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by Phil Brucato
The cries begin far off, waking mothers in their beds. The moor-mist shimmers in the full moon's light. Around that moon, a ring of silver glistens and the air grows cold. There are reasons men fear the night, and in the absence of the sun they often come calling.
As a chill sweeps over the Pictish village of Kil na Korr, the Circle of the Spring, men stumble from their sleep. Sparks are struck, torches ignited, cook-fires roused from embers to blazes. The people of Kil na Korr hurry quietly to their duties, hefting weapons, hiding children or scanning the hills for signs of attack. They're hardy folk, these People of the Circle, and they ward a sacred place: the Silver Spring of Moon's End, a tributary of Mile-Deep Loch. Long ago, it's said, these warriors were charged with its protection. Till this night, they have kept their vow. But vows are fleeting things when the night has teeth.
Elyr Ma Cullogh staggers under the weight of her pregnant belly. Her new husband Fiorr kisses her warmly as he waves her from their hut. Naked in the freezing night, he paints himself with woad. Blue lines trace odd circles and spirals across his chest and arms. Warm breath puffs before his face. Leaving the hut, Elyr gazes back at her man. As he applies the last of the warpaint, he feels her lips against his. They hold each other briefly, then part forever.
Where are the wolves? she wonders. Surely they cannot be far away.
Across the misty hills, the invaders rise. Cold haze gives way to ghosts, to dark shapes, to glowing nightmares. Fomori, the people call them, jealous half-spirits bent by corruption. Long ago, these things rose from beneath the waves and clambered from the deepest lochs; in time, they twisted human servants in their likeness. Since the earliest nights, they have troubled the People of the Circle. Tonight, however, they gather in vast numbers.
And they are not alone.
Where are the wolves? Elyr half-prays as she slips like a shadow across the village. All around her, fires dance and painted men chant. Some women join them, shedding their sleep-shifts to stand armed and naked with the men, but Elyr is too pregnant to fight. In the past, she has raised spear and blade beside her clan, but tonight hiding seems wiser than war.
In the center of the village, an old and tattooed man lifts a severed head and keens to the skies. Pickled in lime, the head came from a powerful fomor this man slew in his youth. As he raises the head, old Cair Maar Cullogh calls the White Howlers, the traditional allies of the Kil na Korr. For long ages, these wolf-men have battled the fomori, bestowing blessings upon the People of the Circle. Granted, they have taken a toll, as well: Many an elder, wastrel or young child has disappeared into the night; many a warrior has fallen to the teeth of a Howler; every so often, a village woman gives birth to a strange, feral child, or dies in the embrace of a savage lover. No, the Howlers have never been peaceful folk. Even so, the wolf-men have always battled the nightmare hordes. But tonight they do not answer, and Cair Maar Cullogh is troubled. The fomori are far too close, and the warriors of the Circle are far too few.
Then the howls begin. The people cheer. The wolves have come at last! But Elyr Ma Cullogh chills; the cries are ragged and sick, tinged with madness. She knows the wolf-folk better than most, and these howls do not sound right.
As the gibbering horde closes in on all sides, the men of Kil na Korr raise their spears and voices. The mothers cluster their children in the huts or among the animal-pens. Even the babies fall silent as the fomori approach. Terror knows no generation, and babies aren't fools.
Where are the wolves? The thought races through the minds of warriors and mothers alike. Why haven't they attacked?
And then they do.
The howls swell. Clouds slide across the moon. The warriors grab firebrands and rush into the mist, meeting the howls with similar warcries. In past battles, those cries mingled and joined as man and wolf tore through fomori ranks. But now the tune is off-pitch; the wolf-cries mingle with the raving horde instead. Beneath that clamor the men of Kil na Korr are lost.
Then the screams begin.
Crouching in their hiding-places, the mothers cannot see. The sound of butchery, though, is clear enough. The warriors shriek like spitted babes. Flesh tears and bones crackle. Then silence. Long silence. Finally a young woman dares a look.
Claws catch her across the face. She doesn't have time to scream.
Then the wolves are upon them all and butchery becomes a game.
To the People of the Circle, the Howlers had been magnificent, huge man-beasts with brilliant fur and sturdy frames. The monsters which tear into the survivors are dark and stunted, gnarled mockeries of the white wolves. Some rise on two legs, tall as a hut; others race around on all fours, ripping into their victims with dagger-sized teeth. Women and children scatter, but escape is hopeless. Fomori follow the wolves into Kil na Korr and everything becomes madness and blood.
The mad werewolves celebrate their slaughter. Dark dancers gird themselves with victims' entrails and adorn themselves with severed heads. Young corpses are thrown into the fires or chewed to rags beneath the dancers' fangs. The parents' fates are worse. Those not slain in the fight take a very long time to die.
When the tortures end, the true destruction begins. Huts are trashed. Walls are shattered. The ravagers mark the ruins with scalding piss and defile the Silver Spring. The standing stones are knocked down, their markings obliterated. A tall werewolf vomits green Balefire across the clearing, burning the trees away. Unholy flames rage to the skies, followed by the invaders' howls. Animals are torn apart or eaten alive. Soon werewolves and fomori caper in green firelight. The dancers rake their own faces with jagged claws, and their laughter sounds like screams.
The leader of the horde stands in the center of the flames, raising a howl to the moon above. Human heads hang from his belt; human skin hangs from his shoulders. Dark fur bristles from his scaly hide and green fire sizzles in his jaws. Once, he would have answered to the name Clonach the White, but the Black Spiral has done its work. Now he has become Adagach of the Balefires, Eater of Children. And he laughs, for he likes it better this way. Around him, the once-White Howlers dance their frenzied dance and drink the blood of their former kin.
The Circle is broken. The Spring is defiled. Kil na Korr is in ruins and the White Howlers are no more.
Not far away, a young woman picks her ways through the woods. Heavy with child, she minds each footfall, each root and twig grasping at her bare legs and feet. Her breath billows in the chill air, but she makes no sound as she leaves her home behind. There's a wolf-child in her belly, and Elyr Ma Cullogh will be damned before she sees it taken to the fire.
The Howlers have fallen. All they once were rests within a young woman.
The first dream ends. The tale begins.
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