Several years would pass in this way, but the wolves were good to him and never went too far. They moved quick enough to test his fortitude but refused to leave him behind. Over time it became easier and easier for him to learn how to move as they did; their techniques for hunting and travel becoming like second nature. Together they could take down larger and stronger prey and find enough food for the entire pack to thrive. However, these weren’t the only things that Vangrim learned from the wolves.
They also spent a lot of time roaming around to visit the different factions of the land, checking up on them to see what they needed. If the Elves needed specific herbs it was the wolves that guided their healers. If the Human hunters became lost in the forest it was the wolves that brought them home. Rumors of wolf-related miracles became stories and legends told between villages but the truth was much simpler than all of that. The wolves treated everyone that lived in the woods like they were part of the pack as best they could. The reality had been in front of Vangrim the entire time but he hadn’t realized it until experiencing it for himself. When the wolves spoke of community they meant the forest as a whole, not just those that looked like them. They were above the petty squabbles of Man against Elf or Animal-kin against outsiders. The wolves just knew how to instinctually embrace everyone as brother or sister. It explained why they had been so good to him when he first approached them in need.
When the Alpha called the pack to their favorite clearing for a meeting, Vangrim knew that something was wrong. Rarely did they have these formal gatherings unless some kind of important announcement was to be made. He could feel the sense of dread rise up from his stomach and into his throat as he joined with the others.
“I have called you all here today because change is coming to the forest,” the Alpha said sadly. “War is at our doorstep.”
“War? Why? What has happened?” The wolves asked, obviously distressed.
“There was a dispute over land. The Humans seek to settle it and farm it to aid their growing populations, but the Elves have already laid claim to it. They say they have been here longer than the Humans, that the humans have no right to it,” the Alpha answered. He shook his head slowly from side to side. “Now they are ready to fight over it and the other Animal-kin are ready to kick them both out for fear that this war will shape the destiny of the forest for ages to come.” His gaze came to fall upon Vangrim with great sorrow. “Brother,” he said, “When the others look upon you they do not see the wolf that you have become. They will see only your Human shell. My heart aches, for I see no way this ends well for any of us. When it comes to greed, desire always overrides reason.”
Vangrim understood all too well the complications of the Alpha’s position. It wasn’t his fault that the others didn’t see the same sense of community that the wolves did. “Alpha, I will go and try to bring peace to these woods. You trusted me enough to make me part of your pack once, trust me again. Give me your blessing and I will fight for all that you have taught me.”
The Alpha bowed his head with a forlorn sigh. “You have my blessing as always, Vangrim. But go with the swiftness of the Stag. The hour draws late and time is no ally of ours.”
Vangrim didn’t hesitate; running deeper into the woods as he left the pack at his back. Behind him his brothers cried, craning their necks towards the sky above so that even the celestial bodies of the evening might hear their sorrow.
Vangrim knew where he was heading even though his heart was full of fear. In the deepest reaches of the woods was an object of legend, something that the wolves and others referred to as a Standing Stone. Believed to be Dryads so old that they had petrified and become stationary, the Standing Stones were no laughing matter. Sacred and powerful, the stories claimed that these Stones retained potent magics of the ancient world such as those the Elves attempted to practice with great reverence. To touch a Standing Stone was to open yourself up to the possibility of having your wishes granted or the alternative of complete and utter devastation. Elf, Man, and Animal-kin alike spread the tales to their children in an attempt to make idle interactions forbidden. Old magic was never to be trifled with in such a casual way. Despite this knowledge, and despite the taboo, Vangrim felt he was left with no choice but to find one. He was resolved that their power would allow him to save the forest and the ideology of his pack.
It was when he finally found what he was looking for that the doubt and worry began to overtake him. Lingering at the edge of the grove, his legs began to feel heavy. What if the stone couldn’t help him? What if this was all for nothing and he failed those that had been there for him after everything he had gone through? He might have stayed there forever, locked in an eternal battle with his own anxiety, had the sounds of his brothers not drifted over the winds and to his ears. Hearing their sorrowful calls he found the strength to take one step forward, and then another.
Finally, close enough, he reached out with a trembling hand and placed his palm gently upon the stone. He didn’t feel differently at first, but soon heard a whispering voice inside his head. Surprised, he looked around half expecting to see someone nearby; but there was no one.
“It has been some time since I have had company, wolf brother. Tell me why you have come,” the voice said. It sounded both otherworldly and feminine like a sweet melody out of time.
Unsure if he should speak aloud or merely think his thoughts, Vangrim whispered towards the stone. “I came for your aid, ancient one. War between the denizens of the forest brews. The harmony and sense of community the wolves strive for will be destroyed if that happens. Their very way of life will disappear and be forgotten. I cannot let that happen. If it is true that you have the power to bring stability to this place then I beg you to make these dreams a reality.”
“What concern is it of yours if Elf or Man or Beast rules this forest? You will adapt and survive one way or another. Tell me the truth of the fear that lingers deep within your heart. Speak it aloud so that I may know you,” the voice replied.
Vangrim’s eyes filled with tears and he wiped them away with the back of his hand. “I have seen the darkness the greed of Men can bring first hand. These wolves, this forest that they love, they were good to me. This is my home. I don’t want to be alone again, I don’t want to lose them like I’ve lost everything else.” Making himself vulnerable before the stone Vangrim thought he would have felt like a fool, but instead, there was something incredibly peaceful about letting the words leave his lips.
“What would you give to protect this forest? To make sure that your beloved family is safe from the ravages of war?”
“Anything,” Vangrim answered quickly. “Anything you ask of me, ancient one.”
“And you would swear it upon me under the eyes of the Gods?” The voice was both curious and stern like it wanted to test Vangrim and caution him all at once.
“I swear it. I swear to all the spirits of the forest and the Gods up above that I will give everything I have to save this place from a pointless conflict,” Vangrim said. He bowed his head reverently. “You have my word.”
So be it,” came the voice. “There is no going back from this point on. All have heard your oath.”
The moonlight flared brightly without warning, causing Vangrim to cover his eyes. When he could finally see again, his pack had appeared in the grove. They paced about nervously and looked from Vangrim to the stone wondering what was happening and why they were called.
When the stone spoke again, this time it spoke to all gathered. “Drink of the water that gathers in the paw print of your Alpha here in this sacred place beneath the light of the full moon. When you do so you will find you have the strength and authority to speak for all,” there was a momentary pause as the wolves heeded the words. “But know this, wolf brother, you will be bound to your pack until the end of your days and they to you.”
At last Vangrim pulled his hand from the Standing Stone and moved to stand before his Alpha. They locked eyes and Vangrim took a deep breath as he asked permission with his glance. The Alpha nodded his head and trotted several paces away to leave his paw prints behind him. He was not one to deny the will of the Standing Stone. Not with so much at stake.
The other wolves began to speak in unison as Vangrim got on his hands and knees, lowering himself to the ground. “Pack is strength. Pack is family,” they firmly repeated the mantra; urging him on lest any last minute doubt return to haunt the poor man.
It was when Vangrim’s lips first touched that water his destiny was upon him and he became the first Werewolf of Voraniss. Both Man and Wolf, bound by the old magic of the forest and Elves. He was a part of all of them now and no faction dared defy the will of the Gods nor what they had made. He wasn’t the only one that changed that night either. When his transformation began, so did that of his pack who changed with him. War was averted by Vangrim’s actions and even into current times his descendants defend the forest that made them as some of the greatest warriors Voraniss has to offer.
Upon his eventual death, the forest honored him by making him the representative of the Wolf Totem. Some even say that during the full moon you can hear him still howling along with the other wolves like he never left at all.
It is not a coincidence that Voraniss has an abundance of werewolves running wild and free throughout her forests. They are more populous now than Elves or Men, but this wasn’t always so. Before Vangrim arrived the Animal-kin were still suspicious of those that walked on two legs, even if they had the best intentions for the land they began to settle after the War of the Giants. How could those who did not speak the language of the forest understand what she needed? The Animal-kin had already defeated one tyrant in King Velindahl, so they found themselves very wary of his smaller counterparts; especially when their victory had come at the cost of Monghora and Sariandi. Further loss was not something they wished to intimately acquaint themselves with.
The Elves tried the hardest to win them over, seeking to learn the language and harmonize their respective ways of life; but sometimes it felt as though they put themselves above nature. There was a sense of superiority about them, an entitlement that the Animal-kin couldn’t grasp. The Men meant well, but they were always building and striving to fill a void within their hearts instead of being content with the bounty all around them. For a while, there was an uneasy peace, with the groups tending to stick with their own flocks for fear of sparking conflict. Most of them were content to live separate lives, but there were also others who were victims of their own dark ambitions.
Vangrim first came to Voraniss during the time of this tenuous peace. A lost soul, Vangrim was a displaced noble from the west who had cast off the titles and glamour of his former life after his Uncle had tried to kill him during a political power struggle. Incensed with rage that Vangrim should inherit what he believed to rightfully be his, the Uncle had framed him for the murder of his own father and depicted him as a greedy heir who couldn’t wait to take up the mantle of the family lands for his own gain. Vangrim had been sent to prison to await execution, but a guard still loyal to his father’s legacy had freed him and helped him escape. That night Vangrim had vowed never to return to that life. If nobility and the desire to lord over other men was something so toxic that it could turn family against family; against their own blood, he wanted no part in it.
It took a little getting used to, but Vangrim found that he felt free without the confines of the luxuries he had once known. Instead of sleeping in a bed where he was pampered with expensive sheets and blankets, he could sleep beneath the stars with a pine bough for his head; committing to memory the many sights of the night sky. It was an education that he never would have been privy to in the civilized world of Man. He learned how to walk like the fox and the stag, careful where he set his feet down upon the earth; and from the birds, he learned how to sense an impending storm or find water when he was thirsty. The most important lesson in his repertoire he learned from the river otters. They taught him about joy and learning to find happiness in even the simplest of things. But Vangrim was still a man, and he was lonely for companionship; desperate for others to talk to and share his new life with.
The Elves didn’t want him because he was a Man. Other Men didn’t want him because he looked like a wild savage running around between the trees with no ambition and no goals; an uncomfortable drifter. All that was left were the Animal-kin. Vangrim decided to get into the deep forest to meet with them and see if they would give him a chance but he didn’t know what to expect. They had mostly kept to themselves out of precaution for being conquered or harassed again; what would they think of a wild man looking for friends? He wasn’t without a sense of humor for the whole situation. He had seen his reflection upon the surface of the river. His hair was unkempt and his beard was bushy. He smelled of earth and campfire smoke and looked nothing like the man he once was. He would have cared long ago about being presentable but that was the wonderful part about living in the forest; the wilderness was the great equalizer. A rich or poor man living out here would have the same chances. Nature was fair and didn’t care what you looked like or what you had in material possessions. Survival focused more on the present than hoarding luxury for a time that would never come.
It was the wolves he met with first. He heard their calls to the moon and followed the sound deeper and deeper into the trees until he found them gathered about a clearing that he hadn’t expected in the throng of this oaken maze. When they sniffed him out they began to circle him and sniff curiously, talking amongst themselves.
“What is this? It looks like a man but it smells like one of us,” one of the Wolves announced to the rest.
“Maybe it’s the Forest Walker,” another Wolf piped up. “He who strides between the trees on two legs. I heard there was one of them about.”
Vangrim humbled himself and lowered himself to his knees. He bowed his head and didn’t make eye contact with the great wolves. “I am called Vangrim,” he said softly towards the ground. “I am without a home and without belonging. I was hoping that the Animal-kin could grant me what other Men or Elves could not. Please, I mean you no harm. I just need a friend out here.”
The wolves chuckled and bared their teeth as they smiled. “You could not harm us even if you wanted to little human. You are but one and we are many. It is the lesson our kind can teach you. Community is mighty. The Pack comes with many responsibilities to others, but it always rewards those who give of themselves and treat such connection with priority.” One of the Wolves nudged Vangrim’s chin with his face in an effort to urge him to look up. “The Bear is strong, but he fights and dies alone. Wolves fight together. Pack is strength. Pack is family.”
Vangrim slowly lifted his head to look into the ocean of golden eyes before him. “I must ask…why are you so willing to give me what my own people have denied? Why not just eat me?” He knew it was a foolish question to ask, one that tempted fate, but he needed to know. What was behind the altruism of the wolves?
The largest of the wolves sat before him, tilting his head. His fur was white and surprisingly clean. The other wolves sat around him out of reverence, listening to what he had to say. “The Elves have many superstitions about our kind,” he said with a chuckle. “They put out talismans and charms depicting our faces, telling stories about what we will do if we are not appeased. Some of them believe we have great secrets of medicinal rituals, while the Men see us as great hunters to be worshiped by that quality and that alone.” He let out a heavy sigh and took a moment to lick at something that had been bothering him on his left leg. “The truth comes down to instinct. I do not smell the stench of evil about you and so I feel it is appropriate to show you mercy.”
Confused, Vangrim leaned forward in curiosity to seek clarification. “You can smell evil?” he asked.
The wolves chuckled amongst themselves and began to rise. “You will just have to come and learn our secrets for yourself,” they teased, before running off into the forest as Vangrim desperately tried to keep up.
At Tournaments of Creathorne this year, while nations took to the field to establish their prowess in combat, other interesting things were going on. The Broken Spears and the nation of Voraniss were busy signing a treaty. To understand this document, and the story behind it, one must first understand the parties involved.
The Broken Spears were formally a group of refugees from the land of Corbach. The prominent members of the company range from a rebellious street magician to a secretive scholar. From peasant farmer to elven ranger. The one thing they had in common was an enemy. And this enemy was born of political corruption and tyranny.
Things in Corbach slowly degraded in the decades before the rebellion. Taxes and tariffs became so cumbersome that many businesses were forced to close. Their military was involved in so many conflicts that it seemed their soldiers would never come home. As tempers began to rise, curfews were instated and traveling at night on the road was punishable by death. This and many other burdens fell upon the people of Corbach. But it was the death of their King, and all of his heirs which ignited the rebellion to its greatest heights.
The rebellion had no true leader, but instead was organized through a series of secret correspondences which were organized and directed by persons unknown to this day. But one particular group grew too large to hide and too dangerous to ignore. This group of war veterans, highwaymen and freedom fighters began raiding the homes and estates of the new Corbach royalty. Burning down fields of crops that they knew fed the incredibly large Corbach military. Causing disruption and devastation with each passing victory. They were precise, efficient and savage. But as their momentum grew, so did the response from Corbach. Through propaganda and fear mongering, it was the very citizens the rebellion was fighting to protect who became Corbach’s greatest weapon.
Once their location was known, it was only a matter of time. Their camp was burned, their men slaughtered or worse captured and made example of. Most of the rebels whose identities remained secret, returned to normal lives within the country, where they would wait for the spark of rebellion to return. Unfortunately for some, their methods were a bit too ostentatious as well as their appearances to hide in plain sight. Plus many of them had no homes to return to. And so, with the threat of imprisonment or worse at their heels, the rebellion was squashed and scores became refugees fleeing to the south.
The greatest and wisest among them rose to leadership positions within the caravan. The burden being shared by three men. Cronin the Barbarian, a great warrior from the rebellion stood as a figurehead. His judgment and level headedness had seen the rebellion through hard times. It was he who promised to find those who followed a new home for which to settle. Helkias the Blackraven, was nothing short of a legend within the rebellion. He used his wits to keep the group well supplied and well armed, and trained those who were willing, in the ways of battle. Matthew had lost more than any man or woman in the caravan. His origins were known only to Helkias and Cronin. Matthew elected to keeping people fed and healthy. More than anything, he lifted the spirits of the refugees.
The road through the lands to the south was fraught with peril. It seemed each new land they visited was plagued by undead or worse. As many of the refugees began to take up the sword and join the front lines of these conflicts, Cronin began to see potential where burden once stood. And so Cronin the Barbarian, with Helkias Blackraven as his second, formed, “The Broken Spears Free Company.” The Company fought alongside the heroes of the realms in many battles and finally found promise when Cronin met with Hygar and Kindrianna Athame and found that they could assist one another for the mutual gain of both their peoples.
It was at this junction, that Hygar and Cronin forged the bond that would change the fates of both of their peoples.
Voraniss, although a relatively young nation, had seen hardship in recent days when the Shadowlands rose up from the ocean. The small city of Kenkilit had been destroyed by this process, and consumed by mountains and spikes of land. What was left of it was certainly natural, defensible territory, but Hygar’s attention was focused on other issues. The population of his lands was growing quickly, and with trouble brewing in the neighboring country of New Verai; not to mention the threat of the Night Pack, the Archdruid had his hands full.
At its heart, Voraniss was a place with great affinity for magic, ritual, and respect for the natural order. These values allowed the forest’s denizens to live in harmony with the wilderness around them, but also gave them compassion for those creatures and beings without a home. This is what Hygar and Kindrianna saw in the Broken Spears when their Free Company of refugees first arrived.
After much deliberation and discussion, Hygar offered The Spears what remained of the Keep and surrounding territory of Kenkilit. This mountain refuge was severely damaged, and in desperate need of repair and occupation, less it becomes a staging ground for some invading force. The Spears, in turn, offered protection to Voraniss and now act as its first line of defense in the event of war from their neighbors from the east.
Autonomy was freely given to the Spears, as long as they followed the laws of the land. However, seeing the opportunity to unify the two groups, Hygar also included a clause in the treaty which would deepen their relations. Should half or more of the Broken Spears decide to settle in Voraniss and pledge themselves to Hygar, then Cronin would rise to the position of “Druid of the Circle”, which is the ruling council beneath Hygar, Kindrianna and Gavin. This would allow Cronin to look out for his people and continue on as their Commander. No one could have predicted that the groups would get along as well as they did, for not a day had passed before Cronin was granted the title, though ceremonies and rites still remained.
And so it stands. The Broken Spears stand vigil in the east. Offering protection to the people of Voraniss while restoring Kenkilit to its former glory. Many adventures still await the great nation of Voraniss as well as many perils, but they will be met with the full fury of the Broken Spears and the Druidic Circle of Voraniss!
Gundulf awoke as he had every day for the past few weeks. He made his bed impeccably then made his way to the kitchens to aid the cooks in preparing morning meal. They had taken a liking to the large wolf, bits of humor illuminating through cracks of hard work and dedication. It seemed that he fit in at this temple more than he would have expected to.
Once morning meal was served, he was allowed to eat with his broth… his pack. All seated at the long tables, indulging in polite conversations which Gundulf was delighted to engage in.
A well renowned story teller in his own right, he often found himself at a loss for words when hearing the stories of these monks. Some of their lives seemed so foreign to him. Sitting side by side as equals were Barons who left their wealth and lands behind to seek salvation from the beast blood and paupers who were granted asylum after causing mayhem in the gutters of great cities. All seemed content and treated one another with respect and dignity.
After breakfast came training. Gundulf had spent most of his life as no more than a brawler. He had never seen battle, let alone held a sword. Nonetheless, he had taken to Okami traditions with great vigor and curiosity, and grew stronger every day. Was this why Hygar sent him here? To become a warrior?
Such thoughts were a distraction, and the only way to keep up with his pack members was to empty his mind of all thoughts and embrace the natural flow of combat. This was the hardest part, for Gundulf above all else, was a thinker. It had been how he survived as long as he had.
This day Gundulf was paired with a particularly menacing monk by the name of Thrall. Thrall hailed from desert lands to the south and spoke very little. He appeared to have Orc blood but Gundulf had been too afraid to ask the brute too many questions. All of his focus was required in sparring the beast of a man, for even though he was quicker than Thrall, in terms of strength Gundulf was far outmatched.
Thrall swung high and Gundulf ducked beneath and delivered a quick jab to Thrall’s ribs. Thrall attempted to sweep Gundulf’s feet from under him but Gundulf deftly hopped over the attack and landed in a defensive position. The fight was going well.
Gundulf momentarily let his gaze drift to his blind master who was conversing with several of the older monks near the garden. He gestured to the petals and even took one of the wolfsbane flowers in his hand! This puzzled Gundulf, for a mere whiff of the plant nearly sent him to his end weeks before.
Suddenly Gundulf felt Thrall’s skull bash in his nose. The attack came far too quick for Gundulf to make any sort of defense, and he took the full force of Thrall’s blow and felt himself hit the ground.
A mixture of pain and rage filled Gundulf. As a wolf his nose was his lifeline, and never before had his senses been so overwhelmed. He felt his body begin to twist and contort.
The crowd gathered as they had before on his first day of arrival. Only now it was Gundulf who would stand before the blind master and his spear.
“Gundulf you will revert to your mortal form.” Gundulf heard through a murky haze.
“This is not how you meet your end, boy. Slow your breathing. Think of your friends, all of this will end. Look the beast in the eye and deny it.”
Gundulf closed his eyes and focused. He saw before him a giant wolf, and it snarled and growled in his face. But he did as his master commanded, he looked into the wolf’s eyes and whispered “no”.
Gundulf once again awoke, sweat covering his head and in a bed too small for him. “Is it normal to lose consciousness this often…”
“No. But you are alive. Waking up is a privilege only afforded to the living,” said the master.
“I’ve been to lands where the denizens would beg to differ, as soon they stopped gnawing on your face,” joked Gundulf, still getting his bearings.
“You met your wolf today. Truly met him. How did it feel?” Asked the blind master.
“It is hard to explain. I felt the terror of losing control and I could tell the wolf wanted to come out or maybe… I wanted him to come out? Is Thrall ok?” Asked Gundulf.
“He is fine. He apologizes for the cheap shot. But you should know, you didn’t transform. It took all of your strength and energy but you stopped yourself mid transformation,” said the blind master with respect.
“Wow, well that’s good,” said Gundulf.
“Was this the first time?” The blind master pressed.
“No, I have led quite the adventurous life, master. There have been many occasions where I have come back from the brink. Once I am the wolf my body is dominated so I do all I can to avoid transforming.”
“It is one thing to prevent transformation. Even to regain control and transform back from the wolf. These are common amongst true born wolves. But very few have been able to achieve what you have and even still only with years of training,” said the master.
Gundulf sat and in listened, at a loss for words.
“I will teach you to practice this skill. Once harnessed it can be a powerful weapon,” said the master.
“I don’t understand. I see how it could be useful in protecting those around me… but how is it a weapon?” Asked Gundulf.
“You see, by allowing the wolf to pierce the veil you can draw strength from him. For most the strength is too much, which is why their form shifts to that of the Lycan. It is the only way for the werewolf to regain balance. But to draw upon that strength and allow it flow through you will make you most formidable. How is it you think a man as blind as me is able to see? This is why you are here Gundulf.”
“When do we start?” Smiled Gundulf.
The next day, Gundulf left his room and readied himself for his duties in the kitchen. But the blind master was waiting for him in the hall and gestured for him to follow. The two walked into the courtyard and were coming dangerously close to the gardens before Gundulf stopped in his tracks.
“Breathe deeply my son. Do not fight the pain it causes you, only embrace it and focus on your discipline. Focus on your breathing.”
The two entered the gardens just as dawn broke. It took Gundulf quite some time to get used to the presence of the wolfsbane and they repeated this walk routine for many days. On the fifth day, the power of the plant was trivial. And the blind master instead elected for the two of them to meditate within the garden for a while before beginning their lessons. After some time had passed, the master broke his silence.
“You must learn that when you transform, it is still you. Your mind may be foggy, your senses overwhelmed, but it is still your spirit. It is only your fear of the beast blood which causes your shifts to be so chaotic. But even still, you have never tasted human blood. This is no coincidence, Gundulf. You are kind and gentle and so is your wolf. And once we expand upon the relationship with the beast inside you will find great peace.” The master looked into Gundulf eyes as they opened, and promptly slapped him in the face.
Gundulf was in shock. At first he smiled, wondering what possible lesson of peace could be learned from sucker punching him. But then the master slapped him again, this time much harder and the tips of his fingers caught Gundulf’s ear. Gundulf felt his control beginning to slip and the door to transformation begin to open. But this time he found himself standing in the garden, the master nowhere to be seen.
As Gundulf awaited some sort of explanation, he saw a large white wolf saunter over to him. He recognized the beast’s eyes and it looked quite familiar. Sensing no danger from the animal he decided to approach. The wolf, equally as curious, sniffed Gundulf and circled him playfully. Gundulf stroked the beast’s head a few times and touched his forehead to his. A blinding light consumed Gundulf perception. Then he opened his eyes to find himself in meditation before his master.
“You’ve met your wolf. This time on equal footing. A courtesy afforded to us by the wolfsbane we grow here. It prevents transformation, allowing a keen mind to enter the space between. It is a common practice here, it helps to mend the bonds between the two spirits which lie within those with beast blood.”
“I thought you said stopping a transformation was a rare practice…” Gundulf said in confusion, doing his best to remain respectful while absorbing all the master had to offer.
“Without this garden, for many it is. Once you’ve learned to commune with the wolf, we will practice this outside of the garden and hopefully one day outside of this temple and in the world beyond,” said the blind master.
For many days the lessons continued. It wasn’t until the full moon that the blind master changed their routine. When Gundulf awoke, eager to greet his master in the training grounds, he found no one there to greet him. Not knowing what to do, Gundulf went to the kitchens and helped prepare the morning meal as he had so many times before. He then ate with the monks, enjoyed their wisdom and merriment, but when he asked of the master was met simple shrugs.
Gundulf elected to search the grounds rather than spar with the other monks. He walked the halls of the temple, checked the various shrines and rooms of meditation as he passed. He even searched the gardens but could not find the man anywhere.
As midday sun came, many of the monks were meeting in the kitchen for lunch. Lunch was always less formal than breakfast or dinner in the temple because it was the closest thing to a break that any of the disciplined acolytes would receive. And so many of them elected to take their meals outside or even skip the meal in favor of recreation.
Gundulf walked through the courtyard, scanning his memories of the recent days in hopes of gleaming a clue to why he’d been abandoned. Had he done something wrong? Had he offended his master in some way? He elected to meditate by the cliff face and hope that a bit of peace might clear his rattled insecurity.
Many of the monks were making offerings to Luna in celebration of the full moon. Others were chanting to Gaia as they tended to the gardens and made necklaces of dried wolfsbane for some of the less disciplined monks to wear during the full moon.
After dinner the monks gathered in the square to perform kata; which were choreographed fighting moves which they often did to celebrate various aspects of their world. With little to offer to the gods, sweat and discipline were the greatest gifts they could offer. Gundulf joined in and allowed himself to get lost in the movements, even electing to wear a wolfsbane necklace as this was his first full moon in the temple.
Half way through the dance, Gundulf heard loud crashing against the temple gates followed by the ringing of an unfamiliar bell. Many of the monks fled to the temple for shelter while others elected to arm themselves with weapons. All looked around for someone to lead them, but found themselves with none of the masters in sight.
A large crash was heard at the gate and several monks, even those with weapons, ran for the temple with all speed. Those that elected to fight formed a defensive line in front of the temple steps. Gundulf stood with them.
Twilight was upon them and the full moon rose. The moon illuminated the courtyard and afforded the first glimpse of the intruder. A gargantuan werewolf stalked the courtyard, pacing back and forth. Upon first sight of him, a few of the temples defenders elected to run inside. Gundulf wondered if he should do the same.
The clash began with a flash. Half a dozen of the temple’s greatest champions swinging silvered blades and axes at the great beast. None connecting, for the beast was quick and would counter every attack with large swipes of his claws. Gundulf was knocked back several feet from one of the swipes and his necklace was torn from his body and the petals were taken by the night breeze.
As Gundulf lay there, he watched as his brothers and sisters fought valiantly against the beast. But more and more were forced to retreat as a result of exhaustion or some wound. One of them even gave into the moons call and attacked it in beast form. The large wolf clamped its jaws down around the wolf’s neck and promptly ended its life. The moon’s call began to claw at Gundulf, and he knew what he must do.
Gundulf hid himself behind a pillar, crossed his legs, and embraced the wolf’s call. He found himself face to face with his wolf. This time there was no snarling or growls, yet certainly an eagerness. But the wolf stood there, its eyes meeting Gundulf’s as if it were waiting for Gundulf to decide what to do. And so Gundulf petted the wolf and touched his forehead to his. The same white flash occurred as the last time he attempted this, but this time he didn’t close his eyes and he just held on to the wolf. When he opened his eyes he was still sitting behind the pillar.
Infused with the power of the beast blood, Gundulf stepped out and walked towards the great beast. Many within the temple screamed and pleaded for Gundulf to turn back, but he knew his course was clear.
And the clash began. Gundulf swung his arms and legs in a beautiful dance of death. Kicking and punching, using forms far beyond his training. The two battled long into the night, with the entirety of the temple looking on in awe. Gundulf was heard screaming out to the wolf: “Change back! Don’t make me do this!” For the young wolf had battled the beast with his fists up until that point.
It wasn’t until the beast, frustrated by the fruitless contest, turned his attention to the temple and began charging towards the spectators that Gundulf knew what had to be done.
As the morning sun gleamed over the mountain, it blinded all who had been watching the spectacle. When everyone’s eyes adjusted they walked towards Gundulf holding a naked, bruised and bleeding figure in his arms.
“Please… please… I’m so sorry,” they heard Gundulf say through gritted teeth and mournful tears.
Gundulf held his master close. A silver spear head pierced his chest. The master smiled and let out a wheezing laugh. “You are forgiven.”
Gundulf packed his things with stern conviction. He was eager to put the temple to his back. To think that his master would sacrifice himself in such a way just to teach him a lesson made his skin crawl. As Gundulf walked through the courtyard he witnessed the burning of his master’s body and decided, that despite his current feelings, he would stay for the funeral rites and see if he may gleam some deeper truth from the ceremony.
Many masters took their turn in speaking. Some offered comfort from godly edicts. Others offered lessons they had learned from the blind master. None spoke his name, at this point Gundulf was sure that few ever knew it. He certainly hadn’t.
The final speaker was a very old monk. Her body was bent over from the many years she had walked the earth. She did a sermon with a familiar tale which many from within the temple and even the realms at large were familiar. The tale refers to the two wolves which dwell inside of us all. One embodying anger, hatred, deceit etc. and the other: kindness, love, honesty etc. The two wolves are constantly at war within us all. And the wolf that wins is the one we feed.
“The Blind Master… I was a young girl when he first came to this place. For years he didn’t speak. Didn’t even train. He simply worked and kept to himself. He was only missing one eye back then and was constantly plagued by nightmares. After one particular fit, he scratched out his other eye. This was far from the man that you all would come to know. It was only through years of training and meditation that he made peace with the life he had lived. He had been a champion of Darkspire, and Gaia only knows how many now rest within the ground as a result of his wrath. Though he had learned to channel the power of the wolf, he knew it was only a matter of time before his beast would take over again. He longed for a pupil that would be able to give him the peace he desired and feared that he would one day bring ruin to the temple he considered his salvation. Gundulf. I know you don’t believe it now, but what you did was a kindness. His will asks that you take his ashes to the Wolf shrine. Spread them there and then read this scroll which he has left to you.”
The speech concluded with all eyes on Gundulf. Tears filled his eyes, but remembering his discipline, he humbly gathered the ashes and made his way out of the temple grounds. The Wolf shrine was a short walk from the temple, which was no great surprise.
Arriving at the cliff he looked upon the Wolf shrine with tear filled eyes. He spread the ashes as his master requested and opened the scroll left to him.
If you are reading this Gundulf, then you have freed me. Your purity of heart made you far more powerful a wolf than I ever could have hoped to achieve. Every moon brought me closer and closer to madness, for my sins upset my balance irreparably. The wolf within me was a cruel twisted creature, for he was me. And though I sought forgiveness and a new life, the wolf within me was too far gone. Or perhaps I was just better at pretending.
Nonetheless, I fear your journey is just beginning. I am honored to be the first life you have taken. I promise you, you’ve slain a wicked villain and avenged the lives of many innocents. Please continue your training at the temple. You are now free to do as you please. Come and go, and take your place among the people of Voraniss. But return, and train. Be better than I was.
For you are the descendant of Vangrim the wolf. It is the only way you could have learned my lessons so quickly. One day the Okami Pack will need a leader again. I hope when that day comes, you will rise to the challenge.
The letter was signed “B”. A mystery for another day.
Gundulf slipped the parchment into his pouch. He now looked upon the Wolf shrine, wondering how sitting in a chair as a joke got him here. As Gundulf’s contemplations and grief took him well into the night, the second night of the full moon approached. He heard the howling off in the distance, and just before it became too dark to see, a familiar face walked up the path with a lantern.
Mouse approached the shrine and lit its ceremonial torches. She was unsurprised to see Gundulf, and it was clear that she had “divined” the details of the day. She laid a hand upon Gundulf’s shoulder before taking a seat not far from him. She then imparted to him the tale of the Wolf shrine to offer him comfort and answer the many questions he had about the significance of his heritage, before the two of them made their way back home.
Gundulf felt like he had been climbing for ages. Looking back he could barely see the bottom, but looking forward, the top was far from sight; a mist clouding his ever pressing destination. His exhaustion grew and grew, far beyond expectation. For although Gundulf was well known for his over indulgence when it came to food and drink, and his physique reflected such lifestyle, his wolf blood often afforded him greater stamina than the average man.
On this occasion he found the sweat to be pouring off of him, and air coming in measured breathes. Finally, he was forced to take an early rest.
As he sat, patting his head of sweat and embracing the cool mountain breeze, he found his comfort return albeit slowly. He had never felt such exhaustion, even after a night of heavy drinking. Looking about, he noticed the path flanked by rich vegetation. Hoping to find a bit of food, he decided to cut through some of the brush.
In his haste, and his exhaustion, Gundulf failed to see that beneath the brush was the largest grouping of Wolfsbane he had ever come into contact with. Tearing away the vines and brush that had grown over the Wolfsbane caused the deadly fumes to fill his lungs. And alas poor Gundulf fell to the ground, and into that heavy space between life and death.
Gundulf suddenly saw a great temple. Upon the gate were massive claw marks and a great padlock that was intricately adorned with all matter of runes.
He approached the gate, each step feeling weighted, terror reaching up inside of him and grabbing hold. Where was he? How did he get here?
As he touched the gate, after several moment which felt like an eternity, he felt words form absent intent.
“Hello?” He cried, as a child would call to their mother in the night.
He heard a horrible snarl behind him, yet he lacked the courage to turn and face it. Instead he banged on the gate, failing to remember that it was clearly locked from the outside.
Gundulf could feel the air currents rushing past him as if something were bearing down on him yet again. He could not turn head to face it. He felt tears welling up inside as he crumbled to the ground.
Gundulf opened his eyes and sat up straight, taking a measure of his surroundings. He was in a modest bed, although feathered and expertly crafted, it wasn’t quite as large as would be needed for a man his size to consider “comfortable”. The room he was in was strange, even by the worldly bard’s standards. The walls were a mix of paper and bamboo, but expertly crafted to give the impression of absolute security. His bed was also quite low to the ground and the ceiling just high enough for him to stand straight without bumping his head. A single candle burned within a lantern across the room, the dim light illuminating the room delicately in a mesmerizing way.
After wiping the immense amount of sweat off of his head and face, he drank deep from the pitcher of water that had been left on the nightstand next to him, ignoring the glass beside it altogether.
It was indeed water, though herbally infused and quite refreshing. From across the room, a stranger watched him curiously.
“I am quite pleased to see you on the mend young wolf,” said the stranger, who had decided to make his presence known.
Gundulf, still quite delirious, sniffed the air in hopes of catching some glimpse of who or what he may be dealing with. No wolf was accustomed to being taken unaware after all. But all he could smell was the sweat from his lips and a bit of incense that must be burning somewhere nearby. Gundulf sprang from the bed and readied himself.
“Now, now young one. You are a guest. It takes only a snap of my finger and you become an intruder. I should state that many have visited our great temple as guests, however, no intruder has ever left alive.”
At this, and at a complete disadvantage, Gundulf relaxed and decided to take on a more amenable position.
“Apologies. I’m afraid I am a bit disoriented. I’m having a bit of trouble remembering how I’ve gotten here. My name is Gundulf, of Voraniss.”
With the statement hanging in the air, Gundulf’s memory of the climb, and the events that had proceeded it, came to memory. Small fragments of the Wolfsbane mashed together with his fever dreams also rushed forward and caused him to hold his head in his hands.
“Come, Gundulf, I must show you something. Then we will take morning meal and discern your purpose here.”
The two walked slowly through the darkened halls of the temple domiciles, only that same ornamental lantern carried by this strange man to light their way. Their walk at last led to a door which opened up to a small balcony overlooking the darkened courtyard.
They stood there but a moment before dawns first light broke over the mountain top. The sun’s rays came crackling down the mountain, giving way to all manner of beautiful flora. A wondrous waterfall streamed off of one of the cliffs which broke into a stream that led right into the side of the temple, and crystalline pools of water, expertly crafted, took up a large portion of a great garden.
The garden was something from a storybook, artistically tended to with love and devotion. But all of the flowers were of a singular color. Purple.
Gundulf’s eyes followed the newfound illuminations from the sun as it revealed a true spectacle. Standing in the courtyard as statues were dozens of men and women in modest temple garments. As the sun hit them, they broke into a series of coordinated movements. Some movements appeared as a dance to Gundulf while others seemed to be combat maneuvers. Whatever the case was, their movements were quite beautiful.
Stunned, and honestly wondering if the Wolfsbane had killed him and this were some afterlife, Gundulf followed the tiny man back into the temple hallway and down a spiral staircase which led to a large eating area.
The room was filled with long benches and tables, and many servants seemed to be placing large bowls of soup with baskets of freshly baked rolls. Gundulf didn’t need his werewolf sense of smell to appreciate the aroma within the hall that morning. Several of the temple’s patrons were funneling in and taking their seats when Gundulf and his compatriot made their way to one of the benches.
None of them paid Gundulf much mind. The room was filled with quiet conversation, smiles, and a sense of community. Gundulf took his meal slowly, enjoying every bite and waiting for his shadow to broach conversation; which of course finally he did.
“So have you decided yet?” asked the strange man.
At this question, many of the table’s occupants subtly quieted themselves and turned their attention towards the question, in curiosity towards its answer.
“And what decision am I to be contemplating?” asked Gundulf in genuine curiosity.
“Have you decided if any of this is real or not?” asked the man with a grand smile.
At this, the table and much of the room laughed politely. All eyes were on Gundulf at this point.
“To be quite honest, no, I haven’t decided. But though this place has the staunch beauty of an afterlife, it isn’t one I’m deserving of. So either it’s real and you are all having a laugh at me, or it is indeed an afterlife and I’m in line for some sort of torture. But considering the Goddess of werewolves is also the Goddess of madness, I’m a bit at a loss for what a faithless wolf may expect from the afterlife. So why don’t you tell me?”
The room quieted at this answer, as if a practical joke had back fired. But his shadow, this curious man who still wore his cowl over his head obscuring his face, wasn’t the least taken back.
“Perhaps we should start with something simple. Why are you here?”
“I’ve come to apologize to an elder werewolf whom I seem to have offended with my reckless nature. I am not to leave without his forgiveness,” said Gundulf, who decided being forthright may be his only hope of getting out of this place and back to his home, which he was beginning to sorely miss.
“That may well indeed be why you came, but why you are here remains to be seen,” said the hooded man. Upon completion of his statement, he removed his hood to reveal his visage. The monk was bald, with small dots tattooed on his forehead. He appeared to be quite old, however, there was no slouch in his body and he moved quite gracefully. There was a claw scar across his face in which two claw lines went across his eyes. This revealed the man’s eyes to be pale grey and lifeless. He was blind in both eyes or at least appeared so.
Gundulf instinctually averted his eyes for a moment before returning his gaze for closer examination. A large smile crossed the monks face.
“I seek only to apologize to your master….” Gundulf began to explain, but all within the room began to clear and clean the tables; which happened with such haste and precision Gundulf took too long staring to realize it may be courteous to help and missed his chance.
The monks all made their way out of the room, some staying behind to tend to the kitchen and sweeping the dining area. Gundulf followed the precession of monks outside and found many of them to be stretching and gathering bamboo staffs and unusual looking weapons from weapon racks which lined the courtyard.
He decided to keep to the side, his shadow no longer in sight, and observe all he could from these strange people. The demonstration did not disappoint. Many of the monks paired off and began sparring vigorously to dazzling effect; their movements precise and swift.
Letting his eyes wander to take in as much of the courtyard as possible, he was again drawn to the garden and decided to move in for a closer look. As he approached, he realized had he entered the garden it would have meant his end, for it was filled with Wolfsbane. Gundulf quickly turned around and moved towards the main courtyard once more to seek out answers as to why so much of this poison was being grown here. His mind racing, he wondered if Hygar had sent him to investigate this folly with virgin eyes. He quickly turned from the thought. Hygar wouldn’t endanger Gundulf’s life without telling him so, would he?
When Gundulf reached the courtyard he witnessed the monks gathered in a circle, all whispering to each other and backing away slowly. In the center of the circle was a man. He was convulsing on the ground and tearing at his robes. Many of the monks began to cry out in a language Gundulf did not understand. Other bowed their heads and prayed. Where once stood the monk now stood a gargantuan werewolf, bloodlust in his eyes and foaming at the mouth. And standing across from him was the blind monk, a long spear in hand.
The wolf charged crazily towards the blind monk, and Gundulf attempted to make his way through the crowd towards the clash; but too many stood between him and his destination.
The blind monk sidestepped the beast and launched a palm into its side. The beast fell to the ground in a roll. When once again the beast charged, the monk sprang into the air, stepping on the beast’s head and running down its back. The monk then spoke to the beast, and although once again in a tongue unfamiliar to Gundulf, it seemed like a plea.
The beast rushed towards the monk a third and final time, and with a flash barely visible by the naked eye, the beast was impaled by the spear and was quite dead.
The monk yelled first in that same strange language, then again in the common tongue.
“Junji gave into his bloodlust. He betrayed himself and this temple. This is a result of lack of discipline and a sickness of the spirit. He is not the first to be lost to us, nor shall he be the last. Mourn him, clean his body, and remember his sacrifice. Training is finished for the day in light of this tragedy. Meditate on this my brothers and sisters, or follow in his wake.”
Gundulf stood in terror. He wanted to run straight back to Hygar and Mouse, and all of his friends in the tranquil woods of Voraniss; but before he could claim his thoughts, he found himself face to face with the blind monk.
“Follow,” muttered the blind monk. And so he did.
He took Gundulf to a pair of stones that were smoothed into seats. The blind monk gestured and the two sat down.
“I fear tragedy pushes our revelations quicker than I would have liked,” said the blind monk.
Gundulf had no words and elected to remain silent, yet focused, on the man.
“You are in no danger here, Gundulf. You remain a guest as I’ve explained. Junji was here for different reasons. This place is a sanctuary where a wolf may learn control. Many wolves travel here as a last effort to control the wolf inside. Many struggle with it every day. By joining this monastery, Junji made a promise to never shift within these walls and, more importantly, to never again taste human flesh. But he only sought to control the beast within in the hopes of unleashing it upon his enemies, for personal gain. This is a path to ruin.”
“Are all who dwell here werewolves?”
“Most are. Some have beastblood from different animals. We have been host to all sorts of magical creatures, but we all seek the same thing: Harmony with body, mind and spirit.”
Gundulf looked out down the mountain towards the woods of Voraniss. This was such a strange place and he longed for the revelry of a campfire.
“I would but deliver apology to your elder. I’m not to return until I have received forgiveness for sitting in the chair.”
The old blind monk perked an eye brow up at the remark and smirked slightly at the young wolf.
“You have no right to ask of me anything. Not now anyway. I saved your life upon the mountain trail and would see debt repaid before we speak of forgiveness and chairs.”
Gundulf sighed, knowing it wasn’t going to be this easy after the spectacle of the day. But if it meant balancing scales so that he may return home, then so be it.
“What would you have of me?”
The blind monk smiled and gestured towards a broom.