of Elohim Mortem. ‘Is it all for nothing?’ He mentally cried, digging his fingers painfully into the lip of the ledge, every climbing attempt painfully failing as each time he slumped a little further, a little harder.  Smacking his ruined forehead against the muck in despair, as he tallied the growing list of wounds ear, arm, shoulder, splintered ribs, ruined rack, and ribboned back.

 

 

Elohim damn-it, tell me what I am to do!!’ Hannibal mentally snapped, cringing against the disturbing cries below and the agony in his shoulder. ‘Am I supposed to follow you into the dark, instead of running away from the Shadow? Am I supposed to encase the bloodstained palms of punishment within my own mangled mortal touch? Am I to die or merely stand by, whilst others do?’

 

 

“Hannibal.” Bracken snapped, from between clawed paws. “Get fuckin’ moving- use your legs damn it.”  

 

 

Hannibal started with surprise, ’He’s alive!’

 

 

The knowledge gave him a boost, mentally or physically, he couldn’t decipher. Nevertheless, the rekindled hope was like a pair of wings lifting the weight of disparity from his heavy heart.

 

 

Everything was clearer now, or was it? His mind felt jaded? His vision faded in the corners…But all there was to hear was the cringing of his own heart, the mechanism thundering within his chest and within his ear.

 

 

With a mighty use of said muscles, he forced his damaged shoulder back up to the lip of the ditch, pained snarls barely smothered between his chavelled lips. Now accompanied by his hooves digging into the loose soil, he harshly peddled whilst clawing at the grass until he was able to lift his body up and over the edge of the banking, finally crawling into the clearing with ragged bloody breaths.

 

 

“Fuckin’ bastard", came the curses from somewhere below him.

 

 

‘Bracken.’

 

 

Hannibal stood shakily, ignoring the terrified herd, to which the roar of the cougar obviously hadn’t gone unnoticed. Some of the herd stared in shock at the sight of himself disgustingly bloody and dishevelled, and others had already begun to flee with chittering panic.

 

 

'Cowards'. Hannibal mentally admonished, a nasty snarl leaving his lips in reprimand.

 

 

Turning quickly, and instantly regretting as his vision dazingly doubled. He roughly brought the back of his arm over his clogged eyes, he sought to quickly rub the murk away before he peered into the ditch below him.

 

 

The now clear sight found Bracken panting heavily, rested upon his tail-bone with hooves in the air and elbows buried painfully into the ground.

 

 

However, the cougar on the other side of the ditch was whistle-wheezing, as it attempted to stagger to its feet.

 

 

“Get up.” Hannibal snapped down, to which Bracken barely moved his head in acknowledgment. “Get up! GET UP AND MOVE BEFORE YOU’RE DEPRIVED OF THE OPPORTUNITY.”

 

 

“Is that… An order Goldilocks?” Bracken whimpered, shifting his arms testingly.

 

 

'Elohim above.' Hannibal thanked for Bracken's movement. If he had more of an emotional capacity, he would’ve wept with relief.

 

 

“Yes it’s an order. Get up, and give me your hands.” Hannibal said sternly.

 

 

Before Hannibal could say anything more, or offer Bracken further aid, a frustrated cry of rage came from afar, shocking him to attention.

 

 

He knew that voice.

 

 

The commanding slurs, which resembled claws grating down slated stone. The grunted wheezing, which accompanied every thistled barb of vocal hatred.

 

 

Robertus.

 

 

The fucker had started to recover from his previously dazed state, and was blindly planting pressure into an impaled Laurel.

 

 

'I have to do something.'

 

 

“Hurry up” Hannibal hissed, looking from the swiftly recovering cougar, deadly alpha and back to Bracken. “We haven’t got the time.”

 

 

Bracken shook his head, making Hannibal snarl.

 

 

“What do you think you’re doing?” Hannibal snapped unforgivingly, “Give me your hands. Right. Now.”

 

 

“You’ve got to get him Hannibal.” Bracken growled, his feathers fluffing in determined-anger as he took to leaning against the wall with a steadying stance.

 

 

“Not with using this stupid thing” Bracken gestured carelessly to the agitated cougar, “It’s interested in us, not him.”

 

 

“That’s because we’ve spent the past quart laying there like bloody h'orderves.” Hannibal said scathingly.

 

 

“You’re running out of time” Bracken cut. “I won’t have you wrench your shoulder any more.”

 

 

“Then WHAT are we supposed to do?” Hannibal snapped, hands angrily curling with impatience and helplessness.

 

 

“I recall you asking me earlier ‘If I could run?’” Bracken said with deceptive calm, “N’ I told you ‘I could’, and Hannibal… I can.”

 

 

Hannibal's affronted glare pierced Bracken's suddenly brash attitude.

 

 

“I’m not going to fight the thing- not if I don't have too.” Bracken interjected quickly, looking back up to the alpha-stag briefly, before slicing his attention back to the threat, “I've already proven I can take snarly over there, if it comes to it. I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve, we just need some... Motivation.”

 

 

Hannibal didn’t get much chance to furiously erupt, as the cougar launched itself across the space with a toothy yowl.

 

 

Hannibal slammed his hands on the lip of the ditch, paralyzed as he choked on his own heart. The sight of the beast launching itself across the space would forever be branded into his mind's eye. The furious spurts of blood, caressing his cheek like blossoms in a lethargic summer breeze.

 

 

'By Sol's Estellae.' Hannibal internally croaked, helpless as the cougar's deadly forepaws wrapped around Bracken's brawn-broad shoulders, its rear paws piercing the beta's meaty thighs, allowing the carnivorous cat the perfect platform to wrap its jaws around the beta's head.

 

 

The infinity of a severed synapse enclosed his entire being, he was trapped in a singular moment, whilst life passed him by like a river flowing underneath a sheet of frigid salt. It was as if time had completely crystallised around him. 

 

 

Before Hannibal registered Bracken’s manic roar, and the lightning fast reflexes launching a powerful fist up and under the cougar's jaw, effectively snapping the deathly knives closed, mere millimeters from the ribboned remains of his face.

 

 

Thanks to the jarring impact of the beta's brick-like fist, the easily embedded claws were ripped forcefully through Bracken's chest, the deadly knives easily raking away clumps of the beta's feathery mane, bringing yowls from beast and Bracken both, before the cat was thrown some distance away.

 

 

"You're going to have to try harder than that." Bracken snarled, launching a powerful fist up and under the cougar’s jaw, saving his ruined face by mere millimetres.

 

 

The impact of the beta's brick-like fist, carried across the clearing like a clap of thunder. 

 

 

The beta brought a soothing hand to his punctured pectorals, with hissed pants of rage he snarled at the cougar, set on righting itself and spitting angrily back at him in retaliation.

 

 

"Kitty can jump, but can kitty run?"

 

 

Hannibal barely had time to register the past several seconds before the beta launched itself forwards, slapping the cat furiously before bolting along the length of the ditch- with all the grace of a bow-legged stag after several helpings of Briar’s ‘Fretful Nettle’.

 

 

Hannibal supposed the upside was that the beta had seemingly bypassed the agony of his wounds unrelenting adrenaline which must've been shooting through Bracken’s core.

 

 

'Story fit for the Elohim alright.' Hannibal mused, before watery whimpers from afar caught his attention once more. Turning to the sound, quickly enough for his neck to crack and his vision to waver, what he saw, however, was unmistakable.

 

 

Laurel was trembling upon the ground, fighting the after effects of the mental and physical beatings he received on top of his clear exhaustion. The poor beta-stag was trying to crawl away from the screaming Robertus heavily clambering upon him, the alpha’s large hands pressing unforgivingly onto Laurel’s body, smushing the snowy beta’s snowy form into the mud, effectively smothering him.

 

 

'The poor bastard… He’s still alive.' Hannibal processed surprisingly, as the once snow-coated beta was trying desperately to pry himself away from the alpha’s unforgiving bulk.

 

 

Hopeful with Bracken’s survival, Hannibal locked onto his new target, with a new vow forming within his heart.

 

 

'No more pain.' He stated.

 

 

'No more suffering.' He cemented.

 

 

'This is it.' He readied, 'The fight of all fights. The means to the end of the torture. The eye of the storm.'

 

 

If there must be blood, destruction, death, Mortem- it shall be by his hand, forever more. He would wield the knife, turn out the meta-physical light- take the life.

 

 

For, it is the Alpha’s right.  

 

 

This was the decisive moment, and he’d be damned if it should be allowed to pass him by.

 

 

Hannibal dashed towards the towering platinum target, the alpha-stag’s omega bathed feathers sparkling like an unearthly sigil borne in starlight. Ignoring the shooting pains dancing down his sides, he distanced himself away from the brutal burning of the flowering shot embedded within his arm, and pushed far beyond the pulsing pains sparking from his severed ear.

 

 

He was going to kill the bastard that had made their lives hell. There was no remorse in Hannibal’s heart as he leapt at the stag-tator, a fanged smirk rippling across his own lips as Robertus turned to face him at the last possible fractal, with a bloody grin cracking across his own face at the sight of Hannibal.

 

 

‘Nice shot.’ Robertus purred, elbow careening through the space intent on smashing Hannibal in the face. 'Though it will take more than a few sticks and stones to finish me.'

 

 

Hannibal threw himself to the floor, successfully avoiding the alpha-stag’s wayward elbow, allowing the force of his momentum to carry his body across the sticky autumn grass, tackling Robertus’ legs from under him, bringing Robertus down right on top of him, the two prostrated upon each other awkwardly.

 

 

‘A little pre-emptive.’ Hannibal panted, from someway beneath Robertus’ bulk, his hands latching onto Robertus’ rack, keeping the Alpha-stag’s dangerous throng of thorns away from his face and vulnerable chest, ‘But appreciated all the same.’

 

 

‘You think you’re so clever.’ Robertus wheezed with a note of amusement, his bloody maw dripping and drooling all over Hannibal’s chest. The platinum alpha-stag laughed as he curled his strong hands around Hannibal’s hips, ‘But you’re exactly where I want you… You’re providing me the perfect view to watch your filthy face as I break you from the inside out… We’ll see how competent you are when all you can do is slide around on your belly like a snake-’

 

 

‘It would be interesting to see things from your point of view.’ Hannibal sneered, fists comfortably battling against Robertus’ forceful rack, his own hooves joyfully peeling the fur from Robertus’ shins.

 

 

Robertus grunted, steadily applying pressure with the butt of his hands onto the protruding hip bones, the lack of meals making Hannibal’s form more fragile than ever, and Robertus couldn’t help but chuckle, relishing the way the Alpha-stag’s vulnerable body seized in anticipation for the imminent pain. ‘Yes, brace yourself… This is going to hurt-’

 

 

Hannibal sneered, a growl rippling between his lips in pure intimidation to the alpha above him, his own hands shaking badly against the strain of Robertus’ rack, intent on impaling and marring Hannibal’s features.

 

 

‘Break his hip?’ The previously downed albino beta-stag snarled, grabbing Robertus’ rack and forcefully pulling the Alpha-stag’s head back baring his throat to the prone Hannibal beneath. ‘I fucking doubt it.’

 

 

That was exactly what Hannibal was aiming for, the whole time.

 

 

Laurel.  

 

 

Jaw springing wide, exposing sharp fangs and chiselled incisors to the limited light, Hannibal thrust forward, wrapping his mouth around Robertus’ left gland, and sunk his teeth into the side of Robertus’ throat unforgivingly.

 

 

Blood, pheromone puss and oily fluid erupted into his mouth, the foul poison of cruelty, command and control washed around his tongue and slipped down his throat infecting his body immediately, his eyes rolled into the back of his head, hands and body now humming as the alpha’s concreted grip of the herd, became loose and lost to him.

 

 

Hannibal’s heart thundered within his breast, as a million synapses locked into place, and he could feel everything to the point of oversensitivity. His eyes, which he could swear were open could see nothing more than an endless tundra of white, no matter which direction he looked.  

 

 

The feeling of hundreds upon hundreds of reaching hands crawled across his skin, leaving tingles across his body, some touches were painful like a thistle being dragged over his skin, others merely inquisitive but he couldn’t see the hands, he couldn’t SEE anything! Each touch made him flinch, and his chest was thumping rapidly with the strain and panic.

 

 

He’s going into Anduic shock!  Some distant voice remarked, though Hannibal couldn’t quite place who’s voice it was- he couldn’t place anything really, except the aching, blistering warmth surrounding his teeth.

 

 

And that’s all he could think of, as his world spiralled from arctic tundra to darkened abyss.

 

 

Who would’ve known that the end of the line was nothing more than an overcast cloud, and a crimson kiss?

 

**