School of Hard Knocks
Some nightmares come true slowly. Sometimes they walk out of the darker places in your head and become real. Sometimes, you just can't feel which is MORE real.
Seems that's the way things happened.
Just thinking about it brought the scene to mind. Vision is usually the first impression most people have, but what I will always recall first was the smell. Like chlorine bleach mixed with charcoal burning, and some oily smell, all mingling with the salty air. Mind you, I was already weakened from my ordeal, but the over-powering scent that rose from Rolf's mangled body, nearly made me ralph on the spot.
The wounds themselves were hideous. Tracings of iridescent green goo clung thickly into the rent flesh like cooked in barbecue sauce. Each cut was ravaged and melted with small lumps of dark matter clumped at the ends of his fur, like a field of blackened dandelions at the edge of a bomb crater in some old war movie. Most of the cuts were shallow, a tribute to Rolf's skill at avoiding the many attackers he faced down.
Two wounds, however, were deep and struck critical points; one through the left side of his neck, and one running him through from behind, leaving a wide hole clear through his right chest. Wounds made by a blade, large, wide and half made of cast silver. Just like the horrible weapon we found at Robby's house, piercing those poor creatures. A Hybrid.
I remember the look on the elders' faces when Rolf was brought in. They knew the surfing ahroun. Later, I was to find out Rolf was very widely respected among elders of all thirteen tribes. Even the savage Red Talons gave Rolf's Garou name, Thrasher, the "-rhya" honorific, meaning "higher in station." For him to have fallen to such horrific wounds spoke volumes to these high ranking warriors of Gaia. Even Ragnar stood with his jaw hanging open in disbelief.
I set about healing the walking wounded as best I could. Turns out I was drained from my failed exorcism, and all I could do was treat silver wounds with bandages and antiseptic and salt water washes to remove tiny silver particles from the wounds.
Nicky was uncharacteristically quiet when I saw him. He, too, had been injured, but not so badly that our normal werewolf regeneration couldn't deal with his hurts. Just some bumps and bruises and a mild limp for him. Still, when I saw my proud Ragabash so covered in blood, I almost got up from the bandage I was wrapping. He shook his head slowly, raising a paw to keep me were I was.
It had been a fairly large monkey wrench crew. Nearly thirty, half of whom were veterans, training the next generation. Of that group, we lost eight, including Rolf. Five athro or higher ranks, three cliath like Nicky and me. Nine others were savagely wounded. None escaped untouched. Survivors would later claim that the raiding party was ambushed, most of the earliest attacks coming from behind and landing almost simultaneously.
What our monkey wrenchers thought would only be a simple recon and raid had turned into a slaughter. It was a mistake we paid dearly for.
After dealing with the wounded, as best we could, Joey came over to me, pushing Nick by a hand on his shoulder from behind. We were told, in very clipped and heavily accented terms to get rest. I sort of blinked a few times before I realized it was hours past dawn. At moonrise we'd have a funeral moot.
Nicky said nothing as he helped me stand. I'd been kneeling to help the wounded so long that my legs had gone numb. The pins and needles seemed to shake me out of the horror, slightly. I guess part of me shut off for a bit while I was doing things. That while I was busy dealing with stuff I didn't have to deal with thinking. Or feeling.
In silence, we walked around dunes to our dugout, and past to the old bath house. Again, without either of us uttering a sound, we stripped down, stood under the shower spigots, and cleaned off the sand and blood covering us. Blood had caked under my fingernails, making it seem like I was bleeding from my fingertips as the water dragged itself in healing pulses over my skin.
The numbness washed out for a bit as well. I'm very empathic. I discovered that when I found myself accidentally reliving the agony others felt when I used Mother's Touch to heal their injuries. So in a way, it was probably good my magic was all used up. Otherwise, well, I don't like to think about what the agony of all those silver-inflicted wounds would have done to me. Just dealing with them normally was rough enough.
It was after I'd washed my hair for the fifth time that I noticed Nicky, standing there under the shower, his head bowed deeply, hands limp at his sides, sobbing. His hair hung down, hiding his face like a veil of silky brown, dripping loud splashes onto the tiles.
"Shadow?" I asked, my voice small yet echoey in the shower. He shook his head a quick "no." "Nicky?" I nearly whined.
"Shoulda been me," he croaked out hoarsely.
"He took that neck hit protectin' me. He shouldn't be dead now. It oughta be me!"
"Gaia! Nicky, you couldn't have known." I crossed to him and brought his head to my shoulder.
"Why'd he do it, Cody?" Nick sobbed, his voice sounding weak and tiny.
"I dunno, Shadow." I felt stupid, like I should have had some sort of answer for him. But really, how can anyone answer that. I wasn't even there when it happened.
He lifted his hands to my hips, gently at first, barely touching the bony parts up towards my belly. But as his sobbing grew stronger, his arms encircled my waist, holding on with an almost desperate strength. His sobs were infectious. Soon we were both barely standing, more like leaning against each other under the shower spray.
I'm not sure when the water turned colder or which one of us spun the taps to closed, but my stomach growled softly at some point after that. The sobbing had subsided long before, but that subtle sound from my tummy was enough to get us both giggling as we held each other.
"An' ya'll say ah think with my stomach," he whispered.
"Didn't you claim your thoughts started some other place?" I returned.
"Ah don't think with my dick," Shadow said, and I could feel his cheeks tighten up into a smirk. "It thinks for me!"
"Gaia forbid," I muttered as he chuckled at his own joke.
Nicky's giggles subsided and the two of us just held on, air drying. His breathing slowed and became warm against my neck. Neither of us was hard, but it felt so indescribably good to have us leaning naked together. If he had touched me down there, I'd probably have shot all over both of us.
I guess exhaustion, mental numbness and the utter relief of seeing my boy alive and unhurt when so many others were grievously wounded and killed…
I don't even want to think about how I'd nearly lost him. All of a sudden, the thought that I almost lost Nick and was powerless to prevent it was incredibly huge in me. I was overwhelmed by how much he meant to me. I mean, I already knew, but in that moment, naked, dripping wet, holding him, I suddenly felt so much closer to him. Possessive of him.
"Gonna be real hard to eat like this," Nick whispered beside my ear.
"I failed," I whispered back.
"Whutchu mean?" He leaned back enough to look into my eyes, which for some reason, I just couldn't meet his.
"My exorcism training. I blew it."
There was a sort of long silence, with just the occasional drip from the shower spigot we'd just used.
"T'ain't how ah hear it. Veronica said because of you they was able ta save Jalicia. They knew somethin' was screwy. Ya'll couldn't a known. Heck, they barely knew."
"But I couldn't pull it out," I whined. Yes, whined, I'm ashamed to admit.
"It was yuir first time. Weird shit happened an' ya'll didn't back down." His hands massaged my back, claw-grabbing and smoothing over my skin, alternately. "They's so proud of you," he said, almost as if he felt guilty as well.
And in that moment, I realized I felt guilty. It opened my eyes. I guess you do learn a lot from your failures. I also realized I wasn't the only one dealing with guilt.
"How…" I began, trying to find the words. I was fumbling. "I mean… when Rolf… what…"
"Happened?" he finished.
"Yeah," I replied, sounding deflated and guilty for asking at the same time. I could feel my expression fall.
"Sit," he commanded, letting go of me and taking a step back. Reluctantly, I backed up to the tiled wall and slid down until my butt landed in a shallow puddle. Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, sighed loudly and raised his hands about level with his abs.
"We met up at the Old House," which is slang for the Victorian shadow of the beach bathhouse in the Umbra. I could hear the tension in his voice. "Rolf and Joey took charge and split us inta triads. Two experts and a newbie. I didn't know we had so many low wolves here. Guess some of 'em was visitors from the big council, hangin' round to go on da mission.
"So we was all buddied up. Rolf and Joey had me as their tagalong. Them two Get boys was there, too. You know, Magnus and Svenie." He rolled his eyes mentioning the Get boys. "Bout as swuft as a bag of rocks, them two. And only half as quiet."
"The Get aren't usually known for subtlety," I quipped, grinning briefly.
"They prove it! Anyways, we set off, figurin' ta find more a that cold iron stuff by scent. Joey wanted me ta lead the crew ta JJ's house. He reckoned if we stuck enough noses around there, someone'd catch a scent.
"Right away ah picked up Chuckie's stink, an' it was fresh. It was like he'd come back for JJ after we'd left. Kinda made me mad. We sniffed around a bit and checked inside as well. But ain't nobody home. Car was missin', too, so ah guess JJ and his pops was out somewheres.
"So the trail leads north an' Chuck picks up Tony an' about six of his boys on da way. One a' the older guys with us is a half-moon named Dalen the Hunter. He's tellin' Joey we gottah be careful, sumthin' don't smell right.
"Rolf asks him 'what the fuck, over,' an' Dalen says that these boys we's trackin' ain't zactly humans, an' it's sumthin' he never smelled afore, except for the taint on it."
"Charlie's pack has wyrm taint?" I asked, shocked.
A lot of Garou use scent to describe stuff we run across. It's a canine thing. But wyrm taint is different. It's not really a smell, instead it is more of a feeling that something or someone had been spiritually corrupted. Gone to the Dark Side, if you will. The sensation for those who can detect it is so visceral and instinctive that the only sensory impression that makes sense to use to describe it is smell. It's more like you feel the skin inside your nose crawl rather than a scent. So if you hear me say something "stinks of the wyrm," that's what it means. It's not a true smell, but boy it sure ought to be!
"Are you gonna keep interruptin' or you gonna let me tell it?" Nick asked, getting a little agitated.
"I'm sorry. I'll be quiet now."
"Okay," he said getting a deep breath. "So, Dalen's not too thrilled. Our trackers is leading us up the beach, all spread out like, some of us in Umbra, some in solid. We wind up around Center, by the pizza stand and the arcade, near where you slugged Tony, and then back onta th' beach, up by the abandoned pier and the old hotel. We all met in solid near the hotel's old beach front porch. The experienced ones want ta pow-wow. They's all nervous alla sudden and ah picked it up, too.
"That's when Maggie opens his yap."
I felt myself popping my eyes open at that. The way Nicky said that, I could tell it wasn't going to be good.
"Just angrily punches a concrete post and practically shouts, 'Dis is a waste of time!' Ah ain't exaggeratin', he was lou-oud," Nick reported, pantomiming Magnus' German accent. "The freakin' flea brained dummy is makin' all this noise like he's king shit of turd mountain an' we're all sooo below his attention. Fucknut!
"So the trail's gone dead right there. No one's around, and like there's no sign of anyone even usin' the old hotel as a crash pad. Not even any homeless dudes."
And that made even my ears perk up a little. The hotel had been closed for many years. It was all rundown and boarded up. But the placement, so close to Salisbury Beach Center's main loop, would have made it at least a place that other kids might break in from time to time. You know, use it as a place to party or make out or whatever.
"Tha old paws was baffled. They reckoned the best way to go was break by trios an' sniff around some more." He paused, his expression getting distant.
"Bout then," he said, sighing, "there's this chunk of cold iron like what Chuck had drops inta da sand, right in da middle of us. Dumb as we are, we all turn ta look at it like someone yelled 'Squirrel!'" Nick froze, looking off into space to show what he meant. It was almost comical. Again, it's a canine thing.
He paused like that for an uncomfortable length of time. After five or six heartbeats, he inhaled to speak, making me blink in surprise.
"That's when it happened. Man, Cody, it was so freakin' fast! They dropped on us, swinging funky versions a those hybrids. Ah barely ducked aside. Ah couldn't see who they was. Afore ah even knew it, there was three of us missin' heads, an' ten others lyin' on the ground, all twitchy."
Nick paused, his hands, which had been gesticulating wildly, fell limp by his hips. A change came over his face. Sadness. I could feel his Rage was still burning inside. And shame. But it was just a profound, pre-cry sadness that over took him. In sympathy, I felt my own eyes welling up.
"We fought back," he said, but there wasn't any edge in his voice, like he was admitting he had done something bad. "It was like fightin' air! My claws couldn't hit, even though I knew my hand shoulda been right there." He looked straight into my eyes, his fists clenched by his sides in frustration. "An' ah could barely see the bad guys. Only one who seemed to be hittin' 'em was Joey with that weird stick Kenny gave him.
"An' Rolf…" Nick turned from me slightly, squinting. His arms pumped at his side, like he was ready to punch something. "One a the hybrids was comin' for me from behind. Rolf already had his hands full. He kinda slapped my shoulder with a paw and it knocked me down. When ah looked up," he sat down in place. Something told me he was seeing it in his mind.
"Ah looked up, an' Rolf was holdin' his neck from where the shot aimed at takin' my head off only grazed him. He got hurt b'cause a me, Cody." He sank to his knees. His tears started again. I crawled over to him. "Because of me."
I don't know how long we held each other again. All I know is we both needed it. And we were both dead tired. I never really understood that term until that moment. Without saying anything, we found towels, dried, grabbed fresh clothes and slowly headed back to the dugout.
I spent the next six hours fighting to stay asleep. The exhaustion was bone deep, but little things kept stirring me. Loud sea birds, the whistling of wind in the sea grasses, the occasional rough pounding of an incoming tide, even just the way sand might shift under me if I rolled over in my sleep. Any change seemed about unbearable.
And above it all, even more than my own failure was the shockingly dull pain of knowing that Rolf was dead.
Nicky's cell phone rang, outside the dugout. Which meant he was out there as well. The good thing about having your cell phone dedicated to your body is that you never lose it. And it never needs time on the recharger. I stretched a little and then trotted out in wolf form, not really feeling rested, but knowing I was not going to get any more sleep anytime soon.
As I kicked my back legs out to stretch, one at a time, I overheard Nick's side of the conversation. It wasn't much to go on, but at that point I figured there was a very short list of those who might be calling. After shaking my fur out, I sat beside Nick and let my cobwebs evaporate in the sunlight.
"Yeah, things ain't been peachy here, neither… We'll be along directly… Ah know, an' we'll hurry. They's been some things that really went sideways fer us an'… He tried ta do whut? Really? No, ah get ya… Ah know, Kenny. B'lieve me, ah know… He's sleepin' just now. We had a rough night. Ah'll wake him and get things goin'. You hold the fort down there and keep him in one place… Ah understand, buddy. We'll fix Robby's wagon… Alright, you stay on top of it, an' we'll be there soon as we can… You too… Bye."
"What happened?" I whined as Nicky closed up his phone and pocketed it. His hand went to the back of my neck and started scratching in a way that I find entirely too distracting and addictive.
"Robby tried to kill hisself about an hour ago with the hybrid at his parents house. Took three full grown changelings to try and hold him down an' he still got loose. Kenny put him right, fer now."
That caught me off guard. I know my mouth opened and closed several time before I found my barker again to speak.
"The bane is making its power felt," I chuffed angrily. "It seeks to get rid of Robby's spirit so it can have the Tear for itself. It's getting stronger."
"We'll have to move fast. You up to this?"
I tilted my head up towards Nick, which caused him to stop the scratching. So I put my paw up on his wrist to remind him to keep scratching. Hey, I like a good scratch. It's a canine thing.
"You doubt my ability?"
"Never, sweetness," Nick said, leaning over to kiss my nose. In reflex, I licked his lips and nose. "Just wondering if ya'll got back enough juice ta do what ya gotta do."
"Guess we need to recharge me, then, huh?" I yipped, stepping away and triggering the change. Which was probably not the best idea, since I was not wearing any clothing when I went into the dugout. Not because I'm shy, but because the beach was open in front of the dugout. Anyone could be just walking at the shoreline and gotten a free show. Which might buy me some time in jail. I try to avoid that.
I turned around, inhaling deeply, with my hands on my hips. "We should check in with Sea Smoke about what's going on, find out if I can recharge my spiritual energy, and then go take care of things with Robby and Kenny before that bane gets any stronger."
"Not to mention see what we need ta do fer the funerals."
"Yeah," I said, remembering that our people had suffered pretty badly. "And check in on JJ."
"Hard to b'lieve we stumbled into this info shit-storm because of JJ." Nick reached under the table and tossed me a shirt. "Lotta things swirlin' round him. Poor kid don't know what kinda stuff he's all tied up in."
"Not like we can tell him the truth." I pulled the shirt over my head and struggled getting an arm started. A pair of swim trunks impacted just above my navel, and dropped, rubbing past, well, you-know-what.
"Hate ta say this, but if we did tell him the truth, he'd believe us, but no one would b'lieve him. Dude's not really ready for reality, not even the reality he knows."
"I don't think so," I said, bending over to pick up my swimmers. "He's not stupid or anything. He's naive, you know? He's just… I dunno, he's hurting."
"And alone," Nick said, nodding as I pulled up my trunks and pulled the Velcro fly flap closed before tying the waist string.
"And Charlie and his pack are still giving him hell. You know, a whole monkey wrench crew got picked up and stopped cold by these kids, but you and me keep punching his ticket any time we want."
"Ya'll thinkin' there's somethin' to that? Like maybe they can sense big groups of us comin', but a pair here an' there gets past their radar?"
"I don't know," I said, catching my sneakers as he tossed them to my chest. I dumped sand before slipping them on without undoing the laces. "But!"
"Yeah, lots a' buts lately."
"Lotta buts," I agreed.
The air shimmered for a moment and Joey stepped out of the Umbra near us. I felt no shame at having almost been caught naked just moments ago. Being a werewolf, you lose that sense of body modesty pretty quickly, especially if you change forms while wearing clothes that haven't been dedicated to you. Can you say shredded jeans?
"Boys," Joey said, casually dropping his hands into the oversized pockets of his khaki cargo shorts.
"Old guy," Nick replied, nodding in recognition. Joey's eyebrow shot up at that, briefly, flashing his eyes more on Nick than me. Gaia, can everyone do that eyebrow thing but me?
"Thrasher's final howl will be tomorrow. His will be the last of the day. We decided to give a full day for others to travel to be here."
"Will we be permitted to be part of Thrasher's howl?" I asked. Thrasher was Rolf's Garou name. Surfer to the core.
"I feel he would have demanded you send him off, boys. It isn't required of you, but…"
"We'll be there," Nick interrupted. "He was as much our teacher as ya'll are, Joey-rhya. We'd be honored to howl for him."
"Yes," I nodded. And on that matter, nothing more needed to be said.
Joey nodded solemnly. His expression betrayed his thoughts, however, and I could tell he was stuck between duty and mourning for his lost friend. Actually, I would later find out, Joey and Rolf were pack brothers. Their bond had been deep and true. Joey, ever the epitome of a proper Silent Strider, kept his pain quiet. He expressed it, let it run it's normal course, but he didn't walk around wailing. At the howl he'd let that out.
"There are still matters to attend to. I assume that Kenny called you already?"
"Yes sir. He told us about Robby's state," I said, softly.
"That needs your immediate attention. You also need to take care of another matter."
"Talkin' ta JJ?" Nick guessed.
Joey nodded, swallowing hard. His eyes got a little glassy for a moment, but he fought for control and relaxed, sighing through his nose.
"We need information. Removing that bane takes priority. Then you need to find out what's going on with your friend JJ. Something about all of this doesn't make sense. After you deal with the bane, see if the changelings have made any headway on those maps. Then get over to JJ's home and figure out what you can."
"Joey-rhya," Nick said, pulling a hat over his head. I noticed it was a tan fitted cap with a Patriots logo above the bill. "Cody needs to recharge. He was drained in the exorcism. He doesn't even have enough Gnosis to step into the Shadow."
"Then you will have to take him to the caern center, Shadow Foot. Someone there will be waiting to help you prepare for the ritual."
"Shouldn't we take Robby here for the ritual?" I asked.
"For that ritual, it would be easier to do it wherever he is. Safer, too. If that bane were to gain enough power, it could conceivably taint the caern. And…" he trailed, waiting for me to finish the reply. He was hinting at a part of the Litany.
"Ye shall take no action which causes a caern to become violated," Nick and I repeated as one. It was a rote answer, but one with powerful truth, just the same. Shame and pain to the Garou who defiles a sacred place of Gaia. Shame, pain and loss of honor.
"Exactly. Head off to the caern center now. Report back to me before you go find JJ."
"You're awfully sure I can do this," I said, even before I realized it.
"And you're not?"
"I…" and I sat on the picnic bench. "I failed. I ran out of Gnosis, and Jalicia almost…"
"Stop it!" Joey thundered, his face suddenly mere inches from mine. His expression was one of barely restrained anger. "Do you think that your elders wouldn't have such faith in you if they didn't think you could do it? What kind of idiots do you take us for?!"
"You were chosen by Unicorn himself and yet you cry and fuss and act like a soft paw cub who can't even see the truth directly in front of him? What a pathetic waste?" He took several steps away from me, walking around almost manic. I was a little scared. Never had Joey acted like this to me. Never.
"I feel sorry that I ever introduced you to my changeling friends! If you're such a scared little rich boy that you wont put your life on the line to help a friend who's already in mortal danger… he's probably better off just letting the bane consume him! At least then maybe you'll have the courage to put him down like a rabid dog after you let the Wyrm win!"
"Yo! What the fuck, over!?" Nick screamed, coming to my defense. I could feel his Rage starting to rise.
"Stay out of this, Shadow Foot," Joey cautioned, his eyes drilling into mine. Nick stepped down to get in between us, but Joey simply held up a pointing finger, stopping my boi in his tracks. "This is something you can't help the little prince with. His pampered ass needs to know the truth."
"But what if I fail and it kills Robby?!" I screamed back. "What if I'm not good enough?"
Joey's expression went from the anger which matched his words before to a neutral and relaxed face, his eyes calm and wise again.
"Then for his sake, you have to be. That is the way of the world, young Speaks With Water. You have the talent, you have the knowledge. How you use it and how well you do it, that's entirely up to you. When their lives are on the line, will you rise to the challenge to save your pack mates?"
"I want to. I don't know if I'm good enough."
"None of us ever is." He sighed, and then sank to his knees. This was his typical teaching method. "Thrasher was an amazing warrior. He's saved my sorry hide more times than I can count. He was the most revered, feared and honored ahroun your tribe ever produced. And the most humble. He always told me he was never good enough to be a super Garou war leader or the greatest klaive duelist of the last century."
"Klaive what?!" Nick said, his jaw hanging open. A klaive is a special weapon among our people. It's a sword or dagger made of silver, always enchanted with spirit powers and practically indestructible. Those who specialize in its use are exceedingly rare, since there aren't many klaives out there. With our race's problem with silver, you can see why.
"He was perhaps my best friend. He'd even tell people he wasn't the greatest surfer. But even though he knew that he wouldn't be 'good enough' one day, it never stopped him from always trying to be the best, from always doing his best. Especially for his friends and family. And that family included both of your scruffy tails. So, you tell me, cubs. Just because you don't think you're good enough, is that gonna ever stop you from trying?"
I felt dumbfounded. Actually, I just felt dumb.
"I did ask how to defeat the bane," I admitted.
"You did. And you were shown how. And you did exceptionally well, by the way. All of the theurges were impressed, not only with your instincts, but with your questions and how calmly you jumped into helping out when the wounded started streaming in.
"And you, Shadow Foot, earned the respect of just about the entire monkey wrench crew. You were quiet when you needed to be, led when asked, fought well when required and followed orders perfectly. You showed grace under pressure and courage in the face of the enemy. You earned big marks with your performance."
"Uh, thanks. Wow," Nick said, clearly taken aback.
"So the question remains. Are you going to turn your back and tuck your tail just because things got dangerously difficult? Or are you going to persevere through adversity? Will you go hard, or just go home? And in so doing, doom a friend to pain and misery and death?"
"No," I said, feeling guilty.
"We cain't," Nick added, rubbing my back as he sat beside me.
"We wont," I amended, sounding more convinced. "We have to."
"Hey, we're Children of Gaia. It's what we do," Nick smiled.
"Thrasher would be proud of both of you."
"He told me something once. I asked him about fighting but it sounded like something more. Like, idunno, some sort of philosophy or surfer weed-talk campfire bullshit."
"Well, you could rightly accuse him of that," Joey grinned.
"He said, keep your mind and your body as pure and as loose as water," I said, screwing my face up in confusion. "Didn't make much sense."
"Ah, quoting Bruce Lee. His teacher."
"Rolf was taught by Bruce Lee?" Nick asked, again his jaw dropping. I reached out and pushed it back up gently. Joey simply grinned. "How old was ole Rolfy?"
"Old enough to have had Bruce Lee as a teacher," I said, guessing. "Do you know what he meant, Joey-rhya?"
"I do," he smiled enigmatically. "However, we'll have to table this for another time. The both of you have things to do. Head into the caern center. Nick, you open the way for Cody since he has zero Gnosis and can't pierce the Gauntlet. After you both recharge, go take care of Robby. Kenny will be able to deal with him after you pop that bane out of him. After that, you two go check up on your buddy JJ, but be careful. We're already burying too many heroes. I don't want to be adding two shrimpy cliath to that list," he smiled, tousling our hair. Then he pulled us both to his shoulders in a gentle hug, his strong hand guiding us firmly.
"And take care of each other." I could tell he was on the verge of tears.
"We will, Joey-rhya."
He let us go and stood in a smooth motion. "I have a few matters to take care of before the howls tomorrow. I'll see you later. Oh, and there are a few others looking for you, so don't be surprised if you're suddenly popular."
"Like who others?" Nick asked.
"Like a pair of very embarrassed Get cliath. Keep on your toes."
Oh great, I thought. Now we have Magnus and Sven wanting a piece. And in a werewolf's world, confrontation was often the means to political advancement. Something I certainly didn't need. I have about as much an interest in politics as a horse has in steak.
We watched as he walked back south towards the caern center and shimmered through the Gauntlet. Nick pushed a hat over my head. Then he bumped his shoulder against mine, grinning.
"Ya'll ready for this, Glubber?"
"No," I smiled back, standing and stretching my arms way up over my shoulders. "But since when has that ever stopped us?"
"Good point," he replied, getting his big toothy smile out.
Nicky slipped through the Umbra, reaching back to grab my hand when he was halfway through. He tugged me through and we shifted forms, dashing off toward the caern center in lupus, trotting side by side.
Fortunately we didn't bump into the young Get wolves, nor anyone else who seemed to have an interest in us. Oh, we got looks a few times, and the warders more than certainly knew exactly where we were at all times while in the area right around the center stones, but none interrupted our path. Which was good, because we had things to do, and talking our way around people wasn't my strong suit.
It wasn't hard to get someone to allow us to tap the caern for a Gnosis boost. After the events of the previous night, everyone was feeling a bit drained. We pretty much had to simply get in line and wait our turn.
Now before I get too deep into things, recharging Gnosis is usually a matter of meditation, or simply rebuilding naturally over time or through a ritualistic hunt. Yes, we hunt down little spirits and ritualistically slay them in order to "drink" its Gnosis. The spirits don't actually die, not in any sort of mortal sense. So don't think of it like murder. Spirits don't really exist the way that meat people do, so death isn't completely possible for them in the conventional way.
So there are more than a few ways to get back your Gnosis. Not all of them are as efficient as just simply opening the caern and touching the raw Gnosis of Mother Earth herself. It's usually considered a little vulgar to do it that way, but in times of need, good manners are often shunted in favor of expediency. I guess that emergencies qualify. Most of those in line ahead of us were theurges tasked with healing our wounded.
Any way you slice it, we got our Gnosis topped off and we set off for Kenny's house, where Robby and the possessing bane inhabiting him awaited. I was slightly apprehensive, but the run through the Umbra helped settle my nerves. Well that and…
There's just something about running, at least for us werewolves. You let your body do its thing and you can either get lost in the mindlessness of it all, or you go into super thinker mode, which is something that usually gets me into trouble. I've actually walked into stop signs while thinking too much and not paying attention to where I'm going. Guess it's a good thing I don't have a driver's license yet. I'd probably have so many tickets for passing through stops or running red lights that they'd take it away anyways.
Last time I made the trip from Kenny's house, I was lost in thought so much I dropped a paw in cat shit. This time, I let myself go to the eternal "now" of wolf thought. The past stayed in the past, the future was where I was going, but only the "now" was important enough to worry about while running.
I can safely report, no cat shit this time. And we managed to really tear off through the Umbra, getting all the way to Canterbury in about half an hour. Cars on the highway might hope for that kind of speed. Only in our case, we didn't have to deal with traffic or following the roads.
We shifted forms in the Umbra and entered Kenny's house in crinos. We weren't sure what to expect, but having our Garou game faces on would be useful if we encountered any resistance from the shadow side. As it was, the Umbra around Kenny's house seemed empty of spirits. Ominously so.
"Ah feel like a target at a turkey shoot," Nicky commented to me as we made our way into the house.
"I know what you mean. I have a bad feeling about this."
"Ya'll nerds an' yuir Star Wars quotes," he chuffed, dismissively.
"Sure, Gambit, whatever," I returned with some attitude.
Kenny's dad was upstairs, and in the Umbra you could make out the outline of his trollish features. I thought he was tall in reality! His dreaming self was every bit as tall as an adult crinos as he sat at the huge slab table. He was going through several sheets of official looking paper from an expanding file. I guess it was more stuff about Robby's parents.
We ducked downstairs to Kenny's room. Somewhere along the way, Nick had shifted to homid, and I hadn't noticed. I shifted as well, knowing that it wouldn't be either friendly or healthy to just pop back into the physical reality with all this fur on. Startling Kenny, who I knew was a master at armed combat, probably wasn't a good way to keep from becoming a teenage werewolf pincushion.
Peeking into the physical world, we saw Kenny sitting on the edge of the bed, looking down at Robby's sleeping form. The dark haired boy's hand was stretched out over his boyfriend's face, and he was mumbling something, perhaps a prayer. I felt suddenly very embarrassed, like I might be interrupting something personal between the two changeling boys.
Nick, however, felt no such guilt and simply erupted out of the Umbra into the bedroom. My boy has no sense of tact sometimes. His timing is great, but his restraint could use a few pointers.
"How ya'll…" Nick began to say, but before he could finish the sentence, Kenny whirled and before my very eyes, changed.
Now it is one thing to know that someone else is a supernatural creature with powers that closely echo your own in a lot of ways. It's entirely a different creature to be surprised by it despite your understanding. As Kenny turned, he stood, his hand reaching out as though he held a weapon. And he sort of shimmered for a second. Completing the turn, he was standing before us, decked out in some kind of armor, holding Robby's sword, that crystal handle lightsaber thing, in his hand, the business end humming like a blue neon light tube under my boyfriend's chin, with about four inches of the blade sticking out past his shoulder and neck. If Kenny had wanted to, that strike would have been clean through Nick's neck, and we'd have an entirely different story to tell.
Fortunately, Kenny's got fairly fantastic control over just about any blade he gets his paws on. His eyes looked frantic, however, indicating to me that he'd been so wrapped up in whatever he was doing that when Nick interrupted, he'd reacted on instinct to protect his boyfriend. We startled him, so he reacted.
"…doin?" Nick finished when he saw Kenny retract the energy blade and revert to his normal human self. I slipped though the gauntlet at that point as well.
"Nick. Cody. Thank god."
"Sorry we were delayed," I replied, glancing back to Robby. "How's he?"
"Sleeping, for now. I've been keeping him from dreaming."
"Really? You can do that?"
"For a changeling, dreams are our source of power, of life. We can inspire them in others, or we can enter dreams to learn things. We can even keep someone from dreaming, like if that dream is a nightmare, or if they are sleepwalkers."
"Ya'll gonna have ta show me that dream sneakin' thing. It's like pullin' teeth tryin' ta figure out what he wants for his birthday," Nick grinned, hooking his thumb my way.
I could really use the ability to pop that eyebrow up right now. But it got a smile out of Kenny, even if it was just a feeble one.
"So why do you need to keep him from dreaming?" I asked, coming over to look more closely at Robby. He was lying peacefully, covers pulled up to his chin, completely motionless. I barely saw his narrow chest rising as he breathed.
"If the thing that's inside him could move him to drastic actions while awake, I can only imagine what it could do while he's asleep. Like I said, dreams are a changeling's power and life. What we do isn't so much magic as pure creation. We don't so much warp reality as we create it. It isn't just that things become possible around us, we literally make things happen. That's something that most humans can't understand. They can only deal with a preconceived notion of what reality is. They don't know that reality is what you make of it. Unfortunately, so many of them think the same way, deal with what they perceive as reality in the same way, that it screws up things for the rest of us."
"Ah don't get it," Nick said, dropping butt first onto a bean bag chair.
"Well, what we're taught is like, science says this, religion says that, politics, television, everything you've known or have been taught is all wrapped up in this idea that certain things can't be changed. Gravity is a constant, morality equals religion, certain activities are illegal if you do so-and-so. Those are boundaries that people operate within. It's how humans deal with the world and each other."
"Okay, ah'm with you so far."
"Well, in dreams, you can do anything. You can fly, you can do all sorts of nasty things based on whatever you feel in the moment, you don't have any constraints on your behaviors at all. And that's the problem with Robby right now."
"Because he knows that those boundaries are a little less solid for him?" I guessed.
"Exactly. When we were in the morgue, identifying his parents, he wanted to bring them back."
"Izat even possible?" Nick asked, as amazed as I was.
"With the Tear, almost anything is possible. Almost. I did some research on it, traveling deep into the Dreaming itself." He sighed, glancing back at Robby's face with a look of deep worry.
"There are seven treasures like the Tear of Cerulean. Each representing a different color. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple and one other."
"One other?" Nick asked, now curious.
"I'll get to that in a second. Each of these greater treasures are called vergence philters. One that was commonly known of in history was the red one, sometimes called the Philosopher's Stone."
"From the Camelot legends?"
"And Harry Potter?" Nick put in.
"Yes. Each of these have three very potent abilities. First, they serve as a means of opening trods, which are paths through the dreaming. Philters can open any trod, no matter how well sealed, if you can simply find the entrance."
"So back on the boat the other night, when the old folks was talkin' about findin' the trod back to Arcadia, they was hopin' that Robby was gonna go open the door?"
"Essentially. But there's more. The Tear, and the others like it, can also channel raw Glamour. Which basically means that Robby has almost limitless magical power at his disposal."
"I'm guessing," I began, starting to put things together in my head, "that this third power of the Tear is the one you fear the most."
"Yes. The last power is that it can restructure reality."
"You mean…" I trailed off.
"Exactly. Robby has the power, through the Tear, to remake things as he wishes. He just has to want it bad enough and funnel the energy to accomplish it. Some simple things, like wishing a traffic light to change, well, that doesn't take a lot of juice. I mean, traffic lights change all the time, it's what they do. But if he wanted to do something big, like, say, undo the Statue of Liberty, that would take a lot of power, because it's huge, it's been there a long time, tons of people know about it," Kenny explained, counting off on his fingers. "And, there's a big catch."
"Always is," Nick slipped in.
"Whatever you wish to happen while using the Tear like that, you have to think about every little detail you want changed. So like with the traffic light, you just want it to change now, for you, and then you don't care if it goes back to normal."
"But like for the Statue of Liberty, if you're not specific, it could just end by some great disaster?"
"Or terrorism, or Liberty Island could sink, or all of New York City blows up," Kenny explained. "If you'd wished the Statue never existed, then you might wind up undoing history like killing the artist who designed it, or altering how the Civil War ended up. Or make it so the Revolution never happened in the first place."
"Gawd, that'd be awful. We'd all be speakin' like English or something." I glared a Nick for a moment.
"Does he know it can do all that?" I asked, turning back to Kenny.
"I don't think he fully understands it. I believe he knows it is a very powerful artifact, and one he's used a few times without understanding its full powers."
"Wow," Nick breathed out, impressed. "It's the greatest lock pick, the Energizer Bunny and the magic marker God wrote the Bible with all at once. Heck of a thing."
"It's a sure bet that the bane riding him knows at least a little bit about that by now," I said. "So, there are limits to what it can do, based on what it's being told to do, am I right?"
"Essentially. He can use it to mold raw Glamour, to use the Glamour to fuel his own powers. He's even used it to help bring me back from the Mysts. But using it to bring back mortals from the dead…"
"That's one of the boundaries, isn't it?"
"Death for humans isn't as simple as it sounds. Death is only the beginning for some. Altering that cycle after death almost always has severe consequences, and Robby isn't ready for what those might be. Even if he had brought their spirits back and put them back into their bodies, the bodies were dead. And they were both Mages, as well, so I don't know what all that would mean."
"Nuthin' good, likely. Even our kind don't go messin' round with dead folks."
"He's right. Sometimes we get help, advice, even talents and skills we don't have from our ancestors, but Garou don't try bringing back the dead. At least, not that I've seen. That's too much like vampire stuff."
Kenny nodded, and I could see that this was weighing on him heavily. A sudden realization dawned on me. Something unsaid, but lingering within Kenny's mind.
"So these vergence philters, they're a double edged sword. Right? I mean, on the one hand, it's tremendous power. On the other hand, it's a curse."
Kenny nodded. Nick wasn't so sure.
"How can ya'll think that?"
"There are legends about the philters. How tragedy, strife, anarchy all seem to follow those who hold them."
"More money, more problems," I said, getting a look of realization from Nick.
"More than just that. People have started wars, committed acts of terrible savagery and brutality, just to get their hands on the philters. Not so much as a corruption from the object itself, but for the beings who lust after power."
"Which is something Robby doesn't do," I realized out loud. Kenny nodded.
"Which is why it was safe in his care. Until now. My slacker boyfriend was the safest place for it. He literally wanted nothing."
"Cept you, of course," Nick smiled, getting a return smile from Kenny. "So what you're sayin'," Nick began, putting the pieces together in his head, "because he's so upset from his folks bein' killed, and that bane inside him, he could let free all kinda dark things?"
"Anything he can imagine, whether part of reality as we know it or beyond it, could happen while he dreams and that thing is in his heart. I mean, in another life, when he was just a kid, he turned his brother's dying soul into a twisted dream dragon, one that chased us throughout history and killed us both many times. Now, he's got bedlam and a bane riding him. Add to that his grief, pain and frustration..."
"Woooff!" I exclaimed softly.
"Yeah, three bags full," Nicky agreed. "Guess we should pop that bane right outta him, then, huh?"
"You found a way?" Kenny asked, his voice turning hopeful.
"I was instructed. I've performed the ritual, as well," I added, quickly, realizing the truth of it. I had performed the magic, there were just unexpected circumstances. Like how in a rainstorm you might encounter moisture. "I will need your help. You and Nick must guard us while I perform the exorcism. And once the bane is out of him, we have to destroy it."
"Anything you need from me, I'll do." The truth of his statement was echoed by a clap of thunder outside. Nick and I looked around, startled. A hard rain began to fall, so hard that it made a loud, stinging sound on the pavement outside the house. The splattering of raindrops on the window glass made a sharp, staccato sound; drumbeats of some insanely fast dance song.
"Oh, hello boys. I didn't hear you come in," Kenny's father said from the doorway. How he'd gotten down the stairs to Kenny's room without Nick or I hearing him is beyond me. He's not a small man, tall and broad shouldered. The fact that he moves so silently was startling, at least in that moment, especially considering how much my senses are elevated compared to the average human. I wasn't the only one.
"Ya'll liked to gimme a heart attack!" Nick said, seeming to be just as surprised by Mitch's appearance as I was.
"Didn't mean to surprise you," Mitch said, leaning casually on the doorjam. "Are you boys staying for dinner?"
"Sir, we… we need to talk to you." I couldn't believe I'd spoken, but it was clearly my voice I heard.
"About him," the elder Tannagord sighed and gave a slight nod in Robby's direction with his chin.
"Yessir. We know about what happened with him earlier today."
"Did Kenny tell you what we feel has happened with him? About what Bedlam is?"
"Not in so many words, Poppa," Kenny spoke up. It was strange hearing him use that word. It reminded me that Kenny and Robby are just over a year younger than me. I was about to turn 15 and the changeling boys had just turned 13. Something about it just didn't completely sit right with what I knew about changelings, which is admittedly not a lot. I mean, they are simultaneously insanely old, spiritually, and vastly powerful once they start remembering their true selves, and yet, Kenny and Robby are still just 13 year old kids. Kids like Nick and me.
"Sir, I feel responsible for that," I said, and then explained my dream the other night, my fight with the little banes, and the one that entered Robby's chest. His brow furrowed as I explained things, and I noticed that he would make quick eye contact with Kenny as the key points of my story rose. As soon as I had explained it, he nodded sagely.
"So, dinner. Right. Let me know if you need anything. Ken, a word with you a moment," Mitch said, starting up the stairs.
We all traded a look, at least those of us under 6 feet tall. Kenny smiled wryly as he bounded up the steps after his father, reminding us that while Kenny somehow outranked Mitch in the changeling scheme of things, he was still just a teenager and Mitch's son.
"Ouch!" Nick said, speaking Garou.
"We probably should have run that by Mitch as well right after it happened," I replied, also in Garou. "This Bedlam thing sounds like it's a lot worse than we know."
"Guess we still got lots to learn about each other," Nick chuffed softly, sounding almost chided.
I moved over to Robby and focused my mind as the theurges taught me the night before. Nothing as dramatic as anything anime, no hand gestures, no words of power. It's just a simple concentration of attention to the spiritual energy that is all around us.
Nick reverted to lupus and began sniffing around the room, eventually wandering out the door while I focused on Robby. We knew that there were things we had to do, so we got to it. Kenny would be back soon enough and we could begin. I just wanted to see how deep the bane riding Robby was dug in. Nick was just checking to make sure we were secure before we started. Which is just as good, since I was still feeling a bit insecure in my ability to fix things.
Yeah, I know, I seem to have this consistent self-confidence problem.
Peering into Robby with spiritual focus is sort of shocking. The Tear itself is like a little blue sun, and you all know what staring into the sun is like. Robby's own spirit energies are a bright blue, with various hues of blue sort of shimmering around. Seriously, it's like Star Wars special effects. It took me a few moments to screen out the glare.
Then I saw it. Sitting right there, under the Tear, deep within Robby's chest, which was weird enough to look into. Part of me expected to see, like, inside organs and gushing fluids and pulsing guts. Thankfully, it was more like just seeing the bane as an image superimposed within Robby's energy.
It was much larger than when I'd seen it before. There were little teeth marks and claw scratches in his flesh, glowing little wound marks that were mostly superficial. The sort of things that you might do to your own skin just by scratching at a bug bite, only these glowed with the bane's energy in my spiritual sight. And when I say glowed, I don't mean that these marks were brilliant and luminous ribbons of after-image, like you'd expect to experience while watching someone playing with a light stick in a dark room. No, this glowing was sort of like the flat illumination that you see on the sides of tricked out cars or in costumes for sci-fi movies. Like a soft chemical glow diffused behind some kinda plastic panel.
It saw me as well, and I was repulsed by how things had changed. Before, the bane had been this little, vicious thing, with beak like claws for hands and a stubbly-faced, wide mouth of little, pointy teeth and three eyes. Its gray skin had gotten that chemical glow look to it, gray shot through with darker and brighter veins of green. The veins were pulsing with little brighter bits of blue, energy from the Tear. Tentacles of mottled gray flesh, rippled with sick looking fringes, ragged with unhealthy looking red bumps and blemishes, snaked deep into Robby's body at weird angles. More than eight of them were clear to me, twisting into my friend's body and soul. Two were wrapped around Robby's heart, one slithered up around his spine towards his head. Another seemed to snake down to where Robby's "snake" would be. All of them surged and writhed and pulsed.
Not only had the thing grown, it had grown into Robby, like a parasite would. It was connected to his body so intimately, to every vital part of him. It was an abomination. I was horrified at how quickly and vastly this thing had infiltrated every part of Robby. I felt sick.
I also felt that no matter what else I felt about my own ability, I had to get this thing out of Robby. It was so foul and corrupting, so unnatural and revolting, it had to be removed, even if it killed me to do so. I was simultaneously empowered and terrified by this feeling. Conflicted.
"I see you, villain," I whispered, staring into the gaze of the three-eyed bane.
No, the creature responded, its voice sounding in my head, deep and resonant and, strangely, cultured, like I'd expect an experienced, trained opera singer or a polished politician to sound like. Commanding and calm, slightly echoy and penetrating. You see what I am now. Soon, I will be more.
"Not if I can help it."
If you try to remove me, I will fight you.
If you take me from him, which I doubt you can, little Garou, if you pull me out of him, I'll take his spirit with me. I'll consume his soul.
"That wont happen."
Face it, young one. You aren't strong enough. You aren't good enough. And in the greater view, you know that you can't save him. If you draw me out and save the artifact, you lose him. If you kill me, I'll take him with me. Still, I am too strong for you. And you know it.
"I am not alone."
No matter how many you bring, I have the Tear now. I have grown strong on its power, more so than this pathetic shell I wear ever could. Soon, very soon, I will know all the Tear's secrets, have all its powers as my own. Nothing you can do will be enough.
"I will not let you take him. I will not let you have the Tear."
It doesn't matter what you believe you can do, little Garou. I have him now, completely. And I can do this.
As I watched, the creature, for it was far from a simple bane now, constricted its tentacles within Robby. His body convulsed, twisting upright in bed, his spine contorting about, arms tensing and flailing in mad abandon. His eyes flashed open, spilling a sickly blue-green light around the room, instantly making shadows dash about in sinister, violent patterns. His mouth opened, flooding light and sound in a scream of such high-pitched shrieking agony. I actually stepped back in surprise.
Robby's head suddenly snapped in my direction, his gaze one of such simple insane glee, subtle and pleasant, almost, that I was taken aback again. His body still writhed, but his head and face were passive, immobile, staring at me in that grim, savage challenge smile I saw on his face when he was showing Nick and me how well he and Kenny fight. It was unnerving in the extreme.
"You must know by now," he said, Robby's head twisting around slowly, impossibly going completely around to the left, a full 360°. "That you don't stand a chance. Either with or without this vessel, the Tear is mine. And with it, all of you shall become my vassals or my fodder. This world shall be mine!"
It was really weird hearing Robby's voice saying that. I could also hear the thing's voice in my head as well, sort of at the same time. I knew this was probably a lot further over my head than I was ready for.
"Not yet." I can't believe I'd said that, but I suddenly felt it. I remembered when I had defeated that water elemental a month ago. It had been something that the Cody then would never have imagined being able to do outside of a video game. Yet, here I was about to challenge a bane that was becoming something far more powerful. Something that was feeling so good about itself it was practically claiming godhood.
"And if I have anything to say about it, not ever, beast." I was shaking. Yeah, it was fear. I mean, you see that happen right before your eyes, it puts a mark on you. But it was also Rage rising in me. Werewolves are nature's supernatural bio-defense mechanism. We destroy things that infect and pollute our world. It's what we do. Rage is part of that, it gives us strength, fuels our relentless natures and even helps us ignore injury to keep fighting.
But it wasn't going to help me against this new evil. I needed to keep my cool. Rage and Gnosis don't really work well together. They are separate parts of a werewolf's nature. The meat and the mind. When they are synced up, it's a beautiful thing. However, even among normal humans, when Rage overcomes Gnosis, which is the Greek word for knowledge, when that happens, you can't act with clear thought. And in working Garou magic, using Gnosis, Rage is the enemy.
The beast was trying to get to me. To put me in a Rage state instead of a Gnosis state. And that was the last place I needed to be in. Not for this. Not to help Robby.
I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply and felt my heart expand and slow in my chest. I gathered my Rage and contained it, held it in and promised it later I'd let it out.
A promise to myself that I intend to keep.
I breathed out, slowly, letting my calm coming back over me. A strange calm, one that somehow put me in a very quiet, confident state. The calm inside me felt like it was flowing out, like it was infectious in its own way.
I opened my eyes to see Robby's body settling back to the bed, the covers all thrashed about. A gasp from the doorway drew my attention. Nick, Kenny and Mitch stood there, looking like they were dumbfounded. Kenny moved first, brushing past my boy to run to Robby's side.
"Uh, what the fuck, over?" Nick asked in Garou, sounding like he whined.
"The bane is trying to show its power. Its control of Robby," I spoke in English. "We'll have to perform the exorcism soon. It has grown very strong."
"Kay Neth," Mitch spoke, softly yet clearly, his rumbling tone sounding deep and formal. "Prise de fer." I must have had a questioning look on my face, because Kenny met my eyes briefly before replying.
"It means take the blade," Kenny explained. "I already have SkyFire, Father."
"Then wield it well in his stead and in his honor."
"I shall, I swear it." A jolt of lightning split the sky outside, sort of shaking us back to the truth of the matter.
"I think I better go start dinner. Come get me before you start the exorcism. I'll see if we can get some extra help over here."
"Thank you, Poppa."
"Thanks Mr. T," Nick said as well, coming into the bedroom.
You know, it only occurred to me at that moment that because their last name was Tannagord, Kenny's dad really was Mr. T. Weird.
My eyes locked with Kenny's, and his expression was one of intense worry. Not anything like despair or grief, but almost as much. Guess I don't know what I'm saying, but it was a haunted look that I'll always remember. There was more at stake here than just an evil spirit taking a powerful artifact. He was very likely going to lose his immortal boyfriend if I didn't succeed. And Nick and I would lose a buddy who we'd just met but felt a close kinship to. A pack mate.
"We should set up," I said.
"Do you need anything?"
"Nope, got it covered, Kenny," Nick said, holding up his backpack. He reached in and withdrew a large package of table salt, a large stick of street chalk, three white candles, an incense burner and three 20 oz bottles of water.
"What's all that for?" Kenny asked, resuming his block on Robby's dreaming.
"The four elements," Nick said. "Chalk to make markings, salt for the earth, incense for air, candles for fire and water for, well, duh!"
"I need to mark a layout diagram on the ground to focus the spirit energy here," I explained. "We'll lay him in the middle, and that's where I'll perform the exorcism. You will have to defend outside the diagram, without breaking any of the lines."
"What happens if we break a line?"
"Let's not find out," Nick said, starting to move things around in the room.
"Oh, right." Kenny looked back to Robby's face, passive again. "He keeps trying to dream. It's not easy blocking that."
"Because of the Tear?" I asked, starting to draw on the hardwood floor as Nick rolled the rug off to the side.
"No," Kenny chuckled. "Because of Robby. He's a powerful dreamer all by himself. Always has been."
"Wait a sec," I said, looking up. "The Tear channels Glamour, right?"
"And dreamers create and can manipulate Glamour?"
"So a lot of the stuff he can do, could he do it without the Tear?"
"Some things. There are some limits, sadly."
"Ah think ah know what yuir gettin' at," Nick said, standing from rolling the carpet against the wall. "Yuir boyfriend's been slacking. Big time."
"He's right," I pointed out quickly. "Robby doesn't know exactly what he's got hanging around his neck. He's tapping into powers he might already have through the Tear. If he knew his full potential…"
"He hasn't remembered that yet. That's part of the Bedlam. When a changeling spends too much time in one part of his heritage without doing so in the other, especially when you carry treasures…"
"Ya'll risk madness. Like when a Garou loses the wolf, Cody." I nodded. A Garou with no Rage is no longer a shapeshifter; he's lost the wolf. A Garou can regenerate Gnosis and he can keep his iron will, but if he loses his connection to the Rage, he ceases to be a werewolf. It often makes the former wolf in question a very weak person, sometimes driving them to despair, depression. "Mighty fine line ya'll walk," Nick commented dryly.
"Does this change anything we have to do here?" Kenny said with some force in his voice.
"Uh, no," I said, looking up at him. His features shifted at once. I must have looked like he'd just slapped me. One thing that changelings seem to have learned across their lifetimes that they keep is how to make their voice a weapon.
"I'm sorry. Didn't mean to say it like that. I'm just…"
"Worried bout yuir boy," Nick finished. "We know. No sweat, Kenny." Nick clapped him on the shoulder. "We'll fix him. Cody's the best," he said, shooting me a wink.
I started laying out the pattern with the chalk, placing the four elements at the corners, to honor the four winds or directions or whatever you want to call them. I paused as I set out the bowl of water, staring into its depths. Or into its shallowths, since it's only like cereal bowl deep. I dunno if I expected to see something or have some sort of vision. Guess I was just seeking guidance. You know, "Speaks With Water," and all that.
Upstairs, we heard the door open. Twice, and then a few thumping steps down to the lower part of the split level house, where Kenny's room is. It was Juan and Bethy, both bearing their Jedi class lightsabers. Kenny smiled as they came down stairs.
"Thanks for coming," he said, greeting the two changelings.
"We came as soon as Mitch called. It's the least we can do," Bethy replied. She dropped a hand on Kenny's shoulder and gave him a smile that could light up a dark opera house.
"Capricus and Pyrious arrived shortly before us. They're helping Mitch with dinner. They suggested we come down and help with what we're doing."
"Kewl," Nick interjected, although I could tell by his tone that he wasn't entirely comfortable with Juan. It wasn't something to do with the fact that Juan's Hispanic. I didn't know what it was, but the subtle edge to his voice set off an alarm in my head. But I was busy, so I filed it away for later.
"What are we doing?" Juan asked, noticing the moved furniture and the marks I was making on the floor.
"Preparing to perform an exorcism on an evil spirit that has entered Robby's body and is feeding off of the energy of the Tear."
"Oh," Beth said. She glanced around. "So the room isn't this messy all the time?"
"Only since Robby moved in," Kenny smirked.
"I thought all boys were slobs."
"Don't let my room be your guide for that, babe," Juan said. Behind his back, Nicky made a disgusted face and mimicked Juan. Bethy tried not to laugh, seeing Nicky's parody, quickly covering her mouth with one hand.
"Boys!" came a bellowing voice from upstairs.
"And girl!" Bethy shouted back.
"And girl! Supper's ready."
"You guys go ahead," Kenny said. "I have to keep him from dreaming."
"Uh uh, buddy," Juan said. "You go eat. I'll keep watch on Robby. You'll need your strength."
"You need to be strong for Robyn, Kay Neth," I heard myself say. That's been happening a lot lately. Like I'll say stuff and only recognize the things I say as being like in my voice after I hear them, and still wonder where such insights and depth come from.
A look passed between us. One that I can't say I ever saw on anyone before, but I recognized it instantly. The look of someone torn between their own needs and the needs of the one they love more than anything else in the world, love more than even themselves. I nodded quickly, setting the chalk down. Kenny nodded too, although reluctantly.
"We'll be quick so you can get some chow too," Kenny said, standing. Juan stepped over to the bed and raised his hand over Robby's sleeping form.
"It's okay. I ate like an hour ago. I'm good."
It was a pretty somber meal. We ate quickly, barely tasting what I should have remembered as a nice meal. I know my stomach appreciated it. Baked chicken made with Italian dressing marinade, broccoli dripping in melted cheddar, yellow sticky rice, and a tall cold glass of milk to wash it down. I should have been savoring every spicy, cheesy, sticky, milky bit of it, but my mind was turned towards the coming events.
Yeah, I know. I worry a lot about things. It's a consequence of being a thinker. More of my parents' legacies, I guess.
Keith noticed my mood. He kept trying to make funny faces at me, to get me to crack a smile. I didn't know changelings had ragabash in their number. And as much as I appreciated his efforts, my head was stuck in stubborn mode.
Even Nicky knows there are limits to trying to penetrate my thick skull.
Sadly, the dinner had to end. Kenny finished first and bolted down to be with Robby. Can't say I blame him. If it had been Nicky's immortal soul on the line, you wouldn't be able to keep me away from him for long either. And, despite his words earlier, Juan popped up and had a plateful as well. Nicky and I got down and continued setting up the pattern.
After a short while, I had the whole diagram drawn out on the floor. I think I drew it too big, but it was my first time. I hadn't noticed it, but the entire house was gathered out in the hallway just outside Kenny's room. Looking up and seeing them stare at me was a little unnerving.
"What do you need us to do?" Mitch asked, and he did it in that deep, booming voice that told me he was ready to let Caspian out. Like I said, changelings just seem to have something in the voice that's spooky powerful.
"There will be things attracted to the ceremony. Aside from Robby, I can only allow two others inside the pattern. I need the rest of you keep guard outside. While I'm performing the exorcism, things will come into the real world. The Dreaming and the Umbra might actually merge. Overlap. Be ready for anything."
"What will the things look like?" Bethy asked.
"Could be anything," Nick replied, as I lit the candles. "Anything from your worst nightmares to anything you can think of from movies or books. Or worse," and my boy paused, looking around. "It might be somethin' that looks innocent and cute. Them's the worst!"
Juan came up behind Bethy and hugged her briefly. I was sort of impressed. She wasn't the big nasty fighter that the other changelings were, but she was willing to stand by a wounded friend, no matter what her fears were. Among werewolves, that's the path to both honor and respect.
It was decided that Kenny and Nicky would be inside the pattern with me once things started. The others spread out around the house, Bethy and Juan sticking together, the three adults taking up solo positions.
"Guess it's just down to us," Kenny said. I nodded, kneeling in the middle of the chalk lines. Kenny picked up Robby from the bed, leaving him in just a sheet, and brought him down to the middle of the pattern as well. Nicky stood behind me.
"Now what?" Kenny asked.
"Now I rip that beast out of my friend," I said, gritting my teeth. I could see the bane inside Robby again, and it was coiling its tentacles deep within his body. Robby's body seemed to break out in a cold sweat, trembled slightly. More proof for me that the creature, despite what it had said earlier was not as completely in control of Robby as it thought it was. Otherwise, why would it stink of fear?
Nicky and Kenny positioned themselves in the outer ring. This was where they could defend from attackers trying to reach the center and stop the exorcism. And by the sound of that rumblings happening outside, not a moment too soon. My companions noticed the sounds of fighting outside. I could see Nicky shift up to glabro form, basically still human looking, but more caveman style. Strangely, he looks cute like that.
"Our friend is calling allies. We better get to it."
"Anything, you say, Glub-glub."
Kenny, very solemnly, nodded. I noticed he had SkyFire in hand.
"I will begin." I started the mental disciplines. I began chanting the words, feeling the power grow inside me, gathering. Gnosis has a subtle coolness to it. It builds within and fills you, like wind in the sails of a boat. That rush entered me, giving me strength.
I looked down, through Robby's body, to the creature, the former bane. Its eyes stared back at me, quivering with anger at what I was about to do. I brought my hands around, tensing my forearm muscles, drawing the energy from my center out to my fingertips. Somewhere along the way, I had switched to crinos form, ready for the fight.
The creature clearly wasn't ready to go yet. It spoke straight into my mind. You will fail, little Garou. Again. You will fail and you will only hurt this shell more.
"Not this time. I wont fail. And I shall tear you to shreds for the trouble you've caused."
I could give you power, It thought to me. I could show you gifts that this world has forgotten. I have the power to make you as strong as the greater spirits themselves. Stronger still, even than Unicorn whom you revere. If you but worship me.
"Not happening," I whispered in Garou.
You could lead your people to a new glory, It offered. You could change the future.
So I said the corniest thing I could think of that fit. "Bitch, you don't have a future. You can't tempt me with what you don't have."
You will die trying to remove me! I will digest you! And your bitch-boy lover!
I felt the Gnosis gathered in my fingertips, and had to suppress my anger. Trying to distract me, that's all he's doing, I told myself. It's trying to escape.
While chanting, I stroked my claws through Robby's flesh, only they weren't my nearly inch long werewolf claws just now. It was the magic, the power, the focus of the spirit force I was going to use to pry this atrocity from my friend's body.
My claws snagged in the creature's flesh. Robby's body twitched as the parasite shook with the impact. I pulled and let my second paw slide down, slashing my energy claws into the creature's main body. It screamed, and I saw Kenny and Nicky both whip their heads in my direction at the sound. I bunched the muscles of my right arm, the first one I'd plunged in, and hooked my claws in deep, cranking my fingers into hooks to drag this thing up and out and away from Robby's soul.
But the bane wasn't going to go easy. It shot out two tentacles, one smashing into my canine jaw like a heavy-weight boxer's uppercut, the other wrapping around my arm. The little beak-like fingers had changed as well, becoming more like rows of teeth and suckers along the tentacle's underside, digging into my arm. Fire flowed into the tentacle bites, like cuts splashed with acid.
It wasn't easy keeping my cool. The pain was real, the blood I felt seeping into my fur was real, and mine, by the way. There was a fraction of a second I had to resist pulling back, letting go of the beast and attacking its tentacle directly. It was an act of sheer will to keep myself from lashing out and biting the tentacle clean through. I had to keep chanting, though. I had to keep my focus on the creature, on Robby, on surviving this exorcism myself.
The creature tried to pull me in, its mouth opening wide. A toothy grin split the things face, speckled with froth. It licked its lips as it hauled backwards, thinking it could chew me up.
I dug in my heels and held fast, pitting my werewolf muscle against the tentacle's tug. Slowly, and with a twisting motion, I pulled my left hand claws up, making sure I had a secure grip on the evil thing. It howled in pain. I howled as well, partly from the pain in my arm and partly because I felt the thing starting to lose its grip on Robby.
"You'll burn, little puppy!" It screamed. "You'll all… BURN!"
The candles flashed, suddenly giving off a bright violet light, shooting up straight tongues of flame 6 feet high and thick as a street side garbage can.
Now, as freaky as that sounds, it got weirder.
The suddenly purple eruptions spat out smaller flames, about the size of cocker spaniels. These smaller flames grew limbs, wings mostly, and began circling around the room, just overhead. Nicky shifted form again, up to crinos and lunged at one of the things, raking his left claws through the air to intercept. But the winged flames were quick. It dodged away, leaving Nicky open for one of its buddies to rake across his shoulders.
Two blue glows sprang to life. One was pale, more a simple glow. The other was almost an angry dancing bolt of lightning raging back and forth in a narrow beam. Kenny spun, slashing with both his own silvery lightsaber and SkyFire's shrieking blue blade, carving through one of the flame wings and bouncing another away from his own back.
I turned my concentration back to the beast I was pulling out of Robby's chest. It was not exactly going well. I was struggling, barely holding my grip. Robby's narrow rib cage lifted off the ground, the spirit-form tentacles of the creature spitting out to smash at me. One tentacle shot out towards a standing floor lamp but it smacked into my barrier, directly over the chalk lines, and rebounded like it had touched an electric fence.
I took that opportunity to turn and put all the muscles of my back and legs into pulling the beast out. The tendrils of my spirit claws wrapped around my body as I turned, my arms twisting over my head violently and then down just under my elbows. The thing bucked and jerked trying to climb back in. One of its tentacles lashed across my back and neck. I grit my teeth, baring them, as I continued chanting.
"You are losing, cur!" It howled, laughing in a sinister sort of way that sounded to me like half in pain half maniacal. Robby's body thrashed in the central circle. I risked a look over my shoulder and saw that the creature was thrashing within my friend. Its internal tentacles were tightened, stretched thinner than I'd seen before, almost cutting into the flesh they were wrapped around. I had to end this quickly. The thing wasn't kidding when it said it was going to take Robby with him. That realization drove me on.
I can admit it. We'd only been doing this for about four or five minutes, tops, and already I was not only beginning to feel exhausted, I was getting desperate too. And in that, I felt a slight doubt.
And then I ignored the doubt. I was not about to let this abomination win, especially when the price of losing was Robby's death. Or worse, this creature taking him permanently and becoming little less than a god.
One of the flame wings smashed into my face. It was a burn I'd never felt before. Whatever made up that purple fire, it was fierce! Fortunately the thing bounced off and tried to recover its flight out of my line of sight. It hurt like hell, but it didn't break my hold on the beast.
A loud thump upstairs caught my attention, in fact, the attention of everyone in the room, including the beast. It sounds comical, but we all looked up and the flame wings seemed distracted as well.
"My thunderwyrm has arrived!" the beast cried out, sort of triumphantly. Nicky and I exchanged a quick look, terror and recognition coming to both of us. Thunderwyrms are enormous serpentine creatures capable of swallowing a crinos in one gulp, or crushing a Garou under a twist of its long thickly sinewy body. I'd only heard of them, described in what passes for werewolf campfire stories. Hearing one bouncing around on the hardwood floor above was a bit of an eye opener. I hoped with all my will that the guys and Bethy were up to the task up there.
"Ah was pissed before!" Nicky announced, flexing his arms, chest and thighs visibly, feeling his Rage flow. "Now Ah'm fuckin' hyper torked!"
And he went to town, leaping around and slashing at the flame wing creatures. He was magnificent. Him and Kenny both. They were outnumbered almost 9 to 2, but they got busy knocking the flame wings around. Before I knew it, there were three less of the things, two meeting their ends at Nicky's claws, and one finding SkyFire's bite too much to take.
"You're giving up godhood, charach!" That was about as much as I wanted to listen to. My muscles were straining, the thing was basically using my back as a punching bag, lashing me with tentacle hits and rakes with the sharp, suckery parts from the underside of the tentacles. I must have been bleeding from a dozen rips around my hips and thighs, down the left side of my neck, even on my tail.
"You… can't… give… me… what… you… don't… HAVE!" I chanted, almost screaming in the Garou tongue. I leaned forward hard, a sudden plan exploding in my mind. If I had taken the time to consider how stupid this plan was, I probably wouldn't have done it. But at the moment, it felt completely right. So I did it.
I lifted one of my feet, leaning all the way forward and tried to take a step forwards, dragging the creature an inch further out of Robby's body, the Tear shining brightly as if it were a nail binding Robby's chest and the creature's backbone. I heard a victory roar from Nicky, and I knew he'd taken another wing down. This gave me strength and I surged forwards, trying to get my foot down.
Then the thing surged back, its physical power showing in it drawing me backwards, dragging me across the floor on my one foot, my claws literally curling wood shavings from the floor planks. I was losing my attempt to drag the creature out of Robby's body as surely as I was losing leverage on the ground.
Which was exactly my plan. When it had drawn me practically on top of Robby's body, now in the seated position, I lashed out with my raised leg, going from looking like a running man to something like Jackie Chan in a fur coat. My foot slipped between the immaterial spirit form of the creature and landed against Robby's breastbone, pads first.
"Wha!? NOOO! NOOOOOOOOO!" the beast howled, realizing what I'd done. I had leverage directly on Robby's body now. All of my strength could be brought directly to bear. And bear it I sure did. My body, my entire 7 and a half foot tall werewolf in crinos body was bent over, half crouched, with a point I could push against through my foot.
"Get your… donkey raping… ass faced… worthless… wyrm tainted hide… outta… my… FRIEND!" I surged, letting all of my strength and will flow. I stretched, letting my arms surge forwards, my legs slowly uncoil, my back straightening at an angle to my friend's body, dragging that freakin' evil evolved bane completely out.
It happened rather suddenly, with an audible popping sound. Almost immediately there were effects. The violent torrents of flame vanished from over the candles. The flame wings that remained, and there weren't many, dissolved into a mildly stinky smoke stream, vanishing to nothing. I fell forward, my front claws smacking the floor so hard I left dents in the boards.
I looked back and saw Robby laying on his side, shifted over by the force of my leg pushing on his body. I saw no marks on him, which was good, since my back claws are just as potent as my front ones. Kenny dropped his own blade and SkyFire's blade shrank back into the handle, like a tiny blue firefly in a plastic water bottle. He was at Robby's side in a heartbeat, checking his lover's pulse.
Nick stood between the changeling boys and me, still in crinos, his chest still heaving and flexing, spots on his fur showing singe marks from close calls with the flame wings. He nodded behind me. I turned rising to one knee, glancing around.
There was a slightly larger than normal bane, the one I'd pulled out of Robby, laying on its back, smoking as if it had been in the center of a roaring bonfire. Its eyes and mouth were open and it seemed to be still alive. Nubs that could be the stumps of its former tentacles clustered around at the thing's joints, looking very much over-cooked.
My eyes were still attuned to the spiritual world, and I could see that the thing was still powerful. It didn't have the nearly limitless energies of the Tear fueling its power anymore, but the creature was far more than any mere bane. As I watched, it began to gather itself, making like it wanted to stand.
"You are WEAK, young ones!" It said, pushing off the wall to regain its feet. "Weak and STUPID! You haven't defeated me. I just get to take the pleasure of killing you with my own flesh!"
I tried to get to my feet and failed, feeling completely drained. Nick was at my side in a moment, his paws gripping my shoulders, partly supporting me. The super bane began to glow with a sickly violet light. My body twitched. The wounds across my back and thighs were burning, like the venom-burn feeling I had from the Black Spiral Dancer's claws before my first change. That time seemed so very long ago, suddenly.
"Once I kill you, I will kill your changeling friends. I will Undo them. Then I'll reposes the shell and take the Tear for my own again. And there's nothing you can do."
"Got anything left in the tank?" Nick whispered to me.
"A little. I need a couple seconds to finish this."
"The plan?" he asked, letting go of me and standing up to square off with the super bane.
"Unicorn trap," I barked in English, looking back, briefly to Kenny and Robby. Kenny was dragging his boyfriend back from the center of the room, giving Nicky and me room to work. We heard a quick series of footsteps from the stairway, echoing down the hall.
Nicky moved forward his scorched furry form outlined in the dirty purple light the evil thing kicked off. He squared up and charged, reaching out with his claws to give the bane a little love tap, pointy parts first.
The thing moved, with brutal speed. I've never seen anything move that fast. I also realized that it was at least as big as Nicky's crinos form. It landed a hard knee strike to Nicky's midsection, bending him over. The thing dropped an elbow into Nicky's back, nearly dropping my boy flat to the deck. Only his arms draped around the creature's mid section kept Nicky from hitting the floor.
A grin of what I can only describe as self-satisfied glee spread across the bane's face, looking like such a perversion of a smile. I could see it building up energy in its body, prepared to strike Nicky with some sort of spiritual blast. Then the smile suddenly faded into a howl of pain as Nicky sank his teeth into the bane's hip, his huge crinos jaws wrapped around the thing's left hip.
"Anytime now!" Nicky said muffled around a mouthful of bane.
I surged forwards as the bane tried to pry Nick's jaw open. They struggled, bouncing against the wall, Nicky linking his hands behind the creature's back and squeezing tightly, despite the elbows the thing rained on the side of his face. My left hand reached out and pinned its right wrist to the wall, ripping its flesh a little against Nicky's teeth.
"You fuckin' chara…" it started to say, but I shoved something into its mouth to silence it.
"You blaspheme Unicorn! For that, you will be destroyed." Its eyes opened wide, realizing what it was I had crammed halfway down its throat.
It was the horn from the unicorn colt we'd cremated.
I began the chant, focusing what little spirit energy I had left on the ritual, one that Nicky knew as well, because he began chanting as well, around a mouthful of what I can only imagine was just horribly foul tasting wyrm-beast.
The beast realized it was done. Didn't stop it from trying to buck us off, spit out the horn. It blew backwards on the horn, propelling weird notes from the little holes that lined the spiral striations of the horn. Its power faded quickly, draining out. It was losing the battle. As I felt it losing energy, I took half a step back and then surged upwards with my whole weight and strength, ripping the horn up through the creature's head.
Okay, a little unorthodox. Certainly not a good way to succeed with that ritual we were trying, the Rite of Talisman Dedication, but I didn't want the ritual to be totally successful. I wanted to drain its energy down, suck it dry. I certainly didn't want its foul presence bound into that horn. I had other plans for that.
The thing howled as its head split open, the spirit-flesh of the creature burning away rapidly in a dissolving tracing of sickly purple light. Nicky barely got his teeth out of the thing by shifting down to glabro and falling back with me onto the floor. Together we collapsed and lay panting against each other, me laying face down over Nicky's lap.
"Hey," he said, after a few heavy moments of slowing heart rates.
"Ya'll in one piece?"
"Mostly," I croaked out.
"You gonna live?"
"You don't get rid of me that easy, mister."
"We'll get up offa muh lap. People's' lookin' an' it looks like ya'll're lickin' stuff!"
I faked a punch to his head, leaning back. I looked at my right hand and saw that the unicorn horn had a faint pearlescent blue glow, similar to the glow I saw over on Robby's chest. Kenny cradled his still unconscious boyfriend, tears streaming down his face.
"Everyone alright?" Mitch's voice boomed from the doorway. Beyond him I could see Bethy and Juan, pushing their way under the tall man's arm to get into the room.
"We will be," Nick said. Already his wounds were healing, although his fur would likely be a bit scruffy looking for a while.
"Kenneth?" the elder Tannagord asked.
"I am alright, Poppa." His eyes, those brilliant gray eyes, traveled over to me. "Is it finished? Is it done?"
"Yes," I said, shifting back to my human form. My body still ached, but the cuts and burns had healed. I must have looked like hell with all that blood still stuck to me.
"But he's still…" Bethy said, her hand going to her mouth, trembling slightly.
"It takes a little while for his body to reboot. He'll be fine."
"Thank you, both of you," Kenny said, smiling, his eyes shining through his tears. "If there's anything I can ever do, all you need to do is ask. Anything." A loud rumble in the distance echoed, shaking the house slightly. The changelings seemed to exchange a look at that, but Nick and I were still recovering.
"If it ain't too much of a hassle, can ah get a drink of water. My mouth tastes like bane!"
It was a heavy rain that fell outside. Looked like it was going to just drench the whole area for a while, so we stayed about an hour after the exorcism. It was probably a good thing, since I felt so drained afterwards. Nick kept an eye on me but he didn't stay right up beside me. I think he was letting the others see that I wasn't weak. You know, that I could stand alone. Truth was I felt empty.
Robby got put to bed. Kenny stayed there with him, although I could hear him moving around downstairs. Which meant he didn't climb into bed as well. I excused myself and moved downstairs, leaving Nick to be his usual charming self. He and Juan were getting deeply into a debate on the relative merits of different baseball teams. So of course, it completely went over my head.
I guess to some guys, baseball is a religious issue.
I was worried that I'd have to knock on the door, uncomfortably, possibly interrupting whatever was going on in Kenny's room. But the door stood open, and Kenny was simply moving the furniture back into place. Seems he'd already managed to get the chalk marks off the floor and rolled the carpet back out.
"Hey," I said from the doorway.
"Hey," he said backwards over his shoulder, trying to heave the couch back into an angled position to the TV area.
"Need a hand?"
"Uh, sure, I guess. Could you grab this end, and I'll move down there?"
"Okay," I agreed. It was weird having to switch from deciphering my Nicky's Cajun accent to Kenny's thicker and somehow softer New England accent. Hard to believe how minor shifts in vowels and subtle inflections make such a difference in how the same words sound from different people.
Which isn't to say that the different New England accents aren't confusing enough to me. In Baltimore, we just talk normally. I thought it was odd that Robby's accent was noticeably different from Kenny's, and Mitch's was different from both of theirs, and nothing like Juan's.
Not sure if all of that means anything. Maybe I'm thinking too much and not doing enough again. I should watch out for cat poop.
We maneuvered the couch around and he plopped down on one end. I sort of parked my butt on the arm at my end, more leaning than sitting. He glanced around, smiling. There were some minor changes to the room, I noticed. Not huge changes, but for those of us obsessed with details, the difference was noticeable.
So, I guess, was my intentions in coming down the stairs.
"You are really lucky," he said, his eyes drifting back to where Robby lay under the blankets on Kenny's bed.
"With Nick. You two are a good fit. It's really unusual for two so well matched to meet so early in life." I could feel my cheeks turn apple-ish.
"I know," I replied, not really certain how this conversation got jump started. "Our people don't really believe in luck. We don't believe in fate either, well, not completely, or in the same way humans do. I mean, we have faith in true prophecy, and the spirits have blessed us with their favor."
"Don't kid yourself," Kenny said, tilting his head over to rest on his hand. "The spirits may be giving you guys a push now and again, but there's good sparks between you two. If you weren't together already, I would be trying to get you two to date."
Okay, that wasn't expected. I had previously tagged Kenny as being the more perceptive of the two. I just never pictured him being some sort of changeling match-maker.
"That's kinda what I needed to talk to you about. See, uh… well, Nick and me… we haven't… uh…"
"Done it yet?" Kenny said, finishing my thought.
"Well, I mean, we've had… sex… but we haven't… done… y'know."
"It," we said as one.
"And you want to," he said, smiling enigmatically.
"Well, yeah, but… well, it's…"
"Complicated," we said at the same time, again. It was like he knew exactly what I was going to say.
"Sex always is. Especially with your one true."
"But you and Robby…"
"Yeah, well, despite what Mr. Amorous there says, we don't have sex nearly as much as is generally assumed we do. I mean, we do, but the hype is only partly accurate. Someone likes to brag, and exaggerate."
"Oh. So, it isn't like all that?"
"Depends on the day. There are whole days we go without doing anything fancier than a quick kiss and snuggle while naked. Then there's days we wind up doing just about anything you can imagine and three or four you haven't heard of yet."
I felt the color simultaneously drain from my face and then flush back so fast, I probably gave my own blood vessels a sun-burn. I wasn't sure if it was because of his blunt honesty or the subject matter. Either way, I had a hard time just then realizing that while Kenny might be a year and a half younger than me, Kay Neth the Steel-Eyed was vastly older and wiser. It's weird.
"You have questions," he said, matter of factly, his gaze shifting back to Robby's sleeping form. "I'll answer whatever you ask. But you should seriously consider what you do with the answers."
"What do you mean?"
"I could tell you about all kinds of sex moves, secrets, things they don't teach you in health class but you can find all over the internet. Things that most guys take years to learn. I could. Probably I will. And while everything I can tell you is right, it doesn't mean that your first time is going to be some sort of cosmic shifting, world stopping, mind altering event. It takes time and practice to get it perfect. Which it probably wont be the first time."
"Kinda figured that. I was more worried about… well, like…"
"Does it hurt?" Kenny asked, his grin turning ironic. "It can. Sometimes the first time always hurts."
"Sorry, that's a changeling answer." I got the feeling he was having some sort of ironic internal dialogue, smirking. "Yeah, it can hurt, but if you do certain things first, a little massage, use some proper lubricant, go carefully with each other and talk through it, the hurt can be reduced. Even skipped.
"Best advice I can give you is to take it slow," he continued. "And communicate with each other. Sounds like it would make things less sexy, but it can be a lot of fun. Especially if you like teasing and being teased."
"Nicky's good for that," I said, feeling the heat radiating out of my cheeks. "The complicated part is… well… how do you know… I mean, which… person…"
"Sex roles. Who's the top, who's the bottom. Which one gets to fuck the other. Or which one gets to fuck the other first. That could be part of the question too, you know."
"I… never thought about that part of it. I mean, neither of us is going to be the girl. We're both too much guys for that."
"That's kind of a stupid way of saying it," Kenny said, looking over at me. There was no malice to it, which was something that I'd get right away, but Nicky would have immediately have been resentful over. "After all, I was the girl. But Robby and I switch out who goes into whom all the time. It's just whatever we feel at the moment."
"You were the girl?"
"About 15,000 years ago or so, depending on who you listen to. I was a girl back in our homeland, before we were marooned here and forced to go through our immortality by hopping a ride with humans. Robby and I were betrothed as children, but we hit it off right away. It was destiny for us to be together."
"But you were the girl? Like with girl parts?"
"I have been both sexes so many times across the centuries that gender for me is more like a pair of socks: important at the time, but when you're done with it, changeable."
"And I thought living like a werewolf and sleeping in a burrow at the beach was weird."
"What I'm saying is that your role in life doesn't necessarily dictate your role in the sack. You might like to be on top, you know, doing the fucking, putting it in, however you want to say it, or you might like to be the bottom, the receiver. Both have advantages, but you don't have to be one or the other. That's up to you. Sometimes it's a lot of fun to be the center of attention. And to be honest, sex can be a lot of work."
"Oh, definitely. When you jerk off, uh, you do jerk off, right?" he asked, smiling a half step from a chuckle.
"Gaia! Yes. Doesn't everybody?"
"Yes, everyone does! Anyways, when you jerk off, you know your own body, your own rhythms and reactions. You can tell when you're close and you know what to do to get that feeling."
"Yeah," I said, feeling myself getting a little tight in my shorts. Wow, all this sex talk was turning me on a bit. Not that I was thinking about doing stuff with Kenny, but I guess that just talking about it and thinking about doing it with Nicky, well… pointy pants!
"Well, the way that boys do things, using the anatomy we're given, it's not as easy as masturbating. Or even masturbating together. You'll learn from each other. You'll have to. You learn to read each others clues."
"Is there like, some special thing you have to do?"
"It really depends, Cody. How far are you planning to go?"
I instantly lost any kind of hard-on. My face flushed, dark red, I'm sure.
"Hadn't thought that far in advance, huh? It's okay, that first time…"
"He has to do me," I blurted out, interrupting Kenny. His gray eyes bored into me for a moment, his head tilting slightly, as if contemplating something.
"It's not something sexual, y'know, like you said, with the roles. At least, not directly."
"That was sort of vague. I get the feeling that there's more to it."
"You have no idea," I said, twisting down into the couch. "It's got to do with his mother."
"Ohh? A sexual issue related to his mother?" Kenny asked, looking very interested. "This sounds positively Freudian."
"I guess I could or should say it's kinda a werewolf thing. You see… we're all broken up into tribes. 13 still playing for the home team, one turned traitor and two others… well extinction sometimes has help."
"That sounds like a story I'd really like to know more about sometime, but you're going someplace specific. Please, continue."
"Yeah, it's a doozy, and I only know a tiny bit of it."
I inhaled and then blew out slowly.
"So, this complication, it has something to do with both his mother and his tribe?" Kenny guessed.
"Both, actually. His mother's tribe has a long tradition going back to before Ancient Greece was Brand New Greece. That tradition is sorta weird. The whole tribe is women only. They think that men are only good for one thing and that doesn't take long enough to get to know their middle names. In the old days, they would kill their boy children, as soon as they saw his boy parts."
"That's… kinda gruesome. Sounds like something outta ancient Sparta. They don't still do that, do they? I mean, Nick's here and alive, so I guess that they don't."
"No," I replied. "These days, they usually give their boy babies away. Often to other tribes. Usually to the tribe we belong to now. Those with the werewolf gene are becoming rarer and rarer, so they figure we can't throw away warriors for Gaia, but they aren't good enough to be Black Furies because their gonads scrape air," I said, painting the sarcasm in deep colors.
"Well, that's an improvement, at least. Odd that a group made up of mother-figure types would so casually reject the other half of the life equation."
"You know," he said, his fingers making the fucking motion, a circle with one hand and a straight finger from the other. "Man plus woman equals baby."
"Oh, yeah. Well. You'd think, but they're also like hardcore eco-warrior types. I mean, this tribe is the source of the Amazon legends. Some of them are kinda cool, just not really testosterone tolerant. Some are like hyper femi-nazi hippie environmentalist extremists. Like I said… Amazons."
"I thought that was Homer," he said like a scholar. "You know, the Odyssey. Island of Lesbos, all that business."
"This is actually older. We're kinda getting off track here."
"Sorry. Like your different tribes, we have different kith. Subspecies, I guess you'd call them. My kith, the Eshu, are notorious storytellers. We thrive on the details and the adventure. Please, you were saying that there's a problem with Nick's Mom's tribe."
"Right. Well, because of his birth-tribe, he kinda gets picked on by some of the other, more competitive tribes. It's not like he can hide it, either. When he transforms, you've seen, he has that big white splotch on his chest, but the rest of his fur is black. That's a Fury trait. It stands out."
"Forgive me for interrupting, but, there's this question that has sort of been bugging me. Something me and Robby both wondered about. Are you, I mean, when you change shape, does everything change as well? I mean, does it still swing or does it turn into like a belly-rider, like a dog's."
"You mean… my junk?" Why do I keep blushing like this?
"Yeah. I know, it's an odd question, but it's just… You don't have to answer that. It's a stupid question."
"The balls pretty much stay where they always are. As for my… It swings, partly, in a sheath like a dog's, but lower, out of the way when in crinos. And yes, I can get erections in all of my five forms."
"Well, five full transformations. I've heard that with training you can change just parts of your body at a time, but I haven't learned how yet."
"Fascinating!" he grinned, wiggling his eyebrows.
"Getting back to the matter at hand."
"Right. He can't hide his heritage, sooooo…"
"So other Garou who want to piss him off call him a… a she-male. A bitch-boy. It's the one thing that gets to him. He has no problem with people knowing we're gay. Thankfully, our tribe is very accepting of such things. But to have his boyhood questioned, or his manhood, I guess I should say, that's the one thing that screws with his mind."
"Ah ha! I see."
"Yeah, so it's not for me that I have to be the… the bottom, I guess. At least the first time. It's a matter of pride for him. It needs to be part of his identity."
"Okay, I can see where that could be a problem for him. It's kinda good that you're willing to make this easier on him."
"Well, I love him. I'd do anything for Nick. This is such a small thing compared to anything else I'd do for him." I felt tears coming to my eyes.
"Wow," Kenny said, awed. "Does he know how lucky he is to have you?"
"Thought we were both lucky?"
"I'm guessing we're all lucky. You should always judge your own character based on the company you keep. I think all of us made the right choice in deciding to hang together."
"You aren't just saying that because I pulled a demon out of your boyfriend's chest today, are you?" I grinned back.
"I'd be lying if I said no. That's only part of it. But I do know that our relationship is mutually beneficial."
"Yeah. I guess it is. Besides, it's good to have…"
"Friends," we said at the same time.
Kenny stood up from the bed and walked to a chest of drawers. "And friends help friends. I sort of thought you might ask questions like this, about sex and stuff." He pulled open the first drawer, searching around inside it. "And I said to myself, what would a pair of young guys about to have their first real gay sex need." He looked up and shot a glance over his shoulder. "Aside from some time alone and each other," he said, his smile playing mischievously across his face.
If ever there was a moment I could have used that Spock eyebrow thing…
He turned around and handed me a small backpack. I reached out and took it. It wasn't heavy, but it did have a certain weight to it. Like book weight.
"So, I put together a little package. Some things you'll need. Mostly it's some literature. I figured you didn't have internet access, so I downloaded this information from I site or three. Mostly it's to teach you the basics. I mean, I'm sure you could figure it out, but there's nothing wrong with having a jump start."
I opened the pack and looked inside, reaching in to pull out a thick three-ring binder. Flipping it open, I saw lots of pages, set in protective plastic sheet covers. And the pages had lots and lots of text. A few diagrams and shall we say rather explicit drawings were there as well. But mostly it was text. Data, raw information, waiting for my hungry mind to digest.
"Some of that's from an illegal download of 'The Joy of Gay Sex,' and some is from a web site that has stories. Well more than just stories. Good information for first timers as well. Some of the rest is, well… ideas."
"You mean, like… written porn?"
"I prefer to think of it as literature of a gay nature," he smiled.
"Awesome!" I breathed out.
I closed the booklet and tried to get it back in the bag when a few more things in the bottom caught my attention. I looked in and tried to make sense of what I saw. Some of the things were strange, plastic things that I didn't at first understand. A few were bottles, mostly small, with some sort of liquids inside. One bottle caught my attention.
"Oh yeah! That's the good stuff. You'll definitely need it!"
"Is that what I think it's for?"
"I'll let you decide," he grinned, moving to sit against the rail of the waterbed again.
"The little tubes of body paint have flavors, too."
"Body paint?" I practically whined.
"Yeah, you put it where you want him to lick."
"oh…" I mouthed, silently. We were good at licking, I realized. We'd each given each others homid-form stuff wolf licks. Like serious licks. As long as you're really careful with the teeth, it can be a lot of fun.
"The rest, well, are other fun things you guys can play with."
"Sex toys?" I said, feeling my jaw drop to the floor. I must have looked like an idiot.
"Just be careful how you use them. There's instructions on how to clean them in the back of the booklet."
"I dunno about the… toys."
"Yeah, I sort of thought you might say that. Just figured I'd give you the option. You can leave them if you don't want them. I do recommend keeping the lube and body paints, though. One's a necessity and the others just fun."
I think I unconsciously licked my lips at that. It's a canine thing.
"So here's the public service de-nouncement," Kenny said, looking suddenly very sober, despite the tent I noticed in his cargo shorts. Okay, it could have just been the way the front of his pants fold when you lean on something like that, but I could have sworn I saw it twitch with his pulse. Twice.
"Yeah," as his arms folded across his chest, inhaling, I got the idea that he was about to state something important. "The golden rule about gay sex. There's other rules as well, but, this is the biggie."
I closed up the bag, giving him my fullest attention.
"It can usually wait," he said, sagely.
It took me a few seconds to realize that he'd spoken his great moment of wisdom in that short phrase.
"Sex. As much as it can feel like an immediate need, it can usually wait. If you're not feeling ready for it, don't do it."
"Wait a second. You just give me all this stuff," I said, holding up the bag, "and then say that it can wait? I don't get it."
"Because, as much as I like sex, and as much as goat-boy here likes sex," he said, nodding his head over at Robby's sleeping form, "we're not normal. I know, you and Nick aren't normal humans either. But with Robyn and me, there's more history than most books contain. Then some presidential libraries contain," he chuckled.
"But… wouldn't that make it more right, because we're not normal?"
"All I'm saying is that sex is serious stuff. I know you and Nick love each other. If I was blind and lived in a plastic bubble I could tell you and Nick are deeply in love. And it's not that you guys are lovey-dovey. Neither of you have that in your personality. But you both are dedicated to each other, you rely on each other. You've fought and bled for each other. And while that doesn't equal the love I sense between you two, it does characterize it.
"In another age," Kenny continued, crossing and uncrossing his feet, "you guys would have been openly accepted, maybe even considered for status as having a blessed relationship. In ancient Greece, there were even military units and religious orders composed entirely of gay men and boys."
"What does that have to do with us now?"
"Because," he said solemnly. "Because the world isn't changed by huge movements and massive public outcry. It's changed by small things happening in the background. It's changed by a lot of little movements and moments that build silently. You don't get sweeping change in a society from one single event."
"Uh, I'm still failing to see what that has to do with me and Nick having sex. Or even waiting to have sex." For the first time, I was beginning to question whether or not all changelings were insane.
"Think of it this way. If you and Nick rush into something that neither of you is ready for, despite what I put in that bag for the both of you, it could ruin things for the both of you. Sex, real gay sex, and let's not mince words, we're talking about one of you fucking the other; about making love in the old fashioned, penis in full penetration of anus way. Real sex changes things. And as much as I do root you on, and want you guys to have as much… well, pleasure and fun as Robyn and I do, I also want it to be the right thing for you."
"I'm confused now. It's a good thing, but it's not. Here, have some party favors and a how-to book, but maybe don't use them. This isn't making much sense."
"I know, Cody. I know that it sounds like crazy talk. I just… Robby and me, we really like you and Nick. It's one thing to be immortal lovers across time, but we're kids too. Kids like you. And I don't want to lose that. I don't want you guys to lose that. We nearly lost Robby tonight. We still may. He's got a lot to deal with right now. We still have to bury his parents."
That brought me back to reality. We had a lot of death surrounding us. Life had taken a nasty turn lately. Our victory over the bane sort of made me forget that not only were Robby's parents dead, so was Rolf.
"Sometimes, it is better to wait. That's all I'm saying. If you aren't absolutely sure, if you have any doubts, it can wait. And more important than anything else, if Nick loves you the way I think he loves you, then he should be willing to wait until you are both ready. He shouldn't push you to doing anything you aren't ready for."
"That's a problem with me," I said, tucking my feet up on the couch. "Sometimes I don't know when I'm ready. Like tonight, with the bane. Yoseph had to push me to do it. Not because I didn't want to help. But because I was afraid I would screw things up."
"You took the chance. You did your best and damn if your best wasn't spectacular!"
"You should have seen yourself, Cody. Maybe I have stars in my eyes because you gave me back my boyfriend, but watching you wrestle with that invading spirit, seeing you outsmart and out fight it left me in total awe."
"Sh! Yeah! You say you have a confidence problem, or maybe are over-critical of yourself. Okay, we all go through that. But the results speak for themselves." He looked at me and I saw him lay a hand on Robby's leg through the blankets covering him. "You gave me back the reason I have to live through all these centuries. You gave us back the hope we'll need to flush out Korbesh and end all these murders. Because of your actions tonight, Cody, the good guys actually stand a chance to win."
"The good guys."
"Yeah, I know. That sounds corny."
"No. It fits. It's weird how well it fits, but it fits." It felt good, despite all the weirdness and death and insanity of the last few days to realize we were the good guys. Things were gelling in my head, all the things that he'd said, the stuff in the bag, the things still left to do. In a way, talking with Kenny had put things into a different perspective for me. In my hand, I had a path to doing something reserved normally for adults only. And while my friend, my very wise friend, had given me this, he also cautioned me about it and then trusted me to make the right choices when the time came. It all just sort of turned, small changes at a time, in my head. And in that moment, I understood what he meant about little movements, little changes making things move in big ways. Little things happening in the background.
Be like water, I almost heard Rolf's voice say. Little changes, stay fluid,
"So, I just wanted you to know that…"
"Kenneth!" a voice called down from the top of the stairs. It was Mitch's deep rumble.
"I think it's time for Nick and Cody to go home."
"Yes, Poppa," he said, smiling at me. I couldn't help but smile back.
"Guess that's that," I said, standing from the couch, clutching the bag under my arm.
"Hey," Kenny said, stepping over to me.
"Thanks for this stuff. I'll read it and think about what you've said."
"Thanks for giving me Robby back. If you have questions…"
"Yeah. I got your number."
"Okay." And then he held out his hand for a bro shake, which turned into a bro hug. "Watch out for the weather. Unless one of your forms is a duck!"
"Quack-quack," I said, as we released. "Keep us updated on Robby."
Nick came down the steps, taking them two at a time. He came into the room and suddenly looked like he'd screwed up making so much noise coming down as he looked to where Robby lay sleeping.
"Yeah, everything's good," I replied.
"You guys stay dry," Kenny called after me as I turned to leave.
"Dry is a state of mind," Nick replied. We headed up the stairs, side by side. "What's in the bag?"
"I'll tell you later. But I think you'll like it."
"Okay. Captain Fantastic is gonna take us as far as the outskirts of the res. We'll have to run from there."
"You think the storm is in the Umbra as well?" I asked, thinking about how far we'd have to go to get to JJ's rental house.
"Dunno. Thought it would be rude ta peek in front of the changelings."
"Wow," I said, as we got up to the upper floor.
"Wow, you thought without it starting a hair fire," I quipped, feeling a little playful. That got me an ironic "Ha-ha," from Nick and a play punch on the arm.
"We're in for a treat." Nick said as we got to the top. "Mitch is takin' Juan and Bethy home in his truck. We get to travel with Dan and Keith."
"How's that special?"
"Because they didn't take a car to get here. Dan can teleport!"
"What?!" I hissed, not believing.
"Ready, boys?" Dan said, looking at us.
"Uh, yes sir," I replied, feeling a little uneasy. Nick was in daredevil mode, but I was worried about dinner coming back up. It'd be a waste too, because Mitch can really cook. And strangely, I really miss broccoli.
"Whhoooooooooooooooo," Dan started, singing. I cringed, fearing I knew what was coming. "Lives in a pineapple under the sea,"
And as much as I love him, I could have killed him right then and there for what Nick said next. He actually joined in the song, shouting it out.
"SPONGE BOB SQUARE PANTS!"
And then the whole world twisted, snapped and popped all around me. Around us, I guess. I felt the cool tingle of Gnosis reluctantly slipping off of us and my feet settled oddly. At least I thought oddly, until I realized that it was because we now stood on a sandy slope. There was a crust to the sand, proof that there had recently been rain in the area.
"Wow," I breathed out.
"Yeah, wow," Nick agreed.
"Sponge Bob?" I asked, turning to look at Dan.
"Don't judge, kiddo. When you're deep out at sea, you watch whatever the TV picks up," the big sailor said, shrugging.
"Where are we?"
"On the southern border of the state res, just over the sea wall on the Merrimack River side," Keith said, pointing beyond my shoulder. "You're about a quarter mile from the main campsite area."
"Dude! You gotta teach us how ta do that?" Nick asked. I was awed as well. I mean, we'd basically just moved laterally across the surface of the Earth nearly 15 miles in the blink of an eye after screaming Sponge Bob's full name.
Imagine where Dan might go by invoking the name of Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck! The mind boggles.
"Better get a move on, kiddos. Looks like the rain might kick up again any minute now."
"Thanks for the lift, Dan," I said, checking the bag under my arm.
"See ya later," Keith called out, a grin on his face as well as his voice. Suddenly, they twinkled and popped out, teleporting off to who knows where.
"We have the coolest friends," Nick said, still staring at where Dan and Keith had stood moments ago.
"Better than we know," I replied. I grinned up at him. Everything was better suddenly. It was just about as perfect as the last few days would allow.
We passed through the campsites like ghosts, traveling in wolf form. It was a new experience for me, since I had to carry the bag Kenny had given me in my mouth as I ran. I tried to think of things other than food to limit my slobber.
The rain poured down about halfway to our burrow, but from experience we both knew better than to go tracking muddy paws into our home. Instead we ran to the abandoned bathhouse, passing several Garou sentries along the way. We pulled into the locker area of the bathhouse and pulled out one of our thicker comforters and snuggled in to ride out the rain.
Kenny's words drifted back to me as we made up a pallet to rest on for the night. As much as I wanted to be with Nick and be for him, I knew that just that moment, I wasn't ready. Physically, I could do it. That part wasn't what I was worried about. But it was my internal state that wasn't ready. I love Nick, deeply. I know I will have sex with him, properly, and soon. But just that moment, there were too many things still spinning, still moving, still making noises in my head for us to find the peace and calm I felt I needed to be Nick's first time. Like Kenny said, lots of little movements make the world go round. Or words to that effect.
I also knew we'd need to go see about JJ early in the morning. But it could wait. We'd had a long day. I felt mentally and spiritually exhausted, even with that bit of wonder that Dan gifted us with. And I knew that in the coming days, we'd be burying Rolf. It wasn't the right time for us to try real sex. Not yet.
We snuggled down, holding each other, naked in the locker area, covered with a thick duvet, listening to the rain gather strength and drench the salty-dry sand of the beach. We talked softly while we lay together, slowly drifting off to sleep in each others arms. And in that moment, while I knew that I wasn't ready for the fancy stuff yet, I also realized that sex is fun, but love is important. And I was fully important with Nicky just then. Fun could wait. Important was all I needed just then.
The night rolled on, the clouds emptied and passed and the sound of ocean and seagulls greeted my ears, along with the important sound of Nicky's breathing and heartbeat under my head. The moment was so pure, so perfect, I choose not to wake him, and just enjoy being a young werewolf in love.
Somewhere during that period, I fell back to sleep against Nick's chest and hours passed. And it was perfect. I dreamed of what we'd do together when we were both ready. And I knew that we'd do those things soon. Very, very, soon.