"Serious" Falling Stars
If there was one thing almost as good as rain at keeping the apes from moving around, Snarl thought as he dashed along the hidden trails heading towards the north end of Central Park, it was the threat of rain. They acted as if a little water would carve them up like the Grand Canyon. He would have considered them idiots, but the fact they were apes was enough of a curse on its own. It was a rare and unalloyed joy that he could run through the park in Lupus form like this, but he was quickly reminded that the circumstances which made it possible were the reason he was moving towards 110th Avenue. The brief electrical storm had swept over the island of Manhattan like a wolf’s tongue over a pup and knocked out power everywhere. Mother Larissa had sent him north to make sure everything was quiet up around Harlem Meer. He knew that the foolish Uktena liked meeting on the island in the middle of the lake, and if they had accidentally caused a problem, he would be the best one suited to put it down quickly. Especially if ConEd happened to be in the area trying to get power restored.
“Snarl, wait up!” said a voice in his mind.
“Run faster,” he snapped mentally. If the power outage had been a mixed blessing, being accompanied by Shandy Spirit-Friend was an equally mixed blessing. While he would be highly reluctant to admit he might need help with anything, Snarl knew that if they did happen to run into ConEd or Park Police, or even just some damn fool caught in the Park when the lights went out, Shandy would be the better choice for deflecting questions and charming people into walking away. She was a recent arrival to the Sept, a Bone Gnawer and Theurge-in-training, not more than a few months removed from her First Change. Mother Larissa had taken a shine to the street urchin and it looked like she was going to be sticking around permanently. And it was hard even for a dedicated misanthrope like Snarl to work up a genuine degree of anger at her. She was, as Wildcard once archly remarked, such a cheery ray of sunshine that you’d puke rainbows and butterflies from hanging around her too long. Still, she was very new to the wolf side of her nature and Snarl wasn’t the most patient teacher.
The pair stopped on a small rise near the western edge of Harlem Meer. From their vantage point, they couldn’t see any ConEd utility trucks on the streets. There were a few buildings that looked like they still had power, but Snarl was certain those would be running off generators. As for the rest of the island, it was dark and quiet. For the first time in who knew how long, through breaks in the slowly drifting storm clouds, stars could be seen in the sky. A few here and there, but they burned bright and clear in the night sky before being cloaked again. It made Snarl wonder what the island had been like before the skyscrapers, before America, even before the apes ever decided to befoul it.
“Look!” Shandy cried telepathically. “Down there, in the water!”
Snarl looked down towards Harlem Meer, not quite able to make out anything at first. Another break in the clouds revealed a half-moon shining down on the water, the ripples on the lake looking like fish scales as they caught the light. And as he looked, he saw something floating there, breaking up the curved silvery ripples on the surface. A shape that looked very suspiciously like a man’s.
“Shouldn’t we go down there and fish him out?” asked Shandy anxiously.
“He’s probably already drowned, pup. There’s nothing we can do. Let the Park Police find him.”
Shandy shifted to Homid form and looked down at him. “I know you don’t care for humans, Snarl, but he might have just gone in. There’s still a chance to save him.”
Growling, Snarl shifted to Glabro form and looked down on Shandy. “What’s one more dead ape in this Wyrm-fouled hellhole?”
“Maybe not much to you, but I want to be able to sleep tonight without any bad dreams. Help me or stay out of my way, but do something.” Shandy turned on her heel and began running down to the water’s edge, shifting herself into Glabro to better handle what might only be a corpse. Snarl watched her go, then growled and followed her. It was less about helping Shandy than having to explain himself to Mother Larissa about the whole incident. Bodies floating in any of the lakes of Central Park was something that should at least be investigated a little by the Caern Warder, if only to make sure that a threat to the sept wasn’t being overlooked. Snarl really hoped it was just a simple mugging gone bad.
The two Garou waded out into the water, one on either side of the body. “Amazing,” Shandy whispered. “He’s floating face up.” She leaned in, inhaling deeply as she tried to catch his scent. “He’s Garou! And he’s not from around here.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s his scent. He smells of incense and strange forests and cold winds in high places.”
Snarl leaned in and captured the stranger’s scent. “He also smells of blood and ashes,” he proclaimed. “He’s been in a fight of some sort and very recently.”
“Let’s get him on shore and we’ll check him for wounds. This water can’t be good for him if he’s injured.”
They gently lifted the unconscious stranger up and carried him back up past the rise and into a knot of trees. The stranger was naked, an oddity for a Garou in Homid form these days. But if his lack of clothes were unusual, the tattoos covering his body were positively baffling. From the shoulders down to the ankles, without any sort of rhyme or reason, small stylized stars had been pricked into the skin. Each was only the size of Shandy’s pinkie fingernail. None seemed to be arranged in any sort of known constellation or pattern that Snarl or Shandy could recognize. Despite Shandy’s concerns, they couldn’t find any open wounds on the stranger, though some fading bruises seemed to indicate he’d taken a beating at some point recently. The stranger was still breathing, which was a positive sign for his eventual recovery.
“You should go tell Mother Larissa about this,” Shandy said quietly.
“And why am I telling her this?”
“Because you’re the Caern Warder. It’s your duty. And you have to hurry before ConEd gets the lights turned back on.”
Snarl dropped back to Lupus form. “You seem to be awfully familiar with what you think is my duty, pup,” he growled at her.
“All right,” said Shandy in a level voice, her eyes narrowing slightly. “You’re faster than I am in Lupus and I want him to see a friendly face if he comes to, not somebody who hates him for being what he was born as. I don’t care how you dress it up, but you’re going and I’m staying put.”
Snarl’s jaw dropped momentarily, then felt an unwilling flash of respect from the young Theurge. He might be Caern Warder, but he was also a Red Talon. He’d earned great Reknown over the years, but he was once again reminded Reknown was no guarantor of trust. And Shandy clearly didn’t trust him on this matter.
“I’ll go get help,” he said, then loped off.
* * *
The first sensation he recognized was pain. It was dull but steady. No broken bones. No open wounds. But he hurt all over. Whatever had happened to him had been big enough to affect his entire body at once. He tried to remember, but couldn’t recall what happened. Problematic.
“I think he’s starting to come to,” said a voice. It was to his left, down by his knees, young, probably female. He didn’t recognize the speaker.
“I think you’re right,” said another voice. Also on his left, this one sitting next to his shoulder. Also female, but older, cracked, equally unknown. There was a murmur of other voices. He could tell they were mixed male and female, probably leaning more towards the former in terms of numbers, but none of them sounded familiar. The smells of the area were now starting to register. A fire. The smell of elms and oaks and alders. Beyond that, the smell of cars and buses, sewer lines, rotting garbage.
“Where am I?” he croaked softly. He tried to push himself up, but his body seemed to be unresponsive, as if it couldn’t understand the commands being sent to his muscles. He focused his attentions and slowly forced his eyes to open. He began to make out blobby shapes that might be people, but even his vision didn’t seem to want to function properly at the moment, and his eyes slipped shut.
“You’re safe, child,” said the old woman. “You’ve had a very busy evening, I think. Though it is courtesy to inform people when traveling to another caern or any unknown Garou’s territory.”
“My apologies,” he murmured, “though I had no intention to violate your territory without warning you. It is a breach of the Litany, and I am sorry for it.” A part of him wondered how he knew that. He once again forced his eyes to open and tried very hard to make them focus. Slowly, the old woman became a distinct form. Weathered brown skin, stained ratty looking clothes, mixed white and gray hair tied back with a tattered ribbon, teeth still mostly white and straight.
“Apology accepted. Don’t think you had much choice in the matter, really. Can you tell us your name?”
His eyes closed again. He opened his mouth to answer the old woman and froze. What should be the single most important and easily recalled datum in his memory was gone. His eyes snapped open in terror as he tried to recall memories, places he’d been, people he knew, things he’d done or seen. All that could be found was a yawning chasm in his mind.
“I can’t remember!” he whispered.
“He lies!” snarled a wolf off to his right, below his feet. “There’s no injury to his head! No bruises or wounds!”
“Easy, Snarl, easy,” soothed a roundish man. “If he went into the water the way you found him, it might still have caused a concussion. Temporary memory impairment is not unreasonable. Let him get rested up, give it a few hours, see if anything comes back to him.”
“Werewolves of Central Park!” called out another voice in a profoundly satisfied tone. The stranger looked at a dark haired man in a sharply cut suit walking into the circle. “You may thank me for keeping Councilman Dinsmore from sneaking in those vagrancy penalties he was so hot about.” The newcomer looked at him in brief surprise and flashed a thin smile. “What’s this? Somebody fall out of the sky?” A chilly silence swept over the circle and the newcomer’s smile vanished. “Oh, shit, you’re kidding me, right?”
“Wish we were, Wildcard,” the roundish man said solemnly. “Shandy and Snarl found him floating in Harlem Meer right after that electrical storm. And when Hot Sauce and I went to check on Mera, she seemed very distressed. Somebody or something popped a Moon Bridge open for a moment and it upset her greatly.”
“But how is that possible, Prism?” asked Wildcard, obviously confused. “There’s rules, there’s Rites that have be followed. Even the Striders have to work at making something like that happen.”
“Don’t know how it happened, but it happened. And our guest here doesn’t seem to remember much at the moment. Including his own name, apparently.”
The stranger let his head fall back and his eyes slip shut. He heard the circle discussing his fate and he drifted back into unconsciousness.
* * *
“Hey, Serious!” called out Shandy. “Are you busy?”
Serious continued to perform his katas, moving with slow deliberate grace as he stood perched on a small boulder. It had been a few months since his arrival. He’d been given the “temporary” name Serious by Shandy after discovering that the moon had been in conjuction with the star Sirius on his arrival, and her firm belief it was being misspelled on the star charts. “Hello, Shandy,” he said with a small smile. “Just exercising.”
The young Theurge parked herself next to the boulder, watching him move in the fading light of day. “How is it you can do all those exercises, but you can’t even remember your own name?”
“Same way I know how to make coffee, or find my way out of the woods, or perform the Rite of Cleansing. The body remembers and the spirit remembers. It’s the mind that’s not quite working right.”
“So what exercise is this?”
“Fighting the Wind,” Serious replied as he turned on the ball of his right foot and slowly pushed his left arm forward, palm flat. “It’s probably not the correct name, but the idea feels right. Perform the moves slowly, as if pushing against the wind, helps perfect the moves.”
“What kind of moves are they? Like kung fu or karate or something?”
“No,” said Serious slowly, “I don’t think it’s those. I don’t know what martial art this is called. I just know that I know the moves. I suppose that’s probably the more important part, really. If a martial art has no name, can it still be studied?”
Shandy’s forehead scrunched in concentration. “That makes my head hurt,” she said after a few moments.
“I get thoughts like that. It’s almost like I’ve had to try and think about those things before. But when I try to think about where the thoughts are coming from, I run into the same old walls.” His arms began to quiver a little and his balance seemed to falter ever so slightly. “It’s kind of pissing me off. I’ve become my own riddle.”
“Ugh! That just makes my head hurt more!” whined Shandy. “Can’t you think of simple things?”
“I try,” chuckled Serious as his arms moved through an evolution of blocks and strikes, finished by a sweeping kick. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work. What’d you want to talk about?”
“Oh, yeah! Mother Larissa wanted me to remind you to be around the camp tonight. Said Flash might be coming by later.”
“I will do that,” Serious assured her. “Flash has been a big help. He was the one who figured out I was a Philodox. Now if he could just figure out the rest of my story.” As he opened his mouth to continue, Serious paused in mid-move, snapping his head sharply to the right. “Shandy—”
“I heard it, too.”
Serious came down off the boulder as if coming down a step ladder, then started to run to the west. A few hundred yards away, he stopped next to an old elm tree, watching as a pack of muggers surrounded a middle aged woman. Shandy skidded to a stop next to him.
“We gotta do something,” she said breathlessly.
Serious looked at the muggers, five of them, as they harrassed the woman. To say they were behaving like a pack of wolves was a gross slander on his heritage. “Go back to the camp, get whoever you can. I’ll try and draw them away from her.”
“But Serious, they don’t smell right!”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Run, Shandy, hurry!” Serious came out from behind the tree and walked over to the gang. Shandy thought he was being insane. She knew that he was strong and fast, but he didn’t have a knack for intimidation. He didn’t like throwing his weight around. There had been a couple of minor altercations in the camp which he’d settled just by being calm and reasonable. But for scum like this, a show of force was required, a suggestion that the jackals had crossed paths with a lion. And that wasn’t Serious’ style. Shandy ran back towards the camp, hoping that his style wasn’t going to get him killed.
* * *
Simon Gentle strolled into the Sept of the Green’s camp whistling a little ditty. He’d had a very good day and he wanted to share the fruits of his labors with his comrades. As he opened his mouth to greet everybody, he stopped as he took in the scene. The sept’s newest resident was sitting next to the fire in a full lotus, eyes closed, seemingly meditating. The rest of the sept seemed to be crowded as far as they could get from him, except for Mother Larissa, and even she appeared a little unsettled. “What did I miss?” he asked in genuine curiosity. “Somebody die?”
Prism looked over at his friend with the sort of almost horrified fascination one had when beholding a large bomb counting down to detonation. “Yeah. A low grade vampire and his four ghoul butt buddies. They were trying to mug some lady near Cherry Hill. And then Serious came along.”
Flash looked over at Serious, seeing he was still meditating. “He took on all five of them?”
“I think he tried to reason with them first,” said Shandy in a near whisper. “But he told me to go get help. I ran towards Strawberry Fields, figured Prism would be there. He was, and Snarl happened to be close by. We ran back and we followed his trail. The woman had run off. Think she might have wet herself a little bit. But Serious, he led them backwards to a little stand of trees, let them chase him instead. And then . . .”
“Then what?” prompted Flash.
Prism gulped at the memory. “He wasted them, Flash. I mean, he utterly destroyed them. Made it look effortless. And he did it so fast, I couldn’t keep up.”
“Snarl?” asked Flash, as if seeking corroboration from the Caern Warder.
“I never want him angry at me,” the Ahrouhn said in a flat, almost defeated voice.
“How?” Flash asked. “Come on, guys, what’s got everybody so spooked?”
“It was the way he did it, Flash. All of us know how to fight, at least a little. Up until a little while ago, I would have pegged Snarl as probably the most dangerous fighter in the sept. But now?” Prism shook his head. “It’s a little overwhelming. To see what Serious did, it was like watching people get torn apart by the wind. At first, he tried to just disable the ghouls, stayed in Homid form, nice straight fight. But once the leech showed his fangs, it was no more Mr. Nice Wolf. The ghouls never had a prayer. Once Serious got moving, he never stopped. He’d shift from Homid to Crinos, smash the shit out of a ghoul, then into Lupus to avoid getting hit by the leech or another ghoul, bounce off a tree and back into Crinos. I mean, he just never stopped shifting. I don’t think he stayed in any form for more than a few moments before making another attack or dodging another incoming hit. And they never touched him. The vampire got close, once, but I think that was probably dumb luck. Serious tossed him against a tree, did a flying kick, shifted into Crinos right as he launched himself, slammed his foot straight into the vampire’s throat.”
Flash winced at the image of a Garou’s Crinos-form foot coming into contact with a human throat. “I take it that pretty much ended the fight.”
“It was like watching a champagne bottle getting opened with a saber. The head just flew right off.” Prism shook his head slowly. “I’m not going to shed any tears for any of those fuckers, but in hindsight, I almost feel a little sorry for them. Serious has always been so . . .quiet. I mean, yeah, I never thought he was a weakling or a pussy, but this? It’s just kind of a lot to process all at once, especially trying to reconcile that with his amnesia.”
“It seems to corroborate what my sources picked up today,” said Flash. “It’s mostly rumors and gossip, but it’s remarkably consistent. Something big was going down in Asia, some kind of conclave or something. Bigger than a moot, but not quite as big as say the organization of a new sept. But the interesting bit is that there were several Stargazers present, including a few of their Kailindo masters and several practitioners of the art. I’m starting to think Serious might have been among them.”
“A few of their masters?” asked Wildcard incredulously. “How many Garou hold that sort of rank?”
“Offhand, my guess would be only a dozen or so, which kind of explains why the tribe’s eldest leaders are so very upset right now.”
“I didn’t think Stargazers could get upset,” murmured Prism.
“Apparently they can. Whatever this gathering was, it was big and it was hidden and pretty much anybody who knew anything specific about it is missing. And that many Garou who know that much about their martial arts style going missing has severely damaged their collective sense of Zen.” Flash looked over at Serious. “He might be the only person who could tell anybody what happened.”
“Not anytime soon, he can’t,” said Mother Larissa firmly. “He’s part of the sept, so we’re going to keep him around. We won’t pressure him. Moreover, we won’t let the Stargazers or anybody else pressure him, either. Whatever he knows, he’ll recall it when he needs to and not one moment before.”
“That may be hard to do, Mother,” Flash cautioned. “The Stargazers alone are going to be very persistent about this, I’m almost certain. And the word’s already starting to spread. There’s other folks who might be sniffing around.”
“If anybody thinks they can push us around on our own turf,” Mother Larissa growled, slowly shifting into Glabro, “they’re going to regret the decision or I will know the reason why.”
Serious stood up from the full lotus without using his hands to brace himself. “Maybe I should go, Mother,” he said quietly. “Particularly if it’s going to attract attention to the Sept.”
“Nonsense,” the old Garou spat. “Like I said, you’re part of the Sept, and we take care of our own here.”
* * *
The winds seemed to whisper in his ear as Serious meditated. He’d had more than a few adventures, earning great Reknown within his pack and his Sept, and even beyond the borders of Central Park. Yet his greatest mystery remained unsolved. Clues, he had, but they didn’t make any sense to him. There was a name that he carried, yet it wasn’t his. There was an ancestor that he felt a connection to, yet that seemed only to further deepen the mystery. He had unlocked the Serpent Fire of the Kundalini through the second chakra, yet he was aware how much further he had to go. Brothers and sisters of the pack had been his greatest allies, yet he was aware how fractious and impulsive they could be. Paradox, dichotomy, contradictions, they swirled around him like leaves on the wind. He treasured time like this. Away from everybody, on his favorite boulder, meditating in Central Park.
“Serious!” cried Shandy from off in the distance. Sighing, he opened his eyes and stood up from the full lotus in one smooth motion. The young Theurge came up to him breathlessly. She’d run hard to try and find him.
“What is it, Shandy?”
“Something’s wrong. You’re needed back at the camp. They found a body.”