Tooth and Claw

Not saying goodbye

Julia sat alone in the tent, fingers steepled as she leaned forward and stared off blankly at the far wall. It was late, past midnight now. She’d come back from meeting the mages over an hour ago, heading straight to the sept after to make sure that there would be appropriate arrangements for their guests. They would have emissaries from Arcadia and a mage delegation arriving by dawn, and it was important to be ready.

The Garou elders weren’t happy. But what choice did they have at this point? What would disagreeing with her now do; except disrupt things, losing them time and caerns, increasing the chances of the enemy’s victory. They hadn’t given her any realistic solutions, nothing that properly considered any knowledge of the enemy or that could be acted on quickly enough to matter. They had already agreed to her plans, even if it was more begrudging than she would have liked.

Things had gotten a bit hairy when she had told then she wanted to hold the meeting at the Nemeton. There had been shouting – a LOT of shouting, about how she pushed too far against tradition, how could she possibly know that the enemy would have spies among these ‘allies’, how could she risk something so powerful at a time when so many other caerns had been destroyed? She had calmly pointed out that the Outsider already knew the location of their caerns, so what was the point in hiding? If he had intended to do something to the Nemeton, it would have happened by now, and she would have felt it. They needed to show trust in their allies, they needed to demonstrate that they were able and willing to co-operate, and they needed to let the mages properly understand what they would be helping to protect instead of sending them in blind and hoping for the best. And if one of the guests was a spy, the location of the meeting was irrelevant next to the content. She’d pointed out that they had told her she was wrong before, that her choices had been wrong and what she wanted couldn’t be done. How had that worked out?

They had insisted on having the meeting at the sept, on their territory and terms. She hadn’t wanted that – it felt like an unnecessary display of power, throwing their weight around at a time when they needed aid. But she had conceded and it would be held in the pavilion here. The Nemeton had a feral heart and was unlikely to let many people get close without good reason – they had already had plenty of experience with its vengeful side. She couldn’t afford to keep pushing, had to give something at least; this small concession would show she was willing to listen, pacifying them and making things easier if they didn’t all come to the meeting with their hackles high. She was their queen, and now was not time she needed to spend fruitlessly negotiating with her own people when their entire world was in peril. They could save that for dawn.

She was aware that she had pushed them very far, very fast, and it was natural to resist change. So she had let them go and make the arrangements, trusting in their judgement. Now though, she didn’t know what to do. She supposed she should go home, rest and be with her pack. But she didn’t entirely want to.

Their territory had been ransacked, violated. It wasn’t clear why yet, if anything had been taken. They’d cleared up as best they could, but everything looked very bare now – the furniture had been shattered, walls and carpet smeared with food and dirt and other mysterious substances. They would have to start from scratch. The idea of that oddly seemed more daunting to her than the impending battle. She hadn’t been sure why at first, but it was becoming clearer and that was making her uncomfortable.

She stared blankly off into the distance. Outside she could hear the myriad sounds of people moving and preparing. This was the quiet before the storm, before the unavoidable fight to come. In a way, this was worse than the fight. She didn’t have the build-up of anticipation that others seemed to have. At least when they were in the middle of a battle she could focus on the moment, listen to her instincts and fight to win. Now was just… waiting for the inevitable, losing herself in her thoughts and an endless swirling ‘what if’. What if she had forgotten something crucial? What if it wasn’t enough, if they still lost? What if she was wrong?

What would happen if they won?

When she had stood in the ruins of their territory that evening before heading out, there had been a strange sense of finality to it. The knowledge of the time and cost it would take to rebuild everything from the ground up… the practical part of her said that she had the money for it, would happily give Annie whatever was needed. But another niggling voice said that wasn’t what she meant. It was about more than the ruins, it was about what they represented. She had the ability to pay the cost to fix the house. Did she have the ability to pay the cost to fix her pack? She wasn’t sure she did.

If they survived this, if they won and the Outsider was defeated and they had a world to come back to, it still wouldn’t really be finished. She’d have to spend months, years, rebuilding what had been lost. She’d have to work to forge alliances between tribes and between species. Countless caerns had been taken and destroyed, would need rebuilding and replacing. There wouldn’t be time to sit idle, especially after the staggering losses her side had already taken – and likely would further tomorrow. It would be the ideal time for the wyrm’s forces to strike, and she had to be ready for that too. And that meant that once more she would be turning away from her own pack, to look instead to her people as a whole. If she was to be the alpha for all Garou, she couldn’t also focus on being alpha for just a small few.

In a way, even if he lost, the Outsider had perhaps won at least on small victory against them. They had always been a tumultuous pack, barely holding together. Perhaps it was because they were so young; perhaps it was because they were so inexperienced; perhaps it was just because the mix of personalities were so very different. They had been through a lot together, good and bad and much of it their own doing. Stormbringers had been so much more accurate than they had ever intended. She’d fought as hard as she could every step of the way to hold them together, even when it seemed like doing so might well tear her apart. Now a part of her wondered if that had been a contributing factor in their fracturing – if by trying to make everyone happy, she had ended up making nobody happy. The idea of letting them go had felt like it would be a failure on her part, showing that she wasn’t a good enough alpha. But now that she looked back, she couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps that would have been a kinder thing. Perhaps Annie would have been happier in a quieter pack, one that let her have something closer to the ‘normal’ human life she seemed to want. Perhaps Nahuel would have been happier in a lupus pack, where he didn’t have to try and integrate into the human world and could run free in the wild. Perhaps Cal would have been happier… pretty much anywhere, with an alpha that could better handle and direct his rage impulses.

Would you have been happier without them?

Don’t ask that.

She was getting too introspective. She stood up, stretching out her stiff back and leaving the tent. There were so many people she wanted to talk to, wanted to say goodbye to. She hadn’t spoken to so many of her friends in so long. But the Garou would be, should be with their own packs in this quiet moment before it potentially all ended. Her mother was… was… And the rest of the world was asleep, as they should be at this time of night. Besides, saying goodbye would be admitting that she thought she was going to die, that they were going to fail. She couldn’t do that.

Julia wandered through the sept. Everywhere she went people were busy, although they would stop and bow or kneel when she passed. She’d learned to acknowledge it on autopilot, a quick nod and smile or a murmured word. She knew where her feet were taking her, even if she was deliberately going on a very roundabout route. Before long she was standing in from of the palisade surrounding the building where they kept him. The guards nodded, letting her pass.

Jake was pacing back and forth in his cell, staring at the doorway as if he expected her. The look on his face was agitated, and she wondered why. She knew that the elders of the sept had come in here to talk to him – mostly Leaf, asking questions and looking to get information. In a way it had been oddly comforting to hear that. It made it feel like at least some of the Garou elders believed in her, that this apocalypse could be prevented and so they needed to prepare and plan for the aftermath. She wasn’t sure how much they had told him of what was going on beyond these walls though, if anything.

As soon as she entered he stopped pacing, stepping up as close to the bars as he could. The scent of silver and protective wards hit her like it always did when she came here, a hint of bile rising in the back of her throat.

“Jules, what are you doing?”

She blinked, pausing uncertainly in the doorway. What did he mean? What was she doing here right now? What was going on out in the world? He reached out a hand unthinkingly towards her when she stopped, the faintest wrinkle of discomfort on his face as the wards activated and pushed him back a little, burning the skin that had gotten to close.

“Stop, don’t do that!” She hurried in, getting closer to the cell. “What are you doing?”

“What are you doing?” He repeated the question, withdrawing the raised hand as she came closer. There was a hint of relief on his face, but the overwhelming emotion was… fear? Anguish, pain more than just the injury he had inflicted on himself.

“I don’t understand, what do you-”

“Your elder told me,” he said, his voice fast and upset. “The shifty looking one, with the goatee, who thinks he’s really fucking clever. He was trying to get more information from me, answer for an answer. He told me what happened the other day, with the fighting. He told me about what you were going to…” he paused, taking a deep breath. “Jules, please don’t do this.”

“What?” She frowned. “What did he tell you?”

“He said you were going to fight that… arch-fey-whatever thing, the one that wanted to steal Annie’s kid and smashed up my apartment. He said this is you trying to prevent the apocalypse, providing the werewolves that big battle they’ve always dreamed of – but you aren’t going to go to that. I could live with that, maybe.” His fingers were clenched, his voice troubled as he clearly tried to hold himself back from pacing again. “You’re going to go through some death forest in Arcadia that nobody comes back from, to fight the fucker personally and… and… You can’t Jules, you can’t do this.”

Julia’s frown deepened. “Why did he tell you this?”

“I don’t know, to fuck with my head? To test my resolve and see how I react, what juicy secrets he could get me to spill?” He shook his head angrily. “Who cares? Please, don’t do this.”

She took a step back, folding her arms. “Why not? If I don’t, who will?”

“Fucking anyone!” He ran a hand through his hair, turning and giving in to the desire to pace. “Jules, you’re queen! You’re more than just a werewolf, you’re a symbol of hope, or victory, or whatever! If you’re on some big battlefield, there will be people around who can protect you, keep you far from harm, die for you if necessary. If you go alone into the woods… if you die, who will know? If you fail, if you-”

“Why do you think I’ll fail?” She didn’t bother to hide the hurt in her voice. “I won’t be alone, I’ll have my pack-”

He scoffed, waving a hand dismissively. “Four of you, against that? Even if you guys had more experience fighting in general, you don’t work together well enough to… you might be a great swordswoman, Jules, but against something as old and powerful as that…” He shook his head as if he couldn’t find the words. “He kicked our asses before, and that was right in the middle of the city in our world where he’s supposed to be at his weakest. Hell, there were five of us, two experienced fighters! If the kid hadn’t done whatever she did, you’d be… we’d never have got to you and you’d be-”

“It won’t be just us!” she snapped. “The fey are looking to find a ritual to bind him away properly, we’ll have mages and fey with us too. We can do this, we have to do this. He has my mother, he has Sura and Vivian and Emma! And if we don’t stop him, he’ll let out all the others just like him, and then nothing will matter because…” She took a deep breath. “Yes, nobody else has ever made it through the woods, nobody else has ever come back. But we have. If I don’t do it, how can I ask someone else to, knowing they might fail?”

“And then what?” His voice was frantic as he turned back to look at her. “What happens if you do fail? What happens to me?”

Julia took another step back. “_What_? We’re about to go and try to prevent the world from ending, I’m going into what is almost certainly a trap and you’re asking me what will happen to you?”

“Yes!” He leaned forward, wrapping his hands around the bars. The wards activated instantly, but he held firm as they burned his hands. She opened her mouth in horror, stepping forwards a little, but the look on his face was so intense that it scared her. “What happens to me if you fail? I walked away from my whole life, Jules! I have nothing but the clothes on my back! Did you think they’ve let me keep the job and the money and the apartment? I have nothing! And I’ll be on the shit-list of every wyrm creature from here to Malfeas for the rest of my goddamned life! But I didn’t even think twice, because none of that shit matters. I don’t care about any of it, because you…” his voice cracked and he slumped a little, letting go of the bars as he collapsed to his knees. His hands were red raw, blistered and charred from the silver. “If you die, what was it for? What was the point?”

“What was-!” Julia swallowed, then turned and walked back towards the door. He watched her go in silence, as if he was accepting some choice she was making. It was hard to keep herself steady as she reached the guards.

“I need you to let me open the door,” she said quietly.

“Are you sure, your majesty?”

“Yes.” She held her voice a calm as she could. “He’s no threat to me, and I trust you to keep anything hostile far from either of us. It won’t be for too long.” The man nodded and turned to one of the others. There was a brief conversation and then two of the theurges went away to lower the wards – not remove them completely, just halt their effects for a short time. She knew how to get into the cell herself.

She stepped back into the room to find Jake still where she’d left him, kneeling slumped on the floor. She could smell the burnt skin of his hands, resting limply on his lap. He looked up as she came back in, his eyes unbearably sad. She made herself hold firm, standing in front of him with her arms crossed.

“What was the point? How can you say that?” she asked quietly. “Are you that selfish?”

“Yes.” He looked up at her. “I am utterly selfish. I won’t even pretend that if it hadn’t been for you, I’d never be in the position I am now. My life was fucking great, and I wanted for nothing. I’d never have even considered giving it up."

She swallowed again, pushing down anger and hurt. “Not even to prevent the apocalypse? Not to save the world that you’re part of?”

He shrugged. “That was what my side was working for – at least in theory. Destruction of everything, remember? I liked the earthly pleasures stuff, sure, didn’t really want to lose it. But I knew what the end goal was. You know I did this for you, only for you.”

“And what happens if I fail? What happens if I die?”

Don’t.” He sounded agonised, staggering to his feet.

“What happens?” she pressed. “Do you stop co-operating? Do you go back to the wyrm, undo the ritual Annie did? Do you-”

DON’T!” he roared, slamming his hands against the bars again. “I don’t even want to think about losing you, do you hear me?! I can’t! I can’t lose you!” His eyes were wild, full of fear and rage. “If you’re gone, I have nothing that matters left. You think I give a shit about the rest of these guys? Even if you win, if the fey thing doesn’t come and turn us all into slaves or… whatever it wants to do, you think I’ll give a fuck about what they want from me if you’re dead? The only thing I care about is you, the only thing that’s keeping me safe and alive is you, the only thing that give me any reason to think that things could be fine and that I made the right choice is you! I love you, more than anything, more than I thought possible! Please don’t go out there, don’t walk into the trap. Don’t go out to die. I can’t lose you.

She stared at him, eyes wide and mouth trembling a little. He looked back, his eyes seeming to burn into her soul with the intensity of his gaze. Slowly, tentatively, she stepped forward, pushing past the lowered wards as she reached up her hand. He made a brief sound of concern, to warn her away from the cell and its protections, and then he seemed to realise that his hands weren’t being burned a fraction of a second before she leaned in and kissed him.

He tasted of sweat and dirt. She didn’t care. She pressed her mouth against his, faces meeting between the bars of his cell. He made a soft sound of surprise, leaning in instinctively to kiss her back. She pulled away after only a few seconds and he looked down at her in confusion. “What have you… the wards…?”

She didn’t answer, putting her thumb into her mouth and biting down until she drew blood with a wince. He watched curiously as she pressed it against the bars, moving her hand and murmuring softly below her breath. There was a creaking, straining noise, and then the bars shifted and moved aside.

Jake stared at her, no barrier between them. “What are you-?”

She stepped into the cell, wrapping her arms around him and kissing him again. In an instant, his arms twined around her waist, injured hands pulling her close. It had been three weeks since she’d last been able to hold him, since Annie had done the ritual and he had been put here. They hadn’t really been focused on letting him do things like regularly wash or shave, and the beard growth scratched at her face. She didn’t care. He was warm and safe and she’d missed him so much.

His voice was low and hoarse when she pulled away. “I didn’t know you could do that. Are you the only one who can get in?”

“No. But of course they gave me the key. I’d have abdicated or something if they hadn’t.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“…Probably not. But I’d have been really, really cranky.” She lifted a hand and touched his face, running her fingers over his stubble. “You’ve gotten scruffy.”

He laughed softly and rested his hand on the curve of her stomach. “You’ve gotten fat.”

“Ugh, don’t. I’ve been having weird food cravings too. It hasn’t started kicking yet though.” She looked down, a quiet calm filling her heart as she saw his hand on her belly. She’d missed his touch.

“Jules…” He tilted her face back up towards him. “Please. Don’t do this. You’re queen, you’re pregnant, they’d understand. Get someone else to go. I can’t lose you again, not after New Year’s.”

“I have to. I have to make sure this is done right.” Her voice was firm. She leaned up, kissing his cheek as his eyes closed with a look of pain. “If the Outsider wins, I’ll be dead – because that’s the only way he’s winning, is over my corpse – and the world will be turned into whatever he wants it to be. If we win, but I… don’t make it… well, I guess it’s up to you what you want to do after that. I’d hope you would keep helping, if only because you know that’s what I’d want you to do. If I don’t come back, it will be especially important that people keep working together, to try and rebuild what we lost. It’s going to be hard enough as it is. But I can’t make you do anything.”

“Shit… just… shit.” His voice cracked and he held her close, as if somehow that might make her change her mind or that the moment would never end. “Why do you have to be so damned stubborn?”

“Am I wrong?” she asked, muffled by his shirt.

“Yes! I… I don’t…. probably not. Fuck, I hate that you always end up being right. It just gives you more reason to be stubborn. But you can’t be right forever. I don’t want to find out you were wrong b the sky splitting open and raining monsters, or the guards outside marching in and killing me.” His voice was pleading, but there was resignation creeping into it. “How will I know? I’ll just be stuck in here while you plan, while you go and fight and whatever happens, happens. How can you expect me to stay here and just wait for you, hoping this wasn’t the time you were wrong?”

“What do you want to me to do?” He opened his mouth to answer her, but she cut him off. “You can’t come with me. They’d never let you, and you have no gifts anymore to help us with. It’ll be hard enough to take care of myself and my pack, without worrying about you as well.”

“I can still fight,” he said reproachfully. “I’m probably a better fighter than half the people here, even giftless.”

“You think I can risk losing you either?” She lifted one of his hands, concentrating as she reached within for the gift and the skin began to heal. “I’m going to win, OK? And then I’m going to come back here, I’m going to fix the mess that fairy shithead made, and then we’re going to be parents.”

“Ugh, don’t remind me.”

She let go of his healed hand and gave him a filthy look. “I’m sorry? Are you being selfish again?”

“Yeah.” He hugged her. “I’m going to be a shitty father, Jules. Hell, I’m already a shitty father – I have nothing to do with Annie’s kid, and I don’t want to. But right now, I’d give pretty much anything to get the opportunity to find that out the hard way with you. I don’t care if it has horns, or no fur, or if it’s some kind of lizard. I need you to come back so we can find out together.”

“You really aren’t selling me on this whole ‘not being a single parent’ thing, you know.”

“I know. But you love me anyway, luckily.” He kissed her forehead.

She held him close, breathing in his scent. The room still made her uncomfortable, the tang of silver permeating the air and the wards making things feel thick and heavy. But just for a moment, she needed to be here with him. Hearing him voice his fears that she wouldn’t come back, that they’d never see each other again… it brought her own fears to the surface, that this would be their last embrace. She needed to burn it into her heart.

And hearing him made her realise that she owed it to some others to be there for them too; people who she lived, despite their differences, and who she should be there for tonight. She withdrew gently, kissing him and stepping away.

“Where are you going?”

“I should be with my pack. This could be our last night together, I should be there.”

“And I get to spend it alone?” He paused. “Wait, ‘last night’? What happened to the promise to come back to me?”

“They’re my pack,” she said quietly. “Cal and Nahuel have both lost the women they love to this thing. I’m not heartless enough to rub it in by spending tonight here with you. We need to be a cohesive unit tomorrow, so tonight we need to be together.”

“Last night…” he repeated, frowning and reaching towards her.

“I’m under no illusion that this thing on my head and the demands having it will make are not going to stay compatible with the lives they want to lead for much longer. Afterwards, those of us that have survived will have to make a choice – either they give up the lives they want in order to follow me, or I let go at last and go my own way. So yes, if we lose tomorrow then this would be our last night together as a pack. But it still might be, even if we win.”

He took a deep breath. “Right. Sure. I mean, obviously I’d rather you spend it here with me. But the werewolf pack instinct is… well, not my thing, but I get it. You should go. Right?”

She smiled gratefully and leaned in to kiss him. He crushed his mouth against hers, arms wrapped so tight that she found it hard to catch her breath. She responded enthusiastically. It wasn’t exactly romantic – her bump was awkwardly between, and the cold walls of the harshly lit cell and all is wards weren’t building an atmosphere. But it didn’t matter. She found herself still struggling to catch her breath as he pulled away, his taste still on her mouth.

“You know, you don’t have to go yet,” he murmured. “I mean, I know it isn’t exactly comfortable in here, but we could…”

“Really. On the floor, in a cell laced with silver, with guards directly outside waiting for me who could come in at any moment.”

“You’re going off to battle tomorrow without me. You might die. Do you really want our last time together to have been Christmas?” His voice was low, incredibly tempting as he held her close and his fingers traced the back of her neck. “Besides, it’s not like we can slip up and have another accident at this point. You won’t have to worry about protection, we can just-”

She laughed. “Are you listening to yourself? You’re lucky you’re so damned pretty. And it wasn’t Christmas, it was when we first saw each other after I came back, near the end of January. Are you conveniently ‘forgetting’ that one, or just trying to guilt me into staying? Do you really want to spend all my energy before I go away to fight?”

He sighed plaintively, tugging at one of her curls. “I miss you Jules. All of you, even the bump. I’ve been on my own here for weeks while you’re off saving the world, getting by with brief visits and the hope that if I’m ‘good’ eventually they’ll let me out so I can see you. I know why I’m in here, I know it’s for my own protection as much as theirs. But I’m a social creature, it’s driving me mad. I’d prefer something better, but if you’re up for it…” He sighed again, gazing down at her. “Fuck, we don’t even have to do anything. You could just stay here and let me hold you for a while.”

“I can’t…” she said softly, barely audible.

He leaned in and kissed her again. For a moment it felt like maybe he had the right idea, and she could feel her resolve wavering as his tongue swept her mouth. It would be so easy to stay – hell, she could probably persuade them to let her take him to her tent, it would be more comfortable there…

Then he pulled her away and gently shoved her outside the cell’s perimeter. The rite triggered and the bars slid back into place. She stared at him, eyes wide and bright with the hint of tears.

“Go, before I regret it,” he said hoarsely.

“I’ll be back,” she promised, mostly believing her words.

“I know.”

Wild magic

We sit and wait in the meeting room – or hall, I suppose it’s more of a hall. More people seem to filter in every few minutes, more presences filling the room. There are more people here than I had expected, especially given the short notice; many physically present, others who have projected here or sent a form of representation. Mages feel the ripples in the worlds, and the New Year was like a boulder dropped into the water. We’ve been watching the Garou ever since, listening to the leaders from our own tentative alliances. We want to see what she wants, what she has to offer.

It’s almost a little embarrassing, given how hard it usually is for us to pull together ourselves. We used to be so isolated, different factions always competing and at each other’s throats in much the same way their tribes are. But then things shifted, new thinkers and leaders stepped forward to try and unite the disparate groups as we realised that the world was changing. Either we keep up, or we bicker and destroy each other while the world moves on. It’s been a slow process, years in the making and still moving forward, with many of the old guard digging in their heels against the pull of the tide. But when the other choice is extinction, it’s not much of a choice. Apparently the werewolves are getting on board this particular bandwagon too now – although admittedly in a far more spectacular fashion, and possibly a little too late.

The werewolves are brutes – or at least, that’s what I have always been taught. They guard hubs of power jealously, sources that mages could make great use of, if we could only get near. They walk between the planes effortlessly, a secret built into their very flesh that we would kill for. They are quick to anger, and if you let one get close enough to attack then all your magic is worth nothing compared to a monster twice your height, with claws as long as your arm and an unholy lust for your innards. Fortunately, they have always seemed to spend more time fighting each other to be any true threat to most of us, and they hate bloodsuckers more than they hate mages when they do turn their gaze beyond their self-involved battles. Think smart and keep a distance, and they’re animals left behind in an increasingly human world.

They say this one is different. They say she is uniting her people. They say she does things that aren’t supposed to be possible, things that even a mage might have a hard time believing. They say she’s young, headstrong and idealistic and it’s only a matter of time before some enemy or another takes her down. They say she is going to change things for the Garou, drag them kicking and screaming into the modern world.

I hear so many different ‘they’s, from our own leaders, from my teachers and friends and even just the word on the street amongst what passes for a supernatural community. That’s why I’m here, why a lot of us are here. I want to see her for myself, get a measure of this new player in the game. I want to be present if this turns out to be a big thing, to say that even when I was young and inexperienced, I was there for the things that mattered. I want to find out what she knows about what happened, and see what she has to offer to change things, for better or worse. We all want that, and we’re hoping it’s for the better.

We all felt the change. It was subtle at first, but the balance of the worlds seemed to shift. For the first time in decades, that shift was in our favour. There was more magic in the world, more power and creative force than there has been in my memory, and the memories of those far longer than mine. It happened soon after her ‘coronation’ – another reason to keep watch, to observe what she did and see if there was a connection as the forces of decay seemed to lose their hold. But that was for those in authority to focus on. The rest of us, we revelled in it, not knowing why it was happening and not really caring. For two short months, the world seemed better. We barely even had time to take it for granted, to explore these new possibilities and find out what was causing the change.

And then yesterday it shifted again. If she was a boulder, this was an explosion. Suddenly all the power that had been growing died, extinguished in one violent and unexpected burst that took much of what we’d had before with it as well. It felt like someone raining blows down on my body, and I’ve never considered myself all that sensitive – I’m still too young to be as aware as some. I can only imagine what it was like to those who are more attuned to such things. It’s all happened so fast. We’ve been left reeling, unable to process what happened. And then not a day later, as we wait for those higher up to offer us an explanation and guidance, she calls upon them with an offer, and they call upon us to hear her out. So now I’m here, waiting.

The clock starts to strike ten. I’m feeling a little restless. When is she coming? We got here early, but I’d hoped she would have too. Everyone seems to have the same feeling, an almost palpable disappointment whenever any of the doors open and it turns out to just be more of our own. Some of us are having to stand, there aren’t seats left. Was this a joke? Or perhaps a trap – the Garou aren’t renowned for their subtlety or smarts by my people, but if they’ve decided we were the cause of this then this would be a good way to take out a lot of us at once. I start to feel nervous as the chimes finish.

And then she comes into the room.

I’m dimly aware that she isn’t alone, probably a few guards of some sort in a reasonable precaution. But it’s hard to pay attention to others. She’s… something else.

The first thing I notice is the crown. How could I not? It literally grows out of her head; tines of silver and golden light, shifting and moving between hair so white it’s almost unreal. It’s like a slap in the face, a statement of power and authority branded onto her. I can feel the magic of it, the old powers behind it that have likely been long lost. No wonder the werewolves have united, no wonder everyone felt it happen.

The second thing I notice is… well, her. She’s beautiful, even by supernatural standards. I can tell she’s a werewolf – they all have that same predatory feel that is impossible to ignore once you’re aware of what to look for. But as I stare at her I realise she’s more than just a werewolf. There’s something else in there, something wild and inhuman and powerful that isn’t Garou. Her cheekbones are a little too sharp, her ears a little to pointed, everything about her just a little too ethereal.

I find myself unthinkingly looking at her aura, almost out of habit. It sears at my eyes and I feel them water slightly. Werewolf auras are easy to see, because they’re so much closer to the spiritual realm than others. The mix of colour is something I’ve never seen before, and I realise that she has to be at least partially fae. It’s not like a changeling either; it’s the real fae creatures that the kith call distant kindred, creatures closer to raw creative magic than almost any other. I’ve never even met one, but I can feel it. And there’s something else within her too, something that I can’t describe. How is this possible? I’m not alone in my observations, can feel the shift in attention as people try to get a better look, a better understanding of what we have before us.

She looks around the room, the briefest flash of surprise on her face as she sees our numbers and the presence of our less human representatives. Apparently she wasn’t expecting this many either. But then her face lights up in a warm smile. I have to consciously stop myself from smiling back, can see I’m not alone in this. Damn, she’s good. Is it sheer force of personality, magic, or a potent combination of the two? I’m not attracted to women, but I still find myself drawn to her, like I want to speak to her and hear what she has to say. She seems to stand a little straighter, and then people are moving out the way to let her get to the front of the room, a parting of the waves as murmurs sweep the hall.

As she heads up to the front of the room, I find myself wondering how much she knows about us and our ‘community’. She looks so young. True, werewolves have to get experienced even faster than the rest of the supernatural world – they don’t tend to live particularly long, after all, short and fast is the order of the day. Probably only changelings have so little time to do anything, and their deaths are far less violent. Then again, that tends to be the wolves own fault. But she did manage to reach out to us, so many so quickly drawn here. She has to at least know people who know about us, to have the connections to pull us together. I imagine it might have been easier right now than any other time. When everything you know suddenly gets pulled out from beneath your feet, and somebody steps up to tell you they can help fix it, you at least give them an ear. Even if the person offering help is a young werewolf woman that I suddenly realise is pregnant. That is… unexpected.

She looks calm, standing at the front as her eyes sweep us. I check the aura again, to see if she really is calm – although it is hard to tell with werewolves, there’s always some level of rage there, like red veins running through the colour. But I can’t really pick up much of how she feels. The colours are so mixed and vibrant from the fae and werewolf natures, it masks most everything else. It’s intriguing. And then she speaks.

When she’s done, we sit in silence. I’m stunned, a little incredulous. This is madness.
She can’t seriously be offering us this. It has to come with strings, with a list of conditions longer than my arm. Werewolves are such hostile creatures, zealous and almost rabid in their protection of their wellsprings of power.

It’s an unprecedented offer.

It’s too good to be true.

And the way she says she does it… it isn’t possible.

The others are talking suddenly, lots of questions asked over each other in jumbles of loud words that can barely be heard. She can’t answer, even if she wanted to – we’re more talking to each other than to her at this point. I find myself staring at her, looking for some sort of tell, that a mask will slip and it will turn out she was joking or this was a trap after all. She’s watching, waiting quietly for some sort of order to return. Good luck with that. Some of the things she’s said are impossible, practically blasphemy in the eyes of some traditions. Magic can’t be contained in a person in its raw state, that’s not how it works. The energy is too wild and chaotic for a mortal form to hold it, never mind do the things she says she’s done, that she’s offering us access to if we help her.

She’s looks around the room, and for the briefest second her eyes seem to meet mine. I almost swear she smiles slightly. Then she lifts a hand, and the room goes silent. With a small frown on her face, she concentrates, and then we all seem to inhale simultaneously as the crown on her head grows brighter and raw magical energy dances between her fingers. She doesn’t call it that, uses some strange werewolf term instead. But that’s what it is.

I can feel it, like a warmth and sharpness inside me. I want to lift my hand and reach out to touch it. I want to shy away from it as well, know how dangerous it can be. Shit. Just… shit. How can this be possible? I almost feel stupid for not being able to believe, when I can call lightning from a bare sky and speak to people with my mind. But there are rules to that, things that I know and understand. This is something else. I want to know and understand so badly. What is the price though? Will it prove to be worth the cost, if we work with them?

The room remains silent as the power withdraws into her hand and she looks around again. Her face is sincere, earnest as she speaks. She needs our help, isn’t afraid or ashamed to ask. I can believe the things she says about what caused this situation, the creature that wants to destroy her world and ours too. That’s easy enough, almost rational for me in comparison. She might be able to do it without us, but she might not – and the cost to her people would be so much worse. We are part of this world too. She’s not even asking us to stand on the front lines. She just needs allies, to help her protect what little power is left while she and her people do the meat of the work. If she loses… well, we either end up slaves to these ancient fae creatures, or we get wiped out in the battles that follow. Isn’t this worth the cost, to avoid that fate? To build a future for all of us, to put aside old grudges and forge a new path together?

We’ve never considered working outside our own kind before. Why would we need to? We can barely work with our own. But when the end times come, to think that it is the werewolves that have come looking for help…

People around me begin to talk again. We don’t know what to do. How can we agree on something this monumental so quickly? Do we have time to waste debating? How can we be sure she is right? How can we trust what she’s saying? How can we be sure this is the right thing for us? There are too many questions ringing in my own mind, throughout the room. I can see her face begin to look tired, concerned. This seems to be slipping away from her, like trying to herd cats. Clearly she isn’t that experienced with mages after all.

And then I hear a voice, loud and clear in the room and within my head as well.

We turn almost collectively to listen. Many of the leaders who came and changed things are young, at least by mage standards; they had to be, to support things being so very different. But not all of them are. There are some among them who are old, powerful and wise. One of them speaks now, echoing in the minds of those of us here – and perhaps others beyond, I can’t be sure. I feel my teeth tingle, my eyes glaze slightly as the voice rings through my head with an authority I can only hope to have. The words ring as true as hers, reaching into my heart.

She believes.

She believes in her pack, in her world, in the inherent goodness of everyone around her. She believes in her strength, in her friends, that things can change for the better. She believes in giving a chance at redemption. Every time she is knocked down, every time her beliefs are tested and brought into question, she stands again and her faith remains strong. She hears the words of those who used to be young and idealistic like her, who have been embittered by time and experience. They tell her she shouldn’t believe, that she is foolish and naïve and she will just be hurt again and again by people like them. They tell her that she wants the impossible and it cannot happen. And then she continues to believe, and she achieves the ‘impossible’ again and again, flying in the face of everything they thought they knew. Still they tell her she is wrong, that surely this time she will fail. But she doesn’t. Even if she did, it wouldn’t stop her.

She believes with a conviction that is frightening. Faith like that can move mountains and shake the world.

That is what we need.

And so we agree to her bargain.

The final dream

Julia stood on the edge of the cliff, the grass moving softly in the early morning breeze as the sun began to rise. The soft cotton of her dress brushed against her bare legs. Far below her the sea shimmered, waves crashing on the shoreline in a slow steady rhythm. Everything was cast in a warm orange and pink glow, one that spoke of hope and a promise of something new. She closed her eyes.

His arms slipped around her shoulders from behind, tender and loving. She smiled, reaching up to hold his hand against her heart. His head rested on her shoulder, his breath warm against her cheek and his other hand resting on the curve of her stomach. The cool morning air blew a strand of her hair across her face and he tucked it back behind her ear.

“You could still go back, Jules.” His voice was quiet, almost hesitant.

“You don’t really think I’d let someone like you just walk away from me, do you? I’d have to be a fool.”

He laughed, recognising the familiar words. She turned in his arms, reaching up to him. His mouth was soft, his kiss gentle.

They could finally start again, break away from the darkness that had always dogged them and begin anew. It had been easier than she had thought to give it all up. To turn away from everything everyone had told her was her duty, to give up the burdens she had put upon herself as she tried and tried to be what everyone else told her she had to be. It was like she was finally free.

I’ve done enough. Let it go.

For a brief moment she thought of her pack, and she felt a pang of regret. She thought of her parents, the sadness they must feel at losing their daughter again. But this time it was different. This time she wasn’t fleeing. This time it was her choice.

She had never been more certain. They would cope without her. She was sure of that much.

Julia pulled away from Jake. His smile was tender as he looked down at her. His delicate grey eyes were beautiful, and finally clear of something that she hadn’t noticed had always been there until it was gone. He held out his hand to her, stepping back towards the path down the cliff, down to their future. It could be whatever they wanted it to be.

“Where will we go?” she asked.

“Wherever we want to.”

She took his hand.

When she woke up, her face was wet with tears. She didn’t remember why.

Those you hold dear

“It was Nerzuul. He’s working for the Outsider.”

Julia felt as if all the breath had been knocked out of her. She listened to Annie talk, not really believing her own ears as they stood together in the Umbra beside the portal and her little packmate told them everything. She wanted to scream and cry. She’d been crying a lot lately. It was probably the pregnancy thing. Or maybe it was just years of frustration and suppression finally breaking loose.

How had this happened? How could she not have noticed? True, she’d been so busy and swept up in this new world of being queen. She’d let some things get slack – but surely her friends and family understood that! She only had so much time, and now she had to allocate so much of that elsewhere. But Sophie had been marked by the Outsider, unknowingly so back when they had asked for her helps against him, and Nerzuul had found someone he wanted to fight for and… How could she not have noticed?

She had a brief flash back to her visit in the Umbra back when they had been fighting Deucalion, when she had gone to the temple of the Lost. She remembered the vision she’d had, of Nahuel seated atop his brother’s chest, blood dripping from his mouth as he consumed Nerzuul’s heart. But she’d avoided that! They had broken the prophecy, the ties that bound Wendigo and them together. They didn’t want to fight and kill each other anymore. It was… not a possibility. She shook her head.

Their enemy had Sura. Their enemy had swept across the world, devastating caerns as the moles he had planted within their ranks over… who knew how long, probably years, finally acted. Their enemy had invaded their territory, raking through their things like it was all garbage. Their enemy had control over her friends, and he had taken Sura. And if Annie was right, if Nerzuul had told the truth, he’d taken someone from each of them, as hostages and bargaining chips to do… what? Keep them out of the way and ensure their obedience while he did whatever he was doing, out of fear he would hurt their loved ones? Or perhaps lure them into a trap, get them to behave rashly and take them out?

He’d taken someone from each of them-

Oh god. Jake.

She burst into the small palisade, breathing hard as she shifted forms back into her human shape. The guards immediately stood to attention, lifting their weapons as they recognised she was no invader. Annie was somewhere behind her, stopping outside the gates. There were nods and bows and murmurs of greeting, but she ignored them and headed into the small jail at almost a run.

The room stank of silver, runes up the walls and wards decorating the floor. It was as much to keep other people out as him in, but it couldn’t have been comfortable. She visited as much as she felt she could get away with, but it was hard to spend too much time in here when her skin prickled and her hackles seemed to always be on edge. He’d never complained though. When she’d asked, he’d said it was positively homely compared to the Pentex correctional facilities, and she’d believed him.

He was inside.

The relief was so great that everything went blurry and she thought she might pass out. She saw him rise to his feet, reaching up towards the bars as she wobbled and then withdrawing his hand with a hiss as the wards activated.

“Jules, are you OK?” His voice was loud in her ears, the worry clear. “I heard the fighting, but that was hours ago. They wouldn’t tell me what happened.”

“It’s fine.” She bent over, breathing hard. “I mean… it’s not, but… I’m fine. You’re safe, it’s OK.”

“Did you forget about me?” There was amusement and a hint of reproach in his voice.

“Yes.” She didn’t see the point in lying. “The caern was attacked, if I’d been any slower they would have killed it. Our territory has been smashed up, and they took Annie. He’s making his move now, and I’m running out of time. I had to-”

“It’s OK. Don’t push yourself, you look exhausted.” He waved a hand as she looked up at him. “What happened? Who attacked? Obviously not someone after me.”

“No.” She shook her head, still trying to catch her breath. “The Outsider, his forces are making a move. Gaia, they’ve destroyed so much already. And they’ve got Sura, and…” her voice cracked. “They took others, people we care about. I was afraid that they had-”

“Jules, I’m fine. Nobody’s been in here at all this afternoon, save you.” He leaned forward as close as he could, nose wrinkling a little at the silver laced through the bars. “But if they don’t have me, if it’s true, then they’ll have gone after someone more vulnerable.”

She stared up at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then it clicked.

“Oh god, Raven, mother, anyone, I have to go, I have to-”

“Call them first.” His voice was strong, commanding, breaking through the haze. “Don’t waste time running from one place to another. Find out who the likely person is, then go straight there as fast as you can. Get someone to help if you have to.”

She nodded. “OK. I’ll be back. I love you.”

“I know.” He smiled. “You came for me first.”

The apartment was dark. Of course it was dark, it was late at night. But it shouldn’t have been dark, her mother kept long hours just like she did. Lucille hadn’t mentioned anything about going out of town. But right now, standing on the sidewalk beside Annie’s car and staring up, Julia prayed that her mother had taken in impromptu trip, or decided to go out for a meal, something, anything.

The lift was agonisingly slow. It felt like she spent far too much time waiting in elevators, knowing something awful could be at the top. She’d done enough running today though, and it was tiring her out. She hadn’t eaten for a while, her legs and back ached and her stomach seemed incredibly heavy. Dammit, why was this machine so slow?

When the doors opened, she saw the mess. Had they attempted to send an individual to get her, a lone kidnapper? It would have been a foolish move on any supernatural creature’s part to underestimate Lucille, and by the damage in the hallway it was clear that there had been a struggle, that her mother had not gone easily. She could see scorch marks, smell the tang of burning and something else that she figured was maybe magic.

A quick search of the rooms showed that her mother was indeed gone. It appeared Lucille had been in the kitchen at the time – the fridge was open, its contents spilled across the floor and the light blinking plaintively. There was a mess of egg and flour and food on the counter, as if Lucille had been trying to make something and been interrupted. Or perhaps she’d used it as a weapon, an attempt to blind and distract her opponent? The second seemed more likely, her mother had never been much of a cook. Her stomach rumbled at the smells of the food and she felt a pang of guilt at her body’s loud announcement in the silence of the ravaged kitchen. There was broken glass everywhere, more scorch marks and several shattered kitchen cabinets. She found blood too, not human blood, thank goodness. The entire apartment had a strange scent to it. What had happened here?

She supposed it didn’t matter. Her mother was gone.

She stood in the broken kitchen, breathing deeply as she stared around. Her fists clenched tight by her side as she took it all in, burning it into her mind and letting it fill her with fury. Then she shut the fridge door and left.

Fires of change

The claws raked across her back and Julia gave a roar of pain as she turned, swinging her blade and cleaving the creature in two. She could feel the huge Crinos form of Cal nearby, moving towards her a little too late to prevent the blow. But there was no time to really think about it. The sept was under attack.

It had been so calm these last few months – or at least, comparatively. They had all been busy, wrapped up in their own worlds as they learned to adjust and tried to prepare for the impending ‘end of days’. She had been trying to be queen, and the others had been living their own lives. There had been plenty of challenges to overcome, but it had seemed like things were getting better. Somehow the world was improving, somehow the Wyld seemed to be pushing back and the tribes were uniting. It hadn’t been perfect, but it had given her hope that this apocalypse they kept talking about had been avoided.

Shit. This is a mess.

Where was Annie? She could see Nahuel out of one eye, his lithe wolf form lunging and returning as he stayed by her side. Cal was obvious among the crowd, the huge red Crinos towering even amid the madness as he shrugged off every attack that came against him like he was untouchable. But there were too many people in this place, the stench of blood and rage permeating the air. Annie was small normally, never mind in a clusterfuck of a battle where you had no idea which werewolves were on your side and which ones wanted to rip your face off. Hopefully being small would be an advantage, would protect her.

She raised her sword and parried an incoming strike, shoving her assailant back with her foot and staggering slightly as she threw off her own balance. Dammit, how could she be so out of practice? Or perhaps she wasn’t, she just didn’t know how to fight with the added weight of an increasingly obvious baby bump changing her centre of gravity. She withdrew a little, back towards the gate of the caern.

Their home had been invaded. In the end, no matter how well she alarmed the property, it always seemed to be for nothing. Every enemy circumvented the protections she had in place, even daring to attack when they were inside. It had all happened so fast. A man that exploded into a spray of thorns upon death, a growth that would have trapped them and consumed their home if Cal hadn’t dragged him away into the fields beyond. The guards who had been watching her home dead. The sept under attack and, as the sky had split open and unleashed a wave of assailants upon them all, the tingle of the alarm that told her the pack’s territory was invaded once again.

Julia stepped back, flaming sword raised and coated in a sheen of fiery crimson as she pushed open the gates of the caern and stepped inside. Instantly it was as if the sounds of the battle dulled. Her back was covered in blood that she knew was her own, the claws having sunk deep. She didn’t have the time or skill to heal them. Had the enemy got through to the tree? It was no use protecting the gate if others were already inside.

The caern grove was dark, unnaturally so. Shade hung like cloth from the branches of the tree, too dark even for her night-trained eyes to clearly penetrate. But it wasn’t dark enough for her not to be able to see that there were shapes beside the tree, shapes that shouldn’t be there.

She reached within and activated the light, a blinding radius of silver white emanating from her and filling the area. Hopefully it would act as a beacon, draw attention to those outside the glade that something was wrong. The figures became clearer – still sheathed in darkness, but it was now more a dull grey than a true covering of unnatural night. There were half a dozen, gathered around the base of the caern and chanting in a language she didn’t understand. This couldn’t be good.

Julia moved as fast as she could, calling out for her pack through their link as she did so. The flames of the sword bit into the back of one of them and she heard a grunt of pain as the chanting briefly stopped. She was still moving, pulling it out and swinging in a wide arc across at another one – but the robed figure was too far across, out of her reach as once again the shift in her centre of gravity threw off her arm. A stab of pain from her back caused her to stagger a little, and then the first figure that she had attacked turned, mumbling something new. Fire erupted from its fingers, engulfing her as she instinctively raised an arm to parry. It sank into the open wounds in her back, filling her mind with pain as she fell.

The last thing she saw before things went dark was the gate to the caern opening and Nahuel slipping through.

Please, save the caern.

Burning man

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.”

The "Kidnapping"

Workers were cleaning up the mess from the battle, Julia had been called away, and she couldn’t find Cal or Nahuel. Annie looked around for something to do, but it looked as if everyone else had the aftermath under control. She decided to slip away and find a quiet space to meditate. The battle had drained her.

She found a secluded spot just outside of the sept and got ready to meditate. After only a short time though, she heard determined footsteps approaching her. They were heavy, fast, and heading straight in her direction. She held her position and took a deep breath through her nose. The smell was familiar, but she couldn’t place it. That usually meant the person in question wasn’t friendly. She waited until the footsteps were in the right position before activating Hare’s Leap and soaring into the air.

She landed directly on the back of her assailant, but it only forced him to one knee. Before she was able to plan her next step, she recognized the tall, large, albino man.

“Nerzuul?” she said in surprise.

“Annie.” He said with a small grunt. “I appear to have startled you.”

“It’s been one of those days.” She relaxed a little, but didn’t get off him immediately.

“The day is not yet over.” He looked as serious as Annie had ever seen him. “I need to speak to you.”

“Are you here to attack me?” Annie glared at the top of his head.

“I’m here to rescue you.” He said matter-of-factually.

“Then…I will get off you.” She said unlacing her fingers and jumping off his back. “Wait, rescue me from what?”

“It’s… complicated.” He stood up and reached into his pocket, producing a small talisman. He whispered something under his breath and the talisman began to glow in response. A portal opened in front of the two of them and Annie could see a meadow and a small pond on the other side.

“Please, come with me.” He said, gesturing towards the portal. “I will explain everything when we’re inside.”

“You can’t explain anything more before?” She stepped towards the portal, but stopped short. “I mean, I know you’ve been through a lot but you have tried to kill me in the past…”

“There are eyes and ears out here, and they mustn’t hear what I’m about to tell you. Both our lives depend on it.” He looked sincere and Annie couldn’t sense any maliciousness. She sighed loudly, almost in complaint, and stepped through the portal.

The realm was calm and harmonic, if somewhat small. While there were no visible walls, Annie could feel the boundaries. Nerzuul stepped through after Annie and the portal closed behind him. Annie turned to face him.

“Do you like it? It’s the oldest place I remember, reconstructed as best as I could.” He sounded almost embarrassed.

“It’s…peaceful. What is it?” Annie asked.

“A realm and a spirit in one. By striking a bargain with the spirit I was allowed to shape the realm as I liked, and only I can open the portal in or out of it.” Nerzuul answered.

“Wow.” Annie was genuinely impressed.

“It’s a place that is only mine: a place of peace and isolation when there is no peace or solitude to be found.” He looked as if he was lost in his own thoughts.

“That’s brilliant.” She said in a hushed voice.

“Thank you.” He looked away from her. “It pains me to have to use it for something like this, but it’s the only place I where know he can’t follow.”

“Well, what’s up?” Annie set her thoughts away from the realm.

“They’re coming for Sura.” He said with a sigh.

“Who?” Annie could feel heart speed up.

“The same that attacked your sept. The forces of the Outsider.” He continued, still not facing her.

“How do you know?” Annie asked a little more feverishly.

“Because I…” he turned back to face her. His eyes are filled with sorrow, guilt, and regret. “…I serve him.”

Annie took a small step back and was silent for a short time. “What?”

“Please believe me, I had no choice. And please believe I mean you well.” He was pleading with her.

“How did you have no choice?” She felt a heat rise in her stomach and her voice raise a little. “You always have a choice.”

“It’s Sophie. She was marked by him, some months ago. If I don’t serve him her soul is forfeit. And I can’t do that to her, I… care too much about her.”

“I see.” Annie said not really knowing what to say. “What’s going on?”

“The Outsider is making his move, his final move.” He said after a minute of silence. “He has the power and the forces he needs, and the only thing he fears is your pack. Attempts have been made on your lives already, but since that failed he is attempting a more indirect route.”

Annie couldn’t think of anything to say.

“Sura will be the first, but not the only one, to be taken. You will all lose someone.” Nerzuul continued.

“I see.” Annie said shortly. “How?”

“You know what he has at his command by now – his forces, his agents. He has watched each of you closely, and determined who you hold dear.” Nerzuul took a deep breath and kept going. “Some of his agents can trick wards. You may have already looked your daughter’s kidnapper in the eyes, without knowing what they were.”

“Ok then. Well, thank you for the warning.” Annie ran a hand through her hair in frustration. “I don’t suppose you know when?”

“Within the hour.” Nerzuul said.

“Great.” Annie said exasperatedly. “Any other advice?”

“You can’t face him alone. On your own you will perish. It is only together that you are threat to him – so when the time comes, you must face him as a pack.” Nerzuul said simply.

“Good advice. But if he is taking someone from all of us…how?” Annie was confused.

“You must help each other fight on, in spite of the threats, and the fear.” Nerzuul said. “You must hope you can do what I can’t, and fight for the ones you love. And if they fall, you must avenge them.”

“Ok. What if they try and steal everyone at the same time?” Annie was really confused now. How could he expect them to fight together? It would mean just saving one. “Or rather, do you know if they are supposed to?”

“They are; and they will.” Nerzuul said.

“Excellent.” Annie rolled her eyes.
“Excellent?” He looked confused.

“It’s sarcasm.” Annie said

“Ah.” He said looking a little embarrassed. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok.” She sighed. “I guess I should warn the others huh?”

“I’m sorry, Annie. I can’t let you do that.” He moved to stand in front of her.

“Well then why warn me?” Annie took a step backwards.

“I did not bring you here to warn you, I brought you here to keep you safe.” He said. “If any of you found out, you would attempt to save your loved one – and you would die.”

“If we don’t save them, won’t they die?” She clenched her hands.

“No. As long as they’re alive he has leverage, he has you desperate.” He looked tired and guilty.

“So, I’m just supposed to let him get Sura? After everything I’ve been through to keep her safe?” Tears formed.

“It is the only way. I can’t let you die.” He pleaded. “You must let her go now, so that you can save her later.”

“But…” She tried to say something, but nothing came out.

“I’m sorry Annie. Truly.” He was genuine.

“What am I supposed to do?” She said through tears.

“Wait here. I can stay if you like, though I understand if you don’t want to speak to me right now. I will let you out when it’s safe.”

“Why?” She sobbed. “Why did you tell me? I wouldn’t have tried to save her if I didn’t know.”

“I couldn’t risk it. You might have gone to see her, or someone near her might have tried to contact you. I had to get you out before that happened.”

Annie sat on the grass and cried. Everything was too much, too fast. She felt him get a little closely to her.

“Forgive me.”

“Where will he take her?” She was bitter, angry.

He took a few steps away from her and produced the talisman again, opening the portal. He turned to face her. “Where else? The gates to Old Arcadia.” Then he disappeared through the portal.

Annie sat in the middle of the grass, in the calm pocket realm, and cried.

A much needed conversation

Julia stood up from the couch with a smile, watching Nahuel rolling on the floor with his tongue lolling. As she did so, she caught Annie watching her. It hadn’t been her intention to do this quite yet, but now was as good a time as any. She tipped her head towards the doorway and the other woman moved out of the room. Julia followed, her stomach churning a little.

In the hallway, she kept her voice quiet and calm. “Can we talk for a bit? Upstairs?”

Annie nodded, face unreadable. Julia quickly headed towards the stairs before either of the boys noticed they were leaving and decided to follow. Cal had gotten far better at picking up on social cues over the last year, but Nahuel still had his clingy thing – and he’d been pretty clingy tonight, despite obvious efforts not to be. She could hear Annie’s footsteps behind her as the other woman followed.

She stepped into to her own room, letting Annie in and shutting the door behind them. For a moment, she stopped, just looking around. It was a bit dusty – she hadn’t been in here since Christmas morning and it was now early February. Everything was as she’d left it. It made sense, she supposed. Annie seemed to be the one who was least afraid of the hoover among the wolves, and her packmate had a strong sense of privacy that she extended to the others as well. It was possible that Nahuel might have wanted to come in, but he had too much of a sense of wolf hierarchy to invade his alpha’s room. She wasn’t sure how often Cal was here anymore, and it was unlikely he’d think to clean her room.

It didn’t matter really. But seeing the pristine bed and the layer of dust over her books made her sad. She shook her head a little. Annie was perched on the edge of the bed, waiting expectantly.

“Annie… you… how are you?” Julia took a big breath, trying to smile. “I feel like we haven’t spoken since…”

“I’m fine. Just keeping busy.” Annie’s face remained calm, a faint polite smile matching Julia’s own.

“I… right. That wasn’t really what I…” Julia tried not to look uncomfortable, coming over to sit beside her packmate.

“I know.” Annie’s smile became a little more rueful, but she still didn’t answer fully or change her stance. “How is it being queen?”

“At first… it was awful. Then they realised that I wasn’t going to shut up and mind my pretty head, and that it was probably a good idea to listen to me – otherwise they only find out about what I’m doing after I’ve done it.” Julia leaned back on the bed, a small sad wrinkle growing on her brow as she tried to get comfortable. “I miss being here. I miss being with you guys. I miss being able to come home and know there aren’t people following me and watching me.”

Annie looked momentarily perplexed. “You can still come here. I don’t remember there being a rule about the queen having to stay in the sept.”

“Yes, but I… we haven’t really talked and I felt like I would be… intruding?” She laughed a little sadly. “Isn’t that awful?”

“It is. You’re my pack no matter what else has happened. You’re always welcome here… it’s your home.” Annie’s voice was blunt, and Julia laughed again without thinking.

“You say that now. Wait until there are people constantly banging on the door, wanting things from me, and guards on our lawn hanging out in case somebody gets it in their head to attack me -apparently, that’s a thing. Our neighbours are confused about us enough as it is.” She took a deep breath, swallowing the lump in her throat. “We’re skirting the issue. Sura is… Jake’s.”

Instantly, her packmate’s eyes darkened as if a shadow had fallen across her face. It was rare for rage to show – Annie was probably one of the calmest werewolves Julia had ever met. Seeing this sudden well of fury bubble up and over at such a small sentence was almost frightening. She tried to backpedal and correct herself. “Yours and… his-”

Mine,” Annie snapped, and her eyes narrowed, the traces of a snarl around her lips. Julia nodded quickly, trying to find a way to be diplomatic as she watched the other woman take a deep breath and seem to push down the rage. She lifted a hand to try and offer comfort and apology, then thought better of it, the lump returning to her throat.

“I… that’s not what I meant, sorry, I-”

“There may be some DNA shared between the two, but no, she is not his.” Annie looked up again and met Julia’s eyes, visibly calmer. “I’m sorry.”

“He’s the father. That’s all I meant.” Julia could see herself in the mirror, knew she was starting to look a little bit weepy. It was hard to stop. She didn’t want to make her packmate angry, didn’t want to push that particular button. But they couldn’t just leave this hanging in the air between them forever.

“I know. It is a sore spot.” Annie looked quiet and thoughtful, staring down at her hands. She seemed a little lost, like she didn’t really know what to do or say. Julia understood the feeling. How were they going to talk about this? She just needed to talk to someone.

“Do you hate me now?” Julia asked, trying to keep her voice steady. The other woman lifted an eyebrow, looking back up. Julia ploughed on. “You haven’t spoken to me since. I feel like you’ve been avoiding me.”

“Well, I feel like we’ve both been a little busy.” Annie still looked kind of lost, and a little trapped – or perhaps that was just the awkwardness between them clouding Julia’s mind. Damn these pregnancy hormones. She usually had better control than this, but she felt like the always slightly odd and yet somehow solid relationship between her and her packmate was starting to fray.

She started to cry. “Annie… I know.”

The other woman didn’t seem to register the statement, still looking off into the distance. “I don’t think I’ve been actively avoiding you. But maybe on some level…I was.” She turned quickly. “But I don’t hate you! I have no reason to. If anything I was worried you hated me.”

“Why would I hate you?”

“I didn’t tell you. I should have. You didn’t deserve to find out that way.” Annie shook her head, sadness on her face and a faint flicker of anger still in her eyes.

“We weren’t together then, I thought I’d killed him. And you and I didn’t even know each other. Why would we ever have met, ever have ended up in the same pack?” Julia tried to wipe surreptitiously at her eyes – a fruitless effort when Annie was looking at her.

“Fate,” the other woman said simply.

“Uuurgh.” Julia sniffed at the word. “And I didn’t… I didn’t want to find out that way. But I seem to find out most things… badly. Sometimes you can’t… I was never going to be happy about it.”

“No, you wouldn’t have been. That’s why I should have told you. Either way it was going to hurt, but it could have hurt less.” Annie’s voice was sincere and earnest, her hands twitching a little in her lap.

“He could have told me. He could have… told me a lot of things.” Julia started to cry harder. Annie awkwardly pulled her into a hug. It was a little ridiculous, even sitting down – the other woman was so much shorter than her, and resting a head on a shoulder would have been an exercise in contortion. Julia knew how shy her packmate was, how the wolf within seemed to rise to the surface at these moments. She appreciated so much the effort, hugging back and sobbing onto Annie – it was proper crying, not the delicate one-tear down the face kind you saw in the movies. She knew she was getting snot and gulpy sobs all over Annie’s shoulder, but she couldn’t stop.

“I don’t hate you,” Annie whispered into her ear, gently patting Julia’s back. “It’s OK, you don’t have to…”

“Annie, I know. And I know that you know too.” She sobbed into the other woman’s shoulder. “I saw him, a few days ago. For the first time since… since Christmas… he told me… I know.”

“Oh… well at least he finally grew a pair.” She had been rubbing at Julia’s back as best she could and now paused. “Sorry, I feel that may have been inappropriate.”

Julia couldn’t stop herself from laughing bitterly, her voice a little muffled by the other’s woman’s top. “Oh god, if he didn’t have a pair then neither of us would be in this mess in the first place. Him having a pair is half the damn problem.”

“I meant in the figurative sense.” Annie sounded a little nonplussed, pulling back slightly.

“I know, I’m coping with huh- humour.” Julia lifted a hand to wipe her face, still crying. The other woman continued to awkwardly pat at Julia’s back.

“Oh, that was a joke. I guess I still need some practice.”

“Oh god, I saw the… there were still marks. From what they did. And he told me… all of it… or enough for me to… to get the…” She leaned forwards, clutching at her chest as the pain of the memory surfaced and she felt like her heart was going to tear its way out of her chest.

“I don’t imagine he’ll be winning any beauty pageants anytime soon. He was a mess.”

“He said you… you helped him.” Julia turned and buried her face in Annie’s shoulder again, reaching for the comfort of a friend. “Thank you. Thank you so much. You could have…”

You could have left him there to die. But you didn’t.

“Don’t thank me.” Annie sniffed, obviously trying to make her voice sound comforting even as she had to discuss the man she seemed to so viscerally hate.

“Why?” Julia asked, muffled.

“I still might.”

“I…” she pulled away, a confused frown on her face. “Still might what?”

Annie’s voice was cold, contained. “You know what he is. One way or another… I might still kill him.”

Julia pulled away instinctively, letting go of her packmate and withdrawing. She couldn’t keep the horror and despair as realisation of just how much Annie hated Jake really hit her. “But…! He… I don’t want…” She pulled away, wrapping her arms around herself. “Oh god.”

Annie looked genuinely upset, as if also realising something as well. “I… do you…? I’m sorry.”

Julia’s voice was quiet and painful. “Annie, I always knew what he was. I didn’t know everything, about what he did and all the… the other stuff that he…” she couldn’t finish what she was saying, still crying really hard. “But I knew he was a… why do you think I was so accepting when I found out about your father? Why do you think I tried to help at least one of Deucalion’s pack? I have to believe they can be… they have the chance to change if they…”

Annie seemed… hurt for a flash of a moment, as if she was learning something or hearing a connection she didn’t like. Her voice was calm, ignoring the damp patch on her top. “And has he?”

“Has he what?” Julia breathed deeply, trying to calm herself and not doing a great job of it.

“Has he had his chance to change?”

She looked up at her packmate with big sad eyes. The other woman was staring off at the wall like she couldn’t even look at Julia. “I… don’t think anyone ever gave it to him before. I believe he could. I believe he would… for me. I must believe that. I just don’t know how.” She slumped. “I never thought he… it’s eating me up. He wanted me to break up with him and go far away. He said that would keep me safe. But I love him. I can’t not.” There weren’t words to convey the confusion, the conflict, the bubbling well of emotions inside her. She had never expected this. How could she have been so stupid? And yet… “I don’t know what to do anymore, Annie. I want to hate him. I want to give him what he wants… a part of me completely understands why you would want to… to… But I can’t.”

Annie’s voice was still calm, almost a little clinical. “It’s been, what, almost a year since he came back into your life, right? Has he said anything to you about changing his ways? About getting a second chance?”

Julia laughed bitterly. “About three days ago.”

Annie frowned, a tiny crease on her brow. Julia wished she could tell what was going on behind those eyes. “And what did he say?”

“That he wanted to change. That he loved me. That he… just can’t see how he could get out. That once you’re in, it has your soul. How…” She buried her head in her hands. “He’s selfish, Annie. He’s selfish and greedy and arrogant and he… he’s done terrible things.” She sniffed, wiping at her eyes. “But so has Cal. And I forgave that over and over, and he seems to have finally grown up a little. But I could see how to help Cal, even if I needed him to be willing to change too. I don’t see how I can possibly… Gaia, what have I done? I feel like I get so wrapped up in things, and then I turn around and the world is just waiting to punch me in the face. And you… you had to… I’m so sorry.”

“Do you truly believe him?” Annie’s voice was insistent as she stared off into the distance, as if she was looking for something and Julia wasn’t delivering it. She blinked in confusion, unsure where Annie was going with this. Was the other woman hoping to change her mind, or perhaps find a reason still to kill him? Or was this something else?

“I… of course. But… I don’t know if I could exactly be considered a ‘neutral party’. You must think I’m a such a fool.”

Annie turned her head at last with a sigh. “A fool in love.” She reached out and gently rested a hand on Julia’s. “Would you bet his life on it? Him wanting to change?”

“I… what?” She frowned. “The only life I’d ever be willing to bet with is my own, Annie. I’d never use somebody else as a bargaining chip.”

“It isn’t a bargaining chip.” The other woman shook her head, withdrawing again.

“I don’t understand.” She leaned in a little, looking concerned. “Annie, are you OK?” She swallowed nervously, trying to work out where the other woman was going with this. “Did I… I shouldn’t have said… I know you hate him. Please don’t hate me. Gaia, this is such a mess.”

They sat on the bed in silence for a moment, staring at each other. Finally, Annie spoke, her voice frank and uncompromising. “I hate him, Julia.” There was no sugar coating in her voice. “I thought about it. Killing him, after he showed me his mark. I didn’t because I thought you wouldn’t understand. But I wanted to. Because to me…he broke me Julia. And after knowing what he was… I believe it was on purpose.”

Julia opened and closed her mouth, unable to answer. How could she possibly answer that? She didn’t know what had happened between them, not truly. She knew now at least some of what he’d done, couldn’t deny the possibility. She didn’t understand how it could be the case from the little she was aware of, but Annie had always held her cards close to her chest when it came to her feeling and her past. This seemed to be the angriest she had seen the woman, and also the most open.

“I was an…” Annie’s voice rose but she caught herself, seemed to return to that calm. “I’ve changed a lot since our first meeting, since my first Change.” She swallowed, as if the words were catching in her throat. “I can help him.”

“You were angry,” Julia said quietly. “I’ve never seen you… you’re always so calm. It almost scares me a little when you get… but I… understand. I think perhaps, were our roles reversed, I would be the same.”

“If you believe that he actually wants out… I can help,” Annie murmured, a note of incredulity in her voice like she couldn’t quite believe she was making the offer.

Julia shook her head. “I… thank you, but I don’t think what Andy did would work. I mean, it isn’t really ‘out’ properly, and he-”

“That’s not what I mean,” Annie interrupted. “I can cleanse him.”

“I don’t think that would work. It’s not really that kind of wyrm taint-”

“No, it’s not. And yet, I… can. I can’t tell you how…it would expose someone.” Annie’s voice remained quiet and level, utterly certain. For the first time, Julia stopped crying. There was an impossible hope inside her. It didn’t seem real. But then, what else about her life ever did these days? Who was she to say that something wasn’t possible? The other woman kept speaking. “It could kill him Julia. But it could also cleanse him.”

She stared at Annie, conflicted. Her hand drifted down towards her stomach, the beginnings of the little bump that had begun to grow in the last couple of weeks. “I can’t… I can’t make that choice. It’s… it’s not mine to make.” Her voice wobbled a little.

Annie opened her mouth like she was going to say something, and then closed it again and nodded. “As long as you don’t think he’ll go back. It isn’t easy and I’d rather not waste it.”

“I… I don’t know.” She felt terrified. “You’d have to ask him. If he… if he said yes, would you believe that he meant it? That he wanted to change?”

“No. I think he would lie to me to get whatever it is that he wanted.” Annie’s voice remained frank, unwavering. “That’s why I’m asking you. You have to be sure. Then he can decide if he wants to risk his life.”

Julia hesitated. How could she answer that? How could she make the both of them believe? “I… don’t think he’d go back. I don’t think he could go back. If you could truly… cleanse this from him, somehow break the bargain… they’d probably rather make an example of him than ever accept him back into their fold.” She swallowed again, wiping at her face. “He couldn’t… it would be hard to change. But it’s always hard to change. I have to believe that he’d do it, if only for me.”

Annie nodded, face calculating and careful.

“Annie, what are you going to do?” She could hear the waver in her voice, a bit lost as she sniffled and wiped her eyes again. “Why are you…? You could leave him be. Surely that would be the best revenge, to just sit and watch as his life falls apart because he fucked up so much.”

“Then I would have to watch your life fall apart.”

“I… oh.” She paused, then leaned across tentatively to offer a hug. For a moment she wondered if Annie wouldn’t accept, but the other woman warmly opened her arms and let Julia sink into them. “Every time I think I understand, you always surprise me.”

“What about this surprises you?” There was a hint of humour and of hurt in the other woman’s voice.

“Well, for starters, the previously unmentioned ability to undo a bargain with the wyrm.”

“That’s fair.” She felt the nod, Annie’s cheek brushing against the top of her head.

“And I know… I know you hate him, Annie. He’s the only thing that seems to bring you close to angry, and we’re werewolves. Anger is our thing. For you to lose your cool… I would understand if you didn’t want to help. I would have understood if you had simply never mentioned that you could do this.” She sniffed, trying not to make the mess worse on Annie’s top. “I’m not sure if anyone else I know would have, were they in your position.”

“Well…that’s also fair.” There was another note of amusement in that response, and a little sadness.

“You know, sometimes I think maybe you should be alpha instead.” It came tumbling out of Julia’s mouth all at once, the thought that had been building in her head ever since the crown had been burned into her. “Perhaps when this whole… ‘apocalypse’ thing is over, I should step away and let you take the lead.” She paused. “Well, not ‘let’. That came out badly. But I don’t think… I don’t think you guys could ever have the normal lives you all want with me as alpha.”

Annie pulled out of the hug. “I don’t know if I could be that person again, Julia.” There was a sadness behind her eyes, a certain finality that said this conversation was over. “Let me know when you’re ready…for Jake.”

“I… oh. OK.” She hesitated, realising she may have said the wrong thing. Perhaps it would be better to save that conversation for another time. After all, it had already been a pretty heavy evening for the two of them. "I mean, whenever you… are you going to talk to him?

She squeezed Julia’s arm. “It’s a discussion for another day, but you don’t have to worry about what you say to me. I know what you mean when you say it.” She smiled. “I will let him know what’s at stake.”

Julia nodded. “Thank you, Annie. I… can’t even begin to describe…”

“It’s ok. You’d do the same.” The other woman shrugged, standing up.

She smiled a little wryly. “Yeah. I guess I probably would. But if Raven turns out to secretly be working for the Outsider or something, can we nip that one in the bud early?”

Annie smiled and laughed, the emotion lighting up her face. Julia wished she could help her packmate smile more. “You know, I can’t be certain. But I think I would have seen a mark by now.”

“Just… check thoroughly. I don’t want any more nasty surprises.” She shook her head. “I mean thoroughly. As your queen, I am giving you permission to go to town on your girlfriend. Better to be sure.”

“Well, if the queen commands it. I suppose I must.” She winked.

Julia laughed too and wiped her eyes again, glancing over at the mirror and wincing at her reflection. “I should clean up. I look a fright.” She turned and looked up at Annie, her voice earnest. “Thank you. I can’t say it enough.”

“It’s OK.” Annie shrugged, a small smile on her face. “Like I said, you’d do the same."

An Umbral Quest - Part 1
Annie's Quest

“I don’t think is a good idea.” Pabu poked his head out of the satchel Annie had fitted for her wolf form.

“I know you don’t Pabu.” Annie looked back to the spirit, keeping her pace. “And yet, I am going anyway.”

“But it’s dangerous Anouk.” Pabu sounded as if he was scolding a child who didn’t know better.

“Pabu.” Annie stopped walking and sighed gently. “If you are worried, you can go home. But I have to do this.”

“What?!” Pabu burst from the satchel. He scurried up to her head and sat, arms folded across his chest. “If you are going, I am going Anouk. I am sworn to protect you.”

“Good.” Annie crossed her eyes briefly to look up at the stubborn spirit before beginning her trot again. “I would have missed your company.”

Ahead of them laid the umbra, vast and open. Annie peered into the distance unsure of how best to proceed. Her task was to find a stone. A very pretty, particular kind of stone. A very rare stone. A very pretty, rare stone that no one had seen in years. Her only lead was a spirit that no one had seen in years.

Pabu is right. This is a terrible idea.

She took a deep breath and looked back over to Pabu who had returned to the satchel. “Nothing left to do now except trust the Umbra.”

“Oh sure!” Pabu rolled his eyes. “Trust the Umbra. Like that’s never gone wrong before.”

Annie sighed again. She thought back to the research she had done on the spirit before setting out, and took the path on the right.

Trust in the Umbra.

She trotted along the path. The Umbra was quiet at the moment. They met with few spirits and those that did approach them knew Annie.

“See Pabu, trust in the Umbra and you will find what you are looking for.” Annie said smugly.

But only for a brief moment because almost instantly the path turned dark. Large trees appeared overhead and the path all but disappeared. Annie heard Pabu snicker.

“I’m sorry Anouk, but the Umbra is not the charming place you seem to think it is.” Pabu said climbing out of the satchel.

“I don’t think it’s charming.” Annie said, walking slower now to keep track of the path which was disappearing into the forest more with each step. “I just am not afraid of the Umbra. Maybe I should be. But I’m not.”

They walked in silence for some time to allow Annie more concentration on keeping them on the path. Pabu sat on her back watching behind them.

“It’s not like I don’t know there are dangers.” Annie said. “I just think that everywhere is dangerous. But that if you have people around you…”

Annie stopped short. Lights appeared in the bushes ahead. Just a single pair at first, but slowly more pairs of lights appeared, two by two.

“Who are you?” A shadow appeared in front of them.

“My name is Anouk.” Annie answered.

“What are you doing in our home?” The shadow whispered.

“I just wanted to pass through.” Annie said.

“Without our permission?” Another shadow appeared in front of them.

“I didn’t know this was your home. This is the first time I have come this way.” Annie said.

“It’s rude not to ask permission first.” A third shadow appeared.

“We like our privacy.” A fourth said.

“You should have asked first.” A fifth.

A whole hoard of shadows surrounded them, shouting and getting closer. Annie tried to talk to them, but there were too many. She heard Pabu grunt from behind and as quickly as they had all appeared, they left in a flurry of wind.

“You see?” Annie said turning to Pabu. “Not as dangerous with friends around.”

“This is still a terrible idea.” Pabu said breathing heavily.

“Where are we?” Pabu shouted above the storm.

“I don’t know.” Annie said. “I didn’t know we’d be in this area. Then again I don’t think I’ve ever been this way before.”

“Stunning.” Pabu said. “Well where should we go now Miss “Trust the Umbra”?”

Annie peered through the snow. Even in the blizzard, the path was clear up the mountain. It forked near the summit and she had no idea which side to take. A small cave caught her eye.

“We go this way.” Annie said heading towards the shelter.

“But that’s not even on the path Annie!” Pabu shouted.

“I know, but sometimes the clearly defined path is not the right one.” Annie trudged through the snow.

Once they were safely in the cave Annie removed the satchel from her back. She turned to human and began picking through it to reveal a lighter and a couple pieces of wood.

“It isn’t much, but it’s dry which should help the other pieces light.” Annie put them on the ground.

“What other pieces.” Pabu poked his head out of the satchel.

“The pieces you are going to get.” Annie said matter-of-factually. “There are some trees outside. You can knock some pieces down.”

“I’m not going out there!” Pabu said retreated back into the satchel.

“Yes you are Pabu. We need to regroup here and we need to be warm.” Annie opened the satchel and peered inside.

Pabu sighed and crawled out of the bag. “Fine. But stay out of trouble while I am gone.”

Annie watched him go and started building a fire. She heard a noise from behind her and turned around. There was nothing there but shadows. Not even her enhanced senses could see anything. So she went back to building a fire.

“What are you doing here little wolf?” A voice from behind her said.

Annie turned around and saw a faceless, dark figure appeared out of the shadows.

“I, um,” Annie stammered, “I guess I was building a fire. But I see now that I have invaded your territory. So, I guess I will leave.”

The sprit chuckled deep. “So hasty little wolf. Why don’t you stay?”

“I couldn’t.” Annie stood up and faced the spirit. “I was just here to regroup and get back on my journey.”

“Journey you say?” The spirit sat down. “What is this journey?”

“I’m looking for a stone that is rare and beautiful. It is said that a spirit guards it.” Annie said.

“I know of the stone you speak.” The spirit said. “I can show you the way.”

“I’m guessing this isn’t a free pass?” Annie leaned against a wall.

“No, little wolf. I enjoy riddles.” The spirit said. “I will show you the way if you answer mine.”

“And that’s all?” Annie questioned.

“That’s all.” The spirit nodded. “I will ask you three.”

Annie nodded.

“Ok then. The first one. ‘I live without a boy, hear without ears, speak without a mouth, and am born of air. What am I?’” The spirit asked.

“An Echo.” Annie said almost instantly.

“Little wolf is smart.” The spirit nodded. “Harder riddles then. The more there is, the less you can see. What am I?”

Annie thought for a moment. “Darkness.”

“Very good little wolf.” The spirit brought its hand to its face as if it was scratching its chin. “My last riddle for you, ‘why are you going on this quest?’”

“That’s not a riddle.” Annie said.

“Isn’t it?” The spirit sat up straight.

“I would like to raise ranks in werewolf society.” Annie said.

“Why?” The spirit pressed. “That’s not a complete answer.”

“Because I want to be a part of it.” Annie said straightforward.

“A part of what.” The spirit asked again.

“A part of saving the world. I want to try and help. My kind and others.” Annie said.

“But WHY!?” The spirit shouted.

“I…” Annie started to shout, but stopped herself. She thought for a long time. “Because I’m a leader. It’s who I am. And I haven’t been able to be one in a while.”

“A journey to find yourself.” The spirit nodded and gestured behind to a path across a pit. “The path here is yours.”

“Anouk?” Pabu entered the cave. “What?”

“Pabu,” Annie placed the fire supplies back in her back, turned back to wolf, and slung the satchel back over herself, “this kind spirit has just given us directions. We should probably take our leave.”

Pabu dropped the twigs and small branches he had been carrying and jumped back into the bag. Annie strolled over to the path at the back of the cave.

“Thank you.” She turned to the spirit and nodded. “I really enjoyed your last riddle.”

Then Annie jumped into the darkness.

A tribal totem (part 2)

Julia was ‘packing’, lacing up her boots – it was still winter, after all and she was expecting to have to go somewhere ‘wildernessy’. The Umbra could throw anything at them and they told her it was important to try and prepare.

In truth, she didn’t have much more with her than she normally carried. She was used to a certain degree of preparedness and her satchel had most of what she expected to need. The others had insisted on carrying anything extra. The queen couldn’t be seen to carry things, especially not when she was so busy being pregnant. The others were also wearing winter gear, but of a more armoured variety. She hoped her luck would hold and it wouldn’t be needed.

They had insisted on sending a party of Garou with her. She had been reluctant to have strangers accompany her, but her own pack were busy on various ventures and she was on a somewhat pressing time limit. So eventually they had found a compromise, one that met her requirements and theirs. After all, if she was using this to rank up, it seemed only appropriate that she took-

As Julia was tying her shoes, there were footsteps behind her and then a familiar voice: “There you are! Hardly recognised you with the new hair.”

She turned with a big smile on her face to find the large figure of Breaker of Chains standing behind her, hands on his hips. “Do you like? I think it complements my new headgear.” She gestured to her crown.

“Oh wow, the spirits spared no expense on that one, did they! I like it, it suits you.” He grinned. “How have you been?”

She hesitated, glancing across at the rest of her entourage. It probably wasn’t a good idea to complain publicly. She didn’t want to give the elders any more excuse to treat her as a child if it was fed back. “I… Fine.”

He tilted his head a little, nodding and eyes narrowed as he looked at her. “I understand.” He gestured towards an empty area a little way off from the group. “May we speak in private for a moment?”

“Sure.” She followed him, glancing back. “Is something wrong?”

As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, he stopped with a big smile and a stretch. “Can’t always be yourself when you’re expected to lead. Now, how are you really?

She laughed. “I’m not expected to lead. I’m a figurehead made of glass and they’re terrified I’ll break. This is the first time they’ve let me out since I went to go deal with the Wendigo issue. I’m going mad.”

He chuckled, reaching out gently to pat her on the shoulder. “I’m surprised you put up with it. I seem to remember you had so much to do you hardly had time for sleep, let alone for those who would get in your way.”

“I have no idea what I’m doing, what they want me to do. I thought perhaps if I paid attention and tried to be respectful, things would be easier. But hey, maybe if I do this they’ll let me out more. I was going to do it anyway, might as well rank up at the same time, right?” Julia shook her head. “Ironically, being queen apparently means I have less ability to do what I wanted than I did before.”

“Julia, you need to assert yourself. They’re supposed to obey you, remember? Not the other way around. What do they want you to do? They want you to lead them! Some don’t know it, some won’t admit it, but they all want it. Lead! Command! Don’t take no for an answer, and don’t let them stand in your way, when they could help you!” His voice was light, but there was a certain force behind it, as if he was trying to keep things casual whilst still giving her a motivational speech.

She laughed again, a little sadly. “I… yeah. One thing at a time, right?”

He smiled broadly. “Of course. One thing at a time. Just remember who you were before this – how strong, how certain you were. That’s still you.”

Julia found it hard not to smile in response. He was so cheerful and confident – even though they had only met for a little while before, only talked a couple of times, it still felt like he was a good friend. It was just something about him. She guessed that was why he was an invigilator. Suddenly something occurred to her.

“Oh, I wanted to thank you.” She started digging in her bag, eventually pulling out the lunchbox with a genuine smile on her face. His eyes crinkled in amusement as he saw it.

“Ah yes, good old snoopy box. It has served you well, I hope? Given you many a warm meal?”

“I couldn’t have got here without it.” She laughed a little, shaking her head. “I’ll admit I’ve never kept any food in it though.”

“Oh? Now, that’s intriguing.” He tilted his head curiously, reaching for the box as she held it towards him.

“Turns out it can store pretty much anything you keep in it. I’ve mostly been putting raw wyld energy in it.” She raised a hand quickly as his fingers went towards the catch. “Maybe don’t open it.”

He looked surprised, withdrawing his hand and raising an eyebrow at her. “Raw Wyld? …Guess it’s even sturdier than I thought. Dare I ask what for?”

“Mostly I plant it around the city. Given time, they grow a bit, might become something like a caern one day. I don’t really need the box as much now, I can keep it in myself more easily.” She shrugged. “Well, I was doing that.”

“Huh. That’s kind of ingenious. I’m not going to ask about you keeping Wyld in yourself, because I get the feeling that’s a story on its own.” He grinned again, then paused. “But why did you stop? Was it not working, or is it the queen thing getting in the way again?”

“Queen thing. The ‘seeding’ works just fine, I can give you the addresses of some if you want to go have a look later. I can kind of talk to the Nemeton from most places in the forest now too.” She smiled warmly, putting the box back in her bag. “But regardless, I couldn’t have gotten as far as I have without it. So, thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. It brings me so much joy to know that I helped you with something as important as this.” His eyes twinkled with amusement.

She grinned. “Are you going to tell stories about this later?”

“Oh, you bet I am. Pupils, children, grandchildren, all will hear the tale of how I helped the queen change the world. Not many people get to say that.” He laughed, a deep booming sound that filled the area.

“… you have children?”

“No, not yet. But some day.”

Julia smiled, her hand unconsciously drifting down towards her stomach. He grinned, leaning in to prod her shoulder. “Hungry already? We’ve not even set out.”

“What? No.” She smiled, a little relieved that he didn’t seem to know her reason as she pulled her hand away. “We should probably get going though.”

“Yes, I suppose we should. We can continue this when we get back. Come, let’s find your spirit.” He turned and started to lead her back towards the others. She could see there were more figures now, familiar ones.

Julia felt a little hesitant for a moment. “I… haven’t spoken to Scales of Justice since… Is she coming too?”

He turned back to her. "She is. I know you two aren’t on the best of terms, but… " he looked sombre. “She must have had a reason for what she did. I have to believe that. She’s not your enemy.”

“What? No, I didn’t think that. I just thought it might be… a bit weird. I kind of felt like most of them were just avoiding me.” Julia waved her hand, as if she could dispel his assumption and clear the air more easily that way.

“I imagine they feel guilt, or shame, for their part in what happened. It will be weird, no doubt, but I think this will be good for you both – we’ll have plenty of time together to work things out”

“Right. Well, worst comes to worst I guess she’s still easier to talk to than Dicks Sof-” her eyes widened and she clapped her hand over her mouth. “I never said that. You heard nothing.”

He laughed wickedly. “That’s a good one, I’ll have to remember that. Probably isn’t the first time he’s been called it, either. Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”

It was hard to tell how long they had been travelling. Her watch didn’t work properly in the umbra. Perhaps it had been hours, perhaps it had been days. They had managed to find the individual that she had been looking for – Zhao, the Garou she had first encountered in the temple of the lost. He’d seemed almost a little relieved to be found by her for the third time, agreed easily to come with her when she’d taken him aside and told him what she wanted.

For the first time in her umbral travels they had run across genuinely hostile spirits – some just in passing, some drawn towards their entourage and her crown. Their party was smaller than when it had begun, and it hurt her to realise they had given their lives because of her. She just had to tell herself that it would be worth it, that they had believed it a worthy cause to die for. She hadn’t told any of the others who Zhao was, in case he ended up among those dead. It seemed like it would cast too much of a pall over things, for the last untainted White Howler to be rediscovered and then immediately killed.

But now the group stood before a gateway to what the map said should be Lion’s domain. It was not a door like the gateways in the near umbra; rather it was like there was a hole in the vacuum of space, but only when looked at from certain angles. Everything here seemed… trippy, she supposed was the best word. Hopefully it wouldn’t be too hard to find the way back. She agreed with the rest of her party that they would wait outside, that she would venture in with their newest companion. If she didn’t return in what passed for a day in the Deep Umbra, they were to come and look for her – or her body.

When she stepped through, it was to a more physical landscape than she’d seen in some time – a savannah reaching as far as she could see in all directions. It reminded her a little of the time she’d gone on safari as a child. To her right a river was running, the sounds of rushing water filling her ears. To her left, the sun was setting. She turned and looked, trying to see if it was all savannah and scrub, see if there was something closer to mountain terrain. This wasn’t quite what she was looking for.

Julia paused for a moment, then turned briefly to look at her companion with a questioning look on her face. “Was your homeland like this? Did you ever go?”

He shook his head. "The White Howler homeland was different. More akin to the Scottish highlands, if you’ve been there.”

“Are lions native to…?” she shrugs turning back. “I suppose it doesn’t really matter. We should go that way.” She pointed off into the distance towards a more hilly area that seemed to be close to the horizon.

“How do you know?”

“Because if you guys had a lion, that means that ‘Lion’ isn’t confined to just the more traditional african savannah lion. It could encompass various aspects of the species. I figure I should probably go into the kind of terrain that best represents the peoples that I’m seeking it for.”

He looked at her blankly, like she had just tried to explain quantum physics. Julia sighed and began head off in the direction she indicated at a well-paced run. He shrugged and followed. It was perhaps a bit of an odd concept to someone who had been displaced by several centuries – but he also could shift into a wolf and talk to magical beings, so…

After a few hours, they reached the hilly terrain she had spotted. The sun seemed to still be going down, barely a sliver left on the horizon. From there she could see that the landscape was taking a turn towards tundra – less vegetation, harder ground, and all around colder. A bit further away it became rockier, and further still, she thought perhaps there was snow. Julia smiled in relief. This was more the kind of terrain she was looking for, the place she hoped to meet the incarnae she sought. She nodded to her companion and they headed on at a good pace. She wanted to be there before the sun fully set.

It took some hours more to reach the snowy region. The sun had set by then, and the two of them were travelling under starlight. She had shifted into wolf form to better make use of her senses, hoping to catch some trace of her ‘prey’. But despite her best efforts, she could see no tracks, hear no sounds but the wind and their paws on the hard ground. The place seemed deserted. It became clear to her after a while that there was little point in tracking something that didn’t seem to leave tracks. Besides, her companion was very stoic, but he was clearly beginning to tire after all the travel. She tracked down the closest cave she could find and instructed him to rest. She would keep watch – after all, she was here for a reason.

In the middle of the night, when Zhao fast asleep, she suddenly felt like she was being watched. Looking around, she soon spotted a pair of glowing feline eyes regarding you from a rock high up in the cave. For a moment, Julia wondered if this was a real lion, or if it was the creature she sought. How would she tell? Then again, they had seen nothing else alive since they had been here. She had to hope. Leaning forward, she bowed in the most appropriate manner she knew of to greet a major spirit.

The lion stepped closer until Julia could make out its features in the dark. With a little surprise, she realised the creature before her was female in appearance. Then again, that was more in line with what she was looking for. It sat down and regarded her. “It seems I have uninvited guests.

“My apologies for the intrusion. I was not certain how best else to make my presence known.”

What tribute do you bring?

She turned to her bag, pulling out the corpses of several rabbits she had prepared for this moment. This seemed to please the spirit. It began devouring one immediately. Julia sat and watched it silently, the only sounds being the soft sleeping breath of her companion and the loud crunching as the spirit broke down the meat and bones. The cat was large, imposing even to a Garou. But it looked… worn, a little tired and battered – as if it had become old. But even as she watched, that seemed to fade a little.

Once it finished, it licked its chops, then raised its head to look at her again. She found herself drawn to its eyes – far more aware and ancient than any normal animal. “This is a worthy tribute. You may speak your peace.

Julia nodded. “I’ve come to ask… a boon I suppose. For my people. For the people who were once yours too.”

It watched her, expressionless. She took a deep breath, pulling herself together for the moment she’d been preparing for since she’d first agreed to do this.

“Once we were fifteen. The Croatan sacrificed themselves, and we are poorer for their loss. The White Howlers, your own, were lost to the darkness of the wyrm, leaving you a totem without a tribe. And now in these end times Wendigo has turned on his own, rejecting them over a refusal to dishonour a bargain justly made, and I am left with a tribe with no totem. We are thirteen, and we could soon become twelve if I do not act.”

She shook her head. "I cannot bring back the tribe you once had. I cannot make Wendigo reconnect with those he has spurned – nor would I, for neither side want it. And I would never think to try and undo the sacrifice of the Croatan. We can never be fifteen again.” She paused. “But we could still be thirteen.”

The spirit kept watching her silently, its eyes huge and the dried blood of the rabbits’ dark around its mouth. Julia continued.

“I have two broken halves. I wish to reforge them into a whole, something new and all its own that still has enough of what once was to ensure we don’t lose any more than we already have. But I can only do that if both sides are willing.” She bowed her head. “As the queen, the remainder of the former Wendigo tribe have entrusted me to seek out a totem on their behalf at a time when they cannot. I come before you now, to beseech you to be that totem.”

The lioness looked sad suddenly. “To what point? I would just lead them into darkness, as I did the Howlers.” It turned away a little, padding back slightly into the darkness. Julia searched her mind and heart for the words to convince it.

“To give you both a second chance at building something new. A chance to forge a new path, learn from old mistakes and grievances. A chance to make a difference in these hard times, to save a tribe from falling.” She shook her head, trying to put her all into her words. It turned back to look at her in the darkness. “We all have failings. But if we cling to them and let them crush us, nobody wins. Don’t let it crush you. Carry it and let it make you strong.” She looked at it earnestly, beseechingly. “I would not have come here if I didn’t believe.”

You… believe?” Lioness looked thoughtful. “I remember believing. I miss it.” It nodded, padding back towards her, tail flicking back and forth as it sat. “I’ve slept for so long, I don’t know what the world looks like. This tribe – Wendigo’s lot, was it? Tell me about them.

“They are hunters. They survive in the wilderness, using stealth a guile and fierce pride to care for their own. They are people of the mountains and snow, of nature. They are a small tribe and tightly knit, but they have traditions and strength as great as any among us.” She hesitated for a moment, then decided to be honest. “They have a darkness, a bitterness and desire for vengeance within them that has only been cultivated by their former totem – some would say justly so, for they have been wronged by other tribes. They are isolationist, fiercely protective of their lands and territories. It is hard to earn their trust, easy to earn their ire. But they have pride and honour, and they were willing to defy their own totem to uphold that honour. They seek a new path, one to redeem themselves and find a new purpose.”

When it first had approached, Lioness had seemed old, tired, disinterested. But now, as she spoke, it looked more and more interested – as much as any cat could, tail flicking back and forth, a low rumbling purr filling the cave. “This tribe, it sounds noble and worthy. And you were right, no tribe should be without a totem.” It rose to its feet and stretched its back, yawning wide to show large teeth and then… she supposed it was a grin of sorts. “I accept this charge.”

She paused, taken aback a little, and then bowed her head again. “I… thank you. Please, it has been longer than garou memory since we have sought a new totem for a tribe. You are among the few who would have any experience in this matter. I do not know how I would complete this bargain, what would be required of you and them to solidify the pact.”

The lioness stepped closer, enough that Julia could smell the animal in it. “My word was the first component; Theirs is the second. The tribe must verbally accept me, as I have them. Then, lastly, we will seal it with a bond of blood. They are not here, so you shall act as intermediary. You and I must exchange blood, and then you must do the same with their leader. This will bind me to them, and them to me.”

Julia nodded slowly. “Then… they do not have to meet with you directly? Would you not wish to at least encounter some of their tribe before you complete this with me? A great many of their number are gathered in my sept, it would be simple enough to facilitate.” She backtracked a little, lifting her head to look at it. “I am not saying that my word is not trustworthy, or that I am unwilling to commit. I am simply asking if you would like to meet them?”

The lioness shook its head. “I cannot manifest in that realm, it takes too much power and I am still too weak. I will gladly meet them – I will give you permission to call forth my avatar one time – but the blood must come from the source. Either they must come here, or you must be the vessel.

Julia lifted her hand without hesitation, offering it to the spirit. She had paid higher prices. “How much?”

Just enough.

The spirit bit her hand. Julia didn’t even wince, blood welling on her palm. She watched as it bit its paw, and put the paw against the mark on her hand.

The feeling was not dissimilar to when she absorbed Wyld from Caerns, but it was not the same either. The caern energy entered through her spirit, through the bond between her and the tree. This felt like it was flowing directly into her body, her veins. It was kind of exhilarating, if she didn’t think too hard about how she was effectively getting a spiritual blood transfusion. She hoped this wouldn’t do anything too strange to her body or the foetus in her womb. Then again, she’d done so much to herself already. What was one more thing?

After about ten seconds, the paw was withdrawn and both wounds healed up. The lioness stared at Julia expectantly, as if waiting for her to get on with things. Julia nodded, feeling like her ears were full of fizz. “I will return as fast as I can. If you can give me the means to get there faster so that this bargain may be complete all the sooner, it would be appreciated. If not, I can make my own way.”

“It has been so long. Let’s see if I remember the way…” The spirit’s eyes glowed intensely for a second. "*The river near the entrance to my realm. Submerge at dawn or dusk, it will take you to the penumbra*.”

Julia smiled in thanks and turned to shake the other guy awake, moving a little clumsily as her fingers tingled. “Zhao, we need to move. I know it’s late, but…”

He grumbled a bit, rolling over and looking annoyed. Then he saw Lioness, and his eyes widened. Julia realised she probably should have woken him before- it had all seemed to happen so fast and easily, she hadn’t even needed to use this particular trump card at all. He began to weep slightly as he stared up at his former totem, his voice quiet and choked. “It’s been so long, without you. I thought you had abandoned us.”

Lioness blinked slowly, leaning forwards to sniff at him. “I thought all my children were lost. It brings me untold joy that one pure yet lives. Go with your queen, meet your new brothers and sisters.

Zhao scrambled to his feet, bowing swiftly and glancing across at her as the spirit withdrew. Julia smiled tentatively at him and offered her hand. “Zhao, your tribe is no more. You are the last of the White Howlers. But… I’d like to offer you a chance to find yourself once more, to stop being lost. If you’ll accept, I’d like you to join and be a bridge between the people that once were, and the ones you can be.”

He looked up at her, still a bit tearful. “Three times now have you saved me. I owe you a debt that can never be repaid. I am honoured to accept your offer, and remain a child of Lion.”

Julia decided not to point out the obviously female feline sitting before them. “Come. I’ll take you home.”

The entire party was washed up on the shores of a different river to the one they had plunged into in Lioness’ realm. Julia hauled herself out the water, dripping and gasping. Behind her she could hear similar sounds from the others – she had remembered to go back and get her companions at the last moment, rather than leaving them in the Deep Umbra. Scrambling in her bag, she pulled out the map that one of the theurge elders had proudly gifted her before they had left and scanned it. If she was reading it right, they were definitely back in the penumbra, about an hour away from the sept.

She breathed a huge sigh of relief and sat down on the riverbank, leaning back against the grass. Glancing around, everyone else seemed similarly happy. Breaker headed over, a big grin on his face as the others followed him. “Well?”

Julia nodded, closing her eyes for a moment. She felt suddenly very tired, unsure how long since she’d last slept. “Almost there. We should head out.”

“It is a good thing. And your friend is alive too. We were beginning to worry.” There was an unspoken question in the voice of Scales of Justice about who exactly this was – they had spoken a little on the way over, but not much. Julia nodded again, eyes still closed as she waved her hand.

“Yeah, we’re fine. Sorry, I didn’t really introduce him before. Zhao, everyone. Everyone, last untainted White Howler, soon to be whatever the ex-Wendigo tribe want to call themselves.”
There were a lot of murmurs and gasps, rippling quickly among the group. She opened her eyes to dropped jaws and Breaker looking down at her in amazement.

“Well… shit. You don’t do anything by halves, huh?”

“No.” She hauled herself to her feet.

They headed back to the sept, Julia leading the way with a trail of people behind her. She could feel them watching her back, but she didn’t have time to think about what they were saying to each other. She was feeling weirder and more tired by the minute and she wanted to get this done.

As soon as she got close, there suddenly seemed to be a whole lot of people – many the elders, but word had gotten around a bit and there were plenty of others as well. She ignored them, pushing forward as the crowds parted before her and making a beeline for her destination. They were where she had left them, although they too had started to move to see what the commotion was all about. There were increasingly loud noises of surprise and jubilation as people caught sight of her, as they realised what this surely meant.
Julia walked straight up to Freezes-Fire, eyes fierce and voice firm. “Do you accept my judgement?”

The woman bowed and nodded, hope on her face. “We accepted your judgement before you left. We still do.”

Julia nodded and drew one of her knives, slicing open her hand. She turned to the other tribes that were present, her voice carrying across the sept as she stared them down in the growing quiet as they watched and waited. “And do you accept my judgement?”

They all knelt as answer, eyes wide as they watched. She turned, offering the knife and her hand to Freezes-Fire. The leader accepted the blade, quickly and neatly slicing her own hand. She dropped the blade on the grass between them, reaching out and grabbing Julia’s hand. In the same moment, Julia reached within and summoned the avatar of the tribe’s future totem.

The moment was difficult to describe. She could feel the ethereal bond being knit between Lioness and the tribe as their hands touched, and in the same moment Lioness appeared. Afterwards, she imagined, people present would describe it as awe-inspiring to watch. The crowd were shocked enough at having heard a White Howler was among them – a tribe all other Garou thought long extinct. Now they found themselves in the presence of an incarnae that no one had interacted with since the tribe’s fall. If she’d been able to feel anything other than the terrifying amount of power flowing through her as the bond was formed, she might have laughed.

It was as if the strange electrical fizz that had been flowing through her veins was pouring out and across into the woman who had once sent her entire tribe to attempt to claim one of Julia’s packmates, like a river flowing through them. She found it a little hard to breathe, eyes fixed on the other. Freezes-Fire looked terrified and exhilarated all at once, hair lifted a little in some spiritual wind as their blood mingled and the pact was completed.

The two women broke the grip and the other garou knelt before Lioness. She stood proud and regal in the centre of the sept, far more young and powerful looking than when Julia had met her in the umbra.

The pact is sealed. Henceforth you are my tribe, and I your totem. As long as you honour me, I shall honour you, and as long as you fight for me I will fight for you…

Julia waited until the entire moment was done and the spirit had faded. The sept was quiet, the other garou kneeling as they watched her. She turned to the crowd, looking specifically at the elders who had been hosting the meetings, eyes hard. “Are you satisfied?”

The voice that answer was low, filled with awe. “Satisfied doesn’t cover it, your highness. What you have done today is far beyond that. You have saved a tribe, and restored an ancient ally of the Garou. It’s… magnificent.”

“Good. Then I’m going to rest.” She nodded, trying not to slump. She’d come this far, she could get a little further. “I’m sure we can discuss things tomorrow.” She turned and walked away, the crowd parting before her.


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