Riposte Alpha

by D'Artagnon

Chapter L

The First Rule

When your body is covered in fur about sixty percent of the time, you tend to not like fire touching said fur. For one thing, ouch. For another thing, spreading. Lastly, did I mention "ouch" yet?

So being trapped in a burning building with a buncha freaks trying to inject silver under your hide one slice at a time, it tends to be… stressful.

The fighting had ended. We had won the fight but were far from fully intact. We Garou were resting, letting our amazing self-healing go to work to fix the wounds we'd taken in this fight. Sven needed to heal the most, but a quick look at him told me he'd be fine. Already his cuts were sealing themselves up. Magnus was in similar state, but the bigger German boy seemed to have taken less damage than his boyfriend. He'd been fluid motion during the fight, where Sven had been more a fulcrum that other activity had pivoted around.

I choose to ignore my hurt leg, for now. Not an easy thing to do, but others still depended on me. And like I said, we kinda had a burning building to get out of. My silver wound would have to wait.

Nick had bounced to my side as soon as things had ended. He looked at me, worried, then grabbed me in a tight hug. It had been the first fight we'd been in when we hadn't been watching each other's backs. I melted into his hug, letting my chin rest on his shoulder. Later we would just spend time holding close, letting our closeness and contact do all the talking. But at that moment, we just needed to feel the other's heartbeat, feel that rib cage expand and contract with the sweet breath of life. There'd been so much death around us, death we'd caused to keep on living ourselves. Knowing that the one you love survived that carnage as well, it was such a relief.

"Don't you give up on us, Croaker," I heard Robby say as he leaned over Juan's bloody form. Bethy was still holding his head in her lap, sobbing. Jack moved to Juan's side, his hands doing first aid things I can only guess at. He was silent, grim, determined. Paul stood nearby, spell bound by how messed up Juan was. I have to say, that stab wound nearly cut him in half. It was almost as gruesome a sight as seeing all those wounded folks brought to the caern center when the "monkey wrench" mission went wrong.

When Rolf died.

"Such gallantry…" Sylvia whispered. I broke from Nick's embrace. I wasn't about to let a friend die if I could help it. It was time for Mother's Touch, with a push.

I moved to Juan's side, my sneakers and knees coming into contact with his blood. So much of it pooled there on the gym mats, you'd think it had been there all along. I touched his hand and held it. I found the pulse in his wrist but it was so weak, so subtle. I looked up to Robby and then to Bethy. Both looked to me expectantly.

Jack kept his hands on Juan, keeping the wound closed. I got the feeling that he actually had a finger or two plugging an aorta. The wound was wide, and horribly deep; all the way through. There was a lot of blood, but it wasn't all over, despite the nature of the wound and all. Much of the blood was already cooled to the point that there was blood ice crusting his flesh. Jack's eyes darted up to mine briefly and he shook his head. Jack's unspoken assessment kinda confirmed what all of us present sorta knew. Juan was dying right before our eyes.

"I can't ask…" Robby said, his voice choked with tears.

"Give me your hands," I ordered them both. Without hesitation, they both put out their paws and I clamped them between my own, forming a hand sandwich, I guess, with my bottom paw palm down. I felt the Gnosis in them both. Or Glamour, I guess, since they were changelings. It's the same energy, but with a slightly different flavor.

I tapped into their power, their energy. I mixed it with some of my own. And with that as fuel, I began to heal. I felt they needed a warning of what was to come, though.

"You may feel some of this."

"Some of what?" Bethy asked.

"Some of all of this," Robby said, nodding towards Juan's wounds. He remembered when I healed him. He was not afraid. Or at least, like many of us, he didn't let the fear rule him. Once again, there are reasons he leads us.

"Whatever it takes," Bethy said. There was no backing down in her. And no going back. Clearly, she'd do anything to save her boyfriend. Something I completely understood.

I nodded to Jack, realizing he might get swept up in the feels too. He nodded back, curtly, his expression neutral, but his eyes showed that things in this engagement had affected the thin boy, deeply. "Here we go," I said, and drifted into my Mother's Touch trance.

It was a shot of agony, touching the wound. The first sensation was cold. Hard, inflexible, stabbing deep in your guts cold. I nearly pulled the hand sandwich back. It washed over me, over the other three as well, and filled the space in my chest where the wound was on Juan. It stiffened my back, my neck, and twitched me into spasms. Every nerve ending switched between hot and cold, like frozen electricity simultaneously ripping and solidifying me from the blood vessels out.

Juan's chest lifted, impossibly, as the tissues began to mend. The freezing sensation continued, pulling more and more Gnosis out of me, out of my partner's shared hands linked in the healing. I heard Bethy gasp, Robby grunt, Jack moan, as the four of us were swept up in the ritual's healing embrace. I felt my own voice catch as I tried to scream in the cauldron of the pain, but I don't think any sound came out.

I felt the heartbeat inside Juan grow slightly stronger, his body warmed. Severed arteries and veins partly knit themselves back together. There was a pop in my own back as Juan's ribs shifted back into place, uncracking. His lung shifted and drifted in his chest cavity, trying to take its proper shape back.

I opened my eyes as the ritual came to a close, feeling completely drained, weakened, the flickering ebbs of the pain drifting over my body like an echo. I released their hands and sat back on my heels. Nick saw my condition and was by my side quickly, keeping me from falling over.

"Ya'll still got yiur eggs unscrambled in there?" he whispered. Somewhere behind us, something overhead fell, probably burning.

"I'm okay," I lied, getting to my feet. Robby and Bethy were just coming out of the healing trance, also looking slightly knackered. "You two good?"

"God, does that happen every time you heal someone?" Bethy asked.

"Only with other supernaturals," Nick responded for me. "We, uh, need to find a way outta this weeny roast."

"He should be okay to move. I couldn't get him all the way healed." I looked up to Bethy's face. "I'm sorry." She nodded sadly. "We need to get him to a hospital, though. He's lost a lot of blood."

Kenny suddenly shouted a warning. His hands went into a pushing motion from about twenty feet from the scoreboard, which was shaking as if being impacted from the other side. I watched as the scoreboard shuddered under another impact, something big and dark on the other side, barely visible in the gaps between where the doors used to hang.

"Guys! Looks like round two is trying to crash the party!"

"You gotta be fuckin' kidding me?!" Nick shouted.

"I can't hold this for long!" Kenny called out, as a loud bang slammed into the scoreboard.

"Let them come! I will take them all on!" Magnus roared, beating the handle of his lightsaber against his blood smeared chest.

Again, Robby took charge. "You, stand down. The wounded come first. And none of us are in any shape to keep fighting in this inferno. Master Mitch, can you stand?"

"I can walk out of here well enough," Mitch responded. But while his voice sounded sure, I could tell he wasn't fully masking his pain. The wound to his leg was obviously a lot worse than he was letting on.

"Bethy, can you manage Juan?"

"I shall not fail him, Dragonslayer."

"Magnus, help the Countess and her friends out."

"Why?" he said. Defiantly. Still riding the adrenaline. Sven walked up behind him, smacked his boyfriend in the back of the head and said something quickly in German that none of us understood, but Magnus clearly was affected by.

Robby nodded a quick thanks to Sven and then asked, "Can you help Master Mitch while Kenny holds the back door a moment longer?"

"I will," he simply responded.

"Nick, stay with Kenny and make sure he doesn't get too fancy."

"Ah'm yuir huckleberry," he said, giving me a quick peek on the cheek. "Don't be a hero, hero," he said, grinning.

"Jack?" Robby called out, glancing around.

"Bethy and I got Juan. Take the girl's locker room to the other side of the hallway. Just like the boy's side, only reverse, so it dog-legs a bit. It will put you near the stairwell. It's concrete construction, best shot to get out. Half a flight up, the windows to the left are at street level. Break them to get out. If we have to go all the way up, the main entrance is right off the stairwell, three turns upstairs."

"Anything else we need to know?" Robby asked as something big slammed the other side of the busted score board again and Kenny grunted loudly with the effort to hold it.

"If the stairwell is blocked, there's a utility access through the girl's shower area, to the left as you get into the locker room. It leads to the boiler room and plumbing access. If you need to break a wall to get out, that's the thinnest area. It's brick, but the way the hill falls away to that right side, it will allow you to come outside at the parking garage."

"With all those car gas tanks to possibly blow up next to us, nice," Paul said, grimly.

"Best I can do," Jack said, an apology in his voice.

"Got it. Good. Paul, Cody, you're with me. We take out obstacles and find a way out. Anything gets in our way that wants to tussle, we make short work and clear. Got me?"

"No problem, Boss," Paul said, gathering his saber and skateboard. I saw him also pick up Jack's broken saber handle and stuff it in the back of his waistband.

"Okay, everyone helping someone out, give us fifteen seconds then start following," Robby commanded. He looked at Paul and me and simply said, "Let's roll."

He led the way, striding down that corridor like we were owed he place. Not at all like a kid who'd just ordered his and my own boyfriend to guard the rear while we escaped with the wounded. It was like he was born to this sort of thing, the commanding, the keeping his head in a crisis, managing the disaster, all that. I've always heard the saying, "he's an old soul," but I never understood all the implications of that until then.

Anyways, we were off. Behind the rock climbing wall was a brief space. The plywood skin of the wall hid the bracings of two by fours that leaned on the bricks of the lower gym's actual back wall. Fire was already licking down into the upper part of the rock wall, dripping down from the ceiling above. We had to move quickly before that fire would race down the backside of the climbing surface, engulfing us.

There was a chamber through the brick wall, but that seemed to be just some kind of concession stand area. I could see the aluminum roll downs on either side of the space, covering the countertops. And the aluminum was sagging with the heat, cherry glows flickering and dancing through the tiny seams. Clearly, if there were a way out through those areas, it was already ablaze behind.

Later I would find out that Jack had accounted for that in his escape plan. His amazing computer mind had accessed the fire suppression system sensors in the YMCA and he already knew where most of the blaze was and where the sprinkler systems were, for whatever reason, not active. Mystery for another day, that. But it stands out to me now how truly versatile Jack's abilities are. He may not be a front line fighter, but he fights and plans smart. And so very fast.

Our path turned right under the rock climbing wall. Robby reached the corridor formed between the rock wall and the bricks to our left, into the concrete form that led into the back end of the girl's locker room. He paused only a second to make sure we were both beside him, Paul on the left, me on the right, as he lifted his foot to kick the door in. I kid you not, he momentarily went full Satyr in my sight and booted that door with a hoof instead of a sneaker. The metal door shrieked and buckled under that kick and rocked back, completely knocked off the hinges.

The kicked door smacked against the turn in the corridor beyond, banked off it and hit the ground, half leaning on the wall. It clearly showed the dent from Robby's cloven hoof. He strode into the room, blade up, turning right as he went, but giving Paul and I room to move as we followed.

"Remind me not to stand in the way of your kicks," Paul quipped.

"Let's sweep. Keep your eyes to the corners as we go. No surprises for our wounded," Robby said, his body back normal. His expression was set, grim, focused. Guess if I'd just watched one of my friends almost die, saw my adopted father's leg ripped open and so many other friends hurt so badly, I'd be kinda grim too.

We werewolves are blessed with ridiculous fast healing. We'd only stopped fighting less than ten minutes and already I was just about fully back. Usually only silver gives Garou serious problems. Silver and fire, I should add. That fast healing is a massive advantage that Gaia and Luna give to their chosen defenders, but others who also fight for our world don't share. Still, without that advantage, they fight on. Something I would never take for granted ever again.

We strode into the open space of the girl's locker room, the clean tiles now darkened as only about every third lamp was lit. And we were lucky for those lights. Power flickered in the building, spastically. Fortunately, the room was laid out just like the boy's side, only things were swapped left to right. As we got into the open space, Paul turned to glance into the shower area, his gaze sweeping over his shield, his blade held low by his hip. He looked like a Spartan like that. Like he was manning the line behind his skateboard shield, ready to stab anything stupid enough to get close enough. I couldn't be sure, but I thought there was some kind of glow to Paul, in that limited lighting situation. I kept that image in my mind for later.

Robby and I split around the center row of lockers. I heard him actually jump up on the bench that ran down the middle of that row. In my Glabro form, probably wasn't a good idea to do that, but Robby is shorter. Plus, with that bench in the middle, he had space to both sides, I guess. I simply took the left side of the bench, leaving more sweep room for my saber in my right hand.

My senses were straining at the flickering gloom between the locker rows. My nose picked up many strange scents. And I'm not just talking about the perfumes from the girl's lockers, either. Someone had spilled a lot of cleaning chemicals on the floor, dousing the place with a harsh mix of bleach, pine scented cleaner, flowery clothes detergent, and the slick, acerbic flow of window cleaner. Rolls of toilet tissue had been cast around the place as well, like parade decorations. My sneaker slid a bit in a puddle of the mixed cleaning gunk.

"Someone got creative," Robby said, sarcastically. "I'm clear here, but this side is full of slippery stuff."

"Same here," I called over the locker row. "It's starting to get hotter in here." And it was. The normally cool tiles must have masked the heat of the growing fire throughout the building.

"The taps are dry," Paul said, stepping back out of the shower area. "Never saw a gym shower that didn't have at least one leaker."

"That is odd," Robby commented.

"I even turned them on. No water at all."

"This trap is getting better and better," I replied, sarcastically. "Guess they turned off the water to the building to shut down the fire sprinklers."

"Yeah, Korbesh would think of that," Robby said, his voice pitched halfway between darkly and guiltily. "I really fucked up this time."

"Hey," Paul said, his big paw landing on Robby's narrow shoulder. "Don't beat yourself up. This caught all of us off guard."

"I should have…" Robby began, but Paul was having none of it.

"Look! You kept my head in the game when I thought Jack was never going to come back outta that coma. You helped me reach him when he was too scared to face life again. And you talked me into actually using these powers that I barely understand to help others. So don't you go turning on yourself. We need our leader, dude. And even if the bad guys are doing their damnedest to put us underground, the fact is we can't know everything they're up to. Surprises are gonna happen."

"Surprises…" Robby muttered, but it wasn't with some kind of verbal comeback in mind. I could see the wheels turning in his head. Then he brightened, with that patented Robby grin. "Thanks, Carver."

"My friends call my Paul," he said, grinning back.

"Right! Let's get going. I can hear our people moving this way." Robby took the lead, his feet cautiously treading around a mound of half-burnt toilet paper easily knee high.

"First rule," Paul said, nodding.

"First rule?" I repeated, as we started moving towards the coaches' offices.

"Something my Pop used to tell the other fighter pilots. First rule of any mission is to get everyone home."

"Good rule," I agreed.

"Yeah. Wish he'd followed it," Paul said, moving forward, pushing a laundry cart to the side. I felt myself stopping in my tracks at the realization of what Paul'd said. He, too, had lost his father, just like Robby. Just like me. I slid my feet through the slurry mess of cleaning chemicals to catch up.

Robby Satyr super-kicked the door to the locker room door clear off its hinges. It went about six feet and crumpled against the next dogleg of the corridor. A passage to the toilets opened to the left. As the corridor lead right, two more left side doors were revealed: an equipment room, and the offices. A single door on the right was banged open. I could see washers and dryers inside. Beyond all that, at the end of the hallway, was a double partition, making for a snaking passage to the door. I could see that the door itself was closed, since the partitions only hid like knees to shoulder high.

It was beyond the door that held my attention more. The glass was frosted, taking up the upper part of the door. Flames danced on the other side, but further down the atrium. No doubt the flames were fully solid on the boys' locker room area. It was the shadows that momentarily blocked the flames that caught my eye, however.

Motion of the shadows against the fire's orange glow indicated that there were things out there. Multiple, big things. We could hear the crashing of something heavy and angry, grunting and roaring, still trying to smash its way through the blocked door into the gym itself. Which meant Kenny was still holding it off. Which meant he and my Nicky were still inside, keeping these things attention.

"Two choices," Robby whispered. "We go through that door and fight whatever's out there, or we turn around and find another way. Either way, the stairs up and out are on the other side of that glass."

"If there's only a few of them, less than five, we can take them," Paul said, confident.

"And if there's more? Or if the fire is up the stairs already?" I asked.

"As much as I'd like to uncork a few more slices on these pricks," Robby said, his statement punctuated by another heavy grunt, roar and smash, "First rule."

"Yeah," Paul agreed. "Okay, so?"

"It may be the first rule," I found myself saying, "but we need a distraction for Kenny and Nicky."

"What can we do?" Paul asked. Robby looked at me, his chin shifting sideways as he considered options.

"Jack said there was another way. The waterworks at the back," I explained. "I'll keep these guys distracted, so Kenny and Nicky can make their escape. You two go break out the back wall."

"You know, I'm beginning to like werewolf logic," Robby said. "But you don't get all the glory. Paul, the back wall is yours. You've been knocking stuff over all day, so play to your strengths."

"And you two?" Paul asked, adjusting his skateboard/shield on his forearm.

"We give the first rule some help," I said. Robby grinned, then tapped his blade on Paul's. Paul tapped his on mine.

"Don't have too much fun," Paul warned heading back towards the pipe room behind the girls' shower area. Robby and I turned back towards the door to the atrium.

"Thanks," Robby said, his eyes focused on the barrier before us.

"We're pack, Robyn," I said. Didn't need to say anything else. He nodded.

"Staircase will be to the left past the door, 20 feet down, brick. Gym entrance is about another 40 feet on the right. We'll likely find our friends there. If we keep near the stairs, it'll funnel them a bit. Just like…"

"Thermopylae?" I asked. I know some history. "Were you there?"

"God, I hope not. The Greeks lost that fight. I'm in this to win it. How 'bout you?"

"I got plans," I shrugged. "Kinda need to be alive for them."

"Then let's do this," he grinned. I couldn't help but grin back. I mean, we're about to go charge Gaia knows how many big snarly things that want to kill us, yet both of us were kinda looking forward to it.

So we made our way down to the partition as stealthily as we could with the goop all over the floor. We snaked through to the door, crouching to keep our profiles from showing on the glass. I risked a hand to the door's bar latch and carefully tested it. It only depressed a little bit, indicting to me that it was locked.

"Your turn?" Robby asked, grinning broadly. I took a step back, switched all the way to Crinos form, and handed Robby my blade. Robby's grin turned a bit serious as I watched him kick that flaming Dragon's Ire aura back on. Satyr Super Saiyan! And me the werewolf. I reached up to the overhead lighting, grasped it firmly and lifted off my feet. With a single swing back, I kicked both of my feet through the glass, released and flipped my body though the shattered window, shifting to Lupus as I did. It was a complete back flip through the air before I landed on all fours and shifted up to Hispo. A moment later, Robby landed on my back.

He didn't need to shout it, but he did, as I shifted to Hispo form under him. "CHARGE!" he lifted, throatily, and I snarled angrily as I leapt forwards. Now, to give you an image, I'm still kinda scrawny by Garou standards. Still, in Hispo form, my mouth is big enough to chomp a basketball like a jawbreaker. So you can imagine the vocal cords behind that snarl, in that echoey place, with a screaming Satyr on my back brandishing two lightsabers.

The first thing we encountered had four icky green tentacles in place of human arms. I twisted my head and snapped through its middle, bisecting it before that particular formori lost its head to Robyn's snicker-snacking blades. I was gonna need mouthwash after that gnosh. It even tasted sickly green. But I chomped that one on the run. Robby got the next two, sweeping his crossed blades over my head, knocking two guys to the side, one fizzling in that burning green line, evaporating. We were past the stairs by this point and I was still barreling towards the thing pounding on the lower gym door. There were other things in the way, but I had my destination in mind, and a lot of momentum on my side.

Robby jumped off. I felt him Hopscotch himself to the left, but I had my attention focused on what lay directly ahead. I shoulder tackled a tall, gangly Dauntain kid with one of the Hybrids in his paw. He rolled against the wall to my right as I ran on, taking checks from my shoulder, flank and hip. Dunno if he got up from that, but he definitely felt it. The cold in the room mixed with the heat of the fire ravaging through other parts of the building, making for an odd fog mixed with smoke. I mean I literally moved through pockets of wildly different temperatures.

We had to make this quick.

Ahead of me, the enemy smacking into the door took two steps backwards, shaking his body as if the effort to slam himself through the door was affecting his mind. IF there was a mind left in there. I had to stop him, at least long enough to let Kenny and my Nick to run for it. I took three steps and launched myself at the thing. As I got closer I could see it was some sort of giant shark on two legs. A shark that howled at the door before he ran back at the door, using the wall behind him, or it, to push and get a head start. If I had to guess, it was probably three times my weight in Crinos form.

And yeah, I barreled into that from the side, my feet still slightly sticky and slick from all the crap I've run through since this battle started. My body slammed into the shark thing from the side. I latched onto its thick, muscular arm with my jaw and tried to snap it off. The skin was thick, rubbery, under my teeth, and something thick and salty and sour, like spoiled egg nog, ran into my mouth as I chomped down. We tumbled to the ground, striking the wall on the way down.

I jumped up from the pile, stepping back and spitting out an arm. The shark thing looked up to me and I swear, for a moment, I wondered if this thing had a mind. The eyes were just cold, empty. Not even rage was fueling this thing. It just was a tool for some other mind, I got the sense. I don't even think it knew what it was doing. Momentarily, I felt a tiny sliver of pity for the shark thing.

Of course, that was before it started thrashing around. I backed up as it rose. Well, the goal was quite clearly met. The thing pounding the door was not pounding the door anymore. I roared, but with a purpose. Used my Garou voice loud enough that the enemies would view it as a roar of challenge. On the other side of the door, I heard a return roar, similarly pitched. Nick had heard my message and replied. Our mission was accomplished.

Which meant that Sharky here could just stay in the building and become fish fry for all I cared. I turned and headed back down the hallway. Robby leapt down the stairs, swinging his blades together down onto someone who looked twice his size and half his speed. His opponent went down and Robby passed through that enemy's body as it split into two rapidly fizzling away halves.

He looked to me and I just nodded. He leapt into the air again, using the open space of the staircase to barely get over three other wounded enemies and land on my Hispo back as I kept charging for the locker room. He landed across my back, belly down and struggled to hold onto my ribs as I kept running on. I lowered my head like a battering ram and punched my body through that gym locker room door like a bullet. That hurt!

We fell into the hallway beyond, between the coaches' offices and the equipment room, the toilets and the entrance to the locker room. I lost my footing and we landed in a heap. I shifted to Lupus to get to my feet faster and Robby was already standing on his… hooves, I realized. He must have switched to full on Satyr form during our run into the hallway. He stood and put himself between me and the area we'd just raided.

Horrors were gathering at the door I'd bonked my way through. The corridor and even the much ravaged door itself formed a sort of bottleneck, preventing the gathering horde from coming through as a group. I saw Robyn grin, and it wasn't a pretty thing. Part of him reveled in the battle. Part of him he kept in check. As I looked at him, I realized that my friend had a dark side he'd been hiding, keeping under strict control.

I was sorta proud he was stronger than that dark side. I was also slightly horrified to realize that what I saw on his face in that moment, I could connect with in my own soul. But that was something I'd have to consider later.

I also saw the Tear on his chest, shining brightly, radiating different brilliants of blue hues, as if waiting for his directed will to unleash untold energies.

"Get moving!" he yelled to me as I got to my feet. Something banged into the ruined girl's gym door I'd battered through with my cranium and I decided we needed some distance between us and the horde. Robyn was by my side as we weaved through the locker rows. We got the to the end of the first one and he slid to a stop in the goop on the floor.

"Here!" he said and rammed his horns into the short side of the locker row. The whole thing shook. I got the idea. I shifted to Crinos and slammed into the same row end he pounded, although much higher over his head, using my forearms to focus my strength and weight in the close confines of the place. We both slammed it twice more before a second Crinos slammed into the base of the row. The whole row of lockers dislodged about halfway from where it was attached to the floor.

"That's it! Okay, everybody, outta the pool!" Robyn shouted. I turned and saw that the other werewolf was Nick. Kenny stood, leaning on the ruined wall through the girl's shower area, clearly exhausted. He held his crystal spear weapon out from his body, still ready to fight, but it was pretty clear he needed some rest. He'd spent a lot of energy in our defense.

Nick grinned at me, nodded briefly and ran back to Kenny's side, shifting to Hispo as he went. I turned back to Robyn and was about to offer to help whatever he was going to do, when there was a flare of intense blue light. The air seemed to ring, stand still, pulse and then go silent again.

Robyn's body was outlined in the blue light. Streamers of shadow were the only clue as to his physical movements. I gathered that his arms were stretched wide, a lightsaber in each paw, and he seemed to be directing energy, like some mystical conductor building an orchestra to some great cressendo. And then I saw why.

The row of lockers we'd unseated lifted in his azure nimbus and flung itself with tremendous force. The folded sheet metal of the lockers protested with loud shrieks as it smashed into the entrance to the locker room. The sick sound of twisting steel grated on my nerves as he kept the pressure on the mass of metal. It kept crunching, folding in on itself, grinding against brick and other metal and tile. He kept at it, bringing his hands together, the blue glow never fading in intensity, but shifting into a darker blue as he kept his magic spell going.

The theurge in me was naturally impressed at the command and power of the spell. The friend in me was grateful that kind of power was on our side. The kid in me… was terrified that another kid has such raw energy at his control. This was a very eye opening battle for me, on so many levels.

The glow faded, and with it the sound of metal bending in on itself, crying out in agony. He'd used the entire row of lockers, two thick, five high, maybe thirty long, to form a compacted plug in the entryway. A sheet metal barricade!

As the glow faded, I stepped forward and found Robby, not Robyn, sinking towards the ground, apparently exhausted. He felt so tiny in my Crinos hands. I collected the lightsabers and draped him across my back. I ran for the escape hatch that Paul had made for us. Nick carried Kenny against his own chest, just steps ahead of me. We dipped and ducked around the pipes and conduits that seem to live behind the walls of public buildings, past a massive furnace and fuel oil tank, and finally found a door out of the utility room, to a fire escape stairwell that led to the upper gym, back into the building. There were a group of kids there waiting, one boy, about thirteen or so, holding open a door that led outside.

Nick and I switched to human form, helping Kenny and Robby regain their feet. Rearmed, regrouped, we prepared to make our escape from the multilevel car garage at the back of the Y. Already the air was cooler and sweeter than inside. We had a large group of kids with us, who'd taken the back fire escape stairs when the fire started but had apparently huddled together in terror when they saw "monsters" running into the building. They'd been exposed to falling, flaming debris until our guys got there, and seemed unwilling to move, not seeing that freedom and safety were just a few yards away.

"If we go across the street to the GAR park, we will be out of the way, yet close enough to get help," Jack said. Robby simply nodded, still feeling a little wiped out from the spell he'd cast.

We got outside and immediately spread out. Just because we were out of the fire, didn't mean we still weren't under attack. Who knew if this Korbesh guy was deep enough in his planning to arrange for someone to attack anyone that came out of the conflagration. At this point, I wouldn't put anything past this bastard. Robby and Paul took the flanks while I looked around. All of us used our enhanced senses, giving each other the all clear.

Magnus had his paws full, carrying the Countess over his shoulder and her two wounded, unconscious friends in his arms like babies. His Glabro form showed a definite caveman look, but in this situation, I don't think anyone paid much attention to his face. He had several of the sabers stuck through the back of his t-shirt's neck hole, and the Countess kept one in her capable hands the whole way out.

Kenny and Sven were helping Master Mitch through the improvised escape Paul had rammed through the brick wall. The door had been barred from outside, a small dumpster pulled across it. Fortunately, Paul was able to ram into the door frame with his skateboard/shield hard enough to bust the door out and knock the dumpster thirty feet, across the side street. The fact that it opened the doorway almost twice as wide as it had been only helped us get the kids out.

Jack and Bethy carried Juan out, Bethy doing most of the movement as Jack had his hands on Juan's wound, keeping his insides inside as best he could. Both were covered in blood. I can only imagine the horror that must have gone through Bethy as she helped lug her boyfriend's lifeless, bleeding, broken body through the conflagration and out into the immensely cooler but still hot air beyond the Y's burning walls.

Nick led out several of the kids who'd escaped from the upper gym and the game room. He kept them moving with his non-stop voice and encouragements. One little girl he'd rescued from the falling, flaming ceiling tiles stayed near him, holding his left hand like she was his little sister. Outside, the smoke was so thick, twisting and towering high over Winter Street, that it blotted out the sun. Only a faint lightness indicated where the mighty Sol was, almost directly overhead. It was like nightfall had already come. But not with the cool evening breezes that would normally lift off the river and sweep uphill. This unnatural darkness was flowing with drifting embers, falling in the brutally hot, dry winds roaring away from the burning YMCA building.

The place was fully in flames, parts of the structure so hot they were glowing. There'd already been a few booms from inside as the gas lines cooked off. Fortunately, the firefighters had managed to halt the flow of gas into the building already. There were at least a half dozen fire trucks, maybe more, lining three sides of the building. Hoses went every which way in a dizzying arrangement. But these were clearly professionals. Water flew in concentrated fogs. The fire crews struggled to keep the blaze from spreading, but the fact was all too clear: the entire YMCA building was lost.

For a moment, two other images came back to my mind while watching the building I'd just been in burn. First was my rite of passage. The fire in the camper my father had rented back in Virginia. Watching as I pushed my injured parents out of the flaming vehicle. Watching them grieve for me as I secretly ducked into the Umbra just as the camper exploded. That fire, seeing them fall apart for me, just remembering it all still makes me cry. Makes me feel like a complete piece of shit, because they thought me dead, and I'd deceived them, gave them that pain.

The second was the dream. That weird dream with all the fire, the crucified and burning beings, fire and blood, towers of smoke and agony. The floating embers and smell of charring flesh, bone, hair. And that overpowering scent of the fire itself, with the wind that scorched just passing over your skin, flaying clothing, melting fur.

It was such a powerful combination of images, I had to guess that the spirits were somehow involved. If not in the travesty of fire given Rage and released to consume everything, then at least in warning me about such fire through my dreams. I am Speaks With Water. The elements are allies to me, but even the best of friends can have really bad days.

In that moment, I was reminded as well that the little blue flame spirit I'd summoned for Rolf's funeral was still with me. Still calm and hidden within me, despite his cousins nearby engaging in an orgy of consumption. Two sides of fire's nature. The comforter, the tool, the light bringer, and then the destroyer, the Rage of nature, the consumer. Something more for me to think about, I guess.

"Bring the injured to the grass!" Robby ordered as we ran across the street to the park. His voice was strong and clear even with the roar of the fire and the commotion of all the fire trucks, police cars and activity around the area. Several people came over to help move our wounded. He pointed to the large, grassy, downhill sort of area diagonally across from the Y. Nick led the kids over, encouraging them even as townsfolk just came over to help. As we moved towards the park, I, Robby and Paul kept watch, blades up and out.

"Anyone do a head count?" Paul called out.

"Forty-eight here, not including us," Jack sang back. A quick glance told me his math was probably right. "According to the admittance logs," Jack replied, tiredly, "fifty-three unaccounted for." We all looked at each other, wounded, healed, encumbered with others, all of us. The same thought kept going through our minds. This was a summer camp program. Most of those in the building would have been kids like us, or even younger.

"They could have escaped other ways," Paul said, reading Robby's mind.

"Maybe. Maybe not. Can't take that chance."

"So, back in?" I asked. The look on Robby's face shifted as he looked over to where Kenny sat, ministering to his father, and where Jack and Bethy were working on Juan, even as an ambulance pulled up near them. And when his eyes fell on Sylvia, the Sidhe countess looking like she'd been hit by a truck, covered in ash, Robby breathed in deeply.

"One quick pass, just to check if anyone's left inside." He lifted his blade and started walking back. Kenny immediately noticed and a look of panic crossed his face. Robby seemed to sense it and he turned to look back, giving a brief nod. My own eyes sought out Nick's and he grinned.

"Ya'll get ta do all the fun stuff," he said, as if wishing he could go as well. "Be smart, Glub-Glub," he chastised me.

Jack was far too busy to object to Paul going, but I got the feeling that he knew, and approved. Communications on so many levels. And trust, I realized. Considering what was going on around us, both were desperately needed.

So in we went. Robby said he was going back down, gonna see if there were any survivors in the lower gym and weight room. Paul said he would search the offices and game room in the front of the brick building. I headed upstairs to the upper gym. I figured that if the floor of the upper part fell in, I could survive it better than the others. Plus, I still had the ability to duck into the Umbra. Not sure if I could do that with all the fire spirits having a wild whirling orgy of consumption over there. And I didn't know the magic Gift necessary to bring in regular mortals across the Gauntlet. Another thing I needed to learn.

We re-entered through Paul's impressive hole in the wall, all three of us armed, apprehensive. We split up, Paul and I heading for the stair case Robby and I had cleared, Robby back into the mess we'd left not twenty minutes before. At the first landing going up, Paul tapped his blade on mine, a custom we've all sort of adopted, and went towards the registrar's office. I continued up. Now despite the name, the upstairs gym wasn't just a flight up. It was two flights up, and I passed by the former "residential" section of the gym. A throw-back to the days when this wasn't just a rec club and sports venue, but a flop house for young men trying to save a little money without living with their parents. That section had been turned into four or so multi use rooms now.

A quick look into the upper gym showed the place was a blazing inferno. The heat was such a physical thing, I almost wished there were a Dauntain nearby to at least cool the place slightly. Inhaling the hot air mixed with the smoke and other toxins of burning was a chore, painfully so. My body seemed to be drenched in sweat that evaporated almost instantly, leaving me feeling hot, grimy, greasy and slightly queasy.

Several shouts of "Anyone here?" were only answered by the crackle of flame on wood, the peeling of paint off the walls and the rather disturbing sound of a basketball goal dropping to the floor on the other side. Didn't take much to realize that if there was anyone in there, they probably weren't breathing. Just breathing was searing enough.

A familiar sound greeted my ears. One every kid knows. The sound of a school desk or chair being pushed across a linoleum tile floor. I shifted to Glabro form and tuned my sense of hearing up a few notches. It's a werewolf Gift. Very useful. I heard several of that sound going on again, the cavitating scrape of metal leg feet being pulled over the floor. I twisted my head, took a step, and as the sound continued, I was able to pin point where it was coming from. Down in the converted rooms. I ran down to the landing and opened the door to the former dorm level.

I must have hit the door kinda hard because it sprang off its hinges. I stood in the doorway, holding the door up by the knob, barely feeling the weight of it. A reminder of how strong my Glabro form actually is. I tossed it to the side as I looked for the source of the sound. Bits and pieces of the ceiling tiles drifted down, leaving smoking trails behind them as they burned. It was a full-on hellish scene.

Inside the former dorm room, there was a series of dividers, breaking up the huge space into other smaller rooms. Like classrooms, I guess. From behind one of these I heard more scraping. Like desks were being forced together. I walked down, following the sound. More sounds joined it. Familiar sounds. Fabric from seat cushions hissing as the heat boiled old sweat out of them. The crackle of paper fizzling away. The roar of flame against metal and wood and brick. Oh, and another familiar sound.

Kids crying.

I entered the last cubicle style room. It was about the size you'd expect a kindergarten classroom might be, had two windows facing out onto Winter Street. There were five kids in here, three girls and two boys, all about 5 or 6 years old. An older lady was there with them, but she was unconscious on the floor. From the look of her, something from overhead had struck her, a small rivulet of blood lay drying and clotting against her face.

"Hi guys," I said, smiling. I must have looked kinda goofy and nervous. I remembered that in Glabro form I had fangs, so I made an effort to cover my teeth. "I think it's time to go."

They'd been trying to push the desks together to make a shelter for their teacher and themselves. I was kinda impressed. They looked up at me with wide eyed.

One of the girls, a sort of chunky blonde with big blue eyes got to her feet. She looked up at me, hot tears on her cheeks. It looked to me like she was trying to find the right words. I felt a surge of pride for her doing so in this scary environment.

"Miss Connie is hurt," she said, determination in her voice.

"Yup. That's why I'm here. I'm gonna carry her out. Everybody grab hands!" I said, bending down to get Miss Connie up in a fireman's carry across my back. I looked down and the kids were holding each other's paws, looking up at me with fear in their eyes, but ready to do as I asked. "Okay, uhm, everyone put your shirt up over your nose," I said, showing how by pulling the collar of my own camp shirt up. They caught on quickly. I knew it wouldn't completely block the smoke and heat from them, but might help their breathing. Plus, giving them something to do helped their confidence. After all, we were about to walk through hell. "Okay, stick together. Hold hands, and follow me guys."

With a silent prayer to Gaia, I shifted Miss Connie's weight on my shoulders and took my blade in my right hand. The brave little blonde girl's hand snaked into my paw. I looked down and gave her a toothless smile as we set off.

We snaked down the stairs, down into the girl's gym lockers below, out through the hole into the parking garage, and then out into the cooler, clearer air. Once we hit pavement, I yelled. "Run to the park! Stay with the others there!" I lead them across the street, clutching my saber in case we were attacked. The kids got over to the group pile on the lawn, other kids pulling them to safety. There was much coughing and crying and shared hugs. I eased Miss Connie to the grass and two teenagers came over to help her. She moaned and reached for her head, but made no effort to stand, which was probably for the best.

A small amount of motion behind me caught my attention. Paul moved up beside me. He looked dirty and sweaty, like the rest of us. He still clutched his skateboard and saber. "You good?" he asked me, both of us staring at the building we'd both just come out of.

"I'll live. How'd you do?"

"Found twelve more. With your six, that's eighteen more out. Someone put a weight bar across the door to the weight room. They were trapped. This isn't just a fire to kill us," Paul said, grimly. "This was a mass murder to cover our assassination."

"Welcome to the party," I replied, tapping my blade on his. I looked around, didn't see Robby anywhere.

"Any sign?" I asked Paul as I bent over my knees. Garou super healing or not, fire will tire you out when you are surrounded by it. I had to gulp in the sweet cool air, and cough around exhaling.

"None yet," Paul replied, standing tall and looking back at the blaze. He had to hold back his hair from his eyes in the winds coming off the blaze. I glanced over at my Garou brethren, seeing them help move the kids we'd rescued find open patches of grass to rest on. Many kept looking back at the burning YMCA with tears in their eyes. Some were overjoyed to see friends and siblings who'd come out with us.

My eyes finally drifted to Kenny. He was holding one hand on his father's leg, keeping it from moving, and his other hand was gripped tightly to his father's. The bond there was so strong. I briefly thought back to how much I missed my parents, even though they weren't very close to me. And to how Robby'd just lost both of his parents. I thought for a moment about calling Joey.

A loud, sudden burst of flame exploded on the far side of the YMCA main building. We all shuddered and flinched at the sound. The air pulsed our way with the sound, striking us physically. The brick façade was backlit, heavy shadows limned in angry red, the thick clouds of smoke half dampening and half magnifying the fire's brightness. The explosion roiled into the sky before going dark again, burnt out in its initial release.

"Verdammt !" Sven called out, as the wave of heat from the explosion washed over us. It pummeled us with a frisson of warmth and wind and dryness. The air itself was crying from how desiccated the fire made things. We were all stunned to silence.

"That wasn't the Y!" Sylvia called out.

"No. Musta been da pizza joint on de other side," Nick agreed. We exchanged looks. "Fire musta been bigga then we fig'red, reckon?"

"C'mon, Bonehead. Don't make me haveta go in after you," Paul muttered under his breath. I stood by him, prepared to stop Paul if I had to. We didn't need two lost in that maze of destruction.

The fire trucks continued laying down their saturation fog patterns, the hoses drawing water deep from the town's infrastructure and spewing welcome coolness against the raging fire. The elements fought, and still we watched, waited. Some lost in their own situations, some focused on our still missing leader. Paul and I shared a glance as the seconds ticked away. With a silent nod, we decided we were both willing to risk going back in to search for Robby.

"There!" Sylvia cried out, pointing towards the back of the building. Moving gingerly, carrying someone about his own size over his shoulders, Robby emerged from the smoke. Paul and I didn't hesitate. Hard to say which of us got to our leader first, but we together unburdened Robby and brought his rescuee over to our pile. The heat still coming off the burning structure was so intense I couldn't feel the wind sweeping over us, or the mist from the firefighters' spray. Paul took the other boy and I got my shoulder under Robby's much smaller frame, helping him get back to our make-shift position in the park. Both of them coughed heavily as they drew in fresh air.

"Had us worried there, lil boss," Nick said, helping me ease Robby to the grass.

"Couldn't leave him," Robby said, around coughing.

As Paul eased his burden down, we recognized the person that Robby had brought out with him. His face was covered in blood and soot. His clothes were ripped and dirty. There was an obvious deep wound in his leg, another scratch that bled down the length of his right arm, caking it in seared blood and burn marks. He was in bad shape. Easily worse shape than any of the rest of us. I wasn't sure if he was going to survive. But that didn't fill me with pity or an urge to help him. Recognizing his face brought up my Rage just a bit.

"Fuck me running," Paul breathed out, realizing who he had carried to our glen. "It's one of those four twin guys!"

"Charlie?! Robby, why'd you save this Wyrm infested piece of human garbage?" I mean, this guy?!

"I couldn't leave him. I know he'd kill any of us, given a chance…" and he heaved in a great gasp of air, "but we aren't like that."

"He'll try to kill us again," Paul said, his blade back in his hand, humming in golden light. He put the blade up under Charlie's chin, sort of leaning heavily with the tip. But Robby gently put his hand on Paul's wrist, shaking his head.

"Everyone deserves a second chance," Robby said. Reluctantly, Paul let his point slip from Charlie's neck. "Doesn't mean we let our guard down, though. He's still a dangerous…"

And before Robby could finish saying whatever he had in mind, Charlie rolled to the side three times, surged up to a sitting position and his arm slung outwards, three times in rapid succession, almost too fast to follow with the naked eye. Three objects flew, about the size of baseballs. Black, glinting, evil feeling baseballs. Flung towards our wounded.

Jack reacted with speed that I found hard to believe in someone who wasn't supernatural. He reached up and snagged the first of the objects out of the air with his bare hand, and with that fist full of black whatever, he deflected the second one, bouncing it up and into the gathering darkness around us. The third one, however, got past him. And it landed on target.

Right into the back of Kenny's head. The thing hit him like a cast iron frying pan, and he fell over, collapsing across his father's chest. The thunk of the spheroid slamming into Kenny's skull was loud, sharp and there was a brief spray of blood.

Robby saw that and went fucking ballistic. He jumped clear over me and Paul, tackling Charlie before he could resume his sneak attack. They tumbled, and somehow, Charlie had an Iron dagger, no bigger than a butter knife. They rolled apart, but the battle was on. And Charlie, it seemed, had nothing left to lose. He slashed in at Robby, snagging a long tear out of his shirt. But while Charlie had a weapon, Robby had an anger and fury that bordered on Rage as we Garou know it.

He moved with astonishing speed and force, calling upon his centuries of combat prowess. Charlie slashed the point out, giving Robby the opening he needed. He stepped in, wrapped the wrist holding the blade in his right arm, putting his back to Charlie's front. Robby's elbow followed around, smashing into the larger boy's face. He ducked under, stepping back, still keeping control of the weapon arm and got Charlie in a hammer lock. The Iron blade fell to the ground with a thin, tinny, tiny sound.

Charlie wasn't done yet, however. He spun his own elbow and bashed the side of Robby's head, loosening Robby's grip enough to break the lock, freeing his arm. He turned and threw a punch that would have probably leveled Robby had it struck. But it met Robby's open left palm instead. Our Satyr buddy grasped the incoming fist and delivered one of his own. Charlie was quick, and blocked the incoming punch with a well-timed forearm.

Which probably would have been an impressive movement, if Robby didn't flat out head butt Charlie six feet across the grass, back onto the sidewalk. Paul and I armed ourselves and went to either side of the fallen enemy, preventing him from leaving. Not that he seemed too keen to get up. Can't be certain, but that head butt looked pretty fierce, and I'm pretty sure that Charlie's noggin bounced on the concrete sidewalk before we could get to him. Robby stalked forward and knelt down over Charlie's chest.

"Why?" Robby screamed, slamming a fist into the side of Charlie's head. He lifted the Dauntain up by the front of his shirt, soaked with blood and other grizzly fluids from the battle. Robby had dragged his miserable ass out of the burning Y in an effort to save him, and he still tried to kill us, smacking Kenny in the back with a hunk of loose, fist-shaped Cold Iron roughly the size of a baseball. "Why?!"

"Because, you arrogant rich prick," Charlie said, spitting up his own blood. "Because your kind has it too easy. And my kind got shit. So, I get to help take you down," he paused, letting his lungs fill with air. He coughed heavily, the fluids in his mouth likely traveling into his lungs as well, which sounds like one very painful way to die. "For him."

"Korbesh?!" Robby shouted, his eyes wild with fury. Charlie only grinned, as if he knew much more and delighted in how much information we lacked.

"If I could bring him this," he said, his bloody finger tapping on the glowing Tear hanging from Robby's neck, "then I could be the king. I could win."

"You stupid jerk! He'll never share power with you! He'd never give you what you want, even if you could bring him the Tear!"

"Doesn't… Nghhh! Doesn't matter, Cousin. I'll still have another shot at the title!" He started to go limp, sagging back against the twist of his shirt in Robby's hand. "I felt all of this, all my copies dying. All the pain the me's felt. All the pain I handed out. I'll remember it all, and pay you back… all of you… in kind… gahhh! Next time we meet… I'll give you something to remember. Just like I gave your parent's something to remember. And your faggot boyfriend."

"Then remember all of this too, you low born son of a bitch!" Robby hissed. And he started hammering Chuck, over and over, with his fist. He used Charlie's shirt as leverage to really smack into him. Hit him so many times it split the skin on our scrawny leader's hand. He didn't care. Robby just kept pounding him, letting go of his shirt to wail on him from both sides, both fists cracking into his head. Even after we all heard his cheekbone shatter and thought Robby might have loosened his neck, he kept at it.

My strong hands circled Robby's waist, well mindful of his flailing arms, as I tried to pull him off Charlie's limp body, still grinning up despite the ruin the Satyr boy had done to his face. Robby struggled to keep pounding him, wiggling to get free and do more damage. Other hands moved to help me. Still he managed to push away from everyone trying to restrain him long enough to get in one more good swing. Even then, Charlie was still conscious, although in tremendous pain, both from Robby's fists and the fluid filling his lungs.

And still the evil bastard was cackling, like a demented hyena.

So Robby head butted him, ramming those stubby Satyr horns into Charlie's soft, pudgy-faced skull hard enough to hear it crack. His smile went slack then, and we watched as his body began dissolving into a slightly glowing green mist, flakes of ash lifting away from his burning form, like some radioactive cigarette fluffing away to nothing. Robby was sobbing even as the body under him vanished, the shirt twisted in his fist fluffing off in the hot, angry breeze from the burning building.

In the distance, we could hear more fire trucks, ambulances, saw the strobing lights of police cars flickering like solid things swinging wildly in the thick smoke. Robby got up and walked over to us, our little group, half of us wounded, though healing. He dropped to his knees by Kenny and Mitch's side and I could see his hands tremble. Kenny sat up gingerly, holding his paw over the spot where that black orb had smacked him. He and Robby mumbled briefly, what I was sure was a very private conversation.

Paul, Magnus and Sven stood watch over us and the dozen or so kids we'd pulled from the fire. Jack and Sylvia, the Countess, were keeping an eye on Bethy and Juan, the one conscious and holding the others hand. Juan seemed so still, so ashen. And not just because of his Hispanic complexion. He seemed like so much air had left him, possibly for good, despite his breathing.

"What do we do now?" Nick asked, his accent seeming to be hiding behind his voice for a change.

"We bind our wounded and pray our other friends aren't dead now as well," Kenny said, still holding the back of his neck. Magnus looked on in horror, seeing how pale Juan's once swarthy, Hispanic features seemed. At how much blood was still draining from both him and Master Mitch.

"You wanted a war, _Schneki_," Sven said, more to Magnus than for our ears. "It appears we are in one." Magnus' face turned from the firelight, so the shadows hid his expression from me. But his eyes glowed in sadness. Possibly even shame.

"Nick, Sven, we need at least three ambulances here. Guide these kids back towards the police and get us some medical help," Robby commanded, sadly. It was clear to me that the mantle of heavy on his narrow shoulders now. When neither of them jumped to do as he commanded, Robby resorted to something I've rarely ever seen him do. He shouted, in anger, at friends. "Now!" That got their attention. Nick began herding the kids off, with Sven ushering them along as well with his wide wing span. They hurried off. Magnus looked to me for something to do. "Help the girls get to their feet. We're gonna have to help them walk some of the ways to get to transportation."

"Can you not simply heal them?"

"My Gnosis is tapped out from all the healing I've done already. I got nothing left." Magnus nodded, understanding at least the concept. He lifted one, then the other of the Sidhe girls to their feet allowing them to lean upon him. I stepped up to Robby's side, looking at his face as he glanced from wounded friends to boyfriend to father-figure, his eyes still caked with tears and grime from the fire. He looked exhausted.

"You gonna be okay, Chief?" I asked.

"Yeah," he replied. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but soon."

We didn't have long to wait before the ambulances and EMT's got to our sides and began prepping our most severe wounded for transport to the hospital. A commandeered bus from the Y's back lot brought the rest of us in, under police escort. When we got into the ER, we got seen almost immediately, although the more serious cases got the first treatments. We four Garou were mostly healed up by that time, none of us having taken any aggravated injuries that would slow down our natural healing advantage. Normally, fire damage is something we take extra-long to heal up, sometimes taking days instead of the usual minutes. But I think we mostly had heat exhaustion from the intensity of the blaze.

And thankfully, we'd been mostly spared the touch of silver from the hybrids. I'm sure there were a few sear marks from the silver. I know I felt at least two from near misses. But we'd developed some key skills in learning to defend ourselves with swords, just hours before. That training was fresh in our minds and had probably saved us from some hideous scarring. Or just outright death.

Oh, yeah, before I forget. As we rode to the hospital, I kept looking back, seeing Magnus staring down at his hands in his lap. I can only image that he was feeling guilty. In tiring Robby out during their duel, he'd weakened us. Nick noticed my gaze and turned back to look at the tall Get boy. He stood up and walked back, disregarding the bus driver's warning and lifted Magnus' chin like a parent to a pouting child. And then he slapped him with a flat palm, right across Magnus' pronounced left cheekbone, with a loud, reverberating smack.

Magnus stood from his seat, his lips pulled back from his teeth, growling. I couldn't be sure, but I thought I saw liquid slide out of his mouth. Drool, I'd have to guess. The taller German boy made ready to deliver a raking paw full of human claws of his own, but Nick stood his ground, unflinching. And then he grabbed Magnus' chin again, bringing the Get boy's face down into his own.

"Quit yer mopin'!" Nick said, his voice a solid thing, forceful, commanding. "Nuthin' ya'll coulda predicted, man. Nuthin' ya could have even known was comin' in yer wildest, dumbest dreams. Weren't no way ya'll coulda known yuir challenge would weaken Robby that much just before we all got jumped. So get yuir head back in the game."

Magnus looked my Nick directly in the eyes, but not in a challenge stare. This time it was with respect. He simply pulled his chin from Nick's grasp and nodded. And then Nick clapped him on the shoulder. "Ya'll fought well. Ya do yuir family name AND yuir pack proud." A short pause broke out, and I think they reached an understanding.

"To my shame," Magnus whispered.

"Shame?" I found myself asking.

"You do not know," Sven stated, a fact, not a question. "I will explain. I was adopted into the Get of Fenris tribe. They took me in off the street, beaten, abused, a lone wolf who had been savaged by vampires. But I am not of their line, their blood. It is not fully known what my heritage is. However, Magnus traces his family line back through 40 generations."

"Impressive," Nick deadpanned.

"Many centuries ago, the fey and the Get clashed. A group of Sidhe thought that Garou would make for them… great combat mounts."

"Mounts, like horses?" I marveled. Remember, Nick and I had served as such for Robby and Kenny to help get to that hospital when we all thought Juan was hurt. But it had been our idea. We weren't roped into it or forced.

Magnus found his voice again. "They used foul arts of magic to make us their thralls. My tribe have never forgotten this injustice, this dishonor. The story is told in the great halls as a reminder of why we lead the fight. Why we stand at the tip of the spear and attack first, so our enemies may not do this to us again. We have had poor relations at best with any Changelings since then, and we especially hate the Sidhe. Had he been a Sidhe, presented to me in his Sidhe form… I would have savaged him on sight."

"So when Robby was revealed as our leader," I said, carrying the thought forwards. "You must have felt we were betraying you, just being there."

"I grew so angered that he seemed so casual about being in control. I felt like I was surrendering my honor, my soul, my independence."

"That's why ya'll fought him so hard? Cuz'a som'thin' that happened hundreds of years ago, by people that weren't even Robby and Kenny?"

"I could not let the slight go. I could not let him just assume he was my better."

"And now?" I asked, pointedly.

"I will obey the Litany. I will not challenge the leader in time of war."

"And were you obeying the Litany when you challenged him before?"

"I…" he began, looking to Sven for help.

"Well, Robby's not of the Wyrm, so destroying him where he dwells and breeds doesn't apply," I submitted. "So, what part of our laws did he break?"

"He accepted an honorable surrender," Nick said, ticking them off, "showed honor to those of lower status, an' he even didn't disrespect our territory, like ya'll seemed ta do."

"I was…" Magnus said, looking towards his boyfriend, who simply nodded sagely. "I was a fool. I acted without honor, without thinking."

"The first thing we all need to do is remember that just obeying the Litany blindly helps no one. They are laws for a reason, but not all of them show reason. I mean, the four of us break the very first one. Garou shall not mate with Garou," I pointed out.

"Yeah, but that one doesn't really apply t'us," Nick put in. "Not like any of us can get pregnant, no matter how much we try." That got blushing grins from both Magnus and Sven. Probably me as well. "And do blowjobs count as eatin' the flesh of humans, cuz, the Litany's pretty clear on that one." I smacked Nick in the back of the head as he said that one. Magnus asked something in German as Sven giggled. Sven's reply seemed to make Magnus' face go redder still, and he chuckled briefly. We all kind of giggled and looked to our respective boyfriends, sheepishly. The bus hit a hard bump and we all calmed down from the giggle fest.

Heaving a great sigh, Magnus broke the companionable silence. "I must apologize to Robert when this event is finished. Until then, I will fight the enemy, not my allies. Perhaps with my deeds I can reclaim the honor I gave up. And perhaps he will forgive me for being less than a friend, even after breaking bread at his table."

"At next moot, we will sing of this day," Sven said. The pride on his face at Magnus' personal developmental moment was beaming.

"And of the honor and wisdom which all of you fought," Magnus said, humbly.

"Don't forget the glory there, big guy. We mighta been suckered inta that throw down, but *dayum* you shelled out the hell."

"Glory," Magnus said, somewhat dejected. "Yes, my father would love that. He would love it very much indeed."

"Ain't you Ahrouns all crazy for the glory?" Nick asked.

Magnus looked up to Nick, then exchanged glances with Sven before breaking out into what started out as silent but then grew to very loud laughing. He rolled on his side, looking for all the world like he'd just cracked his bowl for good.

"Sumthin' Ah said?" Nick asked, clearly perplexed. Magnus sat up, wiping tears of laughter from his eyes.

"Oh, Nicholas. Is that what you think?" Magnus asked, clapping a big paw on Nick's much smaller shoulder, nearly knocking him back to his butt. "Oh, my father's shame is complete now. I could die now und be happy in de death."

"I don't understand," I said, coming to Nick's aid. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders.

"Magnus is not Ahroun," Sven said, while Magnus tried to recover from the giggles. "He is Galliard."

"Despite my father's best efforts. I was born just after the full of the moon. Mother tried to give me life during the height of Luna, but she was unable. My father…" Magnus broke off, getting a sad expression. "My father literally tried to beat me out of my mother, so I could be born Ahroun. But it was not to be. She died from her injuries at his hands… and I had to be cut from her body to be given life."

"Gaia!" Nick breathed in shock. I was not sure exactly what I'd heard until I ran it back through my head a few times. It made me feel sick to my stomach when I realized what had happened. For the sake of his own pride, Ragnar had physically abused Magnus' mother in order to induce labor. The horror of that, of what an existence that meant for Magnus, boggled my mind. No wonder Nick's Mom and Ragnar had such a hatred of each other. They each were what they hated most in the opposite sex.

"But your father… Ah mean, back at the caern, everybody thought you wuz Ahroun."

"Father likes to tell that tale. But even his pride cannot deny the truth. I was visited by the spirit of Fenrir. With him walked Grandfather Thunder and three small bird spirits that I did not know. A crested white bird, a blue jay and a cardinal. These spirits told me that I would only honor the true ancient ways when I was true to my inner self. I was told that I would find honor in battle but truth in song."

"And they also told you to not be afraid, didn't they?" I asked. "That to be yourself meant you had to be free of your father's lies and sins."

"Not in so many words," Magnus said with his head held high, much gravitas in his voice. "Some things are shorter in German." We sat in silence for a moment, with Magnus looking back and forth between us, as if expecting a response. "That was a joke."

"We, we need to work on our communication," Nick replied, wiggling his finger back and forth.

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