Interlude 04: Awakening

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[Valcrest Plains | Helios 3rd, 2519 | Midday]

“Your mother told me she plans to move you to more isolated accommodations soon. Is that so?”

Lena hummed agreement, eyes wandering across the flower-infested fields rather than focusing on the Healer. The sun was at its highest point and the cacophony of colors did nothing but aggravate the pain flaring behind her eyes. Yet, she preferred to suffer through it in favor of avoiding the man’s scrutiny. Her mother’s words were a distant reminder in the back of her mind. Urgent, almost pleading: Jon Witters is likely the only person in Valcrest who can help you, Lena. Whether or not you like it, it’s important that you try. The Alpha wasn’t one to plead, even less with her children, so when the healer asked that she please focus, she relented, bringing her attention to him at last. “Yes, that’s so. I’m about old enough and my sisters need to be near my parents more than I do at this point. It makes sense.”

Witters smiled briefly. “Is that how you feel about this situation? Your mother believes being more isolated will alleviate the nightmares.”

“It’s one feeling I have.” Lena frowned, rubbing her eyes and looking away from the flowers now. Everything in that field was far too bright. “Why does it matter?”

“How you feel about your Enlightenment can affect it in ways you don’t yet realize, girl. The heart and the mind aren’t separate entities. Feelings generate thoughts, they generate intent, even if subconscious. And in your case in particular, thoughts can be devastatingly powerful.”

“Not very encouraging, old man. I thought you Healers learned tact as part of your training.”

Witters smiled. “True, very true. It has been many, many decades since I completed my training, however.” The old Healer’s smile persisted as he guided her on their walk, past the flower fields. “In other words, I’m far too old for such pleasantries. Likewise, you’re far too intelligent to entertain such condescensions, aren’t you, girl?”

Lena hummed, unanswering, the corners of her lips twisting in a grimace. Their walk led them past ruins, through fields of tall dry grass, and into one particular village. While not as bright as the colorful flower fields, the sun cascaded brightness and warmth upon what was almost an idyllic scene. The atmosphere was light, children played in the center square, their laughter carrying in the breeze. Why did their happiness feel like ice coursing through her veins? She swallowed a knot in her throat and finally spoke. “Why . . . Why are we here? Where are you trying to get with this?”

“Your inability to control your enlightenment isn’t the cause of these nightmares. Rather, it’s the opposite. These nightmares, or rather whatever emotional reaction you’re having to these nightmares, are likely the cause of your imbalance.”

“After I move the nightmares will stop.” Lena’s tone was more hopeful than sure. The more they walked into the center of this village the stronger her unease grew.

“These dreams may not have been born from your mind, Helena, but that doesn’t erase the fact they reside there now.” Witters smiled and nodded as passing villagers offered their greetings. “You must understand that your subconscious is the part of your mind that holds on to all the thoughts you’d rather push aside, all the memories you wish to erase, the feelings you refuse to confront. They never truly leave, girl. They burrow, they hibernate and sooner or later they awaken. For you, the more you try to escape your thoughts, the more prone to these lapses you’ll become.”

Lena hummed acknowledgment, walking in silence across the village and ignoring the occasional stares of its inhabitants. The homes were simple stone cabins with doors and windows framed in dark wood. Some had been built more recently than others, the wooden doors polished and pristine, the stone unblemished. Others looked ragged; worn and weary. One in particular sat in the distance, as though it was something the town itself was scared to touch. Her feet were drawn to it despite her will, eyes locked on the dilapidated surface of a door. The wood was cracked in multiple places, the hinges rusted over as though they hadn’t been moved in years. Flakes of light green paint still clung to the wood in places, but any real color had long been stripped by the elements. Lena’s vision of the door blurred, alternating between what was right in front of her, and what had once been. A smoother surface, colors no longer vibrant but still present, the occasional scuff mark along the edges. She reached out to touch it and the brief image of another hand, wrapped in a familiar leather bracer, flashed before her eyes, leaving her own hand in its place as it faded.

“Helena.”

A firm hand grabbed her shoulder, bringing her crashing down to reality. Lena lowered her shaking hand and forced her gaze away from the house. Her entire body suddenly felt cold and heavy. The villagers were watching her intently, some appearing frazzled and fearful, their menial tasks suddenly abandoned. Only the children continued to play, blissfully oblivious to anything strange having taken place. “I . . . Hm . . .” She closed her eyes and inhaled. “Did I do it again?”

“Briefly,” Witters informed, gently guiding her away from the house. “Don’t worry, they’re merely startled. This isn’t the worst occurrence they’ve witnessed.”

The levity in the Healer’s tone was far from reassuring. Had he been in her mind, or did he simply know to bring her here? It couldn’t just be coincidence. “May we please leave? I don’t want any more staring.”

Witters guided her by the shoulder, leading the way back to the White Shadows’ camp. “The first time we spoke, after your awakening, I explained that the life of a telepath should be an exercise in discipline. You cannot hope to gain control of yourself through frightfulness and avoidance.” His tone was soft, yet stern. “You’re still very young, Helena. At this point it’s fair to say you’ve barely lived. What you fear, what deep regrets you may have, these thoughts you wish to push to the darkest parts of your mind . . . As daunting as it all may seem to you, they are still the worries of a frightened child. If you can’t find within yourself the willpower to confront them now, I fear for how you’ll fare in the future.”

Kind as the words were, they dealt a painful blow. “It was just a dream.” Lena’s voice quivered despite her will. “I . . . I needed it to just be a dream.”

“You can’t bend reality to your will, girl. No mortal holds that kind of power, nor should they.” He sighed. “Come, let’s make you some tea. You must rest before I send you home.”

[Wolves Camp | Helios 12th, 2519 | Midmorning]

The cabin was nice; not that big but still much bigger than her space in the Alpha’s cabin. It consisted of a small living room with a fireplace and table, and a separate bedroom. Lena walked past the living room and into her new bedroom. She sat on the bed, looking up at the wall shelves, and realized she’d have to pick and choose which books to put up, at least for now.

“This looks nice,” her mother spoke from the living room. “There’s a fireplace, you can hear the stream outside, that’s good for sleeping.”

Lena smiled stiffly. “Yeah.” Her nightmares had subsided for the first few days after returning from the White Shadows camp, but soon returned. The inevitability of this moment hung over her head as the workers cleared out the cabin and repurposed it for use. Claire was right, it was nice—the bubbling river outside sounded almost hypnotically soothing—but in the back of her mind, Witters’ warning still rang persistently true.

These dreams may not have been born from your mind, Helena, but that doesn’t erase the fact they reside there now.

Her unenthusiastic response drew Claire into the bedroom, carrying the final box of her belongings which she deposited on the bed. “Those two shelves won’t be enough for all your books. You’ll have to pick what you want to put up for now.”

Lena hummed, examining her three cases of books. “I guess the nicer looking ones and the ones I don’t read anymore. I don’t have to keep reorganizing them if I don’t take them down anyway.”

“Smart girl. So these?” Claire pointed at the bigger box of the three, which contained heavier, nice looking leather bound tomes.

“Yeah those nice looking ones dad got me and, uhm,” she paused to examine the boxes, “those history books. I’ve read all of those already.”

Claire nodded and started to place the books on the shelves; the bigger, classier tomes at each end and the smaller soft leather bound books in the center. It wasn’t how she would organize them herself, but they looked good that way. With one of the shelves full, she began to place more books on the second shelf. Lena watched as each book was placed neatly upon the wooden surface, one by one, in a similar arrangement as the previous. And as she watched each book fall into place a question began to gnaw at her, more and more persistently with each one, and when the last one was finally placed on the shelf, she spoke up. “Mom . . . Who was she?”

The question was vague and the moment it left her lips, Lena was sure it wouldn’t make sense. Yet, her mother tensed where she stood, fingers digging into the book’s spine. Her body relaxed a moment later with a deep weary sigh. “You haven’t had your tea yet today, have you?” she asked, releasing the book and pushing it back so that it was leveled with the others. “Come, let’s make you some and then . . . then we can have this conversation.”

Lena nodded behind her mother’s back, unable to discern any emotion from her voice as she followed her out of the room. The workers left both a kettle and a cooking pot to be used with the fireplace. The herbs the healers supplied to try and contain the side effects of her enlightenment were stored in a small pouch secured amongst her clothes. Lena retrieved it while her mother ignited the fireplace and fetched water from the river. As the kettle hung above the flames, they sat at the small square table face to face. Lena tried to hold her mother’s gaze but wasn’t able to do it for very long. As long as she could remember, she’d never seen her look this disheartened.

“I honestly hoped not to have this conversation quite this soon,” Claire started with a heavy sigh. “Jonathan Witters contacted me when we first brought you to him and you told him about this dream you had. He explained the nature of your gift to me and warned me that this day would come soon, but I . . .  I was hopeful, and you know I’m not one to do so, but I prayed it wouldn’t be this soon. You are brilliant, love, but there are things you are still much too young to comprehend.”

“Alright. I guess ‘who is she’ is a far more complicated question than it seems.” Lena tried to smile through the rotten pit festering in her stomach.

“When you were eight and I sat you down to explain how you aren’t originally ours, I said one day I would tell you about your origins—where you come from, who you’ve come from—once you were old enough to understand it. I had planned to wait until after you graduated. I wasn’t prepared for you to dig your way into my memories the way you did.” Claire stood as the kettle whistled, her back turned as she pulled it out of the fire. “To answer your question more directly, Helena, her name was Lucille. We grew up together, she was . . . the closest thing to a sister I ever had.” Without turning around, she began scouring the small kitchen area until she located— inside the cooking pot—a dusty, unused cup. “She was, much like you, a brilliant student and a talented recruit. Much like you, she was also very aware of it.” There was a noticeable smile and a warm fondness in Claire’s voice as she prepared the tea, back still turned. “About a year before you were born—I hadn’t been Alpha for very long yet—I sent Luce on what was supposed to be a simple contract. A member of the City Guard in Blackpond had been using his position to extort some of the local businesses for protection money. Things got violent and the shopkeeps decided to pool their resources and contract us to get rid of their problem.”

Claire brought the cup of tea to the table and placed it in front of Lena, the ceramic cup making a gentle clink against the tabletop. “The contractors wanted to make it look like he died on the job. Despite the extortion scheme, they wanted to make sure his wife and small son would still be taken care of by the city after he died.” She sat and motioned towards the tea cup. “Go ahead, love.”

Lena took a small sip and grimaced at the taste. “Keep going. What happened after she took the contract?”

“I’m not entirely sure. She didn’t report back. We heard no news of the contract being completed or her whereabouts. I was . . . inconsolable, I thought something had gone wrong, that she had gotten killed or sent to the dungeons. We looked for her and . . .” Claire chuckled, a bitter note catching in the back of her throat. “Like I said, she was brilliant. And if she didn’t want to be found, it wouldn’t be that simple. Still, the scouts we sent to investigate informed that Lucille hadn’t failed to eliminate her target exactly. The truth is she never attempted. Upon further investigation it was discovered she became involved with him.”

Lena paused briefly, but nodded and continued forcing down her tea, staring down at the tabletop.

“At this point we had to consider her a deserter. We, uhm . . . I was expecting, since all she’d done so far was not fulfill a contract, that we could bring her back and resolve the situation. Talk it out. I didn’t want . . .” Claire stopped talking with a soft, ragged breath. Lena’s gaze fixed on the surface of the table with even more intensity as she recognized the sound of a restrained sob. A few moments passed before she continued to speak, her voice steady once again. “I sent three Actives to search for her, one of them was Amelia Fletcher.”

“Eldric’s mom?” Lena asked, looking up to meet her mother’s eyes.

“Yes.” Claire sighed. “Amelia was the first Wolf to find Lucille and we never learned what happened between them, but she didn’t survive the encounter.”

“Okay,” Lena mumbled, standing up from the table and walking away under the guise of getting more tea, despite hating it. “Okay, so . . . She, uh, she failed to fulfill her contract, deserted and then committed treason by killing another Wolf.”

“Yes.”

“She killed Eldric’s mother . . . that’s why . . . . That . . .” She swallowed back a lump forming in her throat. “That’s why his father hates me so much. That’s why . . .” A breath caught in her throat. “Does the entire clan know about this?”

“When a Wolf is branded a traitor the entire clan is notified. After Amelia was slain and given her burial, Lucille was irrevocably marked for execution. In light of what happened with Amelia I made the decision to personally seek her out and carry out the sentence immediately without bringing her before the clan. And that . . . that would be what you saw.”

“Alright.” Lena dropped any and all pretenses of tea, hands falling at her sides, fists clenching. She could remember the woman’s face as if she’d been the one standing at that doorway; light blue eyes reflecting the soft glow of a fireplace, dark hair cascading down her cheeks. The look of peaceful acceptance in her eyes plagued her night after night for the past year. Even in her waking hours, there was much underneath she had tried, to the best of her abilities, to decipher. “That’s where you found me.”

“Yes. That was where and how I found you.” Claire’s voice was unmistakably shaken. “You started crying, probably because you realized you were alone and I turned around, I came in, and I picked you up. I didn’t know what to do exactly, but I didn’t want to linger in Rosefeld any longer. I went to the White Shadows instead. Their leader came out to meet me and we discussed the situation. Lucille had a few friends in Rosefeld here and there, any one of them would happily take you as their own, but I . . .” She breathed out. “I couldn’t leave you. It didn’t feel right. So I brought you home. And now here we are, pup. That’s the whole story.”

“Alright,” Lena’s voice cracked, her mouth suddenly dry, and she poured herself more tea at last, taking a small drink. “I . . . Was it . . .” She took a deep breath, setting the cup back down on the mantelpiece, back still turned to the table. “Was it guilt?”

“No.” There was a heaviness in Claire’s voice as she answered, but there was no hesitation. “I’m the Alpha, Helena. I loved your mother like family; and still do no matter what mistakes she’d made, but the moment she took the life of another Wolf, she forced my hand. And she knew that. It ended the only way it could have. I don’t feel guilty, but I do regret. I regret not being the one to find her in the first place, before anything got that far. I feel that I could have prevented it. It weighs on me; it will always weigh on me, but none of that has anything to do with you.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

Claire’s chair dragged across the floorboards, the wood creaked as her footsteps drew closer. “Look at me, Helena,” she spoke softly, placing her hand on Lena’s shoulder, coaxing her to turn around. “You may not be my blood, but you are my child. You are mine. Do you understand me?” Lena nodded, unable to stop the flow of tears from streaming down her face and wordlessly allowing Claire to pull her into a gentle hug. “I know how confusing everything must feel right now, but never doubt that this is your home, this is your family. Because no matter what, it always would have been.”

Lena only managed another silent nod, arms tight around her mother as if the embrace was the only remnant of the reality she used to know. A long moment passed before she was able to formulate a simple answer. “I know.”

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