I'm Sorry and Good-bye. [Part 4]
unexpected help

Urhan was not a shape well-suited for contemplation. Human thought patterns fit poorly. They interfered with instinct. Still, Fog found his mind straying to the words of the great cat. He’d understood perhaps one of every three words, but it had been enough to tell him they’d learned something important, something serious. The holes in what he knew gnawed at him. He’d need to have Cynder fill in the gaps. Soon.

Something moved in the trees.

Immediately, he tensed. Something close. Danger? he growled. As one the pack closed ranks, wary and excited. The attack was still fresh in his memory. He didn’t doubt it would be far from the rest of their minds. Ember was literally trembling with suppressed need to act.

It was alone. Something vaguely cat-like moving purposefully. The breeze was from the wrong angle, it had their scent. They did not have its. There were low growls from the pack as it bounded into the open. It was not a cat. The body was too long, too sleek. The head had a sharp muzzle. Mustelid. It was the size of a spaniel dog, but much more powerful. A mink or fisher spirit. No, definitely a fisher. It stopped a few yards away. Fog could see the blue tint of its dense fur and realized he’d unconsciously shifted to the larger Urshul form. Eyes like garnet coals burned with calculation. The scrutiny was familiar. It had watched them before. Stalked them. Shadowed them. But it hadn’t attacked before. What was it up to now?

“What do you want?” The First Tongue was crude from the red-furred direwolf, but confident.

The spirit’s voice was jarring and shrill. I have been watching you. You are cubs, Kin-slayers, but perhaps of use. This place is in turmoil. Unnatural hunters stalk here. Prey is disrupted. Your enemy is the cause. I could help you.

“Help us how?”

I could share my strength. Show your teeth where to go. Show your claws what to seek. Your prey knows you. It is strong. You are too weak. Untried. Alone.

“Will you bind yourself as our Totem?”

Would you abide by my terms?

“Name them and I shall tell you.”

My kin and cousins are to be honored. They are not to be hunted idly. I require an offering of your prey’s blood at every kill. No flesh you consume can be tainted by fire. The bond shall be sealed by a third of your Essence.

“We would honor your kin and would not hunt them without cause or reason. A taste of our prey’s blood we could offer. Unfortunately, we must live amongst humans and they cook their meat.”

Humans do not defile the flesh completely always. If it only tastes the flame without burning, it could be acceptable.

“So nothing beyond cooked ‘rare’?”


“Before we should agree to your terms, why offer to become our Totem?”

The spirit emitted a growling chitter of annoyance. I am the kill. I am the seeking death. When the Alder Man calls, I feel his pull. I would not abide the command of the unnatural. You are the lesser distaste.

“We accept.”

The moment the words left her lips, it was like some unseen thunderbolt slammed into them. Fog’s nose felt saturated by a scent he could not detect. His ears rang from a peal of utter silence. The fisher spirit bled into multiple afterimages, rippling and translucent and eye watering. His skin felt like billions of ants raced over every inch. His tongue was numb. He could feel his energy, his Essence, rushing out in a hot wave, touching his packmates, mixing with their own and spreading out toward the fisher. Where the intangible wave touched it, it soaked in like water into dry sand. It was unlike anything Fog had ever experienced before. He stood on trembling legs, stunned.

The sensation faded as rapidly as it struck and Fog began to notice differences. His awareness of the rest of the pack was clearer somehow, he just knew where they all were without needing to think about it. He turned his massive head from side-to-side and knew that his muscles, his instincts remembered nuances of violence he hadn’t known a minute before. The ability to move smoother or be scarier was there for the taking, but only one of the pack at a time. His gaze moved to the fisher spirit and the name was there. Relentless Fangs. He could taste their new Totem’s ferocity and felt his own inner well of Rage almost purr in resonance.

You have a Bargain yet unpaid. I shall be close by. The Totem spun in a flurry of snow and seemed to sprint up the side of a tree. He was lost from view in seconds. Fog could’ve pointed directly to him. No wonder packs thought so much of their Totems. It was a tremendous bond.

He should have felt exhausted. They’d fought, run for miles, climbed high into the mountains, run still further and offered up almost all of their spiritual energy, but the Irraka felt energized. He suspected it was a false energy, a lingering effect of gaining a Totem bond. Regardless, they all moved swifter than he would have predicted.

Stepping back through the Gauntlet into the dim cellar was a bitter-relief. They were home, but Anaru’s marks were plain, reminding them he was gone. As the sun started to crest over the eastern horizon, the pack watched the collected lore and history of the Meers pack turn to ash.

Cynder’s eyes looked bleached out, her thoughts probably revolving around the next day’s funeral already. Fog closed his eyes on thoughts of cold blood and hot ashes.

I'm Sorry and Good-bye. [Part 3]
the truth is cold comfort

Ironically, the Frenchman was unwilling to surrender. Jet kept driving the heels of his hands into the Blood Talon’s chest, seeking in vain to keep the blood flowing until Anaru’s heart would resume beating. He growled the count and ignored the creaking and popping of the other man’s rib-cage, the increasing pallor of the flesh, the warmth leeching away.

Fog had watched him with interest at first, curious to see if Anaru would rouse, but now he was starting to feel disquiet. The body smelled of death, too faint for anything but a wolf’s nose, but unmistakeable. He was getting uncomfortable. The loss of his packmate, his brother, was a white-hot pain in his heart. A loss that demanded blood. A loss that burned in the back of his throat to be howled. At the same time, the body was just meat now. At one time, he would have seen the lack of animation, the slackness of the features, and tried to internalize it as some sort of deep sleep. Death would’ve evoked a dull ache. He remembered those days, those feelings, but like a witness instead of a participant.

As Cynder and Alex coaxed Jet away from the corpse, Fog swallowed back rising irritation. Anaru was here, now he’s not. Did they have to waste more time with useless meat? He wanted to snarl. Bury it? Fine. Get it done.

They had miles to go. Kerexusaka made its lair outside of anyone’s territory. The spirits had seen one of them fall, too many unfriendly spirits would already be wondering if they were weak enough. The Hunter in Darkness shook out his fur and started trotting briskly for the mountains.

There were no further attacks. Whether the defeat of the magath had made the rest wary or the nearly palpable fury that radiated from the pack, Fog didn’t care. Anger spirits, small mosquito-like creatures with tattered wings and rusted hypodermic needle mouths, danced in their wake, their tiny stomachs distending grotesquely as they fed.

It was time to climb. The mountains were huge, jagged, untouched by erosion. When they had first erupted from the Earth’s crust at the dawn of time, this was was what they looked like. How the centuries had passed with the years of life, weather, and humanity leaving so faint an impact on this side of the Gauntlet left Fog feeling uneasy. But they needed answers. Claws scrabbled on rock, kicking loose gravel. If they hadn’t been panting from the journey here, there was no escape from it now.

It was late when the pack finally found the last landmark that had been recorded. It was a scrap of high meadow. Soil barely deep enough to hold roots lay over ancient stone. It smelled cold and mineral. No flowers would bloom this deep in winter. Three possible paths lay ahead, only their own behind. Nearly as one, the pack set their noses to puzzling out the right path. Too many trackers for too faint a trail. Fog stretched out on a boulder and waited.

Alex gave a short bark and carefully started down narrow ridge. The Brit thought he found it. A yard down the path, Fog picked it up; blood and just a trace of feline.

A sound like tearing styrofoam and a low rumble brought them all up short. Twenty feet above them, poised on an overhang a predatory cat the size of a small pony snarled. Fresh blood saturated its paws almost halfway up its legs though none of it seemed to smear onto the stone it rested upon. Grass colored eyes burned with intelligence. The long, tawny tail lashed violently. It gave another scream, then spoke in First Tongue. YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.

Cynder shifted to a better talking form, her pronunciation of the ancient speech needed all the help she could get. “We seek the former Totem of the Meers Pack. We seek Kerexusaka.”

At the mention of the Meers, the tail seemed to slash the air and the tips of wickedly curved claws peeked from the cat’s massive toes. At the name, the ears flattened. I HAVE NO BUSINESS WITH YOU, FATHERS-BANE.

“You are wise, strong. We wish to bargain.”


“We are not seeking you as our Totem” The disappointment had to have been bitter, but she never betrayed herself. Fog was impressed by the young Storm Lord. “We seek your wisdom.”


“We have Essence. A fair trade for information.”

The cat’s face sneered. MY SECRETS ARE GREAT, WINTER CUB.

“Then make me a counter-offer.”


“What we wish to know is useless to you, what we offer is not. A tenth of our Essence and we never return again in return for true answers to all of our questions now about your time with the pack and the Alder Man.”


“We could burn those pages where you are mentioned…”


“If we destroy the books and notes, will you accept the bargain?”


“We burn the books, never come back, and half our Essence for your true answers to all our questions of the Meers pack and the Alder Man.”


Cynder held her pale wrist out without fear. Keresusaka stared at her briefly before it stretched its neck and almost delicately opened her wrist. The tongue lapped rapidly, faster than the blood seeping out, abrading her tender skin. Abruptly, the immense cat stopped. There was no wound, only a raw spot.

Fog padded forward to where the redhead stood and offered his shoulder. He couldn’t bring himself to offer his throat. Again the cat extended his neck, he felt sharp pain and then the rasp of the huge tongue. With every swipe of the tongue, he felt his heart slow, his limbs grow a little heavier, the world a little dimmer. It felt like some invisible syrup was being drawn from his skin. Precisely as some inner voice warned him he was about to lose too much, it was over. They could be tricky and twist the words to the edge of breaking, but no spirit could violate an agreement. Only those of the material world could break a vow.

One-by-one, the rest of the pack offered up their share of the price. Eventually the Cat sat back, settling into the classic sphinx pose. We came for information, the smug bastard is posed like that on purpose. This had better be worth it.

“What do you know of the conflict between the Meers and the Alder Man?”


“You know we’ll be off your mountain and out of your life for good if you give us better answers than ‘fortune cookie’ ambiguous answers.”


“How did they beat him?”


“What is the Al’ath Ban?”


“There are a fuck-ton of trees all over town and more on this side. Are they all ‘saplings’?”


Sotto voce, Jet burst out, “Ask it if it knows anything about the Bear!”

Cynder turned her head to give him an icy glare. “No. Shut up about the fuckin’ bear. It ain’t happening. Ever.” She turned back to the spirit switching back to First Tongue. “Forgive the interruption. Do you know the Alder Man’s Ban?”


She turned toward the rest of the pack. “Am I forgetting anything?” As her eyes swept over each of them, each gave a small gesture of negation. She returned her attention to Kerexusaka. “Thank you for answering our questions, we will leave now.”


“I would expect no less.” Her voice held the perfect mix of respect and humility with the implied rebuke that anyone could doubt her honor. It was not lost on the former Totem. Its eyes flashed at the small barb.


Fog turned and led the pack back down the mountain. It was much faster moving down, but no less strenuous and much more exciting.

I'm Sorry and Good-bye. [Part 2]
It's a process.

Outside of the cabin, the spirit reflection was ominous. The trees, larger, craggier, somehow sharper than their material counterparts, swayed as if caught in violent storm winds. There was no wind. In fact, the air felt as still and stale as the interior of an empty mayonnaise jar left in the sun. The sky high above was a chaos of dark clouds, as if caught in a frozen moment of being torn asunder and thrown into streaming piles before getting shredded anew. It was utterly still, but every time you looked up, the storm had raged on.
Except. Except the moon. Luna hung in the sky like a blade. No part of the strange tempest strayed between her and the ground. If there had been any doubt they had not stepped into the Hisil, that alone put it to rest.

Fog gave his pack a look with eyes that gleamed like metal. Except for himself everyone else had gone to Urshul, choosing the long, heavily muscled legs for speed over the nearly endless stamina of the fully wolf form. Silly cubs. Urhan was for the hunt. Urshul for the kill. Hopefully they wouldn’t have to bleed too much before the lesson took root. It should be a proverb: When on a hunt, ignore the Hunter in Darkness at your peril.

Cynder had read aloud most of the entries describing the Meers’ hunt for their Totem. Fog took a few moments to establish the proper landmarks and fell into the easy, distance eating lope wolves were known for. The rest of the pack swiftly caught up to him, but he refused to speed up. They were noisy. It would be a challenge even with his sharp senses to detect danger before it struck, going faster or another form would only make it harder.

Their luck ran out near what was the edge of their property in the material world.

Only a handful of yards into a break in the trees, the silence was shattered by the roar of an engine. An actual roar. The trees shivered and magath poured forth. The one that roared was also the largest. It was like some mad scientist had mated a Chevy Impala with a huntsman spider. Eight headlight eyes burned with malign intelligence. Chrome chelicerae twitched. Long, steel legs arched from the wheel wells.

But it wasn’t alone, curled balefully around a bristle-like antenna on the spider-car, a huge rattlesnake glowed like a coal. Heat shimmered around coils thick as motorcycle tires. It hissed. It was the sound of water hitting a griddle.

Several feet behind on the left, a man-shaped tree stalked. Thorned vines twined and throbbed over its body like veins. Where the mouth should have been, loop after loop of brambles bound down. The cruel barbs gleamed like polished wood in the half-light.

And in the sky, two sick parodies of birds wheeled. A hawk flailed in the air with shattered wings, the limbs grinding and flopping grotesquely yet somehow keeping airborne. The other appeared to be a sharp-eyed mockingbird with a beak the color and texture of bleached bone or a tooth.

The pack scattered instinctively, trying to scatter their enemies focus. Fog took to Urshul, baring his teeth at the unnatural beings. From the corner of his eye, a ruddy dire-wolf exploded toward the car thing with a rising growl. Before she could get close enough to spring, it’s eyes flashed like a searchlight-sized strobe. The world became nothing but after-image. Fog shook his head and lashed out blindly, hoping his vision cleared fast enough. From the cries of dismay, the rest of his pack was just as helpless.

He ducked and weaved randomly, trusting his instincts and remaining senses to avoid the angry magath. Time and again he’d sense something not familiar and snap, only to miss. Whistles, screams, and abrupt yelps told him his pack was bleeding. Sharp pain erupted down his side and he felt his blood flowing in a hot pulse on his fur. A sound like a side of beef impacting a brick wall punctuated by a whimpering scream reached his ears. Uratha blood was thick in the air. His pack was getting killed.

Something swooped close enough to ruffle his whiskers. No time to think, just lunge. Feathers. Delicate bones snapping and the sweet, molten gush of blood. Flesh tearing, flying away as he thrashed his head back and forth. One down. He spat the remains to the ground with contempt. His vision was coming back.

The spider-car launched itself into the air, knocking the Storm Lord flat. Blood and froth burst from her nose and mouth as it tried to squash her under it’s bulk. Jet was staggering to his feet from where the spirit had tried to pin him moments before. Weeping gouges in its metallic chitin demonstrated he hadn’t been easy meat. The Bone Shadow howled, Ember had gone Gauru. Fifty feet away, Alex was snapping at the prickly treant. Blood flowed from dozens of wounds, but the magath had rusty colored sap flowing from several places and some vines dangled in limp tatters.

Fog wheeled in a fury when his eyes found the fire snake looming over Anaru’s twitching body. Between one bound and the next, existence turned crimson. The spirit rattled its tail in fear as the huge grey wolf-man charged. It struck, but talons swatted its head to the side. It burned against his skin so he bit it to make it stop. With a screaming roar, Fog plunged the claws of his foot into the back of the snake, seized a coil in his fist and pulled until the flesh gave way. When it was little more than twitching, fading gobbets, the Irraka looked up for his next enemy.

Ember and Cynder were burrowing into the body of the car, their taloned fists flung oily gore as they dug through its guts, racing to be the first to rip its beating heart from it’s body. Jet was trying to cave it’s face in with one of its own legs, ripped off at the “knee.” He knew it was hurt. It was trying to get away. The smaller magath suddenly broke, sprinting for safety as the Impala crumpled to the ground. Legs scrabbled at the turf feebly.

The fierce surge of victory was short lived. The bloody form of Anaru was stretched out on the loam. Human. Cooling.

Their brother was gone.

I'm Sorry and Good-bye. [Part 1]
some things demand a hard bargain

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?/

/Sounds good./

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.

Tree-zy come, tree-zy go.

Cynder woke with a start, her heart pounding in time with her heavy breathing. She was overly warm and it wasn’t any surprise as she was in the middle of a cuddle pile on the community bed. Ember snored softly in her ear and she could feel the weight of one of Alex’s legs thrown over hers. Jet’s head lay on her stomach and her other leg was thrown over Anaru’s middle. Fog’s face was inches from hers, sleeping on her chest and she resisted the urge to lick his forehead. It was amazing how fast these people became family to her…but now…now they were just all too hot and she was too riled up to go back to sleep.

One of Fog’s eyes opened and Cynder mouthed “Morning” to him so she wouldn’t wake anyone else. Fog raised an eyebrow as he eyed the alarm clock in the far corner. It was only half past midnight. He sighed and laid his head back on her chest. She huffed a little, successfully getting Jet to roll off her stomach. A little wiggle of her leg and Alex was also disengaged without being woken. Fog laid his head heavier into her chest and glared at her with the one eye she could see again.

Her crystal blue eyes stared back at him. “I have to pee.” She mouthed, and she knew he didn’t believe her…but she needed up to walk off the tension that was built inside before it stirred everyone into a tizzy. He lifted his head slightly so she could get up and took over as the middle of the pack pile.

She didn’t bother dressing. She really didn’t think anyone owned pajamas…except maybe Ember. It had been strange the first night, sleeping nude together, but now, it was comforting. The skin on skin contact was like recharging as their bonds deepened. She shifted to wolf the second she closed the door behind her with barely a “clink” of the latch.

She padded softly out several yards before tearing into a full run. The storm colored eyes had been haunting her dreams for over a week and a song that she could just barely hang on to during waking hours burrowed into her mind. It was like trying to remember a song, and knowing that you know it but you can’t remember anything more than a few notes…something…something…moonlight…something…

She slowed when she neared the stream, pissed in a bush and went to replenish the water she expelled by lapping at the cold stream water. She sat back on her haunches and resisted the urge to howl out the tune in her head. She was sure that her wolfsong could compliment it…She wasn’t hugely thrilled with going back to the coffee shop in a few hours, but it was a job…and she got pretty good tips, especially when she wore the low cut shirts…she wasn’t above exploiting herself for the good of the pack…

Aw hell, who was she kidding? It was for her own amusement that she did it. She liked the way the men, hell even most of the women, involuntarily drooled over her. She knew that she oozed sexuality but all of them were just too easy. None of them were exciting enough…none of them were…him…She shook her head until her upturned ears flopped against each other. Some dream dude is cramping her style…

She dunked her muzzle into the cold water before pulling her face out and shaking off the excess. She had better go get more sleep or she was going to look even more pale and gothy than usual in the morning…

It was well into the middle of the night when Fog finally crawled into bed. Exhaustion weighed like a sodden blanket over his whole body. He’d run the perimeter of the territory, the whole territory, not just the heart of it where the cabin stood. He’d clawed glyphs into so many trees, he’d be digging pitch out from under his nails for weeks.

He was making progress. His new pack were gaining confidence moving through the terrain. Better, the spirits recognized the Uratha’s territory. They were skittish, resentful, and sullenly hostile, but over the last two weeks the spirits had lost some of the frenetic chaos that had imbued the territory when they’d arrived.

He’d been exhausted since the day after the Locus was reclaimed. The cabin needed a lot of work. He’d done high school before, he didn’t see any reason to repeat it. Getting a regular job was problematic with his past. So the majority of the repair work had settled onto his shoulders. It amazed him how much crap the Meers had left behind. There were more than a few useful items, but it seemed to him that three quarters of the house was taken up with ruined or useless clutter. The burn pile was immense.

And once the sun went down, his self-appointed task of patrolling the territory awaited.

It felt like he’d just closed his eyes when Cynder stirred. She made a good pillow. And it appeared she was getting up. He flopped harder in an unspoken urge for her to stay still, cracking one eye open reproachfully.

Her mouth moved around unsaid words, she needed to pee. Her eyes were lying. He let himself resettle into the warm groove she’d left, his eyes barely cracked and watching her pale nakedness pad toward the stairs instead of the bathroom.

There was nothing for it. With a mental sigh, Fog rolled gracefully to his feet and ghosted into the bathroom. The window opened to the night air with the barest whisper. He’d spent a couple hours re-seating it and waxing the slide. On four feet, the huge grey wolf seemed to flow out onto the shake roof.

He understood the need for reflection, to immerse yourself in a moment of privacy. He was less willing to risk a packmate’s safety in a territory still in flux. So he kept his steps light and his distance. She’d never even suspect he was there. Meanwhile, if something did decide sneak up on the young Storm Lord, she’d have someone at her back.

Work sucked.

If it wasn’t for the need of a steady pay-checque (and the occasional eye-candy that passed through as a tourist) Cynder would probably lock herself in the Spring room and only emerge to replace worn guitar strings and answer her body’s demands for fuel and elimination. She stormed up the stairs to the second floor, pulling her hair loose from the high, tight ponytail adding to the headache she was already ignoring. She kicked off her shoes, wiggling her toes in at least a small sensation of relief. The huge communal bed looked sinfully soft. She peeled off her work uniform, sprawling half-naked in joyous appreciation of being home.

Almost of their own accord, her fingers sought the latches on the hard case protecting her guitar. The wood was cool, solid beneath her fingertips. The weight settled in her arms until she felt complete, poised, eager. Cynder flipped the amp’s power switch with a toe, feeling her instrument awaken. Almost reverently her fingers arched into chords and she started to play.

The volume was low, just enough to give voice to her music without flooding the rest of the house. The notes were her’s, too private for the rest of the pack this time, letting the strings carry away the emotions and thoughts no one else could know.

The vision surrounded her without warning, like mist wafting from the forest floor unremarked until you suddenly realize everything is obscured by fog.

She was cold. Cold so deep and biting it made her bones ache. Then she saw the eyes, Skolis-Ur, pitiless and inhuman and knew the cause of the chill. Her heart skipped a beat, mind racing to discover what sin she had committed to earn his attention, before she realized he as looking past her. Cynder turned and saw the pack’s territory laid out as if she had the wings and eyes of an eagle; distant and yet so detailed she could count the buttons on a man’s shirt.

She saw an old bathtub, filled to over-flowing with ants, centipedes, roaches, silverfish. She reached out and shut off the tap. The stream of pests stopped, but the tub was seething, the occupants straining to break out. She saw cracks forming in the porcelain. She saw herself in a mirror, naked, one hand holding a corroded hammer, the other a mostly expended roll of duct tape.

A candle burned, the flame so intense it makes Cynder’s eyes water. As it shrinks down, she seeing her pack dying, burning to death, screaming until their lungs turn to ash. Or was it a vine, growing and spreading before her eyes, twining like a noose around anything it touches, driving thorns deep into flesh and spirit alike.

A tree. It towers over Leavenworth impossibly tall, as if it’s top branches might touch the highest clouds. It’s shadow slides over the ground and wherever it’s shade falls, the ground withers and dies until the entire town, the valley, is nothing but lifeless dust.

And it’s gone.

A wrong note lingered in her ear, a lapse of concentration no one but her would ever realize or punish her for and she found herself curled over her guitar, tears making her eyeliner bleed down her cheeks like pitch. Tears for what she’s seen, for what she knows will come, for the core of defiant hope. The certainty is as unyielding as her Totem, she Saw true.

The redhead was bent over her guitar, picking out what little of the melody she could remember from her dreams, dreams that left her tingling and aroused, when the rest of her pack started coming through the front door. She could hear Anaru and Jet discussing heavily some vision or another that Anaru had received about a tree. She perked up her head. The vision from earlier playing through her mind. She strained her ears before lovingly putting away her instrument as if it were a cherished lover. Something about bugs…

She padded barefoot down the stairs in nothing but her jeans and bra. “What was that about a tree Anaru?”

Anaru’s pupils dilate as he focuses on remembering the prophet’s words from that night on the road. “A tree was seen. A great tree in the town. The roots were deep, deep in the ground. Everything withered away in it’s shade. Spirits roosted in the branches, feeding it, making it grow. To kill it, its water must be denied.”

The similarity sent icy fingertips up her spine. For the span of several breaths, her own foretelling threatened to overwhelm her senses. She bit her tongue until she could taste blood. She had zero patience for that crap right that second. “I’ve had similar visions. Way too fucking similar.”

The Blood Talon shaman was convinced the answer had to be in town. Lacking better clues, the rest of the pack, minus the frenchman, agreed readily. They’d seek out this strange tree. With a defiant smile, Cynder snatched up the car-keys. Jet’s eyes widened, she was going to take his car. Emotions played over his features like water rippled by a steady wind.

Merde! If we are to go, I’m driving.” He finally snarled.

She quickly dressed and announced she was riding shotgun, besides she needed to touch up her make up anyway. She had the reputation of being the cute goth in town and she wasn’t about to go without a fresh coat of eyeliner on.

They were a mile down the road to town when the unmistakeable sound of a rifle shot shattered the evening. Strange gunfire, in HER territory. A growl started low in her throat and Jet groaned. “No, no no no! Just leave it alone! It has nothing to do with us.”

“Then stay here.” she snapped at him. Anaru and Fog were already leaping out the back as the El Camino pulled to a stop. Cynder growled her frustration as she fought her way out of her seat belt and out of the car, turning wolf once the coast was clear. She shot after the boys, leaving the rest of them in the car. No way were they going to get to have all the fun again.

Fog slipped through the forest quiet as his namesake. Burned gunpowder, blood, and voided bowel was livid to his nose. A sport hunter had made a kill. It didn’t feel right. They were on the edge of town. The scent was… off. He froze in the strange shadow of a denuded vine maple.

It was a campsite. Two tents stood in a small gap in the trees like giant nylon puff-ball fungus. In the middle, a sandy-haired man in Mossyoak™ camouflage and a vest of dull gray, blaze orange didn’t translate to lupine eyes, was cheerfully dressing out the body of a naked man.

Whatever clothes the dead man had been wearing were reduced to piled rags. The entrance wound over the right lung was garish and raw against the pale, waxy skin. A rifle sat propped against a douglas fir trunk. As the werewolf watched, the hunter finished slitting open the abdomen, spilling viscera in a pink mass.

Despite himself, he felt his mouth water. Fresh, sweet meat. Forbidden meat.

Wrong! This sight was wrong. Humans don’t hunt each other like this. Even if they did, the pack could not abide it. Fog laid his ears back, his hackles bristling like a mane. I attack.

Anaru and the others within sight had a moment to realize the young Hunter in Darkness was in motion. Jet let out a soft, suffering whine of dismay.

The pack erupted from the brush roaring. The light haired man lunged to his feet, the whites of his eyes flashing in surprise and fear. The gore streaked skinning knife glistened in his fist with sinister promise.

The red wolf sprang for his arm, hoping to shred the muscles and tendons letting him hold the blade. He flinched. Six inches of heavy steel speared through the roof of her mouth. His fingers remained locked on the handle.

Fog had sprinted to the right side, shifting to near-wolf as he charged the man from his left. Massive jaws snapped shut on the man’s head as over three hundred pounds of angry dire-wolf sailed by. The hunter made a pirouette, screaming, somehow avoiding a broken neck as the momentum flung him to the ground.

A translucent stag billowed outward from the man as he stopped rolling. Naughty spirit. As soon as it clears the man’s body, it bounds into the underbrush. The lean, yellow dingo was close on it’s heels.

Meanwhile, the injured human’s face was contorted in horror. “Larry!… Oh my god… Larry…” He was sobbing right up until Fog’s teeth tore his throat open to the spine.

Anaru slunk back a few minutes later radiating frustration. The spirit had escaped across the gauntlet.

A quick investigation of the camp identified the two men as Raymond Sutter and Lawrence Mathis. From the handful of photos between the two men’s wallets, Fog guessed they were brothers-in-law and seemed to be good friends. Until Ray put a 30-06 into his center mass anyway. Fog stuffed the cash into his pocket. The dead guys weren’t going to need it anymore.

Signs of violent death were a problem though. Someone was bound to run across the bodies this close to town and even if they didn’t, the deaths would attract spirits to the resonance. Jet suggested an expedient burial. With the whole pack involved, it didn’t take more than a couple hours to carve out a den-like pit under the roots of a towering evergreen. With the exception of the two rifles and ammunition, which they stashed, the rest of the campsite was swiftly broken down and stuffed into the hole. They’d come back for them later. Stolen firearms struck them as a bad risk in town.

The pack climbed back in and watched as the sheriff’s patrol car pulled away from the gated drive that led to the cottage. “What the fu….ck?” Cynder raised an eyebrow. Butch, or Sheriff Cutter as he was more commonly known, was no stranger to Cynder. The tall Americano 4 sugars 2 creamers and a splash of hazelnut was a common order for her first thing in the morning. And heaven forbid you use 2 sugars and 4 creamers…or forget the hazelnut. The dude, was a hard ass…and the moment someone mentioned she lived at the old Meers place, became aloof just short of hostility.

It was the first time she had seen him so far out of town though. He drove right by them, back into town and Jet restarted the engine to their own trusty stead. “We’re going home.” he growled.

“No… we’re not.” Cynder growled back. “We need to figure out this tree thing.” Jet huffed and gruffly put the El Camino into gear, lurching her forward and headed back toward town.

The pack finally made it to town. Those who chose to peek into the spirit world were talking about the decay they could see all around. Cynder however was in the front and it was a little hard to hear them in the back. Instead she stared out the window and wondered what it was they were really looking for. Was it a physical tree? A spiritual tree? Was it a tree at all?

She let her mind wander as Jet cruised around, looking for a spot to park. The town was much busier than usual, the street parking was minimal and Cynder’s mind thought about it only for a split second. They finally found a spot not far from City Hall and started their search there.

On the sidewalk, Anaru paused near some inexplicably cracked pavement. The pupil of his left eye expanded, swallowing everything including the whites until it looked like the socket was filled with a night sky complete with twinkling stars. Peeking across the Gauntlet was like plunging her head in water and trying to make out things in the distance; wavery and a bit disorienting. Except for the Blood Talon when he called upon this Gift. She knew whatever he was witnessing was crystal clear. It was also not good from the sudden clenching of his jaw. His eye bled back to it’s normal chocolate brown.

“There’s def’nitly somethin’ at work here. There’s a tree’n the Shaduh. Sum’un tied an ugly little boggle ta sum brenches wi’ baubed wire. Other sp’rits were eatin’ it alive.” He paused to take a breath. “Some type of guardian sp’rits started appearin’ at th’ end when I got spott’d.”

“We should follow the cracks made by the spirit trees to the big one.” Ember’s eyes gleamed in the street lights. Anaru nodded approval.

Nothing…bubkiss. There was no pattern to the fractured cement. The fiery redhead was getting impatient. The increasing bickering had started becoming too much for her. She could feel her temper shorten by the second. No one had any clue about what to do about anything. Anaru had seen some weird Indian spirit in a window reflection and some knot-hole in a wall had winked at him so he was wound up about finding those spirits. Ember was scanning for ghosts, Fog was being aloof, Alex was debating with Ember about the spirits and Jet was still whining that he wanted to go home. And everything else was still beyond weird.

Some random tourist type had walked out of a restaurant before vomiting live cockroaches into the gutter. No one seemed to notice or care. He walked away apparently no worse for wear. Or there had been the sound of a strong wind, like a storm settling in, except the air was completely still.

Some sound on the wind made Cynder’s head snap up. Emo/Goth rock beats teased the edges of her brain and she felt a pull that she just couldn’t resist. “I’m going this way,” she called distractedly.

She knew that Fog followed her, then the others, except Jet who was still content to sit by his car, as she followed the sound. The beat started pumping through her veins as she approached the doors to the “Icicle Pub” She knew the song that was playing…though she had never really heard it before.

Ember, Anaru and Fog peeled off to poke around city hall.

The bouncer scanned the lot of them for weapons, not knowing that he was letting in the most dangerous unarmed persons in the whole town.

The music was loud and the place was so crowded that it was hard to see the band on the modest stage in the back corner. She waded through the mob, definitely knowing the song now and humming along…she left her pack in the back who were more concerned with what to do next instead of the music.

She stopped dead in her tracks when she could finally see the singer. Those were the eyes that visited her night after night…Witch? …or maybe just…normal…dear Father Wolf let him be normal and she continue being the weird one…

He looked up, hitting a long note and locked eyes with her, lapis blue to her ice. Her breath hitched and she had to remember how to exhale. She was wary of him and backed up a few steps. He couldn’t possibly be looking at her in this crowded room…yet his eyes followed her. She was so focused on him that she didn’t notice Ember behind her. When did they decide to join her?CYNDER!” she shouted and pointed to where Fog and Jet were about to throw down…Jet must have gotten bored at the car… how the fuck did Fog get past the door?

“Shit” She cursed under her breath and for a moment the mystery boy was forgotten. Ember was filming what was about to break into a fight over Fog having a…beer? Way to be helpful, sister. "Damn it Fog, you’re not old enough to drink or do you really want fuck us all over?” Cynder growled and made a grab for the beer, but Jet was faster.

A fight was inevitable, and it looked like Jet wasn’t about to back down so of course it was going to escalate. “Son of a…” Alex pulled the power for the building, plunging them into darkness. Cynder sighed, shot a look toward the unexpectedly blind and rapidly frustrated concert lovers behind her and left with her pack. This is bullshit. We need an alpha.

Fog sprawled across the heavy, log-framed sofa in just a pair of faded black jeans. His eyes were half closed in apparent boredom, but he listened intently.

“We need t’ find a totem. There’s a great danger in our territ’ry. We need the strength of a totem spirit.” The New Zealander’s voice.

“But what sort of spirit?” came Ember’s question.

“Somethin’ pow’rful.”

Jet’s voice rumbled, “Bears are très puissants.”

“I think bear would be good.” Fog could almost hear the nod of Alex’s head as he chimed in.

“Any objections?” Cynder asked.

There were none.

The pack was up early the next morning, the cold wreathed their faces in their own breath. Before the sun had begun to truly rise, they stood on the bank of a fast moving creek. They had fishing to do.

Jet assembled a rod he’d discovered in one of the cabin’s corners while cleaning, casting the lure into a deeper pool between rapids.

Fog watched Cynder shake her head then shift to Urshal. The frigid water eddied around her paws, but she gave no notice. She lunged a few times, splashing clumsily, Anaru looked about ready to snap at her for spooking fish away from Jet’s line when a late season trout flopped onto the shore. The Storm Lord’s grin was smug.

“Fuck this.” Jet threw the fishing pole into the underbrush and plunged into the stream shifting as he went. In a matter of moments the whole pack was knee-deep in the glacially cold current, wet fur sticking out, and terrorizing every fish for a thousand feet each direction.

By the time they had what the Blood Talon considered an adequate gift, Fog’s feet ached from the cold. He shook out his coat vigorously.

They’d carried their catch, about a dozen silvery trout, back to the pack Locus. Anaru had performed a deceptively simple Rite over the fish. They they’d stepped across the Gauntlet.

The basement was larger on this side. Huge wolf tracks covered the stone floor, traces of the former pack. The deep pool looked like mercury, molten silver brighter than seemed possible in the dark room. Skulls, claws, carvings, and other mementos of the Meers pack still lingered here in the spirit realm, faded… attenuated… corroded by the destruction of the material objects.

The cabin was just as saturated with the signs of the Meers, like after-images superimposed on the already surreal surroundings. Cobwebs lay over the walls. The floorboards were dry, cracked, splitting apart. It would take time for the cabin’s reflection to catch up to the new pack’s occupancy, though signs were beginning to peek through. A pane of window glass here bright and clean amidst the dust and grime of the rest. The fireplace swept clean and ready for a new fire to be laid. A door hinge without rust. Fog laid his ears back. The Hisil was never completely soothing, but always dangerous.

Outside, the sky swirled as if a thunderstorm was brewing. There was no moon. Fog could have closed his eyes and pointed to where Luna’s face was turned away, but aside from Alex, he doubted anyone else felt her presence. Briefly, he wondered if seeking a spirit under the Irraka’s moon was the most auspicious for the pack. It wasn’t his job, leave that to the Cahalith and Ithaeur to fuck about with.

Anaru picked their path, letting his knowledge of the spirits guide their steps.

The forest, darker, more rugged than what stood on the other side of the Gauntlet spread out around them. They could feel the spirits watching, their fear, their resentment, their unease. Further the Ithaeur led the pack into the spirit wilds.

From some deep instinctive place inside, Fog began to feel watched. He trotted as a wolf, swiveling his ears to hear the faintest noise, but could not detect their unknown watcher. Strange scents wafted past his nose, but none of them felt right. As the pack passed through a dense ravine, he abruptly went to ground determined to discover who was pacing them.

Whatever or whoever it was, they were cagey. The supernatural forest remained still. Perhaps he’d managed to chase their tail away.

He broke into a lope to catch up. He could feel the unknown presence keeping pace. Fuck.

The rest of the pack were standing outside of a cave. The stench of bear was so thick, Fog could taste it on his tongue. It was strong. He wanted to tuck his tail and back away carefully. Slow, deep breathing came from the impenetrable shadows within the cave.

Fog watched in surprise as Anaru laid out the fish an the ground before him, then loudly called out, “Bear! Bear wake up!”

The sounds from the cave didn’t change. Fog dared to hope they might try another spirit.

Anaru wasn’t going to give up yet. “Bear! Bear we would speak to you! You must hear us!”

There was a popping snort from within the cave.

“We demand you deal with us.”

The largest bear Fog had ever seen, or ever wanted to see again if he was being totally honest with himself, lumbered out of the cave. The humped shoulder was twenty feet in the air. Immense paws with claws longer than his body rested upon the clawed up ground. Small, flickering sparks of green fire regarded the assembled Uratha with annoyance. The spirit shook it’s massive head. Its shaggy metallic bronze coat rippled down its back. When it spoke, there was a boom behind it’s growl. “YOU DEMAND? GO AWAY KIN-SLAYERS.”

“You must…” Whatever Anaru intended to say after that was lost when an enormous paw swatted him negligently. He tumbled to the ground fifty feet away.


Ember’s eyes flashed in Rage. “We’re not going anywhere until you help us.”

The spirit’s answer was a blow that smashed her into the loam like a tent stake.

In horror, Fog watched Jet try to slip by the annoyed spirit into his den while it was focused on the Bone Shadow Rahu. Anaru ran back to den site.


The Blood Talon suddenly paused as if looking at the spirit for the first time. His face went ashen, his tattoos garish upon his bestial features. “Forgive us, Bear Spirit. We were ignorant of your rank… Jet get the fuck out of his den. Now. Hurry.”

The spirit lurched to it’s hind legs. It towered over even the trees. Fog’s belly was pressed to the ground along with most of the rest of the pack.


“Of course. Thank you. Sorry.” Anaru was nearly stammering.

Alex and Cynder pulled Ember from the dirt. Everyone began leaving rapidly.

Except the french Ghost Wolf.

“No help, no fish for you.” With a snarl, he scooped up the fish and ran.

The bear let out a roar. Fog felt his ears pop, then silence and the sensation of hot moisture draining from his ears. Deafened, he did his best to look small and insignificant as the furious spirit charged after the fleeing Jet.

A paw slashed out before the black wolf-man made it more than a dozen yards. Two lines of red appeared across his back, then gaped open to expose garishly white bone from right hip to left shoulder.

Jet gave a howling scream, but kept his grip on the fish. He started weaving through the evergreens.

He needn’t have bothered. The trees seemed to flow out of the bear spirit’s path. This time the paw swipe threw Jet bodily aside. The fish cascaded through the air in an arc of scaled silver. The Ghost Wolf crumpled when he hit. Pink froth dribbled from the corner of his mouth. His right arm dangled uselessly from his shoulder. His legs twitched, muscles spasming and writhing over fractured bone. Blood oozed from several places where broken shards had torn through his skin. It was a small favor he’d lost consciousness.

The bear stood and roared again. It’s huge tongue swept up the fallen trout. It huffed once and lumbered back to its den.

It took hours to drag the nearly dead frenchman back to the locus. Fog hoped his packmate’s lesson was worth the beating he’d suffered for it.

A few days had passed since the Icicle…Cynder’s nights had been filled with clear dreams of his eyes, his voice and fantasies of heavy breathing and imagined touching.

She was wiping down the bar counter at The Red Bird, distracted by these thoughts. She reeked of coffee and scalded milk thanks to the clumsy teenage boy they hired who seemed to trip all over himself every time she walked into the room. This last time he royally fucked up drink for a customer, topping it all off by spilling it all down her front. She’d had to react quickly, heading to the restroom in a huff, worrying loudly that the idiot had ruined her outfit. As soon as the lock turned, she dared look at the first and second degree burns the fresh espresso drink had left upon her pale skin, prayed no one had noticed. Five minutes later, the damage had been gone. She had patiently cleaned herself up, keeping a remarkably calm exterior, while inside she was ripping the little cum-stain’s head off his shoulders.

“Hey Cynder!” Tina, one of her co-workers sauntered into the shop and plopped herself onto one of the bar stools. Cynder tolerated Tina. She was the preppy cheerleader type, still in high school and madly crushing on fuckwad…what was his name again?

Cynder raised an eyebrow at Tina who wasn’t normally inclined to speak with the older goth “Weirdo”. “So, did you like, go see Tears for the Raven when they were here?”

Cynder lifted an eyebrow and slowly looked down at her own wardrobe. “Nope, why would I ever wanna hear goth music around a bunch of goth-type people?” she deadpanned.

“You coulda just said,” Tina rolled her eyes, “You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”

Cynder shrugged. “A bit.” Since that night she had learned that her mystery eyes belonged to the front man and bassist, Ashe Pyre. Tina was an avid and enthusiastic fan of the band, to the point of wearing tee-shirts, playing their music during her shifts, singing along to the music when the shop was empty and talking about them…especially Ashe…nonstop.

The redheaded goth had learned a lot about him from just listening to Tina babble. “Do you follow them at all?”

Cynder shook her head, her high ponytail swinging back and forth.

“Well you should!” Tina huffed and tapped on her phone a few times while Cynder tossed the rag she was using back into the bleach bucket.

“And why is that?” She looked up and blinked her big blue eyes at the younger girl.

“Well, get on Facebook and find out.” Something was on the girl’s mind she was trying to play cool.

Cynder sighed, rolled her eyes and pulled out her phone. “What the fuck?” she mouthed as she tried to unlock the touch screen. None of the “buttons” were functioning properly. The touch screen was fritzing out on her and finally the screen just went blue. Blue? Now phones had the blue screen of death? She cursed and vowed that she would murder Jet herself.

“My phone is fucked. Why don’t you just tell me?” Cynder made a mental note to herself to walk down the street to the Verizon store and make them fix it.

“Isn’t this you?” She flipped her phone around, flashing a picture of Cynder looking back over her shoulder, taken the night of the concert. Fucking roadies.

“Yeah…” If Cynder had been wolf, her hackles would have raised. As is, the hair on the back of her neck stood.

“Well, Ashe, you know, the lead singer? Just so happens to apparently be looking for you.” Tina practically spat the words, seething with jealousy. Cynder had to fight to keep her mouth from falling open. “He’s posted a reward.”

“He’s what?” her mind reeled, apparently it wasn’t just her who was thinking about him.

“Yeah, apparently free tickets and back stage passes to his next gig to whomever can find her and put him in contact with her. Now, message him and tell him it was me or I won’t invite you to our wedding.” Tina was looking like a ravenous feline, ready to pounce.

“Chill.” Cynder said and looked up at the clock. “I have 3 minutes before my shift is over and I gotta go get my phone fixed. I’ll think about contacting him.” Tina seethed as Cynder took off her apron and retrieved her purse before counting out her tips.

Well enough
Welcome to the cabin in the woods.

Cynder felt awful cocky as she slipped behind the wheel of the El Camino. As most of the rest of the pack ran off on foot, she put the pedal to the metal.
She could hear Alex’s fingers digging into the roof as she peeled out and up the driveway. She must have hit a rock the wrong way because the next thing she knew they were tipped over, almost on their side, in a ditch.
Cynder pulled herself from the car, shaking her head to try and figure what happened…she never got the chance. She froze halfway out of the car as a very loud, very angry, very large howl emanated behind her. “Oh fuck me…” she said, looking over her shoulder.
She leaped from the car, shifting as she went. The little red wolf streaked across what would soon become her territory, Alex close on her heels. Tufts of grass and dirt flung behind her as she raced against the much larger, and much angrier opponent behind her.
She tore around trees, dived over rocks and skidded under logs as the Garou crashed through the forest hot on her heels. It wasn’t until they were on the outskirts of their territory and Cynder had run out of space to run that she spun and slid into a stop, facing Alex, her hackles raised and a warning growl coming from her throat.
She didn’t want to challenge him in his Death Rage but she sure as fuck wasn’t going to back down either. They stayed paused on the precipice of violence before something like a ripple of calm passed through his eyes. The crisis was over, for now. Alex wasn’t one to hold a grudge it seemed…and he wasn’t one for having items dedicated to him…
The man shrunk to his normal…nude self. Cynder’s ears flattened to the back of her head as she watched him catch his breath, waiting for his next move.
“Sorry about that,” He gasped out in his soft accent, “Quite bloody rude of me. No harm done?”
Cynder perked her ears back up sat on her red furry ass and scratched behind her ear, letting her tongue lull out of her mouth in a wolfish grin. She remained sitting as she shifted back, the wolfish grin staying on her face even as she changed back to the 21 year old red head. “No harm done. I didn’t expect you to fly out of the car.”
They didn’t say anything on the walk back and it seemed like the whole episode was water under the bridge. A misunderstanding between pack mates. No hard feelings, just a tiff between a brother and sister.

A few minutes later, the duo crossed the path of Fog, who’d been studying the shredded brush and broken limbs that marked Alex’s earlier passage. He cocked his head slightly, taking them in. No scent of blood. Neither were limping. No sign of missing pieces. Either the Storm Lord had some hidden skills when she wanted them, or the Brit had some steel in his will. He’d have to figure the puzzle out later, too much to do immediately.
Without further ado, the huge grey wolf joined them on their trail.
When they broke out of the trees near the driveway, the rest of the pack were gathered around the tipped El Camino. Jet looked stricken. Anaru and Ember were gathering up the bags and gear that had been ejected from the load-bed.
Alex was silently horrified to be unintentionally naked in front of the pack, but he clung to what remained of his dignity as he found his bag and shrugged into fresh clothes.
Meanwhile, Jet had stepped down into the ditch to take a closer look at how the car was settled. He sighed loudly. Then he crouched down, planting his hands carefully on the frame, then began to strain. The muscles rippled under the thin fabric of his dress shirt. The car creaked, moving incrementally.
Ember joined him in the ditch moments later, planting her shoulder by the rear fender. The El Camino started to rock further.
After five minutes of watching Jet and Ember attempt to give themselves matching hernias, Fog shifted to the monstrous near-wolf form and added the strength of his legs to their efforts. The car gave one last groan of flexing metal as it passed the center of gravity. It hit the roadway hard, but nothing seemed to break on the tough little car. Jet glared resentfully at the new scratches down the right side of his ride.
Jet’s voice was weighted with fatigue and annoyance. “Can we go to the cabin now?”
Unfortunately, the scent of death and decay had reached the noses of the rest of the pack, a scent away from the driveway.
“There’s something dead over there.” Alex pointed into the woods.
“We could check it out later,” Ember replied, obviously focused on reclaiming the abandoned cabin.
Anaru’s voice was thoughtful, “Be wise t’ make sure it ain’t a threat b’fore we put ‘er at our backs mate.”
“I agree. I don’t want something coming at us from behind,” Cynder added.
In the end, most of the pack decided to run down the source of the rotting meat scent. Jet and Ember stayed at the car. Bad things kept seeming to happen whenever he let it out of his sight. The Bone Shadow was there to watch his back.
Whatever it was out there, the Hunter in Darkness didn’t like it and he was quick to disappear back into the underbrush. The rest of the pack were not far behind. Within a couple minutes the scent was so thick a human could follow it. If it was a trap, it was obvious enough they deserved what they got if the pack set it off. For a bunch of unknown city wolves, they didn’t move bad. None of them had that smooth coordination that comes with a totem bond, but he’d seen worse. If he happened to be half-deaf with his nose full of mud, Fog figured he might have some difficulty following the rest of them. He made a mental note that as soon as they had the heart of their territory back, they’d get lessons in woodlore. He had standards to maintain.
The source of the smell was revealed in a small break in the trees where one of the towering evergreens had toppled, ripping a gap through the canopy. The patch of starlight hit the deer corpse like a theater spotlight. The putrid miasma of disease and decomposition filled the space between the standing trees like an invisible syrup. It seemed obvious that the doe had finally found release after a long, horrific infection and the misfortune to escape any predators.
Obvious took a vacation this time. Two bundles of stained bandages and jagged bone the size of microwave ovens floated in the still air over the grossly distended carcass, glowing with a faint, disturbing phosphorescence. Strips of bandage caressed cold flesh.
Anaru whispered, “Brilliant. Cup’a’la disease spirits having tapas right in the middle of our territry. Cheeky buggas.”
“How do we kill them?”
The Red Talon answered Cynder a few seconds later. “Well luv, if you have any rue, that might get their dander up. I reck’n we fuck’em up with teeth and claws.”
With a roar, the pack charged. Foster sprang, lips peeled back in a snarl and scything his claws into the nearest spirit.
It was like mauling mist.
Cynder sailed through the form of the other one snapping her jaws ineffectually.
The spirits began to churn, bandage tentacles whipping, pulsing with malign energy. What appeared to be a barrage of teeth and jagged bone shards raked down Anaru’s flank. The dingo yelped in pain. The second Nocuoth directed a similar stream of broken bone at Alex, peeling the skin and an ear from the top of his skull.
At the same time, Cynder snapped at a passing tendril of gauze in frustration. It shredded off in her jaws. The discovery sent a shiver of excitement through her body; the spirits were vulnerable when attacking.
Fog had been racing in to tear into one of the unclean invaders when Cynder had discovered the spirits were still insubstantial. His anger had only grown hotter seeing his packmates torn. His attention fell on the fallen deer. The spirits had been feeding off it. If they wanted it, they couldn’t have it. He charged.
The doe ruptured like an overripe melon when the dire-wolf pounced onto it. Skin and viscera erupted into the air as Fog vented his rage in an orgy of violence. The disease spirits grew more frenzied, throwing streams of lethal bone shards at him in an attempt to drive him from the deer.
Without hesitation, Anaru tore the first spirit out of the air. His claws flashed in the moonlight ripping ghastly holes into the creature’s form. A silent scream seemed to echo off the tree trunks.
The last spirit tried to direct a hasty attack at Alex as he sprang. The werewolf twisted in midair, taking only a glancing blow before his fangs buried themselves in the living bandages. The red wolf was only a split second slower. The Noctuoth writhed as the werewolves shook it in a vicious parody of tug-of-war. It came apart in a welter of stained fabric and bone.
Cynder threw her head back and howled. Three more voices joined her. The moon seemed to shimmer in their celebration of the kill.
The foursome returned to the El Camino in high spirits if not a bit gore-spattered. Fog especially looked terrifying, his pelt dark and matted with congealed blood and pus. He was polite enough to stand downwind of his packmates.
The two who’d stayed behind were bored. All night, the young man had felt their eagerness to get to the cabin. If someone suggested they wait to deal with some other issue, they’d probably kuruth right then and there. Didn’t matter anyway. It was time.
The cabin lay behind a sharp corner, the obscuring trees appearing to slide away like a stage curtain as they walked up the last of the drive way. When that arrogant bastard Roman (amazing how one’s opinion changes once one has a territory isn’t it) had dropped the word “cabin” earlier, Fog had pictured a run-down clap-board shack straight out of some hillbilly’s backyard. This was definitely not.
The cabin was large, easily large enough for the whole pack inside between the two floors. The logs were well peeled and even from a distance, he could tell they had been expertly laid. A porch ran the length of the front. What looked to be a couple chairs and the remains of a porch swing made slightly angular shadows under the shelter of the roof. Half a dozen heavy shutters were latched tight hinting that once thrown back, the cabin would be bright and airy.
To the left about ten feet from the corner of the porch stood what could be a shed or workshop. The large double door could easily allow two cars to drive inside, though it, like the shutters, was locked up tight.
Nothing stirred in the overgrown, weed choked clearing.
Inexplicably, he felt uneasy, like he didn’t belong. He looked toward his pack and saw the feeling echoed in their eyes, posture, scent. As he crept forward, each step brought more disquiet until he felt every sense singing like a wire under extreme tension and his belly was barely an inch above the ground. It felt like he was being watched.
Halfway to the porch, shapes began appearing on the edge of his sight. Hints of damp teased his nose. Something just on the edge of hearing taunted his ears. Of course, there was nothing there when he tried to focus on any of it. The situation was just getting creepier by the second.
Without warning, a rock flew out of the darkness from the direction of the silent cabin, hitting Ember in the stomach and knocking the wind from her lungs with an explosive whoosh.
A voice came immediately after, hollow and strangely distorted. “Go away!”
Anaru’s only reply was a low growl.
A few steps later and the pack was suddenly having to duck random debris. Rocks, brick, rusted scrap metal bits would seemingly leap from the ground to strike at them.
More voices were heard now. “Leave demons!” “Unclean!” “Go away!” “Get the fuck off my lawn!”
The projectiles grew increasingly lethal. The rocks became heavier, sharper and thrown harder. Jagged pieces of metal and glass whistled through the night. Despite the onslaught, the pack kept advancing through the deadly hail grunting, yelping, and eager to find someone to make bleed for it.
Jet and Ember cut to the right moving swiftly around the corner of the cabin.
Fog could see the doors clearly now. The screen was hanging loose from a few remaining staples, the hinges had surrendered years ago and the exposed screws where they had torn free of the cracked wood were dark with corrosion. However the door behind it radiated solidness. Needles, leaves, and other debris had created a small drift against it, shaped and protected by the remains of the screen door.
Cynder charged the porch, key in hand.
She didn’t bother to be careful, just yanked it out of her way with the sharp crack of splintering wood. She threw the wreckage to the side. The key turned in the lock and abruptly they were in.
The hardwood floor was dark with an undisturbed layer of dust, unbroken even by the passage of small rodents or insects. Sheet-draped tables and chairs cast strange half-shadows. Cobwebbed paintings on the walls seemed muted and brooding. A fashioned log staircase ran up from left to whatever lurked upstairs.
Ember and Jet had clearly found their own door inside though they were hidden from the front door. The sound of heavy objects hitting flesh and answering snarls almost echoed through the cabin.
The grizzled man standing in the room was staring at the group by the front door with a mixture of terror and determination. “You will not drag my soul to hell, you demonic bastards!”
“This. is. OUR. house.” Anaru roared back.
The man was older, but obviously wasn’t a stranger to physical labor. His lined flannel shirt was faded, his work pants and boots well broken in. Then again, all of him was faded. Fog could see the furniture behind him, as if he was projected on smoke. The air was heavy with the scent of cold water and the man looked like he’d been caught in a downpour.
Another man, alike enough to the first to share the same dive bar, materialized through the wall. He screamed something inarticulate about demons and concentrated. A chunk of firewood exploded up from beside the cold fireplace. The split log careened off the Red Talon’s head, dropping the large man to his hands and knees. A dust-devil spun out of nowhere clogging Cynder’s eyes, nose, ears and mouth with ten year’s worth of grit. A coffee table book thick enough to break a foot if dropped drove spine first into Alex’s groin. He dropped with high-pitched yelp.
As the first ghost turned toward the back of the house, Fog could just notice a gaping wound in the man’s back, undeniably fatal, with what looked like a plant starting to sprout from it.
Anaru found his feet again, moving deeper into the cabin, muttering to himself about ghosts. Fog watched him plod forward into a hail of bric-a-brack and small furniture. Cynder’s eyes were flashing wolf-gold as she slipped into his shadow.
Around the corner, Jet and Ember were fending off dishes, dessicated food, and flatware in the open doorway of a cluttered small office against three more sodden, angry ghost men.
One of them turned to see the three new intruders and then they revealed a new trick.
Vapor appeared around the head of Jet and Anaru, condensing unnaturally until both were enclosed in globes of water. Both men struggled, drowning.
But the ghosts were straining to maintain it, faces set in grim determination as they started to flicker more and more, disappearing for increasing duration, until the water globes just fell apart, hitting the floor in a heavy splash.
Anaru went with them, slumping to the now wet floor bonelessly.
The frenchman gagged and retched, gasping lungfuls of air gratefully.
Foster hurdled over the Red Talon. “The Locus has to be here…”
For what felt like several minutes, Fog watched the rest of his pack stuffed into the cramped office trying to look around each other for some hidden clue. Damned if they weren’t enthusiastic even if spacial geometry didn’t seem to be their thing.
Eventually, one of them decided to check under the floor rug. It took a lot of cussing and careful stepping, but it uncovered a trap door. Alex grabbed the ring and flung it open a split second before the ghosts popped back into sight. Guess they got their second wind.
Ember grabbed Anaru roughly under the arm-pits dragging his still-recovering bulk to the open trap-door and then poking him through. There was a brief exclamation of “the bloody” before the sound of a body hitting a floor from some height cut off the rest of whatever he’d been saying.
The ghosts were livid, screaming and throwing a major spectral tantrum. Fog ignored them and followed the rest of the pack into the hidden cellar.
The shaman’s black-eye and split-lip were already fading from his tumble down the trapdoor, though he stared with a touch of resentment at the unrepentant Bone Shadow. The rest of the pack were in an instinctive circle in the midst of what appeared to be what was left of the Meers’ trophy room. The shelves had been torn down and smashed. Whatever they might have once held were now scraps and shards deprived of meaning. Someone or something had taken pains to erase the prior pack’s history.
The floor was stone, carefully fit together to match each irregular edge with only the faintest crack between. The walls were slabs of dark stone.
And the border between the material and spirit world felt thin as the wall of a soap bubble. Everything in Fog’s being was resonating with the proximity of the Locus.
It waited in the middle of the room. A lip of stone only a few inches higher than the floor almost seven feet across filled with water so dark and still it resembled obsidian.
The ghosts had fallen back in a ring around it. All five of them wearing identical expressions. They were men who had nowhere left to go, no hope of winning, but shouldered with a duty they could not ignore. They were no longer scared, just determined to sell themselves as dearly as possible. Fog didn’t understand why they were doing this, but he had to admit to himself he respected them.
Then the battle rejoined.
The ghosts threw whatever might hurt at the pack, screaming and cursing. The pack fought back as much as they could, tearing chunks out of the incorporeal shapes over and over again.
Until Jet realized they were protecting the well, perhaps it was something in the well. He dove in and kicked for the bottom. It was deeper than it looked. The water was incredibly clear, but even so his ears were threatening to pop before he saw the bottom.
Five bodies lay at the bottom with a stick driven into their backs. He seized one of the sticks, recalling the strange wound on all the ghost’s backs, and headed for the surface.
His sense of victory was short-lived. The stick had no effect on the ghosts.
So he dove back down again, bringing one of the bodies up.
Fog thought he saw one of the ghosts shiver just a bit and start to fight even harder.
Anaru took it in Dalu hands and tore the water-soaked corpse in half.
The ghost Fog saw shiver let out a heart-broken moan and evaporated.
Jet was breathing hard, exhausted from the fight and two dives. Cynder merely nodded and dove into the well. One by one, she hauled the last four bodies to the surface where one of the rest of the pack would tear the body apart. Each time, one of the ghosts would disappear with a mournful sigh, until the pack were alone.
Fog simply flopped onto his side panting. The Locus was theirs. The house was theirs. Celebrate now, tomorrow they could worry about cleaning it all up.

Glass recycling.
No deposit, no return.

The load bed of the El Camino was crowded with three others associated luggage, but he had to admit it wasn’t the worst experience traveling he’d had to endure. The various bags had smashed down into a lumpy nest mostly out of the turbulence flowing over the cab of the car. The strange sensation of bodies in contact with his own wasn’t entirely repellent, the pack’s body heat took the edge off the nocturnal chill too.
If Jet’s understanding of the map was correct, he had around an hour to kill until they hit their new home. Normally, this would be a prime opportunity to catch some rest while the catching was good. However, he was literally laying in the middle of five strange scent profiles, five unknowns who ostensibly were going to be the closest family he’d ever get. He kept his eyes shut, feigning the sleep he couldn’t help but feel he should be getting regardless, and let his nose sort out their stories at it’s own pace.
His head shot up abruptly, the car was slowing down. He was confident they hadn’t been on the road long enough yet. Moment’s later the unmistakable mix of exhaust and gas fumes confirmed it. Jet had decided to fill the tank.
Well shit. The safe thing to do was to just stay curled up where any passers-by glancing over would assume he was a dog. It was simple. It was prudent.
It would deny his curiosity.
Alex was already craning his nose around the passenger side, so perhaps he wasn’t the only one interested in checking out the sights. What the hell, there couldn’t be too many people around to notice a few wolves as cargo.
The gas station was small, closer to a mom-and-pop business than a chain franchise. A well-lit canopy sheltered a pair of double pumps for unleaded and a single dispenser for diesel. Behind the fuel island, a general store quietly offered a selection of groceries, beer, and sporting goods.
There was only one other car as Jet pulled up on the other side of the island; a forest green SUV.
Fog felt his hackles rise. There was something wrong about the scene. All the doors of the SUV were wide open. Brown liquid dripped from the door edges. Junk food wrappers were stuck everywhere on the seats and floor. Camping gear appeared to have been stuffed haphazardly into the back.
Worse, the driver had been standing in front of the pump since they’d pulled in. He looked drunk, pulling cards randomly from his wallet, inserting them into the reader and then dropping them when they didn’t work.
Inside the store, two women and a man dressed in outfits right out of an REI catalog were just visible moving around the shelves, grabbing armfuls of snack foods and dumping them in a mound on the counter. An older black man in a work shirt watched them warily from behind the register.
Meanwhile, the driver had finally put his fingers on a payment card. He nodded with a soft grunt, stuffed the wallet and card carelessly into the first pockets his hands found and started fueling his vehicle.
Fog noticed he’d started growling unconsciously. The strange passengers had shuffled out of the store laden with junk food. They climbed back into the SUV without a word. Then he realized, they were Claimed. Some greedy spirits had snuck into the material world, in his territory, and turned these people into hollow puppets for their own purpose.
Instinct screamed through his being to attack immediately, to destroy the profane abominations of the natural order, but the time was not right. Too public. Too visible.
He turned his attention to his packmates. They had noticed it too, understood what needed to be done. They had already started putting together a plan. He felt eager.
After the possessed vacationers pulled back onto the road, the mood was tense. The urge to immediately chase them had to have been an almost irresistible need. The wolf must hunt. As soon as the SUV’s tail lights disappeared, Jet threw the El Camino into gear, whipping onto the road in a sharp U-turn. The tires only squealed a little.
Seconds later, their quarry was back in sight. Cynder had leaned forward, huddled over the dash. As the lights of civilization disappeared, Jet accelerated.
There were no headlights in sight, no tail lights, they were isolated in darkness.
Fog faintly heard Jet inside the car. “Hold on.” The El Camino’s engine revved. The spirit-ridden knew they were being chased, their faces alarmed, tense. Jet missed ramming the back bumper by inches. Both vehicles were swerving across the whole road.
Alex let out a roar, launching himself at the rear of the fleeing SUV. Fog scrambled over the roof toward the hood. Jet swerved again, trying to see around the dire wolf so conveniently placed on the hood, hoping to drive the other vehicle off the road. Alex barely managed to twist himself out of the way clinging stubbornly to the Jeep’s ski rack.
Jet snarled and tried again.
Miss… miss… His third swerve of the wheel was rewarded with a jolt and groan of stressed metal. The El Camino was too far forward to neatly spin the other off into the ditch, but brute force it could do. The Ridden careened off the road, nearly flipping as the wheels reached the shoulder.
The El Camino fish-tailed to a stop off the road a few hundred yards further.
Alex had been knocked loose in the crash. He was on his feet in seconds, scratched, dirty, imbedded with gravel, and visibly angrier.
The spirit claimed hadn’t waited around to see just how angry he and the rest of his friends were though. With only a couple strangled cries, “Run!” “There weren’t supposed to be any of them here!” the foursome sprinted heedlessly into the underbrush, SUV doors gaping open.
Jet was out of his car before the brake was fully set, his wolf-amber eyes locked to the trail of the dirty blonde woman from the SUV’s back seat. She was his to bring down.
Ember, with long coat streaming behind her like a cape, was shifting as she ran.
Foster hit the trees like a lethal shadow intent on paying back the road rash with interest.
Fog had only a moment to see a flash of cinnamon fur sprinting into the trees, Cynder joining the chase, before he let the hunt take him.
His ears rang with the sounds of violence. Four garishly fresh scent trails blazed through his awareness; stale food, unwashed human, and something never-living brittle sharp.
His packmates had cornered all of the prey. They were fighting, but somehow the Claimed seemed to be stronger than anticipated. He paused, focusing his attention on one to see why.
Glass! He could place the scent taste now. Their eyes, their teeth, nails all glistened with an unnatural iciness. Every time his pack clawed or sought to sink their fangs into the abominations, cruelly broken glass would answer them. I wonder if they’ll shatter when dropped.
Cynder was holding a stalemate. The brunette former housewife had stopped running, turning to face the ruddy wolf behind her. Glassy nails scythed through the air. Cynder growled, lunging and probing for an opening. The Claimed never saw the huge gray wolf curving low and fast from her flank. Fog’s muscled shoulder drove into her lower back, slamming her into the rough trunk of a tree with all his weight behind it. It felt like fine crystal shattering under a seat cushion. Yes!
“Smash, not tear!” Cynder barked out, rounding on the stunned once-woman to finish her off.
Ember and Alex immediately adjusted their tactics, passing up chances to spray their enemy’s entrails over the underbrush to deliver inhumanly strong kicks and punches. Jet appeared to reluctantly abandon his plan of subduing what used to be a thirty-something MILF.
The last three Claimed died rapidly.
Ember had been badly mauled. Her prey had extruded jagged shards from the ends of his fingers. Her blouse was shredded, glued to her torso with her own blood. From how she coughed and the tinted froth at her lips, Fog was pretty sure she had a collapsed lung at least. If she’d been human, she’d be dying if not dead. As it was, the bleeding had already stopped and her breathing was getting easier by the minute. If his assessment was accurate, she’d be pretty much healed by the time they reached their new home.
The islander had stayed behind. Fog shook his head and tasted the thought in his mind again. The Blood Talon had remained out of the fight. Strange did not even begin to describe that mystery. He’d claimed he was a mystic, maybe he’d done something the rest hadn’t seen. Luna knew how bizarre the Ithaeur could be.
The Hunter laid his ears back in scorn. This time he’d give the benefit of the doubt, but an Uratha who leaves the fighting to others was an Uratha forsaking the hunt. That would be a sin without forgiveness.
With the help of the rest of the pack, Fog threw the corpses back into their SUV. It was a simple matter to flip it on it’s side. A sharp rock took care of the fuel tank, filling the air with volatile fumes. Ember flipped a lit kitchen match into the wreck. No one would question the traces of glass in and on the passengers with the truck flipped and odds of anyone noticing a wooden match gone to ash in the remains were remote at best.
They climbed back into the El Camino and drove back the way they’d came. Back toward their untended territory.
The drive into town was almost a let-down after that. No more Ridden were on the road. Not much of anyone was on the road at all. The map Roman had provided was clear and easy to follow. Without any effort, the headlights came to illuminate a metal gate. A heavy chain and padlock implied it had’t been open in years.
A ring of keys had been included in the packet. Cynder stepped from the car and with everyone’s attention on the glare of headlights, threw more sway to her hips walking to unlock the gate than was truly needed. As she swung the gate out of the way, it revealed an unpaved road decayed to scarcely more than an atv trail.
On the edge of their actual private property, their immediate physical territory, the heart, it was too much for Fog. He sprang from the truck bed and disappeared into the bushes. Almost immediately he discovered the almost entirely faded signs, glyphs of the long dead pack. Swiveling an ear back, he heard more feet crunching gravel. From the sound, it was someone with smooth soled shoes. Jet had decided to take a walk too. Interesting.
He must have given the keys to someone else, the El Camino abruptly roared to life. Branches beat on the fenders startlingly loud. Gravel rattled against the undercarriage like bb’s.
I wonder if they’re trying to go too fast.
The engine noise surged a minute later and fell silent. _ I guess so._
Fog had trotted another fifty feet down the fence-line when the night erupted with a sound that sent icicles through his blood; the howl of a Garou in Kuruth.

The gathering

He’d been there for hours. Long enough for the birds to forget he wasn’t part of the tree. Long enough for the pitch to stop oozing from where his claws had dug into the bark. Long enough to watch a spike buck nervously trying to catch the interest of two unimpressed does. It would be the work of a second to tear the unsuspecting deer to the ground and it was so young the meat would be sinfully sweet and tender, but he wasn’t particularly hungry. Besides, a wolf making a kill that close to a rest area would make the clueless humans extremely agitated. So he just watched it and visualized the various avenues he could stalk as it picked its way through the underbrush.
He watched the truckers pull in to stretch their legs and attend straining bladders. He observed the cars and campers parking in the early evening. Young couples, retirees, families getting off the road briefly to burn off pent-up energy, ease stiff limbs and fill their lungs with fresher air. Alone or in small groups, the nameless travelers came and went like waves on a river. But as the sky grew darker with the deepening evening, the state highway grew increasingly quiet.
The half moon seemed almost close enough to touch when one of those strange mixtures of sedan and pick-up pulled in. Road grime turned it a brownish gray under the first of three lamps. A heavily bug-spattered Virginia licence plate was bolted to the dented chrome bumper. The engine switched off with a cough. The driver made no move to get out.
Was this the first of the group?
As the engine block pinged cooling in the night air, a sense of waiting seemed to waft from whoever the newcomer was. The dome light clicked on on a tired looking black man behind the steering wheel. He looked at something in his hand then the parking lot, before lifting his eyes above the tree tops. The dome light clicked off.
Perhaps fifteen minutes later, the rough growl of a motorcycle on the highway made the unseen wolf lay his ears back. The stranger in the car must have heard it too a few minutes later, he got out, leaning on the fender. He was nervous and trying to hide it behind feigned comfort.
The watcher found this interesting.
Exposed under the sodium vapor bulb, he looked to be in his mid-twenties with close cropped hair. He wore a black button-down shirt with matching dockers and leather street shoes. Between his car and his wardrobe, he obviously had a thing for the color black.
He wished the wind was right to get a good scent of the driver, but luck only carries so far.
The motorcycle rumble resolved itself into a bluff, heavy bike with a sidecar. It didn’t pull into a parking spot, just pulled to a stop in the middle of the pavement. The driver was a bundle of weathered leathers, wild beard, and windburn. If he wasn’t sporting club colors on the back of his vest, he’d be very surprised.
The biker’s passenger was riding bitch instead of the sidecar, which seemed a bit odd until they climbed off. When the helmet came off, it revealed a mane of brilliantly red hair. He helmet went into the sidecar and a duffel bag came out. Mystery solved; no room for her in there too. She had to lunge for a guitar case as the biker gunned the motorcycle back toward the highway.
The first guy was openly checking her out while she was distracted and he couldn’t really blame him. She dressed to be noticed. What looked like fish-net over a tight concert t-shirt seemed expressly designed to accentuate her breasts while skin-tight jeans and tall boots threw her hips and long legs into sharp focus. Dressed like that, the ride must have been cold with a capital “fucking.”
The question in his mind now was why she liked calling attention to herself.
Their introduction was brief, halting. The black man was obviously caught between mistrust and desire to flirt. She appeared to be measuring him like a choice cut of steak. She was younger, but there was confidence in her posture.
Before the meeting could stretch out in awkward small talk too much longer, a tan car turned off the highway. The driver didn’t get out, just glared at the duo beside the dirty black El Camino. The guy riding shotgun looked to be who they were waiting for anyway. He was tall with a slender build and an emo haircut. What was with everyone wearing black? Was there a bumper crop of homeless goth misfits? Besides sporting the fledgeling pack’s favorite dye lot, the new guy was dressed for comfort and ease of movement.
The flickering hope of something interesting breaking loose with the new arrival suffered a swift death. After another few seconds of apparent introductions, they once again subsided into an awkward silence.
OK, shy goth misfits.
Fortunately, the next car hadn’t been too far behind. A black Lexus swerved into the lot with a swift sweep and stop that suggested only passing concern with safe driving. Tinted windows kept him from seeing the occupants, but seconds after the luxury car dropped to a dead stop, the passenger door opened to let a woman out.
Dark hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail over a gray long coat with blue jeans and hiking boots visible under the hem. She pulled a well-used suit case from the back seat and a high end day pack from beside her seat.
As soon as her eyes fell on the small group, she reached into her pack for a notebook. For several moments she glanced back and forth between the individuals and the book, flipping pages until she seemed to find what she was looking for. Either she had descriptions of all of them she was matching up or she wanted them to think she was. She reminded him of a manic bird-watcher confirming her specimens.
He was starting to suspect she’d begin examining each of them in close detail when a work truck belonging to an independent plumber rattled into the rest area. A tall, muscular man with bronze-like skin and black ink tattoo work flowing down his bare arms and over his nose, throat, and cheeks. It felt to his eyes like something cultural, not prison ink. His t-shirt was snug over a naturally muscular frame. A faded flannel shirt was tied to his waist over equally faded Carharts. What appeared to be a variety of charms adorned his neck and wrists. Ithaeur? And if his eyes weren’t deceiving him, that appeared to be the ritual scar of the Blood Talons on his left shoulder.
That had to be the last of them, other than himself. It was past time for him to get off his furry ass and make friendly like with the “cool” kids. He dropped lightly from the tree to the thin skin of leaf litter. It was amazing how rarely people looked upward. He deliberately scuffed a paw like a nose-blind cub. It wouldn’t do to startle what appeared to be his new pack.
The hyperactive female immediately grinned and started flipping through the notebook she’d kept in hand since she arrived. The others just looked at him with varying degrees of apprehension and mild curiosity. He slipped back out of sight to change. It had been months since he’d last taken the time to Dedicate any of his clothes, but it didn’t take much time to skin into a pair of thrift store fatigue pants and plaid work shirt. He stuffed his feet into a pair of work boots that had seen him through since North Dakota. He gave his seabag a quick shake to dislodge most of the dead fir needles and re-emerged into the rest area.
“I’m Fog.” His voice felt unfamiliar, he’d been on four legs a lot lately and by himself even longer.
The red-head goth spoke first with a purring soprano, “I’m Cynder. With a ‘y’.”
The vaguely manic woman with the notebook introduced herself. “My name is Ember.”
“I’m Alex Foster, “ the slender guy in a hoody with the moody hair cut had a pleasant British accent, “Pleased to meet you, Fog.”
The guy with the car muttered with a gentle gallic accent, “Jet.”
Finishing the group, the Talon introduced himself as Anaru.
Blessings to Father Wolf and Mother Luna! It was so nice not to be saddled with chatty packmates.
Alex’s watch chirped the half-hour and a silver Mercedes pulled gracefully into the parking lot. The engine shut off and a tall powerful man rose out of the driver’s seat. Long thick hair lightly shot with silver along with an immaculately trimmed Van Dyke mustache and beard seemed to frame eyes the color and softness of steel. His navy blue pin-stripe suit was expertly tailored. A moonstone tie tack affixed the silver-gray silk of his tie to his linen shirt. Tasteful rings adorned his fingers. He’s holding a leather folder.
Despite the trappings of wealth, he radiated “predator.” Power seemed to pour off him in waves that tingled on their skins like electricity. He gave all of them a close-mouthed smile that obviously was meant to set them at ease. Either he trusted them or thought he could take them all. There was no question, it was the latter. Fog knew where he stood in the hierarchy, he decided immediately to keep his mouth shut and follow directions.
Max’s voice was a rich tenor.
“Hello, all of you,” he says. “I hope you’ve had a chance to get to know each other. If not, look at each other closely now. These are your brothers and sisters. You will become closer to each other than you ever were to your birth fami­lies. You will hurt when they hurt, bleed when they bleed, love when they love. You may take a wife or a husband someday—you may even have children—but they will never understand the bond between you and your packmates. They can’t. They’re only human.
“The six of you are particularly blessed. We call packs whose members comprise each auspice ‘blessed’ packs, because they possess all of the possibilities that Mother Luna blessed us with. You are twice-blessed, because you represent each of the Tribes of the Moon, plus tribeless. You are the living possibility of all that we can become. I have faith in you — faith that you will one day shake the pillars of heaven and help lead our people into a new promised land where we can finally take our Father’s place.”
He paused.
“But enough speeches. If I were in your shoes, I’d be anxious to get on with it.” He opened the leather folder and handed it to Ember, along with a pen. “Sign your names where it’s marked and then pass it along.” His smile seems almost sincere as he regarded the group. “When you do, you will all be co-owners of a house in Leavenworth. It will be the heart of your new territory.
“Some time ago, a dark spirit called Gurdilag drove the werewolves from the Olympic Peninsula. Its power was greater than any single pack could dream of facing.”
He shuddered with the memory. If it still got that that much reaction out of an alpha like him years later, it had to have been a true nightmare.
He continued. “When I gathered the packs of the Pacific Northwest to face this creature, not all of the volunteers survived. One such pack was a pack of Bone Shadows led by Samuel Meers. His pack claimed Leavenworth as their territory. They were wise and powerful. They still died. Since then, no pack has reclaimed that territory. Even the neighboring packs have been too busy cleaning up the messes Gurdilag left in their own territories.
“But I see an opportunity here—both in you and in this territory. So now you own the house, free and clear, along with whatever’s left inside. I purchased it from Samuel’s heirs. This year’s taxes are paid. Everything else is up to you. I believe that Samuel’s locus was in the house itself, or somewhere on the property, but I haven’t been out there to look for it. That’s up to you.
“So, there you have it. You have a place to start—more of a chance than many packs get. Don’t screw up. Because if you do, you lose not only this opportunity, but my favor and generosity as well.”
He pulled a manilla envelope from inside his suit coat. “You hold the deed. Here are your keys and map to the property. Any questions?”
Fog listened to his new packmates abruptly turn to discuss how they are going to get to the new house, brimming with plans for the territory. Meanwhile, seeing that no questions were forthcoming, Mr. Roman slipped back into his car and drove away. Several of the others blinked bemusedly as his tail lights disappeared down the road.
It was obvious that Jet was the only one with a car. Deciding who was going to ride where appeared to be less obvious. With a shrug, Fog stripped, stuffed the discarded clothes into his seabag and tossed it into the truckbed. Moments later, he leapt nimbly in with it and curled up in a passable imitation of a tired husky.
As if it was a signal, the rest of the pack threw their gear in the back before following. Moments later, two more of the pack decided to shift for their ride into town. Anaru was a dingo. It figured.


I'm sorry, but we no longer support this web browser. Please upgrade your browser or install Chrome or Firefox to enjoy the full functionality of this site.