PART TWENTY-SEVEN

Turns out words can cut deeper than the sharpest claws.


"He's gone, Ron. Our Alpha's gone."


The words were spoken gently, but they slapped Ron in the face. Six words that reached inside his chest and squeezed. He rushed from the room and ran toward the stairs. But at the last moment, he turned and continued down the Hall, ignoring the staircase. Ron knew once he went down, the news would be real, and he wasn't ready for it to be real.

He could hear muffled shouts behind him, but their meaning was drowned out by his heartbeat, which now lived right behind his eyes. Keep moving, he told himself. Just keep moving.

A bedroom with a large, open window led Ron to the roof; the rickety trellis scaled quickly with the fearless confidence of youth. The moon was blinding, and Ron's skin itched, but he ignored it, happy to be alone, away from people and truths.

Lying across the shingled peak, he looked at the stars and felt very small. He imagined exploring the vastness of space and finding a planet exactly like his in every way.

Every way, that is, except one.

Tears fell freely from his eyes, but he made no move to wipe them. His brother Carl would laugh if he saw him now. A face wet with anything but sweat is a sign of weakness, he would say. Most would agree with him.

Most, except one.

A face moved in front of Ron, eclipsing the universe behind it. Its owner's identity was obscured by the bright circle of the moon, which was still burned into Ron's vision.

"Hey," said Gary.

Ron closed his eyes tightly, willing his brother to disappear. Silence stretched for minutes, but Ron's nose wouldn't let him believe he'd gotten his wish.

"Go away, Gary."

Just keep moving. Just keep moving

The wind had picked up and whistled through the trees around them. It carried the pungent scent of the gathering crowd below, grief and shock mixed with opportunism.

Opening his eyes, he could see his brother was now silhouetted by the moon, which seemed even brighter in the presence of his family's new Alpha.

"He's gone, Ron. Our Alpha's gone," said Gary gently.

There they were again. Those six inescapable words.

Gary then did something unexpected. He hugged his brother. The closeness filled Ron's nose with the acrid scent of sadness and, surprisingly, the slight lemony aroma of something he never expected to smell on his brother.

Fear.

Their father's death turned their family upside down. Gary, at seventeen, immediately became the new Alpha, with all the power and responsibility that position demanded. But Alpha wasn't the only position of power in the clan. The following weeks saw many seek to curry favour with their new leader. Even Ron, now one step closer to the familial throne, suddenly found himself popular with cousins who would have spat on him the day before.

But Ron didn't care about his newfound popularity (though he did appreciate less spit in his life). His father's death was devastating, and, ironically, his father was the one who'd console him in times like this. His mother had withdrawn to her room, speaking to spirits no one else could see. His brother Carl was too wrapped up in his own jealousy to care about Ron's feelings, and the rest of the family's sycophantic sympathies make his stomach turn.

The reason his father had died didn't help either. There was no historic battle, no great quest fulfilled, just an accident at sea. A storm capsized his boat off the coast of Greenland. What his father was doing there, no one knew. But Ron didn't care about questions of what and how. He wanted to know why. Why was his father taken from him? Killed by, of all things, the weather. That wasn't something one wrote epic ballads about. Ron had tried several occasions, but they always ended up as jingles.

#

It's your brother. He's been poisoned.

Six words. Different this time, but five years later, just as devastating. Words that, once again, would change the course of Ron's life forever.

He left the balcony and walked down the hallway, but this time, when the staircase appeared, he didn't hesitate to go down. Too many truths had been kept from him, he thought. And maybe that was his fault. Perhaps it was time to stop moving.

Thanks to the Inn, the stairs lead directly to the entrance to Great Hall. There Ron found a state of pandemonium. What mere hours ago was a room filled with werewolves celebrating their unity against an unseen threat had now devolved into a sea of accusations. In the centre, Ron could see many werewolves lying on the ground, mostly clan alphas. Most were unconscious; a few were retching a black, foul liquid that stained their fur and turned the grass brown where it landed.

Ron made his way through the crowd, looking for his brother in the collection of his unconscious kin. He knew which brother he hoped to find, but luck, once again, was not on his side.

Gary was on his knees, supported on both sides by Brian and Carl. His eyes were milky and unfocused, his fur covered in black vomit. He was shaking uncontrollably, and Ron suspected he would topple over if not for the support of his brother and uncle.

"Ron! Get over here." Shouted Carl.

Ron complied. "What happened?"

"There'll be time for questions later," Carl said dismissively. "Right now, we have to get Gary out of here."

Carl passed the left arm of a semi-conscious Gary to Ron, who immediately crumpled under the weight.

"What are you waiting for? Growled Carl. Shift already. There isn't much time.

Ron held his breath and closed his hands into fists. He cleared his mind and let the noise and chaos around him fade. Soon, all he could hear was the blood of his ancestors coursing through his veins, calling him to his birthright.

Nothing happened.

"Are you deaf as well as stupid?" Roared Carl. "Shift!"

Ron tried to quiet his mind again. But the sounds around him only grew louder. Howls of anguish for the fallen. Voices screaming for the blood of those responsible. The smell was also overwhelming; sweat and sick and sorrow mixed with anger and vengeance. He looked at his hands, willing the fingernails to erupt from their beds, wishing his knuckles to snap, his thumbs to dislocate.

But still, nothing happened.

They were half-carrying, half-dragging Gary, who was now lapsing in and out of consciousness. Ron struggled under the weight as he noticed that many eyes in the room had begun to follow them. Though the intentions behind those eyes were unclear.

"Now!" Roared Carl. "You useless Whenwolf."

Sweat poured from Ron's forehead, stinging his own eyes. He pinched them shut and squeezed his fists and toes together. He clenched his jaw so tight his teeth squealed like nails on a chalkboard, threatening to snap. He held his breath, pushing his body to change, to become what he was always meant to be. At first, he felt nothing, but then, slowly, it came; a pressure from deep inside, an internal, ancestral roar that would not be denied. He pushed harder, forcing the beast to emerge and removing all doubt about who he was.

Then Ron farted.

Years later, stories would be told of the beast that emerged from Ron that day. A swirling, formless monstrosity of sulphur and brimstone. A child from the bowels of hell that made even the bravest warrior's eyes tear up. A being who's bellow deafened armies and made trousers tremble.

Today, however, Ron's fart did something perhaps even more impressive. It elicited an emotion from werewolves who, moments ago, were filled only with thoughts of vengeance. For the briefest of moments, the Hall was filled with laughter. The thirteen clans were united in their amusement at the young werewolf who had, apparently, nearly pooped himself trying to shift.

Ron didn't wait for the laughter to die before leaving the Great Hall, moving as fast as he could until he reached the lobby. Even the assembled dogs and cats seemed to look at him with amusement as he opened the door and walked outside, hoping, with every fibre of his being, that his shadow was waiting for him.

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