Shadowdance pressed his chest against the earth, inching himself forward, ignoring the tightness of his muscles and joints as he moved. The buck stood upwind of him, his scent carried along the water’s edge by the breeze that followed the river’s path. His ears strained to pick out any sound, any motion, but this was an older one, too smart to give away something so simple. His scent, though, he could do nothing to mask so easily, and the Child of Wolf’s mouth watered as he focused on the smell.
The wolf’s stomach rumbled and he froze, hoping the deer didn’t hear it as well. All he’d had to eat since the fire had been the occasional muzzleful of grass and water lapped gratefully from the paws of whomever was tending to him that day, usually Watcher or Alex. Most of the time he’d been too sick to eat; the thought of food, even freshly caught, had made his stomach churn, his senses blurring. Even now, the lingering taste of cloying ash clung to the back of tongue uncomfortably, tickling his throat as if he needed to vomit.
Briar and the Child of Man, Alex, had both cautioned him when he rose that morning. He was still weak from the poison and the fire. He was still recovering. He could relapse. He growled at them both and stalked, a bit unsteadily, into the woods. His body craved meat for the first time in weeks, and he was going to have it. Even out of his Protectorate, he knew he could find game, and at this point, he needed to rebuild his strength, which he couldn’t do if he didn’t eat.
Even as sore as he was, he slipped through the undergrowth silently, following the heavy, musky scents of game that floated on the light breeze that before brought only ashes and smoke. It had taken him longer than he’d liked, but by noon he found himself confronting the meal his body craved, the hunt that his spirit needed to help him recover, to remind him he was no sickly cub. The buck was an eight-pointer, a bit lanky but still large enough to be a challenge. His prey stood at the edge of the water, ears alert, slowly twisting, scanning for danger. His nostrils flared, testing the wind for predator-scent, danger-scent, but the air was clear of any warning signs. He stood stock still, waiting, waiting, and then slowly turned towards one of the low-hanging branches of a birch tree near the water’s edge, grazing on the twigs and leaves.
Shadowdance eased forward when the buck’s lips closed around the first branch, his ears pricking at the snapping of wood. His tail curled against his back as he pressed into the damp earth beneath him, the grasses tickling his chest. His hind legs tensed, his body coiling, and then with a snarl he leapt from the undergrowth, his body twisting as he moved, rising from four legs to two in mid-leap. Weak from so many days of lying still in a single form, his bones and muscles protested the effort of change, but oh what a welcome, delirious pain! Joints snapped, popping from disuse as he swung one arm in a manner no pure wolf could mimic, five wicked claws grabbing for the buck’s neck.
The deer’s eyes went wide and black, snorting as he jerked back from the branch, causing it to snap suddenly, whipping the wolf across the muzzle. Shadowdance yelped as he brought his paws up to block his face, startled by the unexpected attack. The buck, in that moment, took advantage of his good fortune and turned to bound into the underbrush, but the wolf paused only a moment to regain his bearings before giving chase, dropping back to all fours to pursue the buck.
Tired he was, and still recovering from his sickness, but where any ordinary wolf might have given up and gone after a squirrel or rabbit, Shadowdance knew in his human mind that this was what he needed, the hunt and the chase and the joy or agony. Any wolf could chase up small game, even wounded. This was a true test of his nature, as not merely an animal but a Child of Wolf. His need for the hunt outweighed any such petty concerns as exhaustion or injury. He cut loose with a howl intended to freeze his prey in his tracks, loping after the buck with a feral, lopsided grin on his lupine muzzle.
Shadowdance’s muscles ached from the exertion and his breath burned in his lungs, but every few steps would bring him close enough to snap out with his claws and rake across the buck’s hide, at times just missing his target, others landing with a solid gash. After several minutes of this, streaks of crimson began to stain the brown fur of his prey, the scent of blood mixing with the deer’s musk, ambrosia to the wolf’s senses. He howled again, pushing his body past its limits, leaping for the panicked deer with claws and teeth bared.
The deer, already injured, stumbled and let out a second snort. He turned to face his attacker, lowering his head to bring those vicious points into play, but the wolf was faster, his claws raking down the buck’s sides as his jaws locked about the buck’s throat from behind. The whitetail reared, thrashing, but Shadowdance’s grip held fast, digging into the meat of the buck’s shoulders. In desperation, the buck lurched sideways, then spun and slammed himself into a tree, trying to dislodge the wolf from his back. Shadowdance caught the brunt of the blow across his upper back, yelping from the sudden shock of the impact. He shook, but his grip never faltered, his claws buried into the warm, slick muscle of the deer. Blood flowed over his paws, staining his grey fur a dirty red.
The wolf grunted, wheezing from exertion. His vision began to grey, shooting stars dancing in the periphery of his view as he tore his paws from the buck’s shoulders, dropping to the ground with a heavy thud. He shook his head to clear the haze from his mind, then rolled onto all fours again and leaped for one of the buck’s hind legs, catching the meaty shank in his teeth and dragging the buck off-balance. His prey, already weak from blood loss and fatigue, stumbled as the wolf jerked it to one side, then fell, landing with a wet snap as one of his legs broke from the impact.
The buck gave a shrill bleat, then rolled onto his side, kicking madly at the ground with his good hooves, trying to regain some purchase, to stand again, but it was clear at this point that the battle was forfeit. Shadowdance tripped over one flailing limb, then another, making his way around to the buck’s neck, looking down at his prey with a mixture of regret and pride, then ducked his head and stilled the buck with a single snap of his jaws, tearing out the buck’s throat. Crimson coated the wolf’s chest and muzzle as arteries split, filling his nostrils with a heavy, coppery tang.
Shadowdance spat out the wad of gamey flesh and collapsed next to his kill, exhaustion and illness finally catching up with him. His legs felt watery, his nose hot and dry. Every breath filled his lungs with hot ash, and even his fur burned from fatigue. Each pinpoint of fire that had erupted on his back seemed alive with pain, and his tongue lolled from his muzzle as he panted, struggling just to breathe.
The wolf hadn’t felt this alive in weeks.