Stark and I faced each other from across the ring. Sweat coated my body and I struggled to breath, but I still forced my hands to stop shaking and look my alpha in the eye. Bruises dotted my skin where he had mercilessly pounded on me every time I made a mistake. The pain had scared me at first, but now it just made me mad. It was nature's way of telling me to give up. Stark was turning my own body against me, and that pissed me off more than you can imagine. Without a word, we both raised our fists again.
"Keep your hands up this time," Stark told me. "Every time you let them down, you give your opponent a chance to hit you."
Easier said than done. By now, my arms felt like steel beams topped with blocks of lead. I didn't say anything, though, and Stark gave a nod. At his signal, I stepped further into the ring. Stark stepped forward too, his actions mimicking my own, and we circled each other for a minute like a pair of angry wolves. Stark's face was impassive, but I was running my eyes all over him, trying to decide where to strike. We'd been going at this for hours, and Stark had brushed off everything I'd thrown at him as if I were just flicking wads of paper at him. He gave me instructions when he needed to, but for the most part he expected me to figure out my own strategies.
What haven't I tried yet? I wondered. I'd thrown punches everywhere my arms could reach, and even tried kicking him a couple times, but nothing had worked. While I was exhausted and covered in bruises, Stark wasn't so much as breathing heavily.
Acting on a whim, I ducked low and thrust my fist out, trying to punch him in the gut. That had never worked before, but I'd noticed that his reaction time was a little slower for that part of his body. My knuckles got within an inch of his skin, and for a split second my heart leaped into my throat. Then Stark slapped my hand away like I was a child reaching for a piece of candy I wasn't allowed to have.
"Too slow," he grunted. "You have to move—"
Before he could finish, I jumped up and swung my leg out at his hip. I hadn't really expected that punch to connect, but now that he was poised for that, his side was wide—
"Whoa!" I shouted. I don't know exactly what happened, but one second I was kicking at Stark, and the next I was in the air, spinning around so fast that the snow covered forest became a blur of whites, browns, and greens. I landed face down in the dirt.
Crap, I thought, picking myself up. I spat dirt back onto the ground, and then got to my feet, dusting off my clothes. I winced when I moved my arm. I'd landed hard on it. There'd be another bruise there in half an hour. Glaring at Stark, I went back to my side of the ring again. Instead of telling me to get ready again, though, Stark looked up at the sky.
"It's about to get dark," he said. "Let's head home."
I let my arms fall to my sides. Can you imagine what it'd feel like to be stuck in a clothes dryer filled with rocks while it's set to "Disintegrate"? If you can, then that might give you an idea how I felt after ten straight hours of Stark's training. We'd met at dawn, and now the sky as beginning to turn purple as the sun set behind the trees. It had taken me ten minutes to walk from his cabin to the ring, and that had mostly been a downhill hike. Now we were going back up the way we'd come, carving our way through snow with every step, and on top of that my arms and legs felt like they were going to fall off.
Stark went first, flattening the snow and making a path for me as I followed behind him, which helped a little, but left the snow under my feet hard packed and slippery. I fell twice, sliding back downhill both times until I managed to grab a tree and stop myself. Stark didn't so much as glance backwards.
Freaking jerk, I thought, picking myself up again and brushing the snow off my pants before it could soak into them more than it already had. My temper flared high as I watched him climb further up the hill, hands swinging idly by his sides, as if he hadn't just spent the whole day fighting me. I wasn't going to be humiliated like this, not after everything he'd put me through today. I would climb that freaking hill by myself, and I'd do it— I slipped again and went sliding all the way to the bottom of the hill. With one last painful somersault, I found myself back in the center of the ring.
No, no, no, NO! I thought, sitting up and pounding my fist in the dirt in frustration. What was wrong with me? Why couldn't I do anything right? Why did I screw up everything I...
Shut up! my wolf interrupted me, rising up and throwing a shadow over my mind. We not weak. We strong! We not give up! We get up and go, we fight, we—
"I can't!" I said, looking up the hill just as Stark reached the top of disappeared over the other side. "Every time I think I've done something right, I just make things worse. Maybe..."
I didn't want to say the rest of that sentence out loud, but my subconscious played it out in my head instead. Maybe it would be better if I just stayed right here, at the bottom. With everyone else out of my reach, maybe that would at least keep me from dragging them down any further. Let Stark protect Mom and Kimberly. Hendricks was after me, not them. I couldn't... I just couldn't...
If you can't, the wolf said, then let me.
Suddenly, I felt a wave of confidence wash over me. It perked up my head and got me off my knees. It took me a few seconds to figure out what was happening, but then it struck me. Weakness, doubt, defeat, those were foreign concepts to a wolf. Prey felt those things. A wolf was not prey. It was strong, it was swift, it was silent. Slowly, I walked to the edge of the ring. A wolf was death to the things that felt such pitiful emotions. And I, at least in part, was a wolf.
I looked up the hill where Stark had gone ahead of me, but my hesitation was gone. With newfound conviction, I stripped off my clothes, throwing them on the ground, and then got down on all fours. Even though I hadn't started the change yet, I was tired of being on two feet. Human Amber was weak. Wolf Amber was better. She was stronger, faster. She had confidence, and she actually deserved that confidence. With a feral growl, I sprang into the air, and by the time I touched the ground again I was me. The real me.
I howled, singing the song of the fire in my blood, and bounded up the hill. Where two legged Amber had slipped and slid, the real Amber dug her claws into the ice and kept going, hardly noticing the slick surface. I caught Stark's scent, and my vision zeroed in on the last place I'd seen him. Training was over for the day, huh? I don't think so!
I cleared the top of the hill and kept going, throwing snow up behind me with every step. I never got to finish my hunt last night, but that was okay. I could finish it right here and now, and Stark was the prey! I bared my teeth in eager anticipation of when I caught up to him. My human mind was buried deep by the wild passions of the animal I'd become, but for once I didn't even try to keep them in check. I didn't know what I was going to do when I caught up to Stark, but I couldn't wait to do it!
There he was! I skidded to a stop twenty feet away from him. He was still walking the other way, back toward his cabin, but when he heard me he finally turned around to look.
Good, I thought with a growl in my throat. I've finally got your attention, you son of a...
I charged at him, opening my mouth wide. Stark didn't look at all concerned, but that didn't bother me. He didn't know who he was dealing with. I'd teach him to respect me, even if I wasn't the alpha! I pounced, my fangs glistening in the light of the setting sun as I went for his jugular and—
A sharp pain exploded on the side of my head, and I went flying to the right. I hit the ground, rolling uncontrollably through the snow until I struck a tree. The impact shook the branches, and suddenly I was buried under another foot of cold white powder. I struggled to get up, having to do it inch by inch with the snow weighing down heavily on top of me. Finally, I burst free of the snow pile, shook it out of my fur, and spun around to face Stark...
Whose face was an inch away from my snout.
From this close, I couldn't help but look into his eyes. Those stern, stone cold, hard, blue eyes. They seemed to radiate with power, and my anger was doused like a campfire after a dam bursts.
A... alpha! my wolf thought, trying to slink backward but finding the tree in its way. I put my tail between my legs and lowered myself to the ground, ready for the beating that was sure to follow— if I was lucky. I had just attacked the alpha. The freaking alpha! If he wanted, he could kill me here and now for this!
What have I done?
Stark stood up, his wiry muscled frame towering over me, blotting out the dying sunlight. I closed my eyes, hoping death wouldn't be too painful...
"Still too slow."
My eyes shot open again, and I looked up at him in surprise. Stark sighed. "How many times do I have to repeat myself? I'm not going to kill you, Amber!"
With my animal emotions subdued, my human mind began to take control again. I thought back on what I'd just done, and... holy crap, what was wrong with me?
"You're still too slow, though," Stark went on, backing up to give me a little space. "You pounced at me from a good seven feet away. That gave me plenty of time to interrupt your attack. Your wolf form is faster than your human body. Take advantage of that."
I bobbed my head in a quick nod, and Stark turned back in the direction we'd come up from. "I wanted you to climb that hill in human form for a reason, though. The climb will strengthen your body, and doing it on the ice will strengthen your mind." He turned and gave me a sharp look. "Consider it part of your training. Go back, turn human, and get dressed. You can come inside and rest once you make it to the cabin."
Ashamed and thoroughly abashed, I slunk back towards the ring where I had left my clothes. Making my way back down the hill wasn't much harder than going up for my wolf body, but a cold dread settled in my stomach when I thought about doing it again in human form. Reaching the bottom, I retrieved my clothes, relieved to find none of them too wet, and shifted back.
Can't do it, my wolf side protested as I pulled my shirt over my head. Too weak! Weak prey!
I sighed and turned to face the hill just in time to see the sun vanish behind it.
"It will strengthen your body and your mind."
"You're right," I whispered to the animals inside me. "I am too weak. And that's why I have to do this myself."
The wolf growled inside me, irritated, but I ignored it. I was too weak. That was something I've always known, but tried to ignore. I pretended to be strong, but that only made it hurt more when reality came along and thumped me on the head. I couldn't stay this way, not if I wanted to survive all this. I couldn't keep ignoring my weakness and blaming everyone else when things went wrong. I had to get stronger, and that meant that I had to start doing things myself, even when they were hard.
Especially when they were hard.
Taking a deep breath, I rolled up my sleeves and started up the hill again.
NEXT TIME: Guys, I think she’s doing it! Maybe Stark’s training will actually have a— oh, whoops, there she goes again.