by Phil Brucato
It's winter when the child comes. Wind sweeps away the screams of Elyr Ma Cullogh. Alone in a cave, she squats near a fire and prays it does not go out. Finally her labors end; soon a healthy child squalls in her arms. Although she is weakened, Elyr bites through the cord and wipes her new son dry. Although she is starving, she nurses him. Although she's in pain, she anoints him with blood and birthwash. "I call to you, spirits of my clan," she whispers. "Watch over Alyn Ma Cullogh, this last son of Kil na Korr, and bless his blood with the strength of his wolf-folk kin."
If only things were so simple.
Flesh is mortal. Given time, it passes away. But the flesh is merely a mask for the spirit; in time, that mask chips, fades, falls away and is renewed. The spirit, though, is eternal. It may change, but it never truly dies. In the shadows of man's world, the spirits gather. Ageless, immortal, they remember what man forgets.
One spirit in particular lingers over the birth of Alyn Ma Cullogh. Like a spectral hound, it hovers unseen in the shadows of the cave. As Elyr raises her son above the fire, this spirit-hound sniffs the blood and licks the child clean. Elyr cannot see the hound, but she feels its presence. As the birthwash disappears, lick by lick, from her son's skin, the mother shudders. The spirits have heard her appeal. She hopes this blessing will be enough, at least for now.
Far away, a malignant storm grows. Too faint for mortal senses, it boils across the barrier between this world and the next. As Elyr Ma Cullogh rocks her son to sleep, the clean, cold wind outside protects her from the spectral storm. Her spirit guardian, however, feels a sting of distant madness. Growling, it leaves the cave and goes out into the snow. In human terms, this guardian has no name. One of many, it belongs to a larger spirit-clan allied with the White Howlers. In the Pictish tongue, this entity is a Bly Tach, a Kin-Fetch, and it watches over the bloodlines of Kil na Korr. Like a loyal hound, it followed Elyr to her birthing-cave and offered blessings to her son. Now, as the dark storm approaches, the Kin-Fetch goes out to meet it, fangs bared glimmering in the twilight.
As snow falls in the mortal realm, its spiritual reflection catches the half-light and sends it shimmering like smoke across the Otherworld. In this realm, there is no day or night, only endless twilight and thick shadow. Scents are sharper here; sounds carry further. All things, living and otherwise, cast reflections that somehow seem more real than anything in the mortal world. In time, some will call this place the Umbra, the Velvet Shadow of the mortal realm. To the White Howlers and their kin, it is Tir An Ko'leh, "That Which Knows," the border between what is and what seems to be. Elyr Ma Cullogh has never seen this world, but her protector knows it well. To the spirits, it is home.
Umbral winds carry the scent of corruption. Like burnt flesh, the odor thickens the air. Underneath the stink, there's a fainter scent: purity mixed with desperation. Something is bitterly wrong, and the trouble is headed this way. Drifting in from the ruins of the village and from the hills around it, the smell raises hackles on the spirit-hound. There's a war in the land of spirits, and the ancestral friends of the White Howlers are losing.
The Kin-Fetch is a thing of duty, created to find those of Changing Blood, protect them, and return them to the fold if they stray from the tribe. Old pacts, made before time began, bind the spirit and its kind to the White Howlers, and those ties cut far deeper than any mortal vows. As it emerges from the cave to sniff the air, the Bly Tach is torn between two instincts: to ward the last survivors of Kil na Korr, or to join its kindred in battle. Soon the choice is made. Like an errant wind, the spirit flies away.
The Umbrascape is a whirl of white and silver, a wild bluster of sights and sensations. In its flight, the Kin-Fetch passes glowing knots of mystical power, small towns huddled against the night, deep shadows of nightmare and thick forests coated with snow. Not far away, near the site of Kil na Korr and the fouled Silver Spring, the battle flashes and burns. Stars have fallen to earth - stars and tempests. The stink of corruption swells; the Kin-Fetch does not breathe as mortals do, but it bristles with disgust. The Bane-spirits are loose, and they poison the air itself.
In a whirlpool of black and sickly green, spots of silver blaze. As the Kin-Fetch nears, it sees its kin, the spirit-friends of the Howler tribe, wrapped in tendrils of smoke and rot. Around them, clouds of Bane-spirits seethe like gnats, biting, stinging, corrupting their foes with spiritual venom. The weaker spirits, faint lights amidst the blackness, wink out like wind-blown candles; a few stronger entities burn defiantly, but as they fight the venom darkens them as well. Surrounded by shadow, they slowly fade.
The hound hesitates. A creature of battle, it does not fear extinction, but the fate ahead is worse. The Bane-spirits grow stronger as their enemies fail, and their poison turns the Howler allies into slaves or burns them away completely. Against this maelstrom, the Kin-Fetch is nothing. Far behind, a new child has been born and its mother is weak with hunger and birthing-pains. The fight offers certain destruction; retreat offers a return to duty.
As the Kin-Fetch watches, a small swarm of Banes breaks away from the battle and spins toward the spirit.
Duty or annihilation?
The Kin-Fetch chooses duty. The child must be saved! With a snarl, the spirit rises into the air and bolts away. Laughing like crackling ice, the Banes give chase.
In the cave, Elyr Ma Cullogh dozes. The wind screams like hungry wolves, but her new son snuggles into the fold of her breasts. With a trembling hand, she slowly feeds branches into the fire and watches light rise against cold shadows. She has never felt more alone.
She will not be alone much longer
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