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World of Darkness: Attrition - The Third Test: Honor [Complete]

Dawn OOC

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Another note, after so long since her last note, was waiting for Sarah when she woke up that evening. It had been nailed to a tree, as always. This one was very different from the last.


You've graduated to a new level with passing two tests. You're to come up and see us for your next test.


There was nothing more, save that simple command. But it would be the start of something much more complex, and much more demanding.

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[6:15 PM, 16 February 2009]

"Well, this is a new twist," Sarah muttered as she read the note before folding it up and tucking the paper away in her jacket pocket.

As she shifted to her lupine form and began the now-familiar run toward Topanga territory, she pondered what this was about. Maybe this one is a face-to-face test. Glory maybe? Luna, I hope they don't want me to fight one of them. That would be... messy.

The run took her above the lights of L.A., up the twists and turns of Sullivan Fire Road and then out onto the trails of the Topanga State Park. Another turn, and the familiar tree came into sight, markings that told of claimed land deep in its bark.

At the edge of their territory, Sarah stopped and howled in the only other tongue available to her. *Dead-wolf here. Called and came.*

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It wasn't long before two wolves moved out of the trees, approaching at an easy run, masters of their domain. People familiar with wolf behavior would have been surprised by the two - the males ran together oddly, both as alphas. That was impossible - only one male could be alpha. Yet, these two both acted as one, against all odds.

Of course, most specialists in wolf-behavior would never realize the truth behind these two "wolves."

They reached the border, and without crossing, shifted up. Kris and Kane stood before her, the united yet dual form of Lightening-Strikes-Twice. "Sarah," Kane said, giving her a polite nod. Kris growled softly.

Without really ignoring his brother but not allowing his opinion to derail this, Kane said simply," The time to test your Honor has begun. Honor is, at its simpliest level, keeping your word. Keeping bans and pacts with spirits is part, but you, as we have understood, will not have much to do with that. So we will test your ability-"

"To keep your word," Kris snarled.

So far so good - Sarah was proud of her ability to keep her word. This shouldn't be that hard.

"You have kept many promises, for good and ill," Kane said.

"Yet you've failed to fulfill one," Kris said accusingly.

As Sarah began to run through the promises she'd made in her time here - promises all kept, thank you very much, Kane added, "The one you made before you died."

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Pale flesh wrinkled as Sarah's brow furrowed. "The promise I made before I died? What prom-"

And then, the realization hit. It wasn't a gentle dawning, a growing understanding of previously forgotten moments unveiled. No, this was a nasty and brutish thing, a kick that went to her solar plexis and somehow echoed up through the Dead Wolf's unbeating heart.

Even as her eyebrows rose, Sarah's face fell with grim realization of exactly what she was being asked to do. "You... you really want me to do that? After all that is happened, after she has joined a pack, you want...." Four icy eyes looked back at her - one pair seemingly seeking any reason for attack, the other almost betraying a hint of compassion, but both resolute. There wasn't going to be a way out of this, Sarah knew.

With a sigh, she nodded to the twin form of Lightning-Strikes-Twice. "Bitter pill, but I'll get it done," Sarah said with a nod, and then turned to head back down the long and winding way to town. But damned if I'll do it without at least letting her know.


[1:30AM, 17 Feb 2009]

Dialing the number wasn't easy, and took a significant act of will. Recent reconnection or no, Sarah had no misunderstandings of her cousin's stance on family - all of it - and wasn't expecting a warm reception. Still, she knew, it was world's easier than the number she would have to dial later.

As the line clicked over to voice mail (must be busy with her leech employer, the Dead Wolf rued), she simply said, "Amber, it's Sarah. Something big has come up, and it directly involves you. Please let me know when we can meet."

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The next evening...

What the fuck... Amber was tired as she closed her phone, cutting off the voice mail's tinny recording. She still wasn't getting enough sleep. She rotated her neck, listening to the joints pop. She wondered if it was healthy to push herself to do so much, then ignored the thought.

Sarah's territory was ahead, and Amber stopped at the edge, pulling out her phone. She called the number Sarah had called her at, telling her, "I'm here, at your territory." She gave her the exact location and sat back to wait.

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For all of her pride in it, Sarah's territory wasn't huge; the Dead Wolf was there within a couple of minutes, even on her two human legs.

As always, the wannabe greeted one of the People as an inferior: Amber could almost see her ears fighting to find some way to emulate laying flat, and her proverbial tail was most assuredly tucked. Still gazing more or less at the ground, she said, "Thanks for coming. I've got some crappy news, stuff to do with back home." There was no mistaking what she meant; back home could only refer to the wooded enclave, three thousand miles and as many traumas away.

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Amber felt that roiling jerk in her stomach, the one that demanded that she take what she so dearly needed from her cousin. But Sarah's words did nothing to help the Uratha feel better. "What?" she puffed out in a burst of exasperation. "What are you talking about?"

Click to reveal..
Amber's check to not eat Sarah: 1 sux, remains capped at +5 dice

1d10=4, 1d10=10, 1d10=2, 1d10=1, 1d10=7, 1d10=4, 1d10=4, 1d10=1, 1d10=4


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She didn't relish what had to be said. But in the end, it did need to be said, and doing so in a straightforward fashion would stand a better chance with Amber than beating around the bush. Looking up from the ground, Sarah tried to meet her cousins eyes while she delivered the dangerous news.

"Long story short, the Topanga's are running me through the Tests of Renown. They just hit me with a doozy for Honour: I'm to fulfill a promise I made before my change. The one I made to Grandma Wren. The one to find you and let the family know where you are."

She looked for a reaction, but none was forthcoming; Amber's look might as well have been a stone mask, seeming to wait for more. Without any other good options in obvious sight, Sarah plowed ahead with what she'd decided to do.

"I don't want to do this. I'd long since decided that I didn't want to rat you out. But they made a good point: I'd given my word, and what kind of fucking good is my honour if I can't keep my word?"

The silence was deafening.

"So I'm giving you a heads-up. So you can figure out what you want to do if they show up. Or where to go if you want to move. Or... well, or if you want to... stop me." Again, there wasn't a whole lot of doubt in what those last words were intended to convey; any stopping that occurred would be of a very permanent sort.

As she waited for Amber's silence to break, Sarah braced for what might be the final act of her short unlife.

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Before Amber became an Uratha, Sarah might have been facing her death; Amber the girl would have done much to save herself from her parent's clutches. Killing a corpse wouldn't have been a big issue.

But Amber the Wolf understood things beyond what Amber the girl did. So after a moment of fear making her body tense, she relaxed and shrugged. "Gotta do whatcha gotta do. Just make sure that they understand that I'm with a pack now." She was quiet a moment, then quirked her eyebrow and said, "What was all you wanted?"

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Relief flowed over Sarah like cool water; knowing that Amber was - at least seemingly - ready to deal with this situation changed the entire equation, and the burden of her duty was lightened for it. Oh, she would still have the ugliness of her own situation to handle if questions headed that way, but the Dead Wolf had resolved to take that particular bull by the horns if it headed her way.

Nodding, she started pulling out the sleek cellphone Lucien had given her as she said, "That's pretty much it. Might as well get it done with now." With no further hesitation (perhaps in fear that Amber would change her mind with any delay), Sarah dialed the number that had been graven into her memory for over twenty years.

The Wren enclave may have been a bit - well, more than a bit - primal in ways, but telephone service was an accepted modern convenience, and the emergency line was always kept in good order. So a tight knot formed in Sarah's stomach when a tell-tale phone company signal kicked in after the second ring. Quickly, she tapped in a different number, another line in the Wren compound, only to look more perplexed as it brought the same message to bear. One more number was tried, and for the third time Sarah heard impossible and dispassionate words from a recording.

Her face grew even more pale than usual as Sarah folded up the phone and looked with true worry at her Rahu cousin. A suddenly dry mouth fought to form words, and it took a moment to get it out. "The lines are disconnected. All of 'em. That..." She swallowed hard, and then managed to finish the sentence. "That means somethings gone really, really wrong. I... I think I'll have to go there."

She started to turn, as if to leave right there and then, but stopped to look back over her shoulder. "Do you want to come? I know how bad it was, but they are our family."

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Amber bit back a sour retort about the family remark; she'd resolved not to fight with the vampire about that issue anymore. Despite the concern knotting her own gut, she said, "I can't go, Sarah. You don't understand this, as you're not in a pack or of the People, but I can't leave and go haring off. My place is here now." There was a serenity in those words; all Uratha felt the need for pack, and finding it quieted a hunger in them. Amber wore that look on her face right now.

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The Dead Wolf gave a wistful little smile. "You'd be surprised what I understand about packs and duties, Amber." With a little sigh, she added, "Let Dec know that I need to head out of town for... hell, for a couple weeks, OK? He keeps an eye on my territory when I'm gone. And... thanks. I mean that."

With no further delay, Sarah began to shift. But, her cousin quickly realized, it wasn't a wolf she was becoming. Her form shrank, but hands elongated, fingers stretching as feathers sprang into being. Her long hair pulled into similar fletching, slate blue plumes laid back atop a beaked head. New wings were grabbing at air even before the change was completed, and Sarah - now a peregrine falcon - cut swiftly through the skies, gaining altitude and speed as she headed east toward whatever the Fates would bring her.

Click to reveal..
She has a long, long flight ahead of her:

projected travel path

2883 miles, one way. Approx 60mph in level flight (falcons are damned fast). So, 48 hours of flight. Figure (at this time of year) about 12 hours of useful night, subtract a couple hours for hunting and distractions, and we're looking at five nights of travel to get to her destination. Long, long trip.


LA to Salina, Utah (583 miles)

Salina to Sterling, Colorado (572 miles)

Sterling to Grinnell, Iowa (600 miles)

Grinnell to Lorain, Ohio (594 miles)

Lorain to Peru, Massachusettes (555 miles)

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[18-19 Feb 2009]

There's no feeling in this wide, wide world like genuine flight. Wind rushes over and under broad wings, lifting one higher and higher above the sleeping land below. Above is only the starry night, gleaming dots that swing to and fro as you bank into a turn, Luna's bright smile seeming to kiss your sharp eyes with an extra blessing. It is wonder. It is power. It is freedom.

And after five hours or so, it is boring as all hell.

Sarah was relatively new to this entirely mode of locomotion, and lacking any sort of built-in homing system, she'd opted to follow the highways. The I-15 had lead her out of the Los Angeles Basin, stings of lights far below telling of fellow travellers heading east and north. The empty lands of the Mojave passed by - though not so empty as to preclude a brief snack, as a jackrabbit fell victim to sharp eyes and sharper talons - and then the bright lights of Vegas had all but blinded the undead raptor, as she swooped in and amongst the towers and other monuments to mankind's greed.

Those ventures, whirling about the upper levels of penthouses and the like, were a desperate distraction from what had been hour upon hour of long, monotonous flight. It was true that, unlike the real McCoy, vampiric wings did not tire... but the mind is a different thing altogether.

Only after a half-hour spent amid the bright lights did this strange visitor finally - and somewhat reluctantly - set her course back above the I-15, continuing on into the high desert beyond.

As the eastern sky began to go pink with the promise of a new and deadly day, Sarah Dead-Wolf - still in her falcon seeming - slipped into the dusty dirt not far from Salina, Utah, and slumbered as the dead.

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[19-20 Feb 2009]

The smile was a little thinner when Sarah burst forth from the dry earth to capture the skies again. Luna's smile, that is. And that in turn brought a bit of concern to Sarah's dead heart. Oh, there was still almost a week of life left in this moon... but most of that would be spent on (well, over) the road. By the time home loomed into sight over the New England hills, Sarah new, Luna's face would be hidden, and the deep thirst would come upon her once more.

Just the way I really want to face my family, she rued as the rugged wilderness of Utah rolled away beneath her, car lights picking their tiny way over the asphalt ribbon of I-70 eastward in the night.

Of course, if what Amber said was true, they weren't really her family. Not now that she was dead. Not now that whatever made a creature like her had crawled into dead Sarah's skin and resumed a mockery of her life. The least worthy daughter of the Wren clan had ended on the shoulder of a lonely road years ago.

But Amber was wrong. Sarah knew this; after all, Lucien had proven otherwise with his mystical sight. And even if it hadn't been for that strange watery compass pointing to her heart, Sarah knew full well that she was still Sarah O'Neally. Changed, certainly... but did the People not change when they came into the fullness of their being? Had Amber not changed, Sarah pondered as the winding mountain-top line of the Continental Divide passed beneath her cold wings, becoming someone a bit different than before?

She was still convincing herself - yet again, it was an unconscious hobby of hers - when the broad and endless road passed into the Mile-High City. Here, she banked hard to the left, tracing the lines from memory that would bring her over the busy connector known as I-76. An hour later, she had more or less won the argument with herself when prey was spotted; in a dive that rivalled the speed of some small aircraft, Sarah first clipped the wings of the large raven, then pulled up out of her dive to loop around and snatch the falling prey in mid-air. A few miles passed before she released the exsanguinated corpse from her talons to fall amongst the ranchlands below.

As the lights of Sterling, Colorado shone on the horizon, the swift raptor found a remote plot of land - a piece unlikely to be trampled by some damned cow - and settled into a dreamless sleep.

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[20-21 Feb 2009]

It was somewhere around the Nebraska border when the first of the big black birds showed up. Oh, it looked like a raven from a distance - in fact, Sarah had been sizing it up for a meal from half a mile out - but closer in, the truth was apparent. This thing was too big by half to be any raven she'd ever seen. And more to the point, it had a Beast.

The last thing in the world she really needed right now was a run-in with some damned leech; veering north away from the long stetch of interstate, the Dead Wolf crossed the South Platte, hoping to gain a little distance. She was anything but thrilled when another of the Beast-ridden ravens came up from the northern prairie to flank her, holding steady about fifty yards out while the first one held position at four o'clock.

OK, she thought. They wanna play? Fine with me. I'm built for speed. Pumping her aerodynamic wings for all they were worth, she pulled the sky beneath and behind her, faster and higher and leaving the pair behind. Right about the time that she was congratulating herself, though, a dot showed ahead of her on the horizon - a dot that grew with alarming speed as a massive black bird hove toward her.

Shit! With few options, Sarah decided on a gambit. Pulling her wings in tight, she went into a dive that turned her speed into a blazingly fast blur, well in excess of a hundred and fifty miles per hour. The idea was to use the speed of the dive to draw the trio of ravens behind her... then to pull up and break away.

It might have worked except for the flock. They didn't have Beasts - small blessing - but literally hundreds of ravens rose from frozen fields in a black cloud that blotted out the ground. Before she could pull up, she was in their midst - blinded by their numbers, deafened by the roar of a thousand wings.

Sarah was still trying to pull out when she hit the snow.

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They'd had to dig her out. Three feet of snow sat like a blanket across the plains, and she'd gone through all of it and six inches of frozen soil on impact. Struggling for all she was worth didn't help, she was lodged good and well, and was actually afraid of what shifting would do in such a confined hole. When cold steely fingers wrapped around her taloned feet and pulled, she was an equal mix of relieved and fearful; the strength behind the rescue was certainly that of the dead, and she hadn't a clue what these ravens - almost certainly Gangrels - wanted with her.

"Git yorself back on two feet, or'un I'll kick yor feath'ry ass 'crossun the damned river."

Well, I'm fucked. With a grimmace, Sarah took her natural form for the first time in days, her eyes never leaving the trio standing before her.

The one who'd spoken was of the leather-jacket and greased hair variety; he honestly looked like something straight out of a bad '50s morality flik, playing the part of Rebel Without a Shower. He grinned a perly grin - well, minus a tooth - and said, "That'll do." His partner in crime, a feral looking thing who must not have been a day over sixteen when she saw her last sunset, was in what might have been a nice gingham dress... sixty years ago. Now, it was caked in dirt, snow, and the deep brown stains that told of decades of sloppy feedings. She didn't say a word as Sarah drew up to her full height - just stared at her with hungry eyes that told a tale of far too many close runs with her Beast.

But neither of these radiated the sheer gravitas of the third. He'd hung back at first, watching from beneath the rim of a black cowboy hat that'd seen more years than either of the others combined. The long black duster that hung from his shoulders like a shroud was authentic as well, oil-cloth that had been well tended over the decades - or centuries, Sarah realized as she looked closer at the obvious Alpha of this little pack.

"OK, so I'm here," she finally said. "You've got me; whadya want?" Subtlety and tact, thy name was not Sarah, and despite the odds she wasn't in the mood to pussyfoot around what was likely to be a very, very bad end.

"Gutsy." The words, deep and echoing with the surety of the ages, rumbled forth from the elder in a twang that held much more of Oklahoma than Nebraska. He looked up, and Sarah damned near blanched; his eyes were the tell-tale yellow on black of a wolf. "Reckon y'ain't goin' nowhere; not that stupid. But time fer you t'pay the toll fer flyin' our skies."

Sarah's eyes narrowed even as her stomach clenched in a tight knot. "What kind of toll are we talking about, here?"

"Just some civility. Not much t'that, is there?" The Greaser gave a smirk that told of much, much more to that, and Feral Girl gave a noise that sounded halfway between a giggling teeny-bopper and a hyaena. "Let's start with yer name, pup."

The short hairs rankled on her neck, but she held herself with pride. "I'm Sarah O'Neally, childe of Juan Dead-Wolf. Who're you?"

Feral Girl broke out in a full laugh now, and Greaser snickered. From the elder, though, there was just a light snort. "Dead-Wolf, eh? Ain't seen one've y'all in a dog's age. This motorbike-riding fool here is Clayton." Greaser stopped snickering on cue, still with a big grin plastered across his grimy face. "M'girl over here is Cat." For her part, Feral Girl did a full and correct curtsey, and that somehow disturbed Sarah more than her obviously Bestial nature.

"An' me? I'm Dallas, childe o' Exo, gran'childe o' the Unholy. Welcome t'my huntin' grounds, pup."

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The Unholy. Oh.... oh, no. No, no, no....

Everything has something that serves as a boogeyman. Humans had plenty of them, with Sarah being one such thing. The People had a smaller assortment, mostly from the spirit side of the worlds. Vampires had precious few, but chief among them was the force of nature that they called the Unholy.

Little was known of who or what she really was. Oh, she certainly seemed Gangrel enough; sharp talons permanently graced claw-like hands, and she could turn into a raven in the blink of an eye. And she did drink blood. But that's where the similarity ended. She was old - damned old, so old that mortal blood couldn't keep her going anymore, so old that she had to hunt other leeches just to stay awake. Not that it was much of a problem. Juan had told her the stories of how she'd come to a city and leave behind her piles of ashes wafting on the evening breeze... and how their souls almost certainly were trapped within her forever. Whole cities had stood against her, and they'd fallen for their troubles.

And this was her grandchilde. Oh hell. This is gonna be a bad, bad night.

Showing just a touch of subservience, postures she usually reserved for the People, Sarah tried to keep a measure of respect in her voice as she adressed the ancient, dangerous leech. "What'll you have of me, then? You said civility; how do you want this to work?"

Dallas chuckled, an honest sounding thing. "Oh, we'll go back to my campfire. You'll tell us some stories from the road, and maybe we'll tell one or two as well." He turned and started walking across the field, as Clayton and Cat took up position behind her and prodded her forward. He stopped for a second, looking back over his shoulder; those wolf-like eyes shone in the growing moon. "And I'll feed, 'course," he said with a smile, and then they were on the march.

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The campfire scene, in a sparse bit of woods about three miles north of the river across open country, would have been sort of cosy under normal conditions. With four highly flammable vampires sitting around it, it wasn't cosy. These undead creatures, sitting around their bane at well beyond marshmallow-toasting range, all trying to act like some sort of rustic cowboy scene but all feeling their Beasts rage against the heart of the picture - no, it wasn't cosy, Sarah noted. It was pathetic.

Not that she could or would tell that to Dallas and his ragtag pack. They'd built the mythology for themselves, one that they'd spilled out to her over a few hours and some blood-spiked whiskey that Clayton kept in a canteen. To hear them tell it, they believed the descendents of the Unholy - the Ravenscarred, they called themselves, apparently because of her raven-like talons and feathers - to be sort of a reincarnation of the old Indian totem spirits. Never mind that Dallas was obviously only part native, and that neither of his kids had a drop of tribal blood in their ruined veins; they'd bought the line, with Cat thinking herself the return of Lynx, and Clayton deciding that he was Badger. For his part, Dallas called himself the Old Wolf. It took a significant effort for Sarah to bite her tongue on that note; she knew what a real Wolf was, and for all his age and power, the elder vampire wasn't it.

Sarah's bit of storytelling steered carefully away from anything to do with the People; the less these guys knew, the happier she'd be. With as much flavour as she could put on it, she told the story of her embrace, omitting the lupine nature of her quarry on the road. She told of her initial trek across L.A., of fighting the weird pig-ape thing on the grounds of the city zoo. A few other cautious tales were wrapped in as well, things she'd done that didn't directly involve Uratha or knowingly tell of her efforts to be like her cousins. It seemed to fit the bill, at any rate; smiles were had all around, and if the dread of what she knew was to come hadn't been there, the Dead Wolf might have almost enjoyed the experience.

The night was nearly gone when Dallas stood, stretching himself unnecessarily before setting his unnatural gaze on the young visitor. "Well, reckon it's time t'pay the last o' the toll. Don' fret, girl; y'can hunt 'round afterward as my guest to get yer fill, as my guest," he said with a magnanimous sweep of his arm at the woods surrounding the campfire. "Now, lemme have yer arm an' well be done with it."

Every fibre of Sarah's being recoiled at the demand. This was something the Unholy had spawned, and she was a notorious serial diablerist; there was no guarantee that Dallas wouldn't drink her dry and eat her soul for dessert. Looking around though, it was obvious that she had no real choice; no way to shift fast enough to fly, and even then they had enough ravens in the surrounding trees to swarm her before she could clear the site. With ever ouce of courage she could summon, Sarah Dead-Wolf slid back the sleeve of her jacket, revealling smooth and pale flesh, and offered it to her host.

With a wicked gleam in his eye, Dallas sank his fangs into her arm and began to drink.

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In all her young unlife, Sarah had been the one to do the feeding. Even with Lucien, she had given him vitae, rather than have him take it. Now, for the first time ever, she was the prey.

It was chilling and wonderful in turns.

There was no doubt in the world that Dallas could end her, right here and now, if he wished to do so. He had the time, the place, and the sheer force of strength and will to devour everything that could properly be called Sarah O'Neally. And the though brought shivers to her spine.

But a whole different kind of shiver ran in unison, and it was that of pure, undiluted pleasure. She'd seen the effect of the Kiss on her prey, but never before realized just how lopsided the deal was until now. This wasn't just sex. It was purest, undiluted esctacy. Even Lucien's incredible blood seemed to fade to insignificance as Dallas suckled from her wrist, her precious vitae flowing into him and carrying with it the dark gift of unlife. Everything ceased to exist for her, everything except for Dallas and her and their unholy bond in this moment.

How long it lasted, she never quite knew. But the sky was starting to grow pink when she heard, distantly, his rumbling voice. "Pup? You still with us?" A groggy nod was the best she could manage; a distintly light-headed fuzz was only now starting to be cleared by sharp hunger the likes of which she'd not felt in months.

"Better git yerself some grub, though damned if'n it don' look like yer gonna git it on yer lonesome." Dallas stood up, looming over her like some dark god, before letting out a series of sounds that seemed a wildlife soundtrack run amok. Within moments, the small clearing was occupied by two deer, a flock of turkeys and a wolf.

"C'mon now, git some red in ya', Red," her host said with a grin and a bit of a leer. Sarah pulled herself to her feet - somehow - and made for the nearest of Dallas' "pets"... before stopping in her tracks, as the wolf looked back at her. Wolves are not to be prey, she reminded herself with effort, and shambled over to one of the deer, bitting quickly and drinking deep.

It was close, but Sarah was pretty nearly full by the time she and her fellow undead took to the soil to avoid the coming day.

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[21-22 Feb 2009]

How things can change over the course of a slumbering day. When Sarah emerged from the cold ground that evening, the campfire was mere embers. Clayton was just pulling himself free of the ground himself, Cat lagging behind a few minutes. They barely acknowledged the visitor for the first ten minutes or so while she looked nervously around for the elder. Finally, the biker walked over and looked her carefully in the eye.

"Time t'git. So git." His words were the mix of surly condescension she'd gotten used to the night before, but something in his eyes was different. It was a warning, and a sincere one.

With the barest nod of thanks, Sarah stretched her arms to the skies and let the hawk come forth once again. With every pull of her wings, she strove to put miles between her and the dangerous little world of Dallas' Pack.

She was, Sarah knew, a day behind her previous schedule. And that'd put her in Peru right smack in the dark of the moon. But it wasn't to be avoided. And, she thought to herself, at least I'm well-fed. Then realization washed over her, and she almost fell from the sky in shock. She was very well-fed. And Clayton had warned her to leave. He... sweet Luna, she thought to herself. Dallas was fattening me up for one big fat final meal.

Catching herself on the air with a swift twist of fletchings, Sarah put extra effort into escaping the area. Indeed, she didn't slow down until she was out of Nebraska and halfway across Iowa. With sunrise looming in the east, she dove into a fallow field just outside of the town of Grinnell to wait out the day.

Her sleep was a labyrinth of nightmares.

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[22-23 Feb 2009]

With a scream half-muffled by packed loam, Sarah clawed herself free of the Iowa soil in a blind panic. Only after a minute of genuine, dead-heart pounding running did she realize that no, a terrifying mixture of the Unholy and Dallas were not in fact on her heels.

The next minute was spent shaking. It had been years since she'd had a genuine nightmare, and if this was the effect now that she was undead, she hoped to never have another. Staving off a thin sheen of bloody sweat, Sarah took wing once more.

Nothing looked so beautiful as the Mississippi as it passed beneath her, shining in reflection of the lights on the I-80 bridge as it guided her east, east, ever east toward home... or what had been home, she reminded herself. It certainly was home no longer. But in some secret place in every girl's heart, the land of her childhood is forever home, and that does not change even in the brutal rebirth of the Embrace.

Chicago was a massive cluster of traffic and light and sprawl, the largest she'd seen since leaving Los Angeles several nights before. Mindful of the likelihood of other leeches and their well-established domains in the urban jungle, Sarah gave the Windy City a wide berth, swinging north over the dark and mysterious waters of Lake Michigan before landfall once more near the borders of Indiana and Michigan.

In contrast, flying over the Indiana Toll Road was an exercise in boredom; it had apparently been built to avoid anything of even remote interest, the only real stops along the way being turnpike rest stops with their gas stations and overpriced fastfood. Near the Ohio border, she partook of one such establishment, though her meal was most assuredly not on the menu (and the provider was likely to be very unhappy with the price if ever he figured out what had happened in the sleeper of his 18-wheeler).

She didn't quite make Cleveland. But Loraine, Ohio was close enough for government or vampiric work, she decided, and before the gradual glow of dawn consumed the eastern sky, she was snug in the earth of a well-wooded park, the waters of Lake Erie lapping the shore only a few dozen yards away. Even through the ground, the gentle rhythm help lull her into a thankfully dreamless sleep.

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[23-24 Feb 2009]

The lake still lapped at the shore when Sarah rose the following evening. Unlike previous nights, she didn't make an immediate dash for the skies; this would be the last night of her trip, and a certain reluctance settled over her soul. Would they accept her? Thank her for her long, long duty? Attack her? Or even worse in its own way, shun her?

With careful fingers, the Dead Wolf extracted her cellphone from its padded denim pocket. Worth a shot, she lied to herself, punching in the familiar number. Within two rings, a mechanical tone told her what she already knew, and she folded the phone away, tucking it back into safety. Sighing, Sarah willed the change once more, and left this earthbound existance behind.

A few detours were made along the way. Cleveland was bypassed as she had Chicago, looping out over the icy waters of Lake Erie and then staying there, following Interstate 90 from a half-mile or so off-shore. At one point, she caught a moment and the instincts of her form took over, diving like a bomber to snag a massive lake trout from just beneath the water's surface. Its blood tasted strange - she'd not tried subsisting on fish blood before - but it was sustaining, and she gave silent thanks as she let the remains fall to the vast lake below to be consumned in continuance of the circle of life (and unlife).

Buffalo went past, the urban decay evident from the air as Sarah flew over silent steel mills and block after block of empty storefronts. It was a city of despair, and Sarah had no great desire to stop and add to its misery.

City by city, New York state rolled by: Rochester, Syracuse, Albany. Then the urban lights dimmed, and New York became the hills and maple forests of western Massachusettes. For the first time, an Interstate was not her guide; the old cracked surface of US-20 led the way now, through Pittsfield and past the familiar streets of Dalton and Camp Emerson. Veering to her left, Sarah followed the narrow winding trace that was generously called Route 143... and there it was: Peru. Barely a dot on the map, it was a collection of fewer than a dozen houses, not even large enough to sport a gas station, but the flag waved proudly in front of the post office, and the memories washed in waves through Sarah's heart and mind. She spied the creatively named North Road, and came to earth one last time just out of sight of the nearest house. From here on, she'd be on foot.

Dawn was peeking as she saw the dirt trail that branched off toward home. She was in Wren territory now, but where were the patrols, the quiet sentries who watched over this lane night and day? Even as she sank into a cleared patch of ground to the leeward of a massive maple, Sarah wondered at just what had happened here.

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[24-25 Feb 2008]

Woodsmoke wafted through the valley when Sarah relinquished the comfort of Gaia the next night. From here on, she thought to herself, food would be thin... and as whisps curled through the trees, reaching down the lane, she thought of better days. The Wren family cookouts were legendary amongst the packs, setting a table unlike any other. If that was happening now, things must not be quite as bad as she'd thought. Maybe they finally went cellular, Sarah thought with a snort. Her stomach rumbled; this was the first night of the hidden face of Luna, and her hunger would hold a steep price. Even so, she was careful to use a tiny bit to at least show the seeming of life: her heart lurched into motion again, and a slight blush rose to colour her skin.

She checked for her scent as well, and that was when she caught it. There was a smell on the wind, in with the woodsmoke. Sweet to the point of sickly, rich with not just searing meat but burning; not just meat but hair, too...

"Oh no," she uttered to the woods around her, even as her legs kicked into motion and she ran up the wooded trail, heedless of what dangers may lie at the end. The scented smoke wasn't that of a cookout. It was a pyre, and a big one.

Long legs that had travelled a nation worked with swift precision as she ran, literally breathless, toward the heart of the lands claimed so long ago by the Wren clan. These familiar grounds now all went past her gaze in a blur, her vision seeing only visions in her mind of her mother and father, her cousins and aunt and uncles. They may have treated her roughly, but blood calls to blood, and the thought of them dead drove her blindly forward.

Apparently the sentries weren't entirely absent; just pulled in tight. "Hold the fuck up!" came a call, along with an accompanying sound of a shotgun being pumped as a huge man stepped onto the path before her. Red tears clouded her vision, but the voice was familiar, and went gentle a moment later as the huge man shrank down just a bit, lowering the barrel of the the old Remmington a bit. "My god; Sarah?!? You... we thought you were dead! And you're hurt..." Without hesitation, he came over, pulling a rag from his back pocket. Half in shock, Sarah stood there as Cousin Willie daubbed bloody tears from her cheeks.

He was just starting to show concern at the lack of cuts when Sarah came out of it, pushing his hand away and wiping the crimson from her face with a rag of her own. "Willie, what the hell happened here? Where is everyone? Can you take me in?"

Her cousin's face fell, and now she could see the faint trails of recent tears of his own, new ones threatening to form. "We got hit, cous. Hit hard." With a quick scan of the surrounding woods and a flash to his eyes no mortal could truly hold, the werewolf gave Sarah a nod and started walking her toward the faint fire glow, deeper in. "Fuckers with some big-ass guns, silver shot. Hundreds of 'em, Sarah. Hit us about a week ago. Cripes," he half-snorted with a panicky quiver in his voice, "they even had a couple helicopters, just strafed the hell outta the whole damned place."

They were both silent for the next minute or two, before Willie asked one of those awkward questions Sarah knew that she'd face. "The car turned up abandoned in Arizona like three years ago, cous. We'd figured you'd gotten picked up by the wrong sort. Or went and died in the desert."

Yeah, Willie. I went and died in the desert. Got better, sorta. It was everything she could do to keep from spitting out that rueful reply. Instead, she said, "Car died on me out there, and I wound up on foot. Been a long three years since, but yeah. And I found her." That stopped the young man right in his tracks, and he turned to look at Sarah with something in his eyes that she'd never seen from one of her family. It looked almost like respect.

"Well," he finally said, resuming the long walk, "you'll have to tell 'em then. What's left of the elders, anyway."

The words were ominous, a promise of what was to come when they reached the enclave proper. Buildings - maybe a bit rustic to an outsider's eye, but cherished homes and livelihoods to those of the family - stood in half-ruin. A number were burned right to the ground, and the rest looked like the losing end of a war. In the midst of them all, in the big open circle that marked the heart of the territory, Sarah saw something that made her have to clamp down on her Beast to keep from heading for the hills.

Flames licked dozens of feet up into the night sky, sending black smoke billowing to the winds. The pyre had been built with just about anything that would burn: deadfall, parts of now-ruined houses and barns, shattered furniture, a thousand other bits of fuel. No doubt that some fire spirits were in the mix too, even if she couldn't see them. And atop it all, the bodies of the dead were stacked like cordwood. Dozens - no, scores - of her kin now burned away in the funeral fire.

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"Step away from her William. That isn't Sarah."

A voice that sent shivers down her spine rang out, proud and strong from behind the pair. Confused but dutiful, Willie stepped off to the side, bringing the Remmington up to bear on what he'd thought was his cousin.

Sarah sighed, and turned to face Grandmother Wren.

The nearly ancient Alpha of the Wren clan stood there, flanked by warriors of the clan. Not one of them was unscathed; bandages were plentiful, and even Grandma herself leaned on a rough-hewn cane. For her to accept visible support like that, Sarah knew, was grave indeed; like Amber, the Alpha of the Wrens was sworn to not show her weakness.

At the moment though, the Dead Wolf had more to worry about than whatever injuries this stern old Storm Lord bore.

"Sarah died," the Alpha said in flat tones, "and this muth luzuk has taken her skin. Don't try to lie, blood thief, I know what you are. Now tell me why you are here, and quickly."

How did she know? I used the Blush... Sarah had honestly hoped to avoid this confrontation, at least at first. But somehow, Grandma had known. She always did; the spirits whispered truths to her almost constantly. And, she realized with a sigh, I'm probably surrounded by death spirits. Great. Just fucking great.

Her life - well, unlife - was on the line here, of that there could be no doubt. With dozens of the clan dead in such a recent attack, they wouldn't be exactly accomodating to a leech. And even if she'd had hours to try and explain, there would be no changing Grandma Wren's decree: her word was law, and the old battleaxe would not be bent.

But that didn't mean Sarah was without options.

"I came to finish my mission. I know where Amber is." Eyes went wide, reflecting the firelight. Even Grandmother Wren seemed surprised, eyebrows betraying the unexpected news and showing interest.

"But," Sarah added, "I want your word that I walk out of here unharmed if I tell you. Your word, and you have mine."

The only sound for nearly a minute afterward was the roar of the pyre. Her cousins looked incredulous that Sarah - no, this dead thing that walked around as her - would make such a demand of their Alpha. If anything, it cemented in their minds that she was indeed no longer the submissive, weak human who had been sent out from here almost four years ago. But Grandmother Wren looked at Sarah with piercing eyes, seeming almost to touch her very soul with the dread gaze.

"Agreed." More surprise from the gathered Uratha; they hadn't expected their Alpha to ever make a deal with one of the undead. "I give my word that you will leave my territory without harm, muth luzuk. And in return, you will tell me of my granddaughter."

Not relaxing even enough for a sigh of relief, Sarah still accepted the Alpha's word at face value. For all her issues, Grandmother Wren was a pillar of honour; she would never betray her word. And neither would Sarah.

"Amber's in Los Angeles. Northwest part of the city, not too far from the UCLA campus. She's gone through the Change; she's a Full-Moon now." A glint of pride came to Grandma's face, and Sarah gave them the rest. "And she's joined a pack, pledged herself to a totem. She's fought spider-hosts and other banes out there, and she does the People proud."

That was really all she had; there just wasn't much more to tell. But Grandmother Wren's evaluating eye looked the undead creature over as if trying to judge her worth and coming up short. "You say she's joined a pack. What is this pack called, blood thief?"

"I don't have a name for it," Sarah said, "but I can tell you that the alpha-male is called Owns-The-Night. He's a full-moon too. And if I had the opportunity, I'd follow him to hell and back."

There was such sincerity in her words, such frank honesty tinged with hope and regret, that even Grandmother Wren seemed to accept them as the truth.

"If these words are true - and I had best never find them otherwise - you have finished the mission of Sarah O'Neally." Sarah now managed a slight sigh of relief, and started to bow out of the circle. "But," Grandmother Wren said, stopping the Dead Wolf in her tracks, "I do want to know one other thing. Why did you do this? Why did you finish something started by the body you stole of my dead granddaughter?"

Every eye turned to look at the vampire, every breath caught and waiting for response. She could have lied, could have said something else, could even have demanded that the Alpha hold to her end of the bargain without explaination. But it simply wasn't in Sarah's nature to do so.

"I did it because it was my word, and without keeping it I would have no honour. Believe what you want, but I'm still me. Now can I leave?"

For a moment, just a bare moment of hesitation, Sarah thought that her Grandmother would betray her own word and strike down the thing her granddaughter had become. But only for a moment.

"Leave, blood thief, and do not return. This is not your family, and never will be. Now go."

With one last glance at the burning pyre, Sarah silently nodded and left the land of her birth forever.

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[Evening of 4 March 2009]

The trip home had been long and rugged, the endless miles passing beneath wings that were burdened with loss. Oh, Sarah had known for years now that she'd never be accepted back home. But there was a difference between knowing and experiencing, and now she had the latter sitting there as a final condemnation within her soul. For better or worse, her family was lost to her now... all but the faintest of threads that still tied her to Amber. And those were some mighty thin threads, indeed.

She'd veered along a more southernly route going home, cutting southwest across Ohio to meet Interstate 70, veering wide around cities to avoid confrontations. And staying far, far away from western Nebraska and the ancient terror that called those empty lands home.

It was a long trip, but now the lights of Los Angeles lit the sky, and Sarah arced through the evening winds toward the mountains north of the city. UCLA and her territory passed beneath, then Sunset Boulevard, and soon she was setting down along the shoulder of Sullivan Fire Road. The falcon became a wolf, and trotted on her four legs up to the border markings that she'd come to know so well.

Drawing the cool night air deep into dead lungs, Sarah Dead-Wolf let out a howl. *Dead-wolf returns. Brings news.*

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The wind rustled in the trees for a time, swaying as the last echoes of the howl faded. Sarah was felt for a time. At one point, she thought she felt eyes on her, but that passed. She was tempted to howl again, but she reminded herself that they wasn't at her beck and call. Whining, she lay down to wait, hoping they'd come before dawn.

Lightning-Strikes-Twice appeared with little warning; two forms seperated from the trees and became loping wolves. "Sarah," Kane greeted politely as he retook the human form. "Do you return with the tale of your word given?"

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Shifting from four legs to two, Sarah nodded, and began to tell the tale.

She told of how she'd approached Amber, unwilling to reveal her to the Wrens without letting the Rahu have a chance to steel herself against what may come. She told of the long miles that passed beneath cold wings, and of the terror of the Ravenscarred. She told of how at long last, she arrived in the lands of home, only to find her family decimated by hunters, hurt in ways the Wren clan had never before experience. She told of completing her mission and her promise, and how even as she did so her living kin shunned her, casting her out forever. She told of the long, long way home, and her certainty that Amber - the very one she had just reported - was now the last hope of family remaining.

And then, she waited for judgement.

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Kane watched her evenly; Kris with disdain. When she was done, the two-alphas-that-were-one were silent. And then Kane and Kris asked one question in two parts.

Kane said, "Why did we have to make you keep this promise?" Kris spat, "Why did you not keep it on your own?"

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Shame-faced, Sarah looked up at the twins, realizing where she'd fallen.

There were a number of lies she could give, excuses she could make. They might even work, if she was on the mark, if she could keep a blank face, if she had the will and the drive to try.

She didn't. Instead, she told the truth.

"After I... after I died... I knew that I could never go back. I know my family, how they feel about... things like I am now. There's no acceptance; as far as they're concerned, I'm gone, and something else is walking around in my body.

"When I found Amber, things didn't go so hot; she was brought up to think the same thing. But there was something, a hesitation there. She didn't kill me, and she sure as hell had the chance to. I... I thought that she might be able to understand with time, understand that I'm still me, still here."

Swallowing hard, she said, "I knew she was my last chance at family. And so I didn't go home again. I stayed here. I tried, carefully, to see if someday my cousin could accept me. And I'm still trying.

"For this," she said, eyes falling to the ground once more, "I avoided my promise. And shamed my honour."

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He held up his hand to Kris, preventing his brother from speaking again as he was already preparing to do. His voice carried the authority of a Divine King, his tone stern and forthright. "Need I remind you Brother that this is my test to give, I am the authority here, and you will be silent."

Kris growled and Kane gave it right back, staring him down for a brief moment before turning his attention to Sarah. One thing was certain, the brothers would show no favoritism, even to each other.

"Sarah," The calm, even expression returned in the beat of a heart. "The thing with honor that most pups really never seem to grasp is the it's not always about making the right choices."

"No Uratha, anywhere can boast an unblemished record of deeds in life. We are powerful warriors, but we are not perfect ones." A low growl rose up in the background. But smiled and continued. "Despite what my Brother would like you to believe."

"The key is, how we deal with the consequences of our actions." Kris said, seeming rather sagely as he grinned. "Out of fear and confusion you ran from your duty. This is true, but when confronted with your past you did what had to be done, and you did it bravely. Often times warriors do not understand the nature of the challenges ahead of them, it's for this reason that some elders must revisit past blemishes on their Honor and face them years after the event happened. Upon doing so, Honor is 'restored' and more often than not, Honor is gained as well. We merely put you back on the path Sarah, you had to walk it."

"One more thing, Sarah, about Amber and your 'family'. Just be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind. Think about that the next time you're with your boyfriend, or Owns-The-Night and then Amber or the other Wrens." He smiled at her. "We're all born into families Sarah, some of us aren't actually part of a real one until we go out and find it for ourselves."

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Sarah wasn't honestly certain she was hearing him right at first, but eventually Kris' words got through even her thick and stubborn skull. A confusing wave of emotions ran through her, uncertain quite what to do next, until one finally fought its way forward ahead of the other to do the only obvious thing.

With gratitude, Sarah said, "Thank you."

More trials would come, she knew as goodbyes were said and she started down the mountain. In fact, one of those trials was going to happen that very night, even though it hadn't been set before her by the Topangas. But at least now Sarah Dead-Wolf could face them with an open heart and a clear conscience.

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