The Battle of Heart and Mind

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[Valcrest Forest | Aurelium 22nd, 2526 | Morning]

It didn’t take long to travel from Newhaven to the Wolves’ camp. No more than a week on foot. It shouldn’t take longer than that on a wagon. Yet the journey felt unending. Lena jostled in the wagon incessantly. The wood creaked as it pressed against the metal bolts holding it together. As the wheels rolled over grass and coarse dirt. The sounds mixed with unrecognizable voices and familiar whispers swirling through her mind, plagued her even in sleep, making it difficult to discern whether she was even conscious. 

“You’re really not going to tell me what the big news is, huh?”

“Not yet. I want to tell you when we get there.”

“Why must everything be such a mystery with you?”

“We’ll be there tomorrow morning. That’s not too long to wait, it’ll be worth it.”

A droning buzz filled her ears. It rose above the unfamiliar voices until they disappeared, leaving behind the scent of smoke, taste of ash, and the gritty feel of dirt grinding between her teeth. The flare of pain that stabbed through her abdomen still felt foreign, but she relived it so many times it’d become familiar.

Reality crashed down on Lena like a pile of rocks. The crisp springtime breeze from her dreams shifted to stale summer air, damp clothes clung uncomfortably to her skin. A heaving cough only served to remind her of the very real aches still plaguing her body, while doing nothing for the dryness in her throat. Sunlight flickered through the forest canopy as it passed above their heads, assaulting her eyes even through closed lids. Awareness was a curse. One she might deep down be grateful for, but a curse nonetheless.

Familiar voices tugged at her focus, but it refused to deviate from the rolling of the wagon. The creaking of wood, the earth grinding underneath the wheels. The sounds seemed to slither up her spine and creep up the back of her neck. A horrible sense of dread pierced her chest. Her heart raced, air caught in her lungs, and as that irrational fear rose within, her mind began to reject the very notion of safety.

Succumbing to panic was something Lena could only remember doing when she was much younger. At a point in time where always being strong wasn’t such a demand. When being in absolute control wasn’t such a necessity. Another life.

The sway of the wagon churned her stomach, something about being in her own skin suddenly felt off, and if her limbs would obey her, she would have tried to crawl away. From the noise, from the wagon, and from herself.

“Hey, no, no, no… Don’t move.”

Madeline’s voice grabbed hold of Lena’s consciousness and pulled it violently into the present. For a blissful moment the sounds grating in her ears dulled as she focused on her friend’s face. The sun wasn’t assaulting her eyes as much now. She realized the heaviness she’d been feeling was a pair of hands pinning her down by the shoulders. Instinct kicked in and she tried, despite herself, to fight against the restriction.

Maddie continued to hold her down effortlessly, even as she turned to address the figure steering the horses. “Finn, pull over.”

“We’ve only been on the road for a couple of hours. We ain’t gonna make it there before winter at this pace.”

“Just do it, don’t make me go over there,” Maddie snapped.

Finnley grumbled in response, but whatever words were underneath must have been agreement, because Madeline blew out a breath and eased back into the spot beside her. The wagon bed was barely big enough for two people. Miriam had been sitting beside her the last time she’d been awake, now the Healer was sitting next to Finn at the front of the wagon instead. With a feeble groan, Lena tried to sit up only to once again be held down. There was nowhere to go; she knew, but she still couldn’t shake the urge to flee.

“Easy, easy, easy… ” Maddie muttered. “Stop fighting me. Where do you even think you’re going?”

A sore throat and frantic mind made words feel like a monumental task. A feeble, “out,” was all she managed for a response.

Madeline sighed. “We’re going to stop soon, just hang in there, alright?”

Lena once again groaned, but relented, sinking into the thin layer of blankets lining the wagon’s interior. Madeline waited to make sure she wouldn’t try again, before releasing her shoulder. A cold touch against her cheek confirmed the haziness to be the product of another fever spike.

“You’re really doing a shit job of fighting this off, aren’t you?” Maddie quipped, pulling her hand back.

“Clearly,” Lena croaked. “How long…?”

“You slept all day yesterday and through the night. That’s why we’re pulling over,” Maddie answered, rummaging around for a waterskin and holding it out for her to take. “You need to try eating something, and some more tea might do you some good.”

Lena hummed as she fumbled with the waterskin, too weak to inject much energy into protesting more tea. Madeline caught the sentiment, however, and chuckled under her breath.

“Oh, don’t be a baby about it,” she teased.

It took effort, but Lena managed a drink of water, coughing away the soreness in her throat. “Warm piss,” she grumbled.

“It’s just some herbs, you wuss.”

Lena forced down another gulp of water and pushed the waterskin back on Madeline with as much force as she could muster. “You drink it, then.”

“You’re being a literal child.” 

“Screw you.” Lena muttered. “And that’s not what ‘literal’ means.”

Madeline’s laughter rose and she let out a strained wheeze. “Oh, I can’t wait to tell your sisters how whiny you’re being, you’ll never live it down.”

“I swear on all the Twins, Madeline, I will end you,” Lena threatened, though the words were offset by a trace of laughter she was unable to contain.

“Not if we can’t get that fever back down, you won’t.”

Lena hummed under her breath, focusing her blurry eyes on Madeline for the first time since waking up. If her tone hadn’t been enough to give away concern, the dark circles under her eyes and the sullen expression would have spoken volumes on their own. It was almost unnervingly genuine coming from someone who, as long as Lena had known her, had no issue masking her feelings even among close friends.

“You’re a fool if you think this fever would stop me,” she mumbled. The retort fell pathetically short of menacing and failing that Lena sighed. “I’ll feel better when I’m home, Mads.”

“I’m sure, but there’s a lot of ground to cover until then.”

“I’m in much better shape leaving Newhaven than I was upon arrival, you know.” Lena forced a half smile. “I think I’ve done exceptionally well at not dying.”

Madeline chuckled. “I don’t know about ‘exceptional’. I’m sure Wayne would find some way to criticize your performance.”

“That man would criticize the sun for rising.” Lena muttered.

Madeline smiled, but turned to Finn and asked how much longer for a stop. Lena couldn’t quite make out the words in their response, but judging by Maddie’s approving nod it wouldn’t be long.

“It’s good to see you more alert,” she said. “Even when you’ve been awake, you haven’t been all there for a couple days now.”

“It’s the fever, most likely.”

Madeline wasn’t reassured but thankfully she didn’t pry any further. Truth of the matter was, for once, Lena had no answers. It had been a long time since her mind clung to memories in this way. Not since she was still a child. These nightmares weren’t hers and they shouldn’t feel real to the point the sound of the wagon wheels was still… so… persistently… grating.

“Hey.”

“Hm?” Lena didn’t feel her mind starting to drift until Maddie’s voice jolted her back to the present. No, this definitely wasn’t normal. And nothing about it felt safe. She’d read about cases where telepaths with similar abilities to her own disassociated, lost themselves in other people’s thoughts and memories, lost their sense of self over time. This couldn’t be a great sign.

“I was thinking about how when we get home I’m finally going to win a match,” Madeline said.

Lena forced a deep breath, closed her eyes for only a brief moment and struggled to reopen them. Memories usually came to her in an instant. Moments long past could feel as though she lived them mere seconds before, but this time the image of the chess board trickled to the forefront of her mind like sap running down tree bark. It was still sitting on her nightstand the day she left to check Madeline’s camp. They’d agreed to continue the game when she returned. “It’s your move,” she mumbled. “It won’t be this one.”

“You don’t think I can win this one?” She couldn’t muster the focus to turn her head and look, but she could hear the smirk in Madeline’s voice. “Are you sure about that?”

“Unless you manage something really unexpected, pretty sure.”

Lena couldn’t help but smile at Madeline’s quiet scoff. If she were to be completely honest, even though this game wouldn’t be the one, she knew Maddie would inevitably win. She’d come close more times than Lena would like to admit. She might even go as far as say she was an excellent player for a Newhavener.

“You know… The only reason I got this good at chess is that I wanted to beat Matthison,” she admitted. “I just wanted to make him admit I was better than him at something.”

“Did you ever beat him?”

Lena shrugged. “No. Not even once. And then, I suppose I stopped caring. I learned to enjoy the game. If you beat me at some point, then you’ll beat me. I’m sure it’ll be a great game either way.”

“And here I thought your pride wouldn’t allow you to lose to a Newhavener,” Maddie quipped.

“You’re a Wolf, Mads, and a friend. So, no. I’ll gladly take that loss when it comes.”

Madeline laughed again, though this time it trembled. “Twins sake, how high is your fever? Shut up.”

“Apologies, I think my near-death experience has turned me soft.” Lena smiled, though it was offset by a conveniently-timed fever chill. “It is quite high, though, it seems.” With another deep breath, she willed her eyes to stay open, her mind to focus on anything other than the sounds and motion of the wagon. “Can you tell me about that book you were reading at the Inn? The one with the horrible cover illustration? Or anything really. Just… Keep talking. I don’t want to fall back asleep. Not yet.”

“Yeah. Of course.”

The book Madeline had discovered in one of the rooms of the Inn was a romance about a pirate who kidnaps a princess and for what she was able to grasp of the retelling, it was terribly cliché. The ocean was so far away from Valcrest’s borders that it was almost egregiously wasteful to write a story set at sea and make it about as mundane as if it took place in the streets of Newhaven.

“…And that’s how it ends. They lived happily ever after. I’ve never been more disappointed. If I were him I would have thrown her overboard in chapter two.”

“Wait, didn’t they take her for ransom because they needed the gold? Whatever happened to that?” Finn chimed in.

Madeline shrugged. “I think the author literally forgot about it when the romance kicked in.”

Finn snorted. “No wonder someone left this tripe behind in one of the rooms.”

They finally stopped upon reaching a clearing just outside of the main road. It wasn’t too isolated, but out of the way enough that any other travelers passing though would be able to continue on their way without taking notice of them.

“Did you take it?” Finn asked, walking around the wagon to meet their eyes. When Maddie gave them a confused look in return, they grinned. “The book. Did you take it with you or did you leave it?”

“I left it where I found it,” Maddie said. “Why?”

“That book’s been there for ages, we got a wager going on when someone’s gonna finally steal it.”

“What did you wager on?” Lena asked.

“Never,” Finn said. Their smile faltered as they leaned in to get a better look at her. “How’re you holding up there, boss?”

“I told you not to call me that,” Lena muttered. “I’m fine.”

“You sure are looking great, boss.” Finn’s smirk returned as they doubled down on the nickname. “There’s a pond a ways down the path. Since we’re stopping I’m gonna lead the horses there for a drink. Holler if ya need anything.”

With a mock salute, Finn left them to tend to the horses. Madeline stood and stretched with a groan. The forest felt almost eerily quiet now that Lena couldn’t hear the rolling of the wagon wheels anymore. It was hard to discern through cold sweat and fever chills, but the stillness in the forcefulness of the sun indicated it must have gotten much warmer since she’d woken. The soft rustling of someone rummaging through a bag, and the opening and closing of tins and jars drew her attention to Miriam. The Healer had been so silent thus far, her presence was easily forgotten.

Lena had dealt with her share of White Shadows since her enlightenment manifested. Not many of them were prone to small talk, and Miriam was no different. Even as she walked over to assess her condition, it was a silent examination save for a few routine questions. The Healer checked her temperature, her reflexes, made note of the light sensitivity and the lightheadedness plaguing her senses, but something about the way Miriam scrutinized her made Lena feel defensive without the woman needing to say anything.

After finishing the examination Miriam returned to her bag and pulled from it a piece of parchment, holding out to Madeline. “This is a list of herbs that are commonly found in this area. If you would be so kind as to acquire some, they would be quite useful.”

Madeline took the parchment and examined the list, a mix of amusement and exasperation slowly spreading across her features. “If you want me to step away for a while you could just say so,” she told her, returning the parchment. “You don’t need to send me on a fetch quest for cooking herbs.”

Miriam, surprisingly, half-smiled. “Have you ever tried the food at the White Shadows encampment? It’s dreadfully bland.”

Madeline rolled her eyes. “I’ll be back in a bit,” she muttered, waving over her shoulder as turned and walked into the woods.

“You can’t deceive a deceiver,” Lena told the Healer. “That’s why we recruit them.”

“Keep your enemies close?” Miriam asked, her tone curious.

“Not enemies, no.” Lena sighed, pushing herself up to sit. “People like Mads are assets. Highly intelligent, charismatic, resourceful… You can shape someone into an assassin no matter who they are; with a good enough Instructor, that is. There’s no training that can match the lived experiences of someone who had to adapt in order to survive.”

“You say that as though it’s a good thing.”

“Well, no, but no one chooses the Wolfpack because they’re in a good place, do they?”

Miriam hummed, wordlessly setting about putting a small campfire together. Lena made an effort to remain upright and watch the older woman work, even though she could barely keep the world in focus. Miriam’s silence confused her. Lena assumed the reason she’d sent Madeline away was to speak about something, but the Healer had turned her full attention to the task at hand, ignoring her in the process. It wasn’t until the fire was lit and a pot of water hung above it to boil that Miriam finally spoke again: “So, who was she?”

The words struck her, the Healer’s voice echoing with her own somewhere in the depths of her memory.

“Mom… Who was she?”

No. No no no no. She refused to go back to that. Not here. Not now.

“Girl.” Miriam’s voice was stern enough to cause Lena to snap to attention. It stopped her mind from drifting any further. “The person whose memories you’ve been reliving. Who was she?”

Oh. Lena grimaced and instinctively looked in the direction Madeline had wandered off to, then towards the path Finn had taken with the horses. “Have I been projecting?”

“Your friend is unaffected, and if the snarky one noticed anything they opted to pretend otherwise, but yes. Your mind is holding on to something when it should be letting go. Why? Who is this person to you?”

“I… No.” Lena frowned. “I mean, I don’t know.” The memories were too scattered, too fragmented to make sense of… voices, smells, sensations that didn’t belong. They were vivid, though, they felt too real; as if she somehow lived them. “I don’t know why.”

“Guilt?” Miriam prodded. “Or perhaps something in these memories resonates with you?”

“No.” The answer left her lips before she gave herself the chance to consider the possibility. The harshness in her voice surprised even herself. “I have no connection to this woman. The only time I’ve met her was when she tried to kill me.”

“Perhaps she knows you.”

“I doubt it. Even if she does, it doesn’t matter. It’s never mattered. Those people hunt us. That’s what they do. They don’t care who we are as much as we don’t care about them.”

Once again Miriam hummed, taking her time to pour water into two ceramic cups and setting about preparing tea. The herbal smell immediately churned Lena’s stomach and she groaned, mentally bracing for the concoction.

“That’s a lie, girl.”

Miriam’s tone was matter-of-fact, void of any judgment or accusation, but it still made that spark of defensiveness Lena felt during the examination flare up despite herself. “I’m not lying.”

“You may think you’re not,” Miriam said. “You may have convinced yourself, but if that was true you wouldn’t be putting yourself through this predicament.” The woman brought Lena her cup of tea and sat on the edge of the wagon bed. “A part of you cares, whether you like it or not. A part of you is refusing to surrender these echoes. Your mind is clinging to them. I’m aware of the materials Master Witters allowed you to obtain over the years. I don’t need to tell you what might happen if it continues to do so.”

Lena stared at her tea cup, drew in a deep breath and blew away some of the rising steam. “I’m aware of the repercussions. If I knew how to stop this I would have done it by now.”

“I’ve just told you how to stop it, girl.” Miriam took a sip from her own cup. “Were you not listening?”

“How do you suggest I consciously let go of something I’m subconsciously holding on to?” Lena asked, exasperated. “It doesn’t work that way. I don’t forget.”

“Letting go doesn’t mean forget. You’ve never forgotten any memory you’ve taken in since your Awakening, correct? But you aren’t reliving every single one of those memories, you’re holding on to these. There is a reason, and I suggest you start truly being honest with yourself as to what it may be.”

Lena frowned, drinking her tea in silence as she pondered the Healer’s words. How could she know why her mind was holding on to memories she could barely make sense of? They were nothing more than fragmented echoes bleeding into her own memories. Disembodied voices, unfamiliar smells… Pain. “Do you know…” she mumbled. “… Do you know how people say your life will flash before your eyes in the moments leading up to death?”

“Mhm.”

“That’s not true. Death never comes with the realization of a life well lived and peaceful acceptance. It’s always, always, tainted with sorrow and regret. With everything left unsaid, undone, words and actions that can’t be reclaimed. With things we know we wouldn’t have said and done regardless. Because we live under the illusion that time is somehow infinite, when in reality we’re all just grains of sand succumbing to the pull of gravity.”

Miriam silently encouraged Lena to continue speaking as she sipped her tea, but she was unable to follow up the musings with anything beyond an exasperated huff. Neither spoke again until their cups were empty, to which Miriam asked, “would you like some porridge?”

“I would rather fall on another sword, but I suppose I need to eat.”

The older woman huffed a short burst of laughter as she set out to prepare it using the rest of their water. “I’ve been a White Shadow for almost thirty years, girl. I’ve seen death in many forms, some of them more peaceful than others. I’ve also listened to a lot of confessions and I know the good a person can do when given the opportunity to act upon their regrets.”

“Second chances are a luxury afforded to a rare few in my line of work,” Lena mumbled under her breath.

“Aren’t you lucky, then?” Miriam promptly asked, as though she said it out loud.

Once again, Lena didn’t answer, mulling over the words with a contemplative frown. Luck wasn’t a concept she could wholeheartedly agree with. Running into Hunters in that village was far from it, never mind the fact one of them could identify her on sight. Was she lucky to have survived the encounter? Indisputably. Madeline’s efforts to save her life were commendable but it was sheer luck that they’d been able to find a Healer. Nothing short of a miracle, in fact, no matter how that concept made her feel.

“Luck runs out,” she said finally.

“That it does,” Miriam agreed.

Their conversation was cut short as quiet chatter flooded their makeshift camp. Madeline and Finn had met up somewhere in the woods and were walking back together, horses in tow. Miriam handed Lena a bowl of warm porridge with a knowing look, then returned to the front of the wagon.

The food smelled like nothing, and Lena fully expected to taste the same. The Hunter’s blade didn’t pierced her stomach, but had slashed close enough that even after all her recovery time, eating still felt like a chore. She’d lost weight as a result and alongside the constant fever spikes, it was the main reason she could still barely stand for more than a few minutes at a time. Lena couldn’t deny her weakened state, as much as she’d like to. And she hated being weak.

“Hey.” An elbow nudged hers. “If you let that get cold, it’s only going to taste worse.”

Lena flinched, spoon pausing as it scraped the bottom of the bowl. “That’s what I used to tell Dani to make her eat her oatmeal in the mornings.” She chuckled. “Am I as pathetic as a five year old?”

Madeline narrowed her eyes and leaned closer, her expression mockingly thoughtful for a moment before turning into a mischievous smirk. “Do you want me to be honest?”

Lena shook her head and took a spoonful of mush into her mouth. It was lukewarm and, predictably, tasted of nothing. “I’d appreciate it if you could spare me your honesty just this once.”

“Just this once, because we’re friends; don’t get used to it.” Madeline chuckled.

“I’ll remember this kindness for the rest of my days.” Lena quipped. “Not sure how many I have left, but for what it’s worth.”

“Don’t joke about that,” Madeline said. “I should scout ahead while you finish that. Here…” She got up from the wagon bed and placed her waterskin where she’d been sitting. “You should drink more water while you’re at it. We can get moving again once you’re done.”

Madeline had a quick word with Finn, too low for anyone else to hear, then wandered off back towards the main road. Lena watched her disappear behind the cover of trees. With a deep weary breath, she returned to her porridge. The rolling of the wagon wheels still echoing, though faint, somewhere deep within her mind.

[Wolves Camp| Aurelium 23nd, 2526 | Early Afternoon]

“Are you going to help me or just watch me work, Squirt?”

Sarah hummed, pretending to think. “Well, I provided the materials, didn’t I? I feel like that’s my share of work.”

Dani laughed and shook her head. “You’re right. Fair is fair. Although, the ‘materials’ is just your mess all over my floor.”

Sarah scoffed and once again Dani chuckled. Over the past couple of nights Sarah had stayed over in her cabin, and with each passing day the mess of papers, graphite, and colored pencils spread further across her floor. She didn’t mind the mess too much, admittedly. It was almost nostalgic to have her sister’s art taking up half her space. It also afforded their parents room to discuss some of the more recent developments without worrying so much about what Sarah might overhear. Although, with the way rumors spread around their camp, it was surprising that none of it reached her ears yet.

“Can you at least hand me one of those nails? I only have two hands.”

Dani could vividly picture the eye roll Sarah was giving behind her back as she heard her sister’s feet drag across the wooden floors. She convinced Sarah to pick out some of her artwork to put up on her walls—instead of having it littering the floor—and she’d been happy to oblige, but when it came time to actually do it, she was far less eager.

“Are you not happy with them, Squirt? Is that why you’re stalling this so much?”

Sarah hummed, coming to stand beside Dani and stare at the picture she’d been clumsily holding up against the wall with one hand. Most of Sarah’s recent drawings were landscapes, some depicted recognizable sections of the forest, others seemed entirely imaginary, or at the very least inspired by book illustrations. This one was a depiction of the sun setting behind a mountain range. It was drawn mostly in black and grey, the only colors the reds and oranges radiating from the sun. It was quite a pretty picture, and a long way in terms of progress from the brightly colored and crudely drawn animals she was used to seeing just a year ago.

“They’re alright,” Sarah declared, finally. “I mean, it’s your room. You should like them.”

“I wouldn’t be putting them up if I didn’t.”

Sarah gave her a dubious look, but held out one of the nails for her.

Dani snorted, carefully placing the nail over one corner of the picture and holding her hand out in a silent request for the hammer she’d left on the table. “Don’t look at me like that, you think I’d hang your drawings up if I didn’t like them?”

Sarah didn’t hesitate to hand over the hammer, or answer the question. “Yes.”

Dani aimed her first swing of the hammer and hit the nail right on the head, fixing the first corner of the picture to the wall. “When have I ever lied to you, Sarah?” she asked, holding out her hand for another nail.

“You haven’t, but you also keep things from me all the time.”

Dani flinched and turned to glance at her sister. Sarah was leaning against the small table where the selected drawings had been stacked. Her eyes were fixed on a small pile of nails she held in her palm as she poked at them with her index finger. Hand still outstretched, she said, “give me three more.”

Sarah picked out three nails and placed them on Dani’s hand without meeting her eyes, then set the rest on the table and crossed her arms. Sarah had never been the best at hiding her emotions. Least of all when something was bothering her. She’d also never been one to measure words, especially when angry, yet it was clear she was biting something back now.

Right. This would have to be a conversation then. Dani turned back to the picture and made quick work of the remaining three corners, then set the hammer down on the table. “I’ve never lied about having to keep things from you, Squirt. And I wouldn’t. You know that, so…” She sat on the edge of her bed and sighed, patting the spot next to her. “What’s this about?”

Sarah hesitated, but walked over and sat down. “What happened to Irene?”

“…Irene?”

“That’s why you keep asking me to stay over, right? So I don’t overhear anything I’m not supposed to.”

“That’s part of it, but…” Dani sighed. “Listen, Squirt, there’s a lot going on right now. Between Lena getting hurt and this whole thing with Pete and Irene in Blackpond… Actives aren’t being sent out on contracts, Scouts are overworked. It’s a bit of a mess and, quite honestly, I need to not think about it. Because anything I can think of doing would be a terrible idea.”

Sarah grimaced and plopped down on the bed, looking up at an upside down view of the map Dani had pinned to the adjacent wall. “They would have left Newhaven, what, three days ago?” she asked. “Where do you think they are now? How far?”

“Well…” Dani stood up to examine the map. “I can’t know for sure. That depends on their pace and how many stops they’ll have to make, but Newhaven would be around here…” She stood on her tiptoes to tap her index finger against an empty spot of wall a few centimeters above the edge of the map. “Three days of travel, at a slow steady pace because remember they’re transporting an injured passenger, making frequent stops because; again, injured passenger…” She slowly dragged her finger down towards where the main road entered the map’s borders, then continued to slowly trace the line of road, barely making ground. “Maybe here.”

“After three whole days?” Sarah groaned. “That’s still so far! Aren’t horses supposed to be faster?”

“They are,” Dani said, sitting back down beside her sister. “But wagons are bulky. The narrower paths that go through the forest won’t accommodate them, this forces them to stick to the main road for most of the way. And it’ll only take them so far, after which they’ll have to leave the wagon and continue on foot.”

“Is Lena gonna be able to walk that far?”

“No. They’ll have to carry her the rest of the way. Which will take even longer. It’s going to be a while before they’re here, Squirt.”

Sarah continued to stare up at the map, brow furrowed, jaw tense, and the thoughts forming in her mind were plainly visible in her expression.  “What… What if there’s Hunters?”

“There won’t be,” Dani reassured.

“You don’t know that.”

“I don’t. And until I do I can choose to believe what I want.”

Sarah sighed, rolling onto her side facing away. “You say that like it’s easy.”

“The odds of them setting up some ambush on the road are miniscule and I assume even they wouldn’t mess with a White Shadow so that’s an extra layer of protection.”

“What makes you think they wouldn’t?” Sarah asked.

“If they would, why haven’t they? The White Shadows know a fair bit about everyone in Valcrest, if the Wolf Hunters would go as far as to harm one of them… Well, we’d be in a lot more trouble than we currently are.”

“That’s true, I guess.” Sarah huffed in frustration and rolled onto her back. After a long silent moment staring at the ceiling, she said, “Perry said they killed Irene. The Wolf Hunters. And that mom and dad just don’t want the clan to know.”

“We don’t know that.” Sarah turned to glare at her and Dani chuckled. “I mean it, Squirt. We don’t know that. We know they killed Pete, but… Irene’s death was a little more complicated.”

Sarah sat up then. “Complicated how?”

“Sarah…”

“Just tell me, Dani. Please.”

“Fuck.” Dani groaned, rubbing both hands over her eyes. “Twins sake. Fine. Okay.” She drew a deep breath, giving her younger sister the sternest look she could muster. “If any of this leaves this room we’ll both be in a world of trouble, do you understand me?”

Sarah nodded, putting on a serious face Dani assumed was an attempt to match her own.

“Alright. Well, we know the Wolf Hunters killed Pete because his ring was missing. Irene didn’t report back to the Inn or send word after that. Next thing we know she turns up dead and according to the Guard she was killed in self defense after breaking into a home and killing a man. The deaths were reported to the City Guard by the victim’s wife, Irene’s body was recovered, as were her personal effects. Ring included.”

“That doesn’t sound that complicated. Sounds like the man’s wife did it.”

“Yes it is, Squirt. Because dad wasn’t able to track this woman down. And we don’t know why Irene broke into those people’s home, but if we assume she was trying to track down Pete’s killers, they may have had some association with the Hunters.”

“But we don’t know that,” Sarah mumbled.

“No. And that’s why it’s complicated. Usually something like this… Casualties happen. It’s sad, but when you do the things we do, people fight back. And if we make mistakes, sometimes… We lose.” Dani grimaced. The brief memory of Sarah questioning whether she’d come back from her first contract surfaced, unwelcome. “We wouldn’t need to track someone down for just defending themselves, but if the Hunters might be involved, not knowing this person’s whereabouts is a problem.”

Sarah hummed under her breath, nodded her understanding of the situation, but something was clearly still gnawing at her. “Why… Why do they take it? The rings.”

“I’m not sure, Squirt, but I think it’s because…” 

Dani sighed, rubbing her thumb against the inside of her ring finger, feeling the smooth metal band. She hadn’t been wearing it that long, it still looked pristine, almost shiny compared to Eldric and Lena’s rings, but she’d gotten used to wearing it now. So much it was easy to forget it was even there.

“Getting one of these rings is a really important moment for a Wolf. It symbolizes your ties to the clan. It symbolizes being a part of something greater than any individual could ever be on their own. Taking the oath, pledging your life to the Wolfpack… That can mean a lot of things, in a practical sense, but above all of them it means you’re never alone again.”

With a moment’s hesitation, Dani slid the silver band off her finger, ignoring Sarah’s quiet mumble of protest, and placed the ring on her sister’s palm. “That’s why they take them away, Squirt. It’s not enough to kill us. They want us to die alone.”

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