The Pack and The Priest
As the sun began climbing over the eastern hills, the next morning, two covered wagons bounced out of Poditia with four people. David and Gabrielle rode on the lead wagon, while two other village militia drove the second one.
It was relatively easy going until they reached the edge of the forest. At that point, the old road had deteriorated to a rough, uneven stone path that slowed their progress and bounced them uncomfortably as they made the gentle ascent towards the abandoned homes.
"What were these things, anyway?" David asked.
"Back when I was a kid," Gabrielle explained. "Quite a few people lived up here, working in the forest and providing lumber for the village. Unfortunately, when the warlords began coming into the area, it was impossible to defend those homes, so they were abandoned. I don't think anyone's lived up this far away from the village in generations? I used to play up here when I was younger, though I never admitted it to my parents." She smiled at that memory.
They met no enemies on the way up, but the poor roads hindered their arrival till mid day. The first sign of the old homesteads were a series of old, broken stone foundations almost completely overgrown by foliage. At the top of a small rise, the angle of the hill increased sharply, providing a back stop for the rest of the homes. They all sat in a long row, all in various states of decay. Empty doorways and windows stared out oat them, some with sunlight behind them, indicating collapsed ceilings. Others were nothing more than mere shattered walls, blown down over time, with foliage growing behind them.
In spite of the desolation, there were signs of recent activity. A worn path extended from what used to be a main walkway, up into a series of ruined dwellings at the far end of the lane.
The area was too narrow for the carts to pass. Instead, David turned the wagon around in a large, semi clear area. The other wagon lurched to a stop beside theirs.
"Sit tight," David instructed them. "We'll check this out."
"Yes, sir," the driver replied with obvious relief.
David and Gabrielle moved cautiously down the worn path, David with his katana in his hand, while Gabrielle held the two halves of her chakram like knives.
Darkened doorways gaped at them from either side, and barren windows stared back at them like portions of night. All through the underbrush they heard the scurrying of tiny animals as they retreated from this new intrusion.
"I can feel my hair curling," David said quietly.
Gabrielle nodded absently. "They're here…somewhere."
In the last two homes on the lane, they found the missing supplies.
In spite of the danger, relief flooded over them.
"Hey!" David called to the other two soldiers. "It's here! Come on, let's move this stuff out!"
The two men jogged down the narrow lane to them. They each grabbed a load of the basics, food and clothing primarily, and made their way back towards the wagons. David's eyes constantly scanned their surroundings. If there was ever a better time to ambush them, it was when they were encumbered by their burdens.
As they reached the end of the lane, a chorus of howls and barking broke out before them. From the forest, opposite the wagons, at least a dozen dog shapes bounded into view and put themselves between the wagons and their passengers.
David let the supplies drop and drew his weapon. The others did likewise.
Some of the wolves morphed into their half human shape, while the central one, a large gray/white beast, transformed into a completely human figure, tall and thin, with pale skin and wiry muscle. He stared at them with dark, ferocious eyes.
The leader smiled and then an icy laugh burst from him. Once it fell to silence, he eyed them for only a moment.
"Kill them," was all he said.
The wolves moved forward.
In that moment, David whistled a shrill, reverberating call that echoed through the trees.
The tarps covering the wagons were thrown back, and the dozen men within rose with bows drawn. Fresh silver arrowheads shone in the sunlight.
"Well, well," David said with a grin. "Seems we have a bit of a standoff here?"
One of the wolves broke for the edge of the clearing, only to be pierced through the heart by one of the arrows. It let out a yelp and fell dead, changing back into the shape of a young woman.
The archer who had shot her had a second arrow notched and bent before anyone could react.
"So?" David asked, looking at the dumbfounded leader. "What do we do now?"
The wolves were so enraged that several of them were literally foaming at the mouth.
One of the hybrid creatures suddenly launched itself at David with a bloodthirsty howl. A single arrow pierced its back. At the same moment, David slid sideways, cutting the creatures hands off, just above the wrists. In the same move, he brought the enchanted blade up in a vicious cut, laying open the creature's belly. Black blood sprayed everywhere, as Gabrielle and the other two soldiers broke away to either side in order to avoid the attack. The pieces of the corpse landed with a sickening thud behind David, twitched a few times and lay still.
That was enough for the leader of this pack. He transformed back into wolf shape and let out a howl. In one body, the pack charged at David and his companions.
Six of the creatures fell with arrows in their spines before they had taken a few steps, the rest, five creatures in all, came charging at them.
"Spread!" David shouted. He dove forward and rolled beneath one of the flying creatures, his weapon slashing upwards and catching a part of the wolf's hindquarters. It landed unsteadily and turned, its yellow eyes fixing on David.
David rolled back to his feet. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught another flurry of movement.
"Watch the flank!" he shouted.
Six more of the creatures had been waiting in ambush, and came at the archers from the side.
Three of them fell dead from arrows. The rest bowled into the wagons, latching on to anything they could. The forest was filled with screams and howls.
David finished off his latest opponent with a thrust into the wolf's mouth as it charged again. He cleared the blade and looked about. The entire, organized counter ambush had deteriorated into a brawl.
"Not good!" David groaned as he searched for Gabrielle.
Six of the twelve archers that had been concealed in the wagons were down, their bodies spread out about the conveyances in a spattering of blood and gore. The remaining ones were fending off the fresh assault. The two escorts that had accompanied Gabrielle and David were also down, their killers ravening the corpses in a frenzy of blood lust.
Gabrielle fought desperately to keep her current attacker at bay. Unfortunately, as effective as the chakram was in its separated state, it still required that her opponent get close enough for knife fighting.
David hacked at another attacker and ran to assist his wife. He leapt through the air with a bellow of rage and came down, the point of his weapon punching through the hide of her attacker, right between the shoulder blades. There was a startled yelp and then the figure lay still, returning to its human form.
"Hi!" David said breathlessly as he searched for another target.
"Hi," Gabrielle replied, snapping the two halves of the weapon back together. "Don't go anywhere!" She let the weapon fly. It sliced through the throat of another wolf before bouncing off a rock and returning to her outstretched hand. She caught it neatly and separated it again.
"Thank you," She said, and she moved to the next opponent. She charged in fury as another wolf. Just before she met the creature, something else struck from the side, knocking her oncoming opponent away.
More shapes leapt into the battle, striking at the attackers with the same, predatory ferocity. Howls and yammering echoed all around them as sleek, powerful gray shapes fell upon the darker furred attackers in a frenzy of their own.
"What the hell?" David asked as he ran to Gabrielle's side.
At the crest of the hill, a single massive white shape stood looking down at the battle with sharp, dark eyes.
Once all the attackers had fallen, it let out a howl and the gray shapes withdrew to the perimeter and watched the survivors intently.
David and Gabrielle moved to stand with the rest of theremaining soldiers. They all had fresh arrows notched and bows bent.
The white wolf trotted into the clearing, keeping a respectful distance from the archers. He sat down on his haunches and looked at them inquisitively, cocking his head to one side. Then his dark eyes fixed on Gabrielle.
"What's going on?" David asked, his weapon out and ready.
"I don't know," Gabrielle replied, watching the white beast intently. It simply stared back at her, as if contemplating what she was. Then it stood up quickly.
In one body, the archers and David all twitched a little tighter.
The white wolf was massive, covered in thick snowy fur and solidly built.
It bowed its head and then, it seemed that human hands and legs sprouted from behind the fur.
The creature rose on its two feet. When the head rose, the eyes were vacant, and the top of the head rested upon the head of a tall, elderly man with dark eyes.
His face was the only thing that belied his advanced years. Physically, he was in better shape than David, with powerful, defined muscle knotting his frame. His skin was smooth and tan, except for the face which was wrinkled from passing years.
The wolf skin he wore stretched down his back and covered him at the waist. As if it was permanently attached to his body. He held his hands out in a gesture of greeting.
"Lower your weapons," Gabrielle said quietly.
Reluctantly, David and the soldiers did so. It wasn't like they had much of a chance if this new, larger group of creatures decided to attack.
The man stepped slowly forward with smooth deliberation. His eyes focused on each surviving member with intense curiosity. He stopped before Gabrielle and touched his right hand over his heart as he bowed his head.
"Ahia," he said in a slow, deliberate and thickly accented voice. "I am Zolnik, High Priest of the Garou."
"Gabrielle, of the Northern Amazon Nation," Gabrielle replied, placing her fist over her heart in return.
"Gabrielle," Zolnik said. "I thank you for aiding us in our hunt. Long have we tracked the Diseased Ones."
"Diseased Ones?" David asked automatically.
Zolnik looked at him for a moment, and then refocused his attention on Gabrielle.
"I fear that they have harmed these protected lands," Zolnik continued. "I am compelled to beg forgiveness."
As he spoke, the remaining creatures, some twenty in all, seemed to emerge from beneath their skins, standing around the perimeter.
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, but didn't know what to say. She was still in awe of this creature – person.
"My Lord," One of the others said, stepping forward. "One of them is missing."
"Who?" Zolnik asked.
"Locarnos is not among the fallen of his pack." The second priest replied somberly.
"Then I fear the hunt must continue," Zolnik said with stoic resignation.
"Locarnos is dead," Gabrielle said softly. "By my hand."
"The hand of an Ahia?" Zolnik asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
"He attacked me, and tried to kill my husband," Gabrielle confessed. "I had no choice."
"Such are the ways of the hunter," Zolnik said with a sigh. "Alas, my son never truly embraced the destiny of the Garou."
Gabrielle felt her heart sink in dismay. "You're son? Oh, Zolnik, I'm sorry-"
The wolf priest raised his hand to stop her.
"Such is the circle of life," Zolnik said evenly. "The hunters are not always the victors."
His eyes fell on David. "This is your mate?"
Zolnik perceived David tense and ready to strike at the slightest provication.
"He has the spirit of the hunter," Zolnik said. "Even now, he stands ready to defend you." He nodded his head respectfully to David.
"Since you have aided us in our hunt, we are in your debt," Zolnik continued. "How may we satisfy that debt?"
"One of our men was injured in an attack on our village," Gabrielle replied slowly. "I'm afraid that he may become one of the Diseased Ones?"
Zolnik looked thoughtful for a moment.
"Is there a cure?" Gabrielle asked hopefully.
Zolnik turned and spoke in a strange language to one of the other members of his pack. The two stepped away and held a quiet conversation.
The second priest drew out a small pouch and handed it to Zolnik, who in turn gave it to Gabrielle.
"Mix this in boiling water and give it to any that have been harmed by Locarnos and his followers," he said simply. "As it has been, the bond between our people is still unbroken. May your hunts ever be successful."
He backed several steps away and bowed down. The eyes in the wolf headdress filled with awareness and the human form seemed to melt into the skin. Once again, Zolnik stood before them in the guise of the great white beast. The surrounding priests also resumed their animal form. With a howl, the pack vanished into the trees.
The forest fell silent.
Gabrielle held the medicine up. "Anyone else hurt?"
Everyone checked themselves over for scratches or bites. Fortunately, there were none.
"Okay," David said grimly. "Let's clean this up as best we can and load up the wagons."
Kastius paced nervously in the cell, his hands wringing, in spite of one of them being crippled.
A face appeared at the door.
"How are you feeling?" Gabrielle asked.
"Scared to death, to be honest," Kastius replied.
"Well," Gabrielle smiled broadly. "Relax, because we got the cure for you, right here. Complements of some old allies of mine."
The cell door was pulled open and Gabrielle entered, holding a steaming cup in her hand. She set the cup on the table and smiled.
Out in the hall, David nodded in agreement.
"Drink up," Gabrielle said happily. "And go home before your son is born without you."
Kastius looked down at the cup dubiously, and then he held it to his nose and sniffed. It smelled like a fragrant tea of some type, though he couldn't place the scent. With a sigh, he put the cup to his lips and drank down the contents.
When he finished, he looked at Gabrielle as if he were expecting to grow wings, or something.
"How do you feel?" David asked eagerly.
Kastius shrugged. "No different. How long before this stuff is supposed to work?"
Gabrielle shrugged. "I don't know. They didn't say what-"
"Wait a minute," Kastius held up a hand. "I think I feel something?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked. "Are you okay?"
"No, I'm fine," Kastius replied. "I feel fine." Suddenly, his eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he collapsed to the floor.
"Was that supposed to happen?" David asked urgently. He rushed to the fallen soldiers' side.
"He never said," Gabrielle replied.
David checked for a pulse. When he looked up at Gabrielle, his eyes were wide with shock.
"Gabby," He said in horror. "He's dead."
"What?" Gabrielle gasped, dropping opposite David and feeling for the man's pulse. "He can't be?"
As they watched, Kastius's body began to show signs of sickness. His flesh became covered with open leprous sores. Foamy saliva began to bubble from between his colorless lips. David and Gabrielle quickly stepped away, backing out the door.
"I don't understand!" Gabrielle cried angrily. "They said it would cure him! They told me!"
David wrapped his arm about her shoulder as grim reality settled in.
"They told us to give it to him," he said softly. "They never said what it was. They gave us poison and let our assumptions do the rest."
He felt the lump forming in his throat. It was a mixture of nausea and betrayal that sank down and settled, like lead, in the pit of his stomach.
They told us it would help him, David!" Gabrielle cried.
"Yes, they did," he finally said. "They gave him the only help they had."