[Wolves Camp | Otium 9th, 2525 |Early Morning]
Lena arrived at the Alpha’s cabin early, only to find it empty. She’d requested a meeting the night before and her mother told her to wait for her in the office in the event she was out assisting with any of the repair work being done in the aftermath of the storm. At first she sat, but as minutes burned away she transitioned to pacing the office, to eventually delving into her sisters’ room.
The small bedroom was half organized chaos, half pure chaos. Sarah’s side looked as though it had been struck by a whirlwind at any given time, up to and including her perpetually unmade bed. Whereas Dani’s, while cluttered with half-read books, writing implements, and camping supplies visibly poking from under her bed; still retained a modicum of perceived organization. Sarah’s drawings, however, bled from her side onto Dani’s, decorating the entire room. They were pinned to the walls and scattered haphazardly across the floor. It wouldn’t surprise Lena if she eventually found a way to coat the ceiling with them. The only wall surface left unscathed was the section occupied by Dani’s map. There had been several additions made to it since the last time she’d been in here, despite her sister’s insistence that she wouldn’t wander the vast Valcrest forest alone. The newly explored areas were close by, but still noticeably outside of their territory. A small cluster of neatly drawn houses served as a marker for the village they’d visited.
Footsteps preceded a gentle knock against the doorframe behind her. “I thought I asked you to wait for me in the office, Helena.”
Lena glanced over her shoulder at her mother. “Sorry, I was feeling nostalgic for a moment.”
Claire smirked. “Looking back on the days when it was your mess all over my floor, are you?”
“I’m sure I never made this much of a mess,” Lena protested.
“I’m sure your memory isn’t failing you, so I’m forced to assume you’re in denial.”
Lena shook her head. “Alright, mom. Can we just . . .” She trailed off, catching sight of one of the drawings on the wall.
“It’s supposed to be a dragon,” Claire informed her.
Lena inched closer to the wall. “I thought it was a dog. Why is it yellow?”
“According to your sister, no one can prove they weren’t yellow.”
Lena chuckled. “Even if they could, she would just argue it’s an imaginary dragon and she has the right to take ‘artistic liberties’.”
“I wonder where she learned to be so stubborn,” Claire said, matter-of-factly, as she made her way out to the office.
Lena followed and took a seat. “Too many suspects. You’ll never find the culprit.”
Claire sat and a rueful smile formed on her lips as she toyed with a little wolf carving Sarah had insisted she keep on her desk. “True.”
Lena watched her mother idly roll the small wooden statue between her fingers, not unlike she herself would tinker with her puzzles instead of solving them. “Have you talked to Sarah about the likelihood of Dani moving out soon? Because after she’s sworn in. . .”
“Not yet, but I will. It is, of course, Daniela’s decision when to move out, but she should be prepared for an argument.” Claire carefully placed the wolf down in its exact place and left it alone. “I assume you requested this meeting in order to explain what happened on the day of the storm?”
“Yes.” Lena let her elbows rest on the desktop, holding her mother’s gaze. There was little opportunity for them to speak alone in the aftermath of the storm. Clean up and repairs kept most of the clan preoccupied. “I needed to conduct one final assessment before declaring her training concluded. She passed that assessment. That’s what happened.”
“Would you care to provide me with some details?”
Lena smiled, sheepishly. “I’ll make sure to include them in my written evaluation.”
Claire pinched the bridge of her nose. “Be thorough, please.” She lowered her hand and refocused her gaze on Lena. “Are you sure?”
“As much as I can be. Dani. . .” Lena leaned back in her chair, glancing around the office as she searched for words. “I guess I’d say she’s too emotional for her own sake, but I think she’s proven that she’s capable of setting those emotions aside when necessary. Which is the main concern I still had. Pain was never a deterrent for her, but hurtful situations always have; hurt pride, hurt feelings . . . Pushing past those boundaries was always complicated, but over the past few months I’ve noticed a change of attitude. Since we visited that village, actually.”
Claire nodded as Lena spoke. “She told me the two of you had a conversation on the way back.”
“We did. And I suggested she should talk to you about certain things. There are answers I’m clearly not able to give. And even if I was . . .”
“It wouldn’t have made a difference. I know,” Claire concluded. “Were it entirely up to me, I’d continue to shield your sisters as much as possible, but I understand that’s an unrealistic expectation to have. And I explained to Daniela that in reality, once we find the Wolf Hunters there are two ways that might end.”
“You’re thinking about going after them yourself?”
“Thomas and I discussed it and we feel that deploying Actives to handle this particular threat would be,” Claire paused, once again rolling the same pen along the desktop as she sought the right words, “a needless sacrifice.”
“Mom . . .”
Claire cut off Lena’s protest, her smile calm. “I told your sister everything she asked me. How this started, why it started, down to the details. But I chose to withhold how this needs to end. Daniela is smart, I know she understands the severity of this situation now. I know she understands the possible repercussions, but the inevitability of it may be something she still isn’t prepared for.”
“You’re the Alpha. If you go after these people yourself and it goes wrong . . .”
“The Wolfpack will survive, Helena. It always has and always will. It’s my duty to protect this clan, not the other way around. I’ve already allowed this loss of life to go on for too long without taking matters into my own hands.”
Lena shook her head, frowning. She knew what her mother was thinking. To a lot of outsiders, the Alpha was the Wolfpack. Going after the Hunters herself might ensure an end to this conflict regardless of which side stood victorious. “I don’t like it.”
Claire laughed softly. “I don’t like it either. No one is going to like this. That’s why I need your sister to be prepared, as much as possible at least. When time comes, she can refuse the position of Alpha, or Beta for that matter; that’s entirely her decision to make, but if something is to happen to me, or Tom. Or, Twins forbid, the both of us . . . She can’t stop the clan from considering her the best possible candidate and insisting she take up the responsibility.”
“I don’t think she would say no,” Lena said. “She may not be sure she wants to be Alpha, she may not be sure she can be a competent Alpha, but Dani would never turn away if the clan needs her. It’s not in her nature.”
Claire blew out a breath and leaned back in her chair. “Are you sure she’s ready to be sworn in?”
“That begs the question: should I start thinking about assigning you another Recruit or would you still like me to release you from your oath?”
“I don’t know. Do I have to answer right now?” Prior to her promotion to Instructor, Lena told her mother that she didn’t think she could go on being an Active and, feeling that she had no place in the clan, asked to be released of her oath. In light of Dani’s difficulties with training, they’d agreed to set the discussion aside in favor of Lena taking charge of her sister’s training. And while it only made sense to come back to it now, the question caught her off guard.
“No. You can take as long as you’d like,” Claire said, “but if you need more time to think I suppose it’s only fair I put you to work, isn’t it?”
“I suppose that would be fair, yes.” Lena chuckled, but a tired sigh accompanied it. “I know that sooner or later it’ll have to happen, I just . . .”
“There will always be at least one reason for you to stay, Helena. This is home, this is your family, leaving won’t ever be an easy decision for you to make. But understand that no matter where you go, what else you choose to be, you’ll always have a home and a family here.”
Lena shook her head. “I know, but not yet.”
Claire nodded. “If you’re sure. I assume Madeline is ready to be sworn in as well?”
Lena hummed. “I’ve tested her to the extent of my abilities. There is no guarantee it would work the same with Sylvie, but there’s nothing more I can do.”
“Mathison cleared Franklin as well, so I suppose we can have them all sworn in within the next few days. As soon as the most immediate repairs are concluded.”
“I’m sure a graduation will lift the clan’s spirits after all the clean up and repairs.”
“Speaking of which, Tom asked that I send you to help with a few injured workers on the northern side of camp. Something about a big fallen branch. We’ve already sent for a healer, but it’ll be days before the message even reaches them.”
Lena rubbed her left temple and stood. “We need to discuss allowing the White Shadows to station a healer in camp, mom. I know you don’t like the idea of an outsider in the premises, but there are so many things my knowledge of medicinal tomes won’t help with. I don’t have the training a healer has.”
“We can discuss the logistics, but you know that allowing healers to come in and out of the camp regularly can cause issues. Especially considering the Hunters. I’ve no doubt the White Shadows will commit to their oath of confidentiality, but they also don’t have our training or our knowledge of the forest.”
“I guess that’s true, but if any of those workers have serious fractures or internal bleeding, I won’t be able to do anything for them.”
Claire stood as well, weariness and concern clear in her voice. “Let’s hope it’s nothing that serious this time.”
[Wolves Camp | Otium 17th, 2525 |Late afternoon]
The camp was in disarray. In the week following the storm, every able-bodied Wolf was fully committed to clean up, repairs, and in many cases, rebuilding entire structures. Dani spent that week assisting where needed and finding herself either in the company of Emmett, Madeline and Eldric clearing out debris, or helping Lena tend to injured workers until the healers finally arrived.
A pair of White Shadows were sent to assist with their injured Workers; a middle-aged woman and her teenage apprentice. The improvised infirmary immediately displeased her, and she wasted no time issuing instructions on how to put together proper examination tables and maintain a cleaner environment. The boy looked about Dani’s age, and comically towered over his mentor. Meanwhile, he did his best to look as insignificant as possible. Dani and Lena were told to assist, despite the healers’ assertion that she didn’t want or require any assistance. As a result, they were made to just stand there and watch them assess the Workers and tend to their injuries one by one. As the examination progressed, the younger healer—whose name was Oscar, according to his mentor—continued to act as though he’d rather be anywhere else, keeping his eyes focused on his tasks and vehemently ignoring their presence.
Once the injured were taken care of and it was confirmed none of them sustained any serious damage, the Alpha requested the healers stay for a couple of days and ordered everyone involved with intense labor in the past week to undergo an examination. Most Actives were unhappy with the prospect, but not enough to go against the Alpha’s direct orders. The healers organized a queue outside their improvised infirmary and ordered the Wolves in two at a time.
Dani wasn’t the greatest fan of healers. They were usually nice, but something about them always felt disingenuous to her. The way they treated everyone with the exact same polite demeanor made her uncomfortable. By the nature of their work, she understood this was probably because they trained themselves to be as removed from a situation as possible, but it didn’t make them the most pleasant of people to be around. This one in particular seemed uninterested even in pleasantries and mostly focused on getting her work done. Although, unlike Oscar, she was open to answering Lena’s occasional questions in between examinations. The woman was efficient, not only assessing her assigned Wolf as quickly as possible, but supervising her apprentice’s examination and chiming in where she felt he might have overlooked something.
By the end of the afternoon, most patients were let off with warnings to take a few days rest and drink more water. Dani was more than happy to be done when Lena directed her to one of the examination tables. “Mom said everyone, remember?”
Dani groaned, but complied. “I’m fine.”
“Nonetheless,” the healer chimed in, directing Lena to the vacant examination table. “I’m sure your clanmates would have something to say if you were exempt from this horrible, terrible, ordeal they were just forced to undergo.”
Lena sat on the examination table, arching her eyebrow. “Are you attempting to imply any members of this clan are wusses?”
A discrete smirk pulled at the corners of the healer’s lips. “I would never dare imply such things of a clan of fearless assassins. Perish the thought.”
Lena chuckled. “You’re all assholes, you know that?”
“Mhm. Is that why master Witters said you’d fit right in with us?”
Lena snorted, attempting to hold still as the healer tested her reflexes. “I don’t know, but I do recall him saying that the White Shadows don’t recruit. Being that the case, he should take his opinions and shove th—”
A loud metal clang interrupted the conversation. Oscar was apparently so scandalized by what Lena was about to say that he dropped one of the instruments on his examination kit.
His mentor sighed. “Oscar, pick that up.” As he picked up the instrument and was about to place it back on the tray, she snapped. “Sanitize it first, boy!”
Oscar jumped and nearly dropped the object a second time, but recomposed and nodded. “Yes, mistress, my apologies.”
“Leave it on the table and go get some fresh air, I can finish by myself.”
Dani frowned, watching Oscar fumble to put the instrument down and leave the room in a hurry. At first she was aggravated that her examination would have to wait, but found it difficult to stay mad at the boy when he looked about to burst into tears. “Is he going to be alright?”
The woman shook her head briefly, not interrupting her examination. “Eventually, I’m sure. It might have been too soon to bring him on such a demanding excursion.” She turned her attention back to Lena. “Have you been taking your tea regularly?”
“Every morning. It’s . . . Helping.”
“Nausea sometimes, but I’m sure it’s just because it tastes like freshly-pissed-on grass.”
“If that symptom persists, try taking it every other morning instead. You don’t need to take it daily if you haven’t been prone to any incidents for a while.”
Lena nodded. “I’ll observe myself. Is that all?”
“That is all, yes.”
Lena stepped down from the examination table and coaxed Dani to take her place. She did so, reluctantly. Even though she watched the healer perform the exact same routine on every patient throughout the day—Eyes, ears, throat, reflexes, temperature check, then basic questions—being in that position still unsettled her. She did her best to be as compliant as possible in order to speed up the process. Once she was cleared with a warning to take it easy, she nearly jumped out of the examination table. “Great. Are we done? I want some alone time before sundown.”
“Sure,” Lena said. “Go ahead.”
The healer hummed in agreement, starting to pack up her belongings. “What happens at sundown?”
“I’m getting sworn in,” Dani answered. She paused on her way to the door. “Do White Shadows have a ceremony for that? I mean, you do have to swear and oath too, right?”
“We have an initiation ritual, but it’s not public and we don’t make a fuss about it.” She smiled. “Congratulations on graduating. You must be proud.”
Dani breathed out. “That’s . . . One of many feelings, yes.”
Lena chuckled, pushing her out the door. “You’ll be fine. Now go on, you’re losing daylight.”
Dani stepped outside the infirmary and the door closed behind her back. Outside the cramped wooden cabin, air flowed a lot easier through her lungs. The sun was well on its way, but still bright. On her way to the center of camp, she nodded at passing Workers and Actives, returned their smiles, and tried to match their excited energy, pushing down the tense knot forming in her throat. It was normal to be this nervous; after the news broke a couple of days ago everyone made it a point to tell her so. Emmett has cheerfully exposed to her the fact Eldric threw up before his graduation ceremony. And then revealed he himself was forced to repeat parts of his out because he’d stumbled over his words. To which Lena added “there’s one in every group”.
The prospect of being ‘the one’ in her group was, quite honestly, mortifying. The fact the other two people in her group were Franklin and Madeline only made matters worse. Franklin’s nerves were unyielding steel and Maddie was still too green to fully comprehend the weight of what she was about to experience.
The path leading up to the lake never felt longer.
[Wolves Camp | Otium 17th, 2525 |Dusk]
Dani sat by the lake and watched as the reflection of sunlight moved across its mirror-like surface, changing colors as it descended towards the horizon: from golden, to orange, then a deep red, and finally a dark violet. She had done this many times—it was the best way to tell the passing of time there—but this time, as the sky darkened, Dani gained the sudden awareness that an entire phase of her life was coming to a close. The scuffle of approaching footsteps drew her attention and she turned away from the waters to watch the path. A soft call preceded the Beta’s arrival. “Hey, kiddo.”
“Hey,” Dani answered, standing up and wiping dirt and grass from her clothes. “I was just about to head back.”
Thomas emerged from the path, offering a reassuring smile. “It’s already dark, pup. Everyone’s waiting. Sarah wanted to come and get you, but . . . Your mother decided you might need a ‘dad talk’. Whatever that means.”
Dani chuckled. “I appreciate it, but . . . I’m alright. I just got a little distracted thinking about everything.”
“Mhm,” Tom hummed. “Are you nervous about reciting the oath in front of the entire clan?”
“A little, yes. I know no one will think less of me for being nervous, but they will remember it.” She frowned, suddenly stricken with realization. “Did you know I wasn’t supposed to soak that stew pot?”
Thomas flinched. “Alright, I wasn’t expecting that question to come up now. Yes, I was well aware of the fact that iron rusts.”
“Why didn’t you stop me, then?”
“Because you need to learn from making your own mistakes.”
Dani rolled her eyes. “Dad . . .”
“Alright.” Thomas chuckled. “I thought it would be funny.”
Dani snorted. “You’re an asshole. People were teasing me about this for months.”
Thomas shook his head, still laughing, and wrapped an arm around Dani’s shoulders, leading her towards the path. “Yes, but honestly, pup? That’s what you need. Sometimes you fail, and that’s just life. But if you fail and the only real damage is to your pride, then you might as well laugh.”
“It’s not fun to be mocked for your failures, dad.”
Thomas gave her a brief shake. “Learn to distinguish when others are laughing at you and when they’re laughing with you, love. No one in this clan will see you as a failure over a stew pot, or if you fumble a word or two when reciting your oath tonight. You’re expected to make mistakes. Not because you’re incompetent, but because you’re human. And human beings are prone to error.”
Dani took a deep breath and, as the air left her lungs, finally relaxed. “Yeah. I guess mom was right. I needed a ‘dad talk’. Whatever that means.”
“You’ll do well, kiddo. Just remember to breathe. That’s very important. Someone in my group actually passed out.” Thomas smirked. “It may or may not have been your mother. I won’t confirm or deny that.”
Dani laughed. “If that’s true, she’s going to kill you.”
“Suppose I sleep with one eye open tonight.”
The short walk back to camp was accompanied by a comforting silence. The path that extended from the lake carved into the forest and was otherwise untouched; engulfed by darkness and raw nature. Every step closer to camp shattered that tranquility with the excited murmurs of the waiting clan and the incandescent glow of the fire pit. Dani breathed through another bout of nerves and quickened her pace.
The Wolfpack in its entirety had flooded the central clearing and, as she approached, the crowds parted to let her through. Her mother was waiting in the very center, accompanied by Lena and Matthison. Wading through a veritable sea of smiling faces, shoulder pats, and expressions of encouragement, her fellow recruits came into view as well. It comforted her to see that Franklin and Maddie, when faced with the full might of the Wolfpack, weren’t as confident as they usually appeared. Franklin was almost pale with nausea and for a second Dani wondered if, out of the three, he’d be the one to succumb to nervousness. The thought elicited a short bubble of laughter as she took her place beside the two and Franklin’s mutter of “I’ll be fine,” did nothing to quench her sudden giddiness. She wanted to apologize for having little faith in her friend, offer some words of encouragement, but kept her mouth shut in fear of losing control of the situation. A few chuckles had already erupted in the crowd by the time hers completely faded. Claire was the embodiment of patience as she waited for the atmosphere to settle. She continued to wait until silence finally reigned supreme and she could be heard without raising her voice.
“Well, now that we’re all here at last,” she began, “I would like to say on behalf of the whole clan, that what you have accomplished by completing your training has already been an achievement worthy of praise. I think no one here has fond memories of being a Recruit. It’s harsh, undignified, and oftentimes unappreciated work. Your Instructors’ weren’t meant to simply build you up, but to build you up stronger; as assassins and as people. And if you’re here now, rest assured, you have not only met, but surpassed their insane expectations. You may not be done learning yet, and you may never truly be done growing, but as of tonight, you are no longer children in the eyes of this clan.”
Another wave of hushed excitement swept across the encampment and, once again, Claire patiently waited for it to run its course. “Helena, you may swear in your Recruits now.”
Lena respectfully bowed as she stepped forward, but a flash of amusement crossed her eyes as she regarded the two girls. Dani knew her sister was at least entertaining the thought of swearing Madeline in first, if only to keep her waiting a little bit longer. “Daniela . . .”
Dani blew out a breath of relief and immediately placed her right hand over her heart in anticipation.
Lena wasn’t able to hold in her amusement this time. “I was supposed to tell you to do that, but I guess we’re done taking instructions, are we?” she quipped. “Repeat after me…”
Dani’s aggravation came and went as her sister recited the oath, line by line, for her to repeat. “I hereby swear on my life and honor, to live by and enforce the laws of the Wolfpack”. To most of the Wolves present, the last time the oath was recited was the night Eddie admitted to breaking it, “I hereby swear on my life and honor to defend this camp and its people, to the best of my abilities, for as long as I still breathe”, and even though Dani hadn’t been there to hear, she was painfully aware of that fact “I hereby swear on my life and honor to never harm, betray, or abandon any member of this clan, as long as they remain true to this oath”. Being the first to recite it in the aftermath caused a swell of pride to form in her chest. A sense of purpose. Of belonging to something far, far greater than just the sum of its parts. Suddenly that crushing weight she’d been suffocating under wasn’t entirely hers to bear.
Lena waited for another wave of murmurs to pass; not quite as patiently as their mother, and continued, holding out one of the two silver rings she had to offer her Recruits. “This ring is a physical representation of not only your oath, but the bond that unites this clan as one. By accepting, you bind yourself to the Wolfpack, and agree to live by the words you recited here until the day the Alpha herself grants you release, or Lady Death claims your immortal soul. Do you accept?”
“Yes. I accept.”
“Hold out your hand.”
Dani obeyed, unable to keep her hand as steady as she’d want. She held just steady enough for Lena to place the silver band on her ring finger with considerable ease. The constant feeling of metal against her skin felt foreign, strangely cold, but she appraised the ring with a satisfied grin, clenching and opening her fist to ease the uncomfortable sensation.
“Congratulations, you’re officially a Wolf.”
The declaration spurred actual cheers from the clan now: loud, unabashed cheering. Lena briefly groaned in aggravation, knowing it would take much longer for the atmosphere to settle, but it was short lived. She pulled Dani into a tight embrace, her words almost drowned out by the clan’s excitement. “I’m proud of you, kid.” Of all the reassurance and validation she’d received so far, those words were what finally made Dani emotionally crack, even if they were immediately followed by, “I was sure you’d end up puking on me.”
Dani pushed her sister away, seizing the opportunity to mask her emotional response under fake aggravation. “Shut up.”
Lena chuckled. “No, sorry. You may no longer be a child but you’ll always be my bratty sister. That’s just how it works.”
The clan finally settled and allowed the ceremony to continue. Madeline recited the oath without a hitch and her hand was surprisingly steady as she accepted her ring, but she was caught off guard when, upon playfully asking if she could have a hug as well, Lena actually hugged her. Wayne must have found most unorthodox, because his opening statement, upon swearing Franklin in was, “I’m not hugging you.”
Dani glanced at Madeline with a smirk. Franklin was the last one and as he recited his oath, the crowd grew increasingly restless. “Do you remember what I said? About making you a Wolf? she whispered.
Madeline hummed, confused. “When?”
“The day of the Hourglass ceremony, by the lake?”
Madeline turned her head to look at her, confused. Dani was about to explain when Franklin accepted his ring and received his congratulations from Wayne. “Never mind, just run.”
Dani pushed her in the opposite direction as she ran off, shouting over her shoulder “run!”
Madeline’s confused protest was broken by one of the Active assassins yelling out, “GET THEM!” and another adding, “IN THE LAKE!”
Franklin had wasted no time running off as fast as he could and, as much as Dani liked Maddie, she couldn’t afford to hold her hand through this. She bolted, dodging multiple attempts to grab her along the way, desperately seeking the cover of the forest. The entire clan was on the hunt. There was no doubt that if they wanted the three of them in the lake, they would go in the lake, but that did mean she wouldn’t give them a good chase. Rumor had it that the longest a newly sworn-in Wolf lasted without going in the lake was three days, but she didn’t know if that was true. Maybe if she climbed a tall enough tree . . . A high pitched yelp announced Maddie as the first sacrifice. Away from the firelight it was too dark to even see where she was going, branches grazed her arms and face as she sped by and at her back she could hear her clanmates chanting “In the lake! In the lake! In the lake!”
Something grabbed Dani in the dark; someone, she couldn’t discern faces, but she could hear them circling, closing in. She took a brief moment to situate herself before twisting away from their hold and dashing one more time. They would eventually catch her no matter what. She would go in the lake. And if that was the only option, so be it. Another round of cheering confirmed Franklin’s downfall. Dani was the only one left now. She was almost there . . .
She wheezed from the strain. In all her years of training Dani was never forced to run that fast, but a grin spread across her face when she saw the silver glow of moonlight reflecting off a mirror-like surface. Dodging a couple more desperate attempts to grab her arms, she dashed right for it and upon reaching the margin, lept as high as she could, crashing down on the water with a tumultuous splash.
All sounds faded. Cold invaded her bones, causing a furious shiver. When she rose to the surface, the enthusiastic Actives were gathered around the lake, Franklin and Madeline had already crawled out of the water and were wrapped in soft blankets. To her shock, she was met by stunned silence at first, then confused whispers, and finally a louder explosion of cheering and applause. It dawned on her that by jumping in the lake she, without thinking, managed to avoid capture. She shook her head in disbelief. Not at what she’d done, but at the fact no one had done it before. One of the boys; Eldric’s friend, Lionel, abruptly shouted, “Way to go, Runt!” and all the laughter she managed to contain at the start of the ceremony finally erupted. Unrestrained, hysterical, blissful laughter.