Chapter

9

Claire gaped wide-eyed, struggling to take in all the commotion and disarray happening in front of her. A dozen males were taken out within a matter of minutes, and those who remained in the fight had gaping wounds. Not Luke, however.

Claire couldn't help herself, gluing her anxious eyes to Luke's dark figure as he knocked down each opponent who had the gall to challenge him. Any minimal wounds he had were hidden by his dense black fur. James watched from the other side of the arena, observing Luke with his eyes just as Claire was, only unlike her, James' eyes were filled with a comfort and sense of pride.

Despite their little heart-to-heart conversation yesterday, Claire still was unsure how she felt about Luke becoming the new alpha. She didn't necessarily despise it as she did before, but neither was she sure whether to be relieved or content with it. Now, with Luke having transformed from a genial, mild-mannered man into a violent, powerful beast scarily intent on dominating any heap of flesh that stood in his way, she was confident he would protect the pack; he certainly had the muscle and reflexes for it. And from the sounds of it, he had some good moral guidelines which should steer him down the path of proper, fair leadership. Perhaps it wasn't Luke specifically that she was wary of; perhaps it was simply the change itself, the fact things wouldn't be quite the same as they were before, the uncertainty of what changes lay ahead.

She held her breath when a blonde wolf leapt onto Luke's back like a spooked cat, and held on for dear life as Luke threw his body around. Arron?! Claire peeped in alarm, her body rigid, yet feeling ready to explode out of her skin. What in the world was that foolish boy doing?

A little residual voice in Claire's head gave her the answer. As much as she wanted to overlook it, she couldn't deny Luke's assumption of Arron's motives were correct—especially after what happened at the party. And with this, she worried Luke would be exceptionally tempted to rip Arron's throat out. She didn't want to see him hurt, but now he was fair game. She only hoped he wasn't stupid enough to get himself killed.

Luke bucked Arron off his back and the two males were locked in an intensely terrifying stand-off. On all fours, backs arched, hackles stiff and teeth displayed in threatening dominance. To see Arron in such a confrontational, aggressive likeness was startling—and almost disturbing—for Claire to see. She wouldn't have thought he was capable of any level of violence; he was always so carefree and laid-back… The people I thought I knew well have been shifting a hundred-and-eighty degrees, showing sides of them I never knew existed.

If she couldn't come to trust her own judgment, then what else did she have left to function and survive in this cut-throat world?

To her shock, Arron was the first to lunge, going straight for Luke's throat. Holding her breath, Claire froze in horror. Even when Luke was sharp enough to leap out of the way and throw Arron's aim off, the blonde wolf still managed to hook his fangs into the black wolf's shoulder. A furious, spiraling heap of fur rolled and thrashed on the stirred ground as they snapped and slashed, desperately trying to wound the other.

A majority of the pack all howled and barked in patronage for Luke; most of Arron's pack mates were mum, including Ajax, who looked as appalled as Claire felt that he was even participating in the Duel, let alone pushing his luck so far.

An ear-splitting yelp broke out, and Claire swallowed a yowl in the back of her throat when she saw Arron pinned beneath Luke, whose jaws were snuggly fitted around the young wolf's neck. She could see the flexion of his jaw as he tightened his grip on Arron, throwing in some curt, violent shakes for good measure. Gagging coughs struggled to escape his throat, the young wolf's eyes widening with the panic of being unable to breathe.

Luke, no!

Suddenly, Arron managed to utter a hoarse, weak cough; in an instant, Luke released him and let the wolf-boy flop to the ground, hacking. But he wouldn't let him rest; he gave an unkind, forceful shove to the defeated wolf, hovering over him with teeth bared and snapping. Arron wouldn't push his luck. He kept himself glued to the ground, shrinking and coiling up in a submissive gesture.

Trudging away with his tail between his legs, he left Luke standing in the center of the circle, proud and still daring any other male to challenge him. Apparently, they'd all seen enough, for every contending male lowered himself until his belly was touching the ground, tail ducked. Those who wanted to show respect rather than fear inclined their heads in a sideways bow.

It wasn't over just yet. Claire watched with beady eyes as her father broke from the circle and entered the arena, facing Luke. The two dark wolves sniffed each other, shifting their ears, their lips taut. From what Claire heard of Rite traditions, this was the Transitional Spar. The two head males—the current Alpha male and the dominant contender—would exchange blows of teeth, claws, and muscle. Only in extreme cases was it a fight to the death, where the remaining victor would be crowned Alpha male, but Claire knew it wouldn't get that far.

Nevertheless, she remained tense as James and Luke threw their bodyweight against one another, snapping at each other's ears and scruffs. Her father was just as quick as he was strong, landing precise nips and cuts in Luke's arms and neck. Nothing but mere paper-cuts. Luke muscled his way through James' onslaught of agile prowess, pushing him and trying to knock him from his sturdy crouch.

Finally, the two wolves stood flank-to-flank, eye-to-eye in a moment of stillness. Then, it happened. James lowered his head in a respectful, submissive gesture, and his raised tail slowly sank against his leg, inclining a few degrees toward Luke. In a sweeping instant, Luke's jaws came down on James' shoulder; Claire could see his teeth sinking into her father's flesh. This was the concluding phase of the ritual, for the contending dominant male to drink the blood of the approving Alpha.

When his fangs withdrew from James' flesh, it was done.

Luke Grayson was now Alpha of Battle Ground.

The onlookers broke out in a full howling, throwing their wolfen heads up to the stars and crying their songs to the Moon. Claire couldn't help but feel the joyous chorus was also a threat to the rogues who hid in the shadows. A new Alpha was crowned, and they have certainly overstayed their welcome.

The night songs ended, and the landscape shifted from its stillness. Before Claire realized what was happening, the females around her pranced happily out in the arena, circling Luke. He brushed them all off without a care, falling back to rejoin his peers in their neat ranks. The females glared at each other with hungry eyes and Claire's gut sank. This was how the highest-ranking females were picked, with their own brawling match just as fast and furious as the male duels.

Although she knew what coming out on top would mean for her, Claire found it difficult to resist the raging urge in her gut. She yearned to go out with her pack mates and fight, to earn her ranks through muscle rather than family inheritance. If she was going to walk away from this Rite an Alpha Female, she was going to prove her worth through her physical strength.

The fire erupted into a crazing inferno when Claire spotted a certain she-wolf plowing through the competition with arrogant form. Sasha. The name was like poison in her throat, bringing with it memories that made her reel with disgust. Sasha had been Claire's childhood friend, before Trixie, until she turned into Claire's most despised rival. Being the daughter of one of the Betas, Sasha's rank was expected to be high, but it was easy for Claire to see she was fighting for top spot. The pack didn't need a stuck-up, materialistic princess who would only play the cards in her favor. Yet, this wasn't the reason that left a bitter taste Claire's mouth; her gut tightened and her jaw clenched with chagrin when the only image she had in her mind was Sasha at Luke's side. The image just didn't compute with her logic, if one could even call it that. She didn't want Sasha to have the title of Alpha Queen, but, more stupidly, she didn't want her to have Luke.

If I'm to prove anything to anyone, now is my chance. Childhood was over, and adulthood was at her doorstep, kicking in the remaining splinters she'd mended to keep it out. Her options were to face her destiny now with dignity, or shame her family's heritage.

Aiming for Sasha's scruff, Claire launched herself forward for the young she-wolf, immediately locking in a duel of swirling fur and snapping jaws. She knew she was stronger and faster than Sasha, but Sasha was also deviously cunning; Claire would have to watch her back.

Somewhere off to the side, Trixie and a small assortment of Claire's old friends were howling and cheering her on. The support empowered her, giving her positive drive to push onward in the fight.

It wasn't long until her confidence turned into brash cockiness, and she gave Sasha the open door to play her card. Claire's breath was stolen when Sasha put all her weight into a violent shove and flipped her onto the ground. Landing on her back with an agonizing snap, Claire was stunned and exposed to Sasha's talons and fangs. She couldn't recover herself in time before Sasha bit down on her soft waist, drawing blood.

Letting out a sharp scream, more in frustration than pain, Claire whirled right around and went for Sasha's arm, pulling and tearing at her flesh. She clutched onto Sasha and hung on; no matter how hard her opponent thrashed and tossed herself around, Claire had her claws and teeth hooked into her.

Sasha bucked and threw herself into the ground to desperately get Claire off, finally launching herself at such an angle to where Claire's shoulder hit the ground oddly and there was a violent shift in her scapula. Grunting, she let go and rolled away out of Sasha's reach, and calculating her next attack, Claire steadied herself on her hands and like a riled horse she kicked out with her extensive legs, hitting Sasha square in the jaw. She didn't waste any time; she pounced on her winded opponent and locked her jaws around her scruff, shaking violently to muscle her into submission.

I don't want to have to really hurt you, Sasha. Claire wasn't a bully; she would give Sasha this one time to forfeit, before she would finish what they started, regardless of what condition Sasha would be left in.

Sasha snarled at her rival, conceited defiance swimming in her eyes. Of course she wouldn't throw in the towel because of a little forewarning. The bitch's ego was too inflated for her think practical. So now, Claire knew what she needed to do.

You are the Alpha's daughter. It's your honor on the line; if you can't prove to the pack you don't have the ability to do what needs to be done, you aren't going to be an Alpha Queen worth respecting. If you have to beat Sasha within an inch of her life, then so be it. It's not as if she hadn't daydreamed of having such an opportunity to give her rival a good beating...

So, she plowed into Sasha, putting all her weight and all her strength into each kick, smack, and bite. Before long, Sasha lied on the ground, far more bloodied and torn than Claire. Blood trickled down Sasha's left eye, which was nearly swollen shut, and there was still a cold hatred there. But it was over. She may have been arrogant, but she wouldn't risk her life for the sake of ego and pack rank. Claire was the rightful victor.

As she stood, relishing in the power that coursed through her veins like a rampant river tide, Claire glanced at the faces around her. Even those of her friends were calm, as if they knew without a trace of doubt she would dominate.

Eventually, she couldn't keep her eyes on the other wolves any longer; she instinctively found Luke, and her body pulsed with a numbing electric current as his gaze penetrated her with the utmost, passionate intent; he was completely ignoring any and all others around him.

Claire's throat felt dry; she swallowed, but no saliva was produced to soothe the uncomfortable roughness. Overwhelmed, she tore her eyes away from Luke to find her parents, who watched on in their wolf forms expectantly. Then, upon further observation, she realized the entire pack was silent and motionless, forming a tighter circle around her and Luke.

For months, it's built up to this. For months, she knew this was coming. Even before the night started, she wasn't completely sure if she would be accepting of this fate or if she would continue to fight it in any form she could. As she sat immobilized under the crushing weight of Luke's stare, only one instinct came to her scrambled mind.

Run.

No, I can't—I won't. Her pride was stronger than her mortal impulse. She wasn't going to run from this—from Luke—but neither did she want to be under the scrutiny of the entire pack, plus the handful of strangers from Ajax's pack, if anything ensued.

Remarkably, she needn't utter a sound; there was a keen sparkle in Luke's eyes, acknowledging her preference to be away from the prying eyes of spectators. He took confident, calculated steps toward her on bipedal hybrid legs, towering over her with his new Alpha's edge. With the slight twitch of his ears and a minor head jerk, he grunted an order for her to walk. Claire wasn't sure what would transpire if she left with him now, but for once, she found herself putting faith in him; faith in that he wouldn't force anything more on her than she could handle.

With a sobering rush of realization, she was tired of putting off the inevitable. At this point, she actually didn't care about being labeled as Luke's mate. He made the effort to break the ice this past month, and he's proven himself a more than tolerable man to be around. She wouldn't give herself to him completely, but she was finally willing to compromise and meet him halfway as a start.

With no resistance or callous reaction, Claire made her way past the massive wall of wolves, who all parted a path for her. As she moved into a trot, she could feel Luke's strong presence beside her, herding her into the forest. She could already hear the excited hiss of gossip amongst the pack as they left.

Luke kept her on the move for quite a distance until they were a mile or so away from the battle ground. He crouched in on her, pressing his head into her waist. Claire may have finally agreed to accept her responsibility, but she refused to be dominated so easily. Summoning her instinctive drive, she pushed her petite weight against Luke's solid figure as commendably as she could manage. He didn't push back, but merely stood fast as her efforts did little to shake his stance. Feeling exceptionally brave, she bared her canine teeth, and snapped at Luke's face with an adamant bark. She didn't count on him returning the gesture with aggressive vigor, and an ominous snarl to go with it. With a yelp, she lowered herself to his feet, tail tucking between her legs.

Luke's lips raised in a wolf's sneer and a deep, husky growl rumbled in his chest. Tucking his head in the human curve of her waist, he pushed his weight into her, trying to roll her over, yet making sure to stay away from her injured shoulder. But Claire remained solid, and she snarled at him with bared teeth. His next approach caught her off-guard; he relinquished his strength and instead put his arms on either side of her, lingering above her small body and cutting off any chance of escape. Her heart began to hammer so hard against her ribcage at how the heat of him blanketed her body, and he rubbed his chin and snout up her back, ruffling her mane as he lathered her in his scent. He inhaled deeply, and a grumbling sigh rocked his strong physique, causing Claire to lose what little composure she had left.

Upon feeling the pressure of Luke's jaws around her scruff, she huddled up against herself, teetering on the edge of submission. His throaty growls filled her ears, and in a final attempt, he tried to usher her onto her back. As bold as she wanted to be, the subordinate instinct within her psyche told her to submit to him above anything else. He was her Alpha, her leader.

Closing her eyes in defeat, she didn't resist, and she lay before him, belly exposed and vulnerable. Her heart jabbed in her ribcage so fast, she couldn't count a harmonious beat; her stomach was in tight, burning knots as Luke bore down on her with desirable eyes. His head lowered and lowered until his nose touched the medium-length mane covering the cleft between her furred breasts, and he trailed his nose through her scruff until he found the crook where her shoulder and neck blend together.

Clueless, Claire laid there tensely waiting until she felt a sharp pain in the delicate muscle of her neck. The pain was fleeting, but the mental sensation and shock still lingered even after Luke's teeth were no longer mended with her flesh. His face lingered beside hers, so close, their eyelashes could almost touch in a butterfly kiss. She could see the powerful waves of desire that danced in his vibrant eyes, and yet despite what instinct was screaming at him to execute, he showed firm restraint. An odd tenderness softened his wolfen features as he gazed at her.

As if he could sense the possible reason for her tension, he tried to soothe her, Don't worry, Claire. The Mating won't happen for us tonight. But now there's no more disproving it; you are mine. His last words were a whisper—a breathy declaration and promise enfolded in three words. With this, Claire couldn't stay. Being around him now was suffocating her; she'd conveyed her fair share of cooperation for the night.

As soon as his body was no longer blocking her down, she hauled herself to all fours and bolted for the forest with abandon. Her head spun and pulsed, and her shoulder throbbed, causing her to stumble and trip all the way home. She hastily climbed up the ivy-laced lattice padding the wall beneath her bedroom window, sloppily fumbling in through her bay window and shutting it. Not a breath later, she was in the shower. Uncaring of the icy water, she let it cascade down her now naked body, rubbing the dirt off her hands and feet. Glancing down, she saw faint ribbons of red swirling around the drain.

Hesitantly, she let her hand explore her neck until she came across sensitive skin, right where Luke bit her. The presence of it turned her body numb, even with the warming water. This would heal different than other wounds she's received in the past from falling off her bike, or getting a paper-cut; wounds from fellow wolves healed slowly and left scars due to the venom-tinted saliva. It would only be a faint scar, probably too faint for a human's eye to pick up; to keen, sharp wolfen eyesight, this mark could be seen by all and therefore served as a message: Claire belonged to Luke. She was his to call his own, she was his to hover and linger around, she was his to court…she was his bitch, to stand beside him as Alpha Queen and, eventually, to be the mother of his children…

The bearing weight of the reality from the evening's events had finally caught up with her; her previously brave expectations began to waver and crumble under uncertainty. Any and all scenarios of the future swarmed and recurred in her head; in these scenarios, she would either be unwilling and unhappy, or she would be indifferent and numb. Then, there was one premonition, one where she wouldn't mind life with Luke; where she would actually learn to accept it wholly—and even love it—as time went on. Shaking her head, she whined. Kneeling to the floor of the tub, she curled up in a fetal position as the shower nozzle continued to pour a steady stream of scolding water around her, ignoring the dull soreness of her shoulder and scapula as it healed itself.

She hung onto that last possible future, to prevent from leaning back to the dull, depressing perceptions. Can I be happy with him, like that? Can I take the Pledge to be his mate, put on a white dress someday and say "I do" and raise a family with him? A sudden chill rocked her tense body, and she shivered, hugging herself tighter.

She was now informally Luke's mate, which also made her the new Alpha Queen. What did a seventeen-year-old girl do with such authority? Although Claire was faithfully devoted to her pack and its welfare, she wasn't at all fond of politics, though she was fairly educated on them.

It was tradition; she was hardly the first seventeen-year-old female to become Alpha Female, and she wouldn't be the last. Both her parents have educated her through the years on the legislations of a loup-garou pack; they will continue to educate her whenever she seeks the guidance. But as of late, even the support and knowledge of her parents hadn't brought much relief to the reality she now had to face.

When she was no longer able to stand the pruning of her skin, Claire reluctantly left the warm, safe shelter of the tub, wrapping a towel around herself as she made her way to the closet. She picked an old, worn pair of pajamas, craving the comfort of something familiar and dependable.

Curiously, she stopped by her window to gaze out to the forest, to see if anyone had followed her home; she picked up the glint of a pair of eyes watching her from the mouth of the forest. As she concentrated her eyesight, her heart skipped when she realized it wasn't her father or mother emerging from the shadows, but Luke, in human skin, leaning against the massive trunk of an evergreen tree. He simply stood there, gazing up into her window, with no particular expression on his face.

Claire knew he could see her, and though a small part of her wanted to duck and hide, she refused to show such cowardice. She couldn't help but huff at the more than likely possibility he was hovering around to keep guard and make sure Arron didn't come snooping. Partaking in the staring match, an outrageous epiphany snapped inside Claire's thoughts, distracting her from the dreary reflections that occupied her mind only moments ago.

What if she threw away all objections and doubts and let Luke inside? What if she stopped fighting and just welcomed him into her arms, right then and there? Watching the way the stray beams of moonlight danced across his facial features and his chiseled torso, she pondered on such a picture: Luke lying in her bed, waiting for her; how it would feel to touch his skin, to run her hands through his hair… The memory of her recent experience with Arron only roused her imagination further. If her heart was racing a million miles an hour then, she could only imagine how she would feel with Luke; she could only imagine the feeling of his lips on hers, the feel of his hands on her body, the animalistic sound of his desire in her ears…

With a peep, Claire could feel the heat in her cheeks, as if someone had set her in front of a blazing fire. No, enough of that! No longer able to bear being in Luke's line of sight, she reached out and snapped her curtains closed.


© Jordane M. Arnold


A/N: Woohoo! Finally got this chapter out of the way! Hopefully it all fits together all right; as mentioned before, I'm awful when it comes to writing action.

Luke and Claire are Alphas now! What does this mean for Arron, though? Will he accept Claire's destiny as she is, or will he continue fighting Luke for her? With a new alpha in command, will the rogues hightail it out of Battle Ground? Why am I making this sound like an overly dramatic Saturday morning cartoon show narrative? Lol

Thanks again to my readers and reviewers! :)


Chapter Playlist

Snow White Queen - Evanescence

The Killing Moon - The Distants