Timeline: April 26th, 2008
Ann-Marie went out into the woodlands soon after her return. The burns from her first attempt at daring the sun since her returning the ring were healed, thanks to he training in the discipline of Resilience. She took wolf form and sought out her bestial lover.
She found him late, but not before a curious and harrowing encounter with a massive, scarred wolf. It was huge, even larger than Ironclaw when he was in his true wolf form, and as she remembered back upon the encounter, seemed somehow familiar. It had lurked in the mountains to the northwest, where she’d wandered in search of Ironclaw, and in the dark of night it had seemed to sense and recognize her. But it was rapidly gone, vanished up the flanks of the great mountain upon winds constantly howled. The pack rarely went there, as this mountain, the tallest in New England, was renown for its punishing weather and nearly constant, hurricane-force winds.
But that was hours ago. Now she found what was a group of hikers camping well off the beaten trail. They were huddled near their campfire and certainly looked skittish. A small rustling as her foot crushed a dry leaf seemed to terrify them and that’s how she recognized what the problem was. They were behaving like prey and humans only did that when something they didn’t understand was stalking them.
Taking the form of a Carrion Crow, she took to the air to look around her. Ann-Marie’s senses were very keen, as a Crow or Wolf even more so; however by going from tree to tree she hoped to espy what had frightened the hikers so.
It seemed the startling flapping of large wings in night further terrified the campers. They began arguing among themselves over the wisdom of breaking camping and making a run for town, or trying to hole up in their flimsy nylon tents which surely offered no protection from claws and fangs or perhaps. This then led to a rapid discussion as to whether or not the fire was protecting them. However, she saw no evidence of what was disturbing the campers.
Not approaching any closer and not seeing the cause of their fear, Ann-Marie considered returning to human form and simply asking them. For a brief time she watched them, this theater of fear. They could simply be frightened being off the trail so far. Perhaps they had seen one of the Pack or another werewolf, this being well within Ironclaw’s grounds she thought that that may be likely. With that scarred wolf about, even the sight of such a predator in the area may have given them pause.
She decided to back away a bit, resuming the form of a wolf and padding off a distance, looking for tracks in the area. It was, of course, difficult to spot anything like that in the dead of night, but she thought she caught scents of other predators and was about to investigate further when she heard the bellowing, bone-chilling roar of a beast in the night. It was joined by two other roars and then there was screaming.
As she rushed back toward the camp screams were snuffed out one by one while the surviving screams raised their crescendo as mindless panic set in. Finally, the last scream was silenced, too, leaving only the wet sound of cooling, bloody meat hitting the earth.
“Great,” she thought, “just what Ironclaw needs, park rangers scouring his territory looking for dead kids.” She turned and returned deftly to the campsite, wary of what she might find, yet prepared to retreat should she be overmatched.
“You shouldn’t be here,” said a low, male voice behind her. It echoed strangely in suddenly dead silent wood. “This place is sacred ground.” Ann-Marie looked to her left and saw a huge man with a rifle watching her intently. It was Ironclaw.
She shifted back to human form, “Good to see you too. I assume you want me to leave now, I came looking for you.”
He smelled of blood and that which was on his hands was still wet.
Hearing no answer from him, and believing she knew what had happened, she turned and began walking away. Pausing she asked, “Why?”
He was there, keeping pace with her. “For the same reason I told you you should not be here,” he stated. “Those despoilers wouldn’t take a hint. We dislike having to destroy them, but they left us no choice. My people will deal with the remains.”
He put a bloodied hand upon her shoulder and stopped them both. He made her look him in the eye before her spoke again. “You have not forgotten you are in werewolf territory, have you?” The words he chose carried a lot of meaning in themselves; his eyes looked intently at her, expecting her to understand even more.
“I have not forgotten,” she said in answer, “I never forget. I know you didn’t want to kill them, that I understand and believe. But my sweet, I understand this is your territory, a territory you said I could hunt in and pass through to conduct my ceremonies beyond it. Many people hike in these woods in and around town as well. What is special about this very place that made them targets of destruction? Don’t you think they will be missed?”
Her reaction was typical of Kindred, though Ironclaw could not know it. Among her people this could be seen as a gross Masquerade breech. Or, perhaps the sealing of a breech. Only Ironclaw’s answers could let her know which. But werewolves are not vampires she thought, this must be cultural, spiritual. Something sacred. But how can I live with this, my lover, with blood on his hands. Many of the Circle are far crueler, though she had always walked a path embracing her humanity. Killing for sacrifice, defense, or retribution. Never murder without reason. ‘He MUST have one’ she thought.
She added, “My friend, what did they do? If for my safety and understanding at least. Please tell me.”
“You asked a lot of questions. Choose one you want an answer to the most,” he said.
“I suppose I’m full of them,” she answered, “What did they do that forced this?”
He frowned, obviously disappointed in her choice of question. “I already answered that question. They did not heed our warning.” It was clear he was waiting for something specific. It was possible he knew very well what it was Ann wanted to know, but he seemed to be prepared to answer only one question regarding the situation. He was testing her, gauging her based upon what she might say in the next moment. There was an electric feeling in the air, a sense of poised violence and emotion. Something nagged at Ann-Marie’s soul. If only she could pin it down! What was said, she knew, could change everything.
“Why is this place sacred to you Ironclaw?” she asked, hoping he would share with her.
He looked at her for a moment, apparently deciding whether or not her question was the correct one. He must have approved for visibly seemed to relax. Began walking and she had to hurry to keep up, as he seemed to expect her to come with him as he led the way away from the area. Interestingly, that strange, electric feeling had not changed at all and Ann-Marie realized that it was not Ironclaw who exuded this presence. It was the land itself.
“It is a sacred place because it is a place of transformation. It is not a place for the likes of men or any others that are not caretakers of the wilds,” he explained.
“Understood.” the deaths of the mortals possibly seemed perfectly rational from this point of view, though from her own they seemed needless. There must have been a way to drive them away. Fear only made them huddle up. But there was no point bringing this up to Ironclaw. That same part of him she admired, felt attracted to, was the same beast that did this. Though without her veneer of humanity, would she be any different. Or perhaps worse?
She continued as they walked, “I came here searching for you. I wanted to see you before I left.”
“Again? You travel a lot for a person whose kind is alleged to remain in one place for most of their existence,” he observed.
“I’m the exception. Well one of them anyway. I won’t be gone long, just finally finding the time to scout out my domain. Well, more accurately to find out if there are any challengers to it, which I doubt. As you said, most of us stick to one place and that is one with a lot of people,” she replied.
“What defines your domain?” he asked.
“So far, from outside of Concord north to the border, but it has nothing to do with werewolves, mages or mortals even. It is, I suppose where a vampire hangs her hat. In this area, I aspire to be the top Kindred, or better yet, be the only Kindred. Kine are few enough out here for one of us.”
Ironclaw seemed puzzled by her desire. “There may be few people for you eat up here, but by looking for others of your kinds, will they not also find you? What if there a several of them? Is it not better to have a pack of vampires under you first?”
She thought about it, “Well, I don’t want them to find me first, if they exist which I highly, highly doubt. As far as legions of undead at my command, well it isn’t like the movies. It takes a great deal of will and patience to create another kindred, in fact we really shouldn’t. It is for my particular group a gift reserved for the few. Also, practically speaking, all of northern New Hampshire barely supports me safely and the Honeywells made it quite clear I am the only one of my people welcomed here, for now at least. Perhaps Jesse in the future could qualify, perhaps not.”
If Ironclaw cared about Jesse, he might have been disturbed at the casual mention of her possible death and resurrection as one of the Undead, but he didn’t. He didn’t understand how anyone might choose that, and suspected most did not. Still, even being one of the undead was probably better than being mortal. At least the wolfbloods had the Uratha as their allies.
Ironclaw stated, “I didn’t mean create new vampires. I know still have that agreement between yourself and the town that there would be no more vampires here. But you do know a couple that used to be in Concord, yes?” He’d gotten the details from Lyla a few months back and remembered well the vampiric resources Lyla knew of. “If they are still there, are they counted among your allies? If so, you could make an agreement with them to become a pack. Not to live here, mind you, but to come together when the need arises. Then you wouldn’t have to face unknown vampires alone.”
“Good point,” she answered, “I had made some initial inroads in that direction not long ago. In fact, I was hoping to go there sometime soon for other reasons. Things have been a whirlwind lately with the attack and then me being out of it and then the Chaska thing. Perhaps before Lyla and I go on our trip I could swing down there and put out some feelers, if they are still there. They were not sure they wanted to stay.”
“The lupa is going with you?” He looked thoughtful, then frowned.
“I’m hoping to ask her. Once I had your leave to ask her I meant to, but Chaska’s situation came first,” she said. Looking him the eyes with admiration (and endeavoring to forget the massacre of the day), she followed with, “I would rather have had you come with me. But I can’t in good conscience even ask you to leave your pack. I’m not that type of woman…or vampire.”
“Well,” he mused, “she knows the usual risks and already has leave to have her adventures.”
“I do wish you could go, but I know your duties are paramount. Perhaps someday we can take a journey together?” she said, stroking his strong shoulders.
“Maybe,” he grunted.
“You don’t want to?” she wondered.
“If I’m not here,” he said, “then who will defend my territory from the Pure I now suspect are taking position south of us and north of the Northlands pack?”
“They are the enemy I suspect? Is there anything I can do to help?”, she said.
He shook his head. “I don’t think so. The war with the Pure is… complicated.”
“Well you know I’m always here for you. These last few months have been wonderful. If I can ever help you or ease you burden, you know I’ll be there. Like when you offered to deal with Jesse if necessary. You have no idea what that meant to me,” she said.
“I’ve had to deal with things like that for a long time. We have those humans who serve us, too, you know,” he remarked, not realizing that it was likely she did not know.
“Really?” she said, adding, “Is that why Rey, Honoré the bartender, is so close to the pack?”
“No,” he said. “Rey is a different case entirely.” He looked at her curiously. “You mentioned this Jesse girl. I know she acts as an agent for your art sales. But why her? Why not some agent you never have to meet in person? Why risk revealing your secrets keeping a mortal so close that you share a lair with her?”
“It is a risk, I know. The agent bit is besides the point. She is just the kind of woman who could, in time, become Kindred. These things I do with her, plus the tasks I give her are, in reality, simply tests. If she keeps the secrets, then I know I can proceed to the next step. In any case, she figured out what I am, and in this town that seems to be more common than what makes me comfortable.”
She paused. “If she fails, she dies. Simple as that. I don’t want that, but…well more than most you seem to understand it. Others won’t.”
“Sooner or later, everyone fails a test,” Ironclaw mused. “So, her demise is inevitable. But you seem to be saying you might take her life, but make her a vampire like you. Is this what she desires, as well?”
“I don’t know. We’ll see. She seems fascinated by vampires and doesn’t fear them. And there is something about her, well some in myself I see in her. It matters how she fails. The truly important test is one of honor. Does she keep her word and not spread what I tell her or betray my secrets? As far as her becoming like me, well her potential is high. I could have already enslaved her to my will if I chose to, but slaves make lousy students.”
“Students? Are you teaching her something?” he asked.
“Not so much yet. But as you guessed she could be kindred someday,” she answered.
“You can be honest with me, you know, speak plainly,” he said. “But if I were to guess, I’d say you are wanting to indoctrinate her into your cult, yes? And from there, convince her to become a vampire. From what you’ve stated, I gather that you gain power by leading such a cult and the more powerful the members are — your followers are — the more powerful you feel in turn.”
He shook his head. “Such social battles are too confusing to me. I leave you to them, but with one note about this Jesse of yours. I heard that certain members of my pack seem to have taken a liking to her, as well as the mayor’s daughter and heir, Tara Honeywell. If you decide you must kill her, do so carefully — and don’t tell me about it if you do. At least get her out of town before you do. There are too many resources available to investigators in this place. Jesse’s too entrenched now to remove without repercussions and I do not wish to play such games with the locals when my time is better spent in the forest. These things are best left up to you, anyway, I think.”
“You are correct in a few ways. In reality, I need someone who can serve me. Do as I need when I cannot do so and cover for me during the day. It’s just that I’m so used to keeping secrets. It’s hard to open up to anyone. I don’t want to kill Jesse. And as of yet, I have no reason. I have told her very little, perhaps more than some know but little,” she said to him. “Are you saying now that you won’t take care of her if she become a threat, like you said? If so, I understand.” Ann-Marie began looking a bit distressed.
He nodded. “It’s too late now. Whereas before it would not have been an issue since she was an outsider and not a resident, now she has befriended some of my own pack not to mention prominent members of the community.
“But you can travel away from here when I cannot. You can take her some place and take care of it quietly. If I had to murder her here in this town, the Honeywells would not let it go — nor would my own pack members and I will not risk a division over some girl I have no particular reason to be involved with anyway.”
“Yet should she freely choose to become a Votarie, Ghoul or even Kindred, would they interfere and fight me. I don’t need that. I’m sorry my love, I overstepped using terms you don’t know. As I said, I understand your situation. For your edification, a votarie is a member of my cult, and ghoul is a bound servant and, well you know what a kindred is.”, she answered.
He shrugged. “I couldn’t guess if they’d interfere with her choices. I suppose it would depend on whether they knew it happened, and what exactly occurred when it happened.”
“This place is so complicated. I thought once I was away from my kind, the politics would be easier. It is worse. You know, no one would mess with my territory, mortals and animals under my command back in the day. Now, it’s all a mystery.” Despite her outward calm she seemed in her eyes frustrated with all the emotion of the last week, the blood of tonight, and more.
He stopped walking and turned to face Ann-Marie. His brow was furrowed in concern. “Is someone or something threatening your domain? What is wrong, Ann-Marie?”
“No, my domain isn’t threatened, not as long as I have strong allies. It’s many things really.” She avoided the bloodletting of the night and the daylight ring to go right to the heart of the matter, “For one, so many people here know what I am. It bothers me fundamentally and goes against one of Kindred kind’s greatest laws, what we call,” she hesitated looking up at his eyes, then choosing to trust him she continued, “the Masquerade. That is the root of it all. Yet, I sometimes love it all the same. It’s a relief too. Especially sharing with you.”
He smiled and it seemed to warm the chilly features he’d worn since the slaughter. “That’s something I can relate to. My people have an Oath, something we all must take when we accept Mother Luna’s blessing.” This was the first time he’d mentioned the name of Luna so openly in her presence. “One of the strictures specifically says, The herd shall not know. What this means is that people should not know of us. Nothing about us. This is not for our own protection but for the protection of mankind because should they learn enough about us to become a threat, our hand would be forced to protect ourselves. It would be genocide. There is but one breach of our secret that came from ancient times; that of the vulnerability to silver. While Mother Luna shields us from the full wrath of her elemental symbol through her forgiveness, it still causes us great harm. But in order to remain free of the great part of her wrath for an ancient wrong, we must keep our Oath of the Moon.
“But what does it mean? Like your Masquerade it means that we must keep people from discovering our secrets. However, we have discovered that when an individual is exposed to the supernatural for a long enough time, they cease to be merely members of the “herd”. They become something more. Perhaps scarred but strong, like Honoré. Or perhaps psychically awakened, like John Beckett. Or perhaps they truly awaken and transcend the boundary of mere humanity like Michael and Ramiel. Or perhaps they slip past the gates of Death and return, like you.
“The curse of Luna has not fallen about our heads. The Herd still does not know. What this means is that the people we surrounded ourselves with here, they are not that herd. In fact, this entire town has been through so much, there may not be anyone who doesn’t believe in people like us. Yet they live side by side with us. If we are sharks, they are like pilot fish; not prey, but rather something that serves a useful purpose. They do not threaten us or hinder us, but instead they depend on us. And that’s what makes Eldon Well totally unique in all the world.
“So fear no more for your Masquerade. If there is one place it is safe, it is with those you know and trust here in Eldon Well.”
“That is good to know. Being with my brother again and my new friends and you; well it has been rewarding, despite or because of the struggles along the way. The goddess challenges and… rewards,” she said with a reassuring smile, her arms moving up behind his neck, eyes locked on his.
A deep rumble in Ironclaw’s chest foreshadowed a rising libido. He slipped his arms around her waist. “I don’t know this goddess of yours, but if don’t mind, I’ll have a bit of reward from you now as I’m all challenged out for the night.”
“Oh, the Goddess is always part of me lover, and tonight you may have any reward you like…” said Ann-Marie letting go her facade of humanity and embracing the sexual beast within….