“This stone is your burden.” A tall woman with silver hair and a lined face gestured at the ground. “Its weight is the weight of your responsibilities, of your guilt, of your obligations to family and tribe and Gaia. You will carry it all the way to the caern’s heart, and you will not rest. You will chant the rite of contrition. You will cleanse the stone until its weight is nothing. And then you will be Adren.”
Theresa VonCarrington eyed the massive rock that nestled in the grass. Her furry form might be much stronger than the one she was born with, but even the benefit of that strength wouldn’t keep this trial from being arduous.
The caern’s heart was over a mile away.
She crouched, wrapped her arms around the stone, and strained. Slowly, so slowly, she stood, leaning backwards to balance herself. Her clawed toes dug into the ground, and her arms shook with effort. She could already feel the pain in her shoulders and knees. She took a step, then another. She opened her mouth and started speaking.
“I am Tess, called Bathes in Blood, and my heart is heavy with mourning for the wrongs I have committed.”
Another step. A stumble.
“My soul is dark with sorrow.”
A quick correction, a grunt, and another step.
“Tears fall from my eyes and wet my face, for my actions are not in harmony with Gaia’s will.”
More steps. Branches, rocks, and thorns littered the path. She could not go around them. She had climb over the obstacles and she had to take the pain.
“My only desire is penance. My only wish is forgiveness.”
A werewolf’s body was designed to take a lot of punishment and keep on going. Tess’s muscles burned like fire, but the threads just kept reknitting themselves in an endless cycle of agony.
“I will bear any pain in the knowledge that it will cleanse me of my transgressions.”
As the words fell from her mouth and her body burned, her mind went back to the final battle. She saw again the rows of Kinfolk, the delicate humans who sustained the heart and soul of the Garou Nation, and watched, helpless, as they were brutally cut down by fomori.
“I will gladly suffer any punishment to find the right path and walk it again.”
She hadn’t run fast enough, she couldn’t bite hard enough or claw deep enough to get to them and save them. The Wyrmbeasts tore through them like tissue paper, and blood soaked the the snow, nearly black against the stark white.
“I speak the Litany, the cornerstone of our Society.”
Her packmates raced after her, striking down banes, pummelled on all sides by the onslaught of the Wyrm’s minions. Diana, Viridian Sky, fell and didn’t rise. Kieran, Kicks the Wall, fell. Jackson, Speaker of Secrets, fell. Tess felt each death as a physical blow to her soul, but she couldn’t stop.
“Garou shall not mate with Garou.”
Only Jeremiah remained by her side. His brutal ferocity was her shield. Together, they rammed through the trailing edge of the horde that was mowing down the Kinfolk and begin to work. It was exhausting and filthy. The fomori’s gleaming claws and rotten teeth hurt so much. It didn’t matter.
“Combat the Wyrm wherever it dwells and whenever it breeds.”
Her klaive rose and fell, rose and fell, and the blood soaked into her once-bright fur. There was no part of her that remained white. Gore dripped from her claws. Screams echoed in her ears, but whether they were the cries of the Wyrm-ridden creatures that fell under her attack or the dying gasps of the Kinfolk, she couldn’t tell.
“Respect the territory of another.”
In the end, sixteen Kinfolk walked or limped away from the battlefield. Sixteen, out the hundreds who had flocked to the King’s banner to fight the last battle.
“Accept an honorable surrender.”
They told her that even sixteen was a miracle, but it didn’t feel like one. It felt more like abject failure - a failure that had taken place in broad daylight, under the watching eyes of hundreds of other Garou, not to mention the hundreds more who never walked off the field.
“Submit to those of a higher station.”
Those left in her Sept promoted her and Jeremiah to Fosterns for surviving that battle. They called her “Bathes in Blood.” and they called Jeremiah “Shield of Fury.” They told her that her packmates died as heroes, and that she and Jeremiah were also heroes. She found the whole situation farcical.
“Respect those of a lower station, for all are of Gaia.”
She had spent the past seven years on a new mission. She turned all of her scientific training to uncovering any missing lines of Kinfolk through genetic research. She begged, borrowed, or stole any data she could get her hands on to track down lost Kin. Some might call it an obsession. Some might call it penance. Tess called it being practical. She had lost hundreds of Kinfolk, and it was her responsibility to find more to replace them.
“The first of the kill for the greatest in station.”
Moderate success begat the notice of those around her, but the pleas of other Garou fell oddly flat on her ears. Her quest was her own, and she would do it her way. She remembered the sensation of compassion, but it seemed more distant, these days.
“Ye shall not eat the flesh of humans.”
As the words fell from her lips, their meaning jolted her back to awareness. The days of the Impergium weren’t that far back in history, and the rise of the Age of Apocalypse made its return seem ever more possible. It was her hope to find and spiritually mark every Kinfolk before that possible eventuality. What further horrors would be visited upon the Garou Nation should they begin to kill their own in their quest to cleanse the Earth?
“The veil shall not be lifted.”
The pain in Tess’ shoulders had long since radiated out to her entire body. Having once been set on fire by a fomor, she decided that this wasn’t dissimilar.
“Do not suffer thy people to tend they sickness.”
It was her penance, though. If she said all the right words, if she bore the pain without flinching, maybe the pain in her heart could be ameliorated. Maybe she could finally feel something, anything, other than the constant, gnawing guilt.
“The leader may be challenged at any time during peace.”
Throughout her quest, Jeremiah had stuck with her. The pack bond never broke, even as her already limited ability to process emotions faded even more. Others had joined their pack, stayed for awhile, and found a reason to slip away, but Jeremiah’s steady presence had helped her to stay grounded. Even now, she could sense him just outside the range of her vision, a comforting pressure in the back of her mind that tracked her through the bawn.
“The leader may not be challenged during wartime.”
She challenged him regularly, she knew, just as he challenged her. Neither of them had much patience for those outside their pack - the nonsense was a little overwhelming. But they’d been together for decades, at this point, and they were probably stuck with each other.
“Ye shall take no action that causes a caern to be violated.”
At last, she spotted the caern’s heart, such as it was. The flickering shard had grown into a small plum tree, and was surrounded by a bevy small altars, lovingly decorated and maintained by all the members of this Sept. They had encouraged her to build her own, dedicated to Falcon or her pack totem, but she simply hadn’t been able to find the time. A marble plinth stood before the tree, ready to accept her burden.
Tess dragged her bleeding feet the final steps and stood before the block of marble. She studied it, trying to work out how to let go of her stone. Her whole being had become devoted to holding it, and her whole body curled in devastating pain around the cause of her suffering. Finally, she realized the problem.
The silver-haired Elder stood behind her, and her voice was gentle, despite the words she spoke. “If you don’t, you’ll die,” she said. “No one can take it from you. You have to choose to put it down.”
Tears rolled down Tess’ face, dripping past the scars on her bony cheeks and soaking into the white fur. “I deserve it,” she whispered.
The Elder sighed. “I don’t know how else to convince you. This is a burden shared by all Garou, everywhere. We all shoulder a part of the responsibility. If you try to carry it alone, you will fail.”
Jeremiah strode forward, then, clearly disobeying some order, judging by the unrepentant set of his shoulders. He placed a hand on the stone, and Tess gasped at the sensation of someone touching her soul. “You gotta do it, Tess. You gotta let it go. I’ll help you. It’s me. Let me help you.”
Finally, Tess nodded once, sharply. She leaned forward, following Jeremiah’s firm guidance, and placed the stone on top of the marble. He pulled her fingers away, one by one, uncurling her arms that were set rigid as steel around the object of her misery. Her sobs echoed in the sacred space. The moment she stopped touching the stone, a deafening crack exploded from the solid plinth underneath it. In an instant, it crumbled to dust, and the stone thudded to the ground.
Tess straightened her back. “Not even marble can bear my burden,” she said, and walked away.
Jeremiah paused next to the Elder. “Next time,” he hissed in her face, “keep your bullshit pseudo-psychology to yourself and give her a proper challenge.” He stomped away to catch up with Tess and drove her home.
Tess was called back to the Caern Heart the next day. The Elder with the silver hair stood in front of her once more.
“As with so many challenges, the result was not the intended one, but you have proven yourself, regardless. You can carry your burden, and you have a packmate who ensures you are not crushed by it. You are Adren. You will be called Carries the Stone.”
Tess bowed her head in the appropriate show of respect.
“Thank you, Swarms the Spirit-rhya.” She waited silently for any further proclamations.
The Elder just shook her head.