Timeline: April 29th, 2008
Ann-Marie had intended to visit the small towns north of Eldon Well to establish whether or not kindred lurked in these areas. It was doubtful, but if she was to be the Prince, Baron, Top Vampire, or what-have-you in the area, blessed by the Hierophant of Albany and the knowledge of the Prince of Portland, she needed to case the area. To do it right, she needed help. So, off to the Blood and Brew she went…
“Hello, Ann-Marie,” Rey said with a smile from behind the bar. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Evening Rey. Yes, a Cabernet would suit me fine. How are you this evening?” the pale woman asked.
“Pretty good,” Rey replied as she looked at the wine stock. “Yourself?”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Ann-Marie replied.
“Sorry, doesn’t look like we’ve got any Cabernet,” Rey said with an apologetic smile. “We do have Fat Bastard Shiraz though. It’s really nice. I bought a bottle of it myself a couple of weeks ago. Will that do?”
“Certainly. Of course, thank you,” she answered. “If I may,” she continued, “have you seen Lyla this evening? I would like to talk to her about a few things.”
Rey indicated the corner of the bar.
Lya wasn’t working tonight, but simply seated at a table having a drink amidst a number of patrons. Or rather, a lot of drinks. Ann saw there was a line of six shot glasses up-ended in front of her. Across the table was a burly fellow, a local, who also had a half-dozen shot glasses emptied in front of him. Lyla’s lip curled in a half smile as she held another glass of pale liquor in her hand. The big man held a shot glass, too, said, “Cheers!” and they slammed another shot together. A small group of men that had gathered around yelled a hurrah, and Ann could see money change hands.
The vampire loved contests like this, though she knew Lyla had an unfair edge on the poor fellow, burly or no. Whispering Ann-Marie said, “Rey, its almost sad to see that guy thinking he might win, yet with us knowing he has no chance.” She continued watching. Interrupting seemed rude.
Rey shrugged. “He was warned.”
The battle of stamina drew on as the two contestants ordered up another two shots of whiskey each. The speech of both Lyla and her huge friend was fuzzy as they did so, much to the amusement of the patrons. But they clinked shot glasses and downed another shot. Somebody laughed and wondered if they needed to get a stomach pump ready.
They let the drinks settle and Lyla was obviously swaying in her chair. The big man suddenly noticed her state and began laughing uproariously, sensing victory at hand. Lyla, in response blew a bit of air in his face. His eyes rolled up, he teetered, and then spilled onto the floor where he immediately began to snore. The patrons roared with laughter at the victory and cheered her on as she struggled to maintain her footing.
“Pony up, boys!” she said triumphantly. “It’s ladies night tonight!” Again, money changed hands, but this time a pile of it was left in front of the swaying bar manager.
Ann-Marie excused herself politely to Rey and stepped over to Lyla, “Hey girl, congratulations…you’re drunk. I suppose this is a bad time to talk about a hiking trip I want to take.
Lyla laughed, “No, no, itsh a great dhime! Jusht gimme a moment to sober up.” Lyla closed her eyes and grew very still for a long moment. When she opened them again, her eyes were less dilated.
The patrons had mostly gone on about their own business so while Lyla made wads of cash lying on the table disappear onto her person, she said, “I don’t like to do that in a contest. That’s cheating and a waste of energy.” She confided, “So I tend to only do that afterwards.”
“Sounds fair enough. He almost looked like he could take you. Anyway, I was wondering if you would be up for a short trip after May 1st. It would be about a week going from bar to bar, town to town from here to the Canada border with forays into Vermont and Maine.”
“Any particular reason why?” Lyla asked.
She took a seat next to Lyla and whispered so none could hear, “I’m looking for any of my kind Lyla, to make sure I’m the only one in this area or failing that, to establish either a rapport or dominance over them. I doubt there are, but I can’t yet do that alone. I need help, in particular, yours.”
Lyla considered. “I strongly doubt there are any of your kind up there,” she said. “The White Mountains National Park stretches for miles and miles up there. The next biggest town would be, uh… Berlin, I think but that’s even smaller than Concord. Like a fraction of the size of Concord and Concord doesn’t even qualify for ‘City’ status under federal rules. The park area to the north has a lot of wilds in it and the immediate area is under the purview of the Northlands pack. Beyond that? I would it’s probably Pure territory. Are you sure you really want to go up there? I could just make some inquiries.”
“Lyla, I want to be the lead…of my kind…of this territory, even if it is a territory of one. If you could make some inquiries, it would be helpful,” she answered. “But also, it might be fun.”
Lyla nodded. “I’ll put some feelers out there.” She considered the dangers of wandering out there looking for supernatural activity and trying to discover if it was vampiric or not. “Yeah, we could learn some really valuable stuff. Or get into serious trouble.” She rolled it over in her mind. The temptation was there; they’d already encountered some very fascinating neighbors last fall. “All right,” she said with a sudden grin. “I’ll do it. But only if you agree we go get help if we get in over our heads somewhere.”
“Fair enough. As I understand it, your kind are somewhat territorial, as much as mine, though in a far different way. How do we deal with those of your kind we encounter? And who are the Northlands Pack and what are the Pure? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I thought it might be good to know whom we might encounter.”, said Ann-Marie.
“No, not somewhat territorial. Extremely territorial. Our territory defines us and reflects who we are at the same time,” Lyla told her in a very quiet tone so her words would not be overheard. “The Northlands Pack are friendly,” Lyla said. “And likely to be helpful. The Pure are those who believe themselves to be of tribes that remained loyal to Father Wolf, father of all Uratha. They claim to have disagreed with the five tribes of the Forsaken who, seeing that Father Wolf had grown weak and sick, killed him and took on his role. We were only following our natures, what Father Wolf taught us. But the Pure call us traitors.
“The Pure are man, Ann. Far more than there are Forsaken now. The Pure kill anything and everything they find disagreeable to them or their philosophy. They do not attempt to live with mortals at all and most will not even enter large cities. They lurk out there in the wilderness, in the rural areas, dominating everything they can. They are killers, but to the Forsaken, they are far worse. They inflict horrors you cannot imagine upon the Forsaken. They are Unforgiven by Luna, while the Forsaken alone carry her blessing. They bear the full curse spoken by Father Wolf in his dying scream and they bear it proudly, hatefully, spitefully.
“But yes, I will risk being captured by them to help you, Ann-Marie. I am Irraka first and Bone Shadow second. It is my duty to go where others of my tribe cannot, to seek truth in the Shadow, and to explore and deal with the supernatural on behalf of my people.”
By the time she’d finished speaking, Ann-Marie came to realize that Lyla, in that twenty seconds of speech, had just told her more about the Uratha than Ironclaw had the entire time she’d known him.
“Thank you,” said Ann-Marie, slightly stunned. “Thank you for trusting me. I suppose we shall avoid these Pure as much as possible then.”
Lyla smiled wryly, knowing she’d thrown some terms at Ann-Marie that she probably had no idea of their meaning. She left it to the vampire, however, to ask if she wanted to know.
“May I ask something about your beliefs?”, said Ann-Maire
“If you like,” Lyla said with a smile. Her openness was certainly curious. Was she really completely sober? Or had she only a thin veneer of sobriety? It could explain why she was so talkative tonight. As Ann watched Lyla, she could see the lupa was moving very carefully and speaking just as carefully. That could be taken as a sign that Lyla indeed was covering and that she was more drunk than she seemed. This could be a perfect opportunity to get to know her secretive allies better.
“Can I get you a cup of coffee, Lyla?” Rey asked, carafe in hand.
“No thanks,” Lyla shook her head. “Caffeine is bad on my system. But I wouldn’t mind a glass and pitcher of water,” she requested. It was true — the werewolves she’d grown close to seemed to avoid caffeinated anything. Even chocolate was only indulged rarely. But it made sense, ramping up an already hyper-metabolism could have undesirable effects on Uratha temperament as well as harmful to their bodies.
Switching the coffee pot for a large glass of water, Rey hoped that Lyla had caught her veiled warning. She was worried that Ann might learn something she shouldn’t if the alcohol her lupa had consumed loosened her tongue.
As Rey brought the coffee pot back to the bar, Ann-Marie continued, “Are Luna and Father Wolf gods? Are they worshipped?” she asked politely making sure her words were for Lyla alone.
“Father Wolf is dead,” Lyla said a little too sharply. She hadn’t meant it to come out like that, though, so she tried to make up for it by explaining a little. “Depending on who you are talking to, she is. See, the fact is, as I see it, that the gods and the spirits are one and the same. It’s simply a matter of degree. A bit of religion goes a long way here. ” Lyla held up the pitcher of water. “You know how some religions teach that God within us, and his presence can be felt in all things? Replace that word with Spirit and you’ve stumbled onto one of the universe’s greatest truths.
“See, there are spirits in everything. Not all of them are self-aware, or as we call them awake. They are so much so that their existence has spawned whole worlds — which is called Shadow for a reason. Shadow is a spiritual reflection of our world. Or maybe our world is a reflection of theirs. No one can really say for sure.
“Now, when you realize that what people think of as gods and goddesses are truly extremely powerful spirits and not some other kind of entity, you realize the awesome tangibility of their existence. They are really out there. Luna really is the spirit of the Moon — and a manifestation of every moon god and moon goddess there ever was. She’s a creator and destroyer, giver of both life and death. She’s mad in the truest sense of the word, but she’s our Mother.” By using the word ‘our’ Lyla was very clearly speaking of her own people, not that of humankind or Kindred kind or any other kind.
“But make no mistake. The Celestines are very real and they are out there. Fortunately you don’t have to worry, though. They couldn’t give a rats ass about puny happenings here in this world. Now, below them are hundreds of what you would call gods and thousands of lesser spirits but still mind-blowingly powerful ones you would call demigods. Those can and sometimes do meddle in this world. Father Wolf used to protect this world from their predation, but he’s been gone for millenia now. Only we now stand between this world and a total invasion by those in the Spirit World who hunger for the life essence of this world and who would rule Mankind as god-kings.” Again she used that plural possessive, meaning her people, the Uratha — or if Ann-Marie was following accurately, more specifically she was speaking of the Uratha called the Forsaken, the ones that took up Father Wolf’s duty upon his destruction.
“That’s a heavy duty to bear, protecting the world from spirit kind. What if someone wished to contact a spirit? Are all of them so dangerous? My…order, so to speak believes very much in the spiritual side of ourselves, what little there is. Within a few days will be Beltaine, after which I hope to begin our journey. It is a time of purification and transition for my coven. It is possible a spirit may come and ask a favor of me, unlikely, but possible. Would your Pack find this offensive?” she asked.
Rey’s eyes narrowed as she placed the pitcher of water next yo Lyla, but her face was calm and pleasant. The only spirits she could think of that might ask for a favor of the vampire would be spirits of death, and other kinds that would not be permitted in pack territory.
“Can you tell which ones are dangerous or not?” Lyla asked. “Can you tell where a locus is or a verge or a window? It is only at these places a spirit will cross over because otherwise it costs them their very essence to remain in this world any length of time. To remain longer than that requires it to bind itself to a thing or person. And if it binds itself to a person, it will eventually warp that person to become what the spirits desires.
“These are not ghosts, Ann-Marie, where you can at least have a chance of predicting behavior. Spirits do not have human reasoning, goals, or intent. They are utterly alien and care absolutely nothing for human kind — or your kind — because you have nothing to offer it. You cannot directly give it what it desires most. All you can offer is your service. Are you suggesting that your order expresses its spirituality by offering to serve alien gods? Because this is exactly what you are talking about.”
It was a harsh way of putting it, but her words rang with truth.
And Ann-Marie knew the truth of it, though serving the Morrigan WAS her bloodline and covenant’s truth. “I am a priestess. I serve, and willingly. If my goddess, the Morrigan, is of spirit which I think she may well be, she has guided my particular people for thousands of years since before the time of Cuchulain and the Tuatha de Danaan. This ceremony is considered a blessing and it is more likely than not, nothing will happen. If it does, they don’t cross over but remain in twilight. But, I’ll take it outside of known pack territory if it would make you comfortable. I don’t want to cause problems.”
“That would be a little better, but only in the sense that the pack controls or is allied with most of the spirits that remain in our territory here and in Shadow. We’ll know if the rules are violated and our allies will inform us in exchange for being allowed to use essence at the loci in this territory. We are bound by duty to enforce the boundary between spirit and this world and thus would be forced to take action,” Lyla said.
“What do you do as part of your ceremonies?” Rey asked.
“It is an ancient ritual, women only in my particular coven; but in others men are known to be invited. It would take some time to explain, but if you have the time I could go over the basics. Are you interested in the ancient religion Rey?” Ann-Marie asked.
“There are all kinds of ancient religions,” Rey said. “Some bloodthirstier than others. I was just curious as to what kinds of sacrifices you make, and why. You can tell a lot about a person by the rituals they perform.”
Ann-Marie smiled at that, “Ours, are very primal. Not so much diluted with time or made in such a way that the dominent religions tolerate us. It is very Dianic, Celtic, and sometimes requires sacrifice (usually animal). But it is also very fun, very dynamic and in the case of Beltaine, full of ecstatic fire dancing in the traditional fashion.”
“So, you kill animals.” Rey made it a statement, not a question. “I guess that means you’re on pretty good terms with death spirits, or other highly negative spirits that thrive on that kind of stuff.” There was an ever so faint undertone of challenge in her voice.
“If necessary,” Ann-Marie answered happily, glossing over the challenge (but seriously). “We do so for many reasons, but we won’t likely for this. A festival fire will be lit and myself, my coven and guests will celebrate under the moon.”
Lyla looked distant. “It will be the faintest sliver of moon that night. Where are you holding the celebration?”
“I haven’t yet decided on the proper place yet. We’d prefer a full moon, but that was already past when we were in the Dakotas. The May 1st date will do fine. I’d like a wide clearing in a woodland setting away from prying eyes. Somewhere safe for a bonfire,” she answered, “Do either of you know a good place? I have scouted a few but nothing is quite right.”
“Other than not in pack territory, no,” Lyla said. “Actually, something does occur to me. While such rituals attracting death spirits isn’t something we want more of here, it’s possible that Dark Sun might approve of it in her area. In fact, if it summons the right things, maybe she’d want it there, even though I’m fairly certain her religious views are quite different from yours.”
“This type of ritual only occurs four time a year. Other rituals are doubtful to do anything, except as the Morrigan is concerned. My coven is fairly decentralized, so any mid-New Hampshire location would do. We move locations fairly often anyway, though I hope to dedicate a grove at some point soon. How does one contact Dark Sun and how far away is she? I really don’t want to be forced to go a long way to practice my religion.” Ann-Marie replied.
“Hm. I really don’t know the answer to that question,” Lyla replied. “No one has sought her out since she and Wang Chi left.”
“Well, in that case Lyla, if I showed you the locations I scouted, could you give me some feedback. Rey, you could join us if you wished, you too Lyla. You may find it interesting.” Ann-Marie said with a welcoming smile.
“No thank you.” Rey’s voice was polite, but cool. “Your kind of religion and celebration holds no interest for me.”
Ann-Marie thought, ‘what did I do to her?’, answering, “That’s too bad. I think you would have enjoyed it.”
“Sorry, I have my own rituals to observe,” Lyla said.
“That’s fine Lyla,” Ann-Marie said, turning to Rey, “I thought you might have a Wiccan or Druidic background, at least that’s my first impression. No worries though.”
“Why did you think that?” Rey watched Ann-Marie’s face.
“Just a first impression,” she answered, “sorry if I offended you.” she said, confused at all the veiled hostility.
Lyla sat back, amused.
“No offense taken.” Rey gave her a friendly smile. “Can I get you another glass of wine?”
“Yes, please thank you.” Ann-Marie said. As Rey left to get the wine, Ann-Marie turned to Lyla and asked, “Am I missing something, or does she not like me?”
Lyla chuckled softly. “Oh, I don’t think it’s a matter of like or not like. She doesn’t trust you. That much is clear to me. If you want to know why, you’ll have to ask her.”
Ann-Marie didn’t look too comfortable with that, “No, not here, not now. It would be too impolite.”
“Here you go, Ann-Marie.” Rey set a fresh glass of wine on the table. “Is there something wrong?” she asked, when she saw the expression on Ann-Marie’s face.
“Can ask you a personal question Rey? I know we don’t know each other, but we have mutual friends. May I?”, Ann-Marie asked.
“Sure, you can ask,” Rey replied with a smile.
“Have I done something or said something to offend you since we have met?” she asked.
“Offended me? No.” Rey fingered the stone pendant around her neck that almost matched the color of her eyes.
“Then you do not trust me?” Ann-Marie added, “Is that it? You seem cool to me, subtle, but there just the same. Is it but my imagination?”
“No, you’re correct. I trust you about as far as I could throw Ironclaw when he’s in an extra bad mood.” Rey’s voice was surprisingly pleasant, given the subject. In fact, she was smiling as if they were the best of friends and talking about how wonderful the weather has been lately.
“Very well then,” Ann-Marie chuckled to herself, “I suppose you’ve poisoned the wine and the ears of those who trust in me?” she said only slightly in jest.
“Now, why would I do that?” Rey’s expression continued to be pleasant.
“Well, why not? There is no reason for your distrust, so I have no idea what you are capable of. The wine is good, by the way, thank you.” She replied with a smile, returning the pleasant veneer of the conversation.
“No reason for me to distrust you?” Rey’s delighted laughter filled the bar. “Thanks so much for this pleasant conversation, but I’ve got customers at the bar.” She smiled, and returned to the bar.
“Ouch,” Lyla remarked. “Hey don’t feel bad,” she told Ann-Marie. “You win some, you lose some. But I’d suggest that there is always a reason behind the things people do, say, and feel. You might not know what they are, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. Maybe you can try with her again some day.”
Lyla could see the briefest bit of rage cross Ann-Marie’s eyes. And then it was gone. She sipped her wine, put it down and said, “I did nothing to her. How many times do I have to prove myself to everyone and their brother? I can’t even know what I could have possibly done to her. She’s simply a bigot I suppose. Can’t help Neanderthal thinking.”
Lyla raised one, perfect eyebrow at Ann-Marie’s response. “If I were in your shoes, I’d be ticked off, too. On the other hand, I know Rey and if I were in her shoes, I’d react the same way. What we have here is your classic failure to communicate. You aren’t asking the right questions and she doesn’t want to talk. Stalemate.” She shook her head ruefully, sad for both her friends.
“Well, are we on for our outing in two days?” Lyla asked, getting back to business. “I’ll put together a road map for us and plot a path. I’ve got a car. Were you wanting to travel at night? Or would you like me to take care of the driving during the day, get us lodgings where I can find them and then we can spend more time personally looking around?”
“The last would be fine.” she said, putting the conversation with Rey behind her for now. “Do you mind if we do a detour to Concord? I want to meet with my kin down there. I’ll send them a message saying I’m coming, assuming your fine with it.”
Lyla thought about that, remembering something Ironclaw had said to her. But she shrugged her shoulders and smiled. “It’s fine with me. I’ll arrange some things. Keeping in mind my car is a hatchback, how would you prefer to travel?” She eyed Ann-Maire trying to figure out how she might fold up for daytime drives.
“As a cat,” she replied. “Johnny and I developed the system on the drive to South Dakota.”
Lyla nodded. “Go on. How do we need to deal with daylight?”
“Basically, I trust you. I turn into a cat and go into a small black bag, which goes into another bag, both of which are sunproof. Put me then in the luggage and be kind enough to let me out in the evening.” she explained.
“There is another way,” her mind briefly drifted to the ring, so out of her touch, so tempting and wonderful. Then she snapped back, “but that isn’t available. There is another way, but it is slightly demanding on your part, but far safer.”
Lyla looked curious. “Another way? Are you talking about that ring?”
She would have sighed if it was natural for her, “No. That’s not an option for now. You’ll have to ask Ramiel and Michael, but they don’t trust me. Ramiel at least likes me I believe. Michael, I have no idea. The ring would make everything perfect, or at least better than now. But I’m getting off subject.” She composed herself a bit, making sure no one was listening in, “I could take the form of a crow and merge with a log, perhaps four times my volume. Then come the night, emerge. Unless someone destroyed the log, I would be perfectly save. No accidents, no police officer doing a search, nothing. But it comes at a high cost that would leave me weakened and forced to hunt immediately after waking. Now comes the part you may not like…or may if you remember, if I but took a sip of your blood, I could in 5 minutes time be fully prepared, you recovered shortly after…and, well I guess this really isn’t an emergency. I shouldn’t ask that of you.”
Lyla shook head ruefully. “Every instinct I have screams at me at the thought of being someone’s prey. I’m an alpha female — I should hate to think I’d lose control and fall to my rage on you. That said, in an emergency if we get into trouble and the danger is high enough, it might be worth a risk. So please don’t think I’m distrusting you on this or saying a flat no. I really don’t trust my instincts not to betray me.” She gave Ann-Marie a self-deprecating smile.
“As for the Artifact, the ring, I can see you’re pretty sore about it. But you know, we fought, bled and nearly died trying to get that blasted thing out of the Spirit World. The one who had it before defended it pretty fiercely and if we hadn’t been very lucky some of use would have been fried to death by lightning spirits and the Undead Master of the Ring, himself. I realize the ring has some benefits to you that makes you covet it, but you should also realize that those effects are merely a side effect of the Artifact’s main purpose.
“Getting Ramiel and Michael to tell you anything about the artifact is like pulling teeth, I know. I don’t generally bother. If I want to know a thing, I just go ahead and do the footwork myself. So, I know enough to be able to tell you that the majority of that ring’s power is not really accessible at the moment. Our Ramiel and Michael, bless their hearts, researched it to a certain extent and then stopped after they found out a couple things about it. I personally suspect that in their pride, they assumed they knew everything. However, that thing wasn’t made by any hand of any mortal or immortal being ever of the world we live in, Ann. I believe its true purpose is still unknown. Me? I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with it.”