With so much frenzied eating, it took Ron a while to cross the Hall. His main concern was being bitten accidentally, but he needed to speak with his brother Gary.
Gary, Brian and some other clan Alphas had found an enormous bucket of squirrels that had somehow avoided the earlier culinary carnage. Ron's initial attempts to get his brother's attention were met with one-syllable grunts as they popped the squirrels like chicken nuggets. Eventually, he waved Ron over.
"Gary, I have something important I need to tell you."
"Of course, Ron. But first..."
"It's important, Gary!"
Gary leaned back against the trunk of the Treeble, his demeanour relaxed. This surprised Ron, considering many of the werewolves around him would have been just as happy enjoying a meal with Lycanon should fortunes have played out differently.
"Ronnie. You look so serious. Go on, have a squirrel. Join your brothers."
Ron reluctantly sat down and reached into the bucket-o-squirrels.
Gary smiled. "I wanted to thank you for all your help."
"Help?" Ron replied, confused.
"Yes. You did a great job helping Mary over the last two days."
Gary punched Ron's arm playfully. "Don't be so modest. The work you've done preparing the food, our rooms. It hasn't gone unnoticed."
Ron was speechless. He'd been so worried about this moment the knots in his stomach had knots. His explanation and apology had been rehearsed hundreds of times in his head. He imagined Gary telling him how they scoured the streets of Waterford looking for him, fearing the worst. He imagined Gary's anger turning to pride as he told him of his meeting with the twins and how the Children of the Veil had chosen him to be their messenger.
He didn't even know I was gone.
Ron's earlier rage returned, though he knew it had nothing to do with Mary this time.
They didn't even miss me.
Ron stood and walked towards the exit. Fists clenched.
"Ronnie," Gary called after him. "Come back; you left your squirrel."
Ron wandered down the Hall with no destination in mind. He just wanted to get as far away from his brother as possible. The Hall had also become a combination of a frat party, food eating challenge and mixed martial arts tournament. He was happy to leave.
Wiping his eyes. Ron's rage was replaced by sadness. Looking at his hands, he saw they were bloody where his nails had shifted and pierced the skin, yet he felt no pain - physically anyway.
"Ronnie. Wait up." Kira called from down the hallway. Ron saw her right arm bleeding from a deep cut, the result of a dispute over a particularly fat partridge. Her left arm held the partridge high in the air.
"We haven't had a chance to talk since we arrived. Care to share the spoils of victory?"
Ron didn't want to be around anyone at the moment, but he found himself nodding. "Sure, Cuz."
Ron's relationship with his older cousin was two-sided, like a coin. Every time they met, flip. Heads, it was nice-Kira, friendly and open. Tails, it was paranoid-Kira, looking for enemies around every corner and treating Ron with contempt - particularly in the presence of their family.
Ron had chalked it up to a combination of a life lived as a spy and Kira's need to prove herself as mean and tough as any male warrior. Whatever the reason, it didn't hurt any less. Fortunately, it had come up heads today.
The hallway continued steadily upwards, never reaching the kitchen. For a moment, Ron worried the Inn was feeling jealous again. But soon, they arrived at a door that opened onto a rooftop balcony overlooking the city.
Kira dropped the partridge and tore a piece of cloth off her sleeve, which she fashioned into a makeshift tourniquet. She then placed both hands on the balcony, taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly.
In human form, she was an average-looking woman of average build. Her brown hair was short and low maintenance, and her clothes were simple and utilitarian. Besides the scar that ran from her left temple to her chin, there was nothing remarkable about her.
And she liked it that way.
"It's good to be outside again, Ronnie. I don't know about you, but inside that Hall feels wrong."
The evening air was chilly but refreshing. Ron couldn't believe the whole day had passed. Inside, the Hall seemed timeless as the gentle glow of sunlight never wavered, and the temperature remained constant. It was just perfect.
"Maybe that's what feels wrong about it." Ron mused. "It's too perfect. Nature isn't perfect. It's messy and chaotic, which is what makes it beautiful."
"When did you become a poet?" Kira said, looking out into the city, her tone wistful. "We need more poets on this mission."
"I'm not a poet," said Ron defensively. He already wasn't respected by his brothers and the thought of being known as the werewolf poet who didn't even know it was not appealing.
"Who was chasing you today?" Kira asked suddenly.
Ron was floored. He knew his cousin was perceptive, she had to be, but this was next level. Could she somehow smell the memory of his recent chase? He smelled himself under both armpits.
"How did you know?"
Kira turned away from the city to look at Ron. "I helped Mary move you to her room this morning. You talk in your sleep."
The story of the last two days spilled out of Ron like Lycanon's intestines, long and messy. He told Kira everything, from meeting the twins at the dance club to his supposed fight at the park, his marathon escape from the woman in the hoodie, and even his "jealous Inn" theory. Kira peppered him with questions. He answered as best he could, remembering it all in vivid detail, except for some reason, the names of the two young women or where they lived.
"It's weird. Their names are right on the top of my tongue. I just can't remember."
"Tip," Kira said.
Ron waited, but after several seconds the advice never came.
"Are we having a staring contest?" Kira finally asked.
Ron blinked, confused. "No. I was waiting for your advice."
"A tip on how to remember their names."
Kira laughed, a rare sound.
"Cousin, your ability to lighten the mood at the end of the world is truly a gift."
"Thank you." Ron replied, "Wait, what?"
Kira looked up and stared at the moon, which, five days from full, cast a watchful eye upon the city.
"All the rituals of today, the fighting, the speeches, it just helps mask the truth of what we're facing."
The balcony railing strained under Kira's grip. "If we can't re-tune, refocus or re-whatever this magical energy, we as a race are doomed. All creatures on this side of the Veil are doomed.
Ron knew the word doomed was never good when it came to prophecies, and now it had been used twice in a single sentence.
"Surely it's not that dire." Asked Ron, realizing he'd used the other word you don't want to hear in the middle of a prophecy. "Gary has a plan, and with the help of the thirteen clans, and the other magical creatures, we're sure to figure it out."
A cloud moved in front of the moon, sending a shadow across the world that seemed to further darken Kira's mood.
"I wish that were true, cousin, but there are too many moving parts for it to be that simple, too many agendas."
"Surely everyone has the same agenda," suggested Ron. "To fix whatever problem is happening at Tur'Aleen."
Kira tore a leg from the pheasant and offered it to Ron, who accepted it gingerly. "What you saw today in the Hall, Cousin, was five-hundred years of suppressed instinct. The instinct to lead, dominate and kill anyone and anything in their way. Our people suppress it now because there is a greater threat. Self-preservation is a powerful motivator. But never forget, that instinct is still there, just beneath the surface, and it will rise again the moment there's an advantage to be had. The same goes for other magical creatures you meet. They all have their own reasons for helping you."
A flutter of wings in the distance caught Kira's attention. She turned to Ron, a finger at her lips.
"This is not the place to discuss such things. I will look into what you've told me. Until then, keep what you've seen and heard to yourself. Trust no one."
Ron was about to ask if that included Gary when he heard shouting from downstairs. He opened the balcony door to see Mary looking distraught.
"Oh, Ronnie. Come quickly."
"What is it, Mary?"
"It's your brother; he's been poisoned!"
Ron quickly turned to Kira, but the balcony was empty, save for the cool breeze, the sharp light of the moon and the faint scent of i-told-you-so.