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.”
I WILL NEVER AGAIN BIND MYSELF TO YOUR KIND.
“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.”
WHAT IS MY WISDOM WORTH TO YOU?
“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.”
The big cat gave a slow blink. THREE TRUE ANSWERS FOR ALL BUT A LICK OF YOUR PACK’S ESSENCE AND THE IMMEDIATE DESTRUCTION OF THE CURSED MEERS DIARY AND ALL NOTES YOU MIGHT HAVE MADE AND NEVER SET FOOT ON MY MOUNTAIN AGAIN.
“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.”
YOU OFFER SO LITTLE FOR DEAR INFORMATION. THEIR BOOKS MUST BURN. I WILL NOT HAVE OTHERS COME HERE.
“We could burn those pages where you are mentioned…”
NO. IT ALL MUST BE DESTROYED.
“If we destroy the books and notes, will you accept the bargain?”
IT IS A START. BOOKS GONE, YOU GONE FOREVER, ALL BUT A TITHE OF YOUR ESSENCE? IT MIGHT BE ENOUGH.
“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.”
ESSENCE NOW. YOU LEAVE IMMEDIATELY WHEN YOUR QUESTIONS ARE ANSWERED. YOU BURN THE BOOKS BEFORE THE SUN RISES. I ACCEPT YOUR BARGAIN. The huge spirit cat sprang soundlessly to the ground.
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?”
I KNOW IT WAS INEVITABLE.
“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.”
THEN ASK THE CORRECT QUESTIONS THE FIRST TIME. The tail twitched twice. THE ALDER MAN HAS BEEN. ANCIENT AS THINGS ARE CALLED IN THE OTHER REALM. ONCE HE KNEW THE BORDER MARCHES. HE RULES THE HUNT. MANY MADE UP HIS CHORUS. BUT HUMANS CAME AND HIS POWER WAS LESS. UNTIL THE FOREST WAS PUSHED BACK, THE HUMANS WERE MANY, AND HE WAS A PALE REFLECTION OF HIS GLORY. HE GREW ANGRY. HE GREW AMBITIOUS.
HE GREW FOOLISH.
HE DEVOURED THE SPIRITS THE HUMANS BROUGHT WITH THEM SEEKING TO WEAKEN THE CIVILIZATION AND LET THE WILD MOVE IN ONCE MORE. IT POISONED HIM.
THE ALDER MAN IS MAGATH. HE HATES THE TOWN, HATES THE TAINT WITHIN HIM. HE SEEKS TO DESTROY IT.
THE MEERS CLAIMED THE TOWN AS THEIRS. THE CONFLICT WAS INEVITABLE.
“How did they beat him?”
WITH TOOTH AND CLAW. The Cat bared it’s dagger-like teeth, radiating its predatory nature. BUT THAT IS NOT YOUR TRUE QUESTION. NO, THEY ALSO PEERED INTO DARK CORNERS AND UNDER ROCKS FOR SCRAPS OF WISDOM. THEY STROVE SO HARD AND BLED MANY TIMES OVER FOR THE INFORMATION I AM ABOUT TO GIVE YOU SO EASILY. SERVES THEM RIGHT FOR TREATING ME AS A SLAVE, AS A MENIAL TOOL TO BE USED AND FORGOTTEN ONCE THE TASK IS OVER. It paused, licking its lips. Resentment toward the Meers seemed to fill the air like static electricity. IT PLANTED ITSELF IN TOWN IN TREES. THEY CALLED THEM ‘SAPLINGS’ BUT THEY WERE NOT ALWAYS NEW TREES. THE FIVE TREES FED POWER TO THE ALDER MAN. THE MEERS MOVED TO DESTROY THE ‘SAPLINGS’.
THE ALDER MAN WAS NOT STUPID. HE LEFT GUARDIANS. THEY ARE CALLED AL’ATH AND ARE WITHOUT NUMBER IN HIS SHADOW. THE DISCOVERY COST THEM DEARLY. HIS PRIDE SLEW HIS RAHU.
BUT THEY RECOVERED. THEY DISCOVERED THE BAN OF THE AL’ATH. THEN THEY TORE DOWN THE ALDER MAN’S SPECIAL TREES. WE FOUGHT THE ALDER MAN. IT IS VERY POWERFUL. IT TOOK ALL OF THEM TO DEFEAT HIM AND ONLY WITH MY FULL HELP.
“What is the Al’ath Ban?”
ANY HOLDING AN ALDER BRANCH, THEY CANNOT HARM
“There are a fuck-ton of trees all over town and more on this side. Are they all ‘saplings’?”
I DO NOT KNOW. THERE WERE ONLY FIVE WHEN THE MEERS MOVED AGAINST HIM.
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?”
THE ALPHA HELD SOME SECRETS CLOSE. IF HE KNEW IT, HE DID NOT REVEAL IT TO ANYONE. I DO NOT.
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 WILL BE WATCHING TO MAKE SURE YOU HONOR THE REST OF OUR DEAL.
“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.
GO. NEVER MORE SET FOOT HERE.
Fog turned and led the pack back down the mountain. It was much faster moving down, but no less strenuous and much more exciting.