The Sacred Passage (Mound of Gaia Vol. 4)
The Great White Wolf
Part three: The Great White Wolf
The cries of wolves and the shrill screeching of bats echoed around the cottage, underscored by the rush of circling animals and the flutter of wings. Vera, Sam, and Evander stared into the darkness, but only Vera, with her enhanced vision, was able to see the true danger they were facing.
She was not a stranger to wolves. The Mound of Gaia lived in communion with the earth and Gaia’s creatures, but that did not mean that all of Gaia’s creatures lived in harmony with the Order. The Temple Shepherdess had lost more than one sheep to the packs of wolves that roamed the countryside. Regardless of the antagonistic nature of their relationship when it came to livestock, Vera forbid the hunting of these noble creatures in the lands beneath the Mound of Gaia’s control. She would not make the same arrogant judgements that had all but extinguished these animals from the uninitiated world.
Nevertheless, the wolves Vera watched encircle the cottage were not part of the natural order. They were gigantic, monstrous creatures, the smallest among them standing two and a half meters from paw to shoulder, rivaling the size of Sam’s hound-form. Their dense coats were thick with winter growth but their coloring was darker than the grey wolves that inhabited the forests, and each bore unique markings. One’s fur was ebony with a mask of lighter grey around their eyes and another’s was the color of rusted iron with a large stripe of yellowed white along their right flank. The greatest similarity among them, beside their size, was the sheer hatred and unfettered aggression she saw in each pair of golden eyes.
“How many do you see?” Evander asked.
“Six, no–” Vera counted as each of their captors passed into her line of sight, “There are seven.”
Sam barked a warning as one of the wolves passed within arms-reach of the open door. He crouched, each muscle stretched taught and ready to spring. The wolf stopped, head low to the ground, and let loose a terrifying growl that reminded Vera of the sound ice makes when it grinds against itself as it breaks up in the spring.
The other wolves in the pack ceased their pacing and stood in place, tilting their heads back and howling. Evander tried to push Vera behind him and she shoved his hand away. She could not fault his instinct, he was her Guardian, and had pledged to value her life above his own, but that was before they had evolved from a triune of the Order, to a family. Vera would not allow her lovers to lay down their lives for her, she would fight by their side. If they had to make that final journey past the veil that separated life and death, they would go together.
The howling ceased and the wolves ran in circles, like the pack had been driven mad by an unseen force. Screams came from the sky and the wolves froze as three bats, each with a wingspan large enough to enfold a grown man, descended. Their shapes warped and shifted as they flitted toward the ground, touching down to earth on human feet. Vera recognized the imposter who had posed as Sister Kata. The two others were strangers. They favored each other in looks, each was small boned and had the same jittering, sharpness in their eyes. The wolves dwarfed them, but they showed no signs of fear. The imposter stepped forward and Vera raised her hands, shocks of power crackled along the lengths of her fingers.
“I would suggest you stop where you are,” Vera warned.
“Tsk. See my dear sisters, I told you she would come. There was no way she would leave this hunt to her darlings,” the imposter said, taking another step toward the cottage.
Vera murmured words of power and directed a bolt of energy at the woman’s feet, the ground it struck exploded, showering the imposter in small stones and dirt.
“I told you to stay where you are; I don’t want to hurt you.”
All three of the women laughed. It was high-pitched and grating, like fingernails being dragged across slate. A lone, plaintive howl sounded and the three sisters fell silent.
Another wolf emerged from the edge of the forest. The beast dwarfed the other wolves. It was at least a meter taller than the Sam in his hound-form. The thing’s fur was white, pure as an unbroken field of snow. Its eyes glimmered in the darkness, like a flame. The animosity with which it regarded Vera, Sam and Evander was so fierce that it stole Vera’s breath away. It bore its fangs, each canine as long as one of her fingers. Great Goddess, this is what it is like to be truly afraid, she thought. Sam whined, sensing her panic, but he kept his focus trained on the massive wolf.
The great white wolf shuddered and the sounds of breaking bone and ripping skin rose to a deafening racket. Each of the other wolves’ bodies tremored with the same magical force. The wolf pack was gone when silence returned and eight men stood where the wolves had been. They were ferocious, but they were also stunning, their broad shoulders cloaked in furs like to the coats that they wore as wolves. Vera’s eyes were riveted to the man who had been the white wolf. He wore a golden circlet of laurel leaves as a crown and his jaw was strong. The angularity of his face balanced by full lips, and wide eyes that flashed with anger and lust when he looked at Vera.
The three sisters pawed and pranced around him, each vying for his attention, but he ignored them. The initial fright that Vera had experienced was beginning to shift to wrath. She was the High Votaress of the Mound of Gaia, not a child who cowered beneath her covers at the first sign of an approaching a storm. She pulled herself to her full height and straightened her shoulders, her hands held before her, poised and flickering with power. There was no mistake, in that moment, that she was Queen of her realm.
“On behalf of the Mound of Gaia, as High Votaress of the Order, I demand you answer for this grotesque display and your association with the daughters of Minyas.” The three women hissed and spit. Vera addressed them with a sneer, “Oh yes, did you think we wouldn’t discover who you were, after your savage attack on our Oracles?”
“Savage, savage, savage,” one of the sisters mocked Vera, “What do you know of savagery, stupid girl?” The two other sisters tittered and cackled.
“Enough,” the pack leader said, his voice calm but resonant, silencing the women. “You are in no position to demand anything of me. I was king of this land, and I will be king again, once we leave this world of shadow, and take our rightful place as kings among the mortals.”
“The mortal world won’t bow to you; those days are past for them,” Vera said.
“They’re beggars who know nothing. Once we’ve rid their realm of the elementals we will claim the world that your gods have stolen and leave you and your precious Daemons to rot until the Beyond fades to nothing.”
“You don’t mean to control the Sacred Passage; you mean to destroy it,” Vera said with undisguised horror. “You’ll be the death of us all, mortal and immortal alike, and for what?”
“Command. Deliverance. Vengeance. Take your pick, child. I am as old as the earth itself. My sons and I were cursed by Zeus to wander in the darkness as beasts. We will not stop until we have torn apart the world he made and leave him with nothing but ashes.”
“The Olympians no longer rule anything.”
“No, but their progeny does. They will suffer for their ancestor’s crimes,” the King’s eyes blazed, “Did you know I had fifty sons? Seven are all that remain. There is no legacy that I may point to, all of it is lost, and so I will see his legacy is also destroyed.”
“And us, we will have Zeus’ son for our supper,” the sisters said, one after another, like a group of children singing in the round. “Dionysus damned us to madness. He and his will pay for his folly. We started with the bitch that bore him.”
“You’re all deranged,” Evander said, his voice a hoarse whisper,
“Watch your tongue, boy, and you might yet live to see the sunrise.”
The final piece that had been alluding Vera fell into place. Her eyes widened, the realization piercing her rational mind and igniting a terrible rage in her belly, “You. It was you who was responsible for the rumors, the curse. You used me to exact your revenge on Dionysus and torture that piteous creature, Semele.”
“And we will see every one of the elemental Daemons brought down to ruin, along with the worlds they have made.”
Blood pounded in Vera’s ears and she focused the energy that coursed through her, bringing the power of the elements to bear. A whirlwind churned around Vera, lifting her off the ground.
“You may have ruled millennia ago, but I am now the Queen charged with protecting the worlds of this earth and I say you will pay for your treachery.” Vera’s voice boomed like thunder when she spoke. The three sisters cowered, bleating like frightened sheep.
The King roared, an inhuman sound erupting from his mouth. The air was once again full of rending skin and bone. His seven sons fell back on their haunches and transformed, leaping forward to protect their father, while the King, in his human form, retreated to a safe distance.
“Are you so much of a coward that you will let your sons fight and die, rather than risk your own blood?”
The King shouted, a guttural, unintelligible cry and the wolves advanced. Sam launched himself at the wolf with the rust-red coat. They collided and slammed into the ground, tumbling in a frenzy of claws and teeth.
Evander waded into the fray, wielding a dagger in each hand. His movement was balletic, beautiful and deadly. The blades flashed as he dispatched a wolf with a clean swipe across the beast’s throat. He rolled away, springing to his feet before he was pinned by the falling carcass. Bolts of lightning shot from the tips of Vera’s fingers and shocked another one of the King’s sons lifeless. Minyas’ daughters screamed. One began to shift in a vain attempt to flee and Vera summoned a flame that flowed from her like water. It caught the vile creature before she completed her transformation and she spun and shrieked as she was consumed.
One of the other women threw her body over her burning sister, trying to smother the flames. Fire licked at the strands of her hair and her sleeves. Soon she was lost in the conflagration, screaming curses and vengeance until her throat was burned closed. The remaining sister was the very one who had posed as the lost Oracle, Kata. She brandished her hands like claws and dashed toward Vera with a horrific yowl. Vera whipped her hand around in wide arc before thrusting it toward her approaching attacker, palm outward. The woman was immobilized, the color in her cheeks fading. Her teeth chattered and her lips turned blue.
“Your sisters are dead. Abandon this madness. I will spare your life and we will find a way for you to make amends for your transgressions.”
“I will burn in Tartarus for eternity before I kneel to you.”
“Then you shall have your way,” Vera said, and let loose a breath with the force of an icy gale. Minyas’ last living daughter was vanquished, her frozen body shattering to pieces when it toppled to the ground.
Vera surveyed the battlefield. Evander and Sam stood among the dead, their chests heaving. Sam was still in his hound-form. She hoped his fur had kept him safe from bites, safer than Evander’s bare skin would, anyway. There was a gash across Evander’s forehead and the shirt he wore was in tatters. Vera experienced a rush of relief that both men were still on their feet.
The only other being left standing was the King. He looked over the carnage with disgust, like his son’s deaths were more a disappointment, an inconvenience opposed to a loss he would grieve. He stepped toward Vera, his lips twisted in a bitter smile. Sam and Evander flanked him, poised to throw their bodies in the line of attack, if necessary.
“Do you yield?” Vera asked, her voice was wrecked. Exhaustion was dragging at her limbs. The elemental powers she had channeled had taken their toll. She released the wind at her feet and it took every ounce of strength she had, to remain standing when she touched the earth.
The king kept moving forward, stopped by Evander, who pressed a hand to his chest, and forced him to halt three meters from where Vera stood. She read the unease in both Sam’s and Evander’s postures. They were uncomfortable with the King even this close to her.
“Do you yield?” she asked again. The King knelt. Vera sighed, relieved, “Will you give me your name?”
“King Lycaon, my lady,” Vera’s eyes widened in surprise. The man before her was the stuff of legends, the first of his kind. He and his sons had been known by many names throughout the ages; loupe garou in France and ulfhednar in Norway. Lycanthrope. Werewolf.
“King Lycaon, we will return to the Temple and you will stand before the Tribunal of Elementals to answer for your treachery,” Vera’s strength was near its end. She nodded to Evander and Sam to secure King Lycaon and turned toward the cottage, hoping her legs would carry her at least that far before she collapsed.
She had only taken a few steps when she heard Sam’s growl and Evander’s shout of warning. King Lycaon sprung from where he knelt, the metamorphosis rippling around him as he flew toward her. She raised her hands to summon a repelling flame, but she was slow with fatigue and he landed on her, knocking her off her feet. They fell together.
The King’s jaws snapped out, dagger-sharp canines sinking into the flesh of her shoulder. Vera heard her clavicle crack beneath the pressure. She screamed, searing pain radiating outward from where the great white wolf shook her like a rag doll. Blood spilled from her wound and she wondered if the last thing in the worlds she would know would be the stink of King Lycaon’s fetid breath. Then the beast released her and uttered a heart-wrenching yelp. It was followed by a whimper full of such despair that Vera’s heart broke for the wretched creature. She blessed the benighted man and his passage through the veil, then fell into darkness herself.