The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.23

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[Wolves Camp | Helios 3rd, 2526 | Middle of The Night]

“Alright, I have a proposal for you, then, love.” The man’s words echoed.

His face was blurred, obscured by a feverish sleep and mental confusion. She could picture curls of blonde hair, light green eyes and a playful smirk that refused to ever fade. But she wasn’t truly seeing, she merely knew.

There was a sense of familiarity so profound she could swear this was her. That she’d been there. That she knew this man. But neither his features or his voice were pulled from her own memory, she couldn’t make them clearer than this; viewed through a thick fog and drowned out by the—much clearer, and ever present—sound of wagon wheels.

“A proposal, you say?” There was laughter in her voice, pure mirth, a joy that stemmed from something deeper than the playful nature of the current words. “Color me intrigued, what proposal?”

“You wanted the object in my pocket, yes? The one you failed to take? If, hypothetically, I were to let you have that now… Will you tell me what the big news is?”

“You can certainly try,” she said, the smirk clear in her voice. “Depending on what it is, I may or may not be persuaded.”

He hummed, pretending to take his time to think as he reached into his breast pocket. “I doubt you will, but perhaps I’ve grown as impatient as you.”

The wood of the wagon bed creaked as the wheels passed over a rock, jolting them both. And even though in the memory she laughed, outside of it there was dread. Every bump in the road, and every innocuous crunch of dirt and grass beneath the wheels, bored a hole deeper into her subconscious, like the incessant dripping from a leaky roof in the middle of the night. Like nails slowly and painfully scraping at the depths of her mind.

The jolt caused him to drop the object—objects—and they hit the wagon bed with two distinct clinks of metal. He scrambled to retrieve them and even though she knew she could easily swipe them there and then, she opted to watch him scramble for them instead.

Once he had them, he breathed a chuckle. “Alright, it would have been awkward if I lost these. Give me your hand, love.”

“I was making a bet with myself on whether you were going to.” She held out her hand with a warm chuckle. “Clumsy bastard.”

With a dismissive shake of his head, he took her hand in his, turned it so her palm was facing down. The cool sensation of her finger sliding into a thin metal band felt startlingly real. She looked down at it, almost expecting to see the same silver band she wore since she was fifteen, instead being met with the visage of a dark metal band with a small azure-white gem embedded into it. He turned her hand again and placed a second ring in the center of her palm; a thicker band of the same dark metal, with no gem and no adornments. Gently, he curled her fingers around it.

“This one is for you to give to me. If, of course, you haven’t changed your mind yet. We can have a ceremony once we get there if you’d like, but… I reckon this is all we really need, right? Clean slate. A new life. All of that.”

She said nothing. In the back of her mind the words echoed, amplified, as if coming from all directions, from different voices; none of which felt familiar anymore.

New life

New life

New life

“Oh don’t look at me like that… I said I had a proposal for you, didn’t I?”

She chuckled. “Even this? You had to make a pun out of this?”

“When are you going to stop pretending to hate my puns? You’re not fooling anyone.”

She scoffed, but didn’t deny the accusation. She leaned closer as if meaning to whisper a secret in his ear. “I… Will tell you when we get there,” she whispered instead. And when he opened his mouth to protest, she interrupted. “I want us to be there when you hear it. I think it’s only fair.” And with this her tone softened. “New life and all of that.”

The words were followed by a flash of white. Of red. A cacophony of sound and sensation. Pain too intense to truly hurt. Screams that scratched their way out of her body making no sound. An emptiness so profound it made the thought of death a welcoming one. But it never came. She stayed. Clinging to dirt. To blood. To something that felt like hardened leather. Clinging to life by a painfully resilient shred. A candle perpetually at its end but refusing to go out.

Another voice. Or perhaps the same voice. Just softer, more haggard, frantic. Real. Too painfully real.

“Never got to tell him. He never knew. Maybe it’s better. I think it’s better. Better not to know if it’s just gone. It’s gone. They’re gone. Gone. Maybe I see them. Maybe she’ll take me. Finally take me. If not now, when? How much longer? I trust. I surrender. I trust. I’m at Her mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. Show me the way back. The way forward. A way out. She takes them where I can’t follow. Won’t let me go. Let me go. Let me go. Let me go. Why am I still here? I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m still here. Not my time, if not now, when? If not now, when? If not now, when? When? Why? How? How much longer. How much longer. Let me go. Let me go. LET ME GO.”

The words flowed rapidly. They flooded in. Bled into one another. Increasingly louder, persistent, desperate.

Then nothing.

A void.

Deafening silence.

Like sinking into cold water. A numbness that knew no end. Death without release.

Air returned to her lungs in a harsh and blissfully agonizing gasp. The numbness that slowly faded from her being gave way to an uncomfortably warm weight on her chest. Her mind welcomed the trace of a breeze and the familiar sounds of a flowing river coming through an open window. The smell of damp earth and herbs, of worn leather and parchment permeated the environment. The creaking of the wooden walls, tree branches extending above the rooftop whooshing in the wind.


Lena opened her eyes and immediately bit back a sob. Swallowed it so it wouldn’t disturb the stillness of the room. Some part of her still feared her mind was playing tricks. That this reality would, too, shatter into oblivion. It wasn’t until she realized that the warm weight on her chest was drawing breath, and looked down at Sarah’s resting form, that she allowed herself to accept it.

Her mind struggled between wanting to move; to shed the heaviness from her limbs, and wanting to sink back into oblivion. Lena stared at the top of her sister’s head and forced a deep breath. She wasn’t sure how much time passed since the last time she’d been awake. If she didn’t force herself to move, if she made no effort to cling to consciousness now, there was no telling when she’d be awake again.

As her vision adjusted to the dim lighting, Lena registered the sight of her books neatly placed on the shelves lining two of her walls, in the exact order she’d left them. With the exception of one missing volume she’d spotted sitting on her nightstand. It was when she tried to reach for it that she realized her left hand was caught on something. No, not something. Lena lifted her head, just enough to peer over the edge of her bed, and spotted a heap crammed into the space between it and the wall. Only recognizable as a person in the dark by the hand clutching hers in a vice.


Her voice was a barely audible rasp. And while normally that would never have been enough to wake him, Eldric stirred with a sharp inhale. He lifted his head, sluggishly at first, but immediately snapped to attention and sat up when realizing she was awake.

“Hey,” he whispered. “You’re awake.”

“I think so, yes,” Lena whispered in return, not wanting to risk waking Sarah just yet. “Why are you on the floor?”

“I figured someone should give you some space.” He half smiled, rubbing his eyes. “Even your mother couldn’t pry Sarah away from you. She said she won’t go anywhere until she sees you awake.”

Lena groaned, breathing through her body’s discomfort, but still not daring to move too much as to not disturb her little sister. “How long have I been home?”

“Two days.” Eldric gave her hand a squeeze then let go and stood with a quiet grunt. “Madeline said you weren’t very lucid on the way here as well. She was here for quite some time, but thankfully she’s a lot more intimidated by your mother than Sarah. She was advised to go home and rest.”

Lena couldn’t help a weak chuckle. She knew full well what that sort of advice sounded like coming from her mother. “Good. I don’t think she’s been doing much of that since it happened.”

“I don’t think anyone has,” Eldric said.

Lena grimaced. She’d tried not to think about it if she could. She tried not to picture her sisters, or her parents, or Eldric. It was easier to think that as long as they couldn’t see the state she’d gotten herself in, the reality of it all wouldn’t cut as deeply.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Eldric reassured, accurately interpreting her silence.

Lena merely shook her head. This could have been avoided if she’d stuck to the initial plan to leave without ever setting foot in that village. No matter what arguments Madeline had made, it was her decision and it cost her. It was still costing her.

“Look,” Eldric said, “I don’t know exactly what happened back there, but I do know a thing or two about barely surviving those bastards. And I know you. You always give yourself too much of a hard time about everything.”

“Eldric, I told Madeline that day that any risk she took wouldn’t just be her own. And then I took that risk for myself. My mother sent me on that assignment because she said she couldn’t trust anyone else to resist acting reckless. I promised my sister I wouldn’t put myself at risk, that I would be home for her birthday. And I betrayed that trust. I broke that promise.”

Lena’s voice rose in pitch at the end of her words, and as a result, Sarah stirred. That immediately ended the argument, though Eldric’s expression made Lena wonder when they’d be having this conversation again. For the moment, the both of them resigned to their silent truce in the hopes her little sister wouldn’t fully wake. It was too late. Sarah huffed a small sigh and sluggishly raised her head from Lena’s chest. Bleary eyes blinked at her in the dark, then widened with realization.

“Hey, squirt.”

Lena barely managed to keep her voice steady. The distress written on Sarah’s face and the violent sob that immediately rose from her chest were a far more devastating stab than any Hunter’s blade. Sarah clung to her, and despite the aching and heaviness in her limbs, Lena forced herself to return her sister’s embrace. As much as the sound of Sarah’s muffled cries felt like daggers through her heart, her little sister’s presence was grounding in a way nothing else had been since she had first woken up in Newhaven.

Eldric let out a soft sigh and nodded towards the door to indicate he planned to give them space. Lena watched over her sister’s shoulder as he slipped out the bedroom door with barely a sound. After a moment she heard the front door open and close as well.

Sarah cried until she was spent and Lena’s tunic was soaked through. In the lull that followed, she wondered if Sarah had fallen back to sleep, until she heard her whisper a quiet, “sorry.”

Lena sighed, gently stroking Sarah’s hair. “There’s nothing to apologize for, squirt.”

“I should have just talked.”

“You weren’t ready to talk, Sarah. There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve done nothing wrong.”

Sarah shook her head, arms tightening around Lena as if afraid to let her go. “You could have—you could have been gone.”

“And you still wouldn’t have done anything wrong, Sarah.” When her sister only answered with another headshake, Lena gently slipped out of Sarah’s embrace and sat up with a muffled groan. “Squirt, look at me,” she said. When Sarah’s eyes remained downcast, Lena reached out to lift her chin. “You were hurt and you needed time. You deserved that time. And nothing that happened out there changes that.”

Sarah shook her head yet again, but this time a trace of a smile formed in her expression. “Will you stop messing up my apology with your logic? I’ve been working on it for months.”

Lena couldn’t help the burst of laughter that escaped her at her sister’s words, despite the pain it stirred in her chest. “Alright, alright… How about this: I’m here now. I’m not going anywhere. Do you want to have that talk?”

“I…” Sarah flinched. “Are you sure you’re up for it? It’s the middle of the night and you look like you need more rest.”

“I’ve been sleeping more than awake since Newhaven. I’m awake now and I don’t have anything better to do… If you’d like to, yes. I’m up for it.”

Sarah drew a deep breath, her shoulders tensing and sagging as the air escaped her lungs. “Just tell me why.”

“I’m assuming the question here is why I accepted Dahlia’s recommendation. Is that it?”

Sarah nodded.

“Well, in all honesty, I did and I didn’t. Mom has her reasons for keeping Dahlia around. She is good at her job most of the time, but deciding what will drive you to excel in your training or how to push you to excel isn’t her job. It’s mine. I accepted the suggestion to train you and Perry together—on the condition I had free reign to reassign either of you as I saw fit—but for my own reasons.”

Sarah crossed her arms over her chest. “That still doesn’t answer my question.”

“It wasn’t because I thought you needed Perry to excel. It was because I wanted to see whether you would excel in spite of him.” Lena watched Sarah open her mouth as if to say something, then close it again, clearly taken aback by her answer. “You’re smart, Sarah. You’re smarter than I was at your age and no doubt smarter than many adults in this clan already, but… You’re spoiled, you’ve been sheltered. And up until recently there was no problem with that. Children are meant to be sheltered, to an extent. To be protected. But training isn’t meant to treat you like a child. That means, as an Instructor, I do—” she flinched. “I did what I saw fit to assess and aid you. And you don’t get a say in what that entails. Like it or not, squirt.”

Did,” Sarah mumbled. “Mom reassigned me to Emmett while you’ve been away, but I hoped…”

“I’m going to be out of commission for some time, Sarah. It wouldn’t be fair or beneficial to delay your training on account of that.”

Sarah frowned, but nodded. “Emmett is… Alright. He’s not as good as you though.”

“Of course not, but we shouldn’t hold others to such impossibly high standards, should we?”

Sarah laughed. “I’m glad your ego hasn’t suffered at least,” she quipped. And Lena couldn’t help but notice the weariness in her voice. The kind she hoped she wouldn’t have to hear from her baby sister quite so soon. “I missed you,” Sarah added, softer. I’m really glad you’re home.”

“I missed you too, squirt. I’m glad to be home again.”

[Wolves Camp | Helios 9th, 2526 | Midday]

While she’d been away playing huntswoman, all Madeline wanted was to return to the Wolves’ camp. She’d missed it. She’d missed the people, she’d missed the one place where, for the first time in her life, she wasn’t forced to keep up any sort of pretenses. It was a strange and not entirely unwelcome feeling; calling a place home and longing to return there. However, when she imagined returning it wasn’t under these circumstances. And one week upon arrival she’d grown tired of the stares and the whispers. The unvoiced questions about things she’d much rather forget. From the moment she watched Lena fall in the center of that village, Madeline’s only priority had been to get her home alive. And they’d made it. Lena was still alive. She was recovering, albeit slowly, and most importantly; she was safe now. Madeline knew that her inability to relax, to settle into any semblance of normality, was unfounded.

Having to sit with Lena’s mother to recount the events in detail hadn’t helped. Neither had the way Claire addressed her afterwards. With relief, with gratitude, with concern for her well-being. It felt strangely unearned. 

“Hey, kid, mind if I sit with you?”

Madeline grimaced at the address. She’d been doing her best to shut off the ambient sounds of the mess hall and keep her head down until Emmett’s voice broke through her focus. She answered him with a shrug that he immediately took for consent, as she heard the chair across from hers slide backwards and then back into place.

“You really have been spending too much time with Lena if you’re reading at the lunch table,” he quipped. “Not very productive. Those potatoes won’t eat themselves, you know.”

Maddie sighed and snapped the book shut, hard enough to shake the table and draw several stares in their direction. “I was trying to discourage conversation, Emmett.”

“Tough shit, kid.” He smirked. “Eat your potatoes.”

Madeline poked her half-eaten lunch, then pushed her plate away. “I’m good.”

“Mhm.” Emmett watched her from across the table, then calmly stuck one of her disposed potatoes with his fork and stuck it in his mouth with a shrug.

“Emmett,” Madeline sighed. “What do you want?”

“I just needed a place to sit. Why must I want anything?”

Madeline made a show of noticing all the empty tables and seats in the room, then turned her gaze back on Emmett with a frown. Emmett chuckled and raised both hands in mock-defeat.

“You look like crap, kid. Everyone’s seeing you drag your feet around camp. Lena’s looking more alive than you now and considering you didn’t bleed out all your blood… That’s a terrible sign, isn’t it?”

Madeline’s fists clenched in her lap and it must have shown in her expression because Emmett chuckled softly.

“Sorry, too soon?”

Maddie breathed deeper, uncurled her fingers, and calmly reached out for her book. Without batting an eye, Emmett swiped it from the tabletop before she was able to take it, and that was enough to break the last remaining thread of her composure.

“Seriously, Emmett?” She snapped, jumping to her feet and slamming both her palms on the table.

“Sit down,” Emmett said, calmly. He then turned to address the room, injecting a sharper edge to his tone. “And the rest of you mind your damn business!”

The room fell into a tense silence. Gradually, it dissolved into idle chatter. Madeline remained tense, standing across the table from Emmett, unwilling to comply with his request.

“Do you remember saying that you know I recruited you because your skills are useful, and not because I like you?” Emmett asked, placing the closed book on the table, but keeping his hand over it.

“You know what I meant,” Madeline answered. “If I wasn’t useful, what would be the point?”

“There are so many people in Valcrest who are either useful or can be made useful, Mads. It obviously helps that you’re so skilled, but that’s not why I recruited you.” Emmett let out an impatient sigh, and repeated. “Sit down.”

Madeline sat, and Emmett pushed the book across the table towards her.

“I recruited you because you knew how much your skills were being wasted. Because you knew you didn’t want to spend the rest of your life toying with nobles for entertainment. That you could accomplish so much more. That was something I could easily offer, but… I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting you’d get thrown into something like this quite this soon.”

“Trial by fire, I suppose.” Madeline allowed herself a rueful smile. “Finnley made a good point, though. I’ll never have any assignment turn out worse than this.”

“Hopefully not, but the way things have been going, maybe we shouldn’t tempt fate by saying things can’t get worse, huh?”

“I don’t think fate needs an excuse to be a bitch. Might as well try to keep my chin up. For better or worse.” She sighed. “I appreciate you checking up on me, I appreciate people’s concerns over my well-being, but I promise I’ll recover a lot faster without the entire clan hovering over my shoulder wherever I go.”

“It’s a part of it, unfortunately. Dani’s been dealing with it since the news broke that Lena was stabbed. Even now she’s been spending most of her time out in the training grounds. Wakes up, heads there, doesn’t come back until after dark. Sarah said she hasn’t even gone to see Lena yet.” When Madeline frowned, Emmett added. “She doesn’t want to talk about it. Even her mother couldn’t get through to her.”

“How’s Lena taking this?”

Emmett shot her an incredulous look. “You don’t know?”

Madeline rolled her eyes. “She berated me about looking like shit and said she doesn’t want to see me again until I get some sleep. Answer the question.”

Emmett burst into a small fit of laughter. “That kid is ruthless. Damn.” His laughter faded into a sigh and he shrugged. “I haven’t talked to her about it myself, but Eldric said that she says she’s fine. Make of that what you will.”

“I see.” Madeline knew her tone wasn’t as composed as she would have liked it, but it didn’t matter. She was starting to learn that there were few people in this camp who wouldn’t be able to see through a façade, no matter how masterful. Calmly she reached for her discarded plate, pulled it closer, calmly finished the rest of the cold potato she previously pushed away, then stood. “Thanks for checking up on me, Emmett. I’ll see you later.”

[Wolves Camp | Helios 9th, 2526 | Early Afternoon]

Dani inhaled sharply. It was early Helios, still mild compared to the height of summer weather, but the rays of afternoon sun slipping through the forest canopy felt scorching. She tried to ignore the beads of sweat tickling the back of her neck and threatening to drip into her eyes. Discomfort was par for the course and Lena had always made a big deal out of learning to bear it. A real fight wouldn’t afford her the luxury of stopping to wipe the sweat from her brow.

She exhaled slowly, readjusted the grip on her batons, and closed her eyes. A living sparring partner was preferable over a training dummy, but this was what she had to work with today. It wouldn’t pose a challenge, couldn’t fight back, but Dani could still go through the motions of fighting. She opened her eyes and struck the side of the dummy’s featureless head. The blow carried enough force that if it were a person, their ears would be ringing. She followed it with a blow to the dummy’s jaw, then struck low with a jab to the solar plexus. In her mind she recited vulnerable areas of the body. Places she’d been taught to strike. Throat. Hands. Back of the knees. Face. She cycled through them, every blow vicious, meant to inflict injury, meant to make someone hurt. To disable.

“Make them flinch, make them hurt, one moment of hesitation is all it takes to turn a fight around. Create that opportunity as fast as possible.”

Dani cycled through the same series of blows, her mind reliving past spars, adding variation to her movements according to how she imagined an opponent would react.

“…but the easiest way to survive…”

Heat and exhaustion started to weigh on her more and more as she continued going through her exercises. And every misstep, every mistake, was always punctuated in her mind by the sting of a training blade and a monotone, “again”. So vivid that she could still feel the bruises just underneath her skin.

“The easiest way to survive is to avoid direct confrontation.”

The sweat coating her palms caused Dani to lose her grip on the left baton. It impacted the dummy’s blank face and flew out of her hand. “Fuck!” she muttered, and without thinking slammed her empty fist into the dummy’s chest. Her knuckles crushed the thin straw padding and hit solid wood. Pain traveled up through her wrist to her elbow and Dani dropped her hands with a breathless growl.

“Dead.” Lena deadpanned in her head. “Again.”

Dani shook her head, the fingers of her right hand momentarily going slack around her remaining weapon. It almost slipped from her grasp before she tightened her grip once more. She raised the baton and pressed the tip of the weapon to the center of the dummy’s forehead, between where she imagined eyes would be. The facelessness of the wooden figure made her blood run cold in her veins. As hard as she tried, even with the descriptions she’d read on Madeline’s report, she couldn’t give it one. It reminded Dani of how some myths called Death faceless too. Dani forced a deeper breath, forced those thoughts out of her mind, forced herself to turn away from her faceless opponent to collect her missing baton. The myths were myths, the Wolf Hunters were flesh and blood. They could be beaten. They could be killed. She just needed to do better.

“The easiest way to survive is to avoid direct confrontation, ” her sister’s voice repeated in her mind as Dani crouched beside her fallen weapon.

“So why couldn’t you?” she muttered, closing a tight fist around the handle.

“…Who couldn’t do what?”

Dani startled at the sudden voice and, before taking the time to recognize who it belonged to, pulled a throwing knife from her belt, turned and threw it. It embedded itself in the trunk of a tree right next to Madeline’s bewildered face.

“What the fuck?”

Dani sighed and walked over to retrieve the blade. “Sorry, Mads. You startled me. Adria has been coming around to mess with me every now and then and I…”

“You decided to kill her?”

“I aimed for the tree, you’re fine.” Dani chuckled when all she got in return was a disbelieving stare. “I would never attempt real harm on anyone in this camp. Even if they’re an asshole and deserve it.”

Dani pulled the knife free from the tree trunk, quickly inspected it for any damage done to the blade, then placed it back on her belt. “Why are you here?”

“Emmett told me you’ve been spending your days out here and that doesn’t sound the healthiest, so I figured I’d check in.”

The faint spark of amusement that had ignited in Dani’s chest immediately gave out upon hearing the concern in Madeline’s voice. “I’m fine, Mads.”

Madeline crossed her arms, a rueful smile playing on her lips. “The amount of times I’ve been told that the past few months… But I guess being a stubborn dumbass is bound to run in your family, huh?”

Dani frowned. Over the past couple of weeks she’d had the occasional visitor: Sarah, her parents, Franklin, Eldric. Even Finn had stopped by a couple times before returning to Newhaven. She’d been able to deflect well enough with all of them. Even her mother. But Madeline knew how to be blunt in a way that got under her skin and Dani knew she wouldn’t be easily appeased or worn down with misdirects. Calmly, she walked to the nearest weapon rack and tapped it with the tip of one of her batons.

“I’m here to train, Mads. If you wanna give me an earful, at least make yourself useful.”

Madeline wasn’t an Active, her fighting skills weren’t a match for Dani’s because they didn’t need to be, and they both knew as much. Dani watched as the Scout eyed the weapon rack with trepidation, then steeled herself and reached for a pair of batons similar to Dani’s.

“Don’t know how much of a workout you think you’ll get out of me, but sure.”

Dani wasn’t expecting Madeline would so readily accept to spar, and after a moment’s hesitation resigned to the fact that this was a conversation she likely wouldn’t escape. She took a stance and watched as Madeline mirrored it. Dani could feel the exhaustion settling into her muscles from the work she’d already done all morning, but she could also tell Madeline wasn’t well rested. If she were to guess, she hadn’t rested properly in months.

With a resigned sigh, she motioned for Maddie to strike first and prepared to parry her initial blows. “Alright, say what you want to say.”

Madeline’s initial strike was a lot stronger, more precise, than Dani expected it to be. It instantly reminded her of who she was dealing with. They might not be evenly matched, but underestimating Madeline was never a good idea. Dani parried the blows, and countered with her own. With a few exchange blows, they fell into a rhythm.

“We’ve been back for over a week and you haven’t seen your sister once, Dani. You know she’s not out of the woods yet,” Madeline spoke up. “What’s keeping you?”

Dani smirked. “I thought her being out of the woods was the main issue? After all the trouble you went through to get her here.” The quip caused Madeline to shake her head in disapproval and Dani took the opportunity to strike the side of her face. Not as harshly as she had the training dummy, but enough to sting. “Guard up,” she warned, in a tone far too reminiscent of her sister for her own liking.

Madeline groaned from the blow but recovered quickly and retaliated with a strike to Dani’s midsection. It wasn’t quick enough to catch her off guard, however, and Dani easily stepped out of the way of her baton. She brought her own down once again towards Madeline’s face and smiled when the blow was easily parried. “Lena’s safe, isn’t she? She’s home. I think it’s more than fair for me to want some time. Some distance. I don’t know, I just…”

Dani fell silent, lashing out her frustration in a series of blows that knocked Madeline back several steps. Though she wouldn’t deny it was impressive that she managed to keep her guard up throughout and surprising that she hadn’t taken advantage of Dani’s frustration. Clearly she was more interested in keeping her talking than on landing hits.

“Of course that’s fair, but just because she’s safe doesn’t mean…”

Madeline cut herself off, seeming unsure of what she was about to say, and in that moment lowered her guard for just a split second. Dani struck Maddie’s hand with her right baton, hard enough to make her drop the weapon and immediately raised the weapon toward her face before she had a chance to gather her thoughts. “I said, guard up,” Dani repeated, pressing the tip of her baton to Maddie’s face, just under her eye. “Who taught you how to fight?”

“Whoever I could find.” Madeline seemed unfazed by her predicament and raised her hands in mock surrender. “I was meant to undergo further training once I got here, but your mother rushed my graduation because I was needed to scout the village.”

Dani frowned. No wonder Lena was so concerned when the reports stopped coming. She knew this was something only Madeline could do, but she hadn’t considered that her mother would send her out so unprepared. “If Sylvie hadn’t intervened…”

Madeline sighed. “Yeah, your sister told me to walk away if anything went wrong and I hope she didn’t actually think I was going to do that. That’d make her dumber than a damn rock.”

Dani flinched. The levity Maddie injected into her words was so uncharacteristically forced it threw her for a loop. She’d read every report on what happened in that village. The one Maddie sent from Newhaven, the ones her mother penned herself after having in-person conversations with both Maddie and Lena. She wasn’t supposed to, but she had snuck into her mother’s office and read them. She suspected her mother knew she had, as well, and just pretended not to know. Just like she pretended not to know when Dani snuck out of camp to explore the forest. “That was unbelievably stupid of you,” she muttered, lowering her baton. “To disobey. What good would it have done if you both got killed down there?”

Madeline huffed and looked down at her discarded weapon. “Nothing good was ever going to happen there, Dani. But I talked your sister into that mess and I was going to get her out… Or die trying. And that’s all there is.”

“Is that what you’ve been beating yourself up over? No one talks Lena into anything she doesn’t want to do, I thought you knew her better than that by now.”

Madeline smirked, but it was mirthless, bitter. “Oh, I do.” She picked up her baton and took a deep breath. “The one decent skill—well, maybe decent isn’t the right word—but the one useful skill my mother left me with was how to be persuasive. And you don’t do that by talking people into things they don’t want to do. You do it by learning what they do want and finding ways to use that. I was frustrated, I wanted to go down there because I didn’t want to come back empty handed, I didn’t want all my work to be for nothing.” Maddie kept her eyes on the weapon she’d just retrieved, the bitterness spilling from her lips with every word. “So when Lena insisted that it wasn’t worth the risk, you know what I said? I said ‘haven’t you been dealing with this for as long as your sister’s been alive?’. I knew—I know—there are only two people in this world she would do anything for.”

Dani wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting to hear, but it wasn’t that. And in the silence that followed, for a brief moment all she could see was red. She drew a deep breath and it felt like fire filling her lungs and spreading through her veins. Her hands tightened around the grip of her weapons, and when she spoke her voice was so detached from the whirlwind of emotions in her chest it didn’t sound her own anymore. “Guard up.”

Madeline barely had time to heed the warning before Dani struck. She knocked both of Maddie’s weapons out of the way at once, then twisted around and slammed into her shoulder first, knocking the Scout off her feet. Madeline hit the ground with a pained grunt and without giving her time to catch a breath, Dani stabbed her baton into the ground right next to the woman’s head. For a time, Dani remained there, on one knee, her weapon embedded into the earth almost to the hilt. And as she watched fear turn into resignation within Madeline’s eyes, her anger began to subside. “That was fucking low, Mads. But I guess that’s what makes you a good Scout, right? Expert bullshitters; that’s what Emmett always says.”

“Born and raised,” Madeline muttered.

“But,” Dani added, pulling her weapon from the ground. “You didn’t hesitate to jump into a situation most sane people would have run away from. You protected my sister. You got her home alive.” She stood and held out her hand. “That’s what makes you a Wolf.”

Madeline took the offered hand and pulled herself up. “Guess it takes more than just a dip in the lake, huh?” When the quip managed to draw a chuckle from Dani, she took the opportunity to add: “Go see her, kid. What happened back there? What she did to that Hunter… She’s not taking it well. Something’s been eating away at her since and I think if anyone has a chance to get her to admit it… It’d be you.”

Dani let go of Maddie’s hand and rubbed the bridge of her nose. She’d wanted to tell herself Lena returning home meant she would be fine. That she would have time to sort herself out before having to truly confront what happened. But deep down she knew that wasn’t true. “I’m so… Angry.” She turned away and walked to the weapon rack, placing her training weapons back where they belonged. “Ever since it happened I’ve been telling myself to hold it together. Do it for the clan. Do it because you can’t be another reason Sarah cries herself to sleep. Do it because there’s nothing you can do. Because nothing I can think to do will end up any better than…” She trailed off and shook her head. “I know Lena isn’t infallible—as much as she’d like to think she is—but… I don’t… I’m scared of what will happen if I see how much they’ve hurt her. I don’t know what it will do to me.”

Dani heard Madeline’s footsteps drawing closer, and soon her training weapons also fell into place in the rack next to Dani’s. They stood there, side by side, facing the weapon rack as though there was something to see there. Finally Maddie broke the silence.

“I don’t know either,” she said. “But it seems to me you both might have an easier time holding it together… Together.”


“Probably,” Maddie corrected. “I should head back, but… Mind if I stop by again tomorrow? Clearly my fighting skills aren’t up to snuff.”

“Understatement. You ate dirt the moment I stopped taking it easy on you.”

Madeline chuckled. “Then next time don’t. How am I supposed to improve?”

Dani nodded and continued to stare at the weapon rack as Madeline turned to walk away. Once the clearing fell into complete silence, and Dani was sure she was alone, she pulled the batons out of the weapon rack again, and returned to the training dummy.

[Wolves Camp | Helios 12th, 2526 | Early Evening]

Lena wanted to be done with recovery. Being home had its perks; feeling safe was obviously one of them, but it also came with far too much fussing and not a single moment of solitude. Miriam stopped by every morning to check on her, to coax her out of bed and make her take walks around the garden outside. Something that she was now capable of, though she still tired much too easily. Sarah stopped by every day, before and after training. With the air much clearer between them, Lena found her little sister had a lot to talk about. Sarah had eagerly shown her how much her artwork had improved, talked about her training, and told her all about the baby raven she was attempting to convince their mother to let her keep. Lena knew the weight of everything that happened hadn’t fully dissipated, but Sarah seemed much happier, and that was enough to lift her spirits as well. Eldric was the only other constant presence around her cabin, though he left early in the morning and was kept busy until after sundown most days now. It seemed her father wanted the Scouts in charge of patrolling the camp’s perimeter to spruce up their archery skills and put Eldric in charge of their training. He despised being an Instructor and would not stop questioning how she could put up with it. If she were fully honest, she’d have to admit she missed it. It wasn’t always the easiest position to hold in the clan, and she didn’t blame Eldric for being thankful this arrangement was temporary, but a part of her resented not being able to see Sarah’s training through to the end. That she wouldn’t get to be the one to swear her in.

“Hey, you still with us?” Madeline called out.

Lena hummed and realized she’d been staring blankly at the book they were meant to be reading together. “Yeah, just… Let my thoughts get away from me.” When she realized the implication, she sighed and amended. “Not like that, don’t worry.”

“Alright,” Madeline said, turning the page.

Lena didn’t want to admit she hadn’t actually read a single word. It didn’t matter anyway, she’d memorized that book long ago. And she knew she’d already worried Madeline enough when her friend turned up for a chess game and Lena told her she didn’t have a mind for it. They’d instead settled for sitting shoulder to shoulder on Lena’s side of the bed, with a book between them. Eldric had joined them at some point after sundown, sparing few words and taking up his side of the bed with an exhausted groan. He’d remained there; face down on his pillow, only occasionally stirring and seeming oblivious to any conversation that occasionally sparked between the two of them.

From the moment she awoke, Lena had dealt with incessant visitations. She’d never cared to make many friends, but she understood the clan’s need to see her alive and well. She tolerated it, as much as they exhausted her. Maddie and Eldric, however, were the only two people other than her sisters whose presence was more of a comfort than anything else.

“You know, if you don’t want to read anymore you can say it. I’ll come back tomorrow,” Madeline offered.

Lena smiled and let her head rest on her friend’s shoulder. “I’m tired, but you should finish the chapter. It’s a good one.”

“I guess you do have all of these memorized, don’t you?” Maddie asked, turning another page. “I’m almost jealous of that mind of yours sometimes and then I remember it actually sucks.”

“Not always, but… Yes,” Lena admitted. “It mostly sucks.”

“Saved you, though” Eldric mumbled.

“Ah,” Madeline exclaimed, peering over the edge of the book at him. “He lives.”

Eldric’s annoyed mutter was too muffled to be discerned as any proper words, but before either she or Madeline had time to question it, there was a gentle knock on the door. So soft Lena thought she might have imagined it until it repeated.

“Enter,” she said.

The front door creaked open, then closed. Hesitant steps weighed on the floorboards leading up to the bedroom, stopped just beyond the threshold, and after a long moment of indecision Dani peered inside.

“Oh,” she muttered. “I didn’t think you’d still have visitors at this hour, I can come back tom—”

Madeline snapped the book shut, hard enough for Lena to shoot her a reprimanding glare. “No. Absolutely not. Don’t you fucking dare.” She reached over, book still in hand, and used it to smack Eldric in the back. “Get up, big guy. We’re going to go get something to eat. Let these two talk alone.”

Eldric growled when the book struck him. It wasn’t the heaviest of tomes in Lena’s hoard, but it was bulky enough. Still, he was quick to heed Madeline’s words, pushing himself up and sitting on the edge of the bed to put his boots back on. Soon enough he was on his feet, marginally more alert than when he arrived.

“We’ll bring you something back,” he told Lena, reaching out and giving her shoulder a comforting squeeze.

Eldric was the first out of the room, giving Dani a friendly greeting as he passed her. Madeline took the time and care to place the book they’d been reading back in its rightful place on Lena’s shelf. “We’ll finish that chapter tomorrow, then,” she said. As she followed Eldric out of the room she silently and unceremoniously pushed Dani inside and closed the bedroom door behind her. And her sister stood there, looking at every spot in the room she could find except for the one where Lena currently sat.

It stung at first. Lena hadn’t expected Dani to be in her room when she woke up, but she felt her absence nonetheless, and it stung. Still, it was easy to tell herself that Dani needed time, that she deserved it, because part of her didn’t want her sister to see her so weak. Because part of her knew that when Dani saw her, she’d have to see her too. And that thought, more than any other, caused Lena nothing but dread. Sarah’s memories had been easy to contend with. She still saw the world with the outlook of a child. There was a hopefulness and a resilience there to soften the blow. A childish innocence that had yet to be broken. Dani had none of that left.

A soft click disrupted the silence between them. The familiar sound of a puzzle piece being dislodged then snapped back in place. A sound Dani had scolded Lena for once upon a time. It came from inside one of Dani’s pockets, where she wordlessly fiddled with the puzzle the same way Lena once had.

Lena noticed the puzzle missing the day after she awoke. The one object in her home that wasn’t exactly where she left it. Eldric didn’t even notice it missing. Sarah swore she didn’t take it; and Lena knew she hadn’t lied. Until now Madeline had been the main suspect, for the sole reason she was the one person who could get away with lying when she denied stealing the toy. It never occurred to her that Dani might have been the one to take it.

“You can keep that, if you’d like,” Lena found herself saying.

The clicking stopped and Dani sighed. She pulled the dodecahedron out of her pocket and, without looking at her still, placed it on the nightstand.

“I snuck in here the night of the Hourglass ceremony. Skipped the party,” she admitted. “I’m not sure why I took it, I just…” She shrugged.


Dani shook her head and turned her back. And Lena wasn’t sure if she thought avoiding eye contact would somehow keep Lena from seeing, but it happened anyway. She saw her room from her sister’s perspective as she sat on the ground, in the dark. Angry. Screaming to herself. She knocked the toy off her nightstand when she’d slammed her back against it in her rage. It’d fallen in her lap.

“I’m sorry,” Lena said. “I didn’t lie, but I also shouldn’t have promised.”

“Don’t.” Dani’s fists clenched at her sides, then, with a deep breath, she relaxed. “You always try to soothe me like a child. And, like a child, I always let you. But that’s make-believe, Lena. I haven’t been a child since I was thirteen. I haven’t been allowed to be. I…”

Dani’s voice broke, trailed off into a painful silence and the memories flowed through Lena’s mind. Sleepless nights of watching over Sarah’s fitful slumber. Bloody knuckles, split open against training dummies and tree bark, days spent sitting in the clan’s graveyard in a melancholic stupor. Staring at the map pinned to her wall for hours on end.

Madeline’s voice; as clear as if she’d stayed in the room with them. “…there are only two people in this world she would do anything for.”

Dani remained silent and Lena wondered if it was because she knew. If she could tell what she’d been seeing. Her posture was tense, fingers curling up into balled up fists then slowly unflexing, forced breaths increasingly deep until finally her shoulders sagged and she turned around to meet Lena’s gaze. “When I had that talk with mom, about how this whole thing with the Hunters started, she told me that when the time comes she needs to be the one to face them. And whatever happens next would be up to me. I realized then; why my training was so much harsher than everyone else’s, why she makes me hold the clan’s Hourglass every year… And yet she keeps telling me it’s a choice. That I have a choice. As if it’s even fair to put all of this on my shoulders then tell me I’m free to just shrug it off like it’s nothing. Like it hasn’t already been a part of me for years. For my whole damn life.”

“Haven’t you been dealing with this for as long as your sister’s been alive?”

The words echoed and Lena couldn’t tell if it was Dani’s memory or her own this time. It didn’t matter. It made no difference. This was a burden they had both been carrying in their own way.

“Mom didn’t tell the clan what happened to you until after the party,” Dani continued speaking even though Lena hadn’t found words to answer. “I stood there trying not to think of what it would feel like to hear mom speak your name. If she’d even be able to get through it without—” Dani choked on her words, then swallowed what Lena was sure meant to be a sob. “That fucking Hourglass never felt heavier.”

Lena hated how much effort it took to just get out of bed, but she stood. Dani took a hesitant step forward, as though afraid she would stumble and fall, but she steadied herself. She mustered just enough strength to remain on her feet. To pull her sister into her arms and hold her tight. Dani’s arms remained at her side and Lena could feel her fighting against the urge to push her away.

“I should never have promised,” was all she could think to say, still.

It wasn’t enough to make anything right; if that were even possible, but it was enough to break Dani’s resolve. Enough for her to allow this, despite all of her anger. To cling to Lena in the same way Sarah had that first night. As if she might somehow disappear from her grasp. And she could feel it there; the weight of the world—their world at least—weighing her sister down, crushing them both. If she could take it away she would, in a heartbeat, but that wasn’t possible. It was Dani’s, had always been. She would either be strong enough to bear it, or crumble underneath it. That was the only real choice in the end.

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Hey, peeps, Blackbird here! Happy Shadows Rise anniversary! Whether you’ve been with us all this time, or you just found us more recently, just know we appreciate you for being here. And, if you want to have some fun with us on this here date… I’ve prepared a little character quiz you can take. Let us know in the comments what you get. 😉

Here’s to… Hopefully not four more years of Shadows Rise, but many more years of the Shadows Series. I may never truly be done with Valcrest and we hope you’ll continue to hang out with us throughout.


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