The sky hadn’t even begun to lighten when Ari woke. Her eyes fluttered open and she blinked, letting her eyes adjust to the darkness that surrounded her. Her breath rose from her lips in small clouds and she watched the clouds rise and dissipate into the stale air around her. She frowned, not able to discern what had woken her but with the urgency that it had, she was unable to fall back into the warm enfoldments of sleep. Ari slid out of bed, letting her feet hit the cool floor, involuntarily shivering as a spike of cold drifted up her spine. She quickly dressed, pulling on her training pants and a loose shirt followed by her bow and quiver of arrows. Ari knew that she would be out for awhile and that possibly, she would never get another chance to change into something better. She moved quietly to the door, pulling it open and sneaking outside, glancing back at the rumpled sheets she left behind her. A smile crossed her lips and without a noise, she left. The sky above her shone with the stars, the moon casting an eerie glow around the ground. Shadows bowed, reaching their black fingers for the girl as she passed Sean’s cabin. She glided past the door, drifting past like the shadows around her. The woods greeted her with arms wide open, whispering of things unheard and unknown. Ari entered their embrace gratefully, wandering past the trees she had grown to know so well.
It was true that living amongst Wolves was tough work, harder to deal with. They had laws, unspoken and unwritten but as alive as the trees before her now. The stories she had been told of were horrifying, but not true in the slightest. They did not eat their young and drink blood from their victims, in fact they were just plain people. They were as easy to kill as the next person and just as vulnerable to their emotions. However, the strongest person that led them was their Alpha. He was ruthless, a killer and driven by his instincts to protect what belonged to him. He was above, untouchable, and was not afraid to taunt that aspect during their training. Sean was rough, he pushed her until she gave him her all and then he pushed her some more. Nothing she did ever pleased him, she realized with a smirk. Even if she had been lying on the ground, bloodied and begging he would still push her. It would only be through beating him through which she would gain release. It was true, it was tough for her but the thought of finally causing a nick on his arm or cheek, just a tiny scratch would give her the release she needed. That is how she would better herself. And Ari realized, with some taint of horror, that she was willing to do anything to just get a shot at him. Not out of spite, she assured herself. All in all he hadn’t been that harsh towards her considering what she had done. Getting yourself caught after one day of training and talking to a traitor really placed a black mark on your shoulders.
Ari giggled to herself. The whole Pack had challenged her right to be there, to be a pretty little thing that could fight, but with Sesh’s memories floating around in her head they had gotten more of a fight then they had bargained for. She had snuck to him several times during the course of his rapid healing and they had spent time sharing memories and indulging in each other’s company. Those days….were fun now that Stephan and Alex both came as well. She smiled up at the stars, he face going slack and her eyes going blank as a memory consumed her.
[Flashback-Forest: Week one]
“Easy there Sesh,” Ari called holding up her hands to show she was unarmed. The Hunter sat back down, his black eyes still piercing her own. She had found him wandering the woods two weeks ago; still healing even after Stephan had released him in order to search for her. She smiled at him and approached him carefully, smiling as she took a seat across from him on the root of the tree.
“I don’t know what you see in me Ari, you or the other two,” Sesh growled, using the small dagger she had given him to whittle away at a piece of bark. He was carving it into a wolf, something he was determined to give to her before he left. “You do realize that the moment I can walk or run we’ll be enemies once again?”
Ari laughed a light bell like sound before reaching forward to examine his leg. Her delicate fingers undid the bandage and she was again struck by the soft glow of the scar she was looking at. Her fingers trailed over the new skin, amazed by his rapid healing. He pulled away, rewrapping the bandage, leaving the carving lying on the cold ground beside him. It was only then, Ari realized, that he was perfectly capable of leaving, but he was staying for some other reason. They both were startled by the sudden cracking of branches and Ari stood, brandishing her dagger in her hands.
Ari she heard her mind whisper followed quickly by the heavy presence of Sesh’s conscious. If you’re caught here….
Get out of my head! she snarled, pushing against his mind until she felt him retreat. Sesh’s warning was true though. Another wolf blundered into their clearing and had caught sight of the girl then.
“Ari? What are you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at,” the wolf trailed off, his eyes locking onto the boy lying on the ground behind her. “Explain.” His voice changed, from the questioning semi-scolding to the voice that rumbled with anger. She opened her lips to explain then, finding nothing coming forth from her lips. The Wolf was just another kid like her, not much older than Alex or Stephan and she watched as he produced a dagger from thin air. The hell, she thought. It was something most Wolves could do but she still hadn’t figured out how. “Traitor!” he cried, his eyes narrowing as he stepped forward. From the corner of her eye she saw Sesh tap the side of his nose, almost as if he were itching something. Ari smiled ever so slightly, all she had to do was hold out.
“Listen, kid,” she said hurriedly, letting the dagger rest against her hip as he advanced. “I know this looks bad but he’s just a traveler who was injured when I found him…”
“Do you think I’m blind Ari,” he cut her off, “I see the black clothing; you and I both know this is no mere traveler.”
“Alright, you’ve got me there but…”
“You’re helping out the enemy! I knew you were not on our side the moment the Crimson attacks began, I told Sean but he was too blind to see it,” the man growled, advancing now with a look of purpose, “But now I have proof.”
He was getting dangerously close to her and Sesh and so she reacted. He legs pushed her body forward and she collided with the wall of flesh. She stumbled back as did he, the force of the impact knocking the wind from her lungs. Ari cursed, it was running into a brick wall. He was solidly built, muscled, tall and he wasn’t about to lose this fight. His dagger cut through the air and she barely missed it, having to arch her back to avoid the blow to her stomach. His next strike came at her shoulder and she had no choice but to dive out of the way, leaving Sesh exposed. The Wolf threw his dagger, piercing through her shirt and into the ground, pinning her down where she lay. Her own dagger was just out of reach. The Wolf now was advancing on Sesh and she squirmed as the heavy presence fell across her mind again. Her hand, as if on its own accord reached for the Wolf’s dagger, tugging on it with a strength she didn’t know she had and yanking it from the dirt. She pulled herself to her knees, or rather Sesh did and with a flick of her wrist the dagger went sailing through the tree cutting right past the Wolf’s head and burying itself into the tree.
Slowly the Wolf turned, his eyes darkening and his eyes clouding over. He charged like a bull, bellowing out his anger and drawing a broad sword. Ari cursed again and just managed to move out of the way while snatching up her dagger from the ground. Her body turned, her hand rising to block the heavy blow from the Wolf. The impact of the two objects jarred her arm and her knuckles were cut from his blade. He forced he back into a kneel, her arms quivering from pushing against his sword.
Dive now, came a commanding voice. Her strength broke and she dove, just as his sword hit the ground where she had been a moment before.
Turn and face, ready yourself. Here he comes again.
The Wolf turned, but instead of charging he began to circle her, trying to catch her off guard. She held her dagger in front of her, knees locked behind her.
Tell me that’s not your fighting stance. Here. Her body was forced to bend at the knees her lips pulled into a snarl. She quickly returned her face to a mask, wondering how this was happening. The stance felt more natural, like a panther ready to pounce. Suddenly she found that she could be much more agile in a position like this, quicker and stronger. Ari internally smiled, wait till Sean saw how much she had already grown.
Get your head out of the gutter, the voice snarled, he’s coming again.
This time Ari moved gracefully out of the way, using just the slightest of touches with her own dagger to veer the heavy sword away. She danced with him for a moment, always blocking his movements and found herself enjoying the motions.
There was a stinging pain on her shoulder and she nimbly moved away, pausing to look at the thin line across her shoulder. She rolled it experimentally, deciding that she could use that arm to fight but it would be painful.
Stay in the fight Ari, don’t get cocky. He’s not playing games here. Now you attack.
She felt her body lurch forward, her hand raise to knock away the blow that came for her stomach. She slid under his defenses, raising her foot to kick him in the chest. Instead her foot changed courses and it struck the Wolf across the shoulder. The man took a stumbling step back, his eyes widening. She attacked again, this time using her dagger to force him to leave his side open. She slid under a wild swing again, punching him in the side and causing him to gasp. He was weaker on his left side, which she finally saw with a little help from the Voice. It was there she would attack. Ari leaped forward, flying around the Wolf with a flurry of speed, watching him cut and parry her strokes. He cut into her side, not deeply but enough to cause enough pain to where she had to retreat and take a couple of breaths.
Almost, almost. You’re fighting with smugness now, keep your one goal in mind Ari, focus on that and you will succeed. She thought about winning, which was her goal when she felt a metal stab from the mind that was interlocked with hers. Not winning, defending. Never fight to win unless you absolutely must.
Ari watched the Wolf advance when he froze, his eyes widening with a blank expression. Without another sound he wiped the blood off of his sword and wandered back into the forest. Ari watched him leave dumbfounded.
“I think I did it,” she cheered and turned back to face Sesh who was pale. Blood dripped from his nose and he casually swiped it away, pulling his face into a tight smile. “I….didn’t do it did I?”
“Make him leave? No. That was me. You were tiring and I didn’t know how much longer I could keep instructing you so that you’d survive.”
“But….he’ll remember…and Sean,” Ari turned back to the way the Wolf went, her eyes burning gold as her body crouched.
“Ari, darling Ari!” Sesh said laughing; now standing beside her with his hand resting on her shoulder. “I swear to you that he will not remember. Your pal, Stephan is already modifying his memory as we speak.”
A moment later there was a shout and Alex came wandering out of the woods followed by Stephan. Both of them had a huge grin on their face, their eyes glowing with boyish expressions.
“Hey there Trouble,” Alex called which promptly ended with him hopping around clutching his shin. Ari smiled and Stephan’s laugh was joined by the throaty chuckle of Sesh. Her toe would hurt later but it was worth seeing the Wolf hopping around muttering curses directed at her. Stephan embraced the wild child, smiling as he did so and tossing a respectful nod towards Sesh who bowed his head in return.
“Has been dealt with and is now headed in the opposite direction having no memory of this,” Stephan motioned to her and Sesh, “at all. Though if Alex keeps hollering like that…”
“HEY! She hit me in the shin where I have a bruise,” Alex muttered coming to stand beside them with a little limp. Ari laughed and his freckled face scowled at her. “You still can’t beat me.”
Stephan looked from Alex to Ari. She had drawn herself taller, her lips pulled taunt as her eyes flashed. She extended her hand out to him, beckoning with her fingers but not taking her eyes off of Alex’s face. Stephan glanced at Sesh who was grinning like a little boy before carefully drawing his sword and handing it to her. The metal glinted in the light, the simple handle molding to fit her hand beautifully. Her hand flexed around it, adjusting her grip ever so slightly and making sure it was balanced. Stephan watched as she lunged forward, sweeping the sword in a careful arc, it looked erratic but to his eyes he could see that she was very much in control. Alex barely had time to draw his sword, blocking the other blade with a sharp clang. With a flick of her wrist his sword was cast aside and she retreated a couple steps. Ari was never good with a blade and as far as Sesh knew, Sean hadn’t even begun to train her out for it yet. So how was it she was beating the man in front of her? His blade came down and hers rose gracefully to meet his, always knocking it away. She made him chase her, follow her around the clearing as she danced and twirled. Finally she hit his sword across the ground with a clang, watching with mild amusement as Alex scrambled to recompose himself. He made a step toward the shiny metal, Ari following quickly. Stephan saw what she was going to do and how Alex would react, a smile spreading across his face. As Ari turned and ran for her sword he lunged for her legs. Her body hit the ground, Stephan’s sword leaving her hand and sliding out of reach as Alex used his muscular body to pull her back under him.
Ari was thoroughly amused and so was Sesh who was silently directing her, showing the move he would make before he did and how to counteract it in a few heartbeats. Her actions were her own, the memories were his. She wasn’t expecting his surprise attack from behind her though; all she was focused on was getting that sword away from him. Hands closed around her ankles and tripped her, her face falling towards the ground. Her first instinct was to reach out with her hands to halt her fall but Sesh took control, pulling her arms up and instead, having her land on her arms. The sword bounded away and she was quickly yanked back under Alex. His large hand pushed her face into the snow as he straddled her back.
“Let me go,” she growled, wiggling under him with every inch he gave her. His legs closed tightly around her sides, pushing into her ribs and crushing the air from her body.
“Say ‘Alex is the best and I am a pup,’” he laughed pushing her face closer to the snow. Ari spat blood on the ground, having bitten her tongue and growled.
Sesh, she pleaded, help me outa here?
Fine, but you owe me double for this.
A memory flooded her consciousness; it was of two boys wrestling. The younger boy was trapped on the bottom and there was a bigger boy pinning him much like Alex held her now. The boy brought his legs up, slamming into the back of the older boy who was then pushed off balance. As the black haired boy fell forward, his hand slipped and the younger boy, which Ari assumed was Sesh, brought the back of his head up. There was a crack as the two boys collided and a moment later, blood was pouring from the nose of the black haired boy. There were numeral curses as the boy’s eyes watered and Sesh was able to throw him off with a simple roll technique. The memory faded and she quickly realized that she was free of Alex who now was swearing. Blood dripped off of his nose and down his face. Bright, red, warm, it sprang from his nose, from his lip as well, falling into the snow. His fingers were desperately trying to get a grip on the top of his nose and for a moment it stopped bleeding. Ari rushed over, already tearing at the white cloth of her shirt, watching as Stephan was packing snow into a ball. They combined the two and handed it to Alex who promptly placed it over his nose. His green eyes were watering profusely, narrowed and angry.
“The hell Ari,” he snarled, reaching out to grab his sword from Stephan.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, her mind horrified at what just happened. She turned her head to glare at Sesh who was smiling softly to himself by the tree. He was the only one who didn’t seem surprised or worried at that moment. Alex continued to swear, cursing her and the Twins as Stephan sheathed his sword once again. He gently looked at Ari, smiled an apologetic smile before hitting Alex on the back of his neck. Alex fell forward, Ari catching him before his face hit the ground again. Sesh was now staring at them intently, a surprised look on his own face. He didn’t say anything as they picked up the red haired, red faced, unconscious person. Ari was getting blood all over her shirt, making it look like she was injured as well. With each of them taking a shoulder and an arm around their shoulder they were able to drag him forward quite easily. Stephan nodded a respectful good bye as Ari took a moment to wave before disappearing into the woods. Sesh didn’t mind being alone, in fact he did enjoy not having to repel the Hunter instincts that were telling him to go for the girl’s throat. He would finish the wolf before leaving. It was all he could do. He, Stephan and Ari all realized that Alex had probably broken his nose but it was good to see her doing so well. He had almost missed the way Stephan had looked at him curiously; obviously he had protruded into Ari’s mind during the fight and had found him there. Sesh knew that his brother would be back to talk to him. Maybe, just maybe, working with Ari this way would better protect her from the things that were about to come, just maybe. He could only hope to the Twins that this would.
The learning telepathically was an interesting aspect; she could see how it was done, analyze every movement and with Alex’s help in their off hours sparring together she had become quite the defender. Alex was a swordsman, one of the best as far as she was concerned. He still teased her about breaking his nose and she smugly remembered heading to training like that, covered in blood. Sean’s face when she had appeared was something she would always remember.
[Flashback- Assassins Camp: Week One]
Ari bolted from the healer and Stephan, glad that they now had Alex under control and were resetting his nose as she went off to training. She had, however, lost track of the time and was already late. Her stomach roared in protest as she passed the food set out, smiling at a little boy who heard her hunger and saw her pause. He extended a dirty hand, offering his bread to her. He could be no older than five. She took it and scooped the kid up with it. She twirled the little urchin, his laughs raising through the crisp air and causing several of the Wolves to stop what they were doing and look at the girl who was now playing with the boy. She stopped and set the kid down, kissing him on the cheek and smiling as he ran off to get another roll. She swept a few of her blonde hairs from her face before standing up from her crouch and biting into the warm bread. Her eyes closed as the taste hit her and she realized that she hadn’t eaten anything for breakfast, much to her surprise. The kid was now explaining to his friends about the curious recruit, dramatizing his adventure by spinning around with his arms outstretched and squealing. They turned as he motioned towards her, before scattering like the changing leaves of fall. She had been staring at them and she worried that she had frightened them. Her heart raced in her chest, reminding her of more pressing matters. Her feet pounded against the earth as she ran, desperate to get there as soon as possible. She didn’t make any more stops, bolting towards Sean’s cabin. She bolted through the door, looking around the room expectantly. It was empty. She turned and ran again, heading towards the clearing where they normally trained. Before she could go far, Ari nearly ran into Sean as she hurried along, her eyes widening as he looked her over. Her shirt was still covered in Alex’s blood and she hadn’t the time to change it.
“Hi,” she said cheerfully, “I'm ready for my training.”
Sean had been pacing around the clearing counting the seconds and the minutes of his time that his recruit had wasted by being late for training. Of course it wasn't only a matter of him being kept waiting, but also a matter of discipline that needed to be dealt with. Time was precious, a split second could be enough to save or take a life, and assassins were required to do both depending on the situation; being late could be deadly. After about twenty five minutes of waiting Sean began to lose his patience, and decided to go see what was keeping Ari. A little past halfway back to camp, he spotted her at a distance as she almost collided with him. One look at her appearance and he could take a guess at what was the reason for the delay. He didn't let it show in his expression what he was thinking however, rather he raised an eyebrow and stated rather sarcastically. "Oh, you're ready, are you?" He smiled. "That's fine, I don't mind waiting for you to get ready. I have time to spare." With that said he began to walk back towards the clearing, strolling casually and in no hurry at all. "Tell me, if someone hired an assassination on a target that needs to be executed in a specific moment, say right before it enters or exits a meeting place, do you suppose sending an assassin who can't show up for her own training in time would be a wise decision on my part? Or do you suppose I could rely on said assassin on a rescue mission if one of our own is caught in a prison and we need to get in and out within a very small time frame in order to avoid detection?" Sean calmly waited for a reply, only turning to face his recruit as they reached the clearing, his eyes clearly registering the blood on her clothes; he crossed his arms over his chest and allowed a discrete smirk to spread across his features. "So, Kid, what kind of trouble have you gotten yourself into that you couldn't make it in time?" He asked.
After she had composed herself from her near run in with not only the Alpha but her instructor, and had smothered the anger for his sarcasm and complete lack of courtesy, she began to listen. He rambled, scolding her or what seemed like some sort of scolding but it was honestly just too light for her to feel really badly. He insulted her timekeeping and her ability to assassinate, or that’s how it came off but she remained in the light happy time from early that morning.
“Hey!” Ari shouted when they were out of camp, “That said assassin is right here, walking behind you with a very good shot at your back, be careful what you say Sean,” she teased, that little bit of guilt for being late fleeing. “And I could probably get in and out of a cell faster than one of your men can, do it and not be seen, until the last moment. That and I can transport that said person in the cell faster than you could run. It helps to have a horse at your beck and call whenever you need it. That AND I would be a trained killer in a different form.” Ari paused, wondering if she had gotten everything over with when she remembered something about assassinating a person at a meeting. Her heart raced in her chest and she began bouncing behind Sean, “A meeting assassination? Tell me you’re going to send me on one! My first mission?!”
She leapt gracefully over a root, excited to train once again with her adversary, now having something he didn’t have. She silently wished it was to be sword play when she ran into him. She looked up into his face, backing away and mentally reminding herself that the small critter that had made the tracks was not as important as watching the hulking figure of the man in front of her. The moon was strong upon her and it seemed to her that he had gotten bigger, stronger, and more powerful. He quirked a smile at her, or something akin to it and she blushed when she realized that he was waiting for an answer.
“Uhh….erm… ,” she stuttered, trying to think of something that didn’t involve the Hunter she was hiding right under the Pack’s nose. “Alex and I were sparring and I broke his nose and then Stephan and I took him to the healers,” she looked at the bloodied shirt, blushing as it struck her how stupid this would sound to Sean. Ari considered Alex a really good swordsman and she figured that Sean knew of this as well. It would make no sense that she had been able to beat him by giving him a broken nose when she had issues handling the metal blades in her hand. She frowned, already preparing to defend her story to the death if need be.
Sean stood staring his recruit in the eyes for a couple of minutes, absolutely sure that she was hiding something. He wasn't sure what bothered him most; the fact that she was hiding something or the fact that it was so painfully obvious. Finally he decided not to insist on what the lie was exactly, but rather use it as an instrument. "We definitely need to work on your deception skills." He stated simply, raising an eyebrow. "First of all: Identifying yourself as 'said assassin' on that hypothetical of mine was rather stupid since I pretty much stated that person to be unreliable, Ari." Sean chuckled. "Threatening to shoot me in the back doesn't exactly help your case either, but that's a different matter. Unless you're explicitly and officially accused of something, do not defend yourself. It doesn't matter if you did do it and you know the other person is aware. Rather you should have simply treated it as a hypothetical and let the subject move on without taking it personally, because questions like these are built to get a reaction out of you." He stated calmly, finding a small boulder and sitting casually on it as if training was the last thing on his mind at the moment.
"That was only the first stupid thing you said in that response." He continued, digging the tip of his boot onto the earth causally. "You also stated you 'probably' can get in and out of a cell faster than any one of 'my men'..." He paused as if re-examining those words. "Probably means shit to me when considering the fact that this hypothetical in question involved rescuing one of our own. Probably means there is a chance I end up with two assassins dead instead of one imprisoned; when you can say, truthfully without a hint of doubt 'I can definitely', then I'll consider seeing it for myself. I also would not send you on such a mission if you refer to people of this clan as anything less than family. It doesn't matter what qualities you have or how much you improve, until you see yourself as a Wolf, you are not allowed to kill as a Wolf." The last statement was spoken in a harsher, and nearly aggressive, tone, but it changed back to its former calm as he added. "That's the real challenge for you, is it not? Family?" He chuckled. "Maybe for now we should move on to something you can handle a little better."
As he spoke, Sean pulled something from behind the boulder he was sitting on, a bo staff that was just about the girl's height, and tossed it to her. "You'll be using this. I know you were expecting sword play, but there'll be time for that. Today, you gave me idle time so I prepared a little something." He let out a soft whistle and three figures stepped out of hiding and into the clearing. They were all dressed in seemingly equal black clothing from head to toe, and had their faces covered by equal dark masks, and armed with identical staffs. The only difference between the three masks was a colored circle at the center; one was red, one was yellow and one was blue. The three individuals stood before Ari side by side in a semi-circle, apparently waiting for Sean's command. "Two of these individuals are Wolves, one is an outsider. Your goal is not only to survive, but to find out which is the outsider." He then launched a throwing knife onto a nearby tree and smirked. "That... Is for when you find him. Be sure which one you pick."
After saying that Sean simply gave a wave of his hand and three figures spread, surrounding the recruit and attacked at the same time.
Ari dove out of the way, her mind racing. What the hell was he thinking! She wasn’t ready for this and now she had to kill someone. She blocked a swipe at her head, quickly adjusting her hands to the center of the staff, really just a giant stick, before thrusting it forward into the chest of one of her opponents. He staggered back and she yelped as a staff caught her hip with a loud pop. The blue fighter was moving in fast as the yellow recovered his breath, the red seemingly to have disappeared. She jumped as a swipe was aimed at her legs and she cracked the staff over the head of the blue, knocking the fighter momentarily to the ground. The yellow attacked then, leaving her just enough time to raise the stick in an effort to protect her face from the harsh blow. The wood cracked with a painful sound and his staff pushed against hers. She pushed back, her arm muscles straining to keep the wood away from her head. She screamed as a heavy blow connected with the back of her knees and her body dropped to the earth. She rolled, the staff hitting the ground right where her head had been a moment before. The red fighter towered over her, his staff pointed down as he aimed for her chest. Her eyes widened as her leg moved and connected with the fighter’s stomach. He stumbled back, colliding into another fighter who promptly pushed him out of the way. She began analyzing their movements, looking for traits that a Wolf would portray but they all attacked with the same aggressiveness. She took her time, running from them, making them chase her around, and sometimes luring them close to Sean to see if one hesitated. She thought she saw a stumble in the reds footing, a scent of tiring and she dove behind Sean as a staff hit the rock where she had just stood. She bolted between the fighters, getting in a good punch into the yellow fighters face. She turned then, and fought. The three converged on her and she helplessly looked toward Sean who looked as if he was enjoying himself. She blocked a blow to her stomach, returning the knock with one of her own as they took a step forward. She spun, her staff colliding with their shoulders and causing them to reel back. She gained nothing though as the blue fighter cracked his staff over her hand. Her fingers cracked and she dropped the staff.
Ari managed to move out of the way, backing out of the circle and using a hint of her enlightenment to move exceedingly fast. She would have laughed as the red’s staff collided with the yellows head, knocking him flat but she was too busy cradling her hand to her chest. She had to find something, something that was material on them that would reveal them as Wolves. The problem was, getting close enough to search them. The three were still trying to untangle themselves as she tuned to face Sean, her eyes widening with horror and anger.
“You’re insane!” she snarled at Sean, her eyes narrowing. Her eyes flickered over his body, memorising every detail about him that could give away what she was looking for.
That’s when it hit her. The ring. All Wolves had a ring, a graduation ring. Stephan wore his around his neck, had proudly told her that all Wolves received one and that’s what made a Wolf a Wolf. She smiled, but only for a moment before the ruthless beating began again. She didn’t know where her bo staff had gone, as far as she knew it was one of the ones hitting her now. She moved fast, ducking into the chest of the blue fighter and embracing him, pushing him back a couple of steps as the other two momentarily paused. She ducked under his arm, regretting it the moment her delicate nose passed his armpit. She reeled back, nearly laughing to herself. She could remember what Stephan’s ring smelled like: cold metallic, and sharp. However, the way they were fighting now she wouldn’t be able to smell anything for a year if she tried to find the ring that way. Fresh blood was staining her shirt and she tore off the bottom of it to wrap her hand, resetting the bones quickly. The fighters were advancing now and she realized that her staff was leaning against the rock Sean perched on. She had to get past three fighters to get there. The circles on their faces were the target; the knife resting on the tree just inches away from her while her staff would be risky. If she killed the wrong person, she didn’t want to know what Sean would do and so she went for the greater risk. She rushed forward, ducking her head as the blue fighter struck, her fingers trailing over the pockets on his pelvis and hips. Finding nothing she jumped a low blow from the red fighter, her foot clipping him under the chin. His head snapped wildly back, his body slumping forward as his face smashed into the ground. She spun round, her braid slapping her across the face and a moment later her jaw caught a light swipe from the yellow fighter. Her body veered off its course, her eyes watering as her jaw screamed in pain. Her bandaged hand gently cupped it as she began to work it back and forth. It hurt like hell but it had been a light blow and nothing was permanently damaged. She turned; catching the yellow fighter in his shoulder and knocking him back a step. Ari felt alive and she took a step forward, only to have the yellow fighter knock her off her feet. Her back hit the ground and with a groan she lay there. Her lungs burned for air and she greedily filled them, her spotty vision coming back. The red fighter was slowly getting to his feet; the blue and the yellow were slowly converging on her. She laid perfectly still, waiting for them to close in.
The yellow came too close and with an angry swipe she cast a handful of muddy snow into his hooded face. He bellowed, stumbling back and dropping his staff. She took the weapon and threw it at the blue fighter who was now running forward, watching as it struck him. He floated back, as she spun and caught the red fighter’s staff in her hand. It stung blocking a blow like that but it was better than receiving it to the head. She twisted on the staff, grimacing as her palm received several splinters. Ari pushed and with her last effort she was able to push the staff away. She bolted toward the rock, grabbing up her staff before settling into a protective stance. Her chest heaved and sweat mingled with blood. She could see that she was taking too long and that if she kept this up, the fighters would soon take her down. That’s when it really began.
She danced with them, flitting from person to person and running her hands across their moving bodies, dodging and blocking blows. She could have sworn she felt something small in the blue fighter’s chest pocket, something that didn’t quite fit as being natural and the same went for the red fighter. Rings, he mind whispered and she carefully selected her target. She split from the pack, throwing her staff at them with a frustrated scream that knocked them back giving her enough time to reach the tree where the hunting knife lie in wait. She jerked it from the tree, the blade flashing silver as it caught the sun. Her arm went back, her eyes pinpointing the center of the yellow circle. Her arm flashed forward, her wrist flicking and the knife left her hand. It spun through the air: handle, blade, handle, blade, handle, skin. The fighter dropped to the ground with a scream, his hand rising to grasp the end of the dagger that protruded from his chest. The other two fighters fell back, looking at Sean for further direction. Ari walked calmly forward; sure of her choice as she reached down to pull the knife from the flesh, her bright green eyes flickered to the red circle on his face.
Sean watched without a word, and without making a single move, only his eyes followed the movements of the fighters, a snicker or a smirk escaping him here and there; This was honestly going better than he hoped it would, but there were visible mistakes. As one of the masked fighters fell, with a knife to his chest, and the other two turned to him Sean finally stood up and walked absently to the fallen warrior. "Huh." He mumbled. "I honestly thought you'd hesitate..." He then turned to the blue fighter and nodded. "Okay, Ryan, we're done."
As Sean said that, Ryan nodded removing his mask, revealing a bright golden light coming from his eyes, partially hidden behind equally golden hair. As the light faded and the man's eye returned to their usual dark green, the other two 'fighters' disappeared, turning to dirt. He smiled at Ari with a rather playful expression on his face. "They're very realistic aren't they?" He asked, fetching his ring in his pocket and sliding onto his finger where it belonged, then digging around the dirt where the yellow fighter used to be and recovering another ring, which he tossed in Sean's direction, where the Alpha caught in the air, examining it for a moment, and carefully blowing any remaining dirt away before slipping it into a hidden pocket on the inside of his shirt; on the left side of his chest. Ryan simply bowed his head respectfully as he walked past Sean, turning to give Ari a playful wink behind the Alpha's back before leaving the clearing in the direction of the camp.
Sean stood listening to the Wolf's footsteps until they were out of his hearing range. Ryan was a very unusual earth manipulator, he could create up to five exact clones of himself made of sand, dirt, mud or clay, and control them with his mind. They were so realistic that, even while fighting them it was difficult to tell they weren't real. While the official test was for Ari to find the 'outsider' unofficially Sean was looking to see if Ryan could fool Ari, and the man had proved to be successful. He would prove to be very useful.
"You did well." He spoke finally, walking over to the recruit and holding out his hand, motioning for her to give him the knife back. "I honestly thought you'd get your butt kicked before you even got to search them. Next time though, don't waste time calling me insane, alright?" He snickered. "To be honest, this was quite tame compared to what I had to put up with when I started. I didn't even tie you to a tree yet." He stated, his tone absolutely serious as he spoke. Finally he chuckled. "You didn't really think I'd let you kill a real person like this during training, did you? Well, only if you had picked the real Ryan, but... The odds were in his favour I think.”
Ari handed over the knife, wiping a bit of blood from her lip as she bent slightly to catch her breath. He was insane! What if she had actually hit a real person? The wrong person could have destroyed her, a murderer of a member of her own Family. Something struck her then, her eyes narrowing.
“You wouldn’t put a Wolf in danger if you knew they didn’t have the upper hand on me,” she spat, her boots creaking as the mud on them broke, the spell of her semi victory falling to bits before her eyes. Her body ached as she closed her eyes, unsure of the mild shock in Sean’s voice that she hadn’t hesitated. Isn’t that what he wanted? An assassin that could kill without hesitation? Her eyes narrowed as the man left, throwing her a wink before ambling off. She hissed, taking in a sharp breath as her side groaned in pain, her ribs popping and crackling. She wanted to shift, but she wasn’t sure if Sean was done with her for the day, though she wished so as her hand screamed in pain. She was sure she would be covered in bruises and she wasn’t about to let the camp see that she had been beaten again. She tossed the bo staff away, watching as it clattered to the ground as she righted herself again. Alex would have a laugh with this one though he seemed to be the only one in the entire camp who could even talk to her still. Revenge on Sean did cross her mind, it had several times and this moment was no exception. A simple praise was all he gave her, his expression remaining that same smug expression. She didn’t know how she felt about him, she hated his guts right now but the Blood Moon was screaming through her veins. She shook her head clearing all of her thoughts.
“You did well,” she mocked under her breath, kicking the toe of her boot into the ground until she had worked a small hole into it. “Still not the hardest fight you’ll ever have. If Cry’s showed up with a mark on you you’d be dead.” Ari mumbled, her voice low and mocking, not caring if Sean heard or not. “I trained harder. Well then bring it on.”
She growled her eyes focused on the ground, her lips curled into a snarl. Ari thought she had done extremely well. She had survived three fighters, defended herself and had lasted longer than expectations. She peered up at Sean from under her lashes, done throwing her tiny tantrum.
“Are we finished?” she asked tersely. “I have matters to attend to, appointments to keep.”
Sean stood crossing his arms over his chest and waiting patiently for Ari to be done mumbling and ask if they were done. He didn't want to laugh, but he couldn't help a little chuckle. "Are you finished?" He asked, raising an eyebrow. "I did put Ryan in danger, kid. There was always the possibility that you'd pick him." He wasn't in one bit fazed by the clear rage in her expression. He knew that if she didn't hate him right now he wasn't doing his job. "But yes, we are finished. I'm sure you're very busy, unlike me." He chuckled. "Try not to be late next time, lest I get creative again." He stated, beginning to walk out of the clearing as he added. "After all, I'm pretty sure you'd rather have the opportunity to take me down, no?"
“Is that a challenge?” she called, the whisper in her head letting her know that Sesh was there, ready to guide her and he began gently soothing her anger. She heard him make some snotty remark about her looking like a puffed up kitten with her anger and she reined it in. This was the reaction he wanted and her mind drifted to the diplomatic science that Alex had been teaching her about. She stood calm and collected behind Sean, her hands uncurling themselves from the balls at her sides. “It’s the day I beat you that I’ve mastered myself, at least that is what Stephan has told me. Why not today? Today is a very good day to win, no? Or are you too cowardly to face me by yourself and instead will put little boys in harm’s way to take the shot for you, Alpha?”
Her voice rang sharp across the clearing, it was bold, possibly foolish to taunt this in front of a trained killers nose, but she couldn’t resist. She longed for his praise, caved it like a starving animal though he never showed any hint to even saying her name unless it was in scolding. He didn’t respect her and so she wouldn’t respect him, not like she respected Franklin. Yes, he was the Alpha, but she was here to prove herself to him, to show her worth and it felt like she never could. So she had challenged him. Now she stood, tall and proud, her chin held high and her eyes flashing. If he took her challenge, it would be interesting to watch, but if he calmly backed away, she would hold it over him. And so she waited.
Sean stopped in his tracks and stood for a moment, his back turned to the clearing as he listened. He let silence linger for a few moments, but after that time passed, he couldn't help but release the small fit of laughter he had been holding in. It lasted for a couple of minutes before he finally turned to face Ari again, still chuckling. "Would you consider yourself a challenge right now, kiddo? Attempting to attack my pride to get me to do what you want is a rather silly way of challenging someone, no?" He smirked. "I thought you had more important things on your busy schedule? You know, matters to attend to, appointments to keep..." He teased. "I would hate to keep you any longer. Besides... I don't want you whining about being tired or wounded after I beat you." He added, turning back again to leave. "Go get some rest and take care of those little scrapes you have. You don't have to do all at once, Ari. Today, you did well. You can master yourself another day." He stated beginning to walk away towards the encampment. "And as you so love to point out, I am the Alpha, and we're at war, so I don't have the time to properly smack you around right now."
Surely, Sean would've complied and given Ari a beating for her attitude alone, wasn't for the fact that he saw this as great improvement when compared to the kid who first walked in there and lowered her head at the first given scolding. He wouldn't deny he was actually little bit proud of her, but that wasn't something he was at all willing to show so soon.
Ari watched him go, stunned into silence. Her green eyes lingered on his back and a small smile actually escaped her lips. She never whined, it just wasn’t her style, and so she knew that Sean was trying to get under her skin but she didn’t challenge him, not again. Her green eyes lingered on his back, watching him intently. She waited until he was gone before picking up the bo staff and leaning it nicely against the boulders before pulling off her clothes and ripping into a large black wolf. She lay on the ground for a moment before standing up and shaking off the pain. She then howled, a low eerie noise that rose up into the cool crisp air before dying on her lips, her nose working the air before sprinting after Sean into camp. She would go check on Alex.
Her face leaned against the cool touch of the tree, her eyes blinking slightly as her night vision flickered before coming back. Sesh she had lost, she remembered returning to the clearing a couple days later and finding nothing but the carving of a wolf that had a strangely feminine look. It was the size of her hand, very detailed and absolutely a beauty to look at. The she-wolf had her head thrown back into a howl, her nose dipping over her shoulder as the chest was puffed out. One paw was raised off the ground and the tail dipped low before rising in a husky’s curl. There were strange wind like marking carved into the tail and the elbows and knees of the legs. There was a pattern, stained red with what could only be blood under the eyes and along the face to spread across the body in the wind like designs again. Today that wolf sat in her window and only Alex and Stephan knew where it had come from. She sighed and blew a kiss to the wind, sending a quick prayer to the Twins to keep the boy safe. Somehow though, she knew that he was alright because she dreamt of him. Through him she watched the different ways to win a sword fight, an archery competition, a fist fight. Her feet moved deeper into the woods, bringing her further away from the safety of the Pack. She was sure that soon she would be able to beat Sean. Her stamina had increased greatly, her swordsmen ship as well. She could defend from almost any attack without using her enlightenment. Sean had been very very adamant about her keeping her enlightenment a secret. That didn’t mean that she still didn’t practice with it, in fact she did every single day. Stephan had taken control of her private training. She and Salji fought as snow leopards every day and for the first few days she returned beaten, battered and bruised. Luckily her enlightenment hid any mark of when she had injury. She sighed as she remembered the rough day of training.
[Flashback- Assassins camp: Week one]
“Clear your mind Ari,” Stephan growled at her and she lowered her black ears flat against her skull, roaring at him. “You have to become the animal entirely to beat Salji, give in to your instincts.”
Her tail flicked back and forth with erratic twitches. The cat across from her was sitting on his haunches, licking a bloody paw, his eyes sparkling blue as he looked at her face. She curled her lips at him as he purred.
“Ari/ Changer,” the cat growled, “What my bond mate says/tells/ speaks is truth. You must clear/empty your mind/head/soul of human thoughts. Become cat.”
Ari flicked her ear in annoyance; all the animals she had ever communicated with had talked just like this. The annoying choppy voice she assumed came from her human side but perhaps not. It didn’t matter anyways because it made no sense. She had been holding this form almost for a whole day. This was supposed to be her rest day but it appeared that Stephan had different plans. She stood, shaking her pelt and walked past them, her claws digging into the snow under her. Salji stopped the cleaning of his paw and watched her intently.
Stephan watched the Ari-cat leave, watching with intent eyes. He could tell that she and Salji had communicated, her ability to fight him had become better but she still hesitated on the swipes, on every moment she could make. However, Ari had made huge progress. Slowly she was losing herself within the form. She was Becoming, melding her Ari self with her animal. He could tell by the way her ears flattened across her skull and her tail movements. At first she had continued to bark, to growl, to try and speak using her voice but now she was relying more on her body to convey messages and emotions. Stephan was proud of her, she could now hold her animal form for two days without help from any type of bark and he wondered if that could very much help the Wolves. They had no horses and Sean could get a lot more done more efficiently if he was able to ride with a Wolf whenever he needed. Stephan nearly laughed at the thought of the enemy finding itself faced with not only a skilled Rider but a horse that seemed to know how to fight and dodge attacks. War horse, he laughed. Ari turned to glare at him, the shout of his laugh echoing annoying across the snow. As if in scolding, she turned and ran towards him, her body slinking across the ground as her jaws opened. Her body sprang in the air at the same moment Salji saw what she was doing and leapt for her body. Her paws curled up under her as her body twisted out of the way, almost reversing her direction backwards as Salji missed her. Stephan observed the two as they circled each other, Ari batting at the snow in front of her. Both of them had their teeth bared, the white fangs shining like daggers inside the powerful jaws. Fur bristled, hisses and swipes were thrown back and forth, each cat watching the other. Salji pounced first and Ari rose to meet him in the air, standing on her hind legs as she swiped a paw across his face, he returned the swipe with a kick, the giant tails flailing to keep the cats balanced. Salji pushed her back towards the small cliff behind her, forcing her in that direction with vicious claws and teeth. Stephan watched as she fell, tumbling off the rock. He ran forward through the snow, Salji leaping off the small rock himself. He slid off the rock, landing on the ground. What he saw made him smile.
Salji was pressed up against the wall, Ari prowling in front of him, teeth exposed. She leaped forward as the other cat made an attempt to block her. Her jaws closed around his neck and like a small kitten he went limp. She released him a moment later and he stood. Ari had done it. Beaten her foe by giving in. As she had fallen her animal instincts had ripped their way through her humanity and she had landed on her feet instead of her back. After that it was only a matter of moments until she had Salji, a much bigger snow leopard, up against the wall and later in between her teeth. She felt good, proud, and still she was able to flow between forms. The large cat watched appreciatively as she moved back into leopard form.
“Ari/Changer,” he purred, his blue eyes sparking with admiration, “you did well. It is the same for all creatures/animals/ prey. Become/change/ be them and you will succeed/win/vanquish. Stephan/ brother is proud.”
Ari turned, her eyes bright green. Stephan was smiling at her nodding in approval. Her heart warmed, this was about as much praise she received from anyone in her training. Sean rarely gave it, Alex only smiled when she did well, but Stephan was the one who made her heart glow whenever she trained. Slowly her cat form bubbled and her skin seemed to turn inside out as she began to shift. It was a horrible thing to watch, the turn of fur to flesh and the whole time she whimpered and twitched. Stephan waited until she had finished, lying there upon the snow with her eyes closed. He gently removed his cloak, throwing it up into the air and letting the light fabric settle around her. He didn’t touch her just yet; he knew that she was extremely sensitive right now to any sort of contact as her skin was brand new. That explained why scars never really marred her permanently and why marks of trauma faded into oblivion. The only thing that never left her were the markings on her face; if anything they seemed to glow brighter when she changed. He watched as her shivering ceased bending down to touch her face gently when Salji leaped forward, snarling. Stephan stepped back, his lips curling into his own snarl as the cat stood protectively over the body, tail flicking back and forth. His black ears were pressed tight against his skull and the fur along his back rippled. The cat’s massive paws were close to her skin but not touching and Stephan blushed as he realized that her skin was still very sensitive to any stimulation still.
“Alright, alright!” he growled, sitting down in the snow next to Ari and in plain sight of the cat. “You’re so freaking protective of her and she’s not even your species,” he grumbled, scooping up a bit of snow and playing with it in his hands. Salji relaxed, flicking his tail as if in annoyance, before bending his head to blow a kiss of air across Ari’s face. Stephan thought he saw her lips pull into a smile, but when he blinked her face remained perfectly relaxed. He reached out carefully, his eyes focusing on Salji as the cat watched the approach of his hand with intensity. Stephan gently touched the girl’s shoulder, watching as the cat curled his lip, before leaping over the both of them. He padded off into the trees, his fur bristling as he went out on patrol.
“Ari,” Stephan whispered, shaking her shoulder gently, “Come on Ari; we’ve talked about this recovery thing. You need to have it go faster or you’ll never be able to use it on a mission.” He heard a mumble of something, her body slowly rising off of the ground and he quickly averted his eyes until she had pulled the cloak tight around her body. The silver in her eyes was fading, the little tendrils slithering back into her pupil until none of it remained. She blinked, shaking her head and stretching out her muscles with a popping noise. Stephan flinched; he could only imagine the pain she had to deal with though it bothered her less now than it did a while back. Now that the physical part of their training was complete, she could have the rest of her day off, even though Stephan knew she would continue practicing. However as he stood to leave her hand reached up to him and pulled him back to the snow, her eyes troubled.
“Stephan, there’s something I have to tell you,” she said before leaning in and whispering her darkest secret into his ear. His eyes widened with surprise, his lips pulling into a thin line as he realized how dangerous this information could be and making a mental note to bring it up to Sean.
“You’re telling me that this….” he trailed off as she shushed him, her eyes wide with terror.
“You can’t tell a soul,” she said sternly, her eyes locked onto his until he crossed his heart. She felt a little better, such a burden was not one she liked to bear on her own, and as Stephan had taken to her Enlightenment training, she felt like he needed to know. She had told Sean many things, but not this. It was something her enemies could use against her, the one thing she couldn’t heal from. As her mind wandered upon it, she absently stroked the pink scar on her arm.
[Flashback-Assassins Camp: Week Two]
Hooves struck the earth, kicking up puffs like tornados with the sound of thunder. A throaty cry split the air, her head tossing back the obnoxious hairs that had found their way in front of her eyes as the rider on her back kicked into her sides causing her to squeal. She bucked, throwing her hooves forward and nearly throwing her rider. His hands pulled hard on the reins and forced the bit back into her mouth, his whip slapping her flesh. Ari screamed and reared, his hand pushing down on her neck forcing her back down. Her hooves twisted, her body coming to a stop as she pranced in the snow. Her black body was foamed with sweat and her muscles trembled under her. Her nostrils flared and her eyes rolled, the beautiful silver tinged with green. Her rider smiled, reaching down to gently stroke her neck, his large hand offering what little comfort it could against the gash in her side and the bloody spittle that foamed from her lips. She groaned as he gently squeezed with his knees, forcing her to walk forward. The saddle squeezed her body and the unfamiliar weight of carrying someone frightened her. The bit forced her to move around, tugging her lip and pulling her head one-way. Her body obligingly moved. Her tail drooped, her head low as her nose brushed the ground, too exhausted to hold it up anymore. Stephan watched from the tree, having watched his rider try Ari. His eyes burned, and he snarled swinging down from his branch. This was the fifth rider he had tired, the first one to have not been thrown by Ari’s terror. He had no experiences with the horses that were wild except when eating them so he didn’t even bother trying to ride her. His rider turned to stare down at him, his black hair hanging in his face, loose from the pony tail. His face was calm and he rode the Ari-horse with unmatched confidence, his hand on his thigh.
“I told you any horse could be broken, even a mare like this one,” he called tapping Ari on her shoulder with a loud slap. She stopped, and snorted, her eyes narrowing. “I’ll take her now as my reward, just like you promised.” He jerked on the reins, forcing her head to move as he chomped on the bit. She tensed as be bent forward slightly to see her face. The reins went slack. She twisted her head, grabbing hold of the reins and jerking them from his hands. He gripped with his knees as she reared up; tangling his hands into her hair as she leaned even further back. She screamed a challenge, her hooves striking the air as her back hit the ground, her grounded rider now rolling out of the way. It took her a moment to pull herself up to her feet. Her head snaked out toward the man in royal clothes. Her teeth missed inches from his flesh as he bolted, instead grabbing a mouthful of his clothes and ripping them. She snorted with pride as he bolted before trotting back to Stephan. Ari was immensely proud of herself, her eyes shining bright as she rubbed her head against Stephan’s back.
“That’s the fifth guy you’ve thrown today,” he laughed, reaching up to rub the velvety feeling of her nose. “”I don’t think you’re ever going to be ridden well enough by those you don’t allow.”
She tossed her head, whinnying into the air as he gently took the reins that were dragging on the ground. Ari shook, casting off what remained of the riders that had taken her challenge. She knelt, giving Stephan an easy way up onto her back and he took it, gripping lightly with his knees as she stood. He was not like the other riders, treating her like an animal but rather as the person she was. She wouldn’t dream about throwing him as they rode into the Pack Camp. People froze in what they were doing staring up at the big black horse that had wandered so casually into camp with Stephan on top. He guided her toward his cabin, dismounting at the door with a flourish before entering.
Ari stood outside, shaking her head with the jingle of bells, slightly changing her appearance to make her fetlock longer, the feathers around her feet thicker and her hair longer. People were staring curiously at her, a couple kids wandering over to gently touch her muscled flanks. She once again saw the kid who had given her his role and she bent her head to gently bump his hand with her nose. However, before he could respond to the pushing of her nose, the cabin door opened Stephan exited. The kids fled, the Wolves returning to what they were doing in the first place. She tossed her head, taking a step back as Stephan gently took hold of her reins. She peered out from behind her fetlock, her eyes hidden beneath the black tangle of hair. She stood perfectly still as Stephan looked towards her, his thoughts unreadable.
Stephan was proud of the way she looked. She had filled herself out while he was inside, slightly alternating her appearance. She was much bigger than she had been, her sleek coat sliding over her thick muscles. Her coat shone with health and her hair fell down across her withers in neat waves. Her tail nearly dragged on the ground and was likewise wavy. Her huge feet were now hidden by white feathers and on her nose, there was a white mark that almost looked like a wolf’s head. Stephan ran his hand over her withers and flank, her head bowing slightly to look up at him from under her fetlock. He smiled as her body twitched, further showing how toned she was. Ari let out a low whicker, her velvet lips brushing over Stephan’s hand gently as if looking for a treat. Her head then tucked into her chest, her beautiful long neck arching as the light flickered across her coat. Stephan smiled and mounted back up riding her back out into the woods as fast as possible. He pulled her back through the trees, bringing her to a small deer path that wove between the tall trunks. He let her loose then, and she roared forward, running until she couldn’t go any faster. This was the joy of her enlightenment and Stephan had shown her that. There was nothing and no one that could stand in her way, not like this. She felt the power surging through her veins and she tossed her head, hearing the shout from Stephan as he clung to her mane. She didn’t stop. She was free.
Ari nearly giggled, her eyes settling back down to the emerald green shade they normally were. Training with Stephan was always a joy and now that she had grown up just a little, it was normal for her to train with Sean. She had stopped flirting with him, choosing now to remain silent unless spoken to, choosing to answer with a nod or a shake of her head. She had some wisdom now, that was no problem and she had proved herself to many Wolves the night the Crimson had attacked. Just a freaking recruit had turned the tide on a fight, saved two lives and had taken many, in fact it was a night just like tonight, cool, crisp and foreboding.
[Flashback- Forest: Week Two]
Ari woke in a cold sweat, her body twisted and wrapped in the sheet that lightly hid her body. She was alone and her eyes blinked as she adjusted them to the blackness that the Twins had cast across the skies. Something wasn’t quite right and she hurriedly got up out of bed. Earlier in training that morning, Sean had told her something about the Crimson attacking sporadically and a hunt was going out every night to cover the basic inlay of the camp and keep the sleeping Wolves safe. She crammed her feet down into her boots, pulling them up above the knee before securing them tightly around her calf. Her shirt quickly followed and as she hurried out the door, she had snatched up her bow and quiver. The door closed silently behind her and like a ghost she ran past the other cabins, rushing down a small deer path that she had found previously and into a clearing where she kept her greatest treasure. The horse wasn’t sleeping when she arrived, its big black neck curved in an arch as it galloped around inside the small arena she had build from fallen trees. Ari passed through the thicket, raising her hands as the horse came charging towards her, sliding to a stop a couple inches away from her.
“Easy boy, easy,” she whispered stroking the stallion’s neck and rubbing his forehead. She slipped under his chin, wrapping her arms around the sweaty neck as the horse quivered against her. Sean didn’t know a thing about this, neither did Alex and Stephan was too busy readying himself for his trip back up to the mountains to spend much time with her anymore. He was her little secret, her treasure. “Sheggar,” she crooned, backing away from the horse she had trained when she was little. His black hooves struck the ground, his muscled body twitching at every noise as his ears swiveled and his nostrils flared. Something was definitely not right and she quickly snatched up the bridal from the hole in the tree. He took the bit willingly, opening his mouth to receive it and bending his head down so she could simply slide his ears under the leather. She walked over to the gate, Sheggar’s body staying in the center of the ring until she had walked back over. He knelt to the ground as she slid her leg up and over his bare back, her knees gripping his sides as her fingers wound into his mane and gripped the reins.
“Ha,” she hissed, giving him a little kick with her heels and he surged under her. His back body burst through the trees, stretching out as he galloped toward the danger. He was a war horse, her war horse and tears fell across her smiling lips as his hair lashed against her face. Rider and horse became one, moving and breathing together, finding the paths and trusting each other to lead the other to safety. They were a team and Ari felt her spirit soar as together they slowed to a walk. The warning hit her hard then and she dismounted, tying the horse to the tree before climbing up it. From the height she was at she could clearly see the forest floor, but nothing moved. She began springing from tree to tree until she saw a Wolf, perched, his head bent as his bow was drawn. She made it to him, and he started looking up into her face and the bow on her back.
“Two trees over, wait for the signal,” he growled and she obediently moved to do so. She made no sound, disturbing nothing as she used her Enlightenment slightly. She crouched against the oaks trunk, stringing her bow and knocking an arrow.
Ari’s green eyes watched sadly as the Crimson attackers moved silently beneath her tree, following the path on which she had, not only moments before, had been walking on. Her eyes flickered silver and her teeth sharpened, becoming more catlike. It wasn’t until the last Crimson had moved past her, that the signal was given. Her arm pulled back, the bow groaning softly as it stretched and bent before she loosed the arrow. It sang through the air, a soft hum before the scream split the silent air. Her arrow had dug its barbed head into the thick muscles of the man’s back. The party turned, several running back to check their fallen comrade, falling right back into the trap. People screamed as arrows fell down upon them in a rain, several of the Crimson breaking away to flee out of range, some trying to draw their bows and throw daggers up into the trees, only a few of the random shots hitting home as her own people’s screams joined the Crimson. She continued to shoot down into the swarming mass of people, her arrows flying straight and true as Ari made sure she was hitting her targets instead of the Wolves that had leapt from the bushes to join the fray. There was the harsh clash of steal against steal and the gurgle of people whose throats had been cut and their screams never reached their lips. She was quick, her arrows sliding through the air like ghosts, burying their heads into a Crimson who stood behind a Wolf his baked raised and ready to strike the woman down. She saw the sharp nod of thanks from the woman before she dove back in, her blades shining black in the night. Her arrows were able to save a few but still she gagged as a scream punctured the air. Her hand swayed as her eyes caught the horror of the skirmish and the silent glide of a Crimson as it fled into the woods. Cursing she released and arrow but it veered wide and vanished into the darkness of the night. A horse screamed as she sprang from tree to tree, her eyes burning the same bright silver of the nonexistent moon, their light beautiful and deadly. Her clothing ripped and she shifted on the fly, her black body slinking forward as her cat paws dug and gripped at the bark of the trees. Her bow was draped across her chest, between her paws and up along her stomach. Her quiver was tight against her back as well; the stretchy band that Stephan had created had shrunk to tightly hold her quiver in place. She followed silently until the Crimson had come to a stop. His head turned to look over his shoulder, his chest rising and falling as his eyes looked back over his shoulder toward the screaming of the skirmish. She growled and leapt from the tree, landing on top of the warrior and digging her claws into his shoulders. He roared as his body went down, her paws pushing free and back into the darkness of the trees. She completed a quick shift, something she had been privately working on and she drew a long shirt from her quiver, pulling it over her head as she stepped forth from the bushes, her bow resting by her side. He was standing, his sword drawn and ready in front of him.
They circled each other their eyes locking and their bodies trembling, only one was coming out alive. He darted forward and slashed upwards catching her off guard. Her bow had caught the brunt of the force, the blade clipping into the bow and causing a knock into the soft wood. His hand moved quickly, with inhuman speed as he jerked his sword free and raised it above his head. She barely had time to dive out of the way before the sword cut into the earth where she had stood only a moment before. He cut, dove and sliced his way around her. She dodged and dove, each time his sword coming closer to her. With a sudden outburst he charged at her arm before stopping and instead kicking her to the ground. She looked up along the shiny metal of the steel into the eyes of the man as he pressed the tip of his sword into her neck.
“What do we have here,” he taunted, kicking away the bow from her hand as he pressed his sword harder against her skin. “What are you,” he growled his eyes glimmering with mischief.
“I’d rather die than tell you,” she cried as his sword sliced a small line into her neck, her eyes widening with fear.
“You’re a Shifter Ari, a most rare and delicate gift indeed,” the blade of the sword moved up to her nose, flicking away a strand of hair from her face. “You know that no one knows you’re here right, that I could kill you quickly or personally deliver you to Dastan and Indrani and the Wolves wouldn’t know until your blood soaked the sand. Tell me Ari, do you fear me yet?” He smirked, the corners of his mouth twitching with the hint of a smile as moved away, carefully pulling his sword away from her but keeping it in hand. She sat up at his urging, her eyes locked on to him as he paced around her. Something in the way he walked was familiar, the way he moved and it was then that she noticed that his side was torn open and bleeding quickly. She watched until he stopped in front of her again, bending down and burying the tip of his sword into the dirt. He reached up and pulled his hood from his face, smiling wickedly down at her, her heart going cold. Hair fire red, eyes green as pine and skin as freckled as a baby deer’s back, Alex peered out at her from behind his wild hair.
“Like it?” he said spreading his arms and smiling. As she moved to hit him his arms moved, pushing her shoulders back and pinning her to the earth.
“Traitor,” she screamed, her body twisting under his.
“Enough Ari,” he growled, a sad smile crossing his lips, “You mistake me my love. Sean asked me to help guide them here, to bring them to the trap, I was kidding about bringing you to the Crimson, but you shouldn’t be out here. Not alone.” He waited until she had quieted under him, nodding her head before slowly letting her up. Ari settled, willing to believe him because her nose and instinct told her to. Besides, he was bleeding pretty badly and he needed medical attention. He stood with a groan, sheathing his sword and laying his hand across his side. “I need to get back to camp, as quickly as possible Ari, perhaps…”
Ari shook her head, she wasn’t about to shift for this, her pride was hurt and she pulled herself up. It wasn’t a moment later that a Crimson came running from the trees, her eyes flickering to Alex and then back to Ari.
“Alex…stop toying with her and get it over with,” she snarled, her blade dripping with blood. She saw the confused look on Ari’s face as Alex stood and walked over to her, placing his arm over her shoulder. She could hear them whispering, seemingly to argue when he turned back, drawing his dagger from his pocket. Ari pushed herself back, her eyes narrowing.
“Tell me you didn’t give her the whole, ‘Sean sent me here’ speech. You did! And the wolf girl fell for it?” the girl smiled her eyes laughing lightly, “Oh sweetie, you really thought that he was on your side? Well it seems that Cry’s really can get to anyone huh, should have listened to Sean.”
Ari blanched, her heart breaking as her dagger left her hand and collided with the woman’s chest with a sickening crack as blood frothed from her lip as she collapsed to the earth. Alex turned away from the body and a moment later, his life was taken too. Ari turned; giving a sharp whistle as Sheggar came running from the brush. Her ‘War’ horse, reared up, pawing the air before walking close towards her and bowing his head as tears from her eyes fell upon his velvety nose.
She had killed one of her own, but even she knew that Alex had been missing for quite some time. He was her first friend, the best fighter she had known and now he was dead. She wasn’t sure that he would willingly go against his own family after doing so much for her and her training, and so she pulled Sheggar forward, forced him into the kneel that she had taught him and dragged Alex’s limp body onto the black horses back, the arrow that had killed him snapping in two. She pulled herself up behind the body, kicking her heels into Sheggar’s side and riding forward towards camp. On horseback it didn’t take long and she soon rode straight into the midst of the Wolves, all roused from their sleep by the sounds of fighting. Sean was up as well, looking none at all collected this morning. She dismounted, taking a cloak to gently drape over Alex’s dead body. She approached Sean, not bothering to hide her tears as her fingers clutched desperately at the bow in her hand and the reins in her other. Her quiver lay empty across her back, attesting to her joining in the battle but she didn’t care. So it was that she walked forward in the early morn, already her day seemed bleak.
"War always takes a toll." The most spoken phrase in the history of Valcrest it seemed, but never more true. The fighting had died down and now the Crimson that were left alive were retreating back to the desert, leaving their dead behind. Sean was torn between the honorable gesture of letting the mercenaries claim their dead or the gesture that truly expressed his current feelings, which would be using the corpses to feed the campfire, or the forest animals. If he spoke only for himself he'd choose the latter, but as he spoke for the clan he was bound to do the honorable thing and leave the enemy's fallen warriors by their border to be properly laid to rest.
At this point Sean was hearing accounts of injured and dead coming from several Wolves who simply passed him with a word or two of information. Workers had been ordered to aid in gathering bodies and aiding the injured. Those with medical knowledge or skills, were tending to wounds the best they could, since the Pack and the White Shadows were currently estranged. When it seemed everything was going to finally be quiet for a little bit, the ever increasing sounds of murmurs reached his ears and his head turned in the direction they were coming from. In the exact moment he caught sight of Ari and then the sight of the dead body she was bringing along with her, whispered words caught his ears. "Sean... It's Alex." Sean didn't turn to look at the person who gave him the information, but he recognized the voice as being Donovan's. At first glance one could assume that both Ari and Alex had a run-in with the Crimson and he ended up dead. One would assume that, but Sean could tell by just looking at the girl that it hadn't been as simple as that, so when two Wolves moved towards Alex, he waited for them to lay the man down near the fire and for one of them to check his pulse and make sure the man was really dead, but halted them before they took him to be prepared for burial. "Leave him for now." He stated simply. The men flinched slightly, but obeyed.
Sean heaved a weary sigh and walked past Ari, finding Franklin and whispering something to him before finally turning his attention to the recruit. Feeling now the stares of the Pack becoming more numerous and more intense, he simply put a firm grip on her shoulder and led her into the leaders cabin. Once the door closed he released her and moved to sit across the wooden table. "Alright, Kid... What happened? He asked, looking up at her.
Ari watched as Alex was taken away, hearing the mumbles from the Wolves. She didn’t take her eyes off of his body, not even as Sean took her by the shoulder and lead her away into
his cabin. Ari didn’t want him to see her cry and she slowly tried to pull it together sending an angry swipe across her face. The grime for the battle was smeared across her face and she looked at the Alpha sadly.
“I killed him,” she whispered, a horrified sound in her voice.
Sean sighed, a slightly bitter chuckle escaping him at the answer. "Yes, that much I could tell for myself." He went silent for a moment, watching her expression as if trying to read the story in her eyes. "Listen, Ari, You have lied to me a lot since you got here. There are times when I can overlook that, because assassins have secrets and that's just a given fact. No one who wanders in here comes from a happy place or is fond of sharing, so... I overlook things here and there when circumstances allow. This is different, however. You killed a Wolf, and an Active assassin of this clan. I know that, the people outside know that, and had Alex lived whatever he said happened would most likely be accepted as the truth. He can't speak for himself however, do I'm left to decide what the truth is, and your words are all you have to shield you now, so use them wisely. This is not a test; you know what the punishment is for traitors." Having said that he stood and wandered into his room, less than twenty seconds with a bowl of water and a clean cloth, which he sat on the table before sitting again. "Sit down, wipe your face clean, take a breath, and then tell me what happened."
Ari took a sharp breath, or more like several before she had the courage to sit down and reach out for the cloth and dip it into the bowl to wash the grossness from her face. It was only then she realized that she had a gash above her eye brow that was dripping blood down across her cheek and some into her eyes. She held the cloth to it, gritting her teeth at the pain that was there. She knew there would also be a direct knife line on her throat and it occurred to her that she just might be able to manage to pull it off with just that little bit of evidence. When she was sue that she could hold her voice steady she began to tell her side of the story, sticking straight to the details, no emotion in her voice.
“He...was with them, the Crimson and he claimed that you had asked him to lead the Crimson into the trap. I...I believed him and so I didn’t attack until a girl came out of the woods and she was obviously a Crimson. They went off, talking or arguing and I couldn’t hear them. He... came back and then attacked. I didn’t hesitate, I couldn’t they would have shredded me,” she cried, hysteria rising in her voice. She steadied herself again, seeing the look on Sean’s face. “I killed her first and a moment later my arrow pierced his chest. I panicked and shot, but he was already walking toward me. I didn’t stand a chance Sean. If you need me too I can take you back to the woman, show you exactly what happened and then you could see for yourself what happened. Or if that still concerns you then please, by all means send in a telepath to read my mind, I’ll willingly do it too. I would have run Sean, not come back here to face the punishment.”
Her eyes were pleading, her face a mask against the emotions threatening to boil up inside of her as she removed the red blood from the cloth with a quick rinse in the water in the bowl. She focused her attention there, doing the repetitive emotion to help calm her nerves. Every sound made her jump though and it took an amazing amount of energy to keep her from bursting into a cascade of tears.
“He was my friend,” she whispered, flinching as someone walked past the door.
Sean leaned against the table as he listened, unable to conceal just how tired he was, but his eyes were not losing track of Ari for a split second as she spoke. "He was your friend." He repeated, once she went silent. "Alright, well, I already have asked Franklin to read your mind... He says it works better if you don't expect it... And I don't find it at all hard to believe Alex would have done this. As you know, the clan is currently split, not even those on our side are entirely on our side or permanently on our side. It's just how it is." He stated simply. "Perhaps he was your friend up until that moment, Kid. Maybe he would still be your friend today and for a few more days if you hadn't been there. However, the moment he took a stand on the other side, he wasn't your friend anymore. If he was a traitor, then you did the right thing." He stood from his seat and walked to the door slowly. "You'll take Franklin with you to the woman you killed, he'll be just outside and I advise to not go anywhere without him for now." He told her, walking out of the cabin and closing the door after himself.
Heads turned and people stopped in their tracks as they saw the Alpha walk towards the body. Sean didn't give much explanation; all was very clear when he knelt down next to the fallen Wolf and removed the ring from his right hand. As he stood he simply muttered an order to one of the men who had laid Alex down by the fire. "Take him to be buried with the others." Alex was not formerly accused of treason, it couldn't be proven, and the man was unable to tell his side of things, therefore he would still be buried as a Wolf, but he wouldn't take his ring with him to the Afterlife.
Ari kept her eyes on her hands, looking up at Sean as he left and then she stood, placing the rag down on the table. She could have shifted, could have changed to heal the wounds in her neck and face but she would rather the wolves see it and decide that she was innocent. She stared out at the people, taking a steadying breath before stepping out the door and walking straight to Franklin, she didn’t want to have anything to do with Alex’s body but she couldn’t help but spare him a glance. Her lips parted in a silent prayer, a blessing, forgiveness.
[ Wolf Pack Camp]
Ari still didn’t know how Alex could betray them like that, how he could betray her. His death was meaningless and it stung like fire when she thought about it today, salt in a wound. He was just a boy for the love of Twins! Though Ari looked towards the sky, she knew that he was up there, laughing down upon the Wolves with hatred unmatched. That’s what she had seen in his dying breath, a look of triumph and of hatred.
Were her people really that hated? Did they even deserve the hatred directed at them? Ari thought not and she shook her head forcefully as her eyes caught sight of the deep rich brown coloring of a hawk. It made her think of Phantom and her hand reached up to gently touch the beautiful necklace that the strange sprite had given her. They had met in Newhaven on one of her training missions and Ari couldn’t help but to remember how much they were connected. Sisters almost. She stroked the stone, smiling as she remembered that day.
[Flashback-Newhaven: Week three]
“We have received your order, we will dispatch the birds this afternoon with the messages,” the man whispered in her ear. Ari was sitting at the tavern drinking her usual when her man came up out of nowhere to personally deliver the message. However, his appearance was extremely dangerous.
“It’s been too long,” she whispered as he took a seat next to her, raising his finger to alert the bartender to his needs. She took a long sip of her own drink as the bartender slid the man a large glass. The man didn’t pause to snatch his drink and he brought the brew to his lips.
“Delivering the message is my obligation,” he said into his drink before taking a sip. Ari snickered at the look on his face. Only the drink could ruin his day and confuse him. Even she couldn’t screw it up unless she started something here and now.
“Please give the plans to Stephan and me,” she said, finishing her drink quickly.
“I will send the message to Sean and you,” he growled, obviously not at all pleased with having another person involved in the transportation of the information. “It’s very dangerous to be dealing in this and laws are laws Ari. Your little scheme could cost the Pack.”
“You can’t leave a Wolf behind but I’m sure there have been plenty of Wolves that are now rotting in the ground where they shouldn’t be. I’ve left a wolf. I haven’t been arrested,” she muttered, now playing with the rim of her cup. “Besides, Sean is too busy with his own planning to worry much about me. I expect those birds soon.”
Ari stood, tossing some coins down onto the table before noting the small piece of pie she had ordered before she had been disrupted. Sprinkled with some sort of spice, Ari loved the pie. However, she left the thing lying on the table, pushing it towards the hooded figure next to her. With that, she left.
The dealings were done, Sean should receive a bird saying she had completed the task given to her but she would get something much grander. She and Franklin had been in the city for two days. The whole week however was spent in the cities and already she longed for the openness of the woods and the freedom they offered. Blackpond had been the main stay of their trip. It was there that she had learned of the many different hiding places, people she could trust and who to be aware of. It was one of the last places she wanted to return to though. Newhaven she had already explored on her own, and Franklin had let her roam loose, letting her arrange the mission in a tavern of her choosing and to her own devices. She had to contact the man she was looking for, set up the meeting and then make sure everything was in order and surprisingly, the Wolves that were supposed to be keeping an ear out to see how well she could do this hadn’t heard a thing otherwise they would have jumped her or her ‘informant’.
She pulled her brown hood tighter around her face, a smile spreading across her lips and she merged into the market crowd. It was done. She had won without a fight and she wanted to laugh with joy. Her shoulder collided with another and both turned a quick apology escaping lips at the same time. The two girls’ eyes locked and without another word, Ari was dragged willingly across the square and into a side alley. There was no fight to be had, both were just amazed to see each other here of all places.
Phantom had been hit while walking around, buying things for Kirsten and his minions, held on a short leash since she had been initiated to him. There wasn’t any hope for her, not now. Or at least that is what she thought until she had run into the green eyed girl. She snatched her hand, pulling her towards the alley and the girl followed willingly. Now here they stood, face to face, both of them smiling at each other.
“I dreamt about you,” Ari whispered, her smile radiant in the dark.
“I’ve been searching for you for moons now Green Eyes,” Phantom gushed, “Call me Phantom.”
The two studied each other, not understanding really what brought them together but Ari trusted in the Twins and she was willing to embrace their path for her. The two on silent agreement exited the alley, perfectly content to walk along in silence.
“What brings you here Green Eyes,” Phantom asked gently.
“I'm training to become a Wolf,” she answered simply, shrugging her shoulders. They walked the rest of the way in silence, both learning about each other from just the movements and the dreams they had of each other. There were no more spoken words, just a built understanding, and a friendship coming from nowhere. Phantom stopped before the road that led to the Night Hunters residence, tuning back to Green Eyes.
“I have a feeling that we’ll be in touch Green Eyes,” Phantom said with a smile watching as the girl nodded and then began to walk away, “Wait!”
Ari turned back, watching as the woman with silver hair set her basket down upon the ground reaching up to pull something around her neck to give it gently to her. Ari took it and watched the girl disappear before opening her hand to find a beautifully sculpted silver dragon, curling around a ball that at first looked blue but slowly became green in her hand. Ari tucked the trinket into her pocket before melding back into the crowd.
Ari still didn’t know what Sean thought when he had received the bird telling the whole thing. Things that Franklin had told she had been tested on were: set up, presentation, communication, meeting point, exit, and if any of the Wolves had heard about the meeting. She hadn’t so much gotten a good job and it occurred to her that she should approach Sean and ask him that. She smiled and decided it was time to head back when Stephan came bolting from the trees. She screamed but his hands covered her mouth before the sound could actually resonate and awake the sleeping Wolves.
“Ari! Ari, please be quiet,” he cried, eyes wide until she calmed in his gasp. “Come with me fast! We’re going on a trip just for you.”
His eyes were bright so Ari didn’t hesitate to send a sharp whistle to the sharpness of the night. She was answered with a low whicker and a moment later Sheggar came running from the trees. Together they both mounted up Ari’s bow resting across her lap as the rode off into the night. Sheggar loved the night rides and Ari just adored them. She had to be careful though; Sean didn’t exactly like the idea of a horse running around camp. She was uncomfortably aware of how close Stephan was behind her, his body pressed tightly against hers as he guided them toward the place where he was taking her.
It was a long ride and Ari was very happy to dismount. Sheggar was panting and Stephan turned to her, smiling happily at her.
“There’s and Archery game going on in a camp not too far from here. But unfortunately they don’t like Wolves very much which means you’re going to get in there as something else,” Stephan smiled as a grin spread across her face and she listened eagerly as they went over a plan to get her in past the guards. Then after a short time sleeping, the plan was set into action and Ari’s journey began.
Essence didn’t budge when Tala awoke from slumber and quietly stepped over Ess, snout first peeking out the folds of the tent. If someone saw the scene, the wolf stood as if a statue, inching bit by bit until her head only peeked outside the tent, a constant breath cloud appearing from the end of her nose against the early morning chill. One paw pressed against the frosted ground and she paused, ears twitching on alert. The fire was still burning away, crackling through the pine which gave off a comforting aroma even Tala took the time to sniff at before she was fully revealed to the night. Something or someone was about that she was not familiar with, catching the scent her furry body huffed in a muffled bark before she sprinted away from the tent and over the bridge away from camp.
The wolf began her rounds on the outskirts of the camp, passing through a trial that was guarded by archers and such hiding in the trees. “..Look another wolf...” A male voice whispered from above.
“No....that’s Tala, you idiot...” A woman’s voice retorted.
Tala paused, not quite understanding what the voices had said, except she understood ‘wolf’ was another name for her. She sat momentarily on her haunches, tilting her head up at the trees as if she were going to speak to them. A minute of silence went by and when she looked back along the ground, the wolf picked up a curious trail along another set of paw prints in the bits of snow left amidst the traffic that trail received. Tala tilted her head back, blue sapphire eyes closing as she released a lonely, almost eerie howl into the night.
Stephan had mastered the mental training and he had, as she had slept, poured his wisdom into her own mind, teaching her how to calm herself and deal with the pressure that he had a feeling that Ari had made it. The guards hadn’t done a thing as she slipped past, the bow and the clothes she would need were tied nicely to her underbelly, the rope hidden in her fur. When she was sure she had just made it past she slid out of the contraption, letting it fall to the ground with a muffled click. An eerie howl sounded and she raised her black mussel to answer. It was a wolf, there was no doubt about that and Ari assured herself by sending her own call higher and higher until it hit a screaming note. There she cut the call, the sound lingering in her ears, haunting and dark. She nosed at the parcel, her black ears swiveling in the dark when another wolf howled again. Ari felt the longing of her animal instincts and so she ran forward through the trees, hoping that the sight of a wild wolf would make her brave, able to face down her fear. She ran out her eyes burning silver as her tongue lolled from her mouth, colliding with a white wolf. She tried to stop, her paws scrabbling against the ground as the sharp scent of humans overwhelmed her. The snow was hard like ice and she slid across it, yelping as the snow cut her paws.
“Watch out,” she barked, her shoulder connecting with the wolf’s own and knocking both of them to the ground.
Tala wagged her tail when the night cried out in response to her call, bolting forward at her maximum speed, enticed by the sound of kindred she soon tore through naked pricker bushes only to collide with another wolf. A startled yelp escaped her as she spun around in a circle, her claws curled, trying to stop herself, finally rolling to a halt on her side. Tala whined at the black wolf before getting to her feet, instantly her nose began grazing fur, picking up a curious scent causing her to sneeze suddenly. Tilting her head in a slight daze, Tala readied herself on all fours the hair along her back spiking up at attention as she barked furiously at the other wolf. It didn’t make sense to Tala why this creature looked like her but the smell was off...that and she was in ‘her’ territory. After a moment she paused to sniff in the wolf’s direction once again, as if she was second guessing her blue eyes.
Ari wrinkled her nose, her canines flashing in the moonlight as she got a whiff of the wolf in front of her. She smelled strongly like humans but yet there was no doubt that she was a full blooded wolf. Ari quickly came to the conclusion that this wolf belonged to someone at the camp and she slowly wagged her tail, lowering herself to her stomach and crawling forward to lick under the she-wolfs mussel. She whimpered an apology, before standing to her full height. It was with some great amusement, that she was much taller than the wolf that stood a few paces away and she couldn’t help the humanlike laugh that came from her lips. Her black nose slowly worked the air; her silver eyes flashing as she quickly figured out that she would have to remain on her best wolfish behavior if she was to survive this encounter. Oh Ari was sure she could take on the white wolf, erm grey now that she stood closer, but it was the humans that could be within earshot that worried her most. She gave a wolfish grin, not knowing what to say or do.
Aiden knew he should have gone to bed hours ago but he couldn’t get his mind to simmer down. Not being able to shake that feeling Luke left him with, he had taken to the Captain’s words and was keeping an eye on things, which meant watching Ess and Tala from a distance or up close. It was obvious most of the time when he was around, as he wasn’t one for spying and didn’t want to come off as a creep. Ess may not have been fond of it per say, but she didn’t say anything to Aiden about it, not even once.
Aiden had just reached his cabin, determined to fight his insomnia when a familiar howl erupted the darkness, sending a shiver through his spine accompanied by a solemn smile which he quickly shut as his dried lips cracked from the winter chill. At first he thought nothing of Tala’s song until it lingered longer than expected as if it were searching. He turned about, pulling his hood tighter around his neck as another strange howl answered back in a mournful cry. Without a word he shuffled through the snow in the direction of the wolves, a few moments later distant barks blended into a painful icy wind. He would cut across the tiny cliffs and cabins imbedded into the hills, crossing the bridge away from the center of camp.
Tala whined, her tail wagging on and off in spurts as she twitched her head not quite letting the other wolf touch her per say. After a moment, as if satisfied she yipped dripping her head and front legs into the snow, her tail end rocking back and forth happily, pouncing left to right of the her new friend. Prancing circles around the wolf she bounded off expecting chase, drifts of snow catching in the wind as she tossed it aside in her play.
Ari was thrilled. Here she was playing with a wolf, a domesticated one but a wolf none the less. Momentarily she forgot about the contest, finding herself full of energy that she had spent last night training with Stephan. She consoled herself with the knowledge that she was technically training and she leaped forward. She barked, running forward past the wolf, her body stretched out, a black streak against the snow. She tuned, bounding back, her paws slapping the snow. The two played, tangling with each other, spraying each other with snow and spinning and whirling with the snapping of teeth and the sharp barks that cut through the cold air, the ice crystals breaking under the weight and harsh tears that the Wolves dug into the snow.
Aiden followed the sounds towards the river, gushing and bubbling beneath the bridge, he came to a stop just as he crossed, leaning against a wooden pole tied to the rope railing. Carmel eyes sparkled listening to the wolves play in the distance, tiny figures appearing along the tree line as they broke through into a clearing. A sombre smile curled his lips as he stood for some time, basking in the comfort and tranquillity Tala was feeling at that moment. He would have never been able to understand how free she felt at that moment unless he could ‘hear her.’ Tala chose to stay with people for the most part, the profound love she had for her friend Ess was something Aiden may have been a bit jealous of, not every knowing what that felt like. But in that moment he understand how ‘guilt free’ so to speak, Tala felt for giving in to her instincts and focus only on the moment and not where Ess was that second.
Gradually Tala and her furry companion made their way closer to the river, Tala leaping clear over the larger wolf barking as if to command her to follow. The winds had changed and Tala could smell Aiden just at the bridge, her mind reaching out to his as she whined up at him, nuzzling his hand when she finally found her way at his side. Sitting on her haunches, panting heavily her tongue curled out of her mouth like a snake, misty breath clouds fogging in front of Aiden’s face as he squatted beside Tala to scratch between her ears. “Who’s your friend Tala?”
She turned her head barking at the black wolf behind her, showing her the human was not a threat.
Ari was confused. One moment they had been playing through the snow, snapping at each other’s paws and tail and ears, not a care in the world, and then the white wolf had left. Now she was alone. The moon smiled down at her, her black pelt shining in the soft bathe of its light. Her ears priced forward, her black paws shifting nervously on the crust beneath them, the crunch of the snowflakes ringing in her ears. The halo around the moon covered most of the sky, vanishing from time to time behind the light dusting of clouds that helped block the radiance of the stars. Wind ruffled her fur, its cold fingers working its way deep into her pelt and touching the skin with a shiver. The trees behind her lay dead and bare to the elements, having shed their colourful coats long ago. Their white bark was no match for the luminosity of the snow which cast the moonlight back up upon Ari. From afar it looked like she was shining, her silver eyes matching the bright radiance of the snow around her body. The wind whispered through the trees and for a moment Ari thought she caught sight of Salji running through the dark needles of the pines behind her. His bright blue eyes were locked on hers but in a flash of black spots he was gone, and Ari was never quite sure if she had actually seen the big snow leopard or had only wished that he was there. She leaped forward out of her trance as she heard what she thought was the twang of a bow, followed by a scream. Ari bolted after Tala, her much bigger body quickly overtaking the other wolf. The eeriness of the woods fled and was replaced with the pounding of her feet against the snow, the flap of her pink tongue as it lolled from her mouth and the whips of breath that formed little clouds but were ripped apart before they could truly come together. She slowed her mad dash as she carefully picked her way over the boulders and toward what looked like a bridge. She slowly followed Tala across, wondering if it was just another chase before she slid to a grinding halt. Ari smelled the human, her ears flatting against her skull, her lips curling into a snarl before seeing that obviously this wolf knew him. Her black nose worked the air, not relaxing as her body padded closely forward. Tala. So that was the wolf’s name. She shook her pelt and her eyes gleamed. Thank the twins, maybe this would be her ticket in. She extended her nose out to the man’s outstretched hand, shying away as his mind brushed against hers. Het long black tail tucked between her legs, and she whimpered. If the man had been standing, Ari’s head would have been almost level with his hips, but as of now he was below her. Her silver eyes peered into his own, never once blinking as she assessed him, before opening her mind up to him, flooding him with thoughts, sensations, and a sense of being trapped.
Aiden’s eyes widened at the unusually large wolf before him, his fingers not reaching further as he wanted her to come to him. He let her take in his scent, keeping perfectly still expect for his eyes and smile as he took in the strange wolf’s silver gaze catching the moonlight, the comforting orb sneaking peeks out from behind the cloud cover. “Hey there...I won’t hurt you....Tala would kill me.” He snickered, Tala yipping in agreement while she moved to sit behind her new friend, the obvious size difference was indeed quite comical. Aiden’s brows narrowed a bit perplexed as he tried to read the black wolf, getting mixed emotions that were not quite normal in comparison to Tala there. Something was voided from instinct, conflicting with the fear he most certainly saw and sensed. It was almost as if there were two...“What...are you?” Aiden whispered in awe, unable to understand the creature when he should of, just as easily as breathing came to him. Turning towards Tala they shared a brief moment, Aiden simply nodding; it wasn’t in satisfaction but more the passing of any tension that may have lingered inside him of a present threat. “Tala seems to like you....” His continued to whisper, his voice resonant and mellow in a similar tone he took with the children of the camp.
Ari took a step back before sitting on her haunches; she didn’t really know what to do. Communicating her predicament would be difficult and she didn’t want to end up with a dagger in her throat tonight, not while there was still life pumping strongly through her veins. Of course could this, man, attack an unarmed girl? She sniffed the air again, smelling fear and smirking. Yes, it was a wonder to have a Beastspeaker trying to read the mind of a half wolf half human. The expression on his face was priceless as he tried to ask her what she was, as if she could talk. She let him think about it for a moment, still conveying the thoughts that she choose before slamming her mind shut with the soft pine smell of a girl, that and a pair of bright green eyes. Ari smiled, her tail wagging. Yes he would do, strong, brave, curious, not to mention kind of cute. She moved forward again, extending her paw to touch his knee gently with it, almost in a handshake. She sat there for a moment, her silver eyes conveying the almost humanlike expressions on her face. She yawned, her eyes sparkling green for a moment as she reared up screaming. Her body curled inward as she leapt away from the man, her teeth snapping the air. Ari tore at her paw, and when the sharp thorn had been cast out her eyes settled back to silver, the green fading almost as fast as it had appeared. Her form stopped blurring and she settled back into a black wolf. She bowed her head, her hackles rising before seeing the tiny branch attached to the man’s pants. He hadn’t tried to attack her she realized, moving slowly out of her attack position. He probably had been walking through the most deadly thing to her ability and had picked it up along the way. She, being the wolf that she was, didn’t notice it until one of its poisonous thorns was lodged in her paw. She didn’t bother to try and pull it off, if he had been paying attention he would have momentarily seen her human form, but she wasn’t yet ready to shift until he asked her to reveal herself, that or she just got tired of trying to communicate this way. However, the poison was spreading through her body at a surprising rate and she couldn’t hold back as her body began to wither and convulse. Slowly her wolf scream became human. Her fur fell and bones popped and groaned as she shifted, muscle reforming with sickening crunches and flesh with a soft hiss. She lay there in the snow, the wind caressing her bare skin as the moon smiled mockingly down.
Aiden had lost his balance in his squatting position, falling backwards only to have Tala barking frantically before him. One moment the black wolf and him stared into eachother’s eyes, Aiden reading the immense intelligence behind them, a paw almost the size of his own hand resting on his leg; the next a piercing scream of shock and pain unraveled into the night, echoing a haunting array of human and animalistic vocals. One hand instantly rested the hilt of his blade at his side, his other outstretched palm flat, silently signaling the creature to stay back. He couldn’t read what the being was thinking, but he knew others would be stirring from their beds at the commotion. “Tala!...Back...Tala!” Aiden commanded, trying to get the wolf to settle a bit, his jaw dropping when he swore his vision was playing tricks on him. If that large creature attacked him, it would be a brutal fight, one he may not survive, yet she seemed to settle once she realized he was not going to make any sudden moves. “Tala?...Captain!” Aiden commanded in a gentler tone this time, his furry friend not hesitating as she spun about in her tracks, bolting further away from the river into the center of camp. He knew something was wrong...something was not right. Another curdling scream burned into his mind, his hands slapped over his ears wanting to block it out. He pushed himself to his full height, towering over the seizing creature, her body popping and splitting as it changed into the naked image of a young woman collapsed against the snow. At first Aiden stared, a strange smile planted on his lips as it started to make some sort of sense and when he hearted the shouts of others who had awoken and the mixed yips of Tala and what only could be Puppy, Aiden snapped out of it. Drawing his sword in one hand, he managed to wiggle out his jacket, gently draping it over the girl’s body for modesty’s sake, his smile shifting into an annoyed glower. Another stranger in the camp, someone who had quite a useful talent and was able to sneak by unnoticed; except for Tala of course. This would not go over well with the Captain. Mageria had been inspecting the armory, such as it was, when the combined barking of both Tala and Puppy summoned her outside. Grabbing her sword in one hand and slinging her cloak about her with the other, she dashed outside to see what was going on. Tala was dancing in place, claws digging into the snow; once she saw Mageria, she jumped forward to gently tug on her cloak. Taking this as a request to follow, Mageria ran off after her. It was only a quick run over and around a couple cabins in order to get to the bridge by the river.
"Aiden? What. . . . what do we have here?" Mageria was somewhat unsurprised to find what had to be a naked young woman lying in the snow. She knelt down, Tala and Puppy on either side of her, to see what had wandered into camp this time; Aiden quickly reporting what had happened.
"Another lost wanderer? One who managed to get into the heart of our camp with almost no trouble. That's not something I like to hear." Her gaze darted over the girl; child almost. Some sort of wound on her hand, other than that she seemed to be ok beyond being unconscious. No, there was something lodged in the flesh of her hand. A thorn. Almost absently,
Mageria used the blade of her dagger to pry it out; glancing at it briefly before tossing it aside.
With an annoyed sigh, Mageria stood up, glaring downwards. Briefly, she considered letting the intruder just lie in the snow, but she couldn't talk herself into it. There was the slightest chance that she was simply the child of a nearby village that had been lost in wolf-form had come to them for help. So instead she ordered her taken to the medic's cabin and laid on one of the beds; bundled up in blankets, while she perched on the next one over and watched their latest stray carefully with Puppy at her feet and Aiden leaning on the wall nearby. Looking helpless didn't make one helpless and if this girl showed the slightest hint of a threat she would make sure that she was eliminated quickly and cleanly. Ari felt her lungs burn, her body hurt and she couldn’t move. The moon’s light made her shirk away, every sound was like the sharp crack of a whip to her ears, every scent no matter how sweet burned, and her tongue felt dry and cracked inside her mouth. The cold air soothed her hot skin, the fire deep inside her slowly settling as her senses began to dull. She could feel the inside of her body still rearranging, her vocal cords slowly melting away only to be reformed. The transformation was harder to complete and she had to remain perfectly still as everything finalized or she could be stuck. She didn’t will her change faster; she couldn’t have if she wanted to. The poison was making everything so much slower as her body fought against it, trying to stall its progress and rid herself of it like it normally did with her scars. She shivered as she felt the soft fluttering of a cloak around her body, most likely from the man she had only known as a wolf. She knew he was doing it out of modesty but it still made her nerves scream. She quaked as the bark of the dogs and wolf reached her and still having a bit of her wolf voice she whined, begging them to please be quiet and to her relief, they actually listened. Others were around her, she could feel their heat and their breath stroking across the air to her skin but there was one presence that demanded more respect than the rest and so it was there that she turned most of her attention. Her scenes focused there, regretting it almost immediately as the thorn that was hiding in her paw was dug from her hand, causing her to reflexively curl into herself, her hand clenching as her mind fled from the pain that was pressed upon her. She would have fought, would have screamed as the others came and picked up her body and carried her. But of course they didn’t know, didn’t know how much pain the slightest touch caused and Ari snarled when she thought of all the bruises she would have because of them. More blankets, she thought before she disappeared.
Her bright green eyes fluttered open to the warmth of what looked like the medic’s camp and she discreetly smiled to herself, she had made it, whilst shying away from the woman sitting on the cot next to her. She was glad to see that the man was still here, his golden eyes locked onto her, calculating and cold. The two canines were here as well, the wolf’s eyes not as judgemental as the dogs, but Ari knew she had the same smell to the wolf, and hopefully it would remember her as a playmate and not a threat. Her eyes flicked over to the woman, looking in great detail at her, slowly putting pieces together to mark her as Mageria and she silently thanked Franklin for his little bit of training. She knew that Wolves would most definitely not be welcome and she was gladdened that she was not yet marked as a Wolf, and no one could tell unless they really dug for it. The change had ended though there was still a dull ache and she brushed the hair out of her face, her wide eyes peering around the cabin and glancing fearfully at Mageria.
“Thank you, m’lady for rescuing me,” she whispered her voice cracking at the use and Ari blushed, “But, I’m afraid I’m very lost. Where am I?”
Tala at first had sat at the foot of the girl's bed, whining curiously, not sure what to make the change in her 'friend.' Aiden had managed to quiet the wolf, watching absently the strange wolf-girl with a narrowed gaze, yet the flicker of light in his eyes hinted to his curiousity. He kept quiet when the girl spoke, the dark circles beneath his lids giving the obvious clue to his lack of sleep that was piling up on him. Without taking his eyes off the Captain, Aiden whispered, “Captain....it will be light soon..and there is much to do for the archery contest...With your permission, may I by releaved to my cabin before I join the others with the preparations?” Aiden stretched from his position against the wall, “I could get Zane...or one of the others if you'd like?” Mageria tilted her head to the side, studying the young girl for a long moment before she spoke.
"Of course, go get some rest. Don't worry about waking anybody else up, I think it can handle it." She reached down and absently scratched Puppy between the ears, digging in her fingers as the wolfhound leaned into the caress. She watched as the man left, closing the door firmly behind him. Then she turned back, eyes shifting a bit from a dark blue towards a green.
"As to where you are, my dear. That's a bit of a difficult question to answer. You're about half an hour's ride north of Newhaven. There's a village or two within about a day's walk from here. Are you from one of them? We'd be glad to help you find your way back, if you simply wandered too far astray." Absently, she flicked the clasp on her cloak, swinging it off and to the bed beside her. This revealed the fact that she had one sword slung across her back and a short sword at her waist.
"Although, I'd like to hear how you found your way here. We thought we were quite well hidden and instead it seems as if there are signs hung in the trees."
A brief smile suddenly crossed her face. "Although, I will grant that you might want to get something to eat and perhaps something to wear before you tell me the extent of your travels. It is a bit disconcerting to defend yourself while completely unclothed and hungry, is it not?"
“M’lady, that would be kind indeed though it has no effect on my fighting skills,” Ari couldn’t help the glow of colour that momentarily flushed up around on her cheeks. She pulled the blankets closer around her body, a little unnerved at the sight of the two swords but Sean had trained her well and she was sure that she could handle this if it got out of hand. “Excuse me for being bold but, it is hard to fool a wolf. Nothing is hidden to us. I know the forest inside and out and when changes were whispered from the animals and the trees,” she shook her head, a little smile flickering across her features, “It was not difficult to hunt you and your kin down. But the reason I stray into your camp is not for gloating’s sake. My brother has a telepathic ability and there was some buzz about an archery competition, which I see he was not wrong about. Mageria, it would be an honour to test my skills against your archers.”
Her lips pulled up into a brisk smile, her eyes lightning as her hands briskly played with the edge of the blankets. She was studying the room as it were, noting how many people there were in the beds, of course most of them would be injured, but her eyes never left Mageria’s.
“I brought my bow and there’s a change of clothes out in the woods as well,” Ari cleared her throat noticing the almost questioning look on the Captains face, “I don’t travel without some supplies for when I’m human. I was taught better than that.”
Mageria tilted her head to the side, her eyes suddenly flashing from a sapphire to ice blue. There was a, tension to her body; a readiness to explode into sudden violent action. Both the warhound at her feet and the wolf at her side tensed as well, hackles raising and low growls rising from their throats.
"If know my name, then you know who and what I was. Which means that I'm forced to wonder just what makes you feel like wandering uninvited and unannounced into my camp. And if your brother is a telepath, then you cannot say that you didn't know who we are. Which means I really must wonder, what is it you seek here?" A slash of a smile crossed her face. "Please don't lie to me. You've told me once that you were lost and once that you hunted us down. The archery competition was thought up just a few hours ago, which means that you two must have been in the area to begin with, watching us. So. Are you insanely foolish or just insane?"
Ari wanted to laugh, really just throw her head back and let it out, joyous and loud and sweet. However, it would be foolish to do so in front of an extremely anxious ex Newhaven Black knight. Instead she chose to swallow her insane giggles as that question of insanity presented. Ari had never thought about her sanity and now that the question had been presented she really considered it. Crazy? Yes, there was no doubt but it wasn’t because she chose it, but rather because of the foolish mistakes, the reckless decisions she made.
“Aren’t we all a little crazy? I would not say I am insane, just foolish and not even that. Inexperienced.” She could see the Black Knight inside of the woman was restless and the tension was disturbing the animals quite a bit.
“I mean no harm against you or your people Mageria,” Ari tried to soothe, her voice low and almost pleading. “Sometimes it is better to approach with the false appearance of a hurt, lost, embarrassed little girl than to wander into someone’s camp seemingly knowing all that they are. It causes disturbances and that can lead to a knife in your belly before you can truly explain who you are and what you’re doing there. Excuse my actions if you disapprove of my methods but seeing that I have little experience in diplomacy or any human contact, I would say that I was doing pretty well. That is until I misjudged who you were. But that mistake has been cleared.” Ari paused, not letting Mageria in on who she thought she was and what she had been taken for. Her eyes flashed sliver and she sent a calming noise, to high for humans to hear at the two canines and they seemed to settle, if only for a little while. Ari continued, her eyes glowing green again, “As for my brother being a telepath; he was headed up toward the mountains and just happened to be passing by this general aria when the ‘shouts’ from the minds of the people engulfed him. That’s how he learned about the competition and he knows I can hit a squirrel in the eye when we hunt so he figured that I would enjoy being able to show off my skills. Is it a crime to want to come forth and test your skills against the best? A crime to have a dream?”
Ari smiled softly, warmth seemingly about her and she let out a tiny sigh. This was going to be difficult, that much was obvious.
"First lesson of dealing with extremely paranoid people. Don't contradict yourself within five minutes. We tend to pick up on things like that." Mageria didn't relax any, but she didn't seem to be as ready to kill at that moment. "It's no crime to want to prove yourself, but if you can't even keep your own lies straight then you're not going to survive for very long. You might get further in the door, but you'll end up dead all the same." She drew a deep breath, almost forcing herself to relax a bit. There had been some disturbing reports from Newhaven; that combined with a few other things had left her constantly on edge. And now this child had walked into their camp, seemingly for her own reasons, but who knew what they really were? She fixed the young girl with a ice cold glare, studying her reactions.
"Now, I'll give you this one last chance. You say you don't mean any harm to me or mine, but at the moment we have several guests. Given that we would respond to a threat against them the same as we would one of us, can you say that you mean them no harm as well?" “I come only for the games. I swear it, on my honour.” Ari nodded her head gently, bowing it for a moment with respect before her eyes met the cold stare of the woman’s. Mageria sighed. "Very well then. You may stay for the contest. Please stick to the common areas and guest quarters, I'm afraid I don't know you well enough to trust you in the restricted areas. Treat everyone with respect and we can talk again after this is all over." She went over to a cabinet and pulled out a set of cloths, leaving them on the foot of the bed. "Let somebody know when you leave for your gear, have them walk out with you. There's room for you to lay your bedroll in one of the guest cabins." She nodded and turned to leave. "And . . . good luck latter today."
Ari nodded and watched Mageria all the way to the door, shouting a quick thank you at her back before slipping out of the blankets and then sliding on the clothes that were at the bottom of the bed. She pulled them over her, shivering at the feeling. They were stiff and tough against her skin after being a wolf and she couldn’t help the small whimper that worked its way up to her throat. She turned to see that Mageria was still there and Ari huffed out a breath of relief. “Mageria,” she called, walking forward to stand even with the woman, “Would it be alright if we kept my appearance hidden from the others? I don’t want to be seen.”
Mageira raised one eyebrow curiously. "And how did you want to do that? We don't get many visitors as it is, so a new face tends to stand out." She let out a sigh, sending a plume of white upwards, pulling her cloak around her tighter. Things kept getting more and more tangled. "I can see you wanting to perhaps conceal your name or your gender, but there's no way that you're not going to be the subject of some curiosity." War. It was a deadly conflict that should have been avoided. A warning to the people, both good and evil, to the solider, the civilian, the martyr and the victim, it began with a lie and was now fought for the truth. No one didn’t feel its effects. Prophets, liars, honest folk, the leaders, the pariah, the victim and the messiah all suffered and Ari did too. It was not her fault, yet as a Wolf the Crimson saw her just as guilty of murder as those who had run into their camp and slaughtered their people ‘on orders of Sean’. Being the only Wolf within a couple miles around the aria, inside a camp where the Crimson could be as well, and Ari having met a couple before the war, made her incredibly vulnerable. She didn’t like that feeling at all. If they were here she didn’t want to run in and look just like the silly little girl they had met so long ago. An easy kill. No. She wanted to be who she was now but she dare not show her face, better to go as a man during the day as Stephan had suggested, just in case. The trouble was explaining this without being caught, tripping on her words and letting it loose that she was a Wolf. “I know. It’s just that I have made plenty of enemies and acquaintances who may not take kindly to my appearance here. That is if they happen to have wandered into your camp as well. I would just feel safer, with your permission of course, to walk hidden for now, dressed as a man.” Ari knew it probably sounded silly to the woman in front of the door but Ari didn’t know how else to put it and she was already working out an answer for the question that could be on its way, though she pleaded to the Twins that Mageria would be too tired to continue and she smiled at the woman.
Mageria suppressed a sigh and cracked her neck to the side, stretching the kinks out. "If you have enemies that are that angry at you, that might be here in camp, why in the Twins name did you decide to stop by? If winning means that much to you, you're in the wrong line of work." She slowly looked the girl up and down, arms crossed in front of her. "This is the best I can offer. I don't know what you've got going on, or with who. But so long as you don't cause harm to my people, this will be something of a neutral zone. What you all do away from here, that will be up to you. But it won't be happening here. So you can dress as a male if it will make you feel safer." She looked away over her camp, her people resting safely for the moment. "Just remember this. You give me reason to regret my offer, I'll nail you to a tree myself." Her gentle smile didn't touch her eyes, which instead showed a glimpse of the lengths that she was willing to go to in order to protect her people.
Ari nodded, watching the woman leave before slipping out of the bed and walking carefully out the door and back into the blistering cold, or what felt like blistering cold. She found the nearest awake person and walked up to them, putting on her most innocent face while calmly asking if they would escort her around for a little while. Of course they agreed, even bowing slightly, a twinkle in his eyes as he led her out across the bridge. After she had crossed it her feet struck the earth and she ran off. She didn’t stray from her path, didn’t waver until she collapsed into the snow and pulled out the precariously wrapped items. She didn’t quite understand why she needed the boy to follow her and it occurred to her that perhaps Mageria had misunderstood and thought the gear was all outside the camp borders. Oh she would have been even more furious to see that Ari had been able to sneak them inside the boundaries. She cradled the fur wrapped bow and the clothes that Stephan had lent to her before she left and she stood just as the boy rounded the corner and nearly collided with her.
“Hey,” she snapped, her eyes flashing as she felt her bow bend and twist with the collision. He muttered something about trying to flee and Ari laughed and apologised for her hasty reactions before he led her back towards the guest cabins. He showed her in and helped her get comfortable even helping her slice her hair off so it was cut boy short. She watched him leave before settling onto her sleeping pad. Tomorrow would bring whatever came her way; she could only ride the current now and rest her eyes for the Tournament.