Castle Roland

Riposté - Werewolves

by D'Artagnon

In progress

Chapter G

Posted: 16 Jul 15

Circles Within Circles

The run back to Black Rock Jetty at Salisbury Beach Center wasn't the easiest trip I've ever made. After my pseudo prophetic nightmare, I wasn't entirely sure I was ready to trust myself in the Umbra. Nicky insisted, however, so that's how we went. Besides, the grass in the physical world was slick with rain, the clouds above promising more of the same. It was a good choice. We made good time, but I still kept waiting for the other claw to click, so to speak.

Nick often says I think too much. Not sure how that comparison actually flies with who I really am, but I did find myself whirling through lots of "what if" type scenarios on that little jog. Running does that, strangely, when I'm in lupus form. All the things in my recent existence started drumming out with my heartbeat and pad-falls as we cruised through the Shadow.

I mean, what if the bane on Robby's soul does develop weird magic powers? What could it do? Would it be feeding on Robby's life energy? Will it warp his mind? Kenny called the Tear a filter, so does it mean it can use any kind of magic, like Glamour or Gnosis or Mage power stuff? Could a bane infected changeling with that artifact actually channel Rage?

I couldn't make much sense of things. My imagination just kept spinning away and none of the consequences I was picturing looked particularly good. It had only been a few days since meeting the changelings and already we were tail high in intrigue, murder, deception, prophecy, meta-physical conundrums of inconceivable complexity and my new friend's life was in immortal jeopardy.

On top of that, something had been buzzing under the surface at the caern for days now. All the elders were walking around like they had burs in their tails close to tender places. And then there was the whole thing about JJ and the bullies. And the fact that Nick and I were due to get back into school at the end of summer and we were essentially homeless, which would get even more problems going when the human legal types decided to go poking their noses into my situation.

I mean, what if they discover that I'm supposed to have died in Virginia last month?

"Stop chasing that!" Nick barked to me, getting my head back into where we were going. I trotted to a stop, Nick walking over to me and sniffing my face and ears.

"What?" I yipped stupidly.

"Whatever has you so wrapped up, let it go. It's not like you can just run this stuff down."

"Huh?" Yeah, it just about sounds like that in wolf-tongue as well, complete with the canine confusion head twist.

"Cody, ah know we have a lot to deal with, but ya got to take it in smaller bites. Even my big mouth cain't swaller it all in one gulp."

"Yeah. I just get so worried."

"Ah kinda noticed. You stepped right in cat poop when we got past Amesbury."

"Huh?!" I said, glancing down. Sure enough, I'd walked into something... unsavory, and the evidence had seeped upwards through my paw digits as I had run. It was unsettling to say the least. The worst part is, I should have at least smelled it after stepping in it. Why I didn't I can't figure out for the life of me.

"Gotta watch where yuir goin', Glubber," Nick snickered.

"How close are we?" I asked, rubbing my tainted paw in the grass.

"About another three miles if we follow the roads. Less if we stay Umbral and cut for the coast here."

"Let's do that, then."

"So what's scramblin' yuir eggs?"

I hawked up a juicy one and spit into my affected paw. Nick is an expert at spitting, both for accuracy and distance, and he taught me much. Still, it felt weird and gross to me to be spitting into my own paw onto a mess of some animal's offal. I made a face as the spit made the odor more pungent.

"Gah! What are they feeding this cat?!"

"Who knows," Nick said, shrugging his wolfly shoulders. "And stop changing the subject. You're all goin' like a train wreck before I stopped you. What's scrapin' your gray matter around?"

"All of it, I guess. JJ's troubles, for one. I mean, how can we expect to go all fighting a war with the changelings when we still have to take care of JJ? Let's face it, Shadow," I said, wiping my foot disgustedly on the grass. "JJ's in kinda deep. He's more fucked up than we thought."

"The situation is fucked up. JJ's just scared, lonely, depressed. Kinda like you were before I came to bring brightness to yuir life." He grinned with this expression of honest self-over-appreciation painted beatifically into his fur.

Damn, I wish I could do that Spock eyebrow thing!

"Seriously," I said, checking my poop removal progress.

"Oh, alriiight!" he moaned, switching back to boy form and laying on the ground near me. "I'm all ears, Mr. Seriously."

"Kenny and Robby, they're cool. I like them. I don't really like what's going on around them just now, but I don't think we have much choice here. Unicorn said…"

"Ah know. And it makes sense if it's gonna be somethin' big enough that a silver pack is called for. But this is like, the weirdest silver pack ever. Different types of us," he said, leaning up on his elbow and pointing to his chest with his other thumb, "all workin' together? I shure never heard of the like."

"Joey seems to think it's the right way, too," I said.

"You missed a spot," Nick pointed out, without any sarcasm this time.

"Wha? Where?"

"Back of yuir forearm. By the elbow." He lay back and regarded the Umbral night sky. "We cain't just abandon JJ. It ain't friendly."

"I agree," I said, rubbing my elbow in the dirt. It was an awkward position to be in, with my butt sticking up and my face so close to the ground. Sure enough, a sizable chunk of the stuff had lodged itself exactly where Nicky said it was. Gross!

"But we cain't just pass the word on to Kenny about how to fix Robby's wagon, neither. Especially if they're our packmates."

"I think they are. At least they're some of our packmates. Something tells me that allying with the changelings is just a start."

"Yeah, I get that, too." We both paused for a moment, looking at each other. Almost at once, we started to talk again, but Nick gave a little hand gesture, letting me go first.

"Something else tells me that our enemies have already done something like that. Teaming up. Crossing lines and such. Swapping secrets."

"Ya'll talkin' 'bout the iron rods at the beach fight? When Rolf passed a warning to Skeeter?"

"Yeah. I don't think they use iron in construction like that. I've always heard it called steel. You know, steel girders, steel lynch pins, steel rivets, stuff like that. That kind of metal bar is usually called rebar, and it's almost always made of steel, not Cold Iron. But Rolf was dead sure that it was."

"Seems kinda convenient, don't it. They just happen to have somethin' that can kill changelings. Hey! Didn't Robby say he'd been hurt by Cold Iron before? That smack on his shoulder you healed up? The burn?"

I shivered, remembering it. The sense of enduring the torment Robby felt when that weapon hit him. How he shrugged off the pain, even though his soul energies were basically bleeding out of his body, and fought on to protect Kenny. My own shoulder trembled at the sense of shared and remembered pain that my healing of his scar flooded me with. My hand had somehow gone up to that shoulder in sympathy. Hairs all over my face and neck stood up.

"Yes," was all I could say, feeling that moment. I opened my eyes, or at least I thought I did, and I could see…

"Woooff!" I breathed out softly.

"Huh?" Nick asked, somewhat shocked by my use of foul language. "What?"

I blinked my eyes, clearing them of the vision. The subdued and shaded tones of the Umbra replaced the sudden rush of memory of the beach attack. The sunlight and ocean shine slipped back down the drain and left me on a grassy patch sitting beside the path back home to Black Rocks.

"I just had a memory flash of Robby fighting those guys that put the wound on his shoulder. One of them was using Cold Iron."

"Yeah, that much we know."

"It was Charlie."

Nick sat upright, leaning in to me slightly. "Are you shure it's him?"

My hand stroked the spot where the blow had fallen on Robby's shoulder, months ago it seemed. I could clearly see who Robby was fighting. "And Knuckles, er, what's his name, er, Tony! They were both there!"

"Which means that there's more goin' on here with JJ than just bullies beatin' up on a kid, stealin' his money and treatin' him like their personal hoe." Nick got a very pissed off look on his face. Pissed off, but cold. The kind of angry that makes geniuses plan the end of the world in cartoons. "Now ah'm mad."

"We need to be more than mad," I said calmly, rubbing the last of the kitty crap out of my paw. "We need to get ahead. We've all been playing catch up so far, and we haven't gotten very far with it. Whoever our enemy is this time," and I paused to glance around the Umbrascape before looking Nicky right in the eyes, "they've already got us chasing our tails instead of chasing them down."

"An' doin' what we does best!"

"Cut the Wolverine crap, Nicky. Our friends are getting targeted here."

"Ah know, Speaks With Water," he said, suddenly all the bravado and bullshit was gone from his voice and attitude. That underlying sense of compassion and caring came through. That vulnerable side he never shows anyone but me. "Ah know, and it scares me somethin' fierce. Just means ah have ta take things differently than you do. Ah don't get deep thinkin' and deep searchin' like you do. Ah gotta do thangs the way ah gotta do 'em. Ah know yuir right."

"Look, I'm sorry Nick. I get caught up in stuff my way too. I get so lost in stuff I'm thinking about that I don't know where I'm going sometimes. I just get into cruise mode and follow wherever you lead."

"Is that such a crime?" he replied, smiling.

"It is if I don't realized you've come to a screeching halt and I ram right into your tail."

"Oh, baby!"

"Not like that!"

"Ah know, just foolin' wit'chas."

I sighed deeply, which for a wolf is a short, almost explosive sound, more like a snort unless you know what to listen for.

"Shadow, I have to learn to be more like you sometimes. I need to be able to think on the run without running headlong into things."

"Yeah, well, ah guess that goes both ways. Just cause ah see things differently than ya'll do don't make it wrong. Guess ah gotta remember to look around for more than just the punch line or the spy-guy stuff." He rolled over on his belly and pushed up to a kneeling position, facing me, more or less.

"An' for the record, that wasn't Wolverine ah was imitatin'. It was Gambit!" Then he flashed me that sparkly grin of his and I had to laugh.

"You all happy-brained now?" he asked, tilting his head slightly. "Got all the cat doody out of your pads?"

"As much as I can without… oh, I am such an idiot!" I exclaimed. I looked just past his shoulder and saw something that should have been not only obvious to me, but could have helped with the whole cat poo situation. Not more than 200 yards from where we stood on the grassy patch flowed the Umbral version of the Merrimack River. Joey had taught us that the way to get to Kenny and Robby's town of Canterbury was easy enough. Either follow the roads west or follow the river west. We'd been racing beside the road that paralleled the river when Nicky stopped me. All this time I'd been trying to get the stuff out of my paw and I could have simply washed it out.

I took it as a lesson. The wise Garou could find the solutions to most problems if he simply looked around and took cues from nature. My Garou name is Speaks With Water. I guess in a way, it was something that I should have known by instinct and sought out first. Instead, I wasted time hoping to rub the gunk out when I could have simply washed it.

I can get so lost in thought that I will step in cat poop and not even know it, and then get so lost in not thinking that I completely ignore the obvious and simple solution. Suddenly, I didn't feel all as wise and spiritually powerful as everyone hoped I was. I don't know if it was Unicorn making me realize that I was not perfect, teaching me humility or just my own lack of experience showing through. Whatever the case, I made myself a promise to not get so lost in my head that I forget the moment. Both are important.

I washed out my paw and switched to boy form for a while. Nicky ruffled my hair and that led to a splash fight. Gaia, did it feel good to just goof off again after last night. Just blow off some steam, you know?

We got going again, after a quick shape shift and canine body shake to shrug off some of the water; we were both soaked to the undercoat. Running helped dry us, and we got back to Salisbury Beach Center well before 4 o'clock. It was a good run, and I didn't let my mind wander so much that I lost track of where we were going or more importantly, what I might be stepping in.

Which seems kind of an odd way to think about it since as soon as we got into the caern we stepped into crap of another type entirely. The kind that kids who sneak around the house occasionally fall into when they hear the parents talking secretly or when you open up someone's diary and start marking their spelling and grammar errors.

In short, we got into the old peoples' business. We didn't mean to do it, but we kind of… well…

It actually happened more like this:

The council of elders was having another one of their "come as you are" meetings around a brazier of cooking meat, times about five this time. Someone had also brought in a few huge buckets of steamers, which is a type of clam. They had more than that to eat as well. Baked beans in stone pots, coleslaw, fire-baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil, corn cooked in its sheath still, and all variety of fruit and breads lain out on a large checkered blanket like an ant's version of heaven. Beach picnic food, and so much of it! It was enormous!

Which meant that two hungry half-grown Garou boys would naturally find their way right down to the council circle, mouths watering like Niagara Falls. Joey saw us and right away recognized the look in our eyes. I bet he can actually smell hungry on a person! He waved us in and gave us the "shhh!" sign. Nicky and I dug in, trying to be respectfully silent, even as we were being ravenously gluttonous. Running takes a lot out of you, and we'd done quite a lot in the last several hours.

Part of me thought back to the awesome sandwiches that Robby's mom had made for us, and that sweet, tangy tomato soup. I reminded myself at once that I needed to howl for his parents tonight. I may not be a Moon Singer galliard, but I could at least pay my respects in the primal way of our folk. I only wish I could do so at Robby's side so he knew how much his loss meant to me. How much I grieve for him and with him.

Weird that someone I'd only known for such a short time should affect me so much. I guess, in some way, I'd found myself remembering much about my own parents in watching Robby with his. Some things must be universal like that.

Anyhow, the elders continued their meeting without stopping, and while we were busy feasting as politely and quietly as we could, we overheard just about everything. Something in the back of my mind was looking around at the sheer number of Garou present, but didn't quite click to what it meant yet. I at first assumed that, like Nicky and me, they were drawn by food and listened in to the conversation.

"Are we certain that this is happening? That this information is accurate?" Sea Smoke said, glancing at a standing Garou I'd never met before. He was tall and lean, like Joey, but his complexion was more like I'd seen on people in travel commercials about Greece. His hair was dark and clipped short in the back. Couldn't really make out his eyes in profile, but his face was sharp and had the look of someone used to smiling a lot, or telling jokes. He wore a red and blue bandana on his arm, twisted in a complicated pattern. A simple vest made of denim, frayed at places, hung over his shoulder, hooked on one finger.

"Unfortunately it is, Sea Smoke-rhya," the newcomer said. I noticed that his other hand held a long staff caped with a carved jackal head, very stylized. I nudged Nicky as a fist full of food was heading towards his face.

"Huh? Ohhh," he said, pausing in his feeding frenzy. "A Strider."

I nodded and from that point on we both watched and listened intently.

"We have been getting reports from as far south as the Carolinas that whole packs are being wiped out," the visiting Strider said.

"Do we know by who?" a Stargazer elder named Katrina Evenstar asked.

"Or what?"? Rolf put in quickly. His expression was one of dire concern, something I'd not encountered with the easy-going ahroun surfer. Just the dark tone of how he'd said that sparked my attention. If I'd been in wolf form, my ears would have perked up.

"So far we have no witnesses. Nor any survivors. The attacks seem to be either ambush style or cases so close to accidental that the human authorities seem to look at the deaths as massive suicides or acts of god instead of calculated attacks."

"We have other information, though?" Joey asked.

"Indeed, brother. The large scale of the attacks, the fact that these are experienced Garou and not just cubs, and in most cases, the sheer brutality indicate we are dealing with someone who knows our weaknesses. And knows them well."

"Not to dispute what you say," an older Garou in wolf form, one I identified as a Fionna tribe member called Rihannon, started to say, took a long moment to prepare her statement and then continued. "What evidence do you have that this is a new enemy but one that knows us? And what proof is there that all of these attacks are linked?"

"The nature of the wounds," the tall Strider said. He reached into a courier's pouch slung around his neck and pulled out a sheaf of photocopies. He handed them to Sea Smoke and she examined them briefly. Her sudden gasp told me that whatever was in those images had to be horrific. She passed the pages left, and the images made their way around the council circle. We didn't get to see them, but I could see in Rolf's eyes that there was something very, very wrong printed there. My curiosity was starting to get the better of me, so I know that Nicky was salivating for a look as well.

"As you can see, brothers and sisters," the tall Strider said, passing his eyes to each in turn, "the wounds here are clearly made by silver."

"To make such cuts, one would almost have to be on top of their target," Rolf said. "More than half of those attacks are from behind or above, and they are such clean strikes…"

"Cleaner than a master klaive duelist could perform," Veronica said, looking upset. "Either the attackers were known allies of those slain…"

"Or the attacks came without warning," Rihannon finished. "Without the scent of silver. How can this be?"

"Honored elders!" I said, standing up. Nick stood up a moment after, dropping a perfectly good half-eaten hot dog in the sand in the process.

"Cody, are you nuts?" he whispered in my ear harshly.

"No. Actually, I think this is the right thing to do," I whispered back. "Back me up."

"Okay, Glubber. I trust you." And that was all I needed. I knew he'd be with me, even if he thought I was wrong or speaking out of turn.

"What does the whelp want? Another bite?" a vicious Get of Fenris elder asked, getting to his feet. Get tribe Garou often thought that the council circle was best served by attending in crinos, the true werewolf form. Thus, when he got up, he really, really got up. He must have been 12 feet tall, snowy white, with braided head fur coming down his chest, complete with Viking style bone beads, sculpted and painted, bouncing off his massive muscles. I was instantly intimidated.

"Joseph," Veronica said, casually while holding a hand out to still the big white Garou's step into the middle of the council circle. He might be able to easily establish dominance over me, but Sea Smoke was the sept leader. He would likely not challenge her. Likely.

"I ask your forgiveness, my brothers and sisters," Joey said, standing up and bowing. "These cubs are my students and as such I have come to understand their character. I know it is not the custom, but I believe that if they choose to interrupt sept business, they do so knowing that what they say they are responsible for. I believe they wouldn't interrupt without cause, Sea Smoke-rhya."

Veronica nodded and snapped her fingers, pointing down in the Get's direction. The meaning was quite clear: "Sit, boy!"

"Let the cliath step forward and be heard." At her pronouncement, I stepped into the circle beside the tall Strider, and I felt and heard Nicky step in beside me. A mild buzz ran through the assembled elders as we moved to the middle.

"You got balls of solid rock, boys," the Strider whispered to us as we stood waiting for the circle to settle down. "Roni doesn't just pull rank like that for no low-pole wolves. Better make it good."

"Thank you…" I said, trying to think if I'd heard his name.

"Call me Mephi," he smiled.

"Thank you, Mephi-rhya."

"Just make it good, cubs," he said, tapping my arm with his staff hand.

"Yeah, make it good, Glubber."

"You have some information, Speaks With Water?" Veronica asked, looking regal and executive and all that. I don't know how she does it, but she always seems to be in control of herself and knows exactly what to do or say without making it look like she's doing anything at all.

"I believe I do, Sea Smoke-rhya," I said. I then launched into the events of the last 15 hours or so. How we'd encountered the bubble at Robby's house. The later rush to the hospital and then the discovery of Robby's parents killed near the Route 213 Methuen connector on Interstate 495. I told of my vision and my fight against the banes. I told of the infestation that Robby was dealing with and asked the council if there was a way someone could teach me how to unseat such a creature after the circle was complete.

Nicky's hand trembled slightly against the back of my thigh. We were standing so close that he was practically leaning on me. In that moment, I was speaking for both of us. Something else was occurring as well, but I didn't know what just yet.

But most importantly, I told them about the weapon that Robby had found impaled on his doorstep. A weapon with one edge of silver, one edge of Cold Iron, and the glyphs carved into the weapon claiming that it was a soul drinker. I drew out the shape of the weapon, explained how we had seen it, how it was stuck through two creatures of the Dreaming, one being a unicorn from Robby's personal herd of unicorns. But most importantly, I explained that neither Nick and I, nor the changelings, nor even the mages in the house could detect the nature of the weapon unless they were staring directly at it.

"You mean so say that this abomination had no scent of silver?" Veronica asked.

"Just so, Sea Smoke-rhya."

"I can verify part of his story," Rolf said, standing. "I helped these two fight off a large number of older boys the other day. The boys in question outnumbered these cliath nearly 8 to one and they had weapons of what at first appeared to be steel. Bars used in construction, to add strength to concrete. I was with a Satyr friend when we came upon the fight and helped these grommets out. The troop of human boys was defeated, without breaking the Veil, and they fled. But while examining the scene of the battle, I managed to recover a few of the improvised weapons. I smelled them. The bars weren't made of steel. They were made of iron, and they had not only blood smell, but the scent of wyrm-taint on the metal as well."

"What significance is this?" the Get growled, maintaining his seat, but leaning forward slightly.

"Because, honored elder," I spoke softly, "we have learned that there is a foul practice among the darker of the changelings that can render iron weapons undetectable. The process involves tempering the weapon in changeling blood."

A gasp and a buzz went around the circle. The elders clearly weren't ready for the impact of such news.

"Is that true, kid?" Mephi asked in a stage whisper.

"Unfortunately, yes," Nick answered for me.

"So you think that such a thing could work against us like that with silver?"

"Can you think of anythin' more foul or anythin' more likely?" Nick asked back.

"You have a point, Shorty," Mephi said, grinning.

"So it is your opinion that similar weapons to the one you are describing might be responsible for the death of so many of our brethren?" Veronica said, standing. Instantly, the circle grew quiet. I never understood the expression "and the weight of all eyes fell on me," before that moment. Suddenly, it was like no one dared breathe until I said anything. I felt Nicky slip his fingers into my hand. I squeezed his and took a deep, cleansing breath.

"I believe it is a likely possibility, honored elder. I cannot speak more than I know, but the facts as we know them do point to this as a possible reason why. Other than that, those wiser than me may have to investigate. All I know is what I know, what I feel, and what my guts tell me.

"If I had to guess, based on what facts we have now…" I looked to Joey, then to Nicky then back to Veronica. "I would say that some similar foul magic is at work."

"This is preposterous!" the Get snarled, jumping to his feet. All around, elders were whispering in little groups. I suddenly realized that this was far more than just a sept elders meeting. There were dozens and dozens more Garou here than I'd ever seen around the sept before. My mind suddenly made a leap in logic. This was a meeting of several septs. Probably 30 or more councils had sent representatives to this circle. I wasn't just standing before my elders. I was standing before what basically amounted to a congressional hearing of elders of the Garou Nation.

"Are we to just listen to the words of some cub?!" the Get shouted above the din. "Are we all whelps to listen to those of lowest station before we give credence to…"

"Oh, sit down and shut up, Ragnar!" came a female voice from down the left side of the circle. Nick and I turned as one and looked at the tall, black furred crinos who stood up. Nick and I instantly recognized her, yes her. It was Nick's mom.

"I'll not take orders from a bitch like you, foul charach!" Ragnar yelled back. Mephi took a step in front of Nick and me, his staff hand extending as if to block us from interfering. I knew that Nick was pissed off and I knew why.

"Charach" is a nasty word in Garou language. It means "one who will lay in lust with another Garou." It's a word about as aggressive and nasty as calling someone a faggot or a slut or a cunt. You never hear it in polite conversation. The connotation has something to do with a nasty problem we werewolves have genetically. Garou that mate with Garou always produces a sterile and deformed child, which is not only intentionally cruel, it's against Garou law. Survival of the fittest and all that.

Of course, that's for those that can breed. Technically, Nicky and I were charach as well, but we didn't care. Among some tribes, it's not as big a deal. Get of Fenris, however, are about as hard-line, old school, conservative, letter of the law brutal as they come.

Essentially, Ragnar had just called Nick's mom a bull dyke bitch. And she wasn't too happy with the implication, either. She took a step forward into the circle as well, but both of them held their ground, going into the ancient canine tradition of the stare down.

Veronica wasn't about to have any of it in her council circle, however, and she stepped both feet into the circle.

"No, but you will take orders from me, Ragnar Grimjaws! And you will honor the council circle with peace. The both of you!"

Nick's mom and Ragnar both reluctantly backed down. Very reluctantly, and neither retreated more than a step behind the circle's edge. And neither turned their back or opened their throat to the other. It was a tense moment.

Part of me wanted to watch Nick's mom go all agro on Ragnar. Part of me surely wanted to be no where near when the fur started flying between those two. Just one look between them was enough to raise all the little hairs on my neck and cheeks. I'm just guessing here, but my bet is there's some nasty history between those two.

At the same time, it was also fully clear that no one wanted to piss off Sea Smoke. Among werewolves, challenges are fairly common. Once begun, usually no one interferes in a stare down. It's a tradition as old as time, something written into our DNA. For seriously aggressive, type A personalities like Ragnar and Nick's Mom to just accept being sent back to their seats after a stare down's started was a big point. And it wasn't lost on the others watching either.

I had this sudden feeling that I'd stepped into more than just cat poo, tonight.

"This is grave news, to us and our fae allies. But we need more information to go on." Sea Smoke turned her smile on me. "You show much wisdom and courage, Speaks With Water. As do you, Shadow Foot. Yoseph and Thrasher will speak with you shortly. Unless you have more to tell, I ask that you leave the circle for now, so that the elders may discuss our next move."

"Thank you, Sea Smoke-rhya," Nick and I spoke together and we turned to leave. Mephi tapped Nick on the shin with his staff as we started to go. He whispered something quickly and Nick nodded. I didn't overhear because I was paying attention to another part of the circle. Granted, being in the middle of that many elders meant automatic scrutiny from many eyes, but the feel of heavy eyes landed on me from one particular arc.

Ragnar was whispering something in the ears of a pair of smaller crinos Garou near him. And the eyes of those younger Get were solidly locked on to Nick and me. Great, I thought, practicing dry sarcasm. What now?

Anyways, being good young cliath, Nick and I left the circle (with a detour through the food areas), and headed back down the beach to our den. The only sounds we made were squishy foot falls in the sand and chewing noises. Running makes me hungry. Come to think of it, most things make me hungry, lately. We settled down on the "porch," as Nick called the concrete picnic table over the entrance to our den, and proceeded to chow down in earnest.

The sun rose while we were waiting for the council circle to be over. The low angle of ruddy light made us both squint as we stared out against the sea breezes coming right at us. We had been told to wait, so we waited. But we didn't wait with idle hands. I dug into my pocket and got out the bag Rolf had given us. The project bag. I spent a few minutes showing Nick the knots and the work I'd done so far. He balked at the idea, blowing the bangs out of his eyes as he made faces at me like I was stupid.

He did actually get some string out, measuring it around his palm and elbow, and then started working on something. Ragabash like Nick delight in trickery as much as theurges like me are drawn into mysteries. In a way I hadn't thought of before, this "arts and crafts" thing appealed to both of those parts of our natures. And that kind of made a lot of sense to me.

Just don't tell anyone I said that. Nick would be mortified.

The first hint we had that the council was done came in the form of a messenger. Mephi. He sidestepped from the Umbra almost in front of us and smiled, dropping to a squat while leaning heavily on his carved staff. It didn't look like he needed to use his staff to help him walk. To my untrained eyes, it was a weapon. Nick later confessed to me that he thought Mephi was the closest a Garou could get to actually being Gambit.

"Hey, there, brave ones!" he said, getting comfortable. "Nice work there."

"At council?" I blurted out.

"There, yeah, and in your knots. Roni's making the cubs do that still, eh? Good for her."

Nick and I exchanged a look and then shrugged, continuing our work. My hands were a little stiff, but I was trying to keep tension on my unfinished bracelet. I was thinking maybe that I'd give this one to Nick when we finally decided to… you know, go all the way.

Weird that I get a little nervous thinking about that. I guess with the bracelet in my hands, coming together under my fingers, and the thought in my head, I was sort of anxious. What would it be like? Will I do it right? Will it be good for both of us? Funny how just knotting away puts so many thoughts into your head at once. Maybe it's in the bringing together of so many loose strings that helps you think clearer. Forces you to, almost.

"Whutchu need me fo'?" Nick asked, his tongue poking out the right side of his mouth a he struggled to get the middle square knot in a row tied in properly.

"Just wanted to trade digits. I travel all over, between septs. I hear things from time to time. I pass it on."

"Kinda like a Garou spy network?" Nick asked.

"GT&T?" I deadpanned.

Mephi grinned "Something like that. You guys might run across something that other septs might need to know. That goes both ways."

"What's in it for you?" I asked, watching intently. It suddenly came to me that I couldn't figure out which auspice Mephi was born into. Something in me wanted to know, intensely.

"Hey, I'm just a messenger, cubs. Gaia only knows which messages need to go where. Sometimes we just get lucky."

Nick and I traded glances, again, then both shrugged, again. Nick rattled off his cell number, then mine (they're only two digits apart). Mephi did the same, with Nick keying it in.

"Must admit," Mephi said, fidgeting with his cell phone, "I've never seen Roni step up in defense of ambitious youngsters popping off at council like that."

"We didn't pop off," I said evenly, measuring how my tone and words affected him. Last thing I wanted right now was to have a backhanded compliment from a grownup I hardly knew smack me down.

"An' who 'zactly thinks either of us gots ambition?" said my Nick, turning his knot work over to examine how a cowrie shell he'd strung in looked. Frowning, he turned it back over and fiddled some more.

"No one. Everyone," Mephi shrugged. "Half the council was about you two cubs. 'Roni's taken a real shine on the both of you. Big things are in the works."

"Like what sorta big things?" All of a sudden, my previous suspicion flip-flopped back into curiosity mode.

"Oh, probably best if you find out organically," the Strider said, standing.

"Wha's that supposed ta mean?"

"You'll find out soon enough."

"Humph! Some info sharer ya'll are! We just cut a deal and' already there's more fine print than straight talk. Ya'll don't sell used cars on the side, do ya?"

"Well, Nick, he is a Silent Strider," I emphasized. "We ought to be used to not hearing things by now." I turned my full attention back to my knotting. A particularly confusing bit was next and I wanted to get it right the first time.

"Oh, come on, boys. Half the fun of growing up is in the discovery."

"Yeah," Nick replied, half tilting his head in sarcasm. "An' knowin' is half the battle," he returned, dryly.

"You have a point," Mephi conceded, his smile in place the whole time. "I, however, have places to go. And so do the both of you. Small Shadow is to report to Joeseph and a significant party of raiders for a monkey-wrench operation."

"Really?!" Nick asked, excitedly.

"At moonrise, be at the bathhouse. They need you to play Indian scout."


"You, Speaks With Water, get your request. Go Umbral to caern center while motor mouth here is off with the big boys. A group of theurges will await you there to show you what rites you need to free your friend of the bane."

My jaw hung open. I know this because Nick reached out and lifted it back up. Cliath often get only a single elder to teach serious Garou magic of such a high level, much less a virtual college of theurges. At one point I thought overly much of my roll in things, gave myself more value than I was probably due. Now it seems I might have under-estimated things greatly.

Either that or the shit was already on its way to the fan, by the truckload.

"Woooff!" I mumbled softly.

"An' you tell me ta watch my toilet tongue," Nick giggled, jabbing me with his elbow. "I get to go play ninja turtles an' the gray beards is gonna teach ya'll more Harry Potter crap."

"Just don't screw up tonight, Shadow Foot," the Strider said, inclining his head. "Some at the council are still pretty peeved at you two. Ragnar for one is especially ticked at your mom."

"Yeah," Nick said, somewhat subdued. "They kinda don't like each other much."

"Most Get are harsh with Furies as a general rule. Guess it must be all that Viking food they eat," Mephi quipped. "Something tells me this goes deeper. Sticking by the rules is one thing. Using the rules to try and block prophesy," he sighed, "is pretty foolish if you ask me. And with how quick Ragnar and your mom were about to go to claw city..."

"Whutchu tryin' ta say?" Nick interrupted, getting annoyed.

"Just smells like there's some history between those two. Bad blood."

"What did you mean about blocking prophesy?" I asked. As one who talks to spirits regularly, I sort of know which way things were going. I just wanted to know to what degree. But be it man, wolf or Garou, only a fool thinks he can mix religion and politics and not come out with something dangerously explosive.

Mephi sighed, loudly and totally, like air gushing out of a punctured tire. "Ragnar… was once part of a silver pack. He was that group's sole survivor. He thinks that because of his quote-unquote hero status and obvious superior genetics that his son, Magnus, deserves an automatic spot in the one you two are supposed to be heading towards."

Nick and I shared another quick glance, this one more meaningful. Big things, indeed! He gave me a slight twist of the lips, just in the left corner of his mouth, that let me know he caught the significance of that statement as well. The ocean just got a little deeper, right under our feet.

"So," I began, turning back towards Mephi, "Magnus was one of the smaller Get crinos Ragnar was whispering to at council," which was more than a guess.

"Got it in one, Cody," the Strider smirked. "The one on the left of Ragnar was Magnus. The other is a lost Get cub named Sven Erikson. Ragnar found him roaming the streets of Amsterdam, took him in and raised him as his own."

"Lemme guess," Nick said, closing his eyes and no doubt picturing the younger Get in his head. "Both ahrouns?"

"Magnus is. Rumor has it that Svenie-boy is either galliard or half-moon. No solid evidence to that yet. Outside of their Rite of Passage, neither has done anything, at least not that I've heard of. Certainly nothing like your little event last moon."

"And Get like to brag," I added.

"And Get like to brag," Mephi agreed.

"Which means two generations inna silver pack pick'd make huge family braggin' rights," Nick finished.

"Bingo," Mephi said, standing from his frog squat. "Well, I must be off. Many miles to go before I can rest my dogs for the night." He turned and started side stepping into the Umbra. "Good luck, boys." And with a final smirk, the air rippled around him and he was gone from the physical world.

"Funny," Nick snorted, once we were alone.

"Funny strange or funny ha-ha."

"Funny that for a Silent Strider he shure cain't keep his yap shut."

"Oh. Yeah. That." I slipped a glass bead down a pair of threads and tied it in place.

"You scared?"

"Not really. Just a bunch of old Garou wizards planning on examining me like a lab rat while you get to go have fun with a monkey wrench crew." I shrugged. "What could go wrong?" Sarcasm much?

"Yeah, ah'm scared, too," Nick said, draping an arm around my shoulder. "Scared, but tingly. Like all excited. I mean, we get to do real stuff now, not just run errands for the higher up muckity mucks."




"Uh huh?"

"Promise me something?"

"Don't say it," Nick warned.

"Promise me."

Nick sighed, dropping his hands down by his sides, exasperatedly. "Don't jinx me afore ah even get ta…"

"Promise me," I interrupted, "that you'll stay sharp. Stay goofy, but like, do it right, okay?"

"Ya'll think ah'm goofy?"

"Like Gambit goofy," I grinned, tilting my head toward his, like forehead first.

"Oh. Well, when ya put it that way," he grinned back. He shifted his weight to one hip, adopting an attitude. "No 'oh Nicky, please, please, pul-ease be all careful,' huh? No, 'you have to come back to me, or ah'll neva make it in this cold, cruel world, alone,'" he planted a hand on his hip. "None a' that?"

I snorted in mock derision. "Why start now? You start acting all careful on me and I'll leave you."

"Cain't have that."

"Promise me?" I asked again, looking up under my bangs. Damn, I need a haircut.

"Ah promise," he said, holding up one hand and crossing his heart with the other. "Ah'll be my normal, charmin', goofy self."

"Aaaand," I prompted, my voice rising in almost a wolf whine.

"And ah'll follow orders," he agreed, leaning in towards me. I gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "No lips?" he asked, sounding disappointed.

"Something for you to come back for," I teased, leaning back on my elbows.

"Ya know, ya'll gotta promise me somethin', too." His voice had shifted down, suddenly. A little deeper, more serious. I felt a disturbance in the pants. Funny how just the sounds he makes can get me going sometimes.

"I am not going to give an elder a wet willy." The image of sticking my saliva coated finger into an elder Garou's ear while he was about to teach me ritual magic secrets didn't seem like a good idea. For an instant, I imagined an elder switching to crinos suddenly and wildly swinging a pawful of vicious talons right through my head like an overripe melon. Squish!

"Not that! Well, if the opportunity comes up, you gotta go for that, too."

"I think not, sugar," I said, failing at using a southern accent.

"However," he said, rolling his head around, "wet willies aside." He reached out and gently gripped my chin, lifting my face to stare intently into my eyes. He had my full attention. Something about his touch in that moment, so tender, so urgent; it was so captivating.

"Promise me," he said, "that you'll be careful. Spirit magic is very, very, very complicated. An' dangerous. Don't go gettin' all creative."

"I'll be fine, Nicky. I've done rituals with…"

"No you haven't, Glubber," he cut me off, his voice becoming strained. "Not like this. The stuff you've done afore was kindergarten stuff. This stuff is like doctor final exams. This stuff is scary. It can…" his voice trailed off, and he turned away from me for a moment. A tremor in his chin betrayed the depth of whatever was on his mind.

"Nick?" I called, my fingers tracing along the skin of his forearm. "Shadow?" His grip on my chin was still soft yet firm, and there was a subtle tension there as well. Strength and restraint.

"Ah had a sister," he began, his voice so soft it was almost like breath with accent alone. "Her name was Angelique. She was a theurge, like you. An' she was strong, gifted, like you. Her first time tryin' spirit magic like what they're fixin' ta teach you… she thought she was better'n the teachers. She botched it, Cody. Big time."

He let go and looked directly in the face, eye to eye, reflecting starlight. There was such intensity and emotion there. I kept my touch on his arm, and felt myself getting a little nervous.

"She got possessed by the bane she was tryin' ta compel. It used her to… to birth out."

"Birth out?"

"She let some nasty spirits come into the physical world. They… they ripped outta her girl parts. Down there."

I gasped. In my overactive imagination, I saw what he was describing. It wasn't a pretty sight. I might not have or even want anything to do with what he called "girl parts," but the thought of what kind of pain and injury such a thing might bring with it caused me to shudder.

"There was others there to kill the banes, but not afore they did some damage, to her and others around the caern. Her body healed. Mostly. She couldn't never have kids no more. The stuff there had been ripped alla way out. Took her weeks to seal up and not bleed when she walked."

I knew then that the event had been vastly worse than I could have imagined. We Garou heal ridiculously fast. Stab me, shoot me, drop a truck on my arm, if I have just a few seconds and a chance to change shapes, I can take all that damage and shrug it off like it was nothing. Make no mistake, it'll hurt like a bitch, but the wounds themselves fade like they were never even there. Only in the most extreme cases will we even show a scar. Usually scars have awesome stories. Or tragic ones.

"It was her mind, though. She weren't never right after that. She did horrible things. She went onna rampage, killed everyone an' every animal at a big farm near where we lived. She hurt people like it were easy. She destroyed every mirror she saw and like, changed in front of normal folk, and attacked a freight train. She even… she a'most hurt me, pretty bad. I was little. She was like a mad dog. She was gonna bite off my… boy bits."

"Gaia!" I breathed out. "Nicky, I'm so sorry." I felt horrible for taking his worry so lightly. Just hearing the story so far had me feeling a deeper understanding of my boy. My resolve didn't falter, but I could see some of the things that might be open wounds in my lover's soul. Poor Nicky.

"In the end, she realized a little of what she'd done, what she'd become. The madness was still on her, but she felt rotten about it. So she…" and this time, his voice faded out because of sobs and tears.

"She swallowed a necklace and changed."

The way he'd said it told me all I needed to know. The horror in his voice and the pain in his eyes confirmed what I inferred. The necklace had to have been made of silver. Angelique had effectively committed the Garou version of suicide. And from everything I've ever seen and heard about the damage silver does to us werewolves, it was a long, painful way to die. With little hope of survival if you decide not to go through with it. She probably hung on for days, wracked with agony and crazy from the pain.

"So you gotta promise me you'll do it all just like they say."

"I promise, Shadow."

"An' tawlk right so the spirits understand proper."

"I think I know how to talk to spirits," I said, trying to lighten the mood a bit. But his expression told all, he wasn't having it.

"Cody, please!" he nearly screamed. "Just… please. Promise me?" he asked, much more softly, barely breathing the words, his lip trembling.

"I promise, my Nicholas," I told him. "I will listen close to the instruction of the elders, I will ask questions when I don't understand. I will do as they instruct, without deviation. I will speak clear and firmly to the spirits."

"Okay," he said, nodding and sighing with great relief. "Sorry ah'm bein' such a shit about this. Ah just… ah cain't stand the thought of losin' you like that. If we die in a fight, ah can deal wit' dat. But losin' you like I lost her, a little bit at a time. I just don't think ah'd get through that, Cody."

"Hey, don't think you can get rid of me that easily, master Belanger. All this prophesy business must have some reason for it."

"Thought ah was the cocky one," he smiled weakly, sniffing back his tears. "You tryin' to take my part of the act?"

"Hell no," I said, softly, twisting my head to kiss his palm. "It'd be boring without you," I smiled, getting an answering smile from him. He'd opened a dark part of himself to me. That takes trust. I'd give him the same courtesy, but I haven't really found any dark parts he doesn't know about already.

Well, save for one.

We hugged for a bit, just enjoying the comfort and warmth of each others bodies. It gave him time to get his face and sniffles under control and gave me a moment to realize that no matter how tough my boy was, there was tenderness as well. And old wounds that I'd knew I would have to help him heal and get beyond.

After a while we separated and sat back to back on the picnic table, working with our weaving. We worked on in silence, the not too distant sound of the ocean crashing on the beach as the tide came in. It was a quiet time, just me and my boy, relaxing together yet busy at separate tasks. I think that the knowledge of what we'd both be facing later gave us a need for that quietness. The coming of moonrise would mean he was heading off into danger and I was heading off to a trial I wasn't sure I was ready for.

My gut was telling me he was going to be in more trouble tonight than I was. After all, I'd be safe in the caern, surrounded by experienced elders. What could possibly go wrong?

It gave me something to think about. Not the danger this time, but the silence. Love was still new to us both, that is, in the romantic sense of it. We were both still learning the rules. Robby and Kenny had uncountable lifetimes together. Nick and I only got these very days, and practically no one we could talk to about, you know… stuff. We just lived in the moment.

But I, for one, couldn't shake my genetics. Both of my parents are notorious planners and I got the bug from both sides. Mom for her business sense and Dad for his anal-retentive methodology. It's just in my blood to plan for the future, even while enjoying being Nick furniture.

There was just so much we both didn't know about, well, I guess you'd call it the "ultimate intimate," of being gay. So far our sexy fun has only used mouths and hands. Okay, and feet, but that was more giggle than 'gasm.

So, this quiet time together, just leaning on each other, living the "arts and crafts" experience, well, it sorta caught me off guard. The feelings just crept in. Worry about Nick's run tonight. Enjoying the warmth of his body against my spine and ribs.

And more.

Contentment. At that moment in that place, despite all the crap going around in my life, everything felt...right. I mean, with the death of Robby's parents, the political stuff at the council, the possibility of supernatural stealth weapons, JJ's situation and how it was spiraling, the coming magic I as going to be expected to do, even… even all these thoughts lately about my parents and how much I miss them. All of that stuff buzzing around in my head and my heart, just then it all stepped back. It's like everything faded to just one essential, undeniable, brilliant truth.

Being with Nick helps me find my quiet place. I think I do that for him, too. When it's just us, for that heartbeat of reality, the whole crazy, hairy, claw and fang, spirits and moon beams and supernatural weirdness world just stops spinning.

Every fear and worry and stress and nightmare and frustration simply falls away. And in that absence of negatives my whole center, my whole universe, my whole werewolf wild life existence devolved to one simple concept.

I might not be some great, fair haired hope. I might not be part of some huge and awesome prophesy, hell, I might not even be the hero of my own story. But the one thing I did know was that I could endure anything. I could be anything. I could do anything.

As long as my Nick was by me, believing in me, loving me, this scrawny, gay werewolf boy could find peace in this world. And sometimes, peace is enough. Even for fleeting moments, peace is enough.

Just the two of us. Nick and me. Shadow Foot and Speaks With Water.


And sadly, that happiness and contentment didn't last. But I enjoyed it while it lasted. So did Nick.

I guess that's the thing about life. You have to enjoy the moments that come up and surprise you. They're rare, yet in the most sublime way, beautiful.

Time passed. We kept just existing together, working on our weaving, listening to the tide sliding and sloshing against the shore. It was good.

"Moon's peeking," Nick said, his voice one whisper against the whistling of ocean breezes through the grasses, over the sand.

"I know," I sighed.

"You gonna be alright?"

"Yes, oh goofy one," I responded, rolling my eyes.

"Gimme yuir paw, Glub-glub," he said, moving his weight off of me. He reached for my left hand. I let him guide my arm and he slid something around my wrist. Nick's fingers moved quickly and precisely and before I knew it, there was a bracelet strapped around my wrist.

It was a tightly woven band of interlocked square knots with a series of five shiny gray metal rings in line and a bar of the same material serving as a toggle, pushed up through an eye loop. It was very comfortable, hung a bit loosely around my wrist and had this weight to it that seemed perfect, somehow.

"Shadow," I said a bit by surprise. "I thought you didn't do this kind of stuff. You almost fought Veronica about it."

"Never said I couldn't do it. Just didn't wanna get told I hadda do it," he grinned smuggly. "Tain't the thang."

"It's beautiful. Thank you."

"Anything for my boy."

I leaned up and reached around his neck, as if to hug him and then connected the necklace I'd woven for him. It was a complex riot of braided strands tied with square knots and small white shells. It was close against his throat without being restrictive or tight, and a single large glass bead that hung right in the hollow of his collarbones and neck muscles.

It was the bead that had inspired me to make this for Nick. The glass hung in a bottom heavy glob. Someone had drilled a hole through its center wide enough that I could slip the top and bottom braided strands through, passing them through to the other side. The bead itself was smoky, yet clear, with shiny speckles of something dark colored suspended throughout.

In short, it particularly personified Nicky. Other than the pear-shaped part.

"For you," I grinned, leaning back from him. His hand strayed up to the bead, feeling the change of texture in the braid, the slickness of the glass, the cool smoothness of the cowry shells.

"Ya'll made this for me?"

"Guess we had the same idea. Anything for my Nicky."

We kissed quickly and rose from the concrete table. Two things had to happen before we could go off on our missions tonight. First, we both needed a shower and fresh clothes. It had been a long, hot day with little rest.

Second, but perhaps more important, we needed to perform the Rite of Talisman Dedication on our new woven ornaments. It's actually a pretty simple bit of werewolf magic. Nick could do it without me, but I think we both wanted to do it for each other. Sort of completing the whole "gift from your boyfriend" thing.

So we did that while showering. We didn't do much else but wash after that. Although, I have to admit, working even such simple magic while naked and wet with my Nicky did put ideas into my empty head. Both of them.

What can I say, I love him and he turns me on. Unfortunately, we had other things that would need all our strength and focus tonight. We did snuggle a bit under the shower spray, but that was about it.

But for right then, it was enough. It was all I needed.

Dried, dressed and proudly showing our ornament, we headed back to the caern center. First we presented ourselves to Sea Smoke, who smiled warmly and inspected our knot work.

"Funny," she commented. "Both are appropriate to the wearer, yet the materials and techniques used seem more like something the other of you would come up with."

"Yeah, strange how that works out, huh?" Nick replied with an ironic smile. As for me, I was just wondering how she figured that out. I guess when you get older, you understand people more. Didn't make a lot of sense to me, but she knocked it out of the park in one swing. Gotta respect that.

"Very good work, boys. I lift your restrictions," she said, getting a fist pump from Nick. "On the condition," she interjected, "that you do make something of your own for yourself before the next half-moon."

"Thank you, Sea Smoke-rhea," I said, nodding my head slightly. She inclined her head to me as well before glancing at Nick.

"Don't you have somewhere to be, Shadow Foot?"

Grinning like he knew a secret, he shifted directly to lupus and bolted off to meet up with the rest of the monkey wrench crew. He did shoulder by me as he went, but his excitement only permitted that brief physical display before heading off into the gathering night.

That image sticks in my mind, because after that night, we both changed a little. Looking back now, I realized it was the last time I saw him genuinely happy and bouncy for a long while. Gaia, if only we knew what was going to happen next.

"Come, Cody Speaks With Water," Veronica said, heading towards the granite blocks of Black Rock Jetty. "Walk with me. We have much to teach tonight. And you have much to learn."

I fell into step beside her, speeding my feet a bit to catch up in the coarse gritty sand. She was so graceful, almost regal, and it hit me again that among Garou, this seemingly middle aged lady was a legend, and over 80 years old. Powerful warriors backed down from her hard stares. Wizened elders deferred to her like school kids. She just had this presence about her, this undeniable yet indefinable quality that commanded respect.

And for a few moments, until we got to where we were going, I had her all to myself. Figuring that a low wolf like me might not get another opportunity like this again, I decided to try to pick her brain. Nothing to lose, right?

"Honored elder," I began, fumbling for words. So many questions stumbled for precedence in my mind. I wasn't sure where to start.

"Veronica," she corrected gently. "Formality is proper for talk at circle, but wastes time otherwise. You have questions?"

"Yes. How did you know?"

"Aside from your tone, body language, previous history and the task we are heading for now, let's just say I've known a few young theurges in my time. Questions are part of your nature. Besides, I've noticed how you operate, Cody. I'd be surprised if you didn't jump at the chance to talk with me before this."

"Am I that easy to read?"

"Only to those well versed in the language, Speaks With Water. And even then, one has to be alert to the fact that there is even a message being sent to translate it. Be alert to such things and a wealth of truth will be yours, young one."

I could only nod sagely, not entirely sure what she meant. Still, part of me was certain there was a deeper wisdom to her words. I filed it away under "dude, like seriously meditate on it later," as Rolf would say.

"Right, Okay, uhm, I guess the first thing I'd like to ask is, uhm, how am I going to learn this magic? Nick was worried that this was way over my training."

"The same way anyone learns anything. You observe, you question and then you do it yourself. The ritual itself is easy. In fact, it's quite simple. The difficulty comes in how draining the ritual is to the theurge performing it."


"Yes. You already understand the nature of what we call Gnosis. The spirit energy that lies within all of us, that sets creatures such as ourselves apart from the natural creatures of this world; from the humans and animals that only know the physical realm."

"Yes. I understand some of the mysteries of Gnosis. The changelings call it Glamour, but theirs, I dunno, feels different, a bit."

"And the mages call it Quintessence. Others give it different names as well, but it is basically the same stuff. Magic. Spirit energy. The raw stuff of creation. The lifeblood of Mother Gaia and the Earth itself." Her voice grew very reverent as she spoke and I felt it important not to interrupt.

"All Garou have a touch of Gnosis within us. It fuels our gifts, charges our fetishes and connects us to the spirit world. It grows within you, like water from a spring. It can dry up or be used until little remains, bit it will almost always renew itself within you."

"And those that use up that well cannot cross into the Umbra alone, until their spring fills a little again," I said.

Veronica nodded. "In the same way, some rituals need a certain amount of Gnosis to begin, but may also require more Gnosis to accomplish the goal. Spirits may resist being bound into objects. I believe you experienced this several days ago when you made these," she said, holding up the three bane arrows from my trial by combat a few days back. Binding spirits wore me out that night.

"So I may have to spend more energy to bind a bane?"

"Not bind, Cody. Compel. Command. And banes do not take commands well from our kind lightly."

"So I am to compel the bane out of someone, what then?"

In answer, she stopped and pressed the arrows to my chest, shaft first. "You only have two smart choices at that point. Bind the bane into something, or destroy it."

"What if I can't? Or if I just let it go?"

"What does the Litany say?" she asked in an almost stern tone, starting to walk off again. I had to shuffle quickly to catch up.

Now the Litany is Garou law. A group of 13 universally accepted rules set in stone and usually sung or chanted. Oh, I'm sure it's written down somewhere, but it has a certain poeticness when howled. It's a Garou thing.

Just like human laws, the 13 precepts of the Litany are interpreted slightly different by different Garou. The Litany itself is fairly simple and there are a lot of common sense things in it, when you consider the reality of being a werewolf, that is. Some points are kind of easy to get and just agree with. The prohibition against eating humans, for example, makes a lot of sense (have you seen what people put in their bodies?). There's also one about not lifting the Veil, which is nature's little advantage we have in keeping the human's from knowing that there are such things as werewolves and changelings and vampires and such.

However, what Veronica was getting at was what is generally considered to be the second law of the Litany, its second verse. And its meaning is rarely ever debated, just has differing interpretations. Its part of who we are and what Gaia demands of us.

"Combat the Wyrm, wherever it dwells and wherever it breeds," I said softly, looking down at the arrows clutched to my chest. A faint sea breeze lifted the edge of my shirt, chasing around on my skin.

"It is not an easy calling, Speaks With Water. But it is what we do. What we're bred for. Unicorn and Phoenix seem to think you have what it takes. Do you?"

That question caught me off guard. "I have to be. My pack mate's life depends on it."

"Pack mate?" she asked, glancing at me sideways. "These changeling boys mean that much to you?"

"We are all Children of Gaia. Helping people is what we do," I said, thinking quickly.

"True, but you said specifically pack mate. That is more than just our tribal calling. You must be very cautious," she replied, stopping beside the fall of granite blocks that gives Black Rock Jetty its name.

"I know. But it feels right to join with the changelings. They've been our allies in the past. We both face the same threat. They are tied up in prophesy as well, their own." I felt I had to convince her. "It all makes sense. A weird sorta sense, but…"

"I meant you must be careful navigating these boulders, Cody. Packs with more than Garou are nothing new, if uncommon. I hope you don't exclude your own kind as possible pack mates. There are some who would endure much to be part of a silver pack."

"Assuming I'm worthy of being on a silver pack," I said, sarcastically. "You're referring to the sons of Ragnar Grimjaws?" I asked, stepping up onto a squarish block of veiny gray stone.

"Among others, but yes." Veronica deftly stepped over gaps in the stones, staying to the drier sections as ocean waves echoed between the rocks. I followed her carefully, picking my way along the weathered granite slabs.

"Politics is a sticky business. It can easily distract one from what is important and necessary, but it is a necessary evil all its own. The wise theurge would do well to understand that mystery as well."

"It's never easy, is it?"

"If everything was easy, then nothing would be great."

"Uhm, I meant crossing the rocks, Veronica," I said, carefully.

"Oh," she chuckled. "Well, that too. Good metaphor." She came to a stop atop one dangerously angled face of granite. "Metaphors are just as important as the reality they describe, young man. And just as dangerous and stupid to ignore."

"I'll keep that in mind." A swell of salty waves converged under and against the rock we were standing on. It made a hollow, slapping sound that you could feel in your thighs, vibrating through solid stone and splashing a fine mist of foamy, salty spray into the air, coating the tiny hairs on my legs with cold brine. The earlier breeze teased under my shirt again, leaving the touch of the chill sea against my flesh. I shivered but shook it off.

"I love the ocean," she said, gazing eastward past the beacon light, much further out on the jetty. "It is equal parts of exact opposites. Treacherous yet constant. Deceptive yet honest. Deeply mysterious and yet never running from scrutiny." She looked at me with her sea-green eyes and for a moment, I wasn't sure if she were speaking just to me, or if this was a speech meant for someone else. Her own lost cubs perhaps.

"Is that why you chose Sea Smoke as your Garou name?" I asked, feeling very small beside this woman, this legend.

"Actually, no. My father was a fisherman. We lived in a town called Gloucester, just down the coast from here. His boat was called the Sea Smoke. Named for a salty ocean fog that blows ashore."

"You must have loved that boat."

"My father did. It was his pride and joy. He made a great living off that boat. Wish it was still around."

"What happened? Did it get old and fall apart?"

"No, Cody. It sank in rough seas, one late October evening. Only two men survived. My father wasn't one of them."

For a moment, I didn't know what to do, or say. I didn't even realize I'd moved to hug her until I felt her thin, strong arms embrace me as well. And it shook me, shook me to the core, remembering that my mother, who now believed me dead, never, ever held me like this. Not as far back as I can remember.

It hurt some. But if felt better, me comforting her, than anything else remotely in my experience with adults. The two of us together, standing on a rock with the cold ocean sounding all around us like nature's orchestra.

"Let's get a move on, Cody," she whispered in my ear as we relaxed from our embrace. "Can't keep the others waiting."

We crossed into the Umbra with long shadows of our own and walked a short distance to the caern heart, its spiritual center.

It occurs to me that I've never described the caern's Umbral aspect. First of all, there's the Gauntlet, which is the barrier between the physical world and the spirit world. The Gauntlet at Black Rocks is so insanely thin. It is almost too easy to pass through. Guess I better talk about that a little, too.

If you had two buddies holding up pillows or couch cushions close together, and you tried to wiggle between them, that's kind of what the Gauntlet is like. Some places, for different reasons, the Gauntlet is thicker. Which means you feel more pressure trying to wiggle through. More like trying to squish yourself between two cinder blocks instead of pillows. Sometimes it is thinner, and it's almost like stepping past silk curtains.

So at the caern, the Gauntlet is very thin and easy to slip past, just like the curtains. When the beach is crowded and busy, it is easy to just blink out of the physical realm and into the Umbra, especially if it is a sunny day and the ocean water sparkles. The shine off the waves helps us focus for sidestepping, somehow.

In the Umbra, things are different than the physical realm. Old things, especially natural old things that have been in one place a long time, have spirit echoes. People and animals do also, but a person's shadow, and most animals for that matter is just that. An empty shadow in the Umbra. Supernatural creatures and awakened souls shine with light in the Umbra, like they are casting light into the shadow.

Except for vampires. They just show up as solid black shapes with little banes lurking around them. Or so I'm told. I haven't met any vamps, yet, just seen a few at a distance. But I'm told I should give any I discover either a lot of space or a claw and fang ambush sandwich. You could say that the blood sucking leeches hate my kind the way Red Sox fans hate Yankees fans, but that would only be half right. Baseball fans are crazy sometimes.

Our caern's Umbral aspect was much like what I've seen of New England in general: a mix of old and new, natural and man-made, forms with functions. A large, old Victorian house complete with white picket fence and swing bench on a broad, encircling porch marked a portal for non-Garou to slip between worlds. But even back when the house was new, this was a healing place. The old house was owned by a Boston doctor who used the place as a retreat for his artist friends and his son, who was a musician after he returned from the Civil War. Apparently, the son returned from battle minus half a leg.

But there was much more. The concrete seawall along the river was gone, replaced by slabs of black granite. The jetty was a fraction of its current length, although the actual beach went some 200 yards or more out into the ocean, with long sandbars and really massive time-smoothed boulders set still farther out, like icebergs made of rock. It's otherworldly under the moon light.

There is a legend, among the tribes, about this place. An ancient one, and like many legends, the facts aren't always clear. The legend goes that there was a time when great port cities dotted the coasts of North America and Europe, back in the days of ancient Atlantis. Since that time, ice had claimed and receded from these shores twice, rending every structure, natural and crafted. I liked to think that the stones out there perched just above the waves, were remnants of that time, perhaps of a huge seaport to rival ancient Carthage.

There were far less shells on the shoreline, and the beach grasses grew thicker on the dunes. Boulders of various sizes dotted the upper bank of the coast, with several prominent stones showing proud, weathered faces out into the surging surf. The tide was coming in as the ahroun moon steadily rose over the ocean.

The main feature was the caern center. The first time I saw it, I thought we'd traveled to old England instead of New England, and with good reason. Several large stones, about the size of school buses set on their back ends, stood in a circle around 40 yards across. In the middle of that outer ring were four longish stones, about 8 feet tall each, facing the cardinal directions of the winds. The inner ring was set up in circular fashion, the stones curving gently around, leaving an area roughly 20 feet across in the center.

Flat stones of different colors and textures paved this inner circle. This was the true caern center. If someone opens a moon bridge here from or to another caern, it opens into the paved area. One stone, round and polished white, represents the inner wind, and is counter-sunk into the exact center, as big as the other four wind stones.

Our caern was a celebration of stone and sand and ocean. Those of the Stargazer tribe contemplate the heavens and intricate mysteries here. Along with their belly buttons, or so I'm told. Garou of the Uktena and Wendigo stock practice rituals to honor the sea and the north winds on the towering boulders, further out. Silent Striders, like Joey and Mephi, use this place to trade information others might need and rest from their travels. For about the umpteenth time, I promised myself to look up more about local history. Not that I care about the buildings themselves; I'm just not that into architecture. However, in a place settled as long ago as New England was, who knew when the actual spirits of a place might come in handy.

After all, the slogan on the Massachusetts auto license plates says it best: The Spirit of America. And there were spirits all over the place. I occasionally have to excuse myself from conversations with differing spirit-folk who drift through the caern. Elder moon-dancers tell of this place being connected to other realms, deep in the Umbra, possibly even to places outside of reality as we Garou know it. A crossroads of sorts, which makes my impression about this being the remnants of an ancient port all the more likely.

So it was to this ring of set stones we walked. Along the way I could feel eyes upon me. Many, many sets of eyes. The elder theurges waited, wearing various different forms, but mostly in homid. As I entered the ring, I could feel the pulse and power of the caern like a living thing, as if the air moved gently with its breath.

"Welcome, cliath," one of the elders spoke, her tone low and reverent. "Soak in the essence of the caern center and attune yourself to it. We will begin when you feel ready." A theurge in crinos stepped up to me and presented me with a short bow, decorated with Garou glyphs carved into the stout recurves. The arrows in my paw suddenly took on more than just symbolic meaning. These were bane arrows. They never miss when fired at a bane. I accepted the bow and bowed.

Veronica directed me to the countersunk stone and bade me to sit and meditate. All around me, elders were preparing themselves for the ritual as well. Veronica sat beside me, cross legged, and I could feel her slowing her breathing, putting herself into a meditative trance.

One elder, a Stargazer, I think, put a bowl of some sickly sweet smelling herbal stuff down beside me. The bowl smoked in gentle puffs of slightly greenish vapor. It was slightly bitter with the over-sweet smell and it made my eyes sting a bit.

"What's that?" I asked, but not sure to whom.

"It is a mixture of cannabis, catmint and dandelion that has been steeped in oil of wintergreen," Veronica answered.

"Is that… to help us meditate?"

"No, cub. It is to draw a certain type of bane to us. An urgewyrm."

That didn't fill me with anything like confidence. I didn't know what an urgewyrm was, but anything that had wyrm in the title couldn't be good.

For about twenty minutes I closed my eyes, meditating as I'd been taught. I silently chanted my Garou name in the Garou language. My face tilted back to let Sister Luna's face shine upon mine. Slowly, I felt myself center and align with the energies of the caern. It flowed in me, thick and softly, like a cold morning fog passing over a pond.

When I felt I was ready, the instruction began. Now, a lot of it is the sort of thing that doesn't really translate well to paper. Well, not storywise. Besides, I still have to maintain the Veil, even if only by keeping the secrets of werewolf magic secret. That, and I don't think that it's wise to let normal folk read about such things. Cults form with less true mystical knowledge.

And to top all that reasoning, some of it just plain makes no sense unless you can do it. It's a talent thing.

I asked lots of questions, some of which didn't pertain exactly to the ritual we were about to attempt. Things they explained to me raised other questions, so I had to take the chance to learn more. It's not a selfish or power hungry thing. Nick had impressed on me how dangerous this all was, so the more I actually understood, the more likely I could pull it off.

I can say that there were preparations, and probably some that you could easily guess at. Finely ground sea salt that we powdered our hands with; candles with vanilla and rose oil in the wax; a small burner with rosemary leaves trailing bitter-savory smoke into the air; symbols drawn onto the ground in a paste made of pulverized seagull droppings and maple bark, creating a strangely swirled brown and purple-white line. There were seven theurges present to teach me, and 12 warriors, and Veronica.

Then we got the first bite of the evening. "The urgeling draws near, Sea Smoke-rhea," one of the crinos warriors chuffed in a deep, gravelly Garou voice.

Something gray and translucent swirled outside the caern center, flowing around the stones in a blurry circular flight path. I felt my eyes get big as dinner plates. It made a weird noise as it flew around us, a sort of growling, whistling sound. I looked to Veronica and she was calm, like the stones themselves.

"Now, I will open myself to the bane," she said, and she took off her shirt, opening the buttons slowly.

My eyes couldn't get any bigger than they did just then. I like guys, so like, women's bodies don't do things for me sexually, but when you see a woman who remembers the Roosevelt administrations from when she was a kid and still only looks late-forties-ish just bust open her top like there's no big deal about it, it gets your attention.

For the record, her boobies don't look like how old she really is. They look like she's only a third what she herself looks like. Truly, Gaia looks out for her chosen warriors.

"Watch and learn, young Cody," the Stargazer theurge said, "for you will perform the ritual next time."

I swallowed hard enough to make a loud gulping sound travel down my throat. I should note, that there was another young theurge in with me. He was from the Bone Gnawer tribe, slightly older than me, of Hispanic origin. He looked about as scared or excited as I was. There were two young warriors among the 12 who stood near us as well. It seems that they were going to be possession sacrifices for the banes that the Bone Gnawer and I would be expected to exorcise when the time came. The other teen theurge was called Ramone, and his Garou name was Spark Plug. The "victims" were Jesse and Jalicia, a boy-girl set of twins from Uktena stock. Their Garou names were Bark Skin and Fog, and I guessed they were about 4 years older than I.

Veronica stepped outside the circle of stones, outside the carefully drawn glyphs laid out on the ground. Two tall crinos stood near her, as she passed some unseen barrier that the urgewyrm couldn't penetrate. Her arms went out wide to her sides, openly inviting the bane to possess her.

I hadn't thought that I'd be watching Veronica accept possession in order for the gang of theurges to kick the spirit out of her. I knew at some level that there would have to be someone willing to do it, I just never figured it would be my sept and tribe elder. It impressed me that she was willing to do it herself. The level of trust she placed in our dudes' abilities must be phenomenal.

Which meant I really had to step up my game.

The bane hit her, hard. It was like watching a long shark smack its prey in a nature film. She withstood its initial impact, barely flinching. If that had been me, just standing there in homid, I'd have been knocked like 20 feet by that spiritual love tap. Somehow, she kept her feet.

"You aren't strong enough to take me!" she screamed. "You shall never be strong enough to take me, pathetic wyrm-kin!"

It struck her again, and this time I was able to see it better. It was long, like a really thick snake. It had three tentacles sorta in the places where a shark has its dorsal and pectoral fins, and those tentacles were thick, muscular things with sharp edged horns protruding in places. The head was stubby, coming to a point very quickly compared to its body, with a mouth that was full of rounded, fanglike teeth, bisecting the top. No eyes that I could see, but apparently this thing didn't hunt by sight. It didn't need to. It just plain looked mean.

As it hit her, it sort of went powdery. There's no other way I can think of to describe it. It was like talc powder thrown at her body. And as it went powdery, it entered her. The shock to her body was like watching someone getting hit by a tazer. She shook and cried out in agony, her fingers clenching on open air as if she were ready to rip out a throat.

And then she fell, her legs just collapsing. The two warriors in crinos form reached her before she could fall far. They lifted her and brought her back into the circle of stones.

And then the theurges began, one beside me, explaining, as I watched, senses wide screaming open to the energies and feelings working in front of me. Only one of the theurges were involved in the actual ceremony. Another theurge stood near Spark Plug, explaining things to him as well. The other four were extolling the spirits to help guard the caern center, basically calling to the spirits of the winds in the four corners. It's a pretty common tactic to shield against wyrm-things.

The warriors lay Veronica down on the center stone, and the chief theurge went to work. The elder's face was ashen, drawn, almost skeletal. Her body shook as the spirit invasion flooded the deepest parts of her body.

The chief theurge was aggressive in her casting, I can say that without too much retribution. Streamers of light stretched out as the theurge stroked her hands over Veronica's bare breasts, grabbing at the immaterial air over her skin. Clawing. Digging. The ritual hit a point that I was told would happen, and her motions became slower, but her exertion didn't reduce any. It was like she was encountering resistance strong enough to give even werewolf muscles a hard time.

The light streams stretched from her claw tips, pulled across Veronica's bare chest. The theurge growled in anger, pulling the light streams back out, drawing with them a wriggling gray shape. It fought back, using its tentacles to try and hold onto Veronica's thrashing form. The warriors swayed and ducked aside while holding Veronica down.

A howl leapt from Veronica's open mouth, her legs spread wide and twitching hard against the ground. Her arms flexed and as I watched, they rippled. The bane inside her had triggered her transformation to glabro, the cave woman shape, trying to fight off the Garou holding her down. The theurge twisted her own arms, fighting to pull the bane out, using the light streamers as if they were fishing lines attached to her claws. She bent the light around her forearms, behind her elbows, twisting with her hips and shoulders, all the while struggling.

"Get out of her, foul wyrm!" The theurge cried out. "Get out of her now!"

And then, it was out, almost with a popping sound. Veronica's body trembled slightly and then relaxed to the ground, the two ahroun protecting her as the urgewyrm struggled to reform its physical body. At once, the other gathered warriors fell on the wyrm-creature, attacking it with a ferocity and coordination that boggles my mind.

In short order, they had it hacked to bits, the spirit-stuff of the bane dissipating like condensation on the inside of a windshield when the defogger is switched to high. Veronica had shifted back to homid, and was sitting up, holding her head, her shirt hanging open still.

"Dude!" Spark Plug said beside me, clearly as awed by the display as I was. I couldn't sit still. I moved forward and knelt beside Veronica, my hand going to her shoulder, which seemed a safe place to touch.

I shouldn't have, though. As I did, my natural healing talent kicked in. She wasn't hurt anymore, and in truth, the bane did no damage to her, but it had caused her a lot of pain. And in that moment, all the agony she felt when the bane entered her, and possessed her, it all flooded my senses as well.

I woke up with Veronica holding my head in her lap, tightly pressing the sides of my head to keep it still. The theurge was also kneeling by me, lifting her hands from my bare chest. My skull felt like I'd been on the losing end of a hammer argument.

"Welcome back, small one," Veronica said, smiling.

"Veronica-rhea. Are you alright?"

"I am fine, Cody-cub. You struck your head when you came to make certain I was well. How do you feel? Can you continue with the ritual?"

"Yeah," I said, feeling none of it. "I'm good to go."

"Yeah, dude. Let's do this! I am so gonna kick that bane's ass!" Spark Plug bragged. "You sit this one out, Cody. I can do this!"

Veronica leaned close to my ear. "Do not tell the twins of the pain. It is better they learn by doing than fear it in anticipation."

I nodded, again, not feeling it. Seemed like it was a little bit wrong not to warn them, but I guess Sea Smoke had a reason, even if I didn't understand it as yet. She helped me to my feet, with the assistance of Jalicia, the girl twin. I was a little dizzy at first, but shook it off.

Jesse stepped to the edge of the barrier, watching as another urgewyrm, and two more as well, circled outside. Spark Plug got ready, centering himself near the center stone, with his teacher close beside. I was feeling a bit better, but the sensations of what happened to Veronica were still making my skin crawl.

Jesse stepped forwards, past the barrier, but only by a step. His bare chest shone dully in the moonlight as he raised his arms up, offering himself. I watched in fascination as the spirit fiend entered him, biting it's way into his chest cavity before slamming like a ghostly freight train into Jesse's body.

Before I even knew what was happening, the ahroun had Jesse lifted up and into the center. Spark Plug began his ritual casting. And it was definitely something to see. Different tribes sometimes put their own spin on the ritual, usually it's just a style thing. You know, they just see it and approach it from a different point of view. Spark Plug seemed to be doing it like street dancing, or like he was at a house party.

It didn't take long. Even with all the urban dance moves thrown, he had this kind of efficiency and quickness that made his exorcism go through really quickly. Just goes to show you, it's not just the formula, it's how comfortable you feel, how confident, that makes the difference. He compelled the urgewyrm out and then immediately began the binding ritual, forcing the bane to merge with a large adjustable wrench he had prepared. It was all over before we knew it. I was later to find out that this was Spark Plug's third attempt at the ritual. The previous two had ended in failure and he had to be rescued. This time, he was the man!

All this time, the urgewyrms beyond the barrier had moved beyond visual range. I could still hear them out there, that odd whistling sound echoing around on the various stones and bounding off the waves. My attention was focused on what was going on before me, however. All of us were fairly distracted by Sparky's display.

"Whenever you are ready," Veronica said to me. I looked to Jalicia, noting the set of her eyes. She had seen how her brother had reacted when the wyrm-thing had possessed him. I think that she could feel a little bit of what happened to her twin and it put steel in her spine. She looked down at me, since she was nearly 5 inches taller, and nodded sagaciously. Which was kind of weird, because most ahroun aren't what you'd call highly thoughtful. I guess being Uktena had maybe something to do with it.

I nodded back, feeling all eyes shift back to me. "Let's do it." I walked to the center stone, feeling the energy in the air. My mind quickly ran over the procedures, the words for the ritual, and the gestures I would need to do in order to yank the bane out of Jalicia. For her part, Jalicia went to the edge of the barrier, rolling her shoulders a few time in preparation for the trial she was about to face. It's one thing to be a bad ass warrior, but it's something entirely different to have to stand still and take pain and do nothing about it.

She went up in my estimation. Way up.

She stepped beyond the barrier, her head held up, her arms lifted. The smoking pot dutifully released another puff of thick, cloying vapors. Everyone was as prepared as they could be for the event, having seen it happen twice already. I tucked the arrows into the back of my belt and dropped the bow around my shoulder, ready to use it when the time came.

Several tense moments passed. None of the urgewyrms that had been flying around the caern center like sharks waiting for chum were in sight. The night grew eerily silent. Even Spark Plug seemed to realize something had changed, because his bravado shifted to a sort of street wise danger sense.

It happened as most things do in a werewolf's life, fast and brutal. During the lull in noise, and the waiting for the urgewyrms to return, for one of the stupid beasts to try and possess Jalicia, she actually turned and looked back at those of us inside the barrier, wondering what was going on. Her eyes passed briefly over mine, searching for some sort of idea of what to do next.

Then it struck. A flash of gray was all I saw. It hit Jalicia so hard, entered her with such violence, that her body was flung backwards into the circle of stones, practically knocking over three stout ahroun in the process. The pot of vapor bait was smashed as the bodies fell over each other, tumbling painfully.

"Cody!" Veronica screamed, shifting all the way to crinos in the blink of an eye. "Begin the exorcism! Before it consumes her!"

That shook me. Consumes? Something here had changed, and not in that pop-quiz sorta way. This was something totally unexpected. Something far worse than just an urgewyrm.

I growled my initial challenge to the possessing spirit, moving my arms in the patterns that helped me gather the spirit energy to start the exorcism. The Gnosis flowed in me, gathering at my fingertips. Several of the warriors jumped forward and spread Jalicia's arms and legs out, wrestling with her as she writhed in agony.

I stroked my glowing fingers over Jalicia's bare chest, feeling the spirit-stuff of the infecting creature snag on my spirit claws. I hauled back and started to pull the thing out. Poor Jalicia spasmed erratically, her teeth grit in a look of sheer Rage. I stood, calling out the words of the ritual, tugging the lines of magic as hard as I could. The thing partly emerged from Jalicia, and at once I saw why this was such a different exorcism than the previous two.

This wasn't an urgewyrm. This was a much more powerful type of bane, one that normally doesn't do things like this. This bane was of a type we call a psychomachinae. And because of that, I was now in way over my head.

To describe it, you have to imagine a praying mantis, about the size of a pickup truck. Cover it in long, sharp spines made of metal. The head is filled with tiny, closely placed, razor sharp teeth, and its hide is a shell of slick, oily metal, articulated like an insect's outer coverings. They are hideously strong and fast when they fight physically. Usually they are the sort that possesses deranged people and push them into acts of insanity, cruelty and depravity. So no matter how you slice it, this thing was a serious threat.

And it wasn't going to come out without a fight.

I pulled hard, twisting my arms and using my elbows to get leverage. The psych wasn't having it, though. It tugged back, nearly pulling me off my feet. I dug in my heals, dropping away from the creature, leaning far enough back that I nearly had one knee on the ground. I could feel my muscles aching. They had told me that I should be able to pull out almost any bane in my human skin. I quickly realized that I would need more in the muscle department.

I triggered the switch to glabro, ignoring the discomfort of my pants cinching tighter. The psych leaned in my direction, hissing angrily. It took a swipe at me with its long raking arm, the dangling spikes glistening wickedly. I ducked, feeling the wind in its passage, and then I tugged again, using my added strength to really pull hard.

And I fell right on my rump. The thing had intentionally missed its slash at my head and cut the glowing lines of magic I was using to tug it out. In horror, I stood, trying to pull up enough energy from inside me to start the ritual again. Every second counted. I hurried through the mental preparations, even as Jalicia slung off two of the warriors pinning her down. The psych had retreated into her body and had nearly completed its possession. We didn't want to hurt her, but with the psychomachinae riding her like a painted pony, it had no problem using her to attack us.

The other theurges, realizing that we were in serious trouble also started chanting and casting the exorcism ritual. I jumped forward, hoping I had enough Gnosis left in me to at least start it again, that way the others could get their lines in the wyrm-spirit deeper and yank it out better than I could alone.

But I was too drained. Maybe. There were a lot of things running through my mind right then, and part of me doubted I could work this against such a powerful creature. Usually, a psych in physical combat is like fighting three or four Garou. I knew, somewhere deep, that I was over matched. I guess that doubt more than crept in at that moment.

Because when I again sunk spirit claws into the bane, it actually slashed me, ripping a deep gouge in my arm, and knocking me back several feet. The warriors rushed forwards, covering me. I was dazed, weakened, humiliated. But more than that, Jalicia had trusted me, and I'd failed.

The other theurges managed to pop the psych back out of her body, which was probably easy for the five of them to do while the others cast protections around the center. Once in the open, several bane arrows were launched, crippling the evil monster. It took the large group of ahroun only a few moments to hack the thing to useless bits. But by then, the damage had been done.

Jalicia sat up, hugging herself tightly. The things that foul creature intended to do with her body brought her to shiver in disgust and loathing. Physically she was unharmed. Emotionally, she was scarred.

And it was my fault. I had failed. What hope did Robby have now that I wasn't able to perform the one ritual that might save his soul? Nick was right. Spirit magic is nothing to be taken lightly. This time, it nearly cost us a fellow Garou. It could have been much worse had the psych managed to complete the possession and then use Jalicia for whatever foulness was in what passed for that thing's heart.

And again, I was to blame for it nearly winning. It took a few hours to make sure that the caern and all the surrounding area was free of banes, and then about half an hour performing a ritual cleansing of the caern. All the while, I could feel the eyes of other Garou upon me. I could sense their pity, their judgment. I knew they were blaming me. I blame myself. So much for prophesy. Until now, I'd never really had anything go so wrong on me. I'd never had to live with the shame of failure. I felt so worthless. And it had nearly cost us so much. Not only would we have had to hunt and kill Jalicia, but if she'd gotten loose, whatever depraved evil was in that bane's mind would have been unleashed through Jalicia, with her full werewolf powers at its disposal.

Oh yeah, epic fail on me.

Just when I thought that my own shame and pain at having failed with the ritual the elders so carefully taught me was overwhelming enough, the Umbra rippled and our monkey wrench crew came back.

Battered. Bloodied. Some helping others through, others dragging in bodies that seemed lifeless. The cry went up and everyone bent to help our wounded.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw Nicky's ball cap bobbing through the Gauntlet, helping carry a heavy weight across the spirit boundary. But that sigh caught in my throat when I could see what he and two other younger Garou were dragging between them.

It was Rolf, and he was just like most of the others brought in. Wounded, blood-soaked and limp. And just like that, I knew that there were things worse than my failure. Because Rolf wasn't just wounded and unable to walk. He wasn't just stunned and needed help across the Gauntlet.

Rolf was dead.

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