The Heart of The Forest 2.11

Shadows Rise-RR

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[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 11th, 2525 |Early Morning]

Lena woke up to Eldric’s snores ringing in her ears. She opened her eyes to a still-dark room and maneuvered her way out from under his arm. When she’d finally called it a night, he was already sleeping; passed out in his clothes and sprawled across her bed as if he belonged there. The past month had been an exercise in patience when it came to accommodating Eldric. He snored loudly, hogged the blankets, and proved himself quite disruptive of her daily routine in general. Not yelling at him for trying to ‘organize’ her books to pass the time one rainy afternoon demanded a level of restraint she didn’t know she possessed; yet despite all the aggravations involved with sharing her private space, she’d gotten used to it faster than she thought.

A small shiver coursed through Lena’s spine as she abandoned the warmth of her blankets. The floorboards were cool on the soles of her feet. Her muscles protested as she stood, stretching. However many hours of sleep she managed hadn’t been enough to purge the stiffness and exhaustion from her body. Going back to sleep now would lay waste to the plans she set in motion the previous night, so she put on her boots and headed outside. There was much to do before sunrise.

Outside the cabin’s walls, faint remnants of winter chill still permeated the air, waiting to be dissipated by the first rays of sunlight. Early mornings after the Hourglass Night were a depressing affair. Nothing created a sadder atmosphere than a camp full of hungover men and women dragging their feet through guard shift changes and party clean up. Breakfast options at the Dining Hall consisted of last night’s leftovers in order to give the staff a well-deserved break. Lena settled on some dried up, blemished pieces of fruit and picked up a few leftover pastries to bring back home. When she returned to her cabin, after a thirty minute absence, Eldric hadn’t stirred. It was only when she began rummaging under her bed that he gave his first sign of life in the form of a stifled mumble.

Lena hummed, moving a few boxes around. “What’s that?”

Eldric groaned from the monumental effort involved in just lifting his head. “Why are you up?”

“Do you really think I’m giving anyone a day off?” Lena found the box she wanted and pulled it from under the bed. “I brought you food from the mess hall and made tea; yes, it’s gross, but drink it if you’re feeling hungover.” She stood, accommodating the wooden box she retrieved under her arm. “I have to go wake someone up now.”

“Is this why you suggested that drinking contest last night?” Eldric muttered, sitting up and rubbing his eyes. “I should have said something.”

“No, you shouldn’t. The specifics of my enlightenment and its side effects are not public business.”

“I thought you were doing it to have a laugh with the new girl, but if you tricked her into getting drunk so you could punish her for it, that’s different.”

Lena frowned. “No one said anything about punishment, Eldric. My job is to assess her abilities. Last night, I saw a rare opportunity to do so under a very particular set of circumstances and I took it. That’s all.”

“I see,” Eldric was less than convinced.

“Cruel but necessary, El. That’s what makes a good Instructor.”

Eldric smiled softly. “Humble as ever.”

“And ever.” Lena smirked in return. “Drink your tea. I’ll see you later.”

******

Madeline’s home was on the other side of camp, in an area reserved for outside Recruits. Lena knocked on her door with a deliberately soft rasp. After no response from within, she cracked open the door and stepped inside. She and Dani had carried Madeline there the night before and, sure enough, she was still exactly where and how they’d seen her last; disheveled and sprawled uncomfortably on the bed. The one-room cabin was surprisingly neat except for a couple of books and an unlit candle which were scattered across the floor. The rest of the room was simple; one bed, a table and chair, and a wooden trunk which Lena assumed contained Maddie’s personal belongings.

Through what little light came from the open door, Lena inspected the book covers; short tales meant for children. They looked old and battered enough that it wouldn’t surprise her to learn these were the only books Madeline had read consistently over the years. Lena made a brief mental note to offer her something new to read. Then slammed the door shut as hard as possible. “RISE AND SHINE!”

Madeline awoke, flailing her limbs like an animal caught in a net and rolled off the edge of the bed, curling up on the floor and clutching her head with a pathetic whimper. “. . . Why?”

“No one said training was cancelled today. I assumed, considering last night’s events, that you wouldn’t be getting up by yourself.”

Madeline laughed, disgruntled, face hidden in her hands. “Of all the people who tried to get me drunk and take advantage of me in the past . . . You’re the only one who actually succeeded.”

“I’ll wear it like a badge of honor,” Lena deadpanned. “You have ten minutes. Meet me by the lake.”

Lena made a point to once again slam the door shut as hard as possible on her way out and the answering curse that resonated inside the cabin’s walls drew a smirk across her lips. This was going to be fun.

******

The sun rose in the time Madeline took reaching the lake. Lena sat peacefully by the margin, her wooden box sat beside her on the grass, waiting patiently to be opened. Maddie glanced inquisitively at the object as she sat down. “What’s the torture device gonna be?”

Lena regarded Maddie’s appearance as she sat; dark circles sat under bloodshot eyes, complexion pale and sickly, and a look of utter misery. “You made it here in ten minutes, I’m impressed.”

“Screw you,” Madeline muttered. “What do you want me to do?”

Lena smiled and held out a flask of water for her to take. “I brought you some food, but I suggest you drink and wait a few minutes before eating anything. Make sure it stays down.”

Madeline accepted the flask and took a long drink of water. It did nothing to ease her disposition. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“It was a stupid question. What need would I have for torture devices?” Lena smirked. “You’ve already done all the work for me last night.”

“You tricked me,” Madeline sneered.

“No. I said I could drink you under the table and I wasn’t lying. You could have simply said ‘no thank you’ and you wouldn’t be in this deplorable state.” Lena reached for the box, pulling it closer and removing the lid. “In fact, I recall both Emmett and Eldric warning you that it was a bad idea.”

“Spare me your ‘disappointed mom’ act, alright?”

“I’m not disappointed. You did exactly what I wanted you to do.” Lena smiled, pulling a small cloth sack from the box first. Its contents rattled within. “It creates the perfect opportunity to test your abilities further.”

“Riveting,” Madeline muttered, leaning closer to look inside the box. “Ugh, come on, you can’t be serious. How is this training?”

Lena chuckled, pulling a wooden board from the bottom of the box. “Not a fan of chess?”

“Not particularly, no. And again, you didn’t answer my question.” Madeline groaned, setting the now-empty water flask down onto the grass as she rubbed her eyes clear of gunk. “It’s like you’re trying to be an annoying bitch or something.”

“I’m not trying, no. And I would answer your questions if they needed answers. It’s pretty obvious what was in the box, what I want you to do, and how this is training. What is there for me to tell you?”

“How does a game of chess help you assess my abilities?”

Lena hummed, retrieving the discarded flask and offering her a bundle of cloth containing a piece of bread and some berries. “Try to eat something.”

“Lena . . .” Madeline groaned, taking the bundle off her hands and unwrapping the food. “You’re not making my headache any better over here.”

Lena shrugged, turning her attention to the bag of pieces, taking them out one by one to set them on the board. “I’m sorry, I thought it was obvious that if your mind is preoccupied with something; a puzzle, a chess game, a riddle, that can make you more vulnerable. Apparently not.”

“Oh. I was just joking, but I guess you were getting me drunk to try and take advantage of me, huh?” Maddie pulled apart a piece of bread, smirking. “And here I thought telepaths didn’t have to resort to such tactics.”

“First of all, don’t flatter yourself. Second, mind control isn’t within the scope of my abilities. I could maybe persuade someone by implanting a memory, but I wouldn’t be controlling their actions.”

“Have you ever done that?”

“Once. Well, I made an attempt,” Lena mumbled, paying excessive mind to each piece’s exact placement on the chess board.

“I’m gonna assume it didn’t end well.”

Lena nodded, meticulously ensuring every single pawn was centered in their respective squares. “I was going to kill them regardless, so I suppose it ended the same as it would otherwise, but it wasn’t a successful attempt.”

Madeline hummed as she tentatively tried a piece of bread. “So, what happened to them? You know, before you killed them.”

“Well, my intention was to plant an unpleasant memory in this person’s past. It didn’t really serve any purpose in regards to the contract, I just figured it wouldn’t hurt to try if I was going to kill them anyway. But it didn’t quite work that way.”

Madeline chewed on another piece of bread, thoughtfully. “How do you hurt someone with a memory?”

“Altering memories, I discovered, requires a lot more finesse than I had anticipated. This person in question didn’t become convinced the memory I implanted happened at some point in the past. They became convinced it was happening now. Their mind completely disassociated from reality. In simple terms; it snapped. Like a dry twig.”

“Sounds like something I wouldn’t want happening to me.”

“Memory manipulation isn’t a part of this training. That would be wildly irresponsible.”

Madeline nodded, eating a few more pieces of bread in silence and then setting aside what was left with a small grimace. “What was the memory?”

Lena frowned, readjusting the position of the white queen for the third time. “Being trapped in a burning house.”

“Talk about unpleasant, huh?” Madeline examined the meticulously placed wooden pieces on the board and, without hesitation, reached out to push one of the pawns forward, letting out a chuckle when Lena immediately slapped her hand away. “You know that if we’re going to play this you’ll have to let me touch the pieces, right?”

Lena snorted placing the dislocated pawn back in the center of its designated square. “You’ll touch it when I give you permission.”

Madeline snickered. “Yeah, that’s what she said.”

Lena glanced up from the chess board, puzzled. “Who said?”

Madeline burst into a small fit of laughter. “Wow . . .” She tried to shake her head and a sharp hiss of pain cut through her giggles. “It’s just tavern humor, don’t worry about it too much.”

Lena shook her head. “Serves me right for not letting you sleep it off.”

Madeline scoffed, rubbing her temples. “But it creates the perfect opportunity to test my abilities and all that crap, right?”

“You’re going to make me regret this decision as much as possible aren’t you?”

“It’s the only way you’ll learn.” Madeline lowered her hand with a resigned sigh. “So are we playing this stupid game or are you going to spend all morning fussing over that board?”

“You know the rules of chess, correct?”

“I’ve played a few times.”

Lena nodded. “I’ll let you pick, then. Whites or blacks?”

Madeline responded by reaching out and carefully turning the board so that the black pieces were on her side, once again prodding one of the pieces, dislodging it. “Your generals are wolves instead of horses. That’s kind of cute.”

Lena rolled her eyes and moved the general back into position. “A lot of people have custom sets, it’s not that unusual. Tom had this one made for my thirteenth birthday.”

Madeline smirked. “Aw. Cute.”

Lena rubbed her left temple and sighed. “Yes. Very cute. Thank you.”

Madeline chuckled. “I met a noble guy in Newhaven who had a real thing for chess. He had a chess board in every room of his house and they were all custom made. It was pretty weird.”

“Huh,” Lena mumbled, assessing the board. “That is pretty weird for a Newhavener, true. Especially a nobleman. You’d think they’d hide their shameful chess habits.”

“You’d be surprised at how shameless high society can be.” Madeline shrugged. “You can go ahead and start, by the way.”

Lena nodded and made her opening move, and silently waited for Madeline to decide on her own approach. Despite her tired appearance and obvious struggle to properly focus, Madeline still seemed unfazed, and unaware, to any of Lena’s attempts to peer into her mind. Over the course of their training sessions, at no point had Madeline responded to Lena’s enlightenment. Not only was she immune to it, but she was unable to detect it in any way. On the other hand, while attempting to read her memories Lena could feel something there. The barrier keeping her from Madeline’s mind wasn’t anything like a wall. It felt more like a deep, impenetrable fog; something that couldn’t be dispersed, broken apart, or attacked in any way. It barely felt tangible. What little she was able to glimpse beyond it was murky and indistinguishable. Her eyes followed the path of the first black piece to move on the board.

“I’ve been wondering,” Madeline said, “If you were trying to look into someone’s memories without them knowing, how do you hide it? I mean, your eyes.”

“Why would I need to hide it? A huge part of the population has unusually colored eyes, or unusually bright eyes. Despite Emmett’s little habit of calling me ‘Bright Eyes’ like it’s a big deal, it isn’t. I never stood out.”

“Before the village lady, no one’s ever caught on to you?”

“No. They wouldn’t unless I really try to dig into their minds. And I wouldn’t do that for the reasons we already discussed.”

Madeline hummed. “I understand that you’re worried about causing harm to people again,” The position on the board was starting to complicate. With both kings castled and safe, she took a moment to consider the position before pushing one of her pawns. “but maybe you should consider that not using your enlightenment probably means you’ll never know how to use it correctly.”

“I have considered it, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to learn at the expense of anyone else’s safety.”

“What’s the problem with practicing on targets if you’re going to kill them anyway?”

Lena frowned. “We’re not sadists, we’re not torturers, we execute. As fast as possible, as painless as possible, and with as much respect as possible. Just because someone orders a contract on a person doesn’t mean they cease to be a human being.”

Madeline winced. “You’re right. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I meant it more in the sense that if you did make another mistake and caused permanent damage, they wouldn’t have to live with it, or at least not for long.” A small sigh followed as she examined the board. “I won’t lie, I find the way the Wolfpack does things very . . . What’s the word . . . Dissonant? I met my share of people who had their hands dirty, who weren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, but none that had this much fervent respect for life at the same time. It’s almost ridiculous. . . . No offense.”

Lena looked up from the board to watch Madeline’s expression, who’d altered her focus to the board. “No, it’s alright. Most people who come into the clan from the outside see it that way. Ridiculous, or . . . I guess, hypocritical. And maybe in a way it is, but the way we see it, there’s a balance to all things in this world. Think of it as . . . Life as we all know it, our reality, is balancing on a scale. Too much of any one thing . . . It all tips over.”

Madeline met her eyes with a small scoff. “You guys really believe that?”

“Stop for a second and think about the Twins. Sun and Moon, Heart and Mind, Fire and Water, Earth and Air, War and Peace, Time and Space,” Lena pulled a silver coin from one of her pockets, showing off the design of an oak tree on one side, then the hourglass on the other. “Life and Death. Why do you think we have them literally on both sides of our coins? Whether you believe Gods existed or not, these are the foundations Valcrest was built upon; there is a counterbalance to every force in this world.”

“If everything has a counterbalance, wouldn’t that mean the Wolf Hunters serve a purpose? Doesn’t the Wolfpack need opposition?”

“Yes and no.”

“How is it ‘yes and no’?”

Lena didn’t respond immediately. She eyed the pawn in the center of the board. All of the crucial pieces were eyeing down on that single pawn from both sides, but she wasn’t sure which of her pieces to begin the exchange with, but she chose her queen side pawn to start. With a flurry of moves, most of the pieces were now off the board, leaving the rooks and one general for each player. “The Wolf Hunters wouldn’t exist without the Wolfpack and in a moral sense, we don’t have the right to hate them for what they’ve done. We are, undeniably, the ones who started this by the mere nature of what we do. It was inevitable that sooner or later someone would come for us this way.”

“But?”

“But a ‘counterbalance’ implies we could co-exist. And it’s clear that we can’t. The scales will tip one way or another.”

“If they just gave up, do you think, honestly, the clan would allow for bygones to be bygones in this case? Even if your mother wanted to lay it all to rest, I don’t think she would be able to.”

“Probably not. That’s the reason we don’t spread every piece of information we acquire on the Wolf Hunters around the camp either. Not even the Alpha can have full control of the clan’s tempers in a situation like this.”

Madeline nodded. “You distracted me, whose turn is it?”

“Yours.”

Madeline turned her attention back to the board, absentmindedly running her fingers through her hair as she hovered her other hand above her general. “So, this village I’m supposed to keep an eye on . . . Assuming they do show up there, then what?”

“Keep track of what they’re doing, who they talk to, report back. That’s it. You’re to avoid any and all contact. You’ve been here long enough, I don’t think I need to explain to you just how deadly these people are.”

“Yes. I’ve sensed your hesitation in letting me go. How many of these tests are we supposed to do?”

“As many as it takes. I don’t have a clear idea of what your enlightenment is exactly and while I can’t see your memories, it’s not like a shield. It’s more like a smokescreen, a deep fog. Sylvie is a far more powerful telepath than I am, there’s no guarantee she won’t be able to get past it just because I can’t.”

“If you can’t guarantee it, that just means that, no matter what, you can’t guarantee it. So, aren’t we just wasting our time?”

“It won’t hurt to be thorough. I don’t want to find out the hard way that we missed something.”

The position on the board had simplified, with only three pawns and a rook for each side. Madeline’s king was active in the center of the board, attempting to push her pawns forward to promotion. If Lena didn’t know the trick, she’d have taken the undefended rook, but with so few pieces on the board, she knew it would guarantee black’s pawn promotion, and ultimately, the win. Instead, she played the one move that gave her any fighting chance. Madeline huffed, knowing that her time was drawing to a close. With only a couple more rook and king moves, Lena could choke out all options for any counterplay. The game was over.

“Damn,” Madeline complained. “I could have sworn I had you.”

“I’m sure you thought you did.” Lena smirked, arranging the pieces back into their original positions. “You’ve ‘played a few times’, huh?”

“You didn’t ask if I was good at chess. You asked if I was a fan and whether I knew the rules,” Madeline said. “But I’m not going to pretend I didn’t downplay my skill level on purpose. I think you do have a thing or two to learn from me.”

“Such as?” Lena asked, turning the board so that the pieces were on Madeline’s side now.

“Such as you shouldn’t underestimate people.” Madeline smirked, nudging one of the white pawns forward “If they’re smart, at all, they won’t hesitate to use that against you.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 11th, 2525 |Early Afternoon]

Dani dragged her feet as she walked to the training area. Under Emmett’s guidance, she hadn’t consumed enough at the party to make herself ill, but she had stayed up far later than it would be wise. Her mother woke her up at lunchtime. There was a note from Lena, slipped underneath her door. It instructed her to eat and then go straight to the training grounds. It didn’t specify she should rush to follow the instructions, and her lethargic state made it so she reached their usual spot almost an hour later than intended, sputtering an half-hearted apology. “Hey. Sorry, I’m late. I’m still pretty tired from the party.”

Being late usually wasn’t a big deal. Dani assumed Lena would scold her for being irresponsible and hold some form of punishment over her head for the next month. She wasn’t expecting Franklin and Wayne to be the ones waiting for her. Not only were they there, but Lena was nowhere in sight.

“Very nice of you to finally join us, Miss Preston.” Wayne greeted. “Don’t worry. Your sister warned us you were likely to be late.”

Dani frowned as she stepped closer. “At least she gave warning to someone.”

Wayne’s smile was even. “Your sister and I had a conversation after she excused herself from the party last night. I left it at her discretion how much to share with you.”

“I don’t doubt it.” Dani drew a deep breath and braced herself. “So, what are we doing?”

“As I said, Helena and I had a conversation and we agreed, seeing as there are plans for you to train alongside Franklin here, it would only be fair for someone to assess how the two of measure up to one another. No telepathy, no trickery; a fight until first blood.”

Dani appraised Franklin. After their conversation last night at the party, she knew there wouldn’t be any courtesies between them this time around. “There have to be better days to do this, Wayne. I barely managed to drag myself out of bed.”

“Your sister insisted there be no spectators this time around. I would think today would be the most opportune time to ensure that,” Wayne pointed out. “However, if you feel you’re not fit to partake in a spar at this time, we can reconvene at a later date.”

Dani thought about it. He had a point. The day after the party was the best time to avoid the usual rumor mill from drawing a crowd. “I can do it. Better to get it over with now.”

As he held out a sheathed sword for her to take, Wayne’s words of encouragement carried a poorly concealed note of sarcasm underneath. “That’s the spirit.”

Dani took the sword from him with a soft aggravated snort. There was no doubt in her mind that Lena purposely neglected to make any mention of this arrangement, either the night before or in her note, but she wasn’t going to complain about it here. She unsheathed the sword and tried to get a sense of its balance. It was heavier than what she would have picked for herself, but after a few swings she decided it wouldn’t be too hindering. “Alright,” she said, turning to Franklin, “ready when you are.”

Franklin nodded, rolling his left shoulder to work off some newly-formed ache from the day’s training. “No telepathy, huh?” He glanced at his Instructor. “You realize that’s easier said than done, right?”

“To the best of your abilities, Frank.” Wayne’s voice carried a clear note of warning.

“Yes, sir. I’m just saying . . . Some people tend to be louder than others.”

Dani rolled her eyes. “What are you trying to imply with that, Smith?”

Franklin chuckled, retrieving his own sword and pulling it off its sheath. “I’m not implying anything. It’s just a fact. You can’t be shouting out your thoughts and expect no one to hear you. If someone’s got ears, there’s only so much they can do about it.”

“Sounds like a cop out to me. ‘Oh, no, it’s not my fault I intruded on your thoughts, you’re the one who needs to be quieter’.”

“If I’m in the wrong, I’m sure your sister will put me in my rightful place soon. As far as I know, though, that’s exactly right.”

“You might want to get used to that idea, Smithy. Especially if you’re going to be dealing with Lena from now on.” Dani took a brief moment to assess that Franklin had a firm grip on the hilt of his sword and unceremoniously slashed at his midsection. It was a fast enough strike to throw him off his balance, but not enough that he wasn’t able to deflect it. “She has no qualms about putting anyone in their rightful place.” The last word came out strained as she evaded a slice from Franklin’s sword, bringing her own blade upwards towards his face forcing him back.

Unlike their first spar, this time Dani knew what she was up against and made sure to stay on the offensive as much as possible, taking away Franklin’s breathing room with each sequential strike. While Franklin hadn’t anticipated this level of intensity, it didn’t take long for him to adjust and push back. He was still stronger than her, every swing of his sword was heavy and purposeful. Every block felt as though she was trying to chip away at solid steel. Hers were, in contrast, fluid and precise, opting to dodge rather than take the brunt of his strikes. He was stronger, but she was faster, more accurate with each slash of her sword. It created a precarious balancing act, where one tiny mistake on either side would bring the fight to an abrupt end.

“So,” Franklin spoke up, panting as he moved out of the way of her blade. “You said Lena won’t hesitate to put anyone in their rightful place. I gotta wonder what that means for you.”

Dani frowned, trying to process his words while keeping her focus on the fight. “What?”

“I mean, does anyone even know what your rightful place is supposed to be?”

It took a moment for her to process his words fully, but once she did, they burrowed into her thoughts with such force it felt as though the rest of the world blinked out of existence. When she finally managed to bring her focus back to the present it was too late to recover. Her attempt to dodge Franklin’s sword came in a fraction of a second too late and the tip of the blade traced a thin line along her jaw. Her balance thrown, Dani stumbled backwards, barely keeping her feet, lowering her sword once she felt the warm trickle of blood trailing down her chin. She wiped the blood away with a soft curse.

Franklin grinned. “Sorry, Runt. Looks like I got the better of you this time.”

Wayne had been watching them closely from the sidelines, arms crossed in front of his chest, eyes thoroughly inspecting their every move. When they lowered their swords he clapped, loudly, drawing the two recruits’ attention away from one another and interrupting the rude remark about to come out of Dani’s mouth. “Excellent. Very well done indeed.” The old man’s tone quickly turned from praise to one of reprimand. “But I believe I said ‘no trickery’, Mr. Smith. If you thought that instruction only applied to your opponent, I’m afraid you were sorely mistaken. So, if you would both be so kind as to start again. No talking this time.”

“Son of a bitch,” Dani muttered.

“The longer you spend stomping your feet, the longer we’ll all have to be here, Miss Preston. And some of us have been here since early this morning, so, please be so kind as to focus on the task at hand.”

“Yes, sir.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 11th, 2525 |Sundown]

The day was close to an end by the time Wayne Matthison was satisfied with what he’d seen from the two fighting Recruits, although, his exact words were, “It’ll do for now”. It didn’t matter who came out the victor, Wayne found some fault with their performance and commanded them to fight again. At one point he even claimed they needed to start over because a squirrel distracted him from witnessing the final blow. His, “sincerest apologies,” had been far from sincere. After her initial protest, her complaints became nothing but white noise to the old bastard and she bit back any trace of anger. Even if something hurt, even when she inevitably hit the ground shoulder-first; she refused to let it affect her fighting. All despite the mounting urge to bash someone’s face with the hilt of her sword. Thankfully for Franklin, she wasn’t too angry to recognize that he shouldn’t be that person. Wayne made them spar so many times by that point, even beating him wouldn’t bring her any form of satisfaction. At the end of it all, before they finally parted ways, Franklin praised her restraint and remarked, amused, that he’d never even heard some of the insults she had been thinking up.

Admittedly, not all of those insults were meant for Wayne. The first thing Dani did upon returning to camp was look for Lena. However, her sister wasn’t home or in her usual reading spots by the river. She hadn’t been seen at the Alpha’s cabin since early that morning. She wasn’t in the dining hall either. After a mortified Eldric admitted in front of his father that he also hadn’t seen her since earlier that morning, Dani finally gave up her search and headed for the lake. She would see Lena again sooner or later. What she really needed, after the day she had, was some peace and quiet.

Clearly, fate must have had other plans, because the first thing Dani heard upon reaching the lake was conversation.

“I understand being angry, but honestly, he should have been angry at the right person. It’s hard to sympathize with the guy judging by how he acts,” Madeline said.

“I would love not to take it personally, but I think that ended when he said my mother should have drowned me in the river,” Lena answered.

“Wow, he actually said that? Holy Twins.”

“To my face. When I was nine. So yeah, it really isn’t your run-of-the-mill parental disapproval. When I say Eldric’s father hates me, I mean the man legitimately hates me.”

“Fuck him. I mean, there isn’t actually anything he can do about it, right? Let the guy bitch and moan all he wants.”

“If it was up to me, sure, but—” Lena stopped talking when Dani stepped into view and breathed out a small sigh. “We should finish this game some other day. I’ll remember the placement of all the pieces.”

Madeline turned her head to look at Dani and started to utter a greeting when she noticed the way she was glaring daggers at her sister. “Yes. Yes, we should. I’ll, uh, I’ll see you two tomorrow.”

“Mhm,” Lena hummed, starting to collect the chess pieces from the board. “Have a good night.”

“You guys too,” Maddie answered, turning to Dani as she walked past her to leave. “Remember: she’s your sister, you love her, and this is a murder you can’t get away with.”

Dani was unmoved by the humorous attempt, her smile stiff as she answered. “Good night, Maddie.”

Madeline patted her on the shoulder as she passed, leaving them with unexpectedly rushed steps considering the drinking she’d done last night. Dani stood, silently watching as Lena put away her chess set.

“It looks like your day went about as well as expected,” Lena said.

“Good to know at least one of us was expecting it,” Dani muttered. “You left me a note, you could’ve . . .”

“I chose not to tell you. Just like I chose not to tell Madeline that the drinking contest was unwinnable. Was it mean to do that? Absolutely. However, such is life. You can’t expect to be warned of every obstacle.”

“I’m really not in the mood for your fucking lectures today, Lena.”

Lena smiled, tying the lace on her bag of chess pieces. “Are you ever?”

“This isn’t funny. That . . . vomit-eating odoriferous hedge-pig made us keep fighting for five hours without a break. Even my eyelashes hurt!”

Despite her best attempts, Lena could hold back a small fit of laughter. “Odoriferous hedge-pig? Twins, I didn’t know you had such an extensive vocabulary.”

“You’re not the only one who reads,” Dani deadpanned.

The response only caused Lena’s laughing fit to gain intensity. “I wouldn’t even want to speculate on what you’ve been calling me behind my back.”

Dani snorted, her sister’s uncontrollable laughter breaking some of her resolve. “Just bitch, usually. You’re not that special.”

Lena playfully clutched her chest. “You wound me, dear sister. And clearly, I’ve been too light on your training if one afternoon with Matthison is enough to break you.”

“The man is an ill-bred codpiece-sniffing cur.”

Lena broke into yet another fit of laughter. “Twins . . . Such language!” She coughed. “And yes, well, however true that may be, he is Franklin’s Instructor. Whether either of us like it, he’s the only one who has a say on whether or not he’s prepared to graduate. So remember, this isn’t all about torturing you.”

Dani sighed, her shoulders sagging. “I guess that’s true.”

“Of course it is.” Lena placed her chessboard and the bag of pieces inside their box and closed the lid. “You mind getting my bag? I left it by that tree over there.”

In her exhaustion, it didn’t occur to question why Lena had left her bag so far from where she was sitting. She nodded and walked over, only realizing something was off about her situation upon hearing the click of a tripwire trigger. “FU—” A noose tightened around her ankles and pulled her up in the air. Dani looked ‘up’ at the ground with a soft groan. She was suspended at a decent height with no water underneath to break her fall. Her chest was already hurting from hitting the ground during one of her many spars of the day. Her next breath shuddered. As painful as it felt to even try to move, she struggled to reach the knife sheathed at her ankle and cut the rope. Predictably, she landed hard on the ground with a dull thud and a pained whimper. “Fuck you, Lena. Why today?”

Lena stood up, taking the time to wipe some stray blades of grass from her clothes before coming to stand over her. “I assumed you wouldn’t be in a listening mood and a more practical example would be necessary today.”

“An example of what? How much shittier a shitty day can become?”

Lena chuckled. “That’s not a bad lesson to learn, but no.” She held out her hand, patiently keeping it outstretched when Dani stubbornly refused to take it. “It took you less than a minute to cut yourself down.”

It took Dani a moment to push past her wounded pride and accept her sister’s hand. “Great. Can I go home and die now?”

Lena helped her up with another small chuckle. “You’re free to go home and rest, yes. However, I forbid you to die. Sorry.”

Dani shook her head as she let go of her hand and staggered away. “You’re lucky I spent all my creative insults on Matthison today.”

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