PART TWENTY-THREE

"Strategy over strength, my sons. That is how we defeat our enemies."


Gary, Carl and Ron stood in an open field. Behind them, an old barn, its roof half collapsed, stood as the only witness. It had taken them over four hours to drive here. But this farm had two significant advantages; it was abandoned and remote. Two things you need when training young werewolves.


Their father was leaning against a rusty old tractor. As usual, he dressed in what was called a Canadian tuxedo. Jeans and denim jacket over a white t-shirt. But also, as usual, he looked uncomfortable. Liam, or Bill as everyone now called him, had come from the halls of academia in Ireland, where the air smelled of tweed and corduroy. His was a world of penny loafers and bow ties. Now it was a world of reflective vests and hard hats. Though he never let on how much he hated it, everyone who knew him could see it with every steel-toed step he took.


"Boys. We're here today to continue your training and, in your brother Ron's case, start it.


Bill took off his jean jacket, folded it over his arm and carefully laid it over the tractor's seat. He wore glasses, even though he didn't need to. Round and wire-rimmed, they gave his face a wise old owl appearance.


"Every opponent has a weakness. If it's not physical, it's mental."


"What if they only have weaknesses?" Asked Carl, sticking his thumb in Ron's direction.


"Or don't think they have any?" Countered Gary as he stared down his brother, who looked like the gym rat in his ever-present shorts and tight tank top.


Ron said nothing. He'd been able to avoid these training sessions until now. Shifting was difficult for him even on the fullest of moons - let alone during the day and under pressure. He didn't have Carl's strength or Gary's speed, but his father had said none of that would matter this time.


His father had recently become insistent that his boys learn all they could about strategy and combat. They debated ancient battle tactics over dinner and practiced wrestling holds in the basement. He even doubled up on history lessons, especially the Dead Wolf Prophesy. If he was preparing them for something specific, he never told Ron.


"Every opponent has a weakness," their father repeated. "If not physical, then mental. But, you must survive long enough to figure out what it is."


Bill crouched, pulling his jeans up around the knees as he did. "Carl. Let's see what you've learned."


Carl wasted no time, shifting as he ran towards his father. His heels snapped and stretched till he was running on the balls of his feet. His already muscular arms birthed even more muscles as they extended towards the ground. By his third step, he was fully transformed and looked ready to tear the former acoustics professor in half.


The sour odour of jealousy began to surround Ron as he marvelled at the ease with which his brother shifted.


Their father didn't shift and now stood three feet shorter and three hundred pounds lighter than his second eldest son. He just stood there, waiting for Carl's attack, which came in the form of a vicious clawed swipe, clearly intended to disembowel.


"No, Carl!" Shouted Ron. He knew Carl had a mean streak and didn't particularly like their father's strict rules, but this was only supposed to be training, not actual combat.


Gary put out his arm, restraining Ron. He said nothing and, as usual, was irritatingly calm.


At the last possible moment, their father ducked below Carl's arm. Then, in one fluid motion, he turned his body as he grabbed his son's arm and pulled. Off-balance, Carl continued over his father's right shoulder. Momentum did the rest.


Ron immediately recognized the move. It forced them to leave their home in Toronto five years ago.


Carl landed on his back but easily rolled to his feet. He then turned and swiped at his father, who only managed to avoid half the blow. Claws scratched Bill's chest, leaving three bloody lines across his once white t-shirt. Carl gave no quarter, spinning around and kicking viciously with his back legs. The elder Faoladh took the kick directly in the stomach, the force of the blow sending him twenty feet through the air. He landed heavily on the dry, untiled soil.


"Ippon-seoi-nage?" Carl asked his father, laughing. "Is that the lesson for today? Gary and I mastered one-arm-shoulder-throws before we were weaned. You'll have to do better than some silly Judo move to beat me, old man. "


Ron's father slowly rose to his feet. His shirt was now completely stained with blood. His breathing laboured.


"Letting your opponent catch his breath? I guess I've discovered your weakness after all, Carl, stupidity."


The smile fell from Carl's face, and his eyes narrowed. He hated being called stupid. Hated it. Ron knew it, as did everyone who knew Carl. When you're the biggest and the strongest, your intelligence is the only thing left to make fun of. When you're the biggest and the strongest and have a mean streak, those around you quickly learn not to do it. And those that did often didn't remember it.


"Stupid is thinking you can beat me, recovered or not," Carl growled, dropping to all fours and advancing on his father.


"Let the lesson begin," Ron's father said as his clothes tore and fell from his body, revealing the well-muscled form of a werewolf with a slight pot belly.


The elder Faoladh then looked down at the strips of cloth littering the ground and shook his head sadly, "I really loved those pants."


As Carl ran on all fours, Ron watched his father do something unexpected. Instead of moving backward or holding his ground, he advanced on his son at a full run, claws digging into the ground for traction. Even in werewolf form, their father was still significantly smaller than Carl. To Ron, it looked like a minivan playing chicken with a cement truck.


But the collision never came.


Inches away from one another, Ron's father shifted back to human form, his body easily sliding under his son. Then, repeating the move from a moment ago, he grabbed his son's arm and pulled. This time, however, the elder Faoladh shifted again, exploding beneath Carl in a detonation of fur, the magical force propelling the second eldest brother high in the air.


Gary looked at Ron. "Human fighting techniques will only take you so far if your opponent is too big or strong. But we are not human, even when in human form. Remember that, brother."


Carl landed hard against the rusty tractor, head first. The crunch of metal and bone made Ron wince. But the wince was soon replaced by a smirk as his brother slid to the ground, half-conscious. It was rare for Ron to see Carl be anything but perfect.


"Níl saoi gan locht" Gary said to his father.


"Exactly, Gary. Ron, do you know what that means?


Ron looked down at his brother, who was drooling into the hard-packed earth.


"Carl's never going to be a doctor? "


#


Blood poured from an angry gash in Gary's leg as he again barely avoided a killing blow from Lycanon.


Ron now knew exactly what his brother was doing. "Everyone has a weakness," their father had said. But so far, Gary had failed to find it. His fight with Lycanon was very different than Carl's fight with their father seven years ago. With over half a century of battle-tested experience, Lycanon didn't act rashly. His attacks were methodical, slowly weakening his opponent till he could deliver the killing blow. As far as Ron could see, he didn't have any physical weaknesses; he was strong, fast and perhaps most dangerous of all, patient.


Lycanon feinted with a right cross and connected with a left jab. Gary's stumbled backwards, his right eye swollen shut.


"I will take your head and present it at my beloved Hedistē's grave so she too can enjoy your defeat in the afterlife.


Suddenly, Ron had the answer. He forced his way into the circle surrounded by a wall of lupin flesh and knelt beside his brother.


"If not physical, then mental," he whispered into his brother's ear before getting pulled back into the crowd.


Lycanon raised himself to his full height, claws extending even further. Bending his knees, his legs tensed for a final assault.


Through bloody, cracked lips, Gary spoke.


"I've met your late wife, Hedistē Lycanon. Did you know that? She was a powerful and proud werewolf. She reminded me of the legendary Helen of Troy."


Ron could see the Lycanon's muscles visibly relax, his breathing slowing.


"Except she had a face to sink a thousand ships."


Eyes ready to pop out of his head, Lycanon let out a guttural scream and launched himself at Gary, all strategy and tactics replaced by blood lust. Gary, with the last of his energy, ran towards Lycanon. Then, like a batter running for home plate, he slid under the Living Legend, his hand running across Lycanon's belly.


Except it wasn't his hand. Gary had shifted mid-slide, and where once there were fingers, there were now four-inch claws. They sliced Lycanon from breastplate to belly button, spilling his guts on the grassy floor.


Werewolves don't gasp. But if they could, they would have at that moment. Lycanon turned around, his face a mask of confusion. He looked down at his wound, then to Gary, nodded solemnly, and collapsed to the floor.


Ron threw up.


#


Gary howled. It was a very special howl, reserved only for the most honoured dead, those closest to you who helped shape who you are. Gary had howled this way only once before, for his mother.


The significance of this gesture was not lost on the gathered clans, who one by one added their own howls to the chorus. Each was slightly different, yet together they formed the most incredible harmony. Many of those gathered were brought to tears.


"Lycanon fought bravely," Gary said, standing over the now-dead legend. "He honoured his clan. He honoured his brothers, his sisters, and his beloved Hedistē."


Gary reached down and, with two razor-sharp claws, snipped a lock of hair from Lycanon's body and held it high.


"For Hermes, messenger of the gods, to lead you to the River Styx."


Four men stepped forward, their bodies similarly tattooed with Greek letters and symbols. They bowed to Gary, clearly moved by his knowledge of their traditions. They accepted the lock of hair and raised Lycanon's body to their shoulders.


Gary closed his eyes and bowed his head. "May he and his beloved be reunited in the fields of Elysium."


A sound caught Ron's attention from the far end of the hall. It was music, coming from just beyond the mist. It was faint, but Ron could just make out the sober song of stringed instruments and pipes.


The men of Lycanon's clan carried him slowly toward the sound, their steps in rhythm to the music. Ron could swear he saw green fields, but eventually, the mist engulfed them, and all was quiet once more.


Ron turned to greet his brother in victory but found he suddenly couldn't move. His legs wouldn't obey him. He then heard others struggling too.


"I can't move!" said one.


"Neither can I," said another.


Ron looked down. To his horror, the grass that poked up through the floorboards had grown considerably and now had weaved their way halfway up his legs, holding him tightly. It was the same for everybody around him, who struggled in vain to free themselves.


"Gary! What's happening?" Ron shouted, but his voice was drowned out by the panicked howls of werewolves around him. They shifted, trying to tear the grass out with brute strength or slice it with their claws, but the grass grew even faster with every cut or tug, grabbing their hands as they tried to free themselves.


In seconds, everyone was held tightly. Some were brought to their knees, others to their stomachs. All were helpless.


Lying on the ground, looking like an eco-friendly mummy, Ron struggled unsuccessfully against his bonds. Then, he heard a voice behind him echoing through the hall. It was loud, angry and familiar.


"What the hell is going on here?"


Shall I continue? Let me know in the comments. Your feedback is always welcome.

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