[Unnamed Village | Lunaris 28th, 2525 | Sundown]
The sun bathed the small village in a red-orange glow. Lena kept a watchful eye on her sister running around with some of the local children. It was no surprise that she managed to chip away at their shyness over the course of an afternoon. Dani knew how to draw people in, no matter their age. Even within the Wolfpack, there were those who teased her; who doubted her future leadership skills, who were aggravated by her louder and messier antics; but not a single soul in that camp could claim they disliked her. Likewise, as the hours burned away, Dani made the rounds chatting up the locals, learning all of their names, endearing herself to them. A skill that most Wolves needed to practice and hone to perfection, was so deeply ingrained in Dani’s nature that she had no need to fake it. She did genuinely want to know those people’s names, hear about their lives, pet every dog; and goat, in the village, play hide and seek with the children. Her open-hearted nature, although something Lena felt needed to be kept in check, was undeniably a valuable asset.
“You seem to have been mulling over that one for hours now. Having difficulties?”
Lena glanced to her side and found Stanley leaning beside her against the outside wall of his workshop. Her gaze traveled down to the puzzle she was tinkering with, then back to her sister with a soft huff. “Not really. I’m just using it to keep my hands busy.”
Dani’s visit to the general store yielded several different types of puzzles and a couple of animal figurines she thought Sarah might enjoy. When Lena left Sylvie’s cabin earlier, she found her sister struggling to solve one said puzzle. It looked simple: a wooden cube, composed of rows of colored blocks that could be rotated vertically or horizontally. The goal, Dani explained, was to rearrange the blocks so that each face of the cube was a single color. It didn’t look difficult to her so, after watching Dani grow increasingly frustrated, Lena took the cube off her hands to solve. It took a few minutes and repeated attempts, but she eventually returned the cube to her sister with all the pieces back in place. When Stan learned that she’d been able to solve it, he came to ask if she would be willing to try a few different ones he’d made, and for the rest of the afternoon he offered her differently shaped puzzles to sort out; a tetrahedron, different types of pyramid, prisms, so on. The more she solved, the easier it became to solve them, which meant little actual focus was required to solve the dodecahedron she held in her hands now. She already knew the solution, but instead opted to toy with it by rotating one of the horizontal rows back and forth as she watched Dani and the children run around the village square. Assuming Stanley wanted his puzzle back, she quickly set the pieces into their rightful place and held it out for him to take.
Stanley shook his head. “Keep it. I might have been too ambitious on the design for this one.” He smiled. “Although, suppose it’s still too easy for you, isn’t it?”
Lena’s smile was thin in return. “It’s something to do with my hands. Helps me focus my thoughts.” She once again scrambled the blocks around the toy’s axis and resumed absentmindedly sliding one of the rows back and forth. “I think people would still buy it for the novelty even if it seems impossible to them.” Her smile turned into a smirk. “Or they’d gift it to someone they want to torture.”
Stanley chuckled softly. “It’s not the intended use, but if it sells, it helps the village.”
Lena nodded, once again starting to twist the pieces of the puzzle back into place. “These are very well constructed toys and I assume most people would enjoy trying to solve them even if they don’t succeed.”
“I hope you’re right.” Stanley pushed away from the wall and opened the door to his workshop. “I completed your order, if you would like to see it.”
Lena nodded with a soft agreeing hum and followed Stanley into the workshop. The shop’s front was separated from the work area by a sturdy wooden counter. Different tools and wooden crafts adorned each wall and shelf. The tool kit she ordered sat open on top of the counter. They were arranged neatly in a box made of dark cherry wood. She inspected the tools carefully, then closed the box to inspect the name engraved on the lid with fancy gold leaf lettering. “Very nice. I’m sure he’ll be ecstatic when he gets it.”
“Lucky man.” Stanley smiled. “He must be well-liked to be receiving such a thoughtful gift.”
Lena groaned, reaching for her coin purse. “You’re less discreet than Sylvie, Stan. Shame on you.”
The man chuckled. “I was only making an observation. I know what my tools are worth.”
Lena shook her head, taking out a small pile of gold coins and placing them on the counter. “Thank you for your services. And for the puzzle.”
“You’re very welcome.” Stanley collected his payment and motioned towards the door. “I’m sure Sylvie and the others will start herding the children for supper at any minute.”
Lena snorted as she retrieved the box from the counter and started heading for the door. “I suppose I should do the same with my sister before she teaches them to revolt.”
[Unnamed Village | Lunaris 28th, 2525 | Late Evening]
The village was asleep. Even Dani had been exhausted enough by the local children that she fell unconscious the moment her head touched her borrowed pillow. Lena would have preferred to camp outside the village another night, but felt pressured into accepting Sylvie’s offer of a guest room. They had a considerable amount of ground to cover still, and even if she wasn’t able, Dani would rest better this way.
Lena lay in bed for a couple of hours, staring at the dark wooden ceiling and listening to her sister’s soft snores. Her enlightenment being bound to her subconscious meant that it was often active while she slept and without her conscious mind in charge of things, it was easy for it to accidentally pry into or affect other people’s minds. This alone made her reluctant to sleep in a stranger’s home, but now staying awake was more an act of self-preservation than consideration for others. She never realized how vulnerable her sleeping mind could be.
Unable to keep her mind still, she found herself once again playing with the puzzle Stanley let her keep. She only realized it was making a constant clicking noise when Dani muttered for her to “take it outside”.
Lena left her bed and paced to the living room, the floorboards groaning with each cautious step. Thin slivers of moonlight slipped through the cracks on the walls and underneath the front door. She didn’t know whether Sylvie was a light sleeper and she didn’t want to rouse her or anyone else from their sleep. With a faint creak, the stuffed chair folded its down cushioning around Lena as her body sunk into it with a heavy sigh.
The silence was dense and felt foreign against the soft clicking made by the wooden puzzle Lena still fidgeted with in her hands. There was no rustling of patrolling footsteps. No flowing river outside the window. It was a tranquility almost unsettlingly unfamiliar. She had to remind herself that she was still in the forest.
On the mantelpiece, the hourglass sat still, innocently reflecting the glow of the moonlight that shone through the unshaded windows. Lena squinted in the dark, examining the way the light traveled across the smooth glass surface. She couldn’t fully see its contents in the dim living room, but the image from earlier in the day was a clear imprint in the forefront of her mind.
The memory of what happened when she attempted to focus on the hourglass earlier was also agonizingly vivid. The pressure that built behind her eyes—much like the hold Dani had put on Franklin’s arm during their spar—was only painful for as long as she resisted. Release came immediately after, but Lena could also clearly feel that if Sylvie wanted, she could have taken it further. The possibilities caused a chill to run down her spine.
The low scuff of slippers against the floorboards drew Lena back to reality with a startle.
“You’ll have a rough trip ahead of you if you don’t sleep.” Sylvie warned, walking in to sit on the chair across from her. “Are you feeling well?”
Lena hummed softly. “Yes, thank you. It’s just a lot quieter here than back home.”
“You’re not the first visitor to make that complaint. It takes some getting used to. My father used to say the silence can whisper your soul’s secrets right back to you. It’s easier for most people to avoid it than confront it.”
“Strange way to describe a guilty conscience.” Lena said, absentmindedly turning the toy in her hands in order to start solving it. The puzzle served not only as a diversion, but an excuse not to meet the elderly woman’s eyes.
“Strange way to describe one’s inner conflicts,” Sylvie remarked. “Especially for one so young. It usually takes a lot more living to garner such regrets.”
“Some people get an early start. Not sure how much you’re aware of the outside world at this point, but despite the war being at a standstill, life hasn’t gotten any easier.”
Sylvie’s answering nod was thoughtful. “I’m aware of the outside world. Many of our neighbors here come from the city. Living costs in Newhaven have never been the most favorable.”
“I honestly don’t see the advantage of living under either city’s authority.”
“It provides them a sense of security,” Sylvie said. “Whether or not it’s a false sense of security is a debate for another time. When people come into our community, generally they are escaping something. Rarely does someone end up in a place this secluded as their first option in life.”
“I don’t think seclusion, in this case, is necessarily a bad thing. Your village seems very self-sustained and it seems like you still see enough excitement.”
“We’ve been lucky with the kind of excitement we’ve seen,” Sylvie pointed out. “Had we been visited by more ill-intentioned individuals, even those of us who are able to show resistance would only be able to do so much. We are not fighters.”
“Is that a pressing concern for you?” Lena asked, looking up as the last piece of her puzzle slipped into its rightful place.
“It is one of them, yes.” Sylvie sighed through a tired smile. “We should both attempt sleep. It is getting late and you can’t make your sister drag you where you need to be tomorrow.”
“I know.” Lena nodded, reshuffling the rows of her wooden toy. “I will in a minute.”
[Valcrest Forest | Sagacitas 1st, 2525 | Midmorning]
Lena’s lack of sleep had taken its toll. They left the village late due to Emmeline’s insistence that they join the family for breakfast and Dani needing to say individual goodbyes to everyone she’d met. It wasn’t long into their trip before Dani noticed her sister’s sluggish pace. The original plan was to visit two villages in the area, but Lena decided it would be best to go back to their camp and report as soon as possible. They hadn’t yet shared what they learned and by the looks of it, that conversation would be delayed even further on their first stop. Upon reaching their campsite, Dani took it upon herself to gather wood to make a fire. “If you didn’t want to sleep at the village we could have set up camp again,” she said.
“It might not have made a difference,” Lena answered, peering at her from the inside of her cloak, opting to wrap herself with it rather than putting up her tent. “I also didn’t want to show any discomfort.”
Dani shot her a glance as she searched her bag for the flint and steel. “Why? Did you see something while we were there?”
“No.” Lena rubbed her eyes with a small groan. “I couldn’t. I was blocked.”
Dani knelt beside their unlit campfire and looked up at her sister. “I thought you said that was impossible.”
“I never said that. I said that if a method exists, it was unknown to the White Shadows. They know more than most, but they don’t have a record of every enlightened in Valcrest.”
“Are we talking about Sylvie?”Dani frowned, giving Lena a scrutinizing look. “Were you hurt?”
“Hurt? No, but . . .” Lena ran one hand over her eyes, unable to contain a shudder. “It wasn’t just a mental block. It was painful, but it was only painful as long as I tried to resist. And it was clear to me that if I did continue to resist, I would get hurt. And I don’t know what would have happened then. So this wasn’t entirely defensive. This was a far more powerful telepath than me letting me know ‘hey, I can break you if you cross this line’. Using my enlightenment in any way after that was out of the question.”
Dani struck the flint and steel and set the campfire ablaze, watching her as if trying to determine whether she was downplaying her current state. “You need to sleep. I’ll make you some tea and we can talk about what I discovered later.”
“I’m perfectly capable of drinking tea and holding a conversation simultaneously.”
“I know, but you won’t sleep if I give you more to think about. And we need to get home sooner rather than later,” Dani argued, standing up once she was satisfied with the height of the flames. “What I have to say won’t change if you wait a couple of hours.” There was no greater measure for Lena’s exhaustion than silent obedience. Dani could tell it wasn’t just sleep deprivation getting to her, but rather than try to question her mood, she occupied herself with heating up some water and added, “It’s a good thing, though, in a way.”
“If Sylvie’s enlightenment works in a similar way to yours, that’s a good thing. I mean, sounds like she can control it. So you know it’s possible. It’s not just ‘unknown’ anymore.”
“That’s true.” Lena sighed softly and some of her tension seemed to ease with it. “I wanted to ask questions, but I know I can’t. Even after all of this ends—however it ends—going back won’t be an option.”
Dani glanced at her before starting to go through Lena’s bag for tea. “What do you mean?”
“They are sheltering someone we are hunting for. Whether they are aware of who we are, or what this person is involved with; it doesn’t matter. We are going to find them and we are going to kill them. If we go back after that, it would only be to witness the aftermath.”
“Some would say the worst type of coward is the one who can’t face their own actions,” Dani mumbled, finding the tea and two cups. “If I see it and I feel horrible for it, maybe that’s not such a terrible thing.”
“Feeling terrible won’t bring back the dead. Or change the fact more death will come. Endearing yourself to those people won’t do you, or them, any good in the end. And before you’re able to step out into the world as a Wolf, Daniela, you need to understand that.”
Dani tensed midway through sorting out tea leaves. “Don’t ‘full-name’ me, Helena. I’m not a child.” She let out an impatient huff as she started preparing the tea. “I understand that mercy has its time and its place. That said, it’s good to remember that a time and place do exist. Those people aren’t our enemies; mom said so herself.”
“You’re right, they aren’t, but if this is our only lead to the Wolf Hunters right now, it’s a possibility they may be caught up in this conflict. And that’s a possibility you’ll need to come to terms with.”
Dani nodded, handing her one of the cups of tea and sitting beside her. “Here. You want something to eat?”
“No, thank you. Maybe later.” Lena took a sip, holding back a grimace. “Listen, I’m not saying you need to be cold, or even cruel, that’s not the point. I just need you to understand that these walls exist for our protection; and theirs. Things like this are the reason we don’t involve ourselves with people outside the clan. And this Hunter should have understood the kind of risk they’re putting these people in just by getting involved. In that sense, they’re no different from us. Everything and everyone they touch may potentially get dragged into this.”
Dani nodded once again, taking a sip of her own tea and rummaging through her bag for a tin of corn cakes Emmeline had pushed on them. “Did you ever read the journals in mom’s study?”
“A few. Why?” Lena took another sip of tea and, after a moment of consideration, reached for the tin of corn cakes as well.
“Have you ever wondered how they felt about it all?”
“Have you ever asked mom how she feels about it?” Lena asked. “We all have our thoughts and feelings about what we need to do, not just the Alpha, but . . . Every contract we fulfill goes through the Alpha first. All the information we don’t get on who those people really are, she has to see it and assess whether that person lives or dies. Not all of them are innocent, but a lot of them are. We’re taught not to question that; we don’t need to know, but she does. And those blinders are also there for our protection. If it’s on her conscience, it’s not on ours.”
“I know.” Dani took one of the cakes and absentmindedly pulled bits and pieces from the corners. “That’s why it’s not easy to ask about those things. How do you even start that conversation?”
“I don’t.” Lena shrugged. “But I’m not the one concerned about becoming Alpha. And I’m a telepath. I don’t have to ask people anything if I don’t want to.” A teasing smirk accompanied those words. “It does make life easier sometimes.”
“I’m glad you’re well enough to be an insufferable show off about it.” Dani snorted, finally taking a bite off the corn cake instead of making a mess of crumbs on the ground. “That was very unhelpful too, just so you know.”
“I know.” Lena chuckled. “You can’t complain that I’m talking to you like a child one moment and expect me to hold your hand the next. If you want to have this conversation, you need to go ahead and start it. As much as I support your decision to read more, your greatest instructional tool in this case is a living breathing Alpha. Not oatmeal recipes and composting instructions. Even if those journals had any practical advice, those Alphas haven’t lived what we’re living now. They don’t know the Wolf Hunters; mom does. She was there at the start of it all. That’s the fact of the matter, kiddo.”
Dani nodded, once again picking at her half-eaten cake. “Do you . . . Can you remember that far back? When my father died?”
“The night you were born; that’s the earliest clear memory I have. I do remember briefly seeing him when they brought him back, but . . . There’s also a lot I can’t remember.”
“What do you remember? From the night I was born, I mean. I know it was pretty bad, but . . .”
“I was a small child, Dani. What I can remember is a lot of confusion. They called the White Shadows so I knew something was definitely wrong, but I couldn’t understand a lot of what was happening. Looking back on it now, I know mom wasn’t taking great care of herself after your father died, she was distressed for obvious reasons, and that can affect things, so… You have to understand, it wasn’t just his death; it was almost yours and mom’s too. At that point, it became an act that couldn’t go unpunished.”
Dani nodded, flicking a crumb from her pant leg. “Have you and mom ever talked about it?”
“A few times over the years. I know everyone tries not to bring it up, but after my Awakening I started remembering things more clearly and asking questions. I was still a kid then, I couldn’t have made sense of it all on my own. It’s not an easy conversation to have, but . . . If you need to have it, you should. It’s your past, you’re entitled to it.”
“I guess you’re right.” Dani sighed. “Finish your tea and try to get some sleep. I’ll wake you in a couple of hours. We need to at least cover some ground today.”
Lena drained her tea cup and held it out for Dani to take. “What are you going to be doing for a couple of hours?”
Dani took the cup and snorted. “Read. I know you brought at least one book with you.”
“Essentials only.” Lena smiled, reaching into her bag and pulling out a leather bound tome. “So yes, of course I did. It’s one of my favorites, so don’t crease it.”
Dani took it with a soft chuckle. “I’m not going to hurt your baby, now shut up and go to sleep.”
[Wolves Camp | Sagacitas 5th, 2525 | Midday]
The door of the Alpha’s cabin was open as usual. Even from a distance it was possible to tell there was no one behind the desk. Lena knocked on the doorframe as they entered. The lack of response indicated there was no one in the bedrooms either. Lena sat across the desk to wait, meanwhile Dani went straight into her room to drop her travel bag off. “I need to put a marker on my map for the village,” she said.
“Do you want to do it now? We may have to wait a while. Who knows what mom is off doing.”
“I would have to take it down and then put it up again. I’m too tired for that now.”
“Why do you need to take it down to put in a marker?”
“It’s a village, I need to draw the little houses, I’m not going to just put a pin on it like an amateur.”
Lena chuckled. “Who else is ever going to see that but you?”
“I don’t know.” Dani came back to the office, shrugging. “My future children, maybe.”
“Oh, so it’s for posterity, huh?”
“Something like that.” Dani took the seat beside hers and stretched with a small groan. “Maybe someone will care to know where I’ve been one day.”
“Besides mom, you mean?”
Dani rolled her eyes. “Yes, besides mom. I know she keeps tabs on me, I’m not an idiot. If I really wanted to hide where I’m going I could just not mark it, but that’s not the point.”
“What is the point, then?”
“The point is that we need to know as much of the forest as possible.”
Lena arched an eyebrow. “Are you planning to single-handedly map the entire forest?”
“If I have to. If we knew the forest better we’d find where those people sleep and get this over with already.”
Lena shook her head, breathing out a soft sigh. “It wouldn’t be that simple. Besides, it would take years to map the entire forest, we don’t have that kind of time.”
“The Wolf Hunters won’t be the last threat we face and we’ve already been facing them about as long as I’ve been alive. I don’t see how we can’t take the time.”
“Fair point, but now isn’t the time to be exploring by yourself in the middle of the night. I’m sure you know that.”
“I haven’t done it since the night Eddie was executed. I’m not that irresponsible.” Dani frowned. “I thought mom was going to be angry, but she said she was glad we weren’t here. Can’t say I wanted to be there for that.”
“I’m sure no one did.” Lena glanced at the doorway at the faint sound of approaching footsteps. It was expected that wherever their mother was in the encampment, news of their return would eventually reach her. Just the sound of her boots was enough to indicate her mood; rushed and heavy against the frozen soil. Dani straightened in the chair beside her, anticipating that they weren’t about to make her day better.
Lena tensed as the door closed behind their backs. The sound of Claire’s footsteps was softer on the wooden floorboards, but the atmosphere in the room was irrevocably changed by her presence. “You’re back early.”
“I decided not to visit the second village,” Lena said, watching her mother closely as she settled behind her desk. Whatever she had been doing when they arrived, she was pleased. “Did something happen?”
“I was about to ask that question. I’m assuming you discovered something, if you saw fit to cut your assignment in half.”
“Do you want the good news or the really bad news first?” Dani chimed in. “I mean, you look like your day’s already been ruined anyway.”
Claire pinched the bridge of her nose in a hopeless attempt to stifle a forming headache. “Surprise me, why don’t you?”
“I spent most of my time while we were there getting to know the locals and learning more about the place. They get more traffic around those parts during springtime. People go there to buy toys and crafts, things like that. The village owns three horses cared for by a fellow named Clint. Very rarely they lend the horses out to travelers for a fee. Clint won’t let just anyone take them since they’re work horses and he’s also very attached to them, but he will make an exception for those who are well-known or friendly enough with the village elder. The last time the horses were borrowed was last spring, on the day Newhaven was partaking in the Hourglass Ceremony. Now, Clint isn’t a very trusting individual, so asking him questions about who borrowed the horses wouldn’t be the best idea, but thankfully no one in that village had ever seen a redhead before, I suppose, because they were awfully interested in me and didn’t mind me playing with their children despite being a complete stranger. It’s funny how much parents will underestimate their children’s ability to notice things.” Dani was unable to disguise a small smirk, even under Lena’s reprimanding glare. “I managed to piece together a pretty solid description of at least one person who visited the village that day.”
Claire hummed. “And what makes you think this person is of interest to us?”
“The kids told me there was a couple and two teenage boys. They didn’t have much contact with the man and couldn’t say anything about him other than he was really tall; which is dubious. Everyone is really tall when you’re a little kid.” Despite her attempts to sit straight once her mother entered the cabin, the onset of travel exhaustion caused Dani to slouch in her seat. Claire’s expression was even, though a trace of her earlier aggravation still remained underneath. Dani cleared her throat, wishing she had kept her water handy, and pressed on. “They didn’t see the boys, more heard about them from grown up chatter. The woman stayed in the village all day, though. Helped with the work, played with them. I asked them if their parents normally leave them in the care of strangers like that, they said ‘no’, but she wasn’t a stranger. She is apparently close with the village elder and has been coming and going for, in their own words, ‘ages’. The man had been there once before, but he doesn’t interact much with the villagers. The boys were strangers, but they only saw them briefly. They left with the man and came back on their own right before sundown.”
Claire’s expression softened as she digested the information. “A tall man with teenagers is consistent with what Eldric described of his attackers. Although he only saw one boy, if the Hunters are recruiting there could be more. Were they able to describe the woman to you?”
“About Lena’s height, early-to-mid twenties, brown hair, brown eyes, dresses in dark colors, long sleeves even when it’s hot out. They don’t know her name, apparently she doesn’t talk much and one of the boys said she sometimes ‘does that thing puppies do’; she tilts her head to the side when someone else is talking.”
“That’s interesting,” Lena mumbled. “I actually read a paper by a scholar who probably had nothing better to ponder than why dogs do that. They speculated it has something to do with spatial hearing.”
Dani sighed. “Dumb it down a little, please.”
“He thinks dogs do that when they’re trying to locate the source of a sound. Spatial hearing has to do with the ability to pinpoint where sounds are coming from. So this tick of hers may be connected to hearing loss, or at least a difficulty in locating where sounds are coming from.” Lena shrugged. “That’s speculation on my part, but it’s a possibility.”
Claire nodded. “I can ask Emmett about who was at the Inn that day. If the man she was with took the horses, he and the two teenagers might have gone to Newhaven. This is promising, but . . .”
Lena leaned back in her chair, briefly rubbing the bridge of her nose.“There’s the bad news, yes. We’ve been discussing it on the way over . . . there might not be a way to place this village under surveillance.”
“And why is that?”
“Their elder is a telepath,” Lena said. “She was powerful enough to not only deter me from using my enlightenment, she could have easily breached my mental barriers. And all due respect, if she can do that to me, there is no one else in the clan who could resist it.”
Claire’s disappointment with the news was beyond clear in her voice as she spoke, “I see. Are you well?”
“Unharmed. She wasn’t able to see anything either, though I don’t think she tried.”
“You believe she would have been able to, had she tried?”
Lena nodded. “I’m positive that she would. Which is why I consider sending anyone there a serious risk. Not only to their mental integrity, but the clan as well.”
“There is an option, but it will need to be discussed with Thomas before any decisions are made.”
Dani frowned. “You’re talking about eliminating her.”
Claire sighed heavily. “Daniela . . .”
“Yes.” Claire held her daughter’s angry glare without a flinch. “That is an option. If this woman is the only thing in the way of the Wolf Hunters, the logical step would be to eliminate the obstacle.”
“Is it necessary?” Although Lena kept her tone even, the note of discontent was there nonetheless.
“That’s what needs to be discussed. I don’t know. Sincerely, I hope not. Too many lives have already been wasted on this senseless conflict. If I can prevent another being lost, I will, but we all know this won’t end unless we’re able to stop the Hunters.”
“So. . . Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. Is that it?” Dani asked.
“In a nutshell, yes. That’s precisely it. For now, I suggest you both take a day or two to rest, then resume your regular activities.”
Lena wasted no time in accepting the suggestion and stood with a quiet nod. “I may need an extra day to recuperate, but I’ll make sure training resumes as soon as possible.”
“Of course,” Claire agreed, turning to Dani. “You should go with your sister for now and get something to eat.”
Dani nodded, but didn’t stand up to join her sister. “Actually, if you have time, there’s something I’d like to talk about.”
Lena flinched, unsure if this would be the best time to start any difficult conversations, but gave Dani’s shoulder a small pat and started for the door. “Alright. I’ll see you later.”