He stared straight ahead with eyes that looked more like vessels of swirling smoke, transfixed on the weapon pointed at him. He couldn’t move, and he knew that the man knew he couldn’t move. All he could think to do was growl—the sound of an animal resigned to its fate. This didn’t seem to do anything to break the man’s resolve. His arms were steady—one eye closed, one eye focused on the rifle sight aimed at the wolf.
In an instant, the birds were spooked from their branches.
* * *
“You’re such a wuss.”
“No I’m not.”
“Get up then.”
Cloud had Gray pinned down and was biting at his face while mocking him. Though Gray was older, Cloud had always been bigger than him, stronger. In fact, it seemed to Gray that no matter what he did, every wolf was always bigger than him. For whatever reason, Cloud was the only one who didn’t seem to mind that Gray was weak. In fact, he seemed to make it his personal mission to toughen him up. This mission had proved to be fruitless so far. Gray was not particularly interested in being tough. He had long ago resigned himself to relying on his father and the rest of the pack for protection and food.
Gray struggled in vain to wriggle out from underneath Cloud’s paws. Just then, they heard a rustling and looked to see Archer emerge form the bushes.
“Return to The Circle immediately. Something terrible has happened.”
When Gray and Cloud came upon the solemn gathering of gray and black forms that was The Circle, they realized they were the last to arrive. Cloud spoke up first as they assumed their familiar places.
Archer, the eldest wolf in the pack, said nothing at first. Instead, he stared straight at Gray. After a few moments of this, Gray became uncomfortable and shifted his gaze towards the ground. Archer stepped forward.
“Shadow is dead.”
Some of the six wolves began clamoring loudly while others just stared in disbelief. Gray was among the latter. Cloud spoke again.
“What do you mean he’s dead? How could that have happened?”
“A human shot him while he was out searching for food.”
There was an instantaneous uproar upon hearing this revelation—the wolves made their revulsion known. Everyone was protesting loudly except for Gray. Gradually, realization hit the rest of the pack, and they all began to look at him, studying his face for a reaction. Archer spoke.
“Gray, I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you to hear. Your father was the leader of this pack. We all trusted and depended on him.”
Gray looked up, a blank expression on his face.
“Humans are vile creatures,” Archer continued. “We have to find who did this, and make him suffer.”
Cloud interjected. “Hold on. If we purposely seek out a violent human, we could be risking even more deaths.”
“Are you suggesting that we just forget this happened?”
“…I don’t know.”
“Think about everything Shadow has done for this pack. We owe it to him to find the human who shot him without provocation.”
“So if we were to do this, what would be your plan exactly?”
Archer paced back and forth for a moment. “The entire pack can’t venture out together. We need the strength of our numbers to protect the cubs and find food. One wolf on his own would be perfectly capable of tracking the hunter and killing him.”
“And who is this one wolf?”
Archer looked around at the pack, and then back at Cloud.
At this, the wolves erupted in a new clamor. Gray spoke up for the first time.
“Shadow was your father. And this is your burden.”
Cloud stepped in here.
“Do you really think that’s a good idea, Archer? I think I should be the one to go. I’m stronger and a better tracker. I mean, Gray has never even been on a hunt before.”
At this, Gray shifted his gaze back towards the ground.
“That’s exactly why we need you here, protecting the pack,” Archer responded, resolutely.
The Circle was silent as the tension permeated the gathering. Off in the distance, a bird sang absentmindedly, oblivious to the trials of wolves.
“I’ll do it.”
Hearing this, everyone turned towards Gray, staring at him in disbelief. He did not return their gaze, but instead kept his eyes trained on the ground.
Archer looked at him for a bit, letting the revelation sink in.
“It’s almost dark now. You’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
The Circle quickly dispersed leaving only Cloud and Gray. The sun was setting, turning the sky a brilliant orange that on any other evening would have been beautiful, but at that moment felt somehow threatening.
“You shouldn’t be doing this,” said Cloud.
Gray was silent.
Cloud walked away a few steps, then stopped. He spoke while facing away.
“Listen, I’m sorry about what I said…about you being weak and all that stuff.”
“You’re right though. I am weak.”
Cloud laughed and turned around.
“I just…worry about you I guess.”
“I’m worried too.”
“What are you planning to do once you find the hunter?”
“To be honest, I’m hoping I don’t find anything at all.”
Gray had not slept. It had rained during the night. Though, even if it hadn’t, he probably wouldn’t have slept anyway.
The forest was filled with the kind of stillness that only comes shortly after a rainstorm has cleared. The only sounds that could be heard were the birds singing their usual morning songs, and Gray’s steady footsteps as he walked. Archer and Cloud had both met him that morning to see him off. They said little. There wasn’t much to be said, really.
Thoughts swirled in Gray’s head. What exactly am I supposed to be looking for? How long will I be out here? What will the pack do if I never find the hunter? What will I do if I find him?
He couldn’t understand why this had happened. Humans and wolves weren’t exactly friends, but actual encounters between the two were rare. He wondered how the pack, how he, would go on without his father. He would have known what to do at a time like this.
Suddenly, Gray began to run. With the muscles in all four of his legs strained to maximum capacity, he ran. He ran at full speed as branches and leaves smacked him in the face, causing him to shut his eyes. Even with his eyes closed, he did not slow down. He ran faster and faster until his legs were screaming with pain. Eyes still closed, he failed to notice the large fallen branch in his path. Catching his front legs, the fall caused him to slam his face into the ground, and tumble nose-over-tail so that he came to a stop on his back. He lay there, dazed. Face throbbing—everything aching. But above all, as Gray lay there alone on his back in the vast, still forest, he felt a kind of hopelessness weigh down on him so heavily that it seemed he would never get back up.
Eventually, though, he did get up. He did his best to brush the leaves and twigs out of his fur and continued walking in the same direction, more carefully now. He looked around to get his bearings. He wasn’t lost exactly, but he also wasn’t sure just how far he was from the pack. The fall had left him disoriented and sore, and although the afternoon sky was clear, his head felt cloudy.
In his walking haze, he suddenly noticed something off in the distance, obscured by the sea of trunks and branches.
It was a fence.
He quickened his pace a little so he could investigate further. As he neared closer and closer, he realized the fence was surrounding a large, sprawling building of some kind. The fence met in the middle to form an imposing entrance with a sign on top. Gray, of course, could not read the sign, and he found himself cursing that fact.
“What is this place?”
Cautiously, he approached the entrance. It was locked using a chain and large padlock. He pawed at it absentmindedly, not sure what he was trying to accomplish. That’s when he heard it—faint at first, but then unmistakable, a sound that subconsciously ignited millions of years of instinct, causing him to stand at full attention.
Gray started to dig frantically at the dirt under the fence, desperate to get through. In his haste, he kept trying to squeeze his head underneath the fence before he had created enough room. Eventually, though, he managed to dig enough space to wriggle his whole body out from underneath the fence. He stood for a moment, temporarily stunned that he was actually able to get through. Hearing the sound again snapped him back into action, and he raced in that direction. A large habitat appeared before him, enclosed in glass. That’s when he saw them…the other wolves. There were six of them. But they weren’t gray like he was. They were brown. One of the wolves walked up to glass.
“Who are you?”
“My name’s Gray. Who are you? Why does your fur look like that? Are you hurt?”
The other wolf laughed a little bit.
“My name is Echo. We’re not hurt at all. This is just how we look.”
“What is this place?” Gray asked, looking around.
“It’s a wolf sanctuary.”
“Wolf sanctuary? Are you trapped here?”
“No, they help us here.”
Hearing this, Gray took a step back.
“That’s right…the humans here are scientists. All of us were injured when we were brought here, but the humans helped us and made us better.”
“I mean they…because…”
Gray stood there for a moment.
“…A human killed my father, our pack leader.”
The other six wolves looked at Gray silently. Hesitantly, Echo spoke.
“I think I may know what happened.”
“Yes. Sometimes when a wolf is too injured to be rehabilitated here, the humans prefer to…end their suffering rather than put them through any more pain. Is it possible your father could have sustained such an injury?”
Gray thought back to when he tumbled while running.
“Yeah, I guess it is possible.”
“I’m willing to bet that is most likely what happened. The scientists at this sanctuary are the only humans around for mi—”
Just then, they heard a door opening far down another hallway.
“You’d better go.”
* * *
“You found the humans, and you didn’t do anything?”
Archer was pacing around the space in the middle as he spoke. Gray was back home now, back in The Circle.
“I guess I just…got scared. There was more than one.”
“You were supposed to kill them! Did you already forget what they did to Shadow—to your father?”
Gray looked around at the other wolves in The Circle. They all looked away from him.
“I can explain.”
“And why should we listen to you? As far as I’m concerned, you betrayed the entire pack by letting the humans go.”
“Archer,” Cloud spoke up. “Let him explain.”
Archer stared at Cloud contemptuously, but remained quiet. Gray did his best to explain to everyone about the wolf sanctuary. About the other wolves. About how the hunter wasn’t a hunter at all, but a scientist. About how Shadow was likely not killed in cold blood, but out of mercy due to an injury.
“And you just believed a bunch of strange looking wolves you’ve never seen before?” Archer asked.
“Well yeah, I guess.”
Gray looked around again. The other wolves didn’t seem convinced, save for Cloud who was watching the proceedings with a pensive look. Archer spoke again.
“It’s clear now what we need to do. Since Gray couldn’t do it himself, we all need to go there and kill the humans…together.”
Gray knew there was no sense in arguing.
* * *
The fences didn’t stand a chance against the strength of the entire pack. They were able to easily break through the main gate. Once inside, the pack took off at full speed, with only Gray and Cloud hanging further back. Gray shouted above the commotion.
“This isn’t right. These humans are helping wolves. I know it seems crazy, but…”
“I believe you,” Cloud replied.
Gray stopped running and looked over at Cloud.
“What are you two doing?!”
Startled, Gray turned his head forward to see Archer.
“Why aren’t you assisting with the attack?”
“It’s not a good idea,” Cloud replied. “Gray said these humans were helping wolves. And we’re putting the entire pack at risk.”
“You don’t get to make that decision.”
“And you do?”
At this, Archer shifted his head back in a show of authority.
“You’ve always been an obstacle, Cloud. You know I was the logical choice to be the next leader of the pack. And now that Shadow is gone, it is my right to take his place. His own son isn’t even fit to lead.”
Gray stood there, staring, unable to move.
“You’re leading this pack to their deaths.”
“I’ll show you what death is like!”
Archer lunged at Cloud. For Gray, it was all slowed down, as if it wasn’t even happening at all. In desperation, he jumped between the two wolves. His last thought was of his best friend as everything went black.
* * *
“Can you stitch him up for me?”
“He’s lucky. His injuries were serious, but not life threatening.”
“Poor little guy…what do you think all that was about?”
“I honestly don’t know. I’ve never seen wolves behave that way before. I’m just glad nobody was killed, wolf or human.”
“What’s the plan for him?”
“We’ll let him recuperate here for about a month, then release him back into the wild. I need to record his stats real quick.”
“Estimated Age: 4
Weight: 100 pounds
Length: 3 feet