Southern Hospitality

The two wolves traced a circuitous path through the underbrush of a once-thick forest, shot through with the bare, burned trunks of spruce and fir trees. “Great Smoky Mountains,” noted Willow in the wolf’s tongue, her body language betraying a sense of displeasure. This was taking it a bit too literally.

“Aye,” her packmate responded. Or did Willow just imagine Scully’s brogue-drawl? “Human cubs burned it. No punishment.” Speaking as wolves was simple, straight to the point. They had the pack’s link, of course, but Scully was just fine, thank you, for some relief from the chatter of his packmates in his head.

The wind shifted; a curiously strong musk wafted past them on the breeze, and Scully froze, sniffing the air. “Is that – “ But before he could bark a warning, a gunshot rang out, and Willow tumbled to the ground, bleeding. “Hunter! Hide!” Scully was off like a shot himself, leaving his packmate to fumble blindly for cover against an attacker she couldn’t quite see.

Willow could smell a hint of new smoke in the air, though, and from behind a blackened tree she listened. Quiet, moving through underbrush…then a roar and a yelp and a crash. Willow took the stronger form of the Hispo, the dire wolf, and crept forward, then ran up when she spotted Scully, a proper Crinos werewolf, looming over … something.

A human – a hunter, prone and confused, but not terrified – camo and hunter orange over warm woolen clothes, but still smelling of human body odor and … beer? “Relax, man, settle! I’m Kin, name’s Caleb! Didn’t mean to shoot nobody, just some deer!”

Scully growled, snatching the rifle from the hunter’s trembling hands before shrinking down enough to speak in a low rasp. “Oh, deer season is it? And what’d ye take me packmate for, a fookin’ bear?”

“Polar bear’s more like it,” Willow groused after likewise shifting forms to confront the evident Kinfolk who had shot her. Still on his back, Caleb could only offer a gap-toothed, uneasy grin.

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The Sept of the Changing Seasons was a relatively short jaunt south from Blue Head Rock, where Willow and Scully had been visiting just a few days prior. The pair had been relatively successful there, recruiting the same pack of young bucks Last Call had met before. They’d happily reaped some Glory in the retaking of the Hidden Spring, and more recently Brenna Deathsong’s successful Nexus Crawler hunt, and were ready for more. But no suitable ritualists could be spared. Changing Seasons was said to be a caern of Healing, run by Fangs (of course) and Fianna and even Children of Gaia – a perfect place to look for aid.

Even after Scully had taken the edge off her wound – using Ceridwen’s Blood to take some of the hurt for himself, then healing that with his Leech’s Tongue – Willow was still sore. A wilderness caern surrounded by burned forest land wasn’t looking so ideal, and the smoke had their lungs aching. These Garou had their hands full. Perhaps a caern like this would help…but she could see the way the Fianna looked at them.

Two or perhaps three packs’ worth had gathered to hear the tale, around a hearth built by hand from stone, set into a hillside. It was just a low fire, more to see by than anything else. Scully finished his latest rendition of the story of the battle at Wrangel Island, and the quest they’d been charged with by Mammoth.

The elder who stood up to respond was old but not stooped, with a smooth, disarming southern accent. “You honor us with your tale, and your welcome should have been better than it was. I am Mercer Hardison, called Dawncrown, and I speak for this sept. Please, stay while we consider your request. No more than a day or two.”

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It ended up being three days, after all. The sept’s totem — a spirit of Healing, Salamander — was naturally intriguing to a Child of Gaia like Willow. She spent quite some time with the diminutive spirit, sharing stories of her successes and failures as a healer. Scully busied himself helping clean up the scorched mountainside during the day, and swapping tales with the locals at night.

Then, on the third day, a wolf’s howl broke the quiet on the mountaintop, a Warning of the Wyrm’s Approach that warned of Banes. Willow and the handful of Garou at the caern proper rushed to meet it. It was the sept’s Ritemaster, a lupus they called Strength of Wisdom. “In the Shadow, this howl comes to me,” the wolf curtly explained. “The mule howls. Banes of ash.”

With a whoop and a howl, Strength of Wisdom and the others dove across the Gauntlet to rush down the mountainside. Willow naturally joined them. But the scattering of Garou, no more than a pack’s worth or so, came up short at the sight of the thick cloud of ash and black dust creeping uphill toward them. Willow found Scully nearby, an arrow nocked, tracking the ashen cloud. “Been fire, so ash, huh?” he asked her in his gruff Glabro voice.

She nodded, but Willow was reminded of stories she’d heard at the Sept of the Green, about the unusual spirits that arose when New Yorkers incinerated their garbage. “Ash Scrags…” She turned to call out to the others. “Ash Scrags! They can cause pain, and frenzy. Be careful!”

In response, Strength of Wisdom and another of his sept-mates erupted with silvery light, the Lambent Flame of their tribe. “Scrags. Let none escape to possess a human,” the ritemaster commanded, and the locals charged headlong into the ashen cloud.

“Gimme a target and I’ll put a Bane Arrow in ‘em, ma’am,” Scully said with a grin, standing back with his bow at the ready. With a shrug, Willow hefted her staff and went in with the rest. Her skills with the staff and her Eye of the Simurgh proved handy in disabling one of the Scrags for an easy kill, and Scully’s arrows, when he could land one, drew agonized screams from the Banes.

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The following day, it was time for Willow and Scully to hit the trail, and for Dawncrown to give an answer to their request for aid. Perhaps the response was unexpected…but perhaps not.

“The Rite of Caern Building is dangerous. The rite itself could kill you, Strength…and take our Ritemaster. And that’s if they can keep the Spirals off you. You can’t possibly expect these…Metis to be able to succeed at this. Mammoth is desperate, dying. There are more important tasks for us.”

The lupus bristled. “They are wise, honorable for mules. Salamander favors them. They fight Ash Scrags with us. Where were you?”

“Keeping the humans from Gatlinburg out of our caern,” Dawncrown fired back, his mouth twisted in a disdainful grimace. “Fighting the Wyrm is our duty, as the Litany demands. Do you expect a medal for helping to fend off a few Banes?” The lazy Southern drawl now had a self-righteous edge to it.

“Of course not,” Willow replied. “Thank you for your hospitality, elder. We’ll be going now.” Her voice was calm, but her expression was hard. She’d prepared for this kind of welcome, or at least she’d tried to; she’d been preparing all her life, it seemed.

Scully just shook his head a little, and pulled the brim of his hat down, hiding the look on his face as the pair turned to leave. Willow took a northerly route down the mountainside. Scully didn’t speak up for a while, or use the pack-link, although it was clear enough he was angry. About a quarter-mile later, he noticed a little salamander skitter down from Willow’s shoulder, hopping down to the ground, lost instantly in the leaf litter and charred underbrush.

“Don’t get too bent out of shape,” Willow piped up in reply to Scully’s questioning stare. “I think Strength of Wisdom will find a way to help. And Salamander taught me something…Razvan will appreciate it. Maybe Moira, too.”

“Eh?” Scully frowned. “Moira? She hates our guts.”

Willow nodded, considering it. It would cost, dearly, but… “I know. I told Salamander about it. It’s been on my mind for a long time. Maybe now we can fix things.”

Scully let out a snort, his tone rather dubious. “Oh, I’d like to see that.”

“That’s why we’re heading back to Blue Head Rock, and catch a Bridge home,” Willow said. “I would too.”

Southern Hospitality

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