Riposte Alpha

by D'Artagnon

Chapter O

The Breaching at Arkham Fortress

It felt weirdly ominous leaving the new caern that morning. I mean, I had just given my virginity to Nick, and taken his as well. And slept it off massively. Kenny had been right to mention we'd need water. Word to the wise, always hydrate after sex; it gets very sweaty, and you lose a lot of, uhm, moisture.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit.

We appeared from under the waterfall to lots of cat calls and wolf whistles, which Sven is unnaturally gifted at, by the way. Paul went up and made a point of slapping Nick's back and shaking his hand, pulling his hand away as if faking a scorch. Kenny just smiled at me, knowingly, as if to say, "welcome to the club," but refrained from the joking. I don't think I felt my face blush so much.

Noticeably absent from the ribbing were Robby and Bethy. They stood off the side, talking softly. I didn't understand why at the time. To be honest, I still don't. But something was brewing there. I made a note to be aware of it.

To us, it was the morning after the moot where we'd all become pack, but we knew that I the Static Reality world, we would be walking into the same day as the fire. And though days had passed for us, the wounds of that day were still fresh in our minds. Kenny's father, wounded. The Changeling countess hurt and unseated. Their queen on the run with Capricus' fishing flotilla. Juan/Croaker grievously attacked, possibly murdered by his own father. The attack by Chuckles on Kenny. Robby's fury. JJ's deception and his theft of the maps. Keith's sacrifice.

So many things had gone wrong, caught us off guard. So many, many things.

It was with this in mind that my pack brothers and I set about preparing for the attack to come. I sat in meditation with the werewolves, opening up my spirit to the will of Gaia. I had the sad feeling that my skills as a healer would come in very necessary today. I couldn't help but wonder if our pack was complete though, from the Garou side. We had four, yet tradition and such called for a fifth.

I didn't explain that well. In our culture, the Garou culture that is, there are five recognized auspices, or duties. And to make it easier, you're pretty much born into them. It is tidally linked with the moon. The five auspices are New Moon or Ragabash, like Nick; Cresent Moon, Theruges like myself; Half Moon which is what Sven is as a Philodox; Gibbous Moon, the Galliards, like Magnus; and the final one called Full Moon, or Ahroun. You may remember that we once thought Magnus was an Ahroun, like his father. Well, the Ahrouns are a key thing in the werewolf pack dynamic. They are warriors. Leaders who inspire by their raw courage, fury and determination to wipe out the enemies of Gaia. An Ahroun on a rampage is a terrible and powerful sight t o behold.

And our pack didn't have one. As tight as our group was, and with the Changelings sort of filling in that role, it still bugged me. Somehow, our group didn't seem complete.

Or perhaps it was the fact that Bethy hadn't joined our pack. I mean, she was as tough as any of us, kind and truthful. Yet for some reason Unicorn had singled her out. I don't feel it was a rejection of Elsbeth, but more along the lines of something she still had left to do. Unfinished business.

Yeah, that sense of things being unfinished hung on us. I could feel it building in my bones. After vibing with the spirits last night, speaking with that pigeon, I needed to cleanse my mind for the fight to come.

I suddenly felt like someone was watching me. I opened my eyes to see Nick, Sven and Magnus all seated in front of me, in lupus, eyes expectant. I was also in lupus, so it made sense, but it was a bit creepy to have them watching me.

"What?" I barked.

"Oh, nuthin'. Just waitin' to see if ya'll got any sprirtual words o' wisdom."

"No. The spirits haven't contacted me."

"Oh. Well, we've come to a decision," Sven replied. "Robby may be pack leader, but when it is just the four of us, we will defer to you."

"Me? Why?"

"You see clearly what the rest of us do not," Magnus chimed in. "And while others are better at fighting, you seem to know what the spirits require us to do."

"It were an easy choice, actually." Nick put in, his tongue lolling out to the side.

"I'm honored, but I'm not pack leader."

Sven turned his head in a canine expression of confusion. "How can that be? Even the spirits talk to you first, Speaks With Water. The answer is simple. Robby leads the pack's head, makes decisions for the rest of us to follow. You lead our heart, knowing what the spirits need done. Unicorn himself spoke to both of you as pack leaders. We are simply following."

"Besides," Magnus said, drawing up to his full height in lupus form, which was impressive. We all waited for Magnus to continue, the moment stretching on, each of us turning to look his way.

"Besides whut?" Nick asked at length.

"Oh, nothing. Just besides."

"Dork!" Nick barked. Sven just cast his eyes to the sky.

"I'm proud you place such trust in me. But I'm no leader."

"Your followers say you are, therefore you are. This is the Way," Sven said rising. And that was that.

We got up off our tails and prepared. Weapons were checked, and in some cases spoken to, like one might a child before his big night on stage for the PTA. Robby produced some tabards for us. Three Musketeers style things that went over our shoulders, hung down our backs and chests while not getting in the way of our arm movements or transformations. It also had his "royal crest" proudly displayed. A unicorn rampant in silver on a field of blue. The belt at the waist was a bit thicker than I would have liked, but all in all, comfortable. Even gave some armor padding. I was beginning to like our Changeling buddies more and more.

I prepared a woading, at Magnus' suggestion. It was war paint, basically. We took turns in planting it on each other. The other packmates got involved, too. Jack took great care in painting his boyfriend's face in a checkerboard pattern. Nick simply drew eyes around my eyes. I put an interrobang on his face (like this !?) and he seemed to like it. Robby put it with delicate care on Kay Neth's face, tracing the Eye of Horus tattoos that seemed to decorate his face.

In short order we were ready to go. A small army of unicorns had gathered around the gateway. Within short order, Robby had waved his hands over them and they stood bedecked in armor and barding, all done in blue. Our Changeling buddies had put on their armor. Robyn looking wild and dangerous, Kay Neth showing out in Egyptian finery befitting a warrior prince under the blue. Elsbeth looked every bit the elfin soldier, light and agile and deadly. Her face was set in a dark aspect. The woading on her face was a simple tear under her left eye. I noticed she didn't wear our tabards but had a blue silk cloth tying her hair back.

Paul and Jack also received the benefit of some Changeling armor it seems. Paul opted to go for minimal, with grieves, a bronze cuirass trimmed in fur and helmet befitting a spartan soldier (minus the horsey crest thing). Jack's gear was more chain mail based, with light shoulder plates and bracers down his arms, like lacrosse gear. A wide belt for Shard to hang from and riding boots of thick leather completed his look. He tucked in his tabard to make for an easier at reach for his arrows. Both fighters seemed comfortable in their gear. Paul marked his face with woading that accentuated the yell lines around his mouth. Jack wore none until Nick came forward and made a little mark under his left eye. I had to get up close to see it was a crosshairs.

Putting on his own helmet, with spaces for his horns, our small leader had the weight of the world wearing on him. It seemed odd to me, but Robby simply mounted his unicorn, the others following suit. We followed, switching to Hispo to travel faster. The unicorns seemed to realize we weren't riding them and surrounded us with a sea of spikes. Then as one, the unicorns all teleported!

We wound up in a corn field. As we passed through the Umbra, I could tell we were still in the Dreaming. Although a darker version of the Dreaming. Robyn rallied us to his side and we parted the corn, suddenly in the presence of a massed group of Changeling warriors. Sylvia's call had been answered, and many lowly commoners among the fae had joined her army.

As we passed through them, out of the corn, a murmur arose. No doubt to the presence of so many unicorns, but likely as well to see four Garou marching in Robyn's colors. It was kind of cool that the tabards transformed with us, like doggy sweaters. Upon arriving, we switched forms to Glabro, because it was kind of cool to be bigger than normal sized.

Robyn had his moment of explaining our plan, making political points with Sylvia. I mean, I get that doing so is important, but we all had things to do for the battle to come. We started helping the unicorns to find riders, picking the smaller or weaker Changelings to get onto the huge creatures. I came over to help Robyn get Gypsum to the Countess. It was a good pairing, yet it wasn't easy getting her up there, even with an "air boot" cast on her leg.

I took a moment to examine how things were going. Sven was helping an older Sidhe knight to gain the saddle of a pale green mare while Nick was telling a group of three young squires on how to hold on as the unicorn turned. They practiced a few times, getting whistles and toots from the unicorns. There was a grim humor to that. Paul helped others to find partner unicorns, doing his part. Jack and Bethy remained near their mounts, Jack taking in the whole scene.

In an unguarded moment, I saw Magnus standing alone in Crinos form when a small black girl walked up to him, her head hanging back, pig tail braids hanging down as she looked up at him. I think she was the same sort of Changeling as Kenny was, but much younger. He noticed and bent, kneeling down, speaking gently to her. She gave him a folded paper hat, and he put it on with a big grin. He reached up and pulled one of his armbands off and helped her to put it on. She looked at the simple golden ring and it slipped down to her wrist. Both shared a laugh.

Someone, probably a parent, called the little girl away and she ran off, turning as if an afterthought, to wave at Magnus. I saw him visibly take a deep breath and sigh, waving back. The little paper hat almost fell off, and he held it on his head. When she was out of sight, he pulled the hat off his head and pocketed it. He looked around, as if to make sure no one had seen him being cute while he was practicing bad-assery.

The flash of a reflection caught my eye, and I turned away from where Robyn and the Countess were planning. I saw three boys watching from further down the road, all astride BMX style bikes. One was a blonde with a brohawk haircut, another was a dark-haired boy whose long hair was held back by a blue headband, and the last was a red head riding a gleaming silver bike, who seemed to be hanging back behind the other two.

They didn't seem to be part of the war party gathered by Donna Trag. They were pretty far out, more towards the way back into town. I felt they were there with a purpose, though, since they were looking right at where all the unicorns were hanging out, pairing up with Changelings. On a guess, I waved at them. The blonde waved back. I took that as a good sign and turned back to the group. Still, I kept the image of the three kids on bikes in my mind. Something to reflect on later, after the battle.

But that's another story.

I went back towards the group, passing fearful Changelings as I went. They were kind of rude, staring openly as I returned to the group. A particularly evil looking one, looking positively like a reject from the Addam's Family, actually spit in my path. He was gnarled, older than dirt, with a gray cast to his skin and a yellow cast to his eyes. Despite his openly aggressive demeanor, he looked frail and weak. A corpse in a neat pin striped suit, dressed to the nines. He mumbled something that I didn't quite catch, but it had the feel of some kind of insult or racial slur.

I stopped and looked at that particular one dead in his eye and he withered before my stare. Another nearby got irate at that one and begged my forgiveness. I told him it was nothing to forgive. He seemed to think otherwise and chased his disrespectful companion down.

So it was that I realized not all Changelings were friends. Some weren't even allies of more than convenience. Not a that different from the Garou Nation, I guess. I made a note to avoid those types in the future. I made another note to ask Kenny about it later.

For that moment, though, we had a fight to pick.

The Changelings referred to it as a Freehold, but it was a fortress to me. Arkham Fortress stood, dark and ominous before us. Its polished black granite walls probably didn't seem so foreboding in the daylight. The long, looping stretches of thick creeper vines that festooned the wide V-shaped front seemed like the jaws of some monstrous shark, swimming up from the bottom for another bite. They spread open before an equally open gate. Doors wide open, a heavy portcullis waiting to come down at the first sign of trouble.

The battlements above looked like hard, sharp, flat teeth, ready to grind us up. I couldn't shake the feeling that there were eyes upon us. It was a strong frontal defense. One that any person dumb enough to walk into the middle of was sure to get arrowed from all sides, should they be an enemy. To either side, thick primeval forests pushed in, making the path right up the jaws the only way in.

Gotta give it to the Changelings. They don't do anything half-way. Even the vines on the walls seemed to take on a sinister personality. And I wasn't the only one to notice.

"Oh, someone's trapped in the 90's," Paul commented. "You think those things have big mouths with teeth?" he asked, making a Super Mario Brothers reference.

"Don't give him ideas," Nick said, reaching out to tap knu ckles with Paul. Magnus said something in German, and of all people, Jack replied to him, which made Magnus choke up and Sven giggle.

At about forty feet or so, the high walls looming to either side around us, we formed up. Kenny and Robby, or rather Kay Neth and Robyn, up the middle, with Elsbeth and Jack to each side, Paul on foot in the middle and the rest of us arrayed behind, two on each side.

An odd wind blew through that canyon-like place between the front walls. An even odder fog lifted lightly over the grass. The sunlight streamed in behind us, casting our own shadows before us ominously, illuminating the mists as they lazily passed before us. The fog wasn't thick enough to obscure the walls, but it surely helped create a creepier scene for me. It was so surreal. I looked to the tops of the walls and still couldn't see anyone but the sense of being watched persisted.

"Ah got a baaaad feelin' 'bout dis," Nick murmured. We all felt it. That anxiety before a fight was beginning to take hold.

"It is about to get worse," Kay Neth said. He and Robyn shared one of their almost telepathic looks and then he raised his voice. It echoed flatly in the confines of the mouth of the fortress. Chilling.

"I call now to the usurper! To the villain known as Lord Korbesh! Lord Robyn the Blue of Cerulean, Dragon Slayer and High Sherrif to Her Majesty, Queen Mab of the Kingdom of Apples, bids you to present your foul self for a duel, to the death, to the Undoing. The winner shall claim the Freehold of Arkham, all lands and territories, and shall make claim of the county throne. We await your response."

A long, empty silence filled the vacuous space between the walls. More small fog drifts lazily floated through. The open gates and courtyard beyond seemed to mock us, as did the castle beyond the fortress walls.

"Is dis de part where dey shoot da messenger?" Nick joked, getting a few soft, nervous chuckles. I felt every nerve on edge. Something told me that something was about to happen.

"Guys, when we get the go, take the walls. They'll cut us to ribbons unless we can take out their archers."

"What makes you say that, Speaks With Water?" Sven said, looking up.

"Because, if I was them this is where I'd want them to be. They have the high ground. So we take the fight to them instead of being targets."

"A good plan," Nick agreed. Magnus just looked up, getting angrier. Nick looked at him and slapped him as hard as he could. Magnus just seemed to get madder at that, smiling around a bit of blood from his lip.

An arrow arched up over the wall and fell to earth several meters in front of us. One with a message on it, of sorts. It was a thick shaft on a two-meter-long arrow. Impaled on that arrow was a thin, small figure. A young girl, shot through in such a way that the arrow pierced her body into the ground so that she was face up. I cannot imagine the cruelty of how that even happens.

"Gaia!" Sven gasped, horrified. "Das… und kinder… a child!"

"Oh, hell! it's on now, boys!" Nick whispered. He practically faded from view, enacting his Blur of the Milky Eye gift.

"Korbesh!! You'll pay for all your atrocities!" And a blinding flash of lightning, a deafening clap of thunder echoed across the face of the fortress, shaking the walls. It was like the Dreaming itself demanded a battle. Who were we to say no?

"Robyn! Duck!" Kay Neth shouted and pointed. Across the crenelations of the battlements, archers appeared, long glowing arrows of golden red and frosty white pointed down near us. As if planned, they fired a volley at us, filling the valley with magicked arrows.

"Go!" I shouted and we took off. It was at least thirty yards to the nearest flat surface of the wall. I tapped my Rage and burst into raw speed. The bulk of the arrows fell behind us and it's a good thing we cleared out.

The Icicles churned the ground up into columns of clouded dust that froze almost instantly. Their expansion made me think of a mushroom cloud, only this was frozen earth and erupted, lifted fog turned to icy spikes. I shudder to think what that kind of weapon would do to a living being. In their devastation, I could feel the cold of a thousand icy winters, numbing my fingers and toes, spreading through the earth.

The Hellspiks exploded into fountains of liquid glass, splattering and frying whatever they hit, washing the ground in a thick, gelatinous glaze of heat. The molten glass flowed and pelted the ground like lava, like the obsidian residue around a volcano. They didn't so much churn the ground into blossoms of death as they covered everything they struck within a column of thick, burning agony.

"Right," I said to no one and turned my attention to the wall. Nearly sheer surface, almost 60 feet high, with armed, angry fae aiming hot and cold pointy things at me. It was time to take the gloves off. I switched to Crinos form and looked for someone to sink my claws into, the hard way.

Now I can't really speak for the others here. When the Rage takes over, there are times when you don't think, you just DO. And while we were one pack, had one objective, we each were working separately. Objective one, get up on top of that wall. Objective two, kill everything pointing an arrow at us. Objective three, find the others and eliminate anyone in the way.

Seemed like a simple enough plan to me.

I took three steps back from the wall and made me assault. As int the climbing assault. I'd save the violence for when I reached the top. Two Crinos sized bounds and I leapt for the top. I didn't think I'd reach it in the first jump, but my Crinos claws sank into the casing stones of the wall, giving me a purchase some twenty feet up. I grabbed one of the looping vines that decorated the walls as well, for leverage. I looked up and saw three archers aim down on me and I made my move.

Literally and laterally.

I hopped across-wise about ten feet, using claws to anchor myself to the rampart and the vine as a tether as the arrows landed. Two Icicles and a Hellspike. They vaporized each other in an expanding cloud of semi crystalline glass shards and steaming icy shrapnel and freezing-hot gasses. It was intense!

The explosion provided me with a massive smoke screen, and I leapt the rest of the way to the top. I'm not sure how much of that was my own strength and how much was the enchantments laid on my weapon, but it was enough that I shot up over the battlements by over twenty feet. The archers never saw me, didn't even get a whiff of movement overhead at all. I drew my blade and let gravity take over.

I landed and rolled, coming forwards in a crouch and lay about with a heroic sweep of Deluge, the blade humming with an evil intent as I slashed through two archers at once. One behind me managed to react to my sudden appearance among them and tried to draw down on me, but a quick pivot and a slash, plus that greater Crinos reach, put an end to his ambition to ice me. I hacked his bow and half and he actually stabbed himself in the foot with the Icicle he had aimed at me. Cold day in hell indeed.

Now as good as all that sounds, I had made a typical werewolf tactical blunder. Sure, I'd gotten up the wall, even used some stealth in doing so. But I'd landed in the middle of the fight, not at one end or another. For someone like Magnus or Sven who were large enough that they could be the center of a fight and do well, it's not such a big deal. Even for someone like Nick, using Blur, his natural sneakiness is a major advantage in the middle of a fight.

I'm more of a back to the wall, open up with magic and keep the fight in front of you kinda guy. I had one side of the wall that went about sixty feet or more to a turret shaped tower to one side, and easily a hundred feet down the inside run to the gates. All of it with heavily armed Red Caps and Dautain archers, as well as Formorii with ill intent.

So I was basically fucked.

But if there was a Garou basic principle about such situations it was this: when out-numbered, attack! I jumped to the turret side, seeking to draw archers from the shorter direction off the wall, give our guys some back cover. Keep in mind, most of the wall doesn't know I'm among them yet. Their focus was still on the spiraling vapors coming from their death barrage below. Trying to skewer my pack mates who were also trying to breach the walls. Yeah, I wasn't feeling it.

Several of the archers noticed immediately and turned from their mission in t he valley of death to the narrow confines of the parapet. I had about twenty feet between the battlements and the drop off to the inside of the fortress, dotted here and there with wider places for the steps to get to the top. Fortunately, the battlements gave me some cover as the archers had their view blocked as to what went on around them. That probably saved me from becoming a silvery furred pin cushion.

I hacked at two in close succession, and found a third that looked up in time to see me. He dodged and drew a sword. I focused my will and Rage and sank Deluge's blade through the Dautain's weapon like it wasn't even there. The glowing blade made a flat, burping sound as it passed through, me leaning over it in a front stance. He stared at the hacked up hilt of his sword and looked at me completely terrorized. Still leaning forward, I looked at him and simply said, quietly "boo!"

"Nope!" I heard him say and he dropped the sword hilt and ran for the stairs. I chuckled at that. Normally I don't get to do the intimidating stuff. But it was kind of funny in the moment.

That's when something slammed into my shoulder from behind. Hard. Hard enough to knock me to the ground. I looked back, and saw an arrow hit the ground, clearly bent, and beyond that, a Formorii archer, nocking another arrow. The extreme angle of the shot had saved me from penetration, but that was about it. I looked and saw another thing about the arrow that gave me concern. It wasn't an Icicle or a Hellspike. Nor was it a crystal shaft like Elsbeth and Toothpick used. Nor even a wooden or composite arrow like you can buy at Walmart, for hunting or target use.

This was Cold Iron. The whole thing. Roughly forged and shaped, as if made recently. That relatively soft metal was capable of inflicting massive damage to any Changeling it hit. So if one of them did sustain a hit, they couldn't even grab it to tear it out of the wound. Something like that was designed to hit and continue to do damage. And it was heavy, which meant the bow that launched it would be very sturdy.

I had to take that bow and those arrows out of the picture. Now. And any others like it.

I roared a challenge to the Formorii as I regained my feet. He sneared and let fly another flech in my direction, making sure to angle it upwards. As it sailed in on its weighty arc, I went to parry it with Deluge and then suddenly dropped to my knees. I was certain that my blade had intercepted the Iron bolt, but it passed right through my saber. The Iron was immune to Changeling enchantments!

The bolt had caught me low on my right hip, biting deep. Normally, Cold Iron is no more dangerous to my Crinos body than any other metal. My body was already literally spitting out the blade and healing. I pulled it out and snapped it in half, getting really pissed off about it. It had torn a hole through my brand new tabard, after all. I sheathed my blade and dropped to all fours, charging the Formor in Hispo form.

Coming in at him, I got a good look at what I was facing. He was tall and thin, older than me by many years, based on his five o'clock shadow. But he was wizened by his years, not hampered by them. He had a third arm to his left sid and what appeared to be the stump of a fourth matching on the right. So as he tracked me with the bow and fired again, he reached for some other weapon.

I leapt the last six feet to tackle him to the ground. In Hispo form, I'm practically a tank. Very massive jaws, powerful front claws, back end smaller so as not to make a target of my back legs, which still have a lot of strength to them. I meant to hit him like a dump truck, possibly bite him in half. Yeah, the head of a Hispo is that big, even a half grown one like me.

He stood his ground until the last second, taking a step back and firing into my chest. The arrow hit me hard enough to stun me, stopped my forward progression. That hurt, but it rang off, no penetration other than another nick in my wardrobe. I took a swipe with one set of claws, angling in for a bite.

That's when his third arm swung in, a dagger, sharp and bright, clutched in his hand in a backwards grip. It sliced a glancing blow on my own arm and managed to sting painfully, him somehow twisting the blade on the cut so it sheared my flesh. Instantly, I knew; that was silver, and the pain seared into my fur like no other pain I've ever felt before.

I shifted to Crinos and circled towards the battlements. This Formor was trained, experienced and skilled. He didn't panic when he lost an advantage. He had a plan. And he wasn't afraid to face me. Equal playing field.

My supernatural senses took stock of the situation. Several of the nearby archers saw the looming battle and shifted to attack me, but most were oblivious. In the distance, the flash of white fur told me that Magnus had joined the fray on the wall and was dealing out his own version of violence, with a lot of success. He was closer to the gates than I was and that had drawn lots of attention. Behind me, a few of the archers on the wall had noticed my handiwork, then saw I was engaging the Formor. They concentrated their efforts for the most part on a new sound that reached my ears.

Donna Trag and her army were heading towards the fray, meeting with both an ambush from above and a wave of skirmishers from the forest beside the fortress. Those more down the end to the turret tower focused their firepower on picking off those on the outside. That and they readied a ballista up on top of the turret to rain down pain into the troop.

Yeah, couldn't let that happen either. Being a hero really sucks someti mes. Teen-age mu-tant nin-ja were-wolves!

But my focus was with this Formor warrior. He made a point of licking the blade with is long, pointed tongue, snearing over the top of his fist, while his main pair of arms drew and nocked an arrow, holding them down by his body. I could see he had some kind of snake scaled for skin, which made me think he was tougher somehow.

"Ya see me, ya see your death, Garou," he said, with an oddly western drawl. "Come to me an' I'll give you a long painful death a'fore I skin ya alive, and wear your skin inta the future!" And that kind of bragging just pisses me off.

"Bitch, you don't have a future!" I said and raked my left claws forward with Rage speed. And again, spinning in place to slash the same set of claws upwards, then down with the other set of claws, ending with a Spartan kick to the chest. He fell back, many feet back, his bow hacked to pieces, his third arm cut to ribbons, his chest slashed up to his throat and down to his groin. My foot came back to the ground with a squishy feel to it, and I realized his intestines were pierced by my foot claws, steaming and greasy.

He looked up to me, gurgling, and died with a look of utter disbelief on his face. Then I felt something and looked down. He'd managed to stab me in the chest with that silver dagger, one third of it imbedded into my chest. I could feel the burn of the wound as I reached up and yanked the dagger out. It hissed and steamed, making every breath a gasp of pain. This one stung, not as bad as the scratch on my arm had. This was a true life-threatening wound. Say what you want about that Formor, his aim was 100%.

I staggered back, holding my clawed hand over my bleeding, sucking chest wound, about to pass out. From behind me, an arrow hit the ground, coming into my field of vision. On instinct, I ducked to the side as three more impacted the granite stone parapet. I turned and saw a group for three Dautain rushing me, their armor looking cast off and stitched together. All had weapons, two with swords and one with a mace. As they closed to me, I called on my Rage once again to ignore the pain in my chest and fight on.

But this time, Deluge would be with me. The right blue blade snap-hissed to life just as they got within reach of me. I beat aside one blade and shoulder tackled the mace bearer into a battlement, momentarily stunning him. The second sword guy, or girl in this case, took a swing at my head. I ducked, changing shape to Glabro to lower my height. That brought me back to the first one, who hacked at my leg. I blocked him, shifted his blade up over his head and head butted him off the wall to the inner fortress yard, sixty feet down. I didn't worry about him much after that.

I turned only to have the mace guy ring one off my head. It must have looked really funny when I just stared back at him and casually blocked the sword girl's strike at my chest with a drop block over the shoulder. Then I just shifted back to Crinos and ripped Deluge through both of them in one stroke.

A loud twang from the upper parapet of the turret drew my attention. A flight of shafts from that ballista sailed towards the left flank of Donna Trag's Changeling army, darkening a patch of sky with incoming death. Fortunately, Red Caps can't aim, or else that burst of bolts would have done much more damage. That and the unicorns saw the incoming attack and dodged. But still some of the small, weak figures that had come to honor the Countess' call were struck down.

Rage can be a great motivator. It can also lead to some pretty impressive body counts. Whatever rational, sane part of my mind might be in control most of the time can take little Rage induced vacations at times. That's pretty much what happened then. It was some eighty feet to that tower, another twenty feet up to the flat stone top. There were probably thirty of the enemy, maybe more, along the way, directly opposing me. I know at least a few of them broke and ran from their posts when they saw me coming.

Those that remained in my path got the claw and felt Deluge's bite. I remember doing spin slashes and ripping though folks, using one guy like a blunt object, just using his body to bash others out of my way. I remember looking down at the bloody stump that had been his lower leg and tossing it aside uselessly as I reached the tower. One bunny hop later I was atop that tower, laying about with Garou claw and Changeling blade. Six more fell, wounded or dead by my effort, and the ballista itself was slashed in three parts. In the end I shouted a Garou roar of victory from that tower, covered in blood and guts and shattered wood bits.

It was glorious. When the red Rage finally subsided, I was huffing and puffing, standing amidst the chaos of that brutality, coming back to myself. One Dautain looked upon me as I came out of the Rage and held his weapon at me from the ground. I had swept through his leg and cut him completely through below the knee.

"Stay back, beast!" he cried out in pain. "You'll take no more from me!"

"End this madness," I said simply. In all honesty, it hurt to talk just then. The wound in my chest was trying to heal and not doing too well. "Return to your life and do no more harm. For I am Cody Speaks With Water. I am the tide. The crashing wave. The fury of the seas unleashed. And I have no mercy save that which you give."

"But I have nothing!" he shouted. Then, sobbing, "nothing."

"You have your life. Take it and do no more harm. I will spare you on your promise."

"I promise, I promise," he muttered. "Leave me in peace and in peace I shall go." He stared down at his ruined limb, despairing. "In peace," he muttered. And then a funny thing happened. A brightness, as if the rays of the sun breaking through the clouds, seemed to engulf him, washing over his body like a physical blow. Like a wave breaking on the beach. It moved him.

And as I watched, the fairy lights and twinkles of the Dreaming lifted him up, re-attached his severed limb and I saw him transformed from a gray, lifeless shell of his Dauntain self, into a Boggan. They're kind of like hobbits. He returned to the ground and looked at his renewed body with wonder.

"Thank you, sirah, for freeing me. I will ever rejoice in your kindness."

"Go, and help those who you can." He jumped up and ran to the ladder down from the parapet, and I let him go, trusting in the Dreaming to know he wouldn't betray us. I looked around the tower and realized that my work here was done.

I turned from the top and leapt back down to the lower parapet, feeling a weird sensation in my chest. I looked down and saw that twinkling lights of the Dreaming at work, repairing my dagger wound. I didn't know it at the time, but it was in response to my sparing Changeling's life. I put it into my mind to reflect on later. But for that moment, I knew my pack needed me.

I ran down the length of the battlements, which were empty of the living. Bows and swords and many arrows of differing kinds lay scattered about the top of the wall. As did some bodies of Formorii and Dautain, Red Caps and monsters.

Eventually I ran into Magnus, who had captured a group of Dauntain. Apparently, he has also killed three mounted Red Caps and their squid-bear thingees. The Dauntain sat in a circle, the evidence of Magnus' battle prowess all around us. His humming saber, Dragon Fang, hanging from his Crinos hand as if he still had monsters to slay. His white fur was streaked with red and black of drying blood, but he seemed none the worse for wear.

"Ho, Speaks With Water!" he greeted me in Garou. "How fare you?"

"I'm fine, Ritter. Looks like you have things in hand here. What news?"

"I have had a howl from the other side. Shadow Foot and Fulcrum have taken the other wall, without any wounds." By that he meant our pack mates were unhurt, not that they hadn't dealt out misery where necessary. Judging by the opposition I faced, that was a miracle in itself.

"Good. We had best join up with Robyn and the others. They're probably taken the gate by now."

"What shall we do with them?" he asked, giving the prisoners a menacing growl and scowl. I looked them over and the mostly looked like non-warrior types, just swept up in the struggle. Led astray by the idea of rebellion but not cut out for the cost of it, nor for the reality of war. People who had grievances, needs unmet by Donna Trag's power structure. Those that wanted t o live by the sword had died by it. Those who just wanted positive change and had been left wanting had surrendered.

In the end, I realized, they might be Dauntain-turned, like the one I had shown mercy to, but they weren't evil. They weren't of the Wyrm. And as much pain as they had inflicted, much more pain had been suffered to lead them to this point.

We are Children of Gaia. Mercy is our calling. Protection is our creed. Justice is our way. And in the end, it is the greater good we serve. It's what we do.

"Let me speak to them." I shifted from ten-foot-tall walking wall of muscle, bone and fur to my skimpy teenage frame, but I kept my weapon out, visible. They could see my tabard with Robyn's colors and the bold prancing unicorn pony on my chest. I could see no less fear in their eyes upon my transformation.

"Hear my words!" I shouted. "I am Cody Speaks With Water, of the Garou Nation, Tribe of the Children of Gaia, and Packmate and Oathsworn to Robyn the Blue. I have a choice for you all here today. Renounce your evil ways, swear that peace is in your hearts and I will spare you. Enough death and pain have happened. No more Changeling blood needs be shed from your skins. Renounce unto the Dreaming and you shall have peace."

"But what of our grievances?" shouted a girl, perhaps no older than I was. By the frog and scabbard on her hip, the shoulder pauldron on her sword arm, she was doubtless a warrior. Magnus had disarmed her. Well, he'd taken her weapon, anyways. All her limbs were intact. Is it weird that I had to explain that?

"Stand, and identify yourself."

She stood, hands bound before her. "I am Lainia of the River Tribe," she said. "And I speak of how the nobles deal with us commoners. How they lord it over us, make fealty into slavery. Honor into disgrace. How we had no choice but to work with these monstrosities. Our voices are never heard, and our obligations never-ending. We have been held down and trodden upon for too long. And now with your sword held to our throats, our words cannot speak out."

"Well, brother," Magnus said to me in Garou. "Seems there's more to these Changelings than meets the nose." It's a canine thing.

"We have to do something," I responded to him, also in Garou, which isn't easy on a human throat. "If these people were harmed by one set of nobles and then promised changes by another set, who are we to say who is right?"

"That claw cuts both ways," he agreed.

"Sure you're not a philodox?" I asked, slyly. Magnus just smiled his toothy Crinos smile, which made a few of the prisoners a bit fearful. Lainia kept a stern visage, despite her eyes flicking to Magnus' display with reasonable worry.

"We have heard your plea for mercy and justice," I said to Lainia. "I agree, something is very wrong here and needs measures to fix it. You have my word on this, we will look into it. And if we have your honorable word of peace, you will be released. Do no more harm, help those you can, and no harm will come to you. Do you so swear?"

Magnus looked at me, with some trepidation. "Are you certain of this course?" he stage-whispered in Garou.

"I don't know, I'm making this stuff up as I go," I whispered back, getting him to chuckle something about maybe I was the philodox.

"How do we know you are honorable?" Lainia challenged.

"Did she just question my honor?" Magnus chuffed. It's literally one word in Garou, more of a growl.

"We stand in the Dreaming. If you want we can undertake an Oath." That caused a stir to go through the twenty or thirty captives. To have one of their most cherished institutions brought up by a non-Changeling was unheard of. I thought of how Robby and Kenny did such things almost casually and then realized that an honest oath brought before them was powerful magic in its own right. I stilled Deluge's blade, and signaled Magnus to do the same with Dragon Fang.

"By my blood and bone, on this sacred ground, I, Cody Speaks With Water, swear no harm shall befall those who herefore declare there shall be no action of malice, no use of arms, no manner of resistance within these walls. And may the heavens strike with fulmination any who break my word or who harm those under my protection. Let there be peace, for healing to begin."

Again, a ray of sunlight broke the clouds as I uttered this, and upon the spot, no word of a lie, a tree sprang up from the ground, bearing apples as blue (yes, blue) as my saber blade. I had to step back. Apple trees aren't all that big, but this one was huge, easily twenty feet at the top, branches hanging heavy with fruit.

The prisoners were suitably impressed. Lainia, still standing, gasped in awe at the tree, evidence of my word of honor. To this day, that tree stands in the Dreaming, wreathed in sunlight even when it rains, and the apples still grow blue. In the physical world, it is merely a mundane seeming apple tree growing in a wild thicket behind Barnie's Burger Barn. And it seems to be always bearing fruit, even in winter, although to normal eyes it's normal red apples.

One by one, the captured Dauntain came foreward and claimed an apple, saying "I so swear to abide by the peace, and to help all I can." And they switched almost immediately from Dauntain to Changeling kiths. When it was Lainia's turn, she took her apple and nodded towards me. It was magical.

"I take it back," Magnus said. "The spirits are working through you."

"Maybe," I agreed. "Maybe I've seen enough things lately to challenge my understand of Gnosis, especially where these people are concerned."

"That, too, is why we follow you, Speaks With Water."

"Hey, guys. What's with de blue fruit," Nick asked, coming around the wall. Is tabard hung in taters on his chest, streaked with blood. But he seemed as healthy as ever. I hugged him fiercely, Magnus also gathering Sven to his furry form.

"Robyn and the others have gathered at the central building. Are you well?" Sven asked. He eyed the now freed prisoners and the tree with much wonder and curiosity.

"Yeah. Let's get a move on. We've got a bad guy to catch."

"And after this," Magnus said with a huge smile, "I have a great story for you all."

We met up with the rest of the group, grateful that no one had been like skewered or boiled in oil or had fire dumped on them, yet. Or Gaia forbid, those Icicles and Hellspikes. After seeing the Changeling weapons of mass destruction in action, I wondered what other things might lie in store. The imagination boggles.

Still, we had to do some aggressive actions when we caught up with the others. It was a glorious effort, using the Umbra for surprise attacks. Jack took a tumble as we arrived, but he stood up like a champ. Magnus grabbed one Formorii and literally just tossed him some thirty yards up, not sure where he landed. Nick raced back and forth, in and out of the Umbra, using both his saber, Whisper, and his Klaive in reverse grip style. He darted in and out like a ghost, slashing and fading like mist.

Once all us were together, it was short work. Donna Trag led the major part of her forces off to deal with the combine Red Caps, Dautain, Formorii and monster army. Securing the gate and walls had been a tiring adventure so far. We rested a bit, considering the course of what was to come. I checked everyone's health and had to seal up a wound in Jack's leg. Told him it would hurt but he stoically nodded and bid me go on. Jack thanked me afterwards, getting an equally thankful shoulder rub from Paul.

"Korbesh is likely still in the great hall," Kay said. "We may have to go in and dig him out."

"Just like a tick," Magnus growled, with bloody snout. Looking around, we all kind of had fluids all over us. It was a messy battle, but I guess they all are. We took a moment, Jack recovered, Kay Neth took stock of things, Nick peed on some stuff and I took a minute to gather myself in case I had more healing to do.

I took a moment and made sure Elsbeth was okay, coming up to her and touching her elbow. She started, but relaxed upon seeing it was me. She was regal despite all the blood and guts which stained her armor.

"Are you okay?"

"Fine, dear friend. I just need a minute to prepare." And that was all she said.

Robby concluded a brief aside with Kenny, the two of them smiling and grinning and not feeling it either. I got the feeling that the Changelings were hiding something, although what and why I don't know.

Paul broke the ice. "So, how's it gonna go, chief?" Robby looked us over, gathering his full 5'2" height. I forget at times that he's only 13. He turned and regarded the elegant structure before us, the central hall, the keep, the castle.

I got a sense of impending peril looking at it. In keeping with the ways of the Dreaming, the hall took on a dark and somber mood as befit its master of the moment. As if the keep itself was a thing that Korbesh didn't so much invade as put on, like one puts on a cloak.

"We raid the castle. Once inside, we split up. Elsbeth, you take Spartan and Shadow Foot, and sweep the right wing. Kay Neth, you pair up with Sven and Cody, cover the left. I'll take Toothpick and Magnus with me and search the next level up. Stay loose and fast, always check behind you when entering a room. Cover each other's back. We'll go room by room until we find the bastard, root out his baddies as we go."

"A good plan, pack leader," Sven nodded. The couples paired off briefly. The battle had made all of this seam real, and the violence certainly had become a real thing to us all. So based on how Robyn had us all split up, this would be the last time we might see each other, ever. The stakes were that high, the price of failing that steep.

I grabbed Nick by the neck as the others embraced, bringing our foreheads together. I stared into his eyes, those deep chocolate pools, just staring at him. In my mind, we were back standing behind the waterfall. In that moment before we rejoined the rest of the group, when it was only Nick and me. He reached up to my neck as well, remembering that sense of closeness, that ultimate sense of belonging to just each other.

It played across his face as well. He knew we were going to a possible end. Our bond was so strong now, strengthened by the time we'd spent in the cave. He was my everything. My all. And looking into his eyes, across his face, I saw that same devotion shining back. We whispered, "I love you," at near the same time, and leaned in for a kiss, making it full of passion yet brief. But the meaning was clear.

We gave hugs to each other all around and ended up giving Elsbeth a big group hug, which she endured despite all of us being covered in grime and guts and blood. Smiles and embraces. But then it was time to get to business. We formed up in teams, making sure all our gear was ready. Robyn even had a quick peptalk ready.

"Let's keep in mind why we're here. We all have reasons, unfinished business. For Master Mitch. For Croaker. When it comes down to it, you fight for the soldier beside you. Let's get Korbesh and remember the First Rule. After the mission, we all go home."

"Yeah, baby!" Paul yelled, pumping his fist.

"Let us kick some ass," Sven commented, drolly, his words earning him back slaps from the others. Jack remained passive, calm. Detached somehow, as if he planned to process all the trauma he'd seen and inflicted later. I made it a point to look him up after all this craziness was over, perhaps help him unpack all the emotional baggage with some kind of ritual. Come to think of it, we were all pack now. Some kind of decompression was clearly in order. Later.

"Eight Pack, let's roll!" Robyn said, and into the keep we went.

You know that sound in a horror movie when the hero confronts the monster in its own den? Like the creak of a giant oak door surrounded by stone walls, stone roofs and stone floors? That "eerie, queerie, you're in for it now, dearie!" kinda sound? Yeah, I hate that sound.

The stillness within was unnatural across that weird checkerboard floor. I mean, we'd just left the battle outside, the unicorns that came with us standing guard. And it was fully ten degrees colder inside that out. Not to the point where your breath steams before your muzzle, but a noticeable cold. A chill ran down my tail. Even the wind knew something wasn't quite cricket here. The draperies had been scortched, either on purpose or by knocked over candle stands. The cooled tallow lay in thick, sick puddles at the base of the curtains, further supporting that fact. The whole places stank of burned cloth and bloodshed.

We werewolves immediately got on all fours, inhaling the scents. Our noses, even in human form, are a couple of million times more powerful than the human one. So scent becomes almost like another vision for us. Another sound. While we were down sniffing it out, the others cast their eyes about, taking in every visual detail they could.

It was all stone, so normally impossible to find scents over. But with all the traffic that had been by, the scents were easy to pick up. Just a matter of sifting through them to figure it out. I was jarred out of my scent search by the sound of Magnus and Paul barring the door with a stout cedar log, effectively locking us in, as well as our prey.

There was blood, lots of it. Some mixed with the wax of overturned candles, the green and white colors mixing together in that weird way that wax has of repelling some fluids and blending with others. It was clear that the invaders must have caught some in the chamber off guard, for it seemed that the candle holders had been turned into impromptu weapons in some cases. The curtains fared no better for it, either ripped to shreds, burnt to a crisp or soaked in blood. And in a few cases, all three.

My boyfriend, ever the master of understatement broke the infernal quiet first, of course. "Looks like de party happened heah, alright."

"I dislike this party," Magnus put forth, speaking in Garou.

"I have a bad feeling about this," Jack said under his breath. Everyone turned to look at him. "I thought it needed to be said," he said, shrugging.

"Wherever the acti on is, it isn't here," I said, following a scent trail. Someone wearing a lot of perfume put up a heck of a fight here, and either perished or was heavily wounded. I get the impression that the Changeling who left blood from the splatter I was following took out at least one of the beings she fought.

"Let's go. Jack, Mags, you're with me," Robyn said, taking over the situation. Kay Neth rolled his eyes, it seeming very noticeable with his black eye make-up. His silvery eyes practically glowed in the diminished light. He nodded for us to follow him into the left wing of the main floor. I tapped blades with Nick as we separated.

The left wing seemed to be a combination administration and barracks wing. The right side of the place had offices, ransacked and burnt. Whoever came through here had a serious love of fire and didn't mind sharing that love. A lot. But there was some kind of records room, mostly burnt up; a cloak room, heavy with the smell of scorched fur (a smell I know only too well); and some kind of locked armory, with the lock still intact. Here and there down the hallway were suits of armor, thin as glass but still intact, save for the fact that they were scattered to the floor. I bet they looked proud before being knocked aside, standing guard at regular intervals.

The corridor bent right, entering more of the barracks area, and a common dining hall kind of thing. It dominated both sides of this hallway, up into the high ceilings. We seemed to walk forever, checking every room as we went, until we came to a bulkhead with its own double doors, forcibly pulled off their hinges as if by some powerful, well, force.

You know that creepy feeling when the hero of a horror movie enters the abandoned hospital? That sense of never ending dread and merciless, crushing pain and death? Yeah, well, rooms beyond the bulkhead were clearly set up as a hospital, complete with all the modern stone age amenities. Well, iron age, as it were. Middle ages at best. I was left with the feeling that the kind of medicine practiced here was at a higher standard than it seemed, but only under professional magical medical care. Hopefully we wouldn't need to find out.

The hospital rooms were a mess with spilled fluids, shattered glass vessels, spilt blood and bandages cast about like Halloween decorations. Thankfully, no spiders. Trash filled the place, as if it were a school about to let out for summer. I didn't like passing the overturned beds and knocked over cabinets. Even the high vaulted ceilings seemed filled with trash below and shadows above.

"Hooligans," Sven said beside me in Garou. "Always they must destroy a place, never search it efficiently."

"Yeah, well, I don't think they were looking to keep things neat and tidy, Fulcrum." Kenny brightened, realizing something. "Hey, did you j ust speak in werewolf, yet I heard you in English?"

"It's the pack bond," I explained. "Instant translation between all of us. You don't really hear and know the language as much as you translate our meaning."

"Oh cool. We'll have to. explore more of that," Kenny said. "What other effects does the pack bond have?"

"It is hard to describe. If you focus on it and a particular member, you can almost send through it."

"What, like, telepathy?"

"Very similar to that," I said. "Although usually that's for experienced packmates. It may take years to learn to listen for that."

"Good to know. Maybe some of my powers will mix with that."

"Packmates!" Sven whispered as we reached the end of the corridor. Despite finding the place a mess and the hospital a creepy wreck, the entire wing had been a loss as far as searching for bad guys went. At the end, however, we saw the first sign of the enemy's presence.

We rounded onto a wide staircase going up on one side and down on the other. Both showed signs of battle. A nick from a sharp blade here in the wall, scorched walls indicating the use of some fiery attack there on a marble banister rail, even the frozen column of one of the Icicles, knocked over on its side. And through it all, the floor gouged unmercifully as though by something very heavy with a lot of tiny, piercing feet.

"I'm beginning to agree with Jack," Kay Neth said, looking at the staircase. "Yup, definitely a bad feeling about this." He stooped to investigate the marks in the floor. The limited light in the gloomy hallway made searching difficult.

"It stinks of the Wyrm here. What do you see, Speaks With Water?" Sven asked, following pack mission protocol.

"Let's take a look." I concentrated, let the Gnosis flow and put my left hand over my eye, the middle finger pulled back so I could look through. With a shift of my senses, I looked through my fingers, picking out everything mystical. So I could see the residue of magic effects recently done and sort of tell a few things about the energy.

Neat trick, huh?

"A fight took place here with magic, although I can't tell if it was spirit magic or spells. Or Glamour cantrips. Someone was flinging fire. Offensively."

"Okay, well that could be any number of things from a salamander, a mini drake, a chimera… Literally dozens of possibilities among creatures."

"No, this feels different than a natural power use. This magic was strong, focused and worked. If this had been some fire spitting creature, it would feel more green than red." I looked over and saw Sven and Kay Neth both giving me that anime confused look. "I mean, more biological than energy based."

"Ooooooh," Kay Neth responded. Sven simply regarded me from behind soulful eyes.

I pressed on. "Point is, whoever was using fire was casting it, in some manner."

"Robyn can do that. I t's called Pyretics. If he focuses enough energy he can actually sling fire as if it were a solid object, held in his hands," Kay Neth elaborated. "It could be something another Changeling could do."

"This makes more sense now. I shall use Scent of the True Form." And Sven began sniffing around the stairwell, first going down a bit, then up.

"Wow, you werewolves really go big into scent."

"It's a metaphor. The spirit Gift allows him to know what someone or something is, generally. It is useful as a way to detect shape shifters, different types of supernaturals and stuff," I spoke. "And yeah, we use scent to describe a lot of things. And mark places we go. It's a canine thing."

"Uhm, metaphor," Kay Neth, said, nodding as Sven went up the staircase to the first landing going up and turned. He seemed to be looking around at something, but it was so hard to judge his moods. His expression was so neutral.

"Brothers, I think what we are looking for is giant spiders that they used fire to herd into trap positions," he said, keeping his voice neutral.

"What makes you say that?" Kay Neth said, still crouched. And then a thin but very syrupy fluid dripped onto the shoulder of his tabard, causing us both to look up. "Oh," he said. My gaze traveled up as well and I wished I hadn't.

"Oh," I mirrored his words, then we both said "Shit," together.

Overhead, hanging from strings, just barely visible in the overhead shadows, were four large spiders each about the size of a pony, bearing the red hourglass of the deadly Black Widow spider on their abdomen. Their mouths were slavering with long strings of digestive juices, hanging down. A chittering sound came from the stairwell, both up and down, and repeated down the hallway.


"Yes, Speaks With Water?"

"Is there only one up there?"

"Presently." The danglers began to lower themselves. "At least the one."

"We are heading your way then."

"That sounds not good," Sven said.

"Well there's four," Kay Neth said, as one more came up from the basement stairs, "make that five down here. You got a better plan?"

"I cannot fault your wisdom, Kay Neth."

And that's when one of them choose to spit. I kicked, booting Kay Neth back against the wall opposite the stairs as the acrid green venom went "spotch!" right where he had stood before. Deluge in my hand in an instant and I swatted at one spider as he tracked down from on high. It picked up its leg and causing me to miss, but by that time its brothers had come down out of the rafters, paying out webbing behind themselves like cables.

Suddenly, Sven was there, atop the first one down. He held on with claw and paw, scrambling to find purchase, but the shiny black carapace was tough, and thicker than it looked.

It bought me a moment, and I used it, spinning in a circle to keep them back. A snap-hiss beh ind me told me Kay Neth had similarly activated his lightsaber, Glimmer. The silvery blade wove a pattern of defense as he moved my way, spiders closing in from all sides.

"Why did it have to be fuckin' spiders?" Kay Neth shouted, dancing over one enormous arachnoid limb and hacking down. Up on the first one down, Sven was sliding around, unable to find a place to poke a set of claws in. That armor was no joke, man.

I stepped closer to the first one and let him have a slash at his front two legs, burning through them at the first joint like a hot knife through butter. It pitched forward, pitching Sven forward as well. He landed in a heap, too close to the spider's mouth parts. Reacting on instinct, I pointed my weapon in at its mouth and shoved. It backed away, something flappy in the general mouth area making the blade sizzle and pop.

"I think we've made them mad," Kay Neth said, making an attack against many legs that seemed to be partly lightsaber resistant. Sven lit his orange blade, Stone Cutter, and beat aside two strikes from the one which came up below. It was hard to get a good slice on them, since their legs came at us from above, making their tiny, clawed feet difficult to hit, and the armored legs thin, spearing targets.

"To the stairs!" Sven shouted, doing a complicated leaping strike Robby had called the "falling leaf." I tossed my saber up to Kay Neth's free hand and he caught it on the fly, parrying two strikes away from himself. I shifted to Hispo form and dove under Kay's legs. Now he was a mounted two saber wielder! I ran right at one spider and jumped high over it. Sven flanked us as we reached the stairs, only to have another one come right at us. We were cut off, outnumbered and trapped.

One spider spit venom at me, burning away tiny holed in my tabard. Similar drops landed on Kay's arm, causing him to cry out, even as he batted away incoming strikes. These creatures were getting desperate and starting to bring their fangs lower to where they might bite us, or smother us with toxic goo, whichever came first. We needed an advantage, quick.

"Go down!" I shouted.

"Are you crazy," Sven shouted, beating back another overhead strike.

"No, do it!" Kay Neth prodded. "Can't be any worse than up here!" I ran towards the lower stairs, sliding to a stop. Kay slid off my back as I shifted back to Crinos form, tossing me both sabers, drawing his Ikwla. With the yawning chasm of the tunnel down behind us, Kay Neth, Sven and I stood our ground, forcing the spiders into a position where they had to face us only two at a time.

For an interminable moment, we were stalemated. Four blades versus five mostly intact spiders and one wounded one. Then one in the back seemed to realize there was a wounded one… and turned on him, violently biting into the injured spider's bod y just behind the head. The wounded spider shrieked and tried to fight the attacker off, pushing with its middle legs. But the attacker was fully latched on. Venom spurted out with caustic effect, and the victim sputtered against the attack.

"That's charming," I said, beating back attacks from the eight-legged freaks. "We have no leverage here!"

"Get ready to attack!" Sven said, fighting up.

There are moments when that pack bond becomes as clear as daylight through a magnifying glass. When everything suddenly comes into crystal focus and for a fraction of a second, you see the great mystery in its entirety. Such moments are fleeting and rare. But when it happens, inspiration, beautiful inspiration. Perfection.

Sven shifted to Lupus form, his lightsaber tucked into his mouth, and ran. He didn't run away from the enemy. He didn't run towards them. He ran under them, his glowing orange blade lighting the way. As he ran, his blade sank into the legs of one spider, one by one taking out an entire side. The creature collapsed and shrieked in agony. Sven's run continued up the wall on the farther side, up four strides as a wolf and then he turned, transforming again to Crinos, bringing his weapon around. He slammed into the back of one of the huge things and slid down, Stone Cutter taking a deep bite into an armored exoskeleton.

Kay Neth held his strike until the spiders were distracted by Sven. He jumped up and used all this strength to overhead strike at the nearest spider, which had partly turned. His Ikwla had greater cutting strength than Glimmer since it was two handed, and he managed to hack off the middle two limbs of a spider, right where it met his body.

I also jumped forward, ran right at the wall to my side and up it, jumping about even with the spider's belly, and hacked both Glimmer and Deluge through. The spider collapsed in the middle, his guts spilling out onto the floor, his body soon to follow. It also landed partly on me, guts and venom from the creatures mouth parts covering my arms and shoulders. I landed in a roll, canceling the blades and came to my feet near Kay Neth. Sven ran right at us and we all ran for the upper stairs, taking them two and three at a time. At the landing we risked a look back.

Three of the spiders were either horribly mutilated or damaged, another feasted on one, and the remaining one was about to make a meal of his neighbors. The three of us remained on the landing a moment as that moment of savagery played itself out. As one of the spiders bit, with a loud, wet crunch, into his wounded companion, Kay Neth resheathed his Ikwla and I handed him Glimmer's hilt. That squishing sound made my fur crawl.

We cautiously resumed taking the stairs, this time much more sedately. Sven peered around the top of the steps. "I realized they would att ack each other if given an opportunity. They are cannibals."

"Good job, big guy," I said. My body felt stiff and I had to sit down at the top of the stairs.

"You good?" Kay Neth asked me, and I shuddered, shaking from inside.

"Toxin," I grunted. "It'll pass." I looked around at the next floor before us. "Another corridor," I shuddered. "If the lower floor was the hospital and barracks, what is this level?"

"The hostel," Kay Neth offered, as I shook through my body rejecting the toxins. "Some Changelings keep apartments here. By staying close to the Balefire, they can heal, they can recover from chimerical wounds, they can even go into a sort of stasis, basically sleeping for long periods of time."

"Days?" I asked.

"Oh, easily decades," he replied. "Perhaps centuries."

"That's wild."

"Indeed. Clearly there are many unearthly ways to how your people do things," Sven said, coming back after a brief recon. "Do you think there are any that old here?"

"No, this Freehold is only about 400 years old, and it only became under Kingdom of Apples control about 280 years ago."

Sven and I exchanged a look, me shrugging my shoulders. The chills passed and I stood, much steadier.

"Okay, so anything we should be looking for up here?"

"More spiders," Sven said, shuddering. "I hate spiders."

"I definitely hate THOSE spiders," Kay Neth said emphatically. Sven looked off, as if thinking deeply. To be honest, it is a look he gets a lot.

"Hostel rooms implies that we might find some noncombatants, possibly sheltering." His brows pushed together. "If we find them, how will we protect them while still maintaining the bar on the door?"

"We could have them stay in their room?" I said, guessing.

"It would be the best," Kay agreed. "But they could also be partisans."

"That isn't a new faction, I hope."

"No. Just the usual assholes we've faced. Monsters. Red Caps. Dautain." He shrugged. "You know."

"You are remarkably calm, Kay Neth," Sven observed. He looked up, down the hallway. "It seems this hallway is not stacked on the one below."

"They are not. This level is over the stables to the outside of the castle."

"Any connection to the main hall?"

"No, Cody. Well, other than the way back. Do you have an idea?" he said, his gray eyes shining.

"I saw no stables," Sven noticed.

"It's partly below ground. I'm thinking that the stairway going down led there." Kay tilted his head. "You think that Korbesh may try to use the stables as an escape?"

"No, but that's a valid point, too. I'm just wondering if there isn't something like a secret passage to the main hall." Kay Neth and Sven both looked at me like I'd said something rude. I shook my head to clear it. "Don't mind me. I'm always over thinking things. Let's just clear this wing and join the others."

"What about the spiders?" Sven asked.

"I have a feeling they wil l have enough of a meal to digest and wont be interested in us. On the way back, we'll be better prepared. Besides," he said, hefting Glimmer, "we know what works against them now."

"Two somethings," Sven said, darkly. "Our enemies used fire to control them. Next time through, I say we burn the verdamit bugs!"

"Now on that we agree," Kay Neth smiled, and I saw Kenny's image briefly shine though. "Let's check the rooms for survivors."

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