The scream shook her bones, like someone had taken a saw to her torso and was working through her ribcage. She bent forwards on the throne, one hand going to her throat as the fear ripped through her and the other futilely clapping over one ear.
In an instant there were people there, crouched beside her in concern. She could see mouths moving, knew they were speaking to her, but it all seemed very distant and faint compared to the overwhelming ringing of pain. She had never heard anything like it, never felt anything like this as it seemed to pierce through to her very soul. Couldn’t they hear it? It was so loud. She had to grit her teeth to try and push through it and think at all.
She leaned back, trying to ignore the immediate sensation and pull herself back. Somebody offered her water, but she waved it away with a trembling hand. They were still speaking, looking at her with worry. She shook her head, waved her hand again as she struggled to focus. It had to be him, she knew it was him. But what was this? Had the enemy found him, were they hurting him, were… it was close, as she tried to focus again. He was… nearby, and oh god the screaming was driving her mad. Had the elders caught him? Had…?
She remembered suddenly what Annie had said, about how she had the ability to cleanse him of the bargain but that it could potentially kill him. She hadn’t thought they would do this so soon, that they would do this here – if that was what was happening. Cold chills ran through her. Was that what this was? Was he dying?
She stood up sharply, her feet almost seeming to drag her out of the tent. It was like she didn’t have control over her body, like her instincts were moving her on autopilot and taking her mind along for the ride. The others watched her go – she heard a faint distant mumble about ‘probably a pregnancy thing’ – and then she was striding through the sept on a beeline for what her clouded brain quickly realised was the one of the elder’s tents. There were guards outside the tent, but she ignored them. They didn’t try to stop her going in – perhaps a spoken warning, but she didn’t hear it. She shoved the flap aside and in an instant the screaming stopped being just in her head and became horribly real.
He was burning.
She lunged forward without thinking, a cry of fear escaping her that was utterly drowned out by his screams of agony. Arms went around her, holding her back – Cleansing Flame? There were other people here, the three elders of this Sept watching intently. Annie was standing there, hands outstretched and a look of fierce concentration on her sweat-soaked face as blinding white flame burst from her arms all the way up to the elbow. She seemed to be shuddering a little with the effort, her focus utterly on Jake as he knelt on the floor in front of her.
The scream was worse in here. They must have soundproofed the tent somehow. Out there she’d only had the link between them to feel that he was in pain, a fraction of the agony transmitted between them. She imagined that was what it had been like for him when she had lost control after Francoise had been killed – but this had to be a million times worse. In here, she could hear it as well, the sound tearing into her even more acutely as the man she loved was burned alive in front of her.
Oh god. What if it doesn’t work? What if I have to stand here and watch him die?
The sound of pain seemed to go on and on, incomparable to anything else she’d ever heard. How could it? Annie was severing a bargain with an entity of destruction beyond mortal ken, a bargain that might not be severable without killing him. Her packmate was literally burning away a part of his soul. She knew she was making little involuntary whimpering sounds, that any of the elders who cared to look would immediately be able to see the truth of the situation, but she didn’t care. They knew she had a Garou mate, and Leaf almost certainly knew who it was. What difference would it make?
How long was it? She didn’t know. Forever. The screaming seemed never ending. Just the six of them in the tent: Annie burning Jake, Cleansing Flame holding her back and the other two elders watching in fascinated silence.
And then it finished.
Annie seemed to stagger a little. Jake fell to the floor, limp and unmoving as the screaming finally silenced, the screaming that would haunt her for the rest of her days. She pulled free of the elder, stumbling towards him and falling to her knees. She could hear her own breathing sharp and fast, heartbeat drumming in her ears. He was warm to the touch, but rapidly cooling. Was it because of the fire, or because he was… he was…?
She fumbled, unable to gather her head. He wasn’t breathing! She couldn’t find a pulse, her hands were shaking too much. She fumbled again, her hands going to his wrist, his throat, his chest, fear overwhelming her as she let go of his hand and it fell limply back to the floor.
“Annie!” She turned her head frantically, searching for her little packmate. “Annie, he’s not breathing! Is he dead, is he…?” She couldn’t finish her sentence.
Annie moved wearily over, crouching down beside them. The smell of sweat and exhaustion was potent as she leaned near, a pale hand gently resting on Jake’s throat as her fingers felt for a pulse.
“He’s alive. He’s breathing, it’s just faint. He’ll be fine.”
As Julia looked down, she could see the shallow rise and fall of his chest at last, panic clearing a little from her gaze. She looked up again into tired eyes, Annie waiting for a moment.
“I… thank you. Thank you so…” her voice wobbled. “Is he really…?”
Annie nodded, standing up with a small wince. The other woman turned and slowly made her way out the tent, like she had run a marathon and needed to lie down. Julia sat and watched her go, still cradling Jake’s body. He stirred slightly, a weak groan of pain and her gaze dropped back to him, hands going to check his face. She couldn’t quite believe it.
“Is he clean?” Leaf’s voice cut into the silence.
“He is,” Cleansing Flame said, her voice quiet and certain.
Sees-All-Strands frowned, as if concentrating, and then nodded. There was a look of wonder and uncertainty on her face. “As far as I can tell, yes. Of course, removing the bargain doesn’t mean much if he doesn’t follow through, but the willingness to undergo that does imply he’s committed – for now. How did she do it? I think perhaps I need to have a talk with her, find out-”
“We have other priorities right now,” Cleansing Flame interrupted bluntly.
“For once, I agree,” Leaf said, his voice careful. “Chiefly, this.”
Julia turned her gaze to realise he was gesturing at her. The haze of relief and hope that had hung over her in the aftermath of Annie’s gift instantly lifted, replaced with something sharp and cold. They were all looking at her like they didn’t entirely know where to begin, what to ask first or how to handle this.
Sees-All-Strands spoke up. “Is he the father?”
“Yes.” There was no point in lying. She glanced across at Leaf, her eyes defiant. “But then, I imagine at least some of you knew that already.”
“I was aware of his existence, yes.” The man’s face was cautious, as if he was choosing his words. “I knew his name, his face, his location in the city – all easy enough for me to find out, I just had to follow the human press and then make some more specialised enquiries. We all knew he was Garou, he had to be given your… condition. I was aware he had ties to Pentex, suspected some things. I did not know how close ties, or that he was a Spiral.”
Julia hesitated. She wasn’t sure how to proceed. “Why didn’t you use it? Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
He shrugged. “I wasn’t certain. Had I accused and then been proven wrong later, it would have been a further tarnish on my own reputation. Nobody else needed to know, and they could have found out the same things I did if they wished.”
Jake gave another weak little groan and she looked back down, worry clutching at her heart as she stroked his hair. He was very pale, much colder now than when she’d first run to him. She pulled at her clothes, unravelling the scarf they had given her to keep her warm in the sept to wrap it around him. There was a sigh from the elders, and she glanced back up again to see them looking at each other.
“This could make things… complicated if people found out,” Leaf murmured, a frown creasing his brow. “And they will, especially if we wish to use any knowledge he might have to our advantage like Annie suggested. I need time to find out what he can offer us, and I doubt her majesty will appreciate anything bad happening.”
“Do we even have somewhere to keep him?” Sees-All-Strands asked, her voice low. “If people find out, there will be those who will likely want to kill him. The cost of the things he has likely done and the chance to extract vengeance on a powerful Spiral – former or otherwise – may outweigh the value of the information he may have for some. That assumes people will even believe in his cleansing.”
“He’s too valuable to waste though, assuming what he offers is trustworthy,” Leaf mused. “We can keep him, protect him too if needed. We have the resources to spare right now. But there are enough people who still doubt and judge our new queen outside these walls. Anything that could shake the unity at this time while it still finds its feet…”
“Then make sure they hear the right version,” Julia said sharply. “Isn’t that what you do? You spin things. If you can’t make yourself useful…” They turned back to look at her, as if remembering she was there again.
“And how would the queen like me to spin this?” His voice remained neutral, careful. “After all, it is already breaking one rule of the litany to have a Garou mate. When people discover that you broke the second as well, and that there is a child…”
“This could go badly,” Sees-All-Strands agreed.
“Then spin it well,” Cleansing Flame interjected, her voice hard.
“Many will see her as corrupted, easy to influence by the Wyrm. She may become a liability to be contained.” The look on his face was worried.
“Or alternatively, I was so damn good at doing the impossible that I managed to get a Black Spiral to fall in love and give up his tribe for me,” Julia snapped. “If you want to be ‘tactical’ about it, I’ve got us intel on Pentex we could only dream of, but it’s only useful as long as he’s kept safe.”
Leaf’s eyes narrowed as if his mind was whirring. “Yes, I suppose that could work. You already have enough goodwill and a reputation for grand unorthodox gestures, why should this be any less believable? It isn’t unfeasible people would buy it. Not something we want to encourage others to try, of course – I’d have to highlight that you and your pack are… unique cases.”
Julia shrugged, turning back to look down at Jake. “I’m sure you can do it. Consider it a proof of contrition, if you want.”
There was a low laugh from Cleansing Flame – and unexpectedly, from Leaf as well.
“What will we do with him?” Sees-All-Strands said quietly. “Your majesty, you must understand, we cannot simply let him roam the sept.”
“I know.” She hadn’t expected this… situation, but the awareness of how it was likely to go had been growing on her as the conversation went on. He’d be taken from her, he’d be -
“We have the cells to contain him, keep him in and others out. We can choose guards as well, from different tribes to avoid any… incidents.” Cleansing Flame’s voice was measured. “They will need fortifying, reinforced properly to be sure. If we begin now, they should be ready by the morning.”
Julia blinked uncertainly. A faint bloom of hope blossomed within her. It wouldn’t be the same as him being free, of course. But he would be nearby, he would…
“You’ve thought this through.” There was a trace of something in Leaf’s voice, a hint of the old jibe.
“I am an elder of the sept, same as you. An Ahroun does more than prepare for war – the aftermath is something to consider too. This is a rare opportunity.” She didn’t seem to rise to whatever the bait was, glancing across at Julia. “We will give you until the morning. This tent will be guarded, to ensure your privacy. After that… it will be up to you and Leaf how things go from there.”
Julia nodded in thanks, relief running through her. She glanced down at her watch as the elders left the tent. It was late afternoon. That was plenty of time. For now, she would make the most of the moments she had, and make sure he was OK.
He stirred again in her lap, eyelashes fluttering a little as he gave a more pronounced groan.
“Am I dead?”
She laughed softly. “Not yet, despite your best efforts.”
“It can be hard to tell, when you’re the first thing a man sees. I feel like… I got hit by a truck.” He shifted a little, wincing. “And then it burned off a piece of my soul while it slowly reversed over me. Gaia, I feel awful.”
She laughed again, her voice wobbling. “You’re so stupid.”
“Hey, I just… made a huge commitment to our relationship. Not many men would do that. I think that counts for something.”
She leaned in and kissed his forehead. “I love you. But now… they’re going to put you in jail. I don’t know what’s going to happen. You’ll probably never be safe again, from either side. The rest of your life will be sleeping with one eye open, you-”
“I know,” he said quietly, lifting a hand to touch her face. “It was worth it.”