It took a week for the actual challenge to reach the Old Kingdom.
Not surprisingly, practically everyone in the pack was against me accepting it.
Yet it seemed fair. Like the usual mate fights, it followed the basic rules. The winner was only proclaimed when the other competitor was dead. Winter would belong to the winning male and no one could object or step in unless they planned on fighting for her too. That was only allowed if Winter was actually their mate. No weapons were allowed but everything else was fair game.
The fight would take place in neutral territory, the Lunar Kingdom, the jurisdiction of the Hunters.
"He has to have an ulterior motive," Innoko growled. "There could be a trap in the Lunar Kingdom. He's trying to get our beta alone. There could be an ambush planned before they even get to the fight."
Sani nodded his agreement, "He could cheat during the fight and have someone on the outside intervene."
"The Hunters are the mitigators, they wouldn't let Jeko do that," Cleo couldn't help but defend them.
The alpha placed a hand atop of hers. "Not all of the Hunters are like Coda, Cleo," Hakota reminded his mate gently.
Innoko wasn't so careful with her words as she slammed a fist on the table. "Ha! Those Hunters? All the more reason this is sketchy. They hate our guts and most of them would like nothing more than to see us dead. What makes you think they aren't in on this?"
Cleo bristled. "Coda wouldn't betray me!" She snapped at the female. "And they have pride and a sense of honor."
Hakota spread out his arms, cutting off his mate and Innoko, "Alright. Can we all just agree that this challenge leaves a lot of elements unknown and shouldn't be accepted?"
"But we have a good chance of killing him now!" Nahta objected. "We could end this war before it starts."
"Exactly," Kieran said, siding with his beta. They shared a look and nodded.
Roshan was already shaking his head. "No. He must have something planned, he knows he'd never be the winner of such a fight. There is something more afoot here."
"I really don't think it's that complicated," Syn interjected. He glanced at his mate who nodded for him to continue. "Jeko doesn't really have any other choice but to issue a challenge. He can't gain any more power in the Forest Kingdom without restoring his image first. His mate was stolen and impregnated which painted him as a weak male who can't even keep his female."
"But just because he has no other choice, that doesn't mean he doesn't have something planned. He still wouldn't want to die just to restore his honor." Sasha offered his own insight, siding Roshan.
"Then some of us go with Sitka," Cahtta reasoned, countering her twin brother. "If we are really concerned about this being a trap to kill our beta then some of us go with him to watch his back." She lifted her chin at Winter. "Take some of her blood with in case they use underhanded methods and gravely injure Sitka."
"Malik, what is your opinion?" I asked, noting he had yet to volunteer anything.
The boy only snorted and uncrossed his arms. "What? Does anyone actually value my opinion? Every time I say something you guys just tell me to shut up. I'm too young to actually understand anything right?"
He refused to look at Terrin and Syn but we all knew he was directing his words at his fathers. But they did hit everyone. The younger lycans like Kieran, Nahta, And Galay all dismissed Malik as a weird abnormal kid while the older lycans still just looked at him a child.
"I do," I said seriously and met his eyes. Because I knew this kid. I understood what he was capable of. He was an intelligent mind trapped in a kid's body but he understood things perhaps better than even Innoko and Hakota. "So tell me what you think."
Malik's white eyes bored into me. After a stretch on silence he clicked his tongue and sat up from his slouched position in his chair. "I think everyone is too busy looking at what could happen if we accept the challenge. That's not the most important part though," he stated. "You should be asking what will happen if Sitka doesn't go." The hybrid leaned forward and tapped his fingers on the table. "What's the reason Jeko needs to do this?" He looked around the room his eyes landing on Innoko, one of the opposers to accepting the challenge.
"Because he has to restore his image in the eyes of the Foresters," she answered.
"Right. So let's say we don't accept the challenge, then we avoid the possibility of Sitka walking into a trap." He clapped his hands. "Great, is there anything else we get out of that choice?" He again scanned the room, giving the opportunity for anyone to add more. "No?" He gave a second chance for someone to speak up. "Alright, now let me tell you we stand to gain by accepting this challenge."
The boy was unable to sit still and pushed his chair back, sliding out of his chair so he could walk around. "First of all," he said coming to stand behind Sani. "You're right, he's going to cheat," he freely admitted, patting the lycan's shoulder. "But no one is going to help him. If he cheats, he's going to pull something himself. He's doing this to redeem himself."
He snuck a glance at Terrin before moving on, strolling over to the alphas. "The Foresters have pride and honor just like the Hunters and us. Mate fights are a custom that defines these people so they aren't going to spit on it. You have my word that Sitka and Jeko will be alone once they enter that battle. If Jeko has something up his sleeve he's going to need to carry it out by himself. If he wants to pull something before the mage fight then like Cahatta said some of us can go with him."
Malik arced the head of the table, passing by the alphas and stopping at Kieran's side. "So now that we all agree on that, let's move on. As Nahta said, we can kill Jeko quite easily with this mate fight. Sitka has full unlimited access to him. Whether or not the Foresters recognize him as their King or not the fact remains he's sitting in their throne. We kill him, we solve some problems, and at the very least buy ourselves some time as the others scramble for the throne. A civil war is already brewing so with Jeko's death it will finally start."
"It leaves a good opportunity to attack them too. They'll be disorganized." Sani contemplated.
Malik waved his hand dismissively, "Yeah sure, you can do that too if you want a never ending cycle of war." He replied sarcastically. "I suggest after Jeko is dead you just tell the Forest Kingdom you're done. Jeko wanted the war but you're not interested and now that he's dead you'll let bygones be bygones."
"You want me to just ignore the fact they killed my daughter?" Innoko shouted as she shot out of her seat.
"You want this pack to risk more lives for revenge?" Flicka countered coldly, speaking for herself and her two mates who were signing. "My daughter died too but they aren't going unavenged. Jeko is the one who caused their deaths. Let it rest when his blood is spilled, losing one child is enough."
"I agree," Hakota said, displaying his hand clasped with Cleo's to show their unity on this. "We should at least try for peace."
"The Foresters aren't unreasonable," Terrin added. "They might actually see such an act as honorable. You fought to resolve your grudge and you put it to rest once it was solved."
"Back to my main point," Malik grabbed ahold of the conversation, "if Sitka doesn't go, then Jeko gets to walk out with his honor and his life. The Foresters will think Sitka is too afraid and then we're stuck with the weak image or even worse, they think we're disrespecting their traditions or thinking it below us which will only fire them up. So tell me, who really wins if we don't do it?"
The room was silent now as we all reflected on his words, all coming to a non-verbal agreement about what had to be done.
And that was how I ended up in the Lunar Kingdom with Hakota, whom we had decided was essential to show up to prove we were respecting the traditions and taking it seriously. Also our alpha would bear witness to the result and respect them on behalf of the lycans. Terrin had also come with his mate. He was a Forest Kingdom born male and he would make sure the rules of the mate fight were unaltered and fair to the standard.
"Where's Winter?" Jeko asked, not showing surprise in seeing her absence.
"You couldn't believe we'd actually bring her all the way over to the Lunar Kingdom," Hakota scoffed. "She's heavily pregnant not to mention vulnerable to your schemes."
Jeko pursed his lips. "So when I win you expect me to come to the Old Kingdom to retrieve her?"
"If you win," Hakota growled, his fingers curling into firsts, "then we will send her to the Forest Kingdom."
Jeko only hummed, not arguing any further. He didn't actually care about Winter and he hadn't actually expected us to bring her, it was all just a pretense. She wasn't the main reason for the mate fight and if we denied her to him should he win, it only gave him more ammunition against us. It would encourage the rage of the Forest Kingdom for breaking our word and spitting on their tradition.
I wasn't going to lose though.
But I wasn't going to underestimate him either. Malik had said as much that Jeko would cheat. He wouldn't go into this without something he thought could give him a chance to win.
"Your pack members can watch with the ones who came with me." The Forest King pointed over at the small cluster of werewolves waiting a fair distance away.
We were in an open grassy area that would give us plenty of room to fight. There were no boundaries set and if somehow the others ended up in the way, they move as to not hinder our fight.
When Hakota, Syn and Terrin were standing beside the Foresters we began.
Jeko launched at me without hesitation. There was no ceremony or official words to initiate the fight. It was just a raw and primal battle.
I caught his hand, interlocking my fingers with his and sank my claws into his hand. He winced, hissing and planted his feet firmly in the ground as I pushed him back. His heels dug into the earth, deep divots gouged into the ground and chunks turf unearthing as I forced him back.
He ripped his hand free and head butted me, his shorter height giving him the perfect advantage to jab his head up into my jaw.
I nearly bit off my tongue but managed to only catch the edge of it, blood filling my mouth.
I backed up a few steps. This was something I wanted to end fast so I wasn't going to play around with him. I reached out to grab him but he avoided my grasp, sacrificing his balance to do so.
I knocked him onto the ground while his footing was uneven. My hand shot down and wrapped around his throat and I sank my claws into his flesh as one of his hands reached up for my wrist.
Something stabbed into my calf, something that was not a set of claws, penetrating too deeply into my muscle. Searing pain ripped through me in an all too familiar feeling.
My leg buckled and my vision blurred as the Hunter venom took effect. I gritted through the pain but his surprise attack gave him the opportunity to escape before I could tear out his throat and be done with this fight.
I was not about to let him get away so I blindly grabbed him, having decades of training that taught me the best way to fight even with Hunter venom inhibiting me. We tussled on the ground like two real wolves, biting and clawing, punching and kicking.
Staying close to him was my most advantageous move. I couldn't let him get too far away from me because I couldn't depend on my sight. Fighting in close quarters was easier for me, I had more access to his vital points and with our bodies grappling like this as we rolled across the ground, I knew exactly where they were.
"You cheated!" I hissed at him when he stabbed me again with the venom coated knifed. I snatched his wrist before he could withdraw with the knife again and tossed the knife away from us. "You have no honor!" I snarled and snapped his wrist.
To his credit the only sound he let out was a grunt.
"You shamed the name of the Forest Kingdom. You've just made them all your enemy." I didn't understand why he would risk it. Even if he won it would be by illicit means, a false victory. He still wouldn't have the respect of his kingdom.
I got hold of his throat, feeling the soft and breakable windpipe below my hands.
Jeko choked, coughing out a mouthful of blood which I could tell was not spittle by the way the sticky and warm liquid coated my hands. He wasn't long for this world with his injuries. I had already punctured one of his lungs, it was just a matter of time before he drowned on his own blood if I didn't kill him before then.
"I know that," he gurgled out, "just like I knew I would die here." I grabbed his neck tighter as he wheezed out his final words. "I just needed to get you out of that castle. My target was never you, Sitka, but that slutty bitch mate of yours carrying your bastard child. You left them alone," he laughed triumphantly even though it was a sad sound, interrupted by the blood he was choking on.
I froze, my breath catching in my throat as my heart skipped a beat before it invigorated its pace, pounding fiercely in my chest.
"You thought I was being arrogant to challenge you to a fight everyone knew I would lose. You even assumed I'd have a trap waiting for you so you took more of the lycans out of the castle. You thought my goal was to kill you?" He hacked up another mouthful of blood. "No, but you thinking it was left my real target wide open."
I was breathing rapidly now as I understood what he was telling me. I wished I could see him, wished I could see his face as I killed him. Because I did not delay any longer, I punched my thumbs through his throat and snapped his neck.