For a long moment, Brute’s howl hung in the air, echoing off the cave walls. Every eye turned to him as he reared up on his hind legs, spread his front paws, and howled again, before dropping back down on all fours and baring his teeth in a snarl. Waiting.
Even knowing he was on their side, the rebel pixies and Cobalt’s warriors froze in terror, before unlocking and beginning their run.
Those with no idea what was happening froze for a few moments longer, giving the rebels time to get halfway to Deserina’s cubby before any of them reacted.
The first of their opponents to move were those assigned to guard their leader. Some retreated to the entrance of Deserna’s cubby, others began to fly to the wolves, while a third contingent turned to join the rebels.
Chaos ensued. The flashing of air weapons met claws and teeth. Pixies darted back and forth on their wings, many of them, with no clear idea of what was happening, were unwilling to attack their own. These congregated around the three wolven berserkers.
Deserina, roused by the noise, came to the covering over the entrance to her cubby, and found herself pushed back inside by one of her guards. For a moment she stared at them, bewildered, then her face hardened, “Let me through.”
The guard reluctantly shook their head.
Deserina raised her sword arm, a weapon shimmering into existence, “I won’t ask again. Let. Me. Through.”
Reluctantly, the guard did as asked, standing back and nudging the others aside so their leader could emerge.
“Report!” she snapped, looking at the chaotic mess happening around the cave.
“The wolves came in from outside, followed by Cobalt and some of her warriors. Some of ours inside also started to attack. Those ones seem to be trying to get to you,” the guard pointed to where a dozen rebels were making their way through the scattered defences of some very confused pixies.
“Take them down,” Deserina ground her teeth and indicated the rebels. “Keep one alive, remove the rest.”
The guards nodded and all but two trotted away. Those remaining flanked Deserina, weapons at the ready.
The wolves tore down pixie after pixie, snatching them from the air, crushing them underfoot, slicing and biting and using their weight to full advantage, howling and growling and snarling, demanding the attention of the smaller creatures.
Half of Cobalt’s warriors stood in the sides and shadows of the wolves, leaping up to flash out a blade, aiming an arrow or throwing knife, using the wolves for protection as they fought.
They tried not to kill their own. Whether brought down by a wolf or a pixie, each one that fell in a rain of blood, flesh and wings torn was a dagger to their hearts. They could only pray, as they sang their songs of battle, that the rebels would succeed. And quickly.
The air weapons struck again and again, finding little purchase on the hides of the wolves. Only those that found a weak spot–inside the mouth, the pads of their claws–got through, and most of those were accidental. The berserkers barely felt the pain, and any hit that drew their own blood just increased their strength. But the force was large, and they were fighting their own instincts to tear everything apart.
From his place to the right of Brute, Jer stumbled as a thrown knife found a home in his mouth, pinning down his tongue and scraping to a halt on the bone of his lower jaw. Blood began to pour out, and he howled in pain and fear as the pixies began to pile on him.
Cobalt was there before anyone else could react. She swung one of her blades with one hand, using the other to grasp and pull. When Brute showed signs of coming her way, she motioned him back, and cut a path to the cave entrance.
When Jer staggered, Cobalt grasped him by the ruff and dragged him, her blade hand flicking any opposition out of her way without pausing.
Amidst the blood and dust and chaos, her tears went unnoticed.
Reaching the entrance at last, she dropped the bleeding wolf at Ghost’s feet and, wiping her face clean and taking a few deep breaths, went back inside.
While so many pixies had been focused on the wolves, the other half of Cobalt’s warriors had used the confusion to beat a path to the rebels, arriving just in time to help them battle the guards.
Without the wolves, the going was harder, but numbers and determination were on the side of the rebels as more and more pixies joined them.
With two points of focus now created, the pixies not already fighting, and some who had begun on instinct, began to make more conscious choices.
Those who chose to fight for Deserina were being quickly dispatched, and many who might have done so (were this so obviously not turning into a rout) decided to favour their own lives instead.
Some chose a side. Some switched sides. And the rest, including those too young, old or injured to fight, retreated to the highest point of the ceiling, watching, huddled together for safety.
Seeing her clan be so easily defeated, Deserina clashed her sword against the wall of the cave and shouted, “ENOUGH!”
The cave echoed again as the word was repeated, passing from pixie to pxie until it became a deafening shout, causing all to pause their fighting.
Deserina flew upwards, ensuring all could see her.
“Who leads? Show yourself!” she commanded.
There was a low signal whistle from somewhere amongst the rebel contingent.
After a pause, there was a rustle, and Tethyn appeared, flying at Deserina’s height, “I don’t lead in the way you mean, but today I will become leader in your place.”
Deserina bared her teeth, “I disagree.”
“We have tried to help you,” Tethyn sighed. “Tried to stave off your madness, tried to guide you, tried to have you step down. This is your final chance. Do the ritual with me. Hand over peacefully. End your Breaking, and live the rest of your days in peace.”
Deserina threw back her head and laughed.
Uneasy mutterings went back and forth in the cave. That laugh sounded more like a scream.
“Tethyn. You know there is only one way this ends. I hate to kill you, and your friends, but you brought it on yourself.”
“First of all, Deserina, if you look around I think you’ll see that we are winning. In fact, That’s why you called for me. You already know you will lose. Second, it is not you who will kill me if you refuse to step down. Your last warning. We have loved you, and supported you, and tried everything we can think of to help you, but you are bringing harm to us, and that must end.”
The cave was silent except for the panting of the two remaining wolves.
In a grove of trees a short run from the cave entrance, Ghost dropped Jer by Nemen and whined.
Nemen, in her human form, stroked the top of Ghost’s head, “I have him now. Go, back to your post.”
Ghost nuzzled both Nemen and her unconscious packmate, and bolted back to the cave where she and Trina continued to wait, anxiously.
Nemen sat by Jer, her eyes quickly roving over the small wounds, some missing fur, and a new hole in one ear. None of these were serious alone, and could be ignored for the moment, but coupled with the knife through his tongue…even a werewolf wasn’t immune to a build-up of pain, a loss of blood, and a serious wound taking their life.
Nemen turned to the field supplies she had laid out on her arrival, not wanting to have to hunt for anything. There were a few badly injured pixie’s already either treated, or made stable enough for the moment, but it seemed clear to Nemen that there would be few injured by the time things were done. Dead or alive, these were the main options, few would find themselves able to seek medical help before perishing. Especially the ones at the mercy of Brute and Pash–double now that one of their own had been badly injured. Nemen didn’t envy any of them, but she knew her job, and she set to it.
The knife scraped bone again as she pulled it out, but it had stopped short of making a full tunnel out the other side. Packing it with gauze, Nemen leaned hard on the wound, waiting for the bleeding to slow so she could make a critical analysis, and decide what she could do to treat him for now–until they could get him proper help.
As the blood flow began to lessen, Jer’s eyes flew open. They were filled with blood that poured down the sides of his face, pooling quickly in his ears.
Before Nemen could react, his body began to thrash in a seizure that threw her off of him.
She swore, and tried to batten herself atop him as his body began to writhe until she could hear the bones break. She was thrown off again, and before she could change, hoping her wolf could hold him better, he had stopped.
Now, he was still. Perfectly still. Not a breath. Not a heartbeat. The only movement was the blood, flowing now from every orifice, and there was only one word in her mind now. Beating like a drum.
Nemen ground her teeth and closed her eyes against a scream, against the rage that demanded release. She dug her human hands deep into the dirt, holding on and denying her change. She could do nothing for Jer now. Only the living could be helped by her skills. Revenge could come later, if such were needed–and it was not her place to demand it, or give it, without Sofia’s acquiescence.
She moved Jer’s body to the side of the grove, out of her way, and out of sight of any casual glance from someone bringing her more injured.
She held her tears the same way she held her screams: tightly inside, until the time came to let them out. She still had a job to do, and with no more new arrivals, she turned to those she had made stable, and began further treatment.
It hadn’t taken long for Deserina to lose her cool and fly for Tethyn, her sword arcing above her, ready to come down.
Tethyn, dual air blades shimmering, flitted neatly to one side, letting Deserina fly right past.
She turned, teeth bared, eyes flashing. Drool strung out from both sides of her mouth.
“Look at you,” Tethyn said, then louder. “Look at her! She has lost the ability to lead. She has Broken, and must be replaced. IT can be done without her death, but only if she is willing. Deserina, this is the last time I will ask. Will you hand over leadership to me?”
All that came out of Deserina’s mouth was a long, low, snarl. Taken over completely by whatever animal now lived inside her, she charged full-on towards Tethyn, telegraphing every move.
Whatever in her had once been a good fighter was now gone, and Tethyn had no trouble sliding out of her way, and sinking their blades in, first a deep slice across her stomach, followed by the other blade sinking through her back to pierce her heart.
Tethyn pulled both blades back and let her drop to the ground below, where a circle of ground suddenly appeared as pixies moved out of the way.
Deserina, breathing frothy blood from her mouth, looked up at Tethyn, her eyes pained but clear once again, “Lead them well…” she whispered to them.
Tethyn nodded, “I swear I will. Would you like to go now?”
Deserina nodded and closed her eyes as Tethyn took a blade to her throat, ending her suffering.
“It is done,” they said as they stood, their blades disappearing. “I will perform the ritual tonight, and name my new Council tomorrow. If any of you choose to leave, you will not be stopped provided you do so peacefully. Those who remain, please gather yourselves and take the remainder of this day to mourn. Deserina will be placed in the catacombs with our ancestors. And the first, the very first, promise I make to you is that the so-called Secret Histories will be found and released. Any who wish to study them may do so. It seems we have foolishly concealed too much of import, but no more.
“If any need aid, please help each other. My wolven friends, if you are willing, would you bring back any that were helped out to your medic? And once done, would you leave us for now? We need to mourn, and then settle as a clan once more. You have my word that as soon as I am able, I will ask to meet with your Alpha.”
The wolves turned and padded out of the cave, followed by the two who, from the entrance, had heard enough of the speech to get the gist. They would return the injured, then take care of their own wounds before returning home.
They did not expect the pixies to already be on their way–apparently they felt their leader die, and had decided to return immediately.
Some of their hurry was explained once they arrived and saw Nemen, on her knees beside Jer, weeping softly.
As they approached, she raised her head and nodded to them, speaking that one word again, “Poison.”
But before the other wolves could even begin to react, there was a rustle from the trees and Onson appeared, clad as ever in a dark robe with a deep hood.
“His spirit still lingers close. If you can remove the poison, I can bring him back.”
Each one of them stared, horrified, at the suggestion, but it was Brute that moved first, “You little shit. How much of this was down to you?”
He grabbed Onson one-handed and slammed him against the nearest tree trunk.
Onson shook his head, “I’m an opportunist, not a murderer. I want to know if I can bring back one of your kind.”
“Let him,” Nemen whispered. “Let him try. The poison will be gone soon–even in a dead werewolf it gets neutralised quickly. Let him try.”
Onson looked at the others, who were looking at Brute.
He nodded and stepped back, “Anything goes wrong, and you die in a way nobody could bring you back from.”
Onson rolled his eyes and shooed them away, “This stuff is private, you don’t get to watch.”
They reluctantly obeyed, and moved to a small stand of trees where they could sit together.
The last thing Jer remembered was pain. Lightning streaking across every nerve. Bones that cracked and splintered as he flailed and writhed, unable to gain control of his own body. Then there was darkness. Blessed darkness. And something else…something his consciousness sped towards.
But he was pulled up sharply, and yanked backwards, whatever was ahead fading again.
Jer felt the pain return. His mouth was full and swollen. All around his body he felt the gashes of air weapons sting in the open air. He smelled foul herbs and heard a voice chanting in a monotone.
His eyelids were gummy with dried blood, and he tried to raise a paw to help them open, but nothing in his body seemed to work yet.
The chanting ceased, and a cool wind washed over his face, travelling all around his fur and forcing its way inside.
Piece by piece, the wind restored feeling to him, and when he tried again to raise his paws, he was able to lift them to his face and open his eyes.
His vision was filled with the shadowed face of someone whose eyes glittered darkly for a moment, before whoever it was leaned back, giving him a view of the trees around them.
“And so the dead werewolf awoke,” the monotone voice came, though it was tinged now with laughter. “Your pack awaits, my fortunate friend. Call them.”
Jer sent out a low howl, and in moments the nearby pack were with him.
Onson tried to fade away into the forest, but Trina reached out without looking and grabbed his robe, pulling him back.
“Let go of me, I still have work to do!”
“No fucking way until you tell us a LOT more about this.”
“Your friend was dead. Now he’s not. What’s the problem?”
Ghost turned to him, “That. Exactly that is the problem! Fine, you can’t tell us your secret rituals, but tell us the real reason why. And tell us what this means, what to expect, how long it lasts.”
Onson gave a dramatic sigh, “Fine. I did want to see if it would work, but also I wanted to thank you for helping my clan when you didn’t have to. As to the rest, what it means is something only he can work out. What to expect is nothing. OK maybe a bit of depression and shock, but he’ll get over it. And it will last until something else happens to cause his death. Can I go now?”
Trina’s human mouth lifted in a sneer of disgust, “You smell like death. Thank you for saving our brother, but yeah, I’d much rather you were gone where I can’t smell you.”
Pash placed a hand on Trina’s arm, “We’re sorry to be rude, but we don’t do well with that scent, and we need to get Jer home. Sofia will send for you soon, I’m sure. Please be responsive to that.”
Onson nodded, “Sure. As you say. I’ll take me and my smell away now.”
Back in the clan cave, Deserina’s body had been removed to the mortuary by now. It was Onson’s job to prepare her for the catacombs, and he had shouldered his way through the throng. Nobody asked him to raise any dead. They, like most, had a pointless horror of such things.
In the cubby he used as a room to prepare the dead–a room that would see much action over the next day or two as he readied the new batch for the flames–he rubbed his hands together and smiled. He would prepare the body, absolutely. But there was more than one way to bring back a soul from the dead. He didn’t need to stuff it back into its (or any other) body. And, he thought, it might be fun to have the ghost of a Broken ex-leader around.
The wolves, exhausted but desperate for home, rested for an hour before pushing their crying bodies, the sound of Cherry forcing her own tired muscles alongside them.
As a group they arrived to find the entire pack waiting for them. There were hugs and stories and loudness. Jer was quickly the centre of attention, though it was clear he didn’t relish talking about his death and resurrection.
But it wasn’t long before even the adrenaline and rush of getting home, being surrounded by the pack again, and of course a resounding victory, was clearly fading. Sofia clapped her hands and sent the entire house–herself included–to bed. Nobody had slept much, if at all, until their pack was whole again, and everyone needed to rest the anxiety and stress out before they started sniping at each other.
In their room, Trina and Cherry undressed and climbed into bed.
“I can’t believe we did that…” Trina yawned.
Cherry laughed, “Hey, I saw it in a vision and I can hardly believe it!”
“How will your clan move onwards now? This can’t be easy to get past. The death, the people who fought for Deserina that aren’t dead, a new leader…”
“It won’t be easy for a while, and some might decide to take their chances on leaving, but mostly they’ll stick. The actual histories might be hidden, but they still exist inside us, and we adapt quickly. Tethyn’s a clever guy as well. He’ll have the Ritual as soon as possible, and that will strengthen everyone. His Council will add to that rope, and nobody who fought for Deserina will be treated badly. They’ll be alright.”
“What about you?”
Cherry rolled on her side, shuffling backwards until her back met Trina’s front. She reached behind and pulled Trina’s left arm over her, holding the hand close on her chest.
Trina was about to ask again, when Cherry replied.
“They’ll probably ask me to return, when we get to expanding our allyship. They’ll certainly take off all that ridiculous nonsense about me being a traitor–Cobalt will make sure of that, I think.”
“Does that mean…you’ll go back?”
“Maybe to visit. That’s not been my home for a long time. Besides,” Cobalt rolled over again to face Trina, placing her hand over Trina’s heart. “Why would I leave the place where my heart is?”
Trina smiled and pulled Cherry close for a kiss.
In a few moments more, tangled in each other’s limbs, they slept.
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