“They’ll have no choice. One I kill you my work will be done and the goddess will imbue me with power the likes of which has never been seen before. I’m going to wrest this world from the shackles that bind it, and show them the true power of the wolves!”
I realized then that he was insane, and there was no way he could win, not over my beloved wolves. I was trying in vain to signal their attention to show them my support, but their eyes were understandably focused on the wolf standing before them.
I had no idea how they were going to get out of this with their lives intact. I watched as Ishmael gave a signal to his men. The brothers, my lovers, were completely outnumbered and there seemed to be no way in which they could survive, but then Jackson stepped forward. He looked around and seemed to come to the same conclusion as I did.
Logan and Jamie seemed confused,
and my heart sank, for I had a feeling I knew what he was going to do.
“Ishmael!” he cried, his voice ringing loudly around the field. A few birds were disrupted from their rest and fluttered away from the trees, their wings rustling the branches. The morning sun was new and cast the world in a golden glow. The air was warm. It almost seemed too beautiful for a battle. “You killed my parents and practically everyone I know. You have destroyed my home and forced me to retreat. You seek to vanquish my clan, and if you charge at us now you will succeed, but what will this victory bring you? There is no honor in defeating three men when you are surrounded by dozens. It is a slaughter, not a hunt, and I do not think the goddess would smile kindly on you for taking such a ruthless action. Surely she would want to see evidence of your prowess in single combat, so I invoke my right as chief of the clan to defend myself against you in a fight to the death. If you win then you have everything, and my brothers will lay down their lives, but if we win then you leave and never bother my clan again, for the feud will be settled.”
Ishmael grimaced. It was a clever move by Jackson. The chances of him defeating Ishmael in hand to hand combat were much greater than the three of them against an army, and it also challenged Ishmael’s pride. If Ishmael refused then his army might think that he was afraid of taking on Jackson in single combat and preferred the easier method of mere slaughter. Ishmael narrowed his eyes at Jackson, and I assumed he knew what Jackson was playing at, but it didn’t seem to stop him. I assumed that he was confident enough in his own abilities that he didn’t mind rising to the challenge. That was the error in Jackson’s plan, of course. He might well fall and rather than dying alongside his brothers they would have to watch him be killed by Ishmael, knowing that their fates were sealed as well.
As Jackson walked out Logan glanced back and glared at me, trying to urge me to leave, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
Jackson shifted into a wolf, growing bigger and hairier, his muscles expanding, claws replacing his fingers, his beady eyes staring directly at Ishmael who also turned. He rose like a giant, muscles on top of muscles, his fur patchy and dark where he had been burned once, although I didn’t know when that wound had occurred. Logan and Jamie shifted too, and it was the first time I had seen them in their wolf forms. They were just as majestic and mighty as Jackson, their fur was the same color as their hair, but they did not move from where they were standing. They seemed to be ready to defend Jackson if he needed backup.
Ishmael’s army did not shift, perhaps assuming that their commander would be able to defend himself against all three of them and, looking at him, I thought he might be able to do so as well. He was a head taller than Jackson and broader in the chest. When I had first seen Jackson turn into a wolf I wondered how anyone could ever have beaten him, but I now saw how it was possible. Ishmael was a brute, and I feared desperately for Jackson’s life.
But Logan and Jamie didn’t walk forward with Jackson. They stayed standing there, knowing that this was some kind of sacred ritual. Jackson had challenged Ishmael, so Jackson had to stand alone.
I watched with grim curiosity as the two wolves walked towards each other. Jackson began running, his claws slicing through the air, his powerful legs pumping violently. A loud growl emerged from his throat. Every sinew was taut and flushed, prime for the purpose of killing Ishmael. In that moment Jackson seemed inexorable, inevitably, and my attraction for him grew. My hand fell to my stomach and I was proud to bear his children. I felt great pride, and I knew in that moment that I belonged to them, that I was a part of the clan. I only wished that I could do more to help, but my role wasn’t to be a part of battle, it was to raise the children in the aftermath, if somehow I managed to escape with my life.
When Jackson was at full speed he launched himself into the air and hurtled towards Ishmael with his claws bared, ready to slash and swipe. His mouth was open too, and his jagged teeth gleamed in the early morning light. In that moment it seemed as though it was his destiny to kill Ishmael, as though nothing could prevent him from avenging his clan and his family, and I thought the battle was going to be over in an instant. I could see Jackson’s claws swiping down, tearing apart Ishmael’s throat, and for a moment I felt sheer elation rise up within me, but it was quickly cut short as Ishmael stuck out a powerful hand and caught Jackson in mid-air. He smirked and then threw Jackson to the floor. The might wolf landed with a thud, his body crumpled.
I saw Jamie and Logan’s heads fall, and I knew that the matter wasn’t as straightforward as I thought it would be. Jackson picked himself up and shook the haze away from him, he got back to his feet and confronted Ishmael again. Ishmael beat his chest and howled, as though to warn the Goddess of the Moon that another soul was going to ascend to her realm. He stalked forward and used his long reach to swipe at Jackson, the first flurry missed as Jackson evaded them, but the last one hit Jackson square in the jaw and sent him staggering back. Breath caught in my throat as I saw blood fly out of his mouth. He looked groggy and I wondered how long this was going to go on for. I hated to think it, but it didn’t seem as though Jackson had any chance against this beast and I just wanted the suffering to end.
But moments later I was proven wrong to doubt him. Jackson had suffered the initial blow, but he was taking the measure of Ishmael. The next time Ishmael struck wildly there was no thought to the blow. It was a careless strike that was borne from arrogance, as though he thought he could simply swat Jackson away like a fly. Jackson managed to deflect the blow and as he did so he ran inside Ishmael’s reach, sending thundering punches into Ishmael’s abdomen before spinning and turning out of the enemy’s reach again, moving behind him. Ishmael yelped in pain and cradled his abdomen, but I could see from the look on his face that he was angry, having not expected Jackson to be able to do anything like that.
He roared at Jackson and swiped at him angrily, but now I saw how Ishmael’s sheer size and strength were not a decisive advantage. Jackson was nimble and used his agility well. I saw how he had honed his strength and I realized it must have been an honor to see him hunt. Ishmael grew angrier with every blow that missed. Jackson danced around him in a circle, landing soft blows, but none of them seemed to do much damage; most of them bounced off Ishmael’s back harmlessly. Jackson seemed to be expending a lot of energy without having much in the way of an effect on Ishmael. I glanced over to Jamie and Logan and although I wasn’t as adept at reading the body language of a wolf as I was of a human, there was still enough humanity in them to make some recognizable gestures, and I got the impression they were anxious.
Then my attention was drawn back to the fight as there was a loud crash. I saw Jackson on the floor again. I realized that the problem with his strategy was that while he was dodging the blows, it only took one misstep for him to suffer a hit, and that hit was deadly, for Ishmael was putting everything into his punches.
Jackson was struggling to push himself up and my brow creased with worry as Ishmael marched towards him. I was willing Jackson to rise, but then Ishmael was standing above him, his shadow covering Jackson. He drew his fist back and pummeled Jackson in the face, Jackson’s neck snapped back. Jackson was groggy and I thought it was all over, but then Jackson kicked out at Ishmael’s legs and managed to put the bigger wolf off-balance enough so that Jackson could dodge the next blow, which landed on the ground beside his head, and I swore that I could feel the ground tremble under the might of the blow.
Jackson jumped up and slashed his claws down Ishmael’s body. Crimson blood dripped along the path that Jackson’s claws had made. Ishmael seemed surprised at the sight of his own blood, and the fight was far from over.
There was something of a respite for the two wolves as Jackson made some distance between him and Ishmael, and this time Ishmael did not try to close it immediately. One arm was cradling his stomach, and I could see the blood seeping through. Jackson was still looking worse for wear though, his fur dirty where he had been thrown around, and one of hi
s eyes was half-closed. But he was still standing, and while that remained true it meant that he still had a chance.
The hulking figure of Ishmael moved forward and Jackson moved with him, the two wolves looking as though they were going to enter some sort of dance. They were more tired now than when the battle had begun and I realized how intense it must have been, for I knew that werewolves were superior than humans physically, having more stamina and strength, but obviously these advantages weren’t apparent when two wolves were fighting.
Part of me was silently urging Logan and Jamie to enter the fray and help their brother, but I held my tongue because I knew if they did, Ishmael’s forces would enter the fight as well and all hope would be lost. It was up to Jackson now. He held the future of the clan in his hands, because if he died, we all died.
I wondered if he knew.
Jackson and Ishmael continued to fight. They were more reserved now, and the air was fraught with tension. They swiped at each other, testing each other’s reflexes. Ishmael seemed to be getting more and more annoyed with Jackson, and I wondered if it was a chosen tactic of Jackson’s to try and rile Ishmael up, to make him fueled by anger and more erratic. Jackson’s movements seemed labored and I worried that he was just going to stand there and be killed. But then, out of nowhere, he summoned reserves of energy and leaped forward, bringing his fists down in sharp blows against Ishmael’s cheeks. He swiped with his claws and as he landed he kicked out with his feet, landing a number of hard hits on Ishmael’s body. Logan and Jamie cheered, while Ishmael’s army seemed to be taken aback that their commander could be hit like that.
I wondered if Ishmael had ever encountered such resistance, and I felt bad that Jackson hadn’t been able to have this duel with him to save his clan. Jackson. So many people had died because of Ishmael, and it needed to end here.
But Ishmael wasn’t going to let it end so easily of course. Cradled his wounded flesh, but still he struck out with vicious blows, any one of which could have ended Jackson’s life. The wolves were both flagging now, exhausted, the fight between them taking it all out of them. The early blows that had landed on Jackson had exhausted him, and the nimble dance he had performed to stay out of Ishmael’s reach had only served to tire him out. He was searching for an opening, waiting for his moment to strike, but the longer he waited the more chance Ishmael had to finish him off. Ishmael came forward with a flurry of blows, finding a reserve of energy from somewhere. Jackson moved backwards, but he wasn’t able to look where he was going and stumbled on an errant twig. He lost his footing and fell to the ground, giving Ishmael an opening. A small, helpless cry burst from my mouth as I was sure that it was the killing blow, and with Jackson went all our hopes for the future.
I cradled my body, afraid for the children that would now never be born. All the potential of their lives would be torn away in one brutal act, and I would always be left wondering what could have been. A whole lifetime flashed before my eyes, a life where I lived with the brothers and raised the children, where we welcomed more women into the clan and shared our philosophies of life, and where we integrated ourselves back into society again. I had already lost one family, and throughout my entire life I had turned my back on the world and pushed any hope of love away. It seemed cruel for the world to have given me a glimpse of a good future, a way to make up for all the mistakes I had made in my life only to take it away again.
It didn’t seem fair, and I was almost ready to charge in and defend Jackson with my own life, even though I knew it was futile.
But then, out of nowhere, finding the deepest reserves of energy he had, Jackson lifted his arms and caught Ishmael’s hand, keeping the claws from swiping at his face. Jackson’s arms trembled as Ishmael put all his terrible weight onto him, and he was just like Atlas, bearing the weight of the world. Jackson howled in anguish. He was using both his hands to defend himself against Ishmael, which left Ishmael with one hand free to attack Jackson. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion as Ishmael brought his hand back and swiped down. Jackson was using all his effort to prevent Ishmael’s other hand from crushing him, and I wasn’t sure if he would be able to see the instant danger.