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.