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.
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.