Waking up after being knocked unconscious is never a fun experience. Aside from the splitting headache, there are those first few minutes where your brain tries to reboot and your synapses seem to misfire, leading to fun things like fear, confusion, memory gaps, and hallucinations.
I’m sure the humans knew exactly what happened when the brain restarted, and even had some fancy medical term for it, but when Casey and I were fifteen we’d run afoul of some demon-worshipping witches and had been clubbed over the head enough times during the three days they held us captive that we’d come up with our own acronym for it: CACA. It was short for Concussion Aftermath, Can’t Anything. Meaning nothing makes sense, everything hurts, and I may or may not be dying right now.
A groan slipped from my lips as I rejoined the conscious world. I felt like complete and utter CACA.
“Oh, good. You’re awake,” came the sound of Cailleach’s voice. It was deeper than usual. Or was it higher? No, it was both. Like three of her were speaking at once.
Auditory hallucinations: check.
I shook my head, trying to clear it, and a stab of pain arced from my temple to the back of my eyes.
“That was quite an impressive display or violence you two put on,” she said.
Memory gaps: check.
I cracked my lids open. My vision was still blurry, but the eerie glow of Cailleach’s green eyes was unmistakable in the dim light of wherever we were, and – what the actual fuck? – were those antlers rising up out of the top of her head?
Visual hallucinations: big check. Yup, I had definitely been knocked out.
I willed myself to remember the sequence of events that had led up to this point, but all I could recall were a few broken images that made absolutely no sense. Or maybe I was remembering a nightmare I’d had while unconscious, because I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that these brief flashes of my cousin and I battling what looked like an enraged forest had actually happened. The last trustworthy memory I had placed us in the back room of Wiccan Wares. Right before Cailleach had gone all…
“Whatahfakhappan?” I croaked.
Casey’s answer came from somewhere to my right. She sounded pissed. “She did.”
I tried to turn to her, but couldn’t. My vision finally clearing, I looked down to see that tree roots had broken through the floor to wrap themselves around me from feet to chest in some sort of macabre, upright cocoon. Now that the fog was finally lifting from my mind, my discomfort began to set in. My legs were practically fused together, and my arms were bound so tight to my sides that my fingers were starting to go numb. I wiggled them, hoping to get my blood flowing again as I craned my head around to see that Casey was likewise encased. She didn’t look pissed; she looked murderous. Amber had bled into her blue eyes, making them more wolf than human. A rapidly healing scratch stood out on her left cheek, and it triggered another memory. Of us battling side by side, claws out, slicing through whipping vines and slithering roots.
Shit. It hadn’t been a nightmare. Cailleach had attacked us. With flora. After turning into some sort of super-creep when we brought up our sick packmates.
“You okay, Case?”
Despite her bindings, she managed to shrug. “My pride is pretty bruised, but otherwise, I’m fine. You?”
I grinned. “My ego is absolutely killing me. Aside from that, I’m okay.”
Casey’s focus shifted to Cailleach. “The question is, are we going to remain so?”
I followed her gaze, taking in the room as I turned my head. We were no longer in the back of Wiccan Wares, but what looked like some sort of basement. I strained my ears, and judging by the low rumble of traffic overhead, and the rattling of a subway line off to the right, we were at least two stories below ground. Large candelabras stood in the corners, bathing us in a soft orange glow. The walls, floor, and ceiling were concrete. Strange symbols drawn in chalk covered the floor, running all around us in a circular pattern. I looked down to see the white lines converging upon us, half of them hidden by roots. I wasn’t an expert of magic by any means, but I would have bet big money that we were dead center in some sort of complicated spell. I really, really didn’t want to find out what that spell was for.
My jaw dropped when my gaze finally landed on the priestess. I hadn’t hallucinated after all. Climbing up out of the top of Cailleach’s head were a pair of antlers that would have made a five point buck weep with envy. Her wild magic was completely unchecked. Aether snapped and cracked along my exposed skin, setting my nerve endings on fire.
When I was thirteen, I had sprinted through one of the fields that dotted our packland during a lightning storm. I thought that because there were towering trees all around me, that I would be safe. That one of them would act as a conductor before anything in the field did. I found out the hard way that I was wrong. When I was halfway across, a bolt of blinding white light had streaked from the sky and struck the earth not ten feet away from me. The shock of it knocked me from my feet and raised all the hair on my body. I kind of felt like that now, like an electrical storm raged around me and I was a heartbeat away from being fricasseed by a stray bolt.
Cailleach smiled serenely back at Casey, her green eyes dancing with amusement. “Don’t worry, Casey. You will soon have the answers you seek.”
“She’s the one attacking the pack, isn’t she?” I asked my cousin, unable to tear my gaze away from the deer-druid…thing.
I liked to think of myself as a pretty even-keeled werewolf. I kept my temper in check, for the most part, I didn’t make power plays in the pack, I didn’t lash out at innocent bystanders when I was in a bad mood, and I didn’t maim people unless I felt like they really deserved it. But it had been a rough couple of days. My pissed-off-o’meter had been slowly climbing into the red since Matt had fallen sick. By the time we’d arrived at Wiccan Wares, it had been creeping up toward I-would-really-like-to-throat-kick-someone-right-now. Casey’s ‘Yup’ maxed it out at I-am-an-eyetwitch-away-from-killing-everyone-and-everything.
Cailleach’s smile turned toward me.
My eye twitched. Go time.
“You fucking bitch,” I spat.
A low growl slipped from my lips as I strained against my bonds. I was going to claw that smirk right off her face. I was going to make her wish she’d never been born. I was going to snap those stupid antlers off her head and beat her to death with them. I was going to…I was going to do a lot of things, if only I could break free. Problem was, the roots wouldn’t budge.
I flexed my muscles and pushed harder. Nothing happened. I had enough strength to toss a small car at someone, which I had literally done the year before – trust me, it was epic – and yet the roots didn’t so much as groan in protest as I unleashed every ounce of that strength on them.
“Charlie, don’t,” Casey said.
I was too far gone to heed her warning. Wild things don’t like to be trapped. They react badly to it. Especially predators. I think it has something to do with finally understanding what it feels like to be prey. As soon as I realized that I was well and truly caged, my breathing hitched and my heartbeat sped up, pumping adrenaline through my body. My anger turned to panic. My struggling turned into full-blown flailing.
Out. I needed out. Now.
“Stop, Charlie,” Cailleach said. There was magic in her words, a command that made me want to obey her.
Over my dead body. I ignored her as best I could and redoubled my efforts, nearly tearing my shoulders out of socket in my sudden frenzy to free myself. I was half a second away from shifting into wolf form when the roots sprang to life around me, writhing like a nest of vipers as they mercilessly tightened their hold. Between one heartbeat and the next I went from being a thrashing werewolf to a tube of toothpaste that someone was trying to wring the last dollop out of. My lungs were on the brink of collapsing, my eyes felt like they were going to pop out of my head, and I was pretty sure that if I opened my mouth to scream, my half-digested breakfast would have poured out of it. If I had been human, I would have been instantly crushed. As it was, I felt like I wasn’t far away from suffering that fate.
Death by tree root. How embarrassing.
Beside me, Casey was raging. “If you kill her, the entire pack will know it! They will raze your grove to the ground and salt it with the blood of your followers!”
The grip around me loosened, and I was able to suck down a pained breath that sounded disturbingly close to a sob.
“Don’t attempt that again,” Cailleach warned. “I would hate for you to hurt yourself.”
Goddess help me, she actually sounded concerned for my welfare. Obviously the antlers had burrowed into her brain and had destroyed the part of her mind where logic had resided. A terrifying prospect considering she’d just about killed me. With a thought. Not many creatures had that much power, which scared the living bejesus out of me. Which, of course, brought my rage back to the forefront.
“Gee, thanks for your concern, Bambi,” I more wheezed than spoke.
Casey barked a laugh. “Really, Charlie? That’s the best you can come up with?”
I spared her a glance, sucking down another ragged breath. “Hey, I’m still recovering from CACA, and just nearly had my insides made into outsides. You’ll have to wait a while before I can once again dazzle you with my brilliance.”
Her left eyebrow marched up her forehead, her expression turning skeptical. “More like baffle me with your bullshit.”
“Do I even want to know what CACA is?” Cailleach asked.
I turned to see her smiling at us as if she shared in our banter. “Figure it out for yourself, hornbrain.”
“Ooh, sick burn,” Casey teased, her tone laden with sarcasm.
“Listen, you!” I said, rounding on her.
Still chuckling, Cailleach turned her back on us.
We need to stall, Casey mouthed at me.
If my arms were free, I could have smacked myself in the forehead, or hugged my brainiac cousin. Between the Great Flora Fracas that had played out in the back of Wiccan Wares, my time spent in la la land, and however long it had taken Cailleach to move us down here, I was guessing at least an hour had passed since we had first strolled into the druid’s store. Sully would be waiting for our phone call, and when we didn’t check in at the designated time, he would know that something was up.
We weren’t the only wolves in NYC today. Three other teams were here running recon on the city’s preternatural factions. Each had been ordered to remain within city limits until all the teams had checked in. When Sully didn’t hear from us, he would direct our fellow packmembers toward Wiccan Wares. Given enough time, they’d be able to track our scents to this basement room. Help might already be on the way. Which meant Casey and I needed to figure out some way to buy ourselves some time.
I turned back to our captor and spouted the first thought that came to my head. “Hey, doe face. What is this? Some sort of wannabe dungeon?”
Cailleach paused at the heavy wooden door near the far corner of the room, her hand on the latch. “Something like that.”
“Where are we?”
She cocked her head to the left in a birdlike manner, her antlers tipping sideways. “How naïve of you to think that I would tell you. Having heard of your many exploits, I expected better from you two.”
I went to shrug, but unlike Casey, I only managed a jerking twitch that probably looked like some sort of mini-seizure. Grace, thy name is Charlie. “I hadn’t actually expected an answer,” I told her. “Never hurts to ask, though. Sometimes we get lucky and get the stupid bad guys.”
“Like that vampire last year that was dumb enough to reveal his – bunny quotes – grand scheme to us,” Casey chimed in.
“Goddess, don’t remind me. Who in their right mind ties up two werewolves with common rope and then starts monologuing?”
Cailleach, grinning in amusement, folded her arms across her chest and leaned back against the door as she listened to our banter.
That’s right, get real comfy, deery. Settle in and stick around for a while.
“Well,” Casey returned. “He was pretty young. I don’t think he’d really dealt with our kind before. And I think he’d watched too many movies when he was a human.”
“Poor little guy. No one told him that real life bad guys know better.”
“What happened to this vampire?” Cailleach asked.
The smile I turned on her was a savage thing. “I beat him to death with a mid-sized sedan.”
“Ah. Quite the incentive to keep our location to myself,” she replied. Despite her words, she looked far from concerned. Then again, thanks to her ageless face and those freakish eyes, it was kind of hard to tell what the hell she was feeling. I was beginning to think that her perma-smile was nothing but a mask she donned to hide the alien nature that lurked beneath.
“Well, wherever we are, you need to think about finding yourself a new decorator,” I said, keeping up a steady stream of inane chatter. “A few chains and some blood stains would go a long way toward inspiring fear in your would-be victims. Maybe add a rack and a table full of rusty scalpels.”
“Yeah, how about we don’t give her any ideas?” Casey muttered.
Cailleach’s smiled widened. “Does this make you my would-be victims, then?”
I bared my teeth at her, trying to mask my rising fear with ferocity. “Sweetheart, we’re werewolves. And you have antlers. If anything, that makes you our would-be victim.”
She threw back her head and laughed with what seemed like real humor.
“Is that what this is about? Are you some sort of weird deer-person seeking vengeance for all the hooved creatures our kind has eaten?” I pressed.
Still chuckling, she shook her head. “No, little wolf. That is not what this is about.”
Little wolf? Ew, no. I glared at her. “That pet name needs to die a violent death. Much like you.”
“I don’t think she can be killed, Charlie,” Casey said, her brow creased in thought.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. Maybe we can introduce her to Raz and tell him we promise not to judge him if he eats her. Then again, she’s obviously not fully human, so that won’t really make it cannibalism. Not like he’ll care one way or another.”
I was watching my cousin as I spoke. I could almost see the wheels turning in her mind as she tried to piece something together. Suddenly her eyes snapped up, her pupils dilating as she zeroed in on the priestess. A caught a whiff of fear rolling off her. “You’re not Cailleach,” she said. “You’re the Cailleach, aren’t you?”
“You’re just as clever as I remember,” the druid replied.
I snorted, totally lost. “The Cailleach? What is that, some sort of Celtic delicacy?”
“She’s a goddess, Charlie,” Casey said, her voice barely above a whisper.
I opened my mouth to respond, but nothing came out. Because what the hell do you even say to that? Seeing my dumbstruck expression, the Cailleach winked at me, then lifted the latch of the door and slipped out. I tried to call out to stop her, but all that came out of my mouth was a rattling wheeze that would have made a ghoul proud. I could barely hear her climbing the stairs beyond over the sound of my thundering heartbeat.
A goddess. Great. Just frigging wonderful. Up until this point, Casey and I had remained relatively calm given the danger we were in, because it was nothing new to us. We’d learned long ago that panicking lead to nothing good. I’d lost count of the times we’d risked our lives for the pack, and yet somehow, we always managed to survive. That might have had something to do with remaining calm, or it might have been the fact that we didn’t shy away from violence.
Given even numbers, I’d back me and Casey in a fight against almost any other supernatural beings. We didn’t fight as gracefully as the elves did, or with lightning speed, like the vampires did. We were brawlers. We fought hard and dirty, because our society didn’t suffer hang ups like honor or fairness. Better to be honorless and alive than honorably dead.
But this was anything but a fair fight. I’d grown up with stories of the old gods. Sadistic sociopaths, all of them. And now we were faced with one.
“Welp, we’re fucked. It’s been nice knowing you, Case,” I said, turning toward my cousin.
She rolled her eyes at me. “Charlie, I love you, but you are so melodramatic sometimes. Don’t you think that if she were going to kill us, she would have just, you know, killed us?”
“Allow me to remind you of five minutes ago, when she nearly, you know, killed me.”
“I think she was more trying to let you know just what you were dealing with. She did the same to me when I woke up. And remember when she told me that I would soon have the answers I seek? She didn’t smell like she was lying.”
My cousin, the optimist. I’d just have to trust her on that last bit. Her nose was obviously more sensitive than mine. All I could smell was burning aether and my own rage. “I dunno, Case. These runes around us look pretty ominous. Maybe she’s just waiting to kill us at the right moment.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. There aren’t any Celtic death runes in the pattern.”
“What if she knows how much of a dork you are and that there was a risk that you could identify them, so she drew them all behind us?”
She whipped her head as far to the right as she could, trying to look over her shoulder. “Shit. I hadn’t thought abou-”
I heard it at the same time she did. Footsteps. On the stairs. A lot of them.
A moment later, Cailleach reappeared, ushering in the twenty four hooded figures that followed her. They kept their heads turned toward the floor as they filed in, their rough-hewn, brown woolen cowls hiding their faces from view. Each step they took was made with care as they avoided smudging the chalk lines beneath their feet.
The room was soon crowded with them in it, and the scent of excitement and fear rolling off of them was as palpable as their magic. My skin rose in goosebumps as their power hummed around me. They must have been the strongest of Cailleach’s followers.
Twenty four sick wolves. Twenty four druids. In magic, numbers had power. Different numbers had different significance for different disciplines. As werewolves, our mystic’s power numbers revolved around the lunar cycle. I had no idea what drove the druids, or why twenty four was significant. Casey probably did, but now wasn’t the time to start pestering her with questions. The time for banter had passed. The time for threats however…
I growled at the druids, and more than a few took a step back from the sound. “You better pray to your goddess over there that her bindings can hold me, because if I get out of them, I’m going to -”
“The bindings will hold,” Cailleach spoke over me, her voice as calm and serene as her expression. “Ignore her and take up your positions. Her threats will not interrupt our casting.”
They spanned out along the walls, standing nearly shoulder to shoulder. Each one stopped with their feet dead center in a chalk circle. Lines lead away from them to curl into the runes and symbols that made up the larger circular pattern that surrounded me and Casey.
I looked over at my cousin, wondering if these were the last moments I’d ever spend with her. She was too busy glaring daggers around the room to share in my pity party. “Do you know what happened to the last group that attacked us?” she asked.
“Silence,” Cailleach said. With a wave of her hand, Casey’s bindings tightened, and I was forced to watch her writhe in pain.
“We killed them. All,” I said, hoping to draw the goddess’ focus away from my cousin. “And then we killed everyone they ever lov-”
The roots around me gave an almighty clench, and I snapped my mouth shut as I sucked down a ragged breath through my nose. It felt like all the joints in my body were grinding together. As suddenly as it started, it stopped, and I could breathe again.
“I really don’t want to hurt you girls,” Cailleach said. Her brow furrowed in what might have been concern. “You’re going to need every ounce of your strength for this next part.”
She drew herself up then, power gathering around her like a lightning storm. I instinctively cringed away from it, but barely managed to move thanks to my restraints. It felt like I was back in my brother’s bedroom, the skin being flayed from my body. There was no desire to shift into wolf form this time, only pain.
“Open your mouths, little wolves,” Cailleach commanded.
Her magic lashed out, forcing my mouth open. I fought it with everything I had, but where Cailleach swam in the deep, I was relegated to the kiddy pool when it came to metaphysical mojo. She’d put enough power into the words that I didn’t stand a chance of refusing her this time.
As my jaw dropped open, I glanced to my right to see Casey’s doing the same. At least I wasn’t alone with my shame. Angry tears prickled the corners of my eyes as a narrow root rose up and gagged me. It was gentle when it slithered between my teeth and wrapped around the back of my head, as if Cailleach truly didn’t want to hurt me. Casey’s words came back to me then. If Cailleach didn’t want to kill us, then what the hell was this about?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out.
“Let it begin,” Cailleach said, stepping into the large circle in front of us.
The next words she spoke were complete and utter gibberish to me, but they weren’t entirely foreign. I’d spied on enough of the druid rituals that I at least recognized that she was speaking Gaelic. On some unintelligible command, the druids each pulled a wicked looking blade from within their robes and dragged them across their left wrists. The coppery tang of blood filled the air as the first drops fell to the floor. The cuts were shallow, but because of their location they bled a steady stream of crimson onto the concrete. I watched, transfixed, as it pooled by their feet, stopping just inside the chalk circle as if held there by some unseen barrier.
As the pools of blood widened, the magic built. It brushed over my skin like the gentle caress of a lover, whispered in my ears as though sharing a secret in a language I no longer understood. I tried to ignore it, but it was an insidious type of nature magic that called to something deep within me, some ancient part of what made me what I was. The magic leeched away my fear, subverting it with false-tranquility. The smell of heather and stone soon drowned out that of the blood. I sucked in a deep breath and caught hints of moss, running water, and rich, foreign soil. My breath came out in a sigh as the tension left my body. I would have fallen over were it not for my bindings.
On another command, the druids hid their knives away and ran their fingertips over their wounds. When they pulled them away their skin was unmarred. Cailleach began to chant then. A moment later, her followers joined in, swaying back and forth with the rhythm. Men and women’s voices rose together and then parted into two separate cadences, the lower tones of the men beating like drums, while the higher octaves of the women trilled like wood flutes. At their feet, the pools of blood began to beat in time with the chanting. It was like looking at the ripples in a glass of water while someone stomped around it. The waves started in the center of each and moved outward so quickly that it looked like the blood was vibrating.
The druidic chanting picked up speed, and the blood stopped vibrating and started to boil. The power rose. Too much. It was too much. Even though I was wrapped in a soothing blanket of peace, I could feel what this much power was doing to my body. My head throbbed, my lungs ached, and my muscles twitched and spasmed as though they were on the verge of cramping. A rivulet of warmth slipped from my nose and ran down my face. I blinked and felt a liquid too thick to be tears leak from my eyes. Drip, drip, drip. That same warmth was coming out of my ears.
I breathed in the scent of my own blood. I was bleeding like I had some sort of hemorrhagic fever. They were going to kill us after all. Far beneath my calm, I thought I felt some part of me bellowing in rage.
The chanting broke off so quickly that the last of the words echoed around us in the sudden silence, reverberating off the concrete walls before crashing against each other. The druids stared at their feet, and I followed their gazes to watch a thin tendril of blood spread out from each pool. It pushed at the chalk barrier that had held them in place and then surged past it. As I watched, the blood followed the white lines across the floor, tracing out the runes, spiraling around the curlicue patterns until the chalk was obliterated by crimson. I felt a distant stab of fear as it wound its way toward the tree roots. Something would happen when it reached them. Something awful.
Cailleach spoke a word, and the blood paused. I raised my gaze to hers. She looked back and forth between Casey and I. Though her face remained ageless, I saw something in her eyes that belied her age, some hint of the ancient, immortal creature that she was.
“The roots around you belong to the tree of life, krawn ba-huh. They will take you to where you need to go. Only after you free the others will you find me. Only after you free the others can you free me. Only after you free me can I send you home. And whatever you do, stay away from the dragons.”
What the fu-
My thought was cut off by the tree roots. They sprang to life and slithered upward, wrapping around first my shoulders and then my neck before they wound themselves around my head. That rumbling torrent of rage deep inside me turned into screams of terror as the room disappeared from sight and I became fully entombed.
I heard a muffled word from Cailleach. And then I felt when the blood finished its progress and sank into the roots of krawn ba-huh.
I’ve never been in an earthquake before. And I’ve never been flushed down a toilet, either. Another thing I haven’t done is jump out of a plane or get shot into space. But even though I hadn’t experienced any of these things, I could imagine what they must feel like, at least to some small degree.
What happened next was like experiencing each one of those things. Simultaneously. While standing at ground zero of a nuclear blast.
I didn’t black out. I disintegrated.
The last conscious thought I had was a prayer that if I woke up, I’d be so CACA’d that I would never be able to remember this feeling.