The sky was matted with thick gray drapes. The ghostly moonlight streamed through the cracks in the rolling clouds, giving the skies a laced spider web appearance. Wind howled viciously, tearing through the long grass and shaking the branches of the trees. Rain splattered down in brief spurts, dotting the cold hard stone with dark rings.
A single hunched figure sat in the cleft of the rock, the shadows churning it's silver form into black. Blue eyes stared through slits out onto the horizon, slowly trailing back across the land until it's gaze was on its paws. Thunder rumbled high in the sky, and the gale slid its smooth claws through the being's thin, tight pelt.
More shapes moved in the darkness, and a heavy set wolf with broad shoulders, stocky legs, and a thick muscly neck padded out to stand beside it's smaller, thinner companion.
"Will the weather hold?" His gruff voice snuffled, followed by a hoarse cough.
The she-wolf stared at him with eyes that seemed to stare with more age than her young body portrayed. "It must be done on this night," She said, "We will not bargain for any more trouble by denying this ritual any further."
She turned away with a rustle of soft wispy fur, and slid past the large male, her paws making soft pattering sounds on the smooth stone. The path sloped down between the rising rock, deep into darkness. She let her paws slide into the dibbled indents in the ground made by centuries of paws trampling the terrain where she walked.
Light soon began to return to her surroundings, and the sound of dripping water began to echo from the space that opened out. The ceiling of the cave broke away, leaving an open roof where the light poured in. A ring of dark wetness stained the centre of the cave, surrounded by dusty dry edges that the rain had not reached.
Wolves pressed themselves against the walls, some laying down, eyes hooded, others pacing restlessly. The she-wolf dragged her cold gaze across the members of the pack, resting finally on three who sat in the largest scoop against the wall.
"Sky, you must let these two depart," She said, curling the tip of her tail slightly.
A very regal, slender she-wolf with deep gray fur turned, the darkness in the knook of the rock giving her white flecked coat a blue appearance. She took a deep breath, glancing at the two much younger wolves that crouched beside her, looking nervous and tired.
"I understand Rune..." The wolf barked, nuzzling each of the juvieniles to their paws.
Rune watched carefully as the young ones skittered by their mothers side for a moment, then tripped towards her, their eyes wide as moons. She rested her gaze on the first one, a deep mottled brown dog wolf, with the same stature as the male she had spoken with outside. He swallowed nervously and dipped his head to her, two scarlet cardinal feathers woven tightly into the wirey strands of hair around his neck mane.
She glanced at his sister, smaller and thinner, looking almost as if her pelt was clinging to her skeleton. Though her whole skinny body trembled, her eyes were bright with determination as she bowed a little to Rune, a single baby blue jay's feather woven into the fur behind her right ear.
"Ah..." Rune breathed, a very thin smile on her rigid face. "Pine and Willow, son and daughter of the alphas."
The female stared with awe as she was addressed, straightening up from her hunched stance, suddenly looking taller beside her nervous brother. Her soft hazel gaze locked with Rune's piecing blue eyes for a moment, then the older she-wolf turned away, tail thrashing.
"You know your way out of the cave. Go now at once, your father is waiting for you. I await your return."
Pine slid past his sister, taking a deep breath and bounding for the shadows that Rune had appeared through, and soon it seemed to swallow him whole like the mouth of a large wolf. Willow took a shaky breath, glancing at her mother once, watching Sky give her an approving nod before scurrying after her.
The choking darkness overwhelmed her, and all sound and light seemed to be blocked out as she galloped up the rising slope. She began to breathe heavily, panic clutching at her chest and lungs. It felt like she was sinking in a tide of black water, struggling to surface and snatch at the cold air.
Her paws sped up, pulling her forwards as fast as she could until her muscles were screaming with pain. No matter how fast she ran, she got nowhere. Cold filled her chest, and she let out a terrified yelp, skidding to a halt and flattening her ears to the back of her skull. All sign of Pine was gone, as if he had safely passed through the tunnel as Rune had, and was already on the other side with Storm, their father.
"H-help..." She cried softly, cringing as her voice echoed all around her.
She leaped forward a little more, then gasped and skid back, eyes burning with tears, terror gripping at her like huge talons. A large, ghostly white wolf stood a few meters ahead of her, a glowing contrast to the never ending blackness surrounding. It stared at her with pale blue eyes, its wisping, billowing white pelt giving off a cold feeling that Willow couldn't shake off.
"Who are you?" She screeched, pressing against the hard rock, cowering away from the misty white creature.
The wolf opened it's maw, as if to say something, but just exhaled loudly, silver fog clouding from it's muzzle. There was a deep growling from behind Willow, and something as the black as the cave lunged forward with a blood curdling snarl, and grabbed the white wolf by the throat, dragging it down, down, down...
Willow gasped and rolled to her paws, eyes flying open. She was lying on the uncomfortable, damp ground of the cave. She stared around, breathing harshly for a long moment before she pushed herself up, a calm settling over her. The white wolf was gone, replaced by the open mouth of the cave, letting in the light. Storm and Pine were staring in at her as if nothing had happened, waiting patiently to walk out.
Gathering her senses, she cast the terrible memory away and hurried after them, skidding to halt and taking a few sharp breaths of the crisp night air. Pine brushed up against her, the warmth of his body seeping into her. She could almost feel his excitement, his whole body radiating with tension.
"The path of the stone forest is a dangerous one," Storm said, padding to the edge of the low cliff, "And hunting is hard in these times. Thus, you will each be partnered with one of our fellow pack members."
He flicked his tail to the shadows cast by the pinnacle of rock, and two wolves stepped forward. One, a burly, grumpy looking dog wolf with copper brown fur that was brushed in all directions; the other a friendly looking beige and brown she-wolf.
"Pine, you go with Rain." He pulled his son over towards the female, getting them to touch noses in greeting and bow a little to eachother.
Willow watched anxiously as her brother and the wolf he had been paired with for the mission spoke in low voices, occationally staring out into the green forest beyond. Her heart skipped a beat when her father ushered her over to stand beside River, the broad-shoulders, amber-eyed male.
She touched her damp nose to his, trying not to flinch under his hard, unimpressed gaze. Shuffling to sit beside him, she angled her ears towards Storm, envy stirring up her stomach for seeing her brother get a kind partner to work with.
"Now," Storm said loudly, catching their attention, "You both know that your mission is to hunt for the pack. Use all the tactics that have been taught to you through words and stories out there in the field. As soon as the clouds part from around the full moon, I will howl as a signal for you to depart. I will howl again if one or both of you hasn't returned for a long expanse of time or conditions rally for the mission to be called off."
Apprehension had made a home in Willow's belly. She stared out into the forest, a mixture of tall pines, feathery evergreens, and splashes of cold gray rock wherever the foliage parted. Her paws moved restlessly; her blunt claws tapping on the ground whenever she shifted her weight from side to side.
There was a sudden bright light, and Willow squinted as the wind drove one of the thick clouds off the moon. She stared at the bright white disk, breath stolen from her throat. The white light bathed over her and the other wolves, seeming to drop the temprature of the air by a few degrees.
Storm raised his head and took a deep breath, then let himself release a long, trailing howl. His tone changed in the one howl, rising and falling, almost giving the impression that he was a dozen wolves howling at once. Before Willow could notice what was happening, River had gusted past her and was leaping down the gravel slope.
She scampered after him, trying not to lose sight of his bronze shape in the nightly forest. Her paws grazed on the rough shale and she bounced down, and she was relieved when she finally slid onto wet, slick grass. Rain and Pine went pelting past them, barking with pleasure as they disappeared into the undergrowth.
From back on the rocky cliff side, Storm's voice called out distantly. "And whatever you do, don't split up!"
Willow turned her head, then squeaked when she saw River was already disappearing ahead of her. She hurried to catch up with him, biting her lip to stop herself from panting. Even though it was her first day right out of the pack cave, she didn't want to make it look like she was already tired in front of River.
She kept opening her mouth to whisper something to him, but every time he seemed to see it coming and he growled a shush through his teeth. She tailed him through the winding forest, the eerie whispering in the trees filling her ears. Only a few minutes had passed of tramping through rough terrain and Willow already felt exhausted, wariness hanging at her limbs, her paws bleeding from the shards of rock scattered in the grass.
Brushing under the overhanging ferns, she stepped up onto a large flat rock, bits of bracken clinging to her pelt. River bounded up beside her and paused, opening his mouth to taste the air. She copied him, her eyes trailing over him and trying to pick up his actions.
"I don't see why I should have to hunt with pups..." He grumbled, honey yellow eyes on the bushes.
She bit her tongue a little, but she couldn't hold back from retorting. "I'm not a pup. This mission is the very thing that is going to prove that I am an adult wolf, ready for survival!"
He snickered, leaping back into the grass and almost fading from sight. She hurried after him, terrified of the idea of losing him out here in the labyrinth of trees. Without River, she'd never find her way home.
Up ahead, Willow could hear Rain and Pine crashing through the brambles. River had paused to scowl and make a brief comment on how they were going to scare the prey away, then carried on without saying much else. Willow kept her head low, her nose sniffing at the ground most of the time. The only scents she got were those of the rich soil and the fragrant leafery.
The only scents she had ever tasted at the back of her mouth had been those she had been subjected to from birth. The milky fur scent of her mother, the dusty rock, the scent of rain, and damp. The only traces of the forest were those the other wolves carried home on their pelts.
She drank in as much of the smells as she could without sneezing from breathing in pollen. The thunder began to rumble more constantly, and the rain splatters were starting to morph into a shower all over. The droplets rarely broke the canopy, but Willow could hear it pelting the leaves above her.
"The scent of rain is masking everything else!" River snarled with frustration, staring upwards at the water that was starting to leak through.
Willow shivered, the damp cold air starting to seep bone deep. The wicked and wild wind shook at the trees, making the whole forest sway. The gale rattled the branches, and soon the downpour began to flood through.
With a meer bark of warning to her, River broke into a run. She pelted after him, paws skidding in the mud that churned up beneath their feet. At first the water streamed off her fur like droplets on duck feathers, but soon she could feel the downy underlayer of her coat beginning to soak.
Her pelt heavy with water, she paused to shake, then tramp after River. He wheeled around an oak tree and almost slid over in the marshy leaf litter, his eyes glowing like lanterns. Willow was screaming with fear on the inside, but she kept to River's flank constantly.
"I can smell the elk!" He roared through the pounding of the rain, water dripping from his thick eyebrows into his eyes.
She snatched at the air, blowing out water through her nostrils. There was the warm taste of blood and hot fur, but it was distant, as if it hadn't been there for a while, and the rain had cleared off the trail.
"It goes this way!" He called, marching through the mud.
Willow glanced in the opposite direction, taking a deep breath. The more breaths she took, the stronger and warmer the scent got. "No, it's this way!" She barked.
He turned, curling his lip angrily. "It's this way! The scent is over here, is there something wrong with your nose?"
She trembled, but she knew he was wrong. He was following a stale scent, the fresh one was the other way. She beckoned him over, her pale brown coat plastered to her sides.
"I'm going this way!" He barked ferociously, storming off through the bracken.
She opened her mouth to call for him, but she clamped her jaws shut, eyes misting up. Storm had strictly said not to split up. She doubted that River had paid any attention to what she had said. Solemnly glancing in the direction the warm, tender scent was in, she knew deep down she couldn't bring down an elk alone. But, with the time she had wasted standing there, River would be far into the forest, his scent dampened away.
Maybe I could howl for him if I find them... She turned her back on the spot River had disappeared, making up her mind. Forget it! He can be a sour wolf. I might bump into Pine out there, even!
She raced away, tail stuck out straight as she darted nimbly through the forest. Her paws carried her thick and fast, straight over fallen logs and mounds of dirt. The pound of the rain seemed to be fading, even though it appeared like it was falling faster than ever. The whole space around her seemed to be darkening, the greenery shattering and falling away in pieces.
With a gasp, her scene tumbled away like that when she had been in the tunnel, just darkness, her legs tiring even though they carried her nowhere. Skidding to a halt, she lowered her head, water streaming off every strand of fur and onto the ground.
Between ragged gasps for breath, she blinked up, seeing the very same white aura of a wolf, hovering in the darkness ahead. Instead of shying away from it, she took a few steps forward, and suddenly all the shadows whipped away, and the roar of the rain returned. She was back in the forest, but the bright spirit still stood in her path, staring at her with blank eyes.
Willow took another step, and suddenly the wolf turned and bounded away, then glanced over it's shoulder and dropped into a play-bow position, hind quarters in the air and front half bent right down, legs flat on the ground. Willow stared with wonder at the strange wolf, taking another few steps after it. It moved its mouth as if it was barking, then bounded ahead again, daring her to chase.
Without hesitation she streaked forward, and the white wolf turned on it's heel and slipped through the bushes. Hard on it's tail, she followed, shaking water from her eyes as she ran. The scent grew stronger, filling Willow's senses and almost blocking out everything else. She could feel the saliva in her mouth building up already at the thought of warm meat.
The white wolf had stopped up ahead, and as soon as Willow reached it's side, it just vanished. Gone. Dispersed into thin air. She glanced around wildly for any sign of it, but the only remnants of it ever being there was the ghostly cold it brought.
Through the wall of brambles, Willow could hear the thud of hooves in the damp earth. She twitched her ears, picking up the snorting breath of elk, the grunts and sounds between them, and the tear of grass being cut neatly with their teeth.
Lowering her belly to the ground, she slithered forward, poking her nose through the fronds of grass. She bit back a gasp as she looked forward at the herd, at least a few dozen heavy set elk, their bodys slick wet. Their hot breath rose as clouds in the cold air. Willow couldn't tear her gaze away as they milled around, parting her jaws the tinest bit so their scent could bathe her tongue.
The wind tousled at the jay feather that had a few strands of her fur knotted around it. She took a deep breath, thinking whether she should go back for help with the elk, when there was a familiar sound. A low howl grew louder and louder, beginning to change in tone as it went on. Thunder raged over it, but Willow could still faintly hear it droaning in the distance. Storm was calling the mission off.
The elk herd began to give loud grunts and bleats, their hooves hitting the ground loudly as they panicked. The sound of the wolf howl scared them, and they began to flare their nostrils and stamp warily. Willow swallowed nervously, wondering if they had scented her. She took a backwards step, about to turn and flee back towards the sound of her father, when a huge black shadow sailed over her.
A black wolf twice the size of Storm landed in front of her, back to her face. It let out a deep snarl, tail thrashing, legs parted as if it wanted to lunge at one of the elk and tear it's throat out. Willow squeaked and backed away. There were rustles all around, and more wolves began to leap into the clearing, all of their backs to her, facing the elk.
The herd began to reverse into the corner against the dense trees, the whites in some of their eyes showing as they shook their heads with distress. The group of wolves proweled towards them, snapping their teeth dauntingly and making sickening barks and growls. The massive black wolf made a rough, snarling bark from the back of his throat, and he leaped towards the herd.
The stag let out a strangled call, and it charged forward, leaping right over the wolves and landing heavily behind them. The whole herd leaped forward, and the wolves let out yelps of surprise as they swarmed over and through them, their heavy hooves and stocky legs trampling the wolves out of the way.
Willow screeched as the stag came bounded past her, and she flattened herself to the ground as the rest of the herd galloped over her, some of their heavy feet clipping her sides or standing on her heavily. She squeaked with pain as a heavy hoof crunched against her ribs. The thundering of their stampede began to fade, and Willow lay like a scrap of fur on the wet ground, pain bolting through her body.
"I told you we should of cornered one!" Snarled a vicious voice.
There was a yelp, and the sound of a wolf falling over. "I don't care what you told me, Falcon. We did what I wanted. If you had been faster, we would of caught them!"
"It's nothing to do with us," A royal sounding female spoke up, "It was that howl that provoked them."
"Sounds like Storm has some of his little pups out here in the big bad forest," The crazy, snarling voice came again.
Willow winced and sat upright, her tail tight between her legs. She trembled all over, and pain throbbed in her ribcage. She raised her head and stared at the trees that the wolves were behind, ears pricked.
"Storm's children, hmm..." The voice that spoke then was one that sent fear jolting like lightning right through Willow's body.
"Obviously, they can't handle the weather."
"Storm has always been weak. A coward! His children will be no less, huh?"
"Yes, yes. Storm couldn't bring down a stag if it snapped it's legs off."
Fury rose inside of Willow as she listened to them talk of her father. She didn't know how they knew about her pack, or who they were, but she wasn't going to let them talk foul when Storm was the bravest wolf she had ever known. Rising to her paws, she limped towards the trees, then burst through them, half tumbling, half sliding down the bank.
The five wolves suddenly wheeled around to face her, malice glinting in all of their gazes. The huge black male leered at her, taking a few steps forward, his wide paws making deep indents in the soft soil. He walked forward until he was leaning right over Willow, his deep, bottomless eyes staring deep into her. His foul breath stank of death and carrion, and his teeth with sharp and yellow.
"Well, well, well, what do we have here?"