He had to be strong.
Strength was the way of the wolf, the way of the pack. The strong lead the weak. Guided the pack to victory. Kept them safe. Kept them strong.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. It was an old saying favorited by his mother. And so the pack is only as strong as its weakest wolf.
The first promise Mike ever made was in response to his mother. Then I’ll promise I’ll be strong. For the pack.
She chuckled. Mike had been something close to 5 at the time, she had every reason to doubt him. Still, like any good mother, she relented. Of course you will. For the pack!
And he was.
It seemed an easy promise to keep, at least at first. In the beginning, there was six of them: Sten, Tasia, Piper, his mother, father, and him. Sten, his uncle, was the alpha, brave and true. Tasia, his aunt, was the beta, wife to Sten and sister to Mike’s father. Piper was a former stray taken in by Tasia before Mike was born. And then there were his parents, and then there was him. The runt, at least at first.
Mike didn’t mind. He had his whole life to catch up to Piper, to Tasia, to Sten. And until then, he had them. His family.
He was happy. They were happy, the six of them. Together, they were strong. Just the six of them versus the world.
And then the world changed.
Strength was the way of the wolf.
It was simple really. Something he’d known since birth.
And those not strong enough were unfit to lead.
The six of them versus the world. The world, in most cases, was the other packs, three of them haunting territories just outside their hometown. Kyle’s to the east, Mauriel’s to the south, and Eldridge’s to the north. Sten, Kyle, Mauriel, and Elridge. Between the four of them, they held a shaky peace for something close to 20 years.
That is, until someone took it too far.
Mike was 10 when it happened. When someone crossed the line. He couldn’t remember how it started. And he chose to forget the middle. When they lost Tasia. But when it ended, only two packs held the region. Mauriel’s and Sten’s. Kyle’s pack fell to Mauriel. And Elridge to Sten. So 4 became 2.
Such was the way of the pack. It was a rule as old as the wolves themselves, a remnant of a lost age of infighting and warfare. But so it was: a challenge against an alpha is a challenge for the pack.
Within a single band of wolves, such fighting is common, encouraged. It keeps the ranks in check, assures the alpha is always the strongest, the most fit to lead. A fight involving outsiders is a different story altogether.
Should a stray challenge an alpha, things get quickly get bloody. After all, strays fight with nothing to lose, everything to gain. Alphas fight as much for their honor as for their pack. A victory on either side nears a death sentence. Should the alpha win, the challenger is typically exiled from pack territory, under threat of death should they return. Though more bloodthirsty alphas carry out their promise immediately. Should the stray win, they are left no such choice. The only way to seal their victory is in blood.
Yet no challenge is more serious than that between two alphas. Both are skilled fighters, the strongest in their pack and natural leaders. Both battle holding nothing back; each out for blood. To lose means certain death. And to the winner goes the loser’s pack. Every last wolf. Such is the way of the pack, the way of the wolf. The weak follow the strong.
And so 6 became 14.
Sten killed Elridge, and they gained his pack. There were dissenters, of course, amongst the remains of both Elrdige and Kyle’s packs. Not everyone was willing to go down without a fight. Sten got lucky, and managed to silence them without any further bloodshed. Mauriel did not, losing one of her own daughters before she quelled the infighting. But so still it goes. The weak follow the strong.
And quite suddenly Mike wasn’t the weakest anymore.
10 years old.
And he saw the world he knew fall apart before coming back together again.
10 years old.
And there was only one way to stop it from happening again.
He had to be strong.
Like Sten. Like his father, now the beta. He had to be stronger. Stronger than both of them. For the next time a pack tried to settle the area. In case Mauriel decided peace wasn’t to her liking. He had to be stronger. The strongest.
From the moment he could hunt Mike had his heart set on alpha. And why shouldn’t he? Between his training and own fortune with genes, he was bigger than all the others in his pack. Stronger too. Towering in human form, massive as a wolf. Piercing yellow eyes and thick black fur. Almost more beast than wolf. Almost something terrifying.
Ever since that day it was all Mike wanted, to be strong. Everyone in his pack was convinced he would so become. Even Sten.
He took it as a point of pride, old Sten. “My own nephew.” He used to say, through that toothy grin of his. “Keep it up and you’ll surpass even me someday.”
That was the plan. By the time Mike was 18 he’d made 4th rank. In a pack of his size, with as many adult wolves, it was practically unheard of.
But there was something about him that just sang of strength, of dominance. A power, almost tangible, radiating from every fiber of his being. A strength of will and courage pushing him to be more than he was. He felt it pumping through his veins, carved in his bones. It was written all over him, a title like a destiny.
Mike was 18 when he made 4th rank. So close. So, tantalizingly close. To all he ever wanted. Everything he worked for since he was 5. He could have taken it.
It was all he ever wanted. To be strong. To be the alpha.
But then, somehow it wasn’t.
Because even if he did take Sten’s place as alpha, would the pack even accept him? He had strength, sure, but was that enough? Suddenly he wasn’t so sure. Look what happened to Mauriel. For all her strength she lost her own daughter to infighting. Who’s to say he might not lose Piper, or his mother, or even his father?
And then it wasn’t just the risks. It was the pack. 14 strong, the remnants of Elridge’s pack mixed with his own. Say they accepted him, would they follow? 9 once had followed Elridge, and 13 now followed Sten. Why would they follow him?
The purpose of the strong was to lead the weak. To guide them to victory. To keep them safe. But without any willing to follow, what need was there for all his strength?
None. Mike saw quite clearly.
This was Sten’s pack. If he wanted to lead so badly, he’d have to find his own.
Mike didn’t dare list his ambition as a reason for leaving. He told them he’d leave to find himself. To discover who he was outside of the pack, to move on with his life and become his own person. He was 18, after all. It seemed a fitting speech. His family, his pack, believed him. Or wanted to at least. Most of them supported it. And just like that, they let him go.
Mike might have felt bad at first, lying to them. Concealing that it was strength and not self-discovery he was chasing. He would end up finding both.
That was the thing about the wilds. They have a way of proving you wrong.
Because out there was nothing like the packs. There were no rules, no borders, no hunting grounds to be laid claim to. Everything to be claimed had long ago been conquered by the forests. And the woods had only one rule. Do whatever it takes to survive.
And he would. And he did.
For months Mike wandered, following the footsteps of other wanderers, seeking the kinship of his own kind like a quiet desperation. Or…no. Was it kinship? Or still the hunger, the need for strength that had propelled him forward most of his life? Something between them, Mike rationed. Perhaps a little of both.
Inevitably, he found himself amongst other half-wolves. Packs on the outskirts of society, those still bound in blood to the trees and the rivers like Sten’s. They welcomed him with open arms. Or so he thought. Mike found out later, he didn’t give them much of a choice.
Because still the stench of the alpha clung to him. Like a blessing, like a curse. A power and dominance undeniable by any who stood in its wake. Something in his stature, in his growl, in his gaze. He didn’t know what it was exactly. But it was there. And everyone knew it.
The younger, weaker wolves feared it. He could tell, it was written all over their faces. The older, the alphas and other higher ranks, seemed angered by it. They took it like a challenge.
Inevitably, Mike found himself fighting. Usually alphas, high-ranking wolves. They took his mere presence as a challenge for the pack. Winner-take-all. Life included. But Mike found out pretty quickly, he didn’t want it. Their packs. Their lives. Maybe he was supposed to. After all, a part of him liked the fear he put in their hearts. He liked the submission, their faith in his strength, their will to follow. But somehow, it never felt right to him. Not really.
He was strong, stronger than most. That no one could deny. But what was strength without something to fight for?
Mike thought he might give it up. Return to his old pack, his family, settle. He didn’t need to make beta, alpha. He didn’t need a pack of his own. At least with Sten’s pack he had something to fight for. Someone to fight for. That was another thing about the woods, they have a way of reminding you of what it means to be alone.
Mike couldn’t lie to himself, he missed them, his pack. He missed being a part of something that mattered. Maybe, he thought, maybe if he turned back he’d still have a chance of replacing old Sten. Maybe Piper had waited for him, like they always promised when they were kids. Maybe he was never meant to leave after all.
He came close. Another week maybe, and he might have done it.
Instead, he found them.
He stumbled upon them by accident; a hunting party on the edge of the mountains. Couple of pack kids, all around his age. Two lower-ranking males with dark fur and one higher with blonde.
It was nearing evening, Mike had been looking for a place to lay low overnight. The last thing he wanted was another fight.
They froze when they saw him. Like they’d just been caught lie. Or maybe a trap. It was a reaction Mike became all too familiar with. That is, fear.
Mike fell silent as they barred their teeth, tails raised in all manner of false confidence. He’d just got out of a pretty bad scrap with a pack a ways north. A fight now wouldn’t go well for either of them.
As best he couldn’t, he drew back, gave them their opening. He’d let them form their own impressions.
They recovered quickly, as wolves are prone to. Took his silence for submission. They approached him slowly. Like at any moment he might lash out, go for their necks. He could sense their hesitation like a shiver in the wind. For their sakes, Mike pretended to ignore it.
He could feel them sizing him up, eyes catching on his teeth, his claws, his stature. Everything that made him strong. Everything that made him dangerous. Only when they affirmed his submission did they gain confidence, their growls softly abating. They quickly exchanged glances.
After a beat, the blonde stepped forward. Mike could sense his pride, his strength. Not near his own, but impressive still. Their beta? Maybe. Mike held his ground.
“What do you want?” The blonde demanded. As if Mike had confronted them. Their uneasiness was clear.
“I’m just passing through.” Mike shot him what was meant to be an appeasing gesture. Tried on something close to a smile. It didn’t seem to work.
“Nowhere. West, I guess. Just…passing.”
The blonde narrowed his eyes. The other two exchanged a glance. They didn’t trust him.
Mike shifted his weight back and forth between his front paws.
This wasn’t good. He didn’t want to fight them. He really didn’t want to fight them. He could, of course. And he’d win. He always won these days. But they were just kids. And Mike hated fighting kids. Kids fought honest, fast, quick, with nothing to lose. He fought like a demon.
“Listen, hey, just let me through and I’ll be out of your hair.” Mike tried bargaining. Suddenly he felt antsy.
The blonde hesitated. Meanwhile, behind him, the blackish-brown wolf shifted. “We should bring him to Sam. See what she wants to do with him.”
“But he hasn’t done anything.” The smaller, black wolf, seemed uncomfortable. “Has he?”
“No, I haven’t.” Mike insisted, taking a step forward. The blonde barred his teeth.
“Even so, I don’t like the look of him.” The brown-black wolf rattled.
The blonde agreed. Then, after a moment, he let out a low growl. “He smells like blood.”
The others’ ears pricked up. Mike felt his stomach drop.
“You don’t think he was with the group that attacked Ash?” The black wolf glanced him over nervously.
“Maybe. We never did find their alpha.”
They thought he was a pack wolf. Mike wasn’t surprised, this wasn’t the first time something like this had happened. Still, he tried to plead his case. He promised he’d be gone by nightfall, wouldn’t stir up trouble, all the usual excuses. They didn’t buy it.
Mike shifted his feet. He didn’t want to fight them. He really didn’t want to fight them. But something told him running might make it worse.
So he didn’t.
“Josh, tell Sam what’s going on.” The blonde barked at the smaller wolf. “You,” He locked eyes with Mike. “Come with us.”
His arrival went unannounced. Then again, every one of them knew the moment he entered the room. Mike couldn't help it, all his strength, his dominance; he had a way of announcing himself.
He could feel their eyes on him as he sauntered in. Or, he tried sauntering, he figured it came off more of a prowl. Thought his awkward smile was something more of a snarl.
After all, there was only one reason someone like him would be here. Someone like that.
It was dead silent, save for the soft drumming of heartbeats, the pulse of quickened breath. The air was thick with tension. A near-explosive fear. A fight about to break like a struck match. Mike swallowed hard.
5 half-wolves, and him. Marched in like hanged man for a crime he knew nothing about. 5 half-wolves, him included. And then, in the center of it all, was her.
There was no fire in her, but likewise no shiver. Not a breadth of hesitation or excitement. She didn't meet his gaze like a challenge. She met his gaze like she'd already fought the battle.
Their alpha, Mike could be certain. Sam.
They brought him to a stop before her.
“Josh fill you in?” The blonde, now in human form, addressed her.
“He did.” Her tone was decidedly neutral. “Said you found him out near the bend.”
“Right.” The blonde reported.
“Passing through.” Mike tried again to make his defense. He was silenced by a sharp look from her beta.
Sam furrowed her brows. “You think he’s one of the ones from the last attack?”
“Could be. They’ve been all around our borderers for days now. Maybe one got too curious.”
“Or maybe we’re all just a bit antsy.” Sam exhaled.
“Antsy?” He seemed almost offended. “Don’t you smell the blood on him? If he had anything to do with what happened to Ash…”
Sam frowned. She wasn’t buying it. Still, almost humoring the blonde, she turned her attention. “Ash?” She glanced at a redhead near the far corner of the room. “Recognize him?”
The red-head, Ashley, flinched. “N-no I don’t think so. I would have remembered…” She trailed off.
Someone like him. Mike shifted uncomfortably. Right.
“Didn’t think so.” Sam reaffirmed. “Besides, Chris, you said all the attackers were females didn’t you?”
“I-I did.” The beta stumbled.
“So that settles it.” She glanced around the room, like looking for objections. Then, hearing none, she turned her attention to him. “Sorry about all this. Things have been…a little tense around here lately.”
“I…no worries.” Mike didn’t know what to say.
“You’ll have to forgive Chris, after what happened to Ash we’re…playing it safe.”
Safe. “I understand.” And he did. He really did.
She smiled. Warmly. Like she meant it. “What’s your name?”
"Err, Mike." He reached out a hand almost before he could stop himself.
"Sam." She shook it. Her grip was firm, like his.
He could feel the eyes of her pack on him. Could sense their fear. Like he might transform and go for her throat. Like he might be lying, have had something to do with that pack after all.
If she noticed, she ignored it.
“Mike.” She released his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
He had to be strong.
Like Sam, like her pack.
The offer didn’t come immediately, of course. But it came. An open invitation to join. Just like that. They were looking for members after all. And he was, despite himself, still looking for a pack.
He said no, at first. Thought he might honor is original vow. Head back home to Sten, to Piper, to his parents. He only intended on staying with them a few nights before he headed out. Then nights turned into weeks. Then weeks into months. Then leaving was no longer a question.
He couldn’t help it, something about Sam’s pack…intrigued him. Drew him in. Something about the company, the lodge, the kids his age. And something about Sam herself.
She was, overwhelmingly, everything he wasn't. Her strength came from patience. Kindness. Honesty. Her strength was in the tambour of her voice instead of the curve of her teeth. The gentle understanding of her words rather than the sharpness of her claws. As far as alphas went, she was something else entirely.
Not to say she didn't have the typical alpha traits. The strength. The wisdom. The confidence. But that’s not why the other half-wolves followed her. They followed because they trusted her. They followed because they respected her. She didn’t raise her voice at them. She didn’t beat them, push them around, force them into fighting. Not like the other alphas. She treated them all, every single one of them, like equals. The pack dynamics were there, but it wasn’t what she cared about. She cared about them. And in time, so did he.
The offer didn’t come immediately. Because Sam knew if he was going to join it would have to be on his own terms, for his own reasons. But it came. An open invitation to join. He was to be made second rank, her beta. Chris didn’t seem to mind the demotion. Surprisingly, no one did.
Because Sam was clever. She recognized his dominance, his ambition, the moment they met. Everything the others were afraid of. But she knew power wasn’t all he wanted. He was looking for someone to fight for, something to fight for. So she gave it to him.
Sam was clever. She saw the strength that haunted him like a shadow, the power and dominance he’d worked so hard for so long to build. But she knew strength without cause was worthless. He was looking for someone to fight beside as well as for. So she gave it to him. In the form of the pack. In herself.
Ever since he was a child, all Mike had wanted was strength. After all, strength was the way of the wolf, the way of the pack. But strength wasn’t everything. And the pack was never his alone.
Eventually, he relented. Eventually, Mike said yes.