It had taken time for Jet to heal up, time that Fog feared they couldn’t spare. It wasn’t his call, but he did have to admit that their first interaction with a powerful spirit in the Hisil probably made the delay unavoidable. News travels fast and far in the spirit realm, especially stories where the Uratha come off badly. The slate needed to be wiped clean. Anaru had mostly retreated to the Spring room where he could meditate and reflect while staring into the sacred pool, preparing himself.
Ember wouldn’t stand still. The pack’s behavior had cut directly to her tribal ban, Death Wolf’s chill breath whispered on the back of her neck. The debt was on her side. Every petty torment the spirits inflicted upon her grated. The Rage, impressive even to the rest of her pack, she deflected into safe manic action had started to burn through more and more. Jet would make this right or she’d take his pelt as a bathrobe. Then again, everyone was on edge. Even the largely placid Alex had gotten increasingly worn and snappish. Jet swung back and forth between humble contrition and vowing revenge upon the spirit. The young Hunter quietly snarled. The pack was chaotic. They needed leadership.
Cynder sighed heavily as she exited the Verizon store. Two hours to fix her phone…fucking blue screen of death. No one at the store had even heard of it happening on a phone…They finally had to wipe the damn thing entirely.
Cynder grumbled to herself as she walked down the road, relogging her facebook info. She looked up the Tears for the Raven’s page and once again, there was her picture with the rewards listed in the caption.
There were over 300 comments on the picture from angry gan girls, claiming that the gothic red head was them. Cynder smirked to herself as she debated contacting him.
She resisted for all of an hour. She sat at the bar in the Icicle Pub, and typed out a message to his private account as opposed to the fan page.
/Heard you were looking for me./ She knew her profile picture would be enough to convince him that she was the one in the picture.
Her phone pinged less than 2 minutes later.
/Yes, Hello./ was his reply. Wow…smooth…
/What can I do for you?/ she smiled as she typed.
/Get a coffee with me sometime./
She barked a laugh, startling the drunk next to her. /A coffee? Make it a beer and you have a deal. When are you next in town?/
/Tomorrow. Some asshole pulled the power at the show and fried our sound board. Beer it is. Tomorrow night?/
Cynder winced. Damn pack. /Sure./
/Should I pick you up?/
/Nah, I get around. Icicle at 8pm?/
Cynder finished her drink, laid money down on the table and walked out of the bar. Now that THAT was over…it was time to take care of her pack…and she meant HER pack…it was time to stake her claim as Alpha.
* * *
She had changed to full wolf once she was well into the woods outside of town. She felt Fog keeping pace with her before she saw him. Excellent. It was time to put the upstart pup in his place.
She spun on him, her hackles raised, challenging him. She knew he would feel her intent. She registered the surprise in his eyes before they bled into predatory calculation. Cynder snapped at the grey wolf with a short bark and the tussle began.
He surged forward, low and quick, his fangs flashing in the dappled light. She twisted to the side, snapping her jaws to catch his shoulder. Except he wasn’t there. Cynder caught a flash of his tail as he darted away. Coward. She sprang forward with a roar determined to catch him before he could completely run away. She’d shifted to near wolf as she raked his haunches. In a flash, Fog pivoted, catching her foreleg between his jaws. The bones crunched. Pain tore through her leg. Immediately she buried her fangs in his mane, tearing through the coarse hair and skin and tearing it away in a bloody strip. The grey wolf planted his feet and twisted his head violently. Off balance, Cynder tripped over Fog’s back to slam into the forest floor, hard. Her left leg flopped at a sickening angle, she could see jagged ends of bone erupted through shredded skin. She kept rolling. He would be coming. No time for pain. She had to win. Cynder was on her feet in a flash, whirling on three legs to meet her charging rival. She expected his teeth. She got his shoulder. He crashed into her like a battering ram, her left leg hadn’t healed enough. It buckled in an explosion of grinding bone. The world spun as she tumbled. Her legs tangled underneath her painfully. Suddenly, she felt her blood turn to ice. Fog’s fangs were poised at her throat, every beat of her pulse pressed the unyielding points of his teeth. She shifted back to her human shape. A moment later, Fog followed suit.
A dozen thoughts crossed her mind before settling on the least shameful. “I liked this shirt…” It was lame, petulant, petty… safe. Fishnet hadn’t been designed with wolf claws in mind. Cynder panted under Fog’s body weight, her face in a pile of leaves. She was dejected, humiliated. What was she THINKING?! She knew she couldn’t take Fog head on…
“Probably.” She could hear the smile in his voice. He had her pinned, her arms twisted under her belly and between her breasts, the weight of him on top of her…it was damned near erotic and had he not been wolf…she may have…
He licked her ear and she half groaned, half whimpered. To finish her humiliating defeat with such a sign of affection…“You want to lead, then lead, sister. I don’t want Alpha.” He nuzzled her neck before letting her up, teasing her. She sat up, a puzzled pout crossing her face. “But you need to use that pretty little head of yours as more than a fucking fashion accessory. Try to beat the rest of the pack into submission? You could probably kick the shit out of Alex, if he couldn’t get away. But Ember would rip your arms off and beat you with them. Fight how and where you’re strong. Keep your rivals from using their strengths. Show us why you are more fit to lead. You want to make a play for Alpha? I’ll back you as long as you deserve it.” He changed back into a wolf once more and Cynder followed suit, considerably more light hearted. But now, she had another problem…how to challenge the others without it coming to combat…
It was dark when the acrid smoke pierced Fog’s dreams and brought him to sudden consciousness. Smoke. Fire. Reflexively, he shifted to Dalu so he could see better. There was no haze in the air. Count noses. The naked black man sprawled on top of the sheets was easy to identify. OK, there’s Jet. Seems fine. There a female curled around a pillow. Ember. No one else wore pajamas. A mass of hair laying wild over a pillow and mattress had to be Cynder. Three human feet? Too small to be the Maori, she must be using Foster like a body pillow again. Thinking of Maori, where the bloody hell was Anaru? He couldn’t hear anyone in the bathroom. Crap. One short. Wait a second… Fog paused in his automatic headcount as a background detail clicked into place. He was smelling some sort of incense. That might explain where Anaru was.
As Fog rose to his feet, he met the eyes of Alex and Cynder. He wasn’t the only light sleeper. He shrugged. Barefoot, he padded over to the stairs and headed down. The incense grew stronger. He followed it. In a completely unsurprising coincidence, the trapdoor to the Spring room was open and pale streamers of aromatic smoke were twining upwards. On impulse, he dropped to his knees and poked his head down the hatch to peek into the basement room.
Anaru was looking right at him as his head cleared the sill. “Are you going to hang around all day playin’ silly buggahs or are y’ gonna fetch everyone down?”
“So glad you let us know ahead of time.”
“Piss off. I had enough t’ occupy me without you tossers jogging m’ elbaw.”
“Whatever… Go water your skirt.”
Fog pushed himself up and onto his feet. He suppressed a yawn and started strolling back upstairs. If the kiwi thought he was so fucking clever, he could damned well wait until everyone else felt like getting up. Nonetheless, as soon as he stepped into the bedroom, he flicked the light switch off and on. He affected an overly cheerful tone. “Up and at ’em everyone. The Auckland Etch-a-Sketch has his grass skirts in a twist wanting all of us at the Locus.”
“The fuck?!” Cynder was especially articulate first thing in the morning.
Fog gave her a sunny smile as fake and blinding as a day-glo garden flamingo. “He didn’t say.” When she immediately scowled, he added. “Not my fault the mutton molesting mystic decided to be all mysteeeeeerious.”
Ember made a “Reeee-oww” sound with a small clawing motion.
“Damn, someone’s feeling feisty.” Cynder chuckled.
Everyone filed downstairs. Anaru stood beside the open trapdoor. True to the insinuation, the Blood Talon was clad in a kilt of dried grasses. His hair had been slicked back with some sort of oil. Carved bone, shells, stone, and feathers hung from a variety of necklaces around his throat. More were bound around his wrists and ankles. “It’s time t’ set things right with th’ beah.” He set his feet to the ladder and started climbing down. “I’ll purify ya at the bottom. Don’t bring nothin’ unnessisry. Don’t step into the room until I tell ya. The Locus is tapu.”
“OK.” Ember peeled out of her flannel sleepwear without hesitation, leaving them in a pool of cartoon dog fabric. She almost skipped down the ladder. Fog never guessed that would be even remotely possible.
Alex was more sedate in his descent though his eyes were gleaming with undisguised curiosity. Jet followed, then Cynder.
The basement was dim. Small oil lamps flickered in niches and small pinches of dried resin smoldered on braziers lading the air in strong, vaguely evergreen smoke. The Locus spring glowed with faint silver-blue phosphorescence. His brothers and sisters were soft-edged shapes kneeling around the pool, silent.
It was the Ithaeur who captured Fog’s immediate attention however. He was a big man, but right then, he seemed immense. His tā moko were vividly black, almost appearing to crawl on his cheeks and forehead. His chest was dense with glyphs and patterns that flowed around the contours of his muscles similar to the engraved ink upon his face, but predating any human culture. He chanted softly as he wafted cleansing smoke with the aid of a bundle of branches from some unknown bushes. Once he was sure he’d blown the smoke over every inch of Fog’s skin, he stepped to the side and nodded. “Mind where you step.”
The floor had been painted with a dizzying fusion of Uratha and islander elements. An odor of damp earth undercut the copal. As he settled in an open space in the pattern, closing the circle of the pack, Fog realized the marks were made with multiple colors of mud or clay.
A stone bowl filled with glowing coals waited near the center of the pattern. Anaru solemnly moved to kneel behind it. He’d shifted to Dalu and his voice growled through the quiet, calling to the bear spirit in the First Tongue.
Gradually, Fog watched as the world… slid a few degrees off. Colors grew more vivid, shades lost meaning. There was no more grey. Every shadow was knife edged, impenetrable black where it fell, almost painful saturation everywhere else. Every scent assumed an intensity that should’ve drawn blood. When the shaman slowly poured a small bottle of honey into the coals to sizzle and pop, the Hisil felt so close just breathing too hard would breach the Gauntlet. They were being watched and something deep in his core whispered it was a bear; long of tooth and claw, a killer of the weak winter herds, devourer of the spring fawns, but a messenger of the spirit they had offended.
Anaru began to chant, still in the First Tongue and the hairs on Fog’s skin wanted to stand on end. The shaman was speaking for them all, laying out their sins against the spirit. Fog shifted. Somehow, the chill floor was simply more soothing under footpads than bare skin.
Anaru didn’t seem to care, as long as they were still. His chanting never wavered.
The Hunter’s muscles were cramped, his eyes stung from smoke, his nose was raw when he heard the distinct chuff of a bear and the presence faded. His brothers and sisters looked worn, but Anaru was swaying. His face had gone slack. His eyes were sunken and bruised looking, lips cracked and flecked with dried blood. He was covered in sweat. He was exhausted to the edge of collapse. If someone snapped a picture of him, they’d give people nightmares. Almost as soon as that thought finished in Fog’s brain, Anaru’s eyes rolled up in their sockets and he toppled sideways, unconscious. Within a minute he was fully human again. Cynder and Jet silently stretched him out more comfortably on the floor before heading upstairs.
By the time Fog trotted upstairs, Ember was in the kitchen cooking. He had to stop and take a second look at the stove clock. The fucking Ritual had taken six hours! No wonder their mystic had keeled the hell over. Anaru would be on his feet again in a few minutes and ravenous. Brownie points for the Bone Shadow making sure there was food ready for him when he came up. Sadly, the scents coming from the range weren’t appealing to his current stomach. I’m not changing again. He let himself out the back door, even taking the time to be considerate and latch it behind him with a paw, before trotting into the woods. Fresh tracks and scent trace let him know Jet had thought in similar lines.
Shit Anaru’s ritual had taken forever. Cynder just wanted a long, hot bath and a massage, in either order. It was a success, but she’d known from the start he’d been pulling it all from his ass. Can’t bullshit a bullshitter they say and she’d been performing since she was little. It was pretty smooth though. If he could improvise that well, it made her feel a bit more confident fucking with the Spirit Realm.
Cynder smiled as she recognized the long, unexpected pack ritual had presented her with an opportunity. “Hey Alex?” The Brit paused, turning to find out what she wanted to say. He yelped as her fist drove into his kidney with all of her weight behind it. He staggered in pain and surprise. With a snarl, Cynder punched her forearm under his chin. The back of his head rebounded off the wall a split second before she felt his trachea collapse. He clawed at her arm trying to regain blood to his brain, gasping for air. “I’m Alpha. Got it?” She released him to gag and choke on the floor until his crushed airway could regenerate. Her voice was cheerful, “Dibs on the bathtub!”
Fog returned to the cabin happily sated by a pair of hares and someone’s over-bold cat. The rest of the pack were congregated in the living room. Something must’ve been up. He started toward the unoccupied end of the sofa when he was brought up short by Cynder’s, “Nuh unh. Paws off the furniture.” Looking her directly in the eye, he very deliberately lifted a paw and placed it on the cushion, patting it a few times.
“You’re a dick.”
He snorted then shook his coat out in a blatant display of unconcern before flopping onto the floor and sprawling over a surprising amount of floorspace. The redhead’s expression promised retaliation, but he knew she wouldn’t start anything yet. It looked like she’d called the pow-wow.
Obviously, they’d started without him. Jet shook his head and stated, “We need a Totem. We are too weak without one.” The rest of the pack were already nodding or frowning as soon as he started speaking. It was a popular argument for him.
“I agree. Probl’m is knowin’ what we outta git.”
Jet focused on Anaru. “I like bear. Now that we’ve smoothed things over…”
The Blood Talon cut him off. “No, that one’ll neva be our Totem. I reck’n a bear is not fer us.”
“I wouldn’t mind a kitty cat.”
Statements like that kept Fog wondering about Ember’s mental state. She wasn’t the brightest tool in the shed, but he shuddered to think she was taste-testing all the window glass.
Cynder made a throwing away gesture and spoke up. “I’ve got something that might solve a couple issues, including that.”
“Ooooo, what’s that?” He had to hand it to her though, Ember was enthusiastic and interested.
“Calm your tits, I’ll get there.
“I’ve been reading through the old journals. I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I think I’ve figured out who we’re up against. It seems that their pack threw down with a nasty spirit they called the Alder Man. It’s a spirit of the hunt and forest like a greenman or erlking. It ruled the area since before people set foot out here. A lot of the shit we’re seeing around town, around our territory, was also happening back then. Apparently, as humans moved in and settled in, it caused his power to wane. They thought it was attempting to weaken the town or somehow get it’s power back. The Alder Man seemed to be doing this through a bunch of ‘saplings’. They also wrote that it had the allegiance of guardian spirits. They called them Al’Ath. Their Cahalith, Angelo, even wrote that they’d found their Ban.
“The bad news is their Cahalith never got around to saying how they kicked its ass. One of the Alder Man’s minions killed their pack’s Rahu. It fucked them up and Angelo never got around to saying how beyond destroying the ‘Saplings’ and that even weakened, it took the whole pack to take out the Alder Man.”
“So what’s the Ban?” Alex asked.
Cynder shook her head. “No fucking idea. He never bothered to write it down.”
“Well that’s just bloody brilliant.” Foster shook his head. “I suppose I could try to rediscover it.”
“What’s this have to do with getting a Totem?” Ember exclaimed.
“You motherfuckers have no patience. I’m almost done.
“We all know the pack that used to live here pulled a Custer’s Last Stand. BUT, there was a survivor. Their pack totem wasn’t destroyed. It was there. It has to know what they’d discovered. Annnnnnd, because I rock and Angelo wasn’t a complete jerk forgetting to write the really important shit down, I know where it lives. He copied down how they tracked it, trapped it, and bound it. Its name is Kerexusaka.
“I think we’ve got a good chance of getting ourselves a powerful, experienced Totem and a shit ton of information about fighting this Alder Man.”
He felt like an idiot sitting on his haunches nodding, but a wolf wasn’t equipped to give a ‘thumbs-up’ and the standard lupine body-language dictionary is pretty sparse when trying to communicate across species.