Chainsaw growls and guttural screams disrupted the peace of the pre-dawn hours. The dour smell of blood completed the picture: Someone was being murdered within the borders of Argo, and two werewolves diverted their patrol to ensure their land was not being used as an execution ground. As the crisis resonated through the forest, Sammy—known to his brethren as Phoenix—felt a surge of anxiety, and channeled that nervous energy into his speed.
What they discovered was an unexpected sight, to say the least: two rogue werewolves, easily identified by their gaunt skin and ragged pelts, beating another to death. Werewolf fights were everyday occurrence, but attempted murder inside someone else’s territory was not. The Argo pack did not care for intruders; trouble-making intruders were cast out with extreme prejudice.
He didn’t have time to think before Hatchet howled a battle-cry and charged into the fray. Sammy, urged by instinct and loyalty, followed his mentor. The fracas had smudged the strangers’ scents together, but he recognized one of them.
For the past week, the rank taint of a stranger on their borders had set Argo on edge. The wanderer had left no territorial markings sending a clear message of defiance, but every time anyone went out to look for him, he made himself scarce. Lycanthrope etiquette dictated that a newcomer plant himself in an open spot and await admission from a ranking member of the pack. This one’s skulking about made little sense; he wouldn’t come and he wouldn’t go. But now he was here, either victim or murderer. This situation was not how Sammy had expected the matter to sort out.
The two rogues were so consumed by their own murderous intentions that they were completely blindsided by the Argo wolves. But the intruders were already riled, and they refocused their berserker rage in a beat. Hatchet launched himself onto one and pinned him to the ground. The veteran of a hundred battles, Robert “Hatchet” Hackett was, and had a host of combat experience. But he was also weather-worn by those very ordeals, and his opponent had youth on his side. To the surprise of both, Hatchet and his enemy were evenly matched.
Sammy topped seven feet tall in his lupine form, dwarfing his own opponent. Sheer aggression was his enemy’s only advantage. Still, Hatchet had been training him for combat, and had imparted some of his experience onto the younger werewolf. He blocked several swipes from the intruder before driving a fist down onto his skull.
His opponent shrugged off the blow before launching himself into Sammy’s gullet with fangs displayed. Choking pain squeezed around Sammy’s neck; thankfully his coffee-colored pelt safeguarded the liability of his throat. Sammy tried to breathe steadily while he grappled and clawed at the stranger’s face. Warm blood oozed from his claws’ handiwork and made the stranger’s face slippery and even harder to grasp. But the stranger was relentless.
Relentless, until Sammy’s claws raked over a particular vulnerability. His enemy’s snarls transformed into screams of pain, and he tore himself away. Both hands rushed to grasp the side of his face, and blood gushed from under his palms. A werewolf could regenerate from many injuries, but the loss of an eye was not one of them.
But Sammy felt no pity or regret. He pressed his advantage and converged onto the rogue’s scrawny arm with his own fangs. Grabbing the wrist in his hand, he yanked downward. The bone-shattering crunch inside his mouth filled his gut with satisfaction. A werewolf had vitriol woven into the fibers of his being; Sammy was a shellshocked soul, and it took considerable effort to draw on those instincts. But once antagonized, he was judicious. This rogue had violated their land and attempted to murder someone. As his enemy sagged, Sammy spat the arm out and let him collapse into the ground—just in time for a disturbing SNAP to draw both their attentions.
Hatchet was wrapped around a limp body, both arms leveraged around an unnaturally-twisted head. He untangled himself from the fresh corpse and stood to survey the job Sammy had done. “That is one of the more advanced moves,” he said with a smug taint to his voice. “It’ll take a while before you’re ready to learn it, Pup.”
They both scrutinized Sammy’s opponent with contempt. With his righteous indignation sated, Sammy began to calm. He had killed before, in the heat of battle. But he had never dispatched a defeated enemy in cold blood. The intruder flailed on the ground, struggling with shock and cradling his shattered arm. Without a hand to staunch the flow, blood continued to dribble from the hole of his face.
Mercy was one thing—compassion was another. With a deliberate lack of tenderness, he hefted the rogue onto his feet by the nape of his neck. “Get outta here,” he growled. “An’ if we catch you anywhere near our borders again, you’ll lose more’n just an eye.”
The stranger had just managed to drag himself out of sight when Odysseus, Alpha of Argo, arrived with his son Liam in tow. Sammy and Hatchet bowed their heads in due deference.
The night was turning gray and the dawn’s first few rays barely illuminated the forest floor, but they were enough for all four werewolves to distinguish the figure curled into a fetal position. That he hadn’t tried to get away during the scuffle confused Sammy even further. There was absolutely no sense in this stranger’s behavior.
“Found two intruders trying to beat this one to death,” Hatchet explained. “My guess is they chased him into our borders by accident.”
“I thought we didn’t get involved in the affairs of others,” Odysseus’ son asked. He was Sammy’s age, but he had no attention span for politics. It seemed doubtful that he would mature enough to one day succeed his father as Alpha, though Sammy hoped for the best.
“We do when they drag their affairs into our borders. Argo is nobody’s execution grounds.” Odysseus nodded at Sammy and Hatchet. “Good work.”
“Thank you, sir. So… who is this guy?” Sammy spoke up.
“Let’s have a look here…” Hatchet crouched down to inspect the victim. But his reaction startled Sammy: Rather than a display of compassion or concern, his lips curled back into a snarl of disgust. “Ugh!” he remarked as he stood back up.
“What?” Sammy asked.
“It’s a damn half-breed!”
“What, seriously?” Everyone bent over to take a closer look. That’s when Sammy realized the stranger’s physical proportions were all wrong; barrel-chested, oversized six-digit paws at the ends of scrawny limbs, and comically oversized ears. It looked up at them with passive acceptance of their stares. It was used to scrutiny.
“Whoa,” Sammy muttered, despite himself. The implications of its existence made him feel a twang of nausea. He had thought half-breeds were just a story, made up to keep randy teenagers in line. But… in all fairness, the rest of the world thought they were just stories.
“Well, what do we do with it?” Liam asked.
Hatchet folded his arms. “Put it out of its misery.”
“You can’t do that!” Sammy protested. “What if it’s intelligent?
He slowly lowered himself onto all fours and immediately regretted it. Up close, the half-breed was fetid with its own body odor and urine. It may have even had an infection somewhere. “Can you understand me?” he asked.
It nodded its head slightly.
“There, see?” he said. “He’s an intelligent being. You don’t got the right to end its life.”
“Look at it,” Hatchet said. “It’s already dying. Anyway, suppose we did haul its sorry ass back home and wasted resources nursing it back to health. What then? We can’t risk letting it lose out into the wild. If some human sees it, shoots at it, that’s it. The Secret’s out.”
“He’s managed to risk detection so far,” Liam pointed out.
“Yeah, and what happens when it gets old and crippled?” Hatchet retorted. He looked up at their alpha, who had been silent up to this point. “Now we know why those two were after this one. I’ll finish the job if no one else wants it on their conscious. Wouldn’t be my first mercy killing.”
“That won’t be necessary, Hatchet,” Odysseus finally determined. “While I value your pragmatism, Phoenix is right, this is an intelligent creature. No matter how misbegotten, it’s not our place to judge whether it’s worthy of life or not.”
Sammy had a feeling he was speaking more for his and Liam’s benefit than Hatchet’s. You couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks, and Hatchet was pretty well set in his ways. But the old soldier could be counted on to fall in line and obey his alpha, whether he agreed with his orders or not. Hatchet’s ears lowered and he bowed in acquiescence to Odysseus’ judgment.
“Son, go fetch the pickup. We’ll load him up and take him back home. Tell your mother to prepare her medicines. We’ll see what can be done for this creature. It will be God’s call on whether he dies today or lives on.”
Liam nodded and bounded off to follow his father’s orders.
“And if he lives, sir?” Sammy asked.
“Hatchet’s correct on one point. We can’t allow him to wander off on his own and risk exposing us. We’ll offer him a place in our pack… as an Omega.”
An Omega… it was a hard life. But no harsher than what this pariah had already endured, Sammy realized as he looked down at the handiwork of the two rogues.
Half-breed or not, a newcomer was still a newcomer, and as the hours passed, the pack accumulated in the kitchen and living room. In between the day’s chores, they mulled about and awaited word from the apothecary. Idle chatter drifted through the room, though everyone knew it was just a distraction until some real news came out. Hatchet, however, just sat on the porch, brushing his German shepherd to calm them both. The dog had gone into a panicked craze at the appearance of the half-breed and tried to get at it. Hatchet had been forced to hold on to her while they carried the creature into the house. She was still sporadically whining and glancing at the front door of the house, reflecting her master’s aggravation.
Sammy hunched over the counter, stirring his coffee more than necessary and half-listening to Kimberly, the alpha’s niece, talk about her day in school. He finally looked up when he detected the crunch of a car easing across the dirt road and parking in the garage. His best friend was home from his job in town.
A diminutive man entered through the front door and the babble of voices died down. Donnie was the current (but potentially previous) newest member of Argo, turned by bite less than a year before. But he was savvy enough by now to recognize something was going on. He beamed Sammy a questioning glance.
“We picked up a half-dead half-breed at our borders,” Odysseus explained. “Night Sky is seeing what she can do for him in the guest room.”
“A half-dead what?”
More than one person cleared their throat awkwardly. Odysseus only took a deep breath through his nostrils. “I’ll let Phoenix explain.”
Sammy stifled a “why me?” expression. He knew why it was him. Since he was the one who had transformed Donnie (to save his life, but that was another story), it was his responsibility to sponsor his best friend and teach him about their ways and culture… and, also, their dirty secrets.
The rest of the pack returned to their chatter. After loosening his tie, Donnie climbed onto the stool next to Sammy and did his best to mimic his conspiratorial hunch. Not easy to do, for someone who was barely four and a half feet tall.
“So, what’s a half-breed?”
Sammy gave Kimberly a gentle “go away” glance. The teenager reluctantly acquiesced and retreated to her uncle’s side.
“Well, you know how, somehow, we’re genetic combinations of wolves and humans, right? The perfect balance of beast and man.” He tried to mimic the phraseology of the alpha. Somehow, speaking with a sense of respectability helped to soften the shock of the truth.
“We have laws against disturbing that balance. If a werewolf mates with a regular human, the werewolf genome just gets passed on normally. But if a werewolf tries to mate with a wolf…”
“Oh, good god.” Donnie’s eyes widened in horror.
“Somethin’ goes wrong. That’s what a half-breed is, and it’s just as taboo to have relations with an animal for us as it is for humans. In fact, we got laws against it. Most packs even punish the act by death, an’ any offspring are killed. It’s considered a mercy, because they’re usually seriously deformed.”
“And is this one…?”
“Doesn’t seem that deformed, but he ain’t a wolf or a werewolf. Somethin’… in between. I doubt he can even shift.”
“And we’re helping him?”
“He’s intelligent,” Sammy said. “If he made it this long, he musta ran with rogues. But they wouldn’ta treated him with any kinda kindness. Hatchet wants him dead, but it ain’t his fault he is what he is. I think we should at least give him a chance…”
Night Sky’s emergence preempted further conversation. Even in her human form, she carried herself with all the imposing, matronly dignity of the alpha female.
“He’ll live,” she declared, after setting her basket of medicinal herbs down in a cupboard. “I didn’t find any signs of internal injuries. The worst he had was a broken hind leg.”
She leveled her gaze at Sammy. “You boys found him just in the nick of time.”
“So what now?” Kimberly asked.
“He needs rest. And just to be sure he doesn’t try to flee, I locked the door. The window should be too small for him to squeeze through.”
“So we’re just going to keep him prisoner here?” Donnie asked, clearly still troubled by the entire situation.
His outburst raised a few eyebrows. In other packs, a junior member was not allowed to question their alpha. Argo got by with a much less stringent attitude towards protocol. But that also made their treatment of his creature even more shocking to an outsider, still adjusting himself.
Odysseus’ posture straightened. “Not a prisoner, Jackrabbit. But you must understand that secrecy is our greatest defense against the rest of the world. He cannot pass for a regular wolf, or even a deformed one. Once we trust him, he will have free reign within our lands.”
“I doubt he’ll even want to leave, though, once he understands what we’re offering him,” Night Sky said. “From the scars I saw, I believe he’s been abused his whole life. Even as an Omega, he’ll be treated more humanely here than he was out there.”
“I’m sure,” Donnie said flatly.
Sammy placed a hand on his friend’s shoulder, in warning. “You gotta trust us on this,” he said. “It’s the only way.”
Donnie still had a hard time trusting a secret cabal of werewolves, but his faith in Sammy was unquestionable. As disturbed as he was, he kept his peace.
“There’s one more thing,” Night Sky said. Her gaze focused on Sammy. “He asked about you.”
Sammy’s jaw dropped. “He can talk?”
“Not well. His mouth is barely structured for that kind of articulation, but he can get his point across. He was reluctant to let me touch him at first, but when I said I was a friend of the ones who saved him, he started asking me questions about ‘the brown one.’ Seems your standing up for him left an impression.”
Sammy had been a member of Argo for long enough to know how his alphas thought, and he wasn’t sure he liked where this was going. “Okay…”
“I think it would be for the best if we put you in charge of him.”
Odysseus and his wife never disagreed on anything, at least not publically. There was only a beat before he voiced his approval. “It’s settled, then,” he said. “Phoenix, you’ve proven your responsibility with the initiation of Jackrabbit. You’ll be in charge of helping this new packmate, and keeping an eye on him. We’ll adjust your chores accordingly.”
Sammy’s gut twisted. He could barely stand to look at the creature. But this was what he got for being the compassionate one. It always bit him in the ass in some way or another.
And of course, when the time came to send some food in to their new “guest,” the responsibility fell on Sammy. He balanced a plate of cold beef and a bowl of water in one hand and, without thinking, knocked before going in.
The half-breed lay curled up in the bed, nested amongst disheveled sheets. Night Sky had bound his leg in a tight splint. He gazed up warily, at the six-foot-six human with long hair and five o’clock shadow, and as soon as he recognized the scent, his tail began beating against the bed rhythmically. It sent clouds of filth in the air with every impact.
Sammy tried not to grimace as he pulled up a chair by the bed and set the food down on a small table.
The two stared at each other. A string of drool cascaded from the half-breed’s maw unhindered. There was a small puddle where its head had previously rested.
“So, they put me in charge of taking care a’you,” Sammy finally said.
The half-breed lowered his ears. Apparently, Sammy hadn’t hidden his displeasure as well as he thought.
“I’m Samson. And my pack-name is Phoenix. Do you… got a name?”
What a stupid question. Everybody had a name.
The half-breed shook his head. He didn’t have a name.
“Wow. Okay, uhm… do you mind if I come up with somethin’ to call you?”
The hybrid pondered this for a moment before shaking his head.
“Uh. Okay. Uh… I guess you kinda look like a ‘Jack.’ How do you like the sounda Jack?”
“Zhhhhack.” He tasted the simple syllable in his mouth before nodding his acceptance.
“Is it hard for you to speak?”
“Nooo.” Jack spoke slowly, his voice barely above a whisper. “But my mother told me not to speak unless spoken to. And when she left, they would hit me for speaking.”
The story got worse. He ran his hand over his weathered face, at a loss for words. Sammy had lost his family as a child and wandered as a half-wild loner until Argo found him. He had always thought his life before coming here was bad, but… apparently, it was nothing compared to this pathetic creature’s.
He stared at the creature—at Jack for a while. Jack just kept his eyes down. No eye contact. That lesson had been beaten into him too.
“I promise I won’t ever hurt you,” Sammy said. “Now c’mon and eat this. You’re never gonna heal in this half-starved state.”
Over the next few days, Sammy came to realize he had acquired a new shadow. At first, it didn’t seem so bad. Once cleaned up, the half-breed wasn’t as repulsive. Sammy convinced him to wipe his slobber onto his arm rather than leaving a snail-like trail in his wake. He even managed to teach Jack Checkers, though he suspected after a few games that the half-breed intentionally tanked because he feared repercussions for winning. The half-breed wasn’t stupid, but no one had bothered to educate him. He was incapable of relaxing around anyone but Sammy and Night Sky, and had to be instructed not to piss himself in the presence of the Alpha—especially not indoors. In his defense, he had apologized profusely while Sammy cleaned up the mess.
Sammy’s bedroom provided no solitude. The half-breed’s paws were just dexterous enough to operate a doorknob, and every morning, Sammy found Jack curled up at the foot of his bed. The order to stay out was the one thing Jack was bold enough to disobey. Liam had taken to calling him “the Chihuahua,” and to Sammy’s chagrin, the nickname caught on throughout the pack. The Omega didn’t seem to care, though Sammy wasn’t sure he even knew what a chihuahua was.
Even more troublesome was the way Sandy, Hatchet’s dog, reacted whenever she detected the half-breed. A dog and a werewolf shared much of the same body language, and could communicate more easily. Sandy easily sensed Hatchet’s disdain, and mirrored it. Compound that with the utterly foreign nature of the half-breed confusing and scaring the dog, and the Omega’s fearful emanations aggravating her further, and it made a very volatile situation. She had to be tied up in the barn during Sammy and Hatchet’s pre-dinner combat training.
For his part, Jack always kept his distance during the sparring matches, but watched intently.
Sammy and Hatchet circled each other in their were-forms. Both men had worked up a sweat from a hard workday on the ranch, and Sammy’s virtually clogged with salty musk. That was not unusual. Tonight, though, there was an added tint to the air, that subtle tint of extra adrenaline that every werewolf cultivated an alertness for. It was the scent of anger.
“No, keep your guard up, boy,” Hatchet reminded him for the umpteenth time. “Just because you’re taller than everybody, doesn’t mean someone can’t reach up and grab your prettyboy face.”
Sammy growled, but accepted the critique. Ever since Jack’s arrival, Hatchet had been holding back less and less. Sammy didn’t appreciate being the whipping boy for the old man’s frustrations, but he wasn’t about to go whining over rough treatment.
Hatchet came at him again, and Sammy blocked the attack. But Hatchet shifted his weight and with hammer blow into his gut drove the air from Sammy’s lungs. Sammy staggered back, trying to snarl but only coming up with stunted gasps. As his lungs tried to re-prime themselves, the old man circled him like a whirlwind and came up behind him, catching Sammy in one of his leverage-utilizing martial arts traps. Sammy’s hackles raised as Hatchet’s hands closed down around his head.
“What’s your problem? You haven’t been this easy since we first started.”
Sammy shook Hatchet off, stood, and steadied his breathing. “I just haven’t been gettin’ much sleep lately, okay?” He spared a sideways glance at Jack.
Hatchet rolled his eyes. “That’s enough for this evening, then. I can’t train you when you’re not at your best. Get a good night’s sleep tonight, even if you have to collar and leash Chihuahua to the couch. This is damn ridiculous, kid.”
Sammy knew Hatchet wasn’t joking. He grunted noncommittally, dusted himself off, and headed into the forest to catch some dinner. He didn’t feel like the stew Kimberly and Liam were preparing in the kitchen. You couldn’t vent your frustrations on stew before you ate it.
Chihuahua—Jack—began to follow.
“Aaargh! No!” Sammy spun on his heel and raised a scolding finger. The half-breed’s loyalty had been flattering for the first hour, but only the first hour. “Just… cut it out! You stay here! I need some time alone! Gah! Go find someone else to be your friend for a while!”
He didn’t wait to see the half-breed’s reaction before disappearing as deep into the woods as quick as he could.
Hatchet grumbled as he marched into the barn. He had been around for well over a century now. Fought in both World Wars. He had seen all kinds of shit in his life, but letting a half-breed live took the cake. Sure, the thing was intelligent, but all it did was skulk around and cringe. That wasn’t a Life—it was a mockery of it. Death would be a mercy. He was a damn Chosen, given his long life as a gift from a Prime werewolf. In more traditional packs, that afforded him some respect. But around here, nobody listened to him. They were all too soft.
He snorted. It was only because of his sacrifices that Argo could even afford to be so peaceful. So why did he stick around here? Maybe because he was too damn old to uproot and start over again. Even though his battle-pitted body clung to its youthful energy, his spirit was still very old. His battles had not dulled his sense of sentiment; if anything, it had grown stronger over the years.
He sat on the ground and placed a paw on Sandy’s head. The German shepherd wagged her tail and sat with impeccable decorum.
“You’re a perfect specimen, ain’t you girl?” he said, pouring his affection on her. “Not some confused mess of genes that doesn’t know if it’s one thing or the other. Like the rest of us. Unambitious and content with your status. Good. With ambition comes mixed-up confused messes no one knows what to do with.”
She barked in agreement. She always made a happy little bark when he talked to her.
He slipped his fingers over the latch that connected the chain to her collar. Her ears perked and her muscles trembled, in that way they always did when she was eager for her freedom. As soon as chain clicked, though, she exploded out of the barn, barking the entire way.
She aimed herself directly at the half-breed.
With Samson’s disappearance, dismay flooded through his body to the point of making him tremble. He didn’t budge from his spot. He just stood there, staring forlornly into the woods. What now? The Alpha female was nice, but she always had better things to do. Samson’s best friend, the little one, didn’t hate him. But when he looked at him, it was with this strange kind of confusion, not warmth. No one else in the pack liked him. He sighed and lowered to the ground, resting his head on his paws. Even though it was his lot in life, he had had enough condescension. He didn’t need to go looking for it.
So he would just wait here, for Samson to come back. Samson always came back. Samson was the one person he could trust. He wasn’t sure Samson liked him either, but at least he was kind. Samson didn’t hurt him, even though he wouldn’t mind it if Samson did.
“Sandy!” the grumpy one came running out the barn screaming. On instinct, he shot up and looked toward the oncoming rage to see if it was directed at him, and if it was, brace for the assault. But the grumpy one wasn’t running towards him. He was running after the dog.
…Who was running towards him. Her lips curled and she unleashed a hideous snarl.
He wasn’t sure what to do in this situation. Running away from angry packmates just made them angrier. Every time. But this was not a pack-mate. It was an animal, like mother had described his father. This female definitely didn’t want to mate. If there was one thing he did know, it was when something was trying to kill him.
He turned tail and fled, into the woods. She followed. She was smaller than him, and actually built for running. It would only be a matter of time before she caught him. His head throbbed and his vision tunneled, and he focused on Samson’s scent, heaving lungfuls and searching desperately for some trace of him in the air. Samson would protect him.
He could sense her upon him. He could hear her teeth snapping as she tried to catch him. Then her teeth did clamp down on his tail, sending stars of pain shooting up his spine. But something changed. Something came out of nowhere. And, distantly, he realized that something was him.
Something snapped. He realized he didn’t need to take this kind of abuse from an animal. He was half-animal himself, but he was also half… something else. He may have been at the bottom rung his whole life, but he was still higher than her. She wasn’t even on the ladder.
And so, before even realizing he was doing it, he turned on the dog and unleashed a sound he had never heard before: a snarl of his very own.
For the second time in a week, the forest resonated with the sounds of canids trying to kill each other. Sammy’s ears honed in on the violence and as soon as he recognized one of the voices, he feared the worst.
“Dammit, I told him to stay home!” he spat. He was still too entrenched in his own frustrations to regret lashing out earlier. He raked his claws through a tree, sending bark and splinters flying, but he dutifully aimed himself in the direction of the brouhaha. Odysseus had charged him with the care of the Omega. So be it.
But as he ran, a whine split the atmosphere and then the forest filled with silence—not the normal, ambient serenity of life; the hair-curling, eerie stillness of death. Sammy ran harder, until he broke into the clearing and saw… saw the last thing he expected. The corpse was not Chihuahua.
It was Sandy, Hatchet’s beloved companion. Chihuahua was hunched over her, covered in her blood.
“What have you done?” Sammy screamed.
“What have you done!” Hatchet heard Phoenix scream, and feared the worst.
He crashed and threw himself through the forest, doing his best to catch up. He had been delayed by Odysseus coming onto the scene late, demanding to know what was going on. Hatchet paused only long enough to shout “Sandy’s chased the damn omega into the woods!” but even that felt like too long a delay.
His subconscious registered the presence of the alpha following him, but he didn’t care. All he wanted was to get to Sandy before she hurt herself or if that damn thing hurt her.
Somehow, his mind had not even considered the possibility of what he found.
“Sandy!” he screamed, bounding over to the fresh corpse that had once been his best friend. He gave in to grief for only a moment, choking back a whine as he pressed his nuzzle into the flesh and confirmed what his sight and smell told him. Only for a moment, before his mind switched to revenge. He looked up at the worthless creature, covered in her blood, and shot murder through his eyes.
The Omega ran for cover—behind Phoenix’s legs. As if that would stop him! Single-minded, he shoved Phoenix aside and converged onto the half-breed…
…only to be stopped short and thrown back by Phoenix. Hatchet only pondered it long enough to mark it as a betrayal and let it fuel his rage. He was defending that? So be it. He launched himself at Phoenix. He had trained the kid, but always held back. Now Phoenix would know just what he had been dealing with this past year.
Phoenix brought his guard up too late. Hatchet’s claws became a lethal flurry, pushing past fur and digging into the flesh underneath. Phoenix tried to push him away, but Hatchet merely grabbed him by the arms and used his own momentum to throw him down. Phoenix landed on his stomach but rolled before Hatchet could get on his back, flailing his arms and legs in a desperate defense while he recollected his wits. But Hatchet was too fast for that to make any difference. He easily caught Phoenix’s wrist mid-air, yanked it, and grabbed it in the other hand to snap it in two…
A hand gripped him by the back of the neck. Hatchet snarled and turned to shake the interloper off, but stopped just short of making an irreparable mistake. Werewolves were creatures of instinct. And that instinct hard-wired rank and respect into them. As much as he wanted to, he would not—could not—raise a hand against his Alpha. Hatchet stifled the growl in his throat, and lowered his hands.
“Get up,” Odysseus commanded Phoenix. His voice was damnably devoid of emotion.
Phoenix obeyed, dusted himself off, and at all costs avoided eye contact with Hatchet.
“I thought I told you to keep an eye on the Omega,” he said.
Phoenix withered, but protested, “I didn’t think that meant I had to spend every waking moment with him!”
“He has special needs. Now, you couldn’t have anticipated Sandy’s attack. That part is Hatchet’s responsibility. The way I see it, you all have a share in the guilt for tragedy.”
Hatchet found himself nodding in obedient agreement. The way an alpha saw it was the Truth. His word was law.
“Phoenix, you will determine the omega’s punishment. Not Hatchet.”
“Hatchet, I’m sorry for your loss. Bring her. We’ll bury her by the barn.”
“Thank you, Odysseus.”
Sammy and Jack remained as they were as Odysseus left, and Hatchet scooped Sandy into his arms and carried her limp body home. Sammy wanted to express his own condolences, but considering how Hatchet had just tried to murder him for getting in his way, he couldn’t muster up the courage.
Hatchet had always been opinionated, and violent, but they had always been able to get along before. Now… Sammy wasn’t sure. Their friendship had been damaged, perhaps irrevocably. Forgiveness was not something that came easily to an old soldier like Hatchet.
Once they were alone, he placed his hands on his hips and finally looked down at Jack—Chihuahua. The Omega looked up at him with that pathetic, hollow gaze of his.
Sammy couldn’t help it. With one quick motion, his fist arced though the air until it crashed against bone, impacting into the half-breed’s skull. Sammy felt the blow resonate through his arm, but it sent the Omega sprawling.
“I’m sorry,” he said instantly. He had not forgotten his promise. It had just become too hard to keep.
“It’s okay to defend yourself. But don’t ever kill like that. I understand you been through a lot, but that’s no excuse to lose control. If you do that, you become a murderer. An’ if you become a murderer, I’ll put you down myself. Do you understand?”
The Omega nodded slowly. He imagined the half-breed would have been spilling tears if he were capable of producing them. Instead, he just drooled more, and his drool mixed with the blood on his lips and dribbled pink and crimson to the ground.
Sammy turned and began the long walk home. He was still hungry, but his appetite had left him. “Come, Chihuahua.”