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Crossing the Gauntlet

Before she can attempt to step sideways a werewolf must meditate upon a reflective surface. Still pools of water, mirrors, windows, all serve as focuses for the werewolf’s will to reach the other world. Her Gnosis reaches for the Penumbra; this stirring is much like reaching out to part a veil. Many describe the feeling as similar to pushing through a thin sheet of water that leaves one’s skin dry but tingling with the sensation of goosebumps. Others say it feels like pressing bodily into a layer of gelatinous liquid. In both cases the Gauntlet can seem warm (in places of spiritual strength) or cold (where the Gauntlet is thick and oppressive). Some werewolves ascribe a sticky feeling to it like plunging through a great spider web, especially in cities and places of spiritual sterility.

At the moment of transition, a werewolf’s pulse quickens. The hair on her neck stands up (or the fur on her whole body if she’s in Lupus form). Her mind races with a feeling like sudden realization. It is a transformation of flesh into spirit, matter into ephemera. With a final surge she is through. The Gauntlet releases her and she stands fully in the Penumbra. That is, if she successfully stepped sideways. It’s not always quite so simple.

On rare occasions a werewolf gets stuck in the Gauntlet. This occurs more frequently in places where the Gauntlet is thickest, and it’s one of the most horrifying feelings a werewolf can experience. For several hours, she feels what the Wyrm must have felt over eons, bound in the Weaver’s web, helpless and pulled between worlds, residing in neither. No matter how hard the werewolf thrashes she cannot tear free of the webs. The harder she pulls, the more they restrict her. Slashing claws avail her not against these spiritual bindings. For the duration she is prey, unless another werewolf can pull her free. Those who have experienced this horrifying state recount the visions of madness that assault their minds: Earth roiling in body and spirit, soul-crushing cataclysms, pain and Rage and hatred directed at all reality. A microcosm of the Wyrm’s madness afflicts the trapped werewolf and forever after she understands the enormity of their enemy’s malaise. To imagine Gaia so ensnared just before the Wyrm devours Her or the Weaver chokes the life from Her is enough to incite any Garou to frenzy.

The Wyld Lands

Humanity no longer feels the Wyld’s presence as it once did, but in the Penumbra the Wyld remains strong. Wilderness areas are alive and green with the raw vitality of nature. Vast areas of forest still stand where long ago their material counterparts fell to make room for lonely, ill-kept highways. The woods grow thick and retain a primal vigor reminiscent of the prehistory known to man. During the day, sunlight is omnipresent in a vibrant blue sky, though no sun itself is visible. Warmth permeates the world. Sunbeams still filter through tangled nets of branches and leaves. Tiny winged spirits flit amid the floating banks of pollen just outside the sunbeams. The ground is warm and soft, a maze of roots and burrows dug by spirits, ever inviting to the touch of a wolf’s paw. Garou with high spiritual awareness even say that the wolf’s ear can hear a pulse rumbling deep within the earth.

Lupine senses find a vast wealth of information in these regions. The scents of a Penumbral forest tell werewolves of things hidden to sight. The pungent aroma of moist dirt, trees in full bloom, and waters rushing through twisting riverbeds all drift from miles away to reach the wolf’s nose. With no human-created pollutants in the air to mask them, these things reach their full potency in Gaia’s presence. Spirits have their own scents, much like animals, and their unique odors carry hints as to the spirit’s nature. Two dog-spirits might smell like dogs, but one whose territory corresponds to garbage-strewn alleys full of strays in the material world might stink of wet dog and rotting food. One whose territory includes the reflection of an old dog breeder’s building smells faintly of shampoos or freshly-washed fur.

The Penumbra is a feast for the eyes as well. Colors are more vibrant, as though viewed through a children’s drawing: greens are impossibly deep and alive, earthen browns so fertile that a blind werewolf could see the saplings growing within, yellows and blues and reds of flowers taking shapes not seen in the material world. It’s akin to seeing with a child’s eyes again, or perhaps like the traveler had only seen the world through a dirty window and now sees it clearly for the first time. The same dog-spirits from earlier even take on different appearances. One takes the form of an immaculately groomed specimen, an amalgam of expensive dog breeds, while the other is ratty, and missing patches of fur. Whispers and voices surround the Penumbral travelers: wind-spirits whistling through the trees, spirits of animalsand elements mingling in the waters and along the banks. The sound of distant rushing streams and rivers drifts on the wind. Every twig snapped underfoot is a crack like thunder. At night the Penumbra comes alive with new sounds and sights. The sky is an impossibly deep blue, so intense that to stare at it for long is to feel as though one is plunging into an ocean of stars and ethereal pathways. The stars are always visible and bright enough to read by, even though they share the sky with Luna. Many exist in constellations unknown to mortal astronomers, reflections of those gone by or invisible in smog-choked skies. On the clearest nights in spring and summer, Penumbral stargazers can even see distant realms of the Near Umbra, at once beyond the limits of perception and yet just out of arm’s reach. Lunar coronas sometimes reflect hints of Moonlit Airts winding throughout the Umbra. Airts are spiritual paths, often trails left by the passage of important spirits, lingering in the Penumbra like ethereal contrails. Werewolf travelers can follow these airts, although spirits are unpredictable and it is easy to lose the path.

Spirits of nature in all its forms abound in the Penumbra. Their shapes are myriad, but they are the most common spirit allies for Garou, serving as pack totems, guides and information brokers. Stepping sideways at a popular lake resort immediately trades the bustle of human activity for spiritual: steadfast elder spirits of the elements rule over kingdoms of plants and animals. Waves crash in the shape of serpents and steeds and human vessels, colliding and melting away and reforming just as quickly. Above it all soar bird-spirits whose wings hiss with the ebb and flow of waves. The Penumbral world is brimming with life-force, the buzz and beat and scents of a world where life is the most powerful force of all.

Larger things stalk the Penumbral wilds, spirits of bygone beasts and the creatures still roaming the world. They serve as predator and prey, messengers and agents of the Wyld itself. Garou communicate with these spirits in order to learn Gifts or gain allies in the fight against the Wyrm, but to do so is fraught with risks. The wildest of spirits are a danger even to Gaian forces, born of the unthinking maelstrom of creation that is the Wyld.

Weaver's Webs

In contrast to the sheer vigor of the wilds, the Weaver’s domain is cold, sterile at its worst and unnaturally ordered even at its best. Cities are the greatest examples of the Weaver’s work. Penumbral cities look like haunted ghost towns, even the few that are spiritually healthy — a rarity in the modern world. Few humans cast reflections and nature-spirits are rare. The air is usually free of smog and the noise pollution of cities, but still not clear. Webs, countless silver threads, fill the urban landscape. They course along lines of electricity, following the paths of traffic lights in the material world. Heavily-trafficked areas like the busiest, gridlocked roads have reflections covered in webs that crackle with the electric fury of urban madness. Spirits find themselves caught up in these webs just as people across the Gauntlet rushing to or from work are caught in traffic jams. Webs cover buildings, and sag in the gaps that cross streets. Everywhere, spider-shaped Weaver-spirits cast their threads, or prey upon the Wyld-spirits caught in their webs.

Most buildings lack the spiritual significance to cast a direct reflection in the Penumbra. All of these features have but a weak spirit, draped in the iridescent traceries of the Pattern Web. A hospital or office building follows the same general layout as it does in the physical world, but without the defining features that differentiates this one from any other. The spiritual substance of each building is reinforced with the Weaver’s webs, adding structure to an otherwise unsubstantial place. Cell phones, computers, traffic lights, and streetlights all have their own distinct reflections as spirits of data and transmissions flit through the air. Streetlights too have an Umbral reflection — their unique pattern of light and shadow is distinct in every city, be it London’s sodium light, or the twinkling lights of New York City that look like a second star-scape.

While car-spirits exist in the umbra, the air is much cleaner, a change any werewolf immediately notices. Pollutants do not normally cross the Gauntlet, although an excess in the physical world can poison the spirit shadow of an area and draw the attention of Banes. In these places the Penumbra is sick, choked off from life-giving Wyld energies and rotting from within like parasites gnawing at the marrow of bleached-white bones.

The oldest vehicles, like beat-up city buses driven long past their prime, and the most important, such as first-class airliners carrying the business world’s elite, cast shadows in the Penumbra. The plane reflections rumble in the distant sky as they fly overhead, sometimes soaring through starry nights and the misty lowest riches of Near Umbral realms. Passengers in the real world cannot see the strange spiritual worlds whose gossamer threads they part in their flight, but the dreams of sleepers and the thoughts of those staring out the window drift along bizarre paths.

Ambient lighting and the spiritual reflections of lit windows can only make up so much for the lack of a city’s light pollution. Fortunately, the Garou have their other senses to rely upon when the Penumbral sun falls. The stars seem dimmer here than in the wilds, perhaps a reflection of the gases cast upward by cities. Alleys and unlit streets plunge into deep shadow under nightfall. Even the sharpest eyes barely catch the glint of starlight reflecting off the multifaceted eyes of Weaver-spirits, or small things wriggling in the shadows.

Penumbral cities often reek of a chemical smell. It’s not like any chemical the Garou know from the human world, but an eye-watering acridity crossed with the smell of oil. The effect is worst in areas of complete Weaver dominance, such as the coldest, most sterile labs. Lupine senses naturally recoil from such unnatural scents, and in the most extreme cases many werewolves adopt the Homid form lest they choke on their own vomit.

Industrial noises near and far fill the air: The clang of machinery. The electric screeches of communicating Weaver-spirits. Endlessly grinding gears pulled by tireless gleaming spiders. Everywhere she looks, a traveler sees legions of insectile spirits like silkworms, silver-plated cockroaches and clouds of flying insects work tirelessly at refining the Penumbral city. The electronic buzz of their wings is the drone of signal interference. Their chittering sounds like a static shriek and wears at the patience of any shapeshifter that listens for too long. They tear down and rebuild just as fast as the material counterpart of the city does, or perhaps faster, for the spirits never sleep. In its own way, the city’s shadow grows as much as do the wilds. Its forms are of cold, hard edges and impossibly clean surfaces. Order is everything. The Weaver has no room for imperfections like the asymmetrical beauty of a flower or the simple patterns of a faerie ring. Weaver-spirits remove such things to replace them with perfectly ordered facsimiles, or to pave the way for advancement. Progress is their overriding goal, and neither the past nor the present will stand in the way of the future.

Wastelands of the Wyrm

Far too much of the Umbra suffers from the Wyrm’s touch. The greatest of its cruelty is reserved for the Penumbra, the soul of the world, though its attacks come on both sides of the Gauntlet. In the mortal world, toxic waste plants and slaughterhouses attract Banes. Their spiritual excrescence further poisons the area. Sickness of body and mind soon follows, afflicting humans and animals. Taint spreads like a plague and manifests in the lives of the diseased.

In Wyld areas, Wyrm-taint twists nature’s merciless fury into monstrous, deadly forms. Gnarled branches covered in thorns whip suddenly at passersby, drinking deep of their blood and filling the wound with numbing poison. The marshy ground smells of putrefaction, occasionally vomiting up clouds of noxious gas. In these places, the bones of indescribable dead things litter the area, sinking into the mire only to rise again somewhere else. Hissing gasses, suppurating pools of filth and creaking branches that groan like the hungry dead fill the area. Even the trees themselves become monstrous in some way, with leering faces or patterns resembling the Black Spiral covering their bark.

The Wyrm’s favorite targets are those pure places that dwindle in number by the day. Garou defend pristine glades, holy sites and caerns fiercely, but also suffer their loss the most. Banes swarm to such areas and make their nests, vomiting forth taint until a whole area is choked of life because of it. In the material realm, these areas become blighted farmlands, rundown “projects” and sites home to the worst crimes against humanity: murder, slavery, and human trafficking.

Cities suffer worse than the wilds in many ways. Their Penumbral reflections embody all the worst aspects of humanity. Smog chokes the sky of light and casts a sickly shadow over everything. The reek of toxic byproducts turns the stomach and leaves a film of grime over everything. Buildings loom and twist over the streets, casting a sense of oppression on those caught in their deep shadows. Shapes dart by in darkened windows, too quick to give anything but impressions of knotted bone, dimly glowing eyes and dripping maws. Wyrm-beasts hunt and torture Gaian spirits in these places, reserving special agonies for Wyld-spirits. Being caught in the web of some Wyrm tained Weaver-spirit is a ticket to slow, agonizing death, of venom devouring her insides while her outsides are slowly calcified.