Chapter 4: Challenges
It was the smell of her blood that gave him pause.
That smell brought the beast forward with a violent change. Seconds later, a large brown wolf stood over Renee’s limp body, whining and licking at her face. When she didn’t respond, he sat back and let out a mournful howl before laying down beside her. He pushed he head to the side with his nose and started licking the cut on the back of her head. His mate was hurt, and the beast had not been fast enough to stop it.
Derek and Amanda had come running as soon as they felt Renee’s distress. Without hesitation, Derek lowered himself into the pit and walked over to the pair.
Gary’s wolf recognized his Alpha and exposed his neck in submission as he whined. “I need to get Doc in here to look at her, he will not hurt her.” Gary nodded and continued to lick at her head and face as he waited. Her neck was obviously bruised and she was starting to have trouble breathing. Her distress made Gary even more distraught; Derek knew that he had to get him out of the way. Using the bond, he looked in Gary’s amber eyes and said, “I need you to shift back to your human form and come over here with me.”
“I can’t, he hurt her, I have to protect her from him.”
“You can’t protect her from yourself. You need both your human and wolf sides to come to terms with what is going on here. Where is your human side now?”
“I forced him back and locked him away deep in our mind. He can’t hurt her now.”
“Is that what you did after your first shift?”
“Yes, the human was scared and wouldn’t share. I isolated him until you told me I needed to let him out. I can’t take that chance again.”
“Gary, do you trust me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you trust that as Alpha I have the best interests of my pack in mind at all times?”
“Let Doc take care of your mate and let me help you. Shift back to human form. You are going to have to learn to share, and you have to let your human side see what is going on with the wolf side.”
Doc had reached Renee and was placing her neck in a brace. The swelling on her neck was causing her to wheeze, and so Ann unwrapped an intubation tube and handed it to Doc. Once they had it in place, it held her airway open and her color soon returned. They started to strap her into a stretcher. “Alpha, I have to take her back for monitoring. I can’t assess her head injury in this place, and if she needs help with breathing I’d rather be back in my clinic with the rest of my supplies.” Gary sat back and howled his grief again as his injured mate was raised out of the pit and taken away.
“Your human side can’t hurt her now. Shift and let me talk to him.”
A few moments passed before Gary lay in human form again. He looked around frantically, recognizing Derek and not seeing Renee. He wondered why he was still alive after all he had done. “What is going on? Who are you?”
“My name is Derek, I’m the Alpha of the Johnson Pack. You are here because you are now a werewolf like us.”
Gary pondered this for a moment. “I remember being bitten, I remember that woman hitting me with the alcohol. After that I don’t remember much. Where is she? I hurt her, didn’t I?”
“Yes, Renee is with the doctor right now. She will recover, but it may take a few days. You nearly killed her.”
“I tried to... but then I couldn’t. It’s like I knew I was making a mistake but didn’t know why. Then everything went black again.”
“My sister is strong, she will pull through this trial.” Gary went ashen at this, after everything he had done he had followed it up by attacking the Alpha's sister. Maybe they were just resting him up for the next round of torture? He could see he was in a pit, and there were some people looking down at them. Derek reached out his hand and placed it on his shoulder. “Do not worry, you are family now.” Gary was even more shocked, how could he be family after what he had done? “How much do you know about werewolves?”
“Not that much. This war started my senior year at the Air Force Academy. We watched the coverage, the base was on lockdown. A week later they had officers come down the ranks and shine black lights into our eyes. There were a few pulled out of our ranks, we never saw them again. One was a friend of mine, I never suspected a thing. We were told they were werewolves who had infiltrated our ranks. It didn’t take long after that before the shoot on sight orders came out. We knew was that they could pass as humans, were incredibly dangerous, and if one got to you and you survived, you would become a monster yourself. I saw the tapes in the hospitals, and I understood what was at stake.”
“Then you know that you have that kind of power inside you, but you also know that we can be friends. I have seen and talked to your wolf, we were able to keep him sedated until the worst of it was past. My question is how much YOU know about your wolf.”
“Nothing. I have gaps in my memory, and then it’s just fleeting images. Like when I saw the blood on her head, I saw an image of her naked and hugging me, and I couldn’t understand it. I know somehow she is important to me, but why?”
“You need to understand that for a werewolf, there are two forms in our mind. Our human which you are used to, and our wolf form. The wolf is driven by instinct, not conscious thought. It is fiercely protective and strong. It’s driven to mate, to reproduce and to function within the Pack. Wolves mate for life, and the wolf is the one that recognizes their mate by smell. The wolf knows that there is one out there who completes them, who they are meant to spend their life with, and is the only one they can have children with. The scent of their mate comes to them in a dream when they are sexually mature, and it is the hope of every one of us to find that mate and make them ours. My sister, Renee, is your mate. She got close enough to get your scent and claimed you while you were still chained up.”
Gary laid back and closed his eyes. He remembered how aroused he was by her that day, how beautiful she was, and then he started crying as he realized how badly he had hurt her. He didn’t understand before why she didn’t even try to fight him when he was choking her, only now he realized that she couldn’t hurt him.
“Your wolf has already accepted her as your mate, even though the actual mating hasn’t occurred yet. You survived because of her. Your mate was with you the whole time, never leaving your side. Her smell and touch kept the anger away until your body could heal and your wolf could accept the change. You owe your life to her.” Gary knew this to be true. “I want you to relax and close your eyes. Weres are able to communicate mind to mind with their Alpha and their mate. I want to show you some things you missed.” Using his bond, he then projected to him the events after he had passed out; how Renee had protected him, cared for him, and healed him. The tears ran freely as he watched; when he first saw her he thought she was perfect, but she was more than that, she was magnificent. His heart ached with the stirrings of love as he saw her holding him.
“Now I want you to look inside your mind for your wolf. He is there with you, he will always be with you, but you have to find a balance between your human and your beast nature. Think of it as a sliding scale, on one end fully human and the other fully beast. One or the other is primary, but you have to share. What both of you have been doing has been to lock the other up and keep it from interacting. This will only lead to madness and destruction.”
“But can I let him win?”
“It’s not about winning, you can’t win against yourself. It’s about sharing your mind, each side respecting what the other can provide. You only go to the extremes when you have to, say in battle you give yourself fully to the wolf side, when doing intellectual activities you go to the human side. Your body then follows your mind, when the wolf comes forward your body does the same. Just understand that it is fluid; it’s not an on/off switch, it’s more like a left/right balance on your stereo. Moving back and forth is easy once you establish trust between the two parts, and your mind can control when that happens.”
Gary considered this; he was afraid of his wolf and what his wolf might do. Then again, his wolf had seen what his human side had done. Laying back on the mat, he searched his mind for the place he had locked his wolf. He found him in a cage in a dark room, pacing and snarling. He saw his human form approach and unlock the cage, holding out his hand for the wolf to sniff. Tentatively his wolf came forward, hackles still up, but he could sense the sadness in his eyes as he sat down before him. He hugged his wolf and in his mind tore down the cage that kept him trapped. “We will have to share. I’m sorry about what I did, I hope you can trust me.” His wolf rubbed his muzzle against his cheek and showed him their mate’s joy when he came out of his drug-induced sleep. “Yes, my wolf, we will have to share our mate too!”
Gary changed over to his wolf form, but this time it was different. He immediately noticed how sharp and bright his vision was, and the smells of the place exploded in his nose. He realized that he was now seeing the world through his wolf, who chuffed and moved around happily. The voice in his head came back. “If you are ready to leave, I’d like to take you to her.”
He immediately changed back, but this time he could feel the wolf side in his consciousness. Sharing was different, but interesting. He could feel the urging of his wolf to go to her. “Alpha, if you would permit, my wolf and I would like to see our mate.” Derek smiled broadly and called for ropes to be lowered. Gary left the pit for the first time in four days and walked back out the cave towards the sleeping areas in the front.
His heart broke when he saw Renee in the bed, tube sticking out of her mouth and Ann watching by his bedside. Ann smiled as they came in. “Alpha, she is stable and breathing well, but she has not regained consciousness yet.”
Gary fell to his knees beside her, sobbing as he moved the hair off her face and caressed her cheek. The guilt crashed upon him; how would she ever forgive him for what he did? Could he forgive her for torturing him? He traced the scars on his arms and chest as he looked down on her. Forgive? He already had.
He had known she was special from the first time he saw her. She was his MATE and he vowed at that instant to protect and love her for the rest of his days as his wolf agreed. He held her hand and whispered into her ear, “My love, come back to me. My wolf and I want to be with you forever.”
He felt her squeeze his hand and a huge smile broke from his face. “Sleep, my love, we will never leave you.” He stretched out on the bed alongside her and fell asleep listening to her heartbeat.
Air Operations Command Center, Cheyenne Air National Guard Base
General Thaddeus Martin’s day had just gone to shit.
The Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware had been charged with identifying the remains from Pedro 155. The rescue helicopter had mysteriously exploded and all crew were lost shortly after recovering Air Force Capt. Gary Johnson from the forest below. Except it wasn’t Capt. Johnson, as the flash message in his hand revealed. They didn’t know who he was, but the DNA tests showed WHAT he was. The body parts they recovered were of a werewolf.
Capt. Johnson’s status was just changed from Killed in Action (KIA) to Missing in Action (MIA). His squadron commander and chaplain were on their way to his parent’s house in Denver. Now Gen. Martin had a downed pilot, presumed captured by werewolves and deep behind enemy lines.
Every aircraft they had was pressed into service to begin a low altitude search centered on the crash location. Army personnel were being deployed to start a ground search. The biggest rescue mission since the Gulf War was gearing up in south central Wyoming.
He rescinded the shoot on sight order, requiring visual verification of targets prior to engaging. He couldn’t take the chance of killing his own man.
When Derek returned to the main pack area, he found Amanda there along with the rest of the pack. The mood was restless; packs did not like internal conflict, they upset the natural order of things. Gary had brought nothing but conflict since he arrived.
“Amanda, what is the mood here?”
“Most of the pack is angry, both that he wasn’t killed and then that he attacked Renee. They can’t understand how he could reject his mate.”
“He hasn’t. He just has some issues to work through with his wolf.”
Derek called a pack meeting, and in a few minutes the remaining members of his small pack were surrounding him except Renee and Gary. He filled everyone in on what had been happening with Gary’s change, his difficulty adjusting to the duality of his Were nature, and Renee’s recovery. “Gary and Renee will mate after she is well enough. I will not interfere with a mating that Luna has ordained.”
There was some muttering among the pack, as to many Gary was still responsible in part for the loss of their families and the war thus far. No one openly challenged his decision, but it was clear some did not agree.
Things had just started to settle down when Mike stepped forward. He had lost his mate during the bombing and was having a difficult time adjusting. The one shot he had at causing Gary pain hadn’t eased his own. Looking up at his Alpha pair, he snarled, “I challenge Gary for his right to mate Renee, as allowed by Pack law for the mating of an Alpha or Next Alpha.”
An excited ripple went through the crowd as those still wanting revenge saw what could happen. Challenges of the Alpha or heir were allowed because the leaders of the Pack needed to be the strongest, most able leaders. A person mating the Next Alpha would immediately become second in command of the Pack, and Gary was determined to ensure it wouldn’t be a man who was responsible for so much damage. A challenge was a rare thing in Were life, usually taking place only when the Alpha was weak or displayed poor leadership. Derek sighed, knowing that he couldn’t stop the challenge. “Gary just became aware of his wolf nature in the last few days, and has no experience in fighting. It would be unfair to allow a challenge until he is more prepared.”
“Fair? You talk of fairness to me about a man who has admitted to bombing women and children in our Pack from the comfort of his airplane? Fairness is a concept I find to be a luxury at this time. He is a wolf now, he must live as one. I will make sure that life is a short and painful one.”
Derek pulled Amanda to his side. “Very well, I will convey the challenge to him and explain what is involved. The challenge will take place at sunrise tomorrow morning.”
Seeing the opportunity, two more stepped forward. Red and Billy. Both had lost their mates. “Alpha, if Gary survives, we also challenge him for the right to mate the Next Alpha.”
Derek saw how this was going, but could not stop it. “Red, you will have the next challenge followed by Billy. Doc must ensure Gary is recovered before your challenges, though.” It was pretty clear to Derek now that a part of the pack would never be able to accept Gary as a leader. He also would now have to deal with Renee and what she would do with multiple challenges to her mating. He didn’t need this right now.
Pedro 155 Crash Site
The Army had taken over the crash site. Troops from the 1st Cavalry Division, 2nd Armored Combat Team, 1st battalion 5th Cavalry- known as the Black Knights- had been airlifted in by helicopter over the course of the morning. Now that this was a search and rescue operation, they needed clues as to what they were facing and where he may have been taken.
Once they started looking, they quickly found the abandoned bunkers and equipment that the Were squad had left behind. The empty tube from the Stinger missile explained the loss of the F-15E. They also found Gary’s helmet, gloves and some other equipment near where is parachute had been cut down and rolled up. The clothes and beds abandoned were the real boon; the company had brought along several military working dog teams who were trained in tracking. The dogs didn’t like the smell of the were, but they were trained and experienced in this. It would be difficult to track after the week had elapsed, but it might be their best chance. The dogs worked the edges of the site until they alerted to a path heading west through a pass. The dog teams led three squads of infantry through the woods as helicopters and fixed wing aircraft searched ahead of them. All available Predator drones had been diverted to the area, continually scanning in both visual and infrared ranges.
There was no higher military priority right now- they would find him and kill those who had taken him. Every man in the command was outraged that the Weres would attack a rescue helicopter, and the pain from the memorial ceremony was still fresh in their minds.
Emily was the young omega designated to bring the food to Gary as he waited for Renee to wake up. She didn’t like the assignment but it was her job and she would do it to the best of her ability. She walked into the cave room serving as the clinic and nervously stood waiting to be acknowledged. It took a while; Gary’s attention was fully on his mate as she twitched and groaned in that area somewhere between asleep and awake. The swelling in her throat had gone down and the breathing tube had been removed. He was stroking her hair and whispering into her ear. After a minute, he turned his head and noticed her. “Sir, I have brought you some dinner. There is some stew and some fresh bread.”
He nodded at the table on the other side of the bed, and she placed it there while he went back to talking in his mate’s ear. “Sir... you really should eat. You will need your strength in the morning.” Emily was a romantic, she loved that Renee had found her mate. She didn’t understand why Gary had hurt her, but now he was the kind of mate she dreamed she would find. He was young and strong and handsome. He had been punished enough. She hadn’t been able to watch him be tortured.
The stew was excellent, and he was glad she had brought a large bowl. He was just washing down the rest of the bread when Derek and Amanda walked in. Amanda looked nervous and Derek was masking his emotions. They both walked to Renee, touching her face and whispering their love, before they took a seat on the edge of the bed. Whatever they wanted to talk about must not be good.
“Gary,” began Derek, “we have to talk about a few things regarding your entry to the Pack.” Gary nodded, he was sure his arrival had caused all kinds of problems for his Alpha. “Normally, a male suitor to a female from our pack would take that female back to his own pack. You don’t have a pack, so mating with one of our women would normally be enough for the pack to agree to have you join them.”
“Sorry Alpha, but we have a bond, I thought the Alpha can only bond with those of his pack?”
“That is the case, and I have accepted you, but by our laws the pack must vote. If you lose the vote, you will have to leave and the Alpha bond will be broken. That isn’t the immediate problem, the real problem is that you are here and not mated yet and a number of members are upset that I haven’t had you killed. Three of them have challenged you for your right to mate with her.”
“But she is my mate, how can another take her away?”
“It is Pack law. Not all matings have been what we call ‘true’ matings, there are some that are done for power and status. When you mate with her, you gain her status and you would be second in command of the Pack, and become Alpha if anything happened to me. Our law states that you may be challenged to prove your are capable of being that leader. Three pack members have challenged you today.”
“Single combat in wolf form. At dawn tomorrow you will meet your first challenger in the challenge circle. Challenges are to death or submission.”
Gary sat back and considered this for a moment. “There’s more to this, isn’t there?”
Derek was starting to respect the insight Gary had, he had picked up on his hesitation. “Yes, all three men lost their mates in the bombing of our former caves. None have shown a desire to move up within the Pack hierarchy, but they won’t pass up the chance to tear you apart. They have the right to challenge. Maybe this will help you understand their motivation.”
Derek used his bond to show Gary the images of Pack life, showing their mates and families, the tearful goodbyes as the men left on patrol. Then he showed them his memory of the MOAB exploding, the power and pain of the lost bonds, and the devastation left behind.
Gary did not blame them for wanting him dead. He would want the same in their position.
“Couldn’t I just leave?”
“If you did, the Pack would hunt you down and tear you apart. You’ve hurt the Pack and you would be under no one’s protection. You are only alive now because I gave you protection in consideration for my sister.”
“So to live and have her, I need to fight and win. How do I fight in wolf form when I’ve barely been a wolf?”
“Remember how I said the wolf side of you is instinct? Part of that is how to fight and survive. You will need to trust your wolf to do that for you.”
A moan interrupted their talk. They all looked over at the bed, Renee’s eyes were open and they were staring at Gary. “Love... you must win. I can’t live without you.” She shifted her eyes to her brother. “Derek, please help him prepare. For me.” With that, she closed her eyes and settled back into sleep.
Amanda went over and lay down next to Renee. “Come on then.” Derek walked out and Gary followed him back to the pit. They didn’t have much time.
Ten miles west of crash site
Tracking had been difficult, but the dog teams had been able to find enough. They were barking around the rocks below an overhang; protected from the rain, the smell of the dried urine was easy for the dogs to pick up. From the footprints, the were had been here, and now they knew roughly which direction they were headed. The search grid shifted a little north and more troops were landed in the mountains to continue the search on foot.
An entire battalion of infantry and aviation assets was now in the hunt with more coming. The mountains were being surrounded with soldiers and they were closing in. If he was alive, they would find him.
As the patrols bedded down for the night, the drones and aircraft kept up their search. Nothing more had been seen by morning, so they would continue their push west.
The wolves on sentry duty had detected the drones shortly after midnight and had returned inside the cave where the infrared sensors could not pick them up. There had not been a time since then when at least one aircraft was not overhead. The challenge would not take place outside.
Derek and Gary had sparred in wolf form for most of the night, pausing only to eat, drink or for Derek to critique what he was doing. Derek was impressed; Gary was in remarkably good shape for what he had gone through, was strong and had excellent reflexes. The physical characteristics and mental toughness he had developed as a pilot helped him stay calm and in control during their sparring. He was able to keep his human side in the game for offense while allowing his wolf to control his reactions and defense. With more training, he would be an excellent fighter.
Derek had been updated through the night on the increased air activity, and during a rest period mentioned it to Gary. “Alpha, can your men describe how the planes are flying?” He checked using the bond, then replied “The drones are flying east-west and the aircraft north-south. It sounds like the aircraft are getting closer with each run.”
“Derek, that’s a standard search pattern, they are looking for something. Is there any way they could have tracked your pack to these caves?”
“I doubt it, we’ve been here for days and we have kept the pack hidden for that time. We haven’t seen aircraft around since Renee’s patrol took out that helicopter.”
Gary’s shock was evident in his face, and it increased as Derek relayed the events that took place after his capture. “Alpha, by now they have figured out that I wasn’t on that helicopter. They are looking for ME. Everything they have will be put into this search. They won’t stop until they find me and kill you all.”
It was time. The two men climbed out of the pit and walked forward to meet the pack at the combat circle.
Cheyenne Air National Guard Base, Main Gate
Linda Remington moved the long red curl behind her ear as she nervously waited for the live feed to start. The news that Capt. Johnson had been captured had shaken the close-knit community of military and civilian alike. She had a more personal reason; during his junior and senior year at the Air Force Academy, she had been his girlfriend. They had broken up after he left for pilot training, the separation was just too much and her budding TV career was too demanding, but they had remained on good terms. She often wondered if losing him had been a mistake.
She was inconsolable after seeing the news of his shootdown, and had come to town for his funeral when his status was suddenly changed. Her station manager at KUSA in Denver had called and she agreed to cover the story once the news crew had arrived. So far, she had covered one news conference.
She gave her update from the gate, stopping momentarily as a pair of fighter jets screamed overhead going west.
Combat Circle, Pack Cave
The pack had roughly divided into two sides as the Alpha and Gary approached the circle. Behind Mike were a number of men and younger women, almost all of whom who had lost family in the last attack. The rest parted as Gary came naked into the circle; both he and Mike turned to face their Alpha as he addressed the pack. “Mike has challenged Gary for the right to mate with our Next Alpha, Renee. This challenge will be to death or submission at the choice of the victor. Do either of you have anything to say before we start?” Mike shook his head no as he paced back and forth. Gary chose to address the Pack.
“This has been a difficult time for me, one that has challenged what I believed and changed me. It is not an excuse, but until recently I didn’t recognize any of you as being human. I looked at you like I would an animal carrying a deadly disease, something that must be wiped out so the rest of us could be safe. I used that belief to justify killing not just those fighting us, but your women and children. For that I am truly sorry, and I will understand if you cannot forgive me. I would just like you to know that I am no longer that person who could do these things. Your Alpha has shown me the other side of my actions, and your Next Alpha has shown me a love I don’t deserve and couldn’t possibly earn. I know that if I die today it will be still not be enough of a punishment for what I have done to you all.”
The silence went on for a time, broken only by sniffles and quiet crying. Mike had had enough, he shifted and attacked. His wolf was gray with a single black tip on his ear, and once Gary shifted he saw that he was slightly larger. The first charge was straight at him, a confidence born of underestimation. Gary easily sidestepped the attack and sliced open his right leg with his lower teeth as he darted in. Before Mike could spin around, he had jumped back. Mike ignored the pain on his leg, but was enraged he couldn’t even get first blood. His next attack was for Gary’s front legs, but Gary was able to jump up out of the way. Twisting his body, he raked his back with his claws before jumping away again.
The fight continued like the brawler vs. boxer match that it was, with Gary using his speed and reflexes to frustrate and counterattack the brute force Mike tried to use. Soon Mike was panting heavily and bleeding from dozens of wounds while Gary was still untouched. Desperation led to a clumsy attack, and the leading shoulder met only air as Gary dropped below the attack and Mike went rolling. Gary was on his feet and attacking instantly, his jaws gripping Mike’s neck and cutting off his air. The coppery taste of blood was in his mouth and his eyes shone amber as his wolf nature took over. Mike struggled and tried to claw him off, but Gary kept his weight on him and watched Mike’s eyes start to glaze over.
That was when his human side came forward again. Shifting back into human form, Mikes blood still on his face and torso, he let go and sat up. “I find no honor in taking the life of my pack mate. I wish only to return to my mate.” He was tossed a towel to clean up as he walked out of the ring, while Doc and Ann tended to the gravely wounded wolf he left on the ground.
Red and Billy approached him as he walked away. “My name is Red, my mate Milly was killed in the caves. I want you to know that I heard your words and accepted your apology. This pack has had enough death, I would like to be able to move on. I am withdrawing my challenge.”
“Thank you Red, I am so sorry for your loss. I hope we can be friends at some point.”
Billy nodded and said, “You fought well and are a worthy mate for Renee. I care more for her happiness now than my loss. I also withdraw my challenge. You are free to mate.”
Gary grinned and hugged them both, relief on his face as they all let go of their burdens and moved on.
Gary returned to Renee’s side, she was awake and so relieved to see him. Her brother had refused to open his bond so she could see the challenge. Her stomach was in knots until he appeared again. He dropped by her side. “It’s over, my love. Mike is still alive, and Red and Billy withdrew their challenges. We can be together as soon as you can have me.” He lifted the blanket, slid in next to her and they fell asleep with her face on his chest and smiles on their faces.
Emily tried to be quiet as she came in with their lunch a few hours later, but Gary’s wolf was on edge and he opened his eyes as soon as he came in. She didn’t even blush as he rolled over and the sheet exposed his obvious arousal, sex for weres was an open thing. She did think that Renee was going to be a very happy woman.
She set the meal down next to the bed and backed out quietly. The disturbance was enough to wake Renee, and her mouth began to water as the smell of the venison reached her.
Gary slowly and tenderly fed her lunch as he filled her in on what she had missed. His apology for hurting her didn’t even get out of his mouth before she grabbed him and pulled their lips together. He had already been forgiven.
The tender moment was interrupted by an alarm howl. Paratroopers were being dropped into the next valley, hundreds of them. Their time had run out.