The investigators circled defensively, fearing the approaching wolves from the darkness of Ancil Hoffman Park. The two wolf-women narrowed their eyes at the group, particularly at Seth, furious that he had blown their cover. Ismene spun her camera to face the darkness, pointing away from the werewolves, trying not to agitate them further. “Who are you?” the younger one snarled, still primed for attack.
“Pandora’s Box,” Ismene introduced, holding out a hand.
“Wait, really?” the younger woman said, taken aback. “I’ve seen your stuff!”
“Who are these strangers?” the older one asked to her companion, eyes narrowed.
“They’re friends – maybe,” she said. “They know about the supernatural.”
The tense standoff continued in stoic silence until the older woman eventually seemed to accept the younger’s explanation.
“The zoo is responsible for a lot of emotional trauma,” Harry offered, “which would be worth heavy recompense.” He continued trying to change the subject, pressing the idea that he was involved in civil litigation against the zoo.
“Are you with them?” the older woman asked of Seth. “You smell familiar somehow.”
“Of course!” he beamed, striking a proud pose near Ismene.
She frowned. “And what are you all doing in the woods tonight?”
“We were looking into reports of the ‘Valley Panther’ and that there may be escaped zoo creatures,” Tammy offered, seemingly nonplussed at the sudden existence of werewolves.
After a bit of back-and-forth, the group learned that the large panther-shaped shadow was known to the wolves as “the vessel,” and the wolves were pleased to learn that the group wasn’t associated with it, no matter what tenuous connection it seemed to have with Tammy. Moving their conversation away from the public trail, the assemblage walked through and beyond the thick bushes of star-thistle that lined much of the hiking trails.
“We don’t like the term ‘werewolf'” Cindy explained in a low voice. “We’ve been here for a long time, and it’s been an important secret that there are still wolves in the valley. You found us, and I’m sure you’ve found other beings as well.”
Ismene did her best to lightly cover the recent dealings with the Air Force base, the round-up of the zoo creatures, and the other strange occurrences they’d been through. The wolves remarked that they never intended to attack or assault anyone, but that the Valley Panther had been making increasingly aggressive forays into the woods, perhaps trying to cross the river.
Something registered in Seth’s mind. “The Crossing? The river of water? What’s on the other side?”
The older woman fixed him with her cold, blue eyes. “Our mistress is there. Coyote and Raven gave us their blessing to explore this place, try to find our lost elders, but they are gone now as well. Still we maintain our vigil, trying to find our own path.”
Ismene rose a finger to ask a question but was cut off by a loud, warbling howl from all around the small clearing. Cindy and Kate’s wolf pack cried out in pain as /something/ attacked from the darkness. Seth took up a defensive position next to Ismene, Tommy checked to make sure his shotgun was loaded, and Tammy drew her ceremonial kopesh.
Parting the tangled mass of star-thistle, coming from deeper in the forest, hovered an abyssal figure, largely-humanoid but with four onyx wings, a tangled mesh of disassociated features and organs forming twisted, amorphous semblances of faces. It held a large flaming spear stabbed into the ground, impaling a shrieking, flailing form — the Valley Panther. The area was lit by the being’s aura of flame, blinding Ismene’s camera. The quiet lapping of the American River came from just beyond.
Without pause Tommy leveled his shotgun at the middle of the thing’s heads and demanded “this is not your place. Leave now.”
“Your time is over” it intoned from multiple mouths, its voice an amalgamation of human language and animal snarls, though none knew for sure who it was addressing.
Tommy pulled the trigger.
Hit but unaffected, the angelic/demonic creature turned all of its attention to Tommy, a wave of fear washing over the normally stoic and implacable man. Seth and Ismene all took a step back as well, the terrifying awe radiating from the creature affecting them all.
“Elijah!” Ismene hissed between clenched teeth, having felt that gaze before. She felt for her baseball bat, brought along on the trip just in case of trouble. Harry sank to the forest floor, whipping out his laptop, a determined and committed look on his face. Uncharacteristically, Seth tried to hide behind Ismene, his usual confidence shaken to its core.
Tammy began to advance, the force of her faith radiating out from her very skin. Her savage blade began to glow amber, her eyes matching. “Remove yourself from this place,” she commanded. “Leave in peace or die ashamed and in pieces.” The being pulled its spear from the Valley Panther, flourishing it defensively. Tammy leaped at the angel as Tommy cocked his shotgun for another blast. Swords and spears danced in the night, the two titans of faith striking savagely at one another, both landing horrific wounds on the other.
“I hate cherubim” Harry spat under his breath, his fingers flying across the laptop’s click-clacking keyboard. “Stop Elijah dot exe!” he roared, jabbing the Enter key as his laptop speakers began issuing a cacophonous wail in half-modulated angelic verse. A large arcane circle erupted beneath the angel, cathode green tendrils and vines snaking their way around the creature’s arms, legs, and wings. “Strike it down!” he screamed to Tammy and Tommy, the latter having drawn a long, thin blade.
Struggling to move, the being swung the flaming spear and caught Tommny in the side, knocking him bodily to the ground as it tried to fend off Tammy’s assault.
Seth rolled on the forest floor, holding his temples and screaming, both from the aura of power and fear radiating from the angelic creature and Harry’s harrowing binding program. Cindy and Kate, in their wolf-forms, were similarly affected, seemingly assaulted from all sides.
Freed from its pinning, the Valley Panther leaped up and onto the angel’s back, savagely clawing and biting at the base of its wings. Roaring with its multiple heads, Elijah struggled against the four-pronged assault. Harry’s glowing green chains of binding continued to wrap up its body, tightening their grasp and constricting.
As Tommy’s blade struck true the angel’s wound exploded in fire, forcing him to retreat. Struggling to his feet, Seth took stock of the situation, fighting through the mental assaults which had incapacitated him. Harry was standing over his laptop, a triumphant fist raised into the air, cheering on his companions. Tommy was dodging gouts of flame and trying to find opportunity to stab the being again. Ismene swung her baseball bat at the thing’s legs, ignorant of the flaming spear coming her way. Tammy knocked her out of the way, taking the full brunt of the spear to her chest. The wolves were circling the creature, anger in their eyes.
“Go for the wings!” Harry shouted to the team, “strip it of its angelic power!” Ismene looked aghast at her friend — defeating enemies was well-called for, but wanton mutilation, particularly of angels, seemed unnecessarily bloodthirsty and spiteful.
Raising its spear, the angel announced in a deep, resonant tone “I don’t want to kill you” to the group, pointedly not looking at the werewolves.
Nobody seemed to believe it.
The bright green chains continued constricting, limiting the creature’s movement in ways that it didn’t expect, surprise showing in its multiple sets of eyes. Tommy and a very-injured Tammy stood defiant, swords at the ready. “You cannot do this!” it screamed as the chains bit into its flesh.
“Begone!” Harry roared, as if willing the creature from the mortal plane.
With a tortured howl, the angel vanished, squeezed into an impossibly tight space by its restraints. Soon the forest fell quiet, dark, and empty, the adventurers panting heavily.
The two wolves comforted one another, tending to their own wounds as Seth placed ointment and bandages on Tammy’s ribs. Ismene stood stoically, a concerned frown on her face. “That was terrible,” she said to no-one in particular.
“Job well-done,” Tommy shrugged, cleaning his blade before sheathing it.
“Well-done?!” she screamed, anger and pain from the encounter bursting out. “You all were going to mutilate Elijah! ‘Go for the wings,’ Harry? That’s not what I’m about, that’s not what the show is about, and I’m disgusted with what just happened!”
“It wasn’t human,” Harry retorted, matter-of-factly. “It’s not like we’re torturing people.”
“That doesn’t matter!” she snapped. “However much you hated that thing, you can’t go around torturing it!”
The clearing fell into a silence born of awkwardness and frustration.
“You should take this,” the older wolf-woman said to Seth, handing him a silvery pendant of a crescent moon.
“What is it?”
“If we’re right about you, it should help you remember. Remember who you are, where you come from.”
He accepted the gift, mouth turning in a slight frown. Instead of putting on the jewelry, he put it into his pocket. His past was a mystery, even to him, but he was starting to think it’s a history left forgotten. The demon-raven had seemed too-familiar, and saw him as a kindred spirit. Tammy may claim to be of divine stock, but Seth didn’t like the implications of his own lineage.
The Valley Panther, knocked free from the fight, reapproached and spoke in low growls with Tammy, who responded in kind. They seemed to reach some sort of accord, and the large spirit-cat ran and leaped into the river, disappearing bodily into the night.
“Could I get a milkshake?” Seth asked, child-like. “I don’t feel very good.”