The Heart of The Forest 2.14

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[Wolves Camp | Otium 9th, 2525 |Early Morning]

Lena arrived at the Alpha’s cabin early, only to find it empty. She’d requested a meeting the night before and her mother told her to wait for her in the office in the event she was out assisting with any of the repair work being done in the aftermath of the storm. At first she sat, but as minutes burned away she transitioned to pacing the office, to eventually delving into her sisters’ room.

The small bedroom was half organized chaos, half pure chaos. Sarah’s side looked as though it had been struck by a whirlwind at any given time, up to and including her perpetually unmade bed. Whereas Dani’s, while cluttered with half-read books, writing implements, and camping supplies visibly poking from under her bed; still retained a modicum of perceived organization. Sarah’s drawings, however, bled from her side onto Dani’s, decorating the entire room. They were pinned to the walls and scattered haphazardly across the floor. It wouldn’t surprise Lena if she eventually found a way to coat the ceiling with them. The only wall surface left unscathed was the section occupied by Dani’s map. There had been several additions made to it since the last time she’d been in here, despite her sister’s insistence that she wouldn’t wander the vast Valcrest forest alone. The newly explored areas were close by, but still noticeably outside of their territory. A small cluster of neatly drawn houses served as a marker for the village they’d visited.

Footsteps preceded a gentle knock against the doorframe behind her. “I thought I asked you to wait for me in the office, Helena.”

Lena glanced over her shoulder at her mother. “Sorry, I was feeling nostalgic for a moment.”

Claire smirked. “Looking back on the days when it was your mess all over my floor, are you?”

“I’m sure I never made this much of a mess,” Lena protested.

“I’m sure your memory isn’t failing you, so I’m forced to assume you’re in denial.”

Lena shook her head. “Alright, mom. Can we just . . .” She trailed off, catching sight of one of the drawings on the wall.

“It’s supposed to be a dragon,” Claire informed her.

Lena inched closer to the wall. “I thought it was a dog. Why is it yellow?”

“According to your sister, no one can prove they weren’t yellow.”

Lena chuckled. “Even if they could, she would just argue it’s an imaginary dragon and she has the right to take ‘artistic liberties’.”

“I wonder where she learned to be so stubborn,” Claire said, matter-of-factly, as she made her way out to the office.

Lena followed and took a seat. “Too many suspects. You’ll never find the culprit.”

Claire sat and a rueful smile formed on her lips as she toyed with a little wolf carving Sarah had insisted she keep on her desk. “True.”

Lena watched her mother idly roll the small wooden statue between her fingers, not unlike she herself would tinker with her puzzles instead of solving them. “Have you talked to Sarah about the likelihood of Dani moving out soon? Because after she’s sworn in. . .”

“Not yet, but I will. It is, of course, Daniela’s decision when to move out, but she should be prepared for an argument.” Claire carefully placed the wolf down in its exact place and left it alone. “I assume you requested this meeting in order to explain what happened on the day of the storm?”

“Yes.” Lena let her elbows rest on the desktop, holding her mother’s gaze. There was little opportunity for them to speak alone in the aftermath of the storm. Clean up and repairs kept most of the clan preoccupied. “I needed to conduct one final assessment before declaring her training concluded. She passed that assessment. That’s what happened.”

“Would you care to provide me with some details?”

Lena smiled, sheepishly. “I’ll make sure to include them in my written evaluation.”

Claire pinched the bridge of her nose. “Be thorough, please.” She lowered her hand and refocused her gaze on Lena. “Are you sure?”

“As much as I can be. Dani. . .” Lena leaned back in her chair, glancing around the office as she searched for words. “I guess I’d say she’s too emotional for her own sake, but I think she’s proven that she’s capable of setting those emotions aside when necessary. Which is the main concern I still had. Pain was never a deterrent for her, but hurtful situations always have; hurt pride, hurt feelings . . . Pushing past those boundaries was always complicated, but over the past few months I’ve noticed a change of attitude. Since we visited that village, actually.”

Claire nodded as Lena spoke. “She told me the two of you had a conversation on the way back.”

“We did. And I suggested she should talk to you about certain things. There are answers I’m clearly not able to give. And even if I was . . .”

“It wouldn’t have made a difference. I know,” Claire concluded. “Were it entirely up to me, I’d continue to shield your sisters as much as possible, but I understand that’s an unrealistic expectation to have. And I explained to Daniela that in reality, once we find the Wolf Hunters there are two ways that might end.”

“You’re thinking about going after them yourself?”

“Thomas and I discussed it and we feel that deploying Actives to handle this particular threat would be,” Claire paused, once again rolling the same pen along the desktop as she sought the right words, “a needless sacrifice.”

“Mom . . .”

Claire cut off Lena’s protest, her smile calm. “I told your sister everything she asked me. How this started, why it started, down to the details. But I chose to withhold how this needs to end. Daniela is smart, I know she understands the severity of this situation now. I know she understands the possible repercussions, but the inevitability of it may be something she still isn’t prepared for.”

“You’re the Alpha. If you go after these people yourself and it goes wrong . . .”

“The Wolfpack will survive, Helena. It always has and always will. It’s my duty to protect this clan, not the other way around. I’ve already allowed this loss of life to go on for too long without taking matters into my own hands.”

Lena shook her head, frowning. She knew what her mother was thinking. To a lot of outsiders, the Alpha was the Wolfpack. Going after the Hunters herself might ensure an end to this conflict regardless of which side stood victorious. “I don’t like it.”

Claire laughed softly. “I don’t like it either. No one is going to like this. That’s why I need your sister to be prepared, as much as possible at least. When time comes, she can refuse the position of Alpha, or Beta for that matter; that’s entirely her decision to make, but if something is to happen to me, or Tom. Or, Twins forbid, the both of us . . . She can’t stop the clan from considering her the best possible candidate and insisting she take up the responsibility.”

“I don’t think she would say no,” Lena said. “She may not be sure she wants to be Alpha, she may not be sure she can be a competent Alpha, but Dani would never turn away if the clan needs her. It’s not in her nature.”

Claire blew out a breath and leaned back in her chair. “Are you sure she’s ready to be sworn in?”

“Positive.”

“That begs the question: should I start thinking about assigning you another Recruit or would you still like me to release you from your oath?”

“I don’t know. Do I have to answer right now?” Prior to her promotion to Instructor, Lena told her mother that she didn’t think she could go on being an Active and, feeling that she had no place in the clan, asked to be released of her oath. In light of Dani’s difficulties with training, they’d agreed to set the discussion aside in favor of Lena taking charge of her sister’s training. And while it only made sense to come back to it now, the question caught her off guard.

“No. You can take as long as you’d like,” Claire said, “but if you need more time to think I suppose it’s only fair I put you to work, isn’t it?”

“I suppose that would be fair, yes.” Lena chuckled, but a tired sigh accompanied it. “I know that sooner or later it’ll have to happen, I just . . .”

“There will always be at least one reason for you to stay, Helena. This is home, this is your family, leaving won’t ever be an easy decision for you to make. But understand that no matter where you go, what else you choose to be, you’ll always have a home and a family here.”

Lena shook her head. “I know, but not yet.”

Claire nodded. “If you’re sure. I assume Madeline is ready to be sworn in as well?”

Lena hummed. “I’ve tested her to the extent of my abilities. There is no guarantee it would work the same with Sylvie, but there’s nothing more I can do.”

“Mathison cleared Franklin as well, so I suppose we can have them all sworn in within the next few days. As soon as the most immediate repairs are concluded.”

“I’m sure a graduation will lift the clan’s spirits after all the clean up and repairs.”

“Speaking of which, Tom asked that I send you to help with a few injured workers on the northern side of camp. Something about a big fallen branch. We’ve already sent for a healer, but it’ll be days before the message even reaches them.”

Lena rubbed her left temple and stood. “We need to discuss allowing the White Shadows to station a healer in camp, mom. I know you don’t like the idea of an outsider in the premises, but there are so many things my knowledge of medicinal tomes won’t help with. I don’t have the training a healer has.”

“We can discuss the logistics, but you know that allowing healers to come in and out of the camp regularly can cause issues. Especially considering the Hunters. I’ve no doubt the White Shadows will commit to their oath of confidentiality, but they also don’t have our training or our knowledge of the forest.”

“I guess that’s true, but if any of those workers have serious fractures or internal bleeding, I won’t be able to do anything for them.”

Claire stood as well, weariness and concern clear in her voice. “Let’s hope it’s nothing that serious this time.”

[Wolves Camp | Otium 17th, 2525 |Late afternoon]

The camp was in disarray. In the week following the storm, every able-bodied Wolf was fully committed to clean up, repairs, and in many cases, rebuilding entire structures. Dani spent that week assisting where needed and finding herself either in the company of Emmett, Madeline and Eldric clearing out debris, or helping Lena tend to injured workers until the healers finally arrived.

A pair of White Shadows were sent to assist with their injured Workers; a middle-aged woman and her teenage apprentice. The improvised infirmary immediately displeased her, and she wasted no time issuing instructions on how to put together proper examination tables and maintain a cleaner environment. The boy looked about Dani’s age, and comically towered over his mentor. Meanwhile, he did his best to look as insignificant as possible. Dani and Lena were told to assist, despite the healers’ assertion that she didn’t want or require any assistance. As a result, they were made to just stand there and watch them assess the Workers and tend to their injuries one by one. As the examination progressed, the younger healer—whose name was Oscar, according to his mentor—continued to act as though he’d rather be anywhere else, keeping his eyes focused on his tasks and vehemently ignoring their presence.

Once the injured were taken care of and it was confirmed none of them sustained any serious damage, the Alpha requested the healers stay for a couple of days and ordered everyone involved with intense labor in the past week to undergo an examination. Most Actives were unhappy with the prospect, but not enough to go against the Alpha’s direct orders. The healers organized a queue outside their improvised infirmary and ordered the Wolves in two at a time.

Dani wasn’t the greatest fan of healers. They were usually nice, but something about them always felt disingenuous to her. The way they treated everyone with the exact same polite demeanor made her uncomfortable. By the nature of their work, she understood this was probably because they trained themselves to be as removed from a situation as possible, but it didn’t make them the most pleasant of people to be around. This one in particular seemed uninterested even in pleasantries and mostly focused on getting her work done. Although, unlike Oscar, she was open to answering Lena’s occasional questions in between examinations. The woman was efficient, not only assessing her assigned Wolf as quickly as possible, but supervising her apprentice’s examination and chiming in where she felt he might have overlooked something.

By the end of the afternoon, most patients were let off with warnings to take a few days rest and drink more water. Dani was more than happy to be done when Lena directed her to one of the examination tables. “Mom said everyone, remember?”

Dani groaned, but complied. “I’m fine.”

“Nonetheless,” the healer chimed in, directing Lena to the vacant examination table. “I’m sure your clanmates would have something to say if you were exempt from this horrible, terrible, ordeal they were just forced to undergo.”

Lena sat on the examination table, arching her eyebrow. “Are you attempting to imply any members of this clan are wusses?”

A discrete smirk pulled at the corners of the healer’s lips. “I would never dare imply such things of a clan of fearless assassins. Perish the thought.”

Lena chuckled. “You’re all assholes, you know that?”

“Mhm. Is that why master Witters said you’d fit right in with us?”

Lena snorted, attempting to hold still as the healer tested her reflexes. “I don’t know, but I do recall him saying that the White Shadows don’t recruit. Being that the case, he should take his opinions and shove th—”

A loud metal clang interrupted the conversation. Oscar was apparently so scandalized by what Lena was about to say that he dropped one of the instruments on his examination kit.

His mentor sighed. “Oscar, pick that up.” As he picked up the instrument and was about to place it back on the tray, she snapped. “Sanitize it first, boy!”

Oscar jumped and nearly dropped the object a second time, but recomposed and nodded. “Yes, mistress, my apologies.”

“Leave it on the table and go get some fresh air, I can finish by myself.”

Dani frowned, watching Oscar fumble to put the instrument down and leave the room in a hurry. At first she was aggravated that her examination would have to wait, but found it difficult to stay mad at the boy when he looked about to burst into tears. “Is he going to be alright?”

The woman shook her head briefly, not interrupting her examination. “Eventually, I’m sure. It might have been too soon to bring him on such a demanding excursion.” She turned her attention back to Lena. “Have you been taking your tea regularly?”

“Every morning. It’s . . . Helping.”

“Any side-effects?”

“Nausea sometimes, but I’m sure it’s just because it tastes like freshly-pissed-on grass.”

“If that symptom persists, try taking it every other morning instead. You don’t need to take it daily if you haven’t been prone to any incidents for a while.”

Lena nodded. “I’ll observe myself. Is that all?”

“That is all, yes.”

Lena stepped down from the examination table and coaxed Dani to take her place. She did so, reluctantly. Even though she watched the healer perform the exact same routine on every patient throughout the day—Eyes, ears, throat, reflexes, temperature check, then basic questions—being in that position still unsettled her. She did her best to be as compliant as possible in order to speed up the process. Once she was cleared with a warning to take it easy, she nearly jumped out of the examination table. “Great. Are we done? I want some alone time before sundown.”

“Sure,” Lena said. “Go ahead.”

The healer hummed in agreement, starting to pack up her belongings. “What happens at sundown?”

“I’m getting sworn in,” Dani answered. She paused on her way to the door. “Do White Shadows have a ceremony for that? I mean, you do have to swear and oath too, right?”

“We have an initiation ritual, but it’s not public and we don’t make a fuss about it.” She smiled. “Congratulations on graduating. You must be proud.”

Dani breathed out. “That’s . . . One of many feelings, yes.”

Lena chuckled, pushing her out the door. “You’ll be fine. Now go on, you’re losing daylight.”

Dani stepped outside the infirmary and the door closed behind her back. Outside the cramped wooden cabin, air flowed a lot easier through her lungs. The sun was well on its way, but still bright. On her way to the center of camp, she nodded at passing Workers and Actives, returned their smiles, and tried to match their excited energy, pushing down the tense knot forming in her throat. It was normal to be this nervous; after the news broke a couple of days ago everyone made it a point to tell her so. Emmett has cheerfully exposed to her the fact Eldric threw up before his graduation ceremony. And then revealed he himself was forced to repeat parts of his out because he’d stumbled over his words. To which Lena added “there’s one in every group”.

The prospect of being ‘the one’ in her group was, quite honestly, mortifying. The fact the other two people in her group were Franklin and Madeline only made matters worse. Franklin’s nerves were unyielding steel and Maddie was still too green to fully comprehend the weight of what she was about to experience.

The path leading up to the lake never felt longer.

[Wolves Camp | Otium 17th, 2525 |Dusk]

Dani sat by the lake and watched as the reflection of sunlight moved across its mirror-like surface, changing colors as it descended towards the horizon: from golden, to orange, then a deep red, and finally a dark violet. She had done this many times—it was the best way to tell the passing of time there—but this time, as the sky darkened, Dani gained the sudden awareness that an entire phase of her life was coming to a close. The scuffle of approaching footsteps drew her attention and she turned away from the waters to watch the path. A soft call preceded the Beta’s arrival. “Hey, kiddo.”

“Hey,” Dani answered, standing up and wiping dirt and grass from her clothes. “I was just about to head back.”

Thomas emerged from the path, offering a reassuring smile. “It’s already dark, pup. Everyone’s waiting. Sarah wanted to come and get you, but . . . Your mother decided you might need a ‘dad talk’. Whatever that means.”

Dani chuckled. “I appreciate it, but . . . I’m alright. I just got a little distracted thinking about everything.”

“Mhm,” Tom hummed. “Are you nervous about reciting the oath in front of the entire clan?”

“A little, yes. I know no one will think less of me for being nervous, but they will remember it.” She frowned, suddenly stricken with realization. “Did you know I wasn’t supposed to soak that stew pot?”

Thomas flinched. “Alright, I wasn’t expecting that question to come up now. Yes, I was well aware of the fact that iron rusts.”

“Why didn’t you stop me, then?”

“Because you need to learn from making your own mistakes.”

Dani rolled her eyes. “Dad . . .”

“Alright.” Thomas chuckled. “I thought it would be funny.”

Dani snorted. “You’re an asshole. People were teasing me about this for months.”

Thomas shook his head, still laughing, and wrapped an arm around Dani’s shoulders, leading her towards the path. “Yes, but honestly, pup? That’s what you need. Sometimes you fail, and that’s just life. But if you fail and the only real damage is to your pride, then you might as well laugh.”

“It’s not fun to be mocked for your failures, dad.”

Thomas gave her a brief shake. “Learn to distinguish when others are laughing at you and when they’re laughing with you, love. No one in this clan will see you as a failure over a stew pot, or if you fumble a word or two when reciting your oath tonight. You’re expected to make mistakes. Not because you’re incompetent, but because you’re human. And human beings are prone to error.”

Dani took a deep breath and, as the air left her lungs, finally relaxed. “Yeah. I guess mom was right. I needed a ‘dad talk’. Whatever that means.”

“You’ll do well, kiddo. Just remember to breathe. That’s very important. Someone in my group actually passed out.” Thomas smirked. “It may or may not have been your mother. I won’t confirm or deny that.”

Dani laughed. “If that’s true, she’s going to kill you.”

“Suppose I sleep with one eye open tonight.”

The short walk back to camp was accompanied by a comforting silence. The path that extended from the lake carved into the forest and was otherwise untouched; engulfed by darkness and raw nature. Every step closer to camp shattered that tranquility with the excited murmurs of the waiting clan and the incandescent glow of the fire pit. Dani breathed through another bout of nerves and quickened her pace.

The Wolfpack in its entirety had flooded the central clearing and, as she approached, the crowds parted to let her through. Her mother was waiting in the very center, accompanied by Lena and Matthison. Wading through a veritable sea of smiling faces, shoulder pats, and expressions of encouragement, her fellow recruits came into view as well. It comforted her to see that Franklin and Maddie, when faced with the full might of the Wolfpack, weren’t as confident as they usually appeared. Franklin was almost pale with nausea and for a second Dani wondered if, out of the three, he’d be the one to succumb to nervousness. The thought elicited a short bubble of laughter as she took her place beside the two and Franklin’s mutter of “I’ll be fine,” did nothing to quench her sudden giddiness. She wanted to apologize for having little faith in her friend, offer some words of encouragement, but kept her mouth shut in fear of losing control of the situation. A few chuckles had already erupted in the crowd by the time hers completely faded. Claire was the embodiment of patience as she waited for the atmosphere to settle. She continued to wait until silence finally reigned supreme and she could be heard without raising her voice.

“Well, now that we’re all here at last,” she began, “I would like to say on behalf of the whole clan, that what you have accomplished by completing your training has already been an achievement worthy of praise. I think no one here has fond memories of being a Recruit. It’s harsh, undignified, and oftentimes unappreciated work. Your Instructors’ weren’t meant to simply build you up, but to build you up stronger; as assassins and as people. And if you’re here now, rest assured, you have not only met, but surpassed their insane expectations. You may not be done learning yet, and you may never truly be done growing, but as of tonight, you are no longer children in the eyes of this clan.”

Another wave of hushed excitement swept across the encampment and, once again, Claire patiently waited for it to run its course. “Helena, you may swear in your Recruits now.”

Lena respectfully bowed as she stepped forward, but a flash of amusement crossed her eyes as she regarded the two girls. Dani knew her sister was at least entertaining the thought of swearing Madeline in first, if only to keep her waiting a little bit longer. “Daniela . . .”

Dani blew out a breath of relief and immediately placed her right hand over her heart in anticipation.

Lena wasn’t able to hold in her amusement this time. “I was supposed to tell you to do that, but I guess we’re done taking instructions, are we?” she quipped. “Repeat after me…”

Dani’s aggravation came and went as her sister recited the oath, line by line, for her to repeat. “I hereby swear on my life and honor, to live by and enforce the laws of the Wolfpack”. To most of the Wolves present, the last time the oath was recited was the night Eddie admitted to breaking it, “I hereby swear on my life and honor to defend this camp and its people, to the best of my abilities, for as long as I still breathe”, and even though Dani hadn’t been there to hear, she was painfully aware of that fact “I hereby swear on my life and honor to never harm, betray, or abandon any member of this clan, as long as they remain true to this oath”. Being the first to recite it in the aftermath caused a swell of pride to form in her chest. A sense of purpose. Of belonging to something far, far greater than just the sum of its parts. Suddenly that crushing weight she’d been suffocating under wasn’t entirely hers to bear.

Lena waited for another wave of murmurs to pass; not quite as patiently as their mother, and continued, holding out one of the two silver rings she had to offer her Recruits. “This ring is a physical representation of not only your oath, but the bond that unites this clan as one. By accepting, you bind yourself to the Wolfpack, and agree to live by the words you recited here until the day the Alpha herself grants you release, or Lady Death claims your immortal soul. Do you accept?”

“Yes. I accept.”

“Hold out your hand.”

Dani obeyed, unable to keep her hand as steady as she’d want. She held just steady enough for Lena to place the silver band on her ring finger with considerable ease. The constant feeling of metal against her skin felt foreign, strangely cold, but she appraised the ring with a satisfied grin, clenching and opening her fist to ease the uncomfortable sensation.

“Congratulations, you’re officially a Wolf.”

The declaration spurred actual cheers from the clan now: loud, unabashed cheering. Lena briefly groaned in aggravation, knowing it would take much longer for the atmosphere to settle, but it was short lived. She pulled Dani into a tight embrace, her words almost drowned out by the clan’s excitement. “I’m proud of you, kid.” Of all the reassurance and validation she’d received so far, those words were what finally made Dani emotionally crack, even if they were immediately followed by, “I was sure you’d end up puking on me.”

Dani pushed her sister away, seizing the opportunity to mask her emotional response under fake aggravation. “Shut up.”

Lena chuckled. “No, sorry. You may no longer be a child but you’ll always be my bratty sister. That’s just how it works.”

The clan finally settled and allowed the ceremony to continue. Madeline recited the oath without a hitch and her hand was surprisingly steady as she accepted her ring, but she was caught off guard when, upon playfully asking if she could have a hug as well, Lena actually hugged her. Wayne must have found most unorthodox, because his opening statement, upon swearing Franklin in was, “I’m not hugging you.”

Dani glanced at Madeline with a smirk. Franklin was the last one and as he recited his oath, the crowd grew increasingly restless. “Do you remember what I said? About making you a Wolf? she whispered.

Madeline hummed, confused. “When?”

“The day of the Hourglass ceremony, by the lake?”

Madeline turned her head to look at her, confused. Dani was about to explain when Franklin accepted his ring and received his congratulations from Wayne. “Never mind, just run.”

“What?”

Dani pushed her in the opposite direction as she ran off, shouting over her shoulder “run!”

Madeline’s confused protest was broken by one of the Active assassins yelling out, “GET THEM!” and another adding, “IN THE LAKE!”

Franklin had wasted no time running off as fast as he could and, as much as Dani liked Maddie, she couldn’t afford to hold her hand through this. She bolted, dodging multiple attempts to grab her along the way, desperately seeking the cover of the forest. The entire clan was on the hunt. There was no doubt that if they wanted the three of them in the lake, they would go in the lake, but that did mean she wouldn’t give them a good chase. Rumor had it that the longest a newly sworn-in Wolf lasted without going in the lake was three days, but she didn’t know if that was true. Maybe if she climbed a tall enough tree . . . A high pitched yelp announced Maddie as the first sacrifice. Away from the firelight it was too dark to even see where she was going, branches grazed her arms and face as she sped by and at her back she could hear her clanmates chanting “In the lake! In the lake! In the lake!”

Something grabbed Dani in the dark; someone, she couldn’t discern faces, but she could hear them circling, closing in. She took a brief moment to situate herself before twisting away from their hold and dashing one more time. They would eventually catch her no matter what. She would go in the lake. And if that was the only option, so be it. Another round of cheering confirmed Franklin’s downfall. Dani was the only one left now. She was almost there . . .

She wheezed from the strain. In all her years of training Dani was never forced to run that fast, but a grin spread across her face when she saw the silver glow of moonlight reflecting off a mirror-like surface. Dodging a couple more desperate attempts to grab her arms, she dashed right for it and upon reaching the margin, lept as high as she could, crashing down on the water with a tumultuous splash.

All sounds faded. Cold invaded her bones, causing a furious shiver. When she rose to the surface, the enthusiastic Actives were gathered around the lake, Franklin and Madeline had already crawled out of the water and were wrapped in soft blankets. To her shock, she was met by stunned silence at first, then confused whispers, and finally a louder explosion of cheering and applause. It dawned on her that by jumping in the lake she, without thinking, managed to avoid capture. She shook her head in disbelief. Not at what she’d done, but at the fact no one had done it before. One of the boys; Eldric’s friend, Lionel, abruptly shouted, “Way to go, Runt!” and all the laughter she managed to contain at the start of the ceremony finally erupted. Unrestrained, hysterical, blissful laughter.

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The Plotstains Perspective 2.13

Hello, and welcome once again to the Plotstains Perspective. This time we will be discussing in brief about chapter 2.13 of Shadows Rise. Click the link if you haven’t yet read it. This is your only chance to avoid spoilers. Let’s just get right to it.

I really enjoy Blackbird’s writing. Honestly, I’d hope I did after investing ten years of my life into it. And it can really be summed up by the wonderful climax to this arc which is displayed fantastically during a storm while Lena and Dani take each other in a dramatic duel. Rain pours down, wind picks up, and trees sway to the point of breaking all while Dani is pushed to her limits. 

All through this arc, we see Dani unsure if she is ready to take on the responsibilities that will be thrust upon her one day. That’s the journey we follow. Sure, there’s the Wolf Hunters looming in the background, eagerly reminding us that the Wolves are being threatened, but that isn’t what we focus on. We focus on the growth of Dani, Lena’s struggle to keep her enlightenment under control and the relationship between the three sisters. Seeing the conclusion to the Dani portion of these conflicts is what we come to see by the end of this chapter. 

It is a closely regarded secret that Blackbird and I aren’t the greatest at writing fight scenes. There are famous examples of us writing terrible fight scenes together. So every moment we have to write one, we have to psych ourselves up. This one was no different and apparently it turned out differently than Blackbird had intended. A flashy display of strength between the two characters transformed into a battle of will in which Dani struggles to go far enough to allow Lena to yield. We see a true test of character. And tests of characters is what Blackbird truly excels at. This is why I enjoy reading Blackbird’s stuff so much. It often oozes character. Amplified by the description of the not so subtle metaphor of the storm and you have a perfect blend of meaningful character moments. 

From this, I want to address something else. The pacing of Shadows Rise as a whole thus far. 

As we’ve seen, Shadows Rise has made an interesting choice in how it wants to tell the story. In Arc 1, we saw only from the side of the Wolf Hunters. Not much happened except for introductions to the characters. Then we reached a moment where things changed in the characters’ story and we were brought into Arc 2. In this arc, we’ve only seen things from the point of view of the Wolves and we’ve reached the moment where things have changed. Dani has proven herself and Arc 3 is just a chapter and epilogue away. We’ve introduced all the characters, so what now? 

In terms of the five-point story structure, we are about here.

That’s not very far in the story, especially when you consider that we’ve written over 176,000 words! For context, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is 187,790 words long. 

There is no doubt in my mind that we’ve scared a few readers away with the extensive introduction to our characters. By no means is this something that I haven’t thought about long and hard over the year and a bit that I’ve spent editing this. This more than anything is probably the biggest risk that Shadows Rise has taken. 

We’ve described this as a “slow burn” story in which we take a lot of time for you to become acclimated with our characters before we really bring them through the ringer. Hopefully this will make the highs much higher and the lows devastatingly low. Like any good slow cooked meal, we let all the flavours sit with each other for as long as possible to get as much flavour out of each bite as we possibly can. 


And things will only start picking up from here. Arc 3 is going to bring our two worlds from arc’s 1 and 2 together. We’ll meet a few new characters and we’ll see what happens when the most deadly force in Valcrest faces off against the one thing that seems to scare them.


For those of you who have stuck around through all of arc 1 and 2, I’d really like to thank you. It’s been a rough year as I’m sure you know and hopefully our twice monthly chapters have given you an escape as much as it has given us one. There’s only one chapter left before we finish off this arc. Then we’ll have the epilogue chapter and then take a short break before we get into the next arc. Keep your eyes peeled.

Until next time, happy reading,

-Plotstains

Author’s Notes 10/03/2020

Hey, guys! Blackbird here. I know I usually let Plotstains write his editorial posts first, but considering how things went down with the making of this chapter I decided I’m not going to wait and just address this now. I also want to talk about what’s coming up next on Shadows Rise; mainly the end of Arc 02, Arc 03 coming up, and the Interludes in between. And last but not least, I wanna talk a little bit about 2.13. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, you can read it here. Or, I’ll let you know when to click away from this post if you don’t have the time to catch up right now.

So. *clap* Let’s talk about how damn flaky I’ve been, lol.

In all seriousness, it’s been a tough year all around. I had a tough couple months. I haven’t exactly made it a secret that depression’s been a thing. So, nothing new with that. It just hit me a little harder this time. I had about two weeks where I was lethargic enough that I was worried and called my doctor about it. He ordered a blood test because I have a thyroid condition that causes symptoms like that. I’m on medication for it, so it’s normally fine, but over the years I’ve had to adjust my medication a couple times. I thought this might be the case because I had a week or two of just being so lethargic I literally couldn’t stay awake.

But nope. Blood tests came back fine. My doctor concluded it’s situational depression. I already had been depressed earlier in the year, but things happened lately that aggravated it a lot. I’m doing better right now, I’m working on trying to stay that way as much as possible and I’m gonna try my best to keep our schedule consistent, but under these circumstances, I can’t promise that. I’m a flawed human being and this messed up world isn’t doing anyone any favors right now.

Moving on from my excuses, though… Arc 02 is reaching its conclusion. If no more delays happen, the Epilogue should come up on November 1st. I’m not going to lie… I’m hyped for Arc 03. We’re done with the introductions at this point, I feel that if you read Arcs 01 and 02 you should feel you know these characters well, which means that this is the point where you should brace yourselves a little bit. Just a lil’ bit. I’m also looking forward to writing the Hunters again. I really, truly miss those guys. The twins as well. As much as I love ‘the trio’ (someone referred to Lena, Dani and Sarah that way recently and I sorta adopted it, lol), Kyle and Seb have a really fun relationship to write. I’m excited about catching up with them next Arc, but also… Keeping up with the Wolves. Because starting from Arc 03 we’re gonna be switching back and forth. So you’ll still get to see Dani and Lena… And most importantly; Sarah. Everyone freaking loves Sarah. 😛

Much like we did between Arcs 01 and 02, we’re going to be posting a few Interludes before we get into Arc 03 as well. The first of which is already in the works now. Very looking forward to posting that one too. It’s got an interesting story behind the scenes, not to mention it in itself is a pretty interesting story.

Also, Halloween is a thing. We might do something for that. We’ll see. Stay tuned.

As I’m sure you guys can tell by now, despite literally everything else going on in the world, my enthusiasm for this series hasn’t gone anywhere. I’ve been actively wanting and trying to write 2.13 this entire time, I’ve just been incapable of focusing on it. 2.14 is already in the works now, hopefully it’ll run smoothly. And, as was the trend in Arc 01… Arc 02’s Epilogue will be a little taste of things to come in Arc 03 and I gotta say… I’d be interested to know if anyone has any predictions after reading it. It’s gonna be one hell of a teaser.

Alright guys, so, if you haven’t read 2.13 yet, now’s the time to go do it and come back, or just click away. If you’re leaving us here: Stay healthy, stay safe. I’ll see you next time.

If you’re staying with us, welcome to spoiler central. 😛

So. Lena and Dani’s relationship. Let’s talk about it a little bit.

My intention with this chapter was to, in a way, show a contrast in Dani’s attitude from 2.02 when she’s first introduced. In that chapter she’s hesitant, she’s complaining, she’s allowing a situation to play out rather than take it into her own hands. In that chapter Lena asks her why she thinks their mother decided to assign Lena as her Instructor. Later in that chapter she answered her own question.

My initial take on this chapter was a more traditional “student overcomes teacher” type of scene. A show of skill on Dani’s part, but when I started writing Lena’s section I realized… Dani’s level of skill wasn’t the issue that needed fixing in the first place. The scene I envisioned; even if I could write exactly the way I pictured it in my head, bears no weight on Dani’s character development. The question was never whether she can become a better fighter. The question has always been if she can bring herself to act when faced with a difficult situation and the possibility of failure.

Lena’s refusal to yield was the ultimate test of Dani’s resolve. She wasn’t necessarily the better fighter, she got the upper hand due to sheer circumstance, but she didn’t choke like Lena worried she might.

Bottom line: Dani’s not a baby no more. She’s ready to go out there and… Kill people, I guess. 😐

Anyway, lol.

That’s all I had to say about all of these for now. It’s the first time I give my thoughts on a chapter before Plotstains does, so I’m interested in what he’ll have to say this time. And his thoughts on Arc 02 being almost over because that’s exciting.

So if you stuck around so far, thanks for sticking around. Stay safe, stay healthy, I’ll see you guys on the 16th (for real!)

B.B

The Heart of The Forest 2.13

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[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |Before Sunrise]

The pleasant sweet-scented breezes—a constant over the past few months—abruptly gave way to a dense, humid stillness overnight. With every step towards the training grounds, Lena’s breaths weighed heavier on her lungs. The sun wouldn’t rise for a couple hours still, but unease drew her out of bed earlier than usual. Her trek to their regular meeting spot was slow and introspective. When Lena was offered the position of Instructor a year and a half ago, it was specifically to take charge of Dani’s training. According to their mother, she was bright, an exceptionally quick learner, and in many ways a natural, but something was holding her back and Claire’s attempts to reach her had only caused Dani to shut down ever further. It was a last resort; this arrangement. The only thing left to try before their mother was forced to consider Dani’s training concluded, yet insufficient. It was a gamble that paid off. However, now Lena had reached a point in her sister’s training where she was forced to admit there was nothing left for Dani to learn within the confines of a training regimen. Unbeknownst to Dani, this would be their final spar. Her training was concluded. Whether or not it was sufficient, was yet to be determined.

The training grounds consisted of multiple clearings interconnected by narrow trails. Each clearing served as its own contained training area. Instructors were given autonomy over these areas and what type of training to conduct in them. Lena already set up a few surprises for this final session the previous night. All she had left to do was wait for sunrise.

Six years ago, in that same clearing, their mother enrolled Lena to be Dani’s first sparring partner. They’d both been just children, then. It was Dani’s first time wielding a training sword and Lena was only a few months away from graduation. To say they were unevenly matched would be a huge understatement. Her mother’s stern reminder on that day had since become her mantra.

“Remember, if you hold out your hand every time she falls, she’ll never learn to stand on her own.”

At first, Lena couldn’t bring herself to punish Dani’s mistakes with anything beyond meager strikes. Claire said nothing of this, but Lena felt her mother’s disapproval simmering in the air as she observed the spar. It wasn’t the fact she was ignoring instructions, but that she understood why doing so was a disservice. Dani was there to learn.

Forced resignation guided her hand. The training sword struck the side of Dani’s face with a harsh sound. Not hard enough to cause serious harm, but enough to knock her down and create a bruise across one cheek.

Dani was always a tough child. Most setbacks didn’t faze her, and neither did injuries. She’d scraped her knees and hands, fallen off branches, she even broke her wrist swinging from one branch, all without a single tear shed. Despite being nothing compared to the pain of a broken wrist, the blow of the training sword left her rattled. Her eyes were bright as she picked herself up. And when their mother asked if she wanted to continue, her voice quivered. “Y-yeah. I’m fine.”

It was a painful lesson for them both. Dani’s bruises faded within a few days, but the resentment over the spar took far longer to wane. With forgiveness came the understanding that, like it or not, some aspects of their relationship needed to change. As training progressed, they continued to change. And as training concluded, they would change even further.

Lena sat on a patch of grass, closed her eyes, inhaled the pleasant earthy smell that rose from the damp soil, and tried to clear her mind as much as possible. The sun would rise soon.

[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |Sunrise]

The heavy atmosphere and dull, grey skies announced the oncoming storm. Dani could feel it before even getting out of bed. Stuffy air and humidity permeated her room. Her sleeping clothes stuck to her body, damp with sweat. As dangerous as storms in the forest could be, Dani usually enjoyed them. The hours leading up to them, however? Not so much. She forced herself out of bed with a groan, dragging her feet out of the room to go wash up and change. On the way to the mess hall for breakfast she observed Workers and volunteers attempting to secure the camp as much as possible by taking down weak branches in the camp’s vicinity and adding reinforcements to older buildings that weren’t yet repaired. Even with all available Wolves at work, they were unlikely to cover the entire camp, and if Dani wasn’t scheduled for training, she would be helping as well.

Under normal circumstances, Dani would suggest that Lena call off their session, but the moment Lena allowed her a whopping three days’rest after her last session with Matthison, she had a feeling this one was going to be different. That was too much downtime, without an apparent reason. She tried to make the most of that time, of course. Not only to heal the exhaustion and pain from Wayne’s endless sparring sessions, but also the mental toll of dealing with the man’s unrelenting disapproval.

The dining hall was quieter than usual. Dani assumed most people had gotten up and gone straight to work on securing the camp. If the storm caught them off guard, things would be a lot worse. Only a few families were present; tired parents fussing over their children’s breakfast choices. One of the smaller children in the room was having a fit over the insufficient amount of sugar he was allowed in his oatmeal. Dani couldn’t blame the kid, she’d never take oatmeal without at least a half a cup of honey mixed in. She chose a fruit bowl for herself, taking the time to greet the kitchen workers and pushing back annoyance when Larissa cheerfully mentioned they finally found a replacement for the stew pot she’d accidentally ruined. Good. Maybe now people would finally stop bringing it up.

The abundance of empty seats that morning allowed Dani the opportunity to sit by herself for once, but as she walked past one of the smaller tables, a cheerful wave drew her gaze to a smiling woman sitting at one of the corner tables with her young son. Dani knew her from a young age, initially as the lady who would come over to tell her stories and tuck her into bed during times where her parents were preoccupied with the clan’s affairs, and later as the dotting wife of the man she constantly aggravated trying to sneak daggers from the armory. Her initial thoughts of solitude brushed aside, Dani smiled and walked over to sit across from them. “Philippa. Fancy seeing you here of all places.”

Philippa smiled softly. “I was about to say the same. I hear most Instructors cancelled training sessions today.”

“I’d be surprised if Lena allowed forces of nature to interfere with my suffering.” Dani smiled, ruefully, as she poked around her fruit platter. “I assume tutoring was cancelled too?”

“Mhm. Your mother wants all capable adults to help with preparations. Minimize the damage as much as possible.”

Dani smirked. “Capable adults, huh? Guess that rules me out right there.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’d say you’ve come a long way from the toddler I once knew.”

“I don’t know if it’s been that long.” Dani mused, finally deciding on a piece of fruit. As she chewed, she turned her attention to Philippa’s son. The boy was almost the spitting image of his father; the same dark eyes and dark hair, similar mannerisms . . . In fact, he was glaring at his bowl of oatmeal as though it was trying to run off with his favorite dagger. “How’s it going, little Bana? Trying to glare that oatmeal into submission, are we?”

The boy put down his spoon and looked up at her, then briefly glanced at his mother as if accusing her of treason for putting him in this position to start with. “You know my name is Evin.” He glowered. “And yes.”

Dani chuckled. “If you let it get cold, it’s only going to taste even worse.”

Evin picked up the spoon with a grimace and prodded the lukewarm mush in his bowl. “I guess.”

“Look at it this way; eating food you find gross is an important survival skill.”

Evin paused in contemplation, stirring the oatmeal further. “So . . . They’re making it gross on purpose?”

Dani snorted, trying but ultimately failing to hold back a burst of laughter. “You know, I never thought about that. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were.”

Evin dropped the spoon into the bowl with a hard clink and turned to his mother. “If I take an apple, may I be excused?”

Philippa nodded. “Of course.”

Evin jumped out of his seat, all too eager to leave the bowl of, maybe intentionally disgusting oats behind, only held back by his mother’s gentle grasp on his shoulder.

“I don’t want you to stray too far today, as soon as the wind starts picking up, I want you to come straight home. No matter what Perry has to say about it. Are we understood?”

Evin nodded and ran off, only stopping to grab an apple on the way out of the hall. Dani shook her head, amused. “Mom would have made me sit there until I finished it. You don’t waste food.”

“Evin would sit here all day; storm or no storm. As important as that lesson may be, helping secure the camp is a more productive use of my time today.”

“Good point.” Dani hummed thoughtfully. “Perry . . . I wonder if that’s the same kid Sarah keeps complaining about.”

“Probably. He’s about Sarah’s age. He’s a good boy, but he’s older than Evin and seems to have the same regard for rules as you used to at that age,” Philippa said with a small grin.

“That bad, is it?”

The woman chuckled softly. “You weren’t that bad, just a child being a child. What has Sarah been complaining so much about, though?”

“He’s smug about beating her at games. That’s her one complaint, but, it’s a constant. If I didn’t know any better I’d think he’s doing it to get a rise out of her.”

Philippa hummed, toying with her empty tea cup. “Maybe he is. That’s how childhood infatuation begins sometimes.”

“I’m positive Sarah would be appalled at the implication,” Dani laughed. “Either way, it seems harmless enough.” She finished her last pieces of fruit and set the bowl aside. “I should get going. I’m running late and if that storm comes sooner rather than later, I don’t want to be caught in it.”

[Wolves Camp | Otium 7th, 2525 |After Sunrise]

The sun had been up for, Lena assumed, at least a half hour when the sound of rushed footsteps and ragged breathing disturbed her meditative state. It was no surprise Dani was late; punctuality was never her strongest suit, but today of all days the delay would cost her. Lena opened her eyes with a deep calming breath and stood to greet her sister. Dani appeared seconds later, red-faced and disheveled. “You know you’re supposed to be here at sunrise and not ‘at any minute after sunrise’, right?”

“I know, I’m sorry. I ran into Philippa in the mess hall and got a little sidetracked.” Dani leaned into her knees, trying to steady her breaths. “I . . . I don’t know why you didn’t call the session off. Everyone else is helping secure the camp.”

“I know.” Lena walked over to where she left her gear and retrieved a water flask, holding it out for Dani to take. “Here. You need to regain your composure before we begin.”

Dani accepted the flask and drank eagerly. As she returned it, her breaths softened. “Alright, so clearly, calling this off and helping around camp like everyone else is out of the question. Are you going to tell me why?”

Lena turned away to dispose of the now-empty flask, her statement matter-of-fact: “I have nothing more to teach you.”

“I’m sorry, what?” Genuine confusion mixed with a poorly contained undertone of hurt. Dani’s words didn’t tremble the same way they had during that first spar six years ago, but it came across just as vulnerable.

“You still have a lot to learn. You’re a kid; still too immature, still a little more reckless than it would be advised. Try as you might, you lack any real understanding of the weight you’re expected to bear moving forward.” Lena kept her back to Dani, going through some of the equipment she’d brought with her earlier in the morning. “Those are things I can’t teach you. No one can. I’m only here to determine whether or not you excel in everything else, because then . . . There’s a good enough chance you’ll survive those lessons as they come.” One by one, Lena carefully laid out an assortment of different blades on the ground between the two of them, meeting Dani’s eyes at last. “Pick one.”

Dani’s gaze fell on each individual weapon, assessing. Whatever her concerns about the storm, or hurt over Lena’s assessment of her abilities pushed aside in favor of this one minor task. “You said you have nothing more to teach me. So this is the end of my training?”

“Your training is, for all intents and purposes, already over. There’s only one thing left . . .” Lena let the sentence trail off as she collected her own sword.

Dani nodded, eyes fixed on a pair of long daggers. “Whether I excel in everything else or not.”

“Mhm.” Lena smiled. “The longer it takes for you to make a decision the longer we’ll stay out here. I think the sky is getting darker.”

Dani briefly glared at her, but picked up the daggers, pushing the other options aside with her foot. “What are the terms of this spar?”

“Anything goes. We fight until I yield,” Lena said, waiting to make sure the words registered.

“Until you yield. So I can’t end the fight if I want to?” Dani asked, feeling the weight of the daggers in her hands.

“No. You can end the fight whenever you want. Actually, you can leave now if you want. Your training is over.”

Dani scoffed. “But if I do, I won’t graduate. Is that it?”

“How am I supposed to look mom in the eyes and tell her, without a doubt, that you’re prepared for this if you refuse to show me?” Lena moved the rejected weaponry fully out of the way. “Your indecision, Daniela, your self-doubt, those have always been the only obstacles to you becoming a Wolf. And to your merit, I’ve seen you make progress this year, but I’m not convinced that’s enough. I’m not convinced that you won’t go out there and choke.”.

******

Lena’s words burned in a way Dani hadn’t been able to anticipate. The force behind her initial strike was the culmination of every unshed tear, every bruise suffered, every morning and afternoon dedicated to overcoming aches and exhaustion. Furious and mindless—like a wounded animal whose only response to pain is lashing out. Lena merely stepped out of the way of her blades, Dani’s recklessness punished with a precise slash to the forearm. If they were fighting until first blood, it would have been a swift ending.

Dani took a step back to compose herself. The pain didn’t faze her as much as it brought back memories. Of being small compared to her sister. Of being made to feel her every mistake. Of biting down frustration upon frustration. The intrinsic truth that she was, at one point, less of a challenge than a training dummy. Her sight blurred and refocused with a steadying breath. Shadows moved across the ground as dark clouds swirled above their heads. The air was suffocating static. Dani forced a deeper breath and raised her head, meeting her sister’s eyes instead of looking down like a scorned child.

Lena had a reputation for being an effective killer, but she wasn’t particularly known for her swordswomanship, or as a fighter in general. She wasn’t even known to fight. It occurred to Dani that what she knew of her sister’s abilities so far was the bare minimum required during their training sessions. As she stood there, unnervingly tranquil, awaiting her next move, it dawned on Dani how easily her temper would have gotten her killed had Lena intended it.

Another deep breath. A soothing breath. Dani forced herself to regain control of her own senses, to relax her grips on the daggers. She struck again, this time with focus, and precision. Like before, her blades whiffed effortlessly through the air, but met no metal. However, this time when Lena swung her sword, Dani blocked it with her left dagger, not wasting time in striking with her right. Lena backed away from the blow, and the next one, and the one after that. With every dodge she took a couple of steps back, or to the side. Despite being on the offense the entire time, it wasn’t lost on Dani that Lena was leading her around wherever she wanted in the process. Her attempts to shift that dynamic, wrestle control away from her sister, only resulted in more injuries.

Lena was a chess player. She fought, Dani concluded, in the same way she played; with ruthless, calculated precision. Every ache forming in her muscles, every drop of sweat trickling down into her eyes, every stumble and every slash of blade that followed, was premeditated. Lena had no intention—or need—to end this fight quickly. And Dani was just a king getting chased into the corner of the board.

Something snapped under Dani’s right foot and as she felt rope coil around her ankles she mentally cursed herself for not predicting it. The feeling of being swept off her feet wasn’t new at this point. She pushed back against the panicked sensation in the pit of her stomach, against the instinct to drop her weapons and flail her arms. This time she couldn’t afford to waste time in cutting herself down, or lying on the ground wallowing in self pity. She scrambled back to her feet with a groan, just in time to avoid whatever it was the whooshed past her head. A small blade embedded itself into the soil where she’d been lying just a second ago. Lena was nowhere in sight. “Throwing knives.” She muttered, lifting her head and yelling at her surroundings: “You have throwing knives?”

The complaint was drowned out by a rumble of thunder and, of course, no answer came. Branches cracked above her head as they bent from a sudden gust of wind. Dani snorted, muttering under her breath as she headed into the wood. “Oh, I’ll make you yield, alright . . .”

The wind’s merciless assault on the forest masked the sound of Dani’s footsteps. It also made navigating the woods an absolute nightmare of flailing branches, forcing her to duck and cover her head in order to protect her eyes. The inability to see where she was going, or what may be lurking in her surroundings made Dani feel like prey. Lena couldn’t control or predict the weather, but it was undoubtedly working to her advantage.

She was walking against resistance. A loud snap and a thunderous crash in the distance announced the storm’s first fallen tree. Dani pressed on, trying to ignore the thought that it could have just as easily come crashing down on either of their heads. A subtler sound followed, a gentle crunch of grass behind her back; almost imperceptible underneath the howling winds and moaning trees. Dani spun around, throwing one of her daggers at the sound. It met Lena’s sword handle first, but the reaction bought her time to cut the distance between them, and strike. That was all Dani needed. One momentary lapse she could exploit. It wasn’t enough to break through Lena’s guard altogether, but enough to gain control for the first time.

The clash of metal harmonized with the rumble of thunder and a closer crash of lighting. Deep howls yelled out as the wind swerved between trees, splintering wood in its wake. A solitary raindrop landed on Dani’s head—cold and almost as heavy as the dye pellets they’d used for training. Another soon followed, two or three more, and then the sky itself seemed to crash into the earth with a deafening sound. The unrelenting force of the downpour staggered them both on first impact. Dani recovered faster and, as impulsive as Lena had accused her of being, chose to collide head on with her still-armed sister in an effort to knock her off her feet. The impact disturbed every bruise and every cut she suffered in the past hours. That pain amplified as both her and Lena hit the now-muddy ground. Lena’s sword escaped her grasp and Dani caught it before she was able to recover and scramble for it. Dani rolled aside and rose to her feet, using Lena’s own sword to pin her to the ground, the tip of the weapon pressed against her throat. “Yield,” she rasped.

Lena held her eyes, defiant. The scuffle had left her just as breathless, but a smirk played at the corners of her lips. “And what if I won’t?”

Training was over. Dani felt in her hand the amount of pressure the blade exerted on her sister’s flesh. Not enough to wound, not even enough to break skin, far from being deadly whatsoever. What if she won’t? “Lena . . . Yield.”

The smirk turned to a grin.

Dani felt her stomach churn as she added the smallest increment of pressure she could get away with. “Yield.” Please. She pushed the blade further, but not enough to bleed. Nothing. “Twins . . . Curse you to hell . . . YIELD!” Her voice cracked, the water welling up in her eyes was a warm contrast to the cold onslaught of rain, but her hand remained steady as she pushed the tip of the sword past the layer of skin, pausing there, the request wordless this time. When there was, again, no response, she pushed further and a trickle of blood trailed from the cut before instantly washing away from the rain.

If it hurt, Lena didn’t show it; not a flinch, not a twist in her expression. In fact, she laughed. A deep airy laugh, almost relieved. “I yield.”

Dani pulled the sword away and let it fall to the ground. The dagger followed. Whatever nervous, chaotic energy had been fueling her this far immediately drained from her drenched body, leaving an exhausted stupor in its wake.

“Dani,” Lena called, her tone gentle. Dani hummed, fruitlessly wiping the water from her eyes before looking at her sister. Lena held out her hand and she took it, helping her up to her feet despite the multitude of aches it stirred. Once standing, Lena pulled her close and wrapped her in a tight hug. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

Dani’s first instinct was to pull away from her sister, but as Lena held her in place she eventually returned the embrace. The comforting gesture wrung a sudden, undignified sob from her. Around them, the storm continued to rage and build momentum, the forest helplessly bending to its fury. She forced her breaths to settle. “We should get back before a tree comes down on our heads.”

Lena released her with a chuckle. “You know mom will still put you to work, no matter how stabbed and beaten you look, right?”

Dani shrugged, picking up the weapons she’d dropped on the floor and holding Lena’s sword out for her to take. “I’ll live.”

Lena slipped the sword back into its sheath with an amused mumble. “Yeah. I think you might.”

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Author’s Notes 09/10/2020

Hey, guys! Blackbird here. It’s been a little while since I addressed some behind the scenes stuff, but our editing sessions for the past couple of chapters, coincidentally, had sort of a connecting theme for me. And I think this is the best place to address it. So, let’s do that, shall we?

Since I will be addressing chapters 2.11 and 2.12 during this post, as well the Plotstains Perspective posts referring to those chapters, it would be in your best interest to read those beforehand for a better understanding of the specific situations I’m about to discuss, though, I suppose the broader themes of this post could be useful even without that information.

So, what’s the theme I’m talking about? What was my take away from our past two editing sessions? Perception.

In 2.11 we had a situation in which I lacked the awareness of how my words could have been perceived by readers until Plotstains brought it up to me. Now, don’t get me wrong, Maddie makes a rather dark comment about people trying to get her drunk and take advantage of her, implying Lena had been the one person to successfully do so (although, it is worth mentioning the ‘advantage’ Lena intended to take had to do with hindering Maddie’s ability to concentrate on chess, rather than… Whatever her former company intended to do). That part was absolutely intentional. What I didn’t realize was that in the context of the situation; Maddie had been partying with the Wolves the night before, this could be misconstrued as Maddie saying her company the previous night had attempted to do this, when what I was trying to have her imply is that this was a common aspect of her former life in Newhaven; something she had to constantly be on the lookout for, whereas in the Wolfpack while she was tricked into getting drunk, the worst to come out of it was being dragged to training with a hangover. The comment was, as intended, not only supposed to shine a light on certain aspects of Newhaven society (where Maddie was previously from), but also on Maddie’s own view of things like these as just ‘part of it’.

Plotstains has said in the past that his job as editor is to advocate for the reader, and that isn’t the case because I don’t care about your experience with Shadows Rise, but more so because as the writer, my perspective lies primarily with the characters. I know what they know (and more) and I see things from their perspective to a point where my understanding of what the reader sees, or might take away from a simple line such as this, is severely skewed. And in this case the repercussions could have been pretty serious. Not only because it might have put people off, but also because it would do a major injustice to the story I’m trying to tell.

The situation in 2.12 was a little different. Now, before I get into this fully, I would urge you to read the chapter if you haven’t. Even if you don’t care about spoilers, reading what I’m about to say regarding this scene might influence how you look at it, and that’s okay if you’ve already read it, but I’d like people to draw their own conclusions of some things before I tell them what my actual intentions are, or give them any extra insight into these characters. Choice is yours, as always, but keep that in mind.

First things first: As Plotstains mentioned, the bridge leading up to the cemetery was supposed to be wood. And that was a choice I made because a lot of Dani’s part in this chapter is reflecting on how growing up has changed her perspective. The way things look and feel to her now compared to when she was a child. And if you’ve ever run across a wooden bridge; like one of the bridges in my favorite park, you’ll know that a child’s footsteps will sound distinctly different than an adult’s. A stone bridge… Not so much, because stone isn’t as affected by how heavy your steps are. It has no give regardless of the weight that’s on it. And I wanted to add the sound of her steps running across the wooden bridge to that atmosphere I was building up, but… Because I didn’t want any bridge experts out there to lose immersion over this, I made a concession. If you’re reading this and you think my idea was cooler, feel free to comment on Plotstains’ post and let him know. 😛

With that out of the way, the actual serious discussion with the cemetery scene was Dani’s, well, not dialogue; she’s alone, but her conversation with her father’s grave. Plotstains’ initial suggested change was to have the conversation open with the more trivial part of the dialogue, before she goes into talking about her fears and concerns about the Wolf Hunters and possibly becoming the next Alpha. This was a change I didn’t want to compromise on because, again, my perspective lies with the characters and for Dani, these were things she would only be able to voice; even to ‘herself’, on an impulse. These were things she’s been holding on to for at least a year now. Things that needed to get in the way of the trivial ‘catching up’ she goes there to do every year in order to actually come out. But, in a scene as crucial as this, if Plotstains is suggesting something that isn’t my vision, I can’t just say “I’m not changing it, my word is final” and leave it at that. I mean, normally, working with beta readers and editors; sure, that is a thing you can do. And with smaller things, that is something that I will do myself on occasion, but here… His suggestion indicates that my vision isn’t getting across. And before saying no to these changes I don’t want to make, what I really need is to ask why the suggestions were made in the first place and, more importantly, how the scene came across to him.

Plotstains told me that the way I had constructed that scene gave the impression that Dani was blurting out all of this heavy important stuff and then immediately flipping a switch and brushing it off to talk about essentially trivial things. Which made the scene a lot less impactful. That was absolutely not the kind of tonal shift I wanted. So, the next step would be to try to explain how I wanted the scene to come across and my intention behind it.

This is where things became difficult for me in this case because… I have first hand experience with a lot of the conflicting emotions involved with having someone so significant in your life be essentially a blank space. Dani’s father died before she was born, she never met him and everything she knows about him are second hand accounts, from her mother, her stepfather, the Wolfpack as a community. Even though she goes to visit him every year on her birthday, what she imagines he would have thought, or would have told her had he been able, comes from other people and not any actual first-hand knowledge of who he was. And while she understands this, and knows she’s only ever been talking to herself, a part of her still wants to cling to the idea that she can somehow get to know him this way.

I did meet my dad, but I was really young when he died. I have barely any memories of him and a lot of what I ‘know’ about him comes from my mom and my siblings. So, while I never visited his grave or anything, I grew up with that feeling too. Trying to portray that, even though I know how it feels, has been the most difficult part of writing this character for me, the main reason I stalled so much writing this part of the chapter, and why I had such trouble editing it later. It was also a feeling that I had trouble describing to my editor while discussing this scene, especially with how perpetually tired I’ve been.

My experiences also made it difficult for me to look at things as objectively as I’d like. I was frustrated at some point while we were discussing it because I legitimately wanted to say “dude, I know I’m right about this. I know what it’s like”, but I didn’t because it shouldn’t matter. If I have to say what the character is going through, and the writing doesn’t portray that on its own, I’m the one who’s coming up short. It’s not ‘no one gets my vision’ or ‘you don’t know what it’s like’. I’m the one failing to express my vision in a way others can grasp regardless of whether they know what it’s like or not. That’s my shortcoming not theirs.

Being objective about this is one notion I still need to occasionally beat myself over the head with. You can be upset if a scene doesn’t work the way you thought it did, and you absolutely can stand by your vision of what you want a scene to be; just following Plotstains’ initial suggestion wouldn’t have achieved what I wanted either, for instance. What you shouldn’t do is plant your feet so firmly on the ground that you refuse to accept that what you’re seeing isn’t what other people see and you can’t expect or demand that perspective from them. It’s on you to convey things properly. To impart on them the ability to understand.

In the aftermath of our discussions, Plotstains suggested I added a paragraph in between both parts of her dialogue. In it, I tried to the best of my ability at the time to get that feeling across and show how Dani’s perspective of even these visits is starting to shift. So that when she comes around to talking about the smaller things, and eventually just falls silent at the end of the scene, it feels more like her allowing herself to cling to a more innocent outlook. At least, I hope that’s what I did. If you read that scene, let me know how successful I was in the comments. I’d appreciate that.

Also, there’s another small detail I added to that scene that hints something important about Dani’s character. I’m not gonna get into it now, but I’d like to know what you guys think it might be. After Arc 2 closes I might do a retrospective on it before starting Arc 3 and if I do… I’ll actually get into it then.

See you guys on the 16th. Stay safe out there!

B.B

The Plotstains Perspective 2.12

Hello, and again, welcome to the Plotstains Perspective. This time around, I’ll be talking about Shadows Rise 2.12, so please consider clicking the link and reading it before we go any further. Additionally, I want to talk a little further about Neovel. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry, I’ll give a brief explanation later. For now, onto my perspective. 

Shadows Rise did really well last month. More people read it than any other month this year. If you’re a new reader, welcome! Go read the rest before you read this! (if you’re all caught up and have no idea what this is, follow this link to learn more) Glad you found us. For the rest of you, thanks for the continued support. The more of you who read, the more we want to write. I mean, we’ll write anyway, but we’ll have more fun while doing it.

This was a great chapter to edit. I had oodles of fun editing this chapter. I think part of it was for the fact that I didn’t have to make too many technical edits to the chapter. That can make a big difference when you have a limited time to work. It let me focus my time on the smaller details. 

As an example, the bridge that appeared in this chapter was written to be wooden, originally. I was able to focus on this detail and explain that a bridge that must have existed for as long as it did would eventually be replaced by stone. Blackbird told me that this ruined something for her, but she’s said that she will write out her own explanation once I’ve written this, so I’ll leave that alone. I made a lot of other little detail edits like this in this chapter. Hopefully the continuity police won’t come to arrest me. 

The biggest change in this chapter came from the conversation that Dani had with her father in the cemetery. Blackbird and I had a long conversation about what this scene was about. We talked about where the emotional beats should be and how exactly the scene should flow. Was her rambling as impactful if it was placed before or after she talked about her responsibilities? What should the tonal and emotional purpose of the prose be between one part and the other? When everything was said and done, how should the reader have felt? We talked about all of these things, and it was incredibly important that we tried our best to work that out. 


We’d love to hear what you thought about that. How did that scene make you feel? Did it speak to you? If you want to leave a comment, we’d love to hear from you. 

Now onto Neovel

If you don’t remember, Neovel is a website where authors can post their stories. It is among the few places we’ve decided to publish. What is great about this website is that the creators are greatly interested in making this a viable option for professional publication. They pay their authors from their advertising and subscription fee. You can choose to subscribe for a couple of bonus features, or you can just scroll through the library and read the many wonderful stories. Either way, we’ll see a portion of profits. In the end, the more people who read our stuff on this site, the more money we’ll have to put back into creating cool stuff for Shadows Rise. 

Enough of the advertising, though. If you don’t want to read there and instead wish to read it on our blog or on Royal Road, or even on Patreon, you’re more than free to do so. I just want to talk about the wonderful community we’ve discovered on this new Neovel site. 

The people on this site are wonderful. The website creators are all about making their platform something amazing and get very involved with the authors. But more than just the web designers, there are the people actually writing all the stories on this site. Every single one of them with whom we’ve had conversations are wonderful people.

This is the first real group of authors that I feel a good connection with. I’m not much of a community person. I like doing my own thing, finding a corner and just doing it. It was sort of what we did when Shadows Rise was originally a roleplaying game on RoleplayGateway. We kept to our corner of the website. Neovel is different in that there are lots of talented people there and all of them are interested in getting involved with one another. You can’t hide from them, and while with most, I’d find that annoying, this group isn’t abrasive. They’re encouraging and they’re fun to talk to (or just sneakily spy on while browsing Discord). 

That’s enough rambling from me. I’ll talk to you all next time. I hope you all have a great labour day weekend, and until next time . . .

Plotstins

The Heart of The Forest 2.12

Shadows Rise-RR

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[Wolves Camp | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Sunrise]

Dani lay awake, listening to Sarah’s soft breaths resonating in the otherwise silent room. She wanted to sleep in, she’d tried, but sleep wouldn’t return no matter how much she willed it. With a resigned sigh, she pushed her blankets away and sat up. Sarah was sprawled on her stomach, one cheek pressed against her pillow, hair disheveled and concealing part of her face. Dani held back a chuckle. Sarah always moved around so much in her sleep she’d wake up in the morning looking like she’d wrestled a tornado. Her restlessness had been a constant ever since she was a toddler. It wasn’t unusual for Dani to wake up early for training and find her sister with her feet on the pillow or sliding halfway out of the bed. Dani smiled. Her little sister had grown. Their room felt smaller and smaller with each passing year. It hadn’t dawned on Sarah yet, but the thought lingered in the back of Dani’s mind that this was going to be her last birthday living in the Alpha’s cabin. Of course, that meant she would have more room; more independence. It also meant that she wouldn’t be coming back to the same room she’d called home for the past sixteen years. Not all changes were negative, but they were nonetheless, unavoidable changes. Hiding under her blankets like a child trying to escape a nightmare wouldn’t keep those changes away.

Outside, a soft breeze carried with it the sweet scent of flowers and wildberries. Dani’s usual routine would have her seek out breakfast in the dining hall, but upon exiting the Alpha’s cabin, she walked in the opposite direction instead, around the back of the cabin, through a narrow path that led to the river. Her pace was a lazy stroll, occasionally interrupted when she stopped to pick a couple of berries. By the time she reached the river’s edge, Dani had a handful of them, casually popping one in her mouth between steps. She followed the river until she reached a small stone bridge that curved over one of its branches. She dashed across the bridge and stopped on the other side with a soft snicker. When she was little running across that bridge felt like going up and down a giant hill. That same incline felt inconsequentially small to her now.

The trail on the other side of the bridge extended for a few miles and ended on a small valley. The area was beautifully unkempt. Tall grass and wildflowers covered the ground as far as the eye could see. Rows upon rows of engraved stone tablets peered out amongst the vegetation. Trampled grass created makeshift paths in between rows. Dani, followed one of them, popping another sweet berry in her mouth as she made her way to a particular Gravestone. The engraving, crudely etched onto the stone, read: Richard Preston, 2483 – 2509. She stopped in front of it and sat on the grass, breathing a soft sigh.

“Hey, dad.” Her greeting lingered in the air, unanswered. “Sorry I came in early. I guess that means I don’t get to tell you how my day went this year, but. . . I don’t know, I guess I was anxious. It’s been a strange year.” Dani looked away, putting another berry in her mouth distractedly as she searched for words. “It’s a nice morning, though. Mom said you liked spring the best. I’m still more of a fall kind of person. There’s nothing better than crunching a pile of leaves, is there?” She used her makeshift breakfast to stall for time, chewing slowly as she searched for words. “I . . . Okay, so . . . I asked mom. I asked her about the day you died. The Wolf Hunters, how that started; the whole thing. I know she didn’t want to talk about it but I had to, I needed answers. And now that I have them. I just don’t know,” she stopped, trying to swallow the knot forming in her throat, “I don’t know what I should do with it. Tom said no one can make me Beta or Alpha unless I accept. He said you’d tell me that if I don’t feel being Alpha is my rightful place, then I should say no. The problem is, how the hell am I supposed to know that? A couple of years ago, I just wanted to be able to shirk responsibility and not feel like I failed the entire clan, but now. . .” Dani groaned, tossing the few remaining berries away and watching as a couple of birds descended on them. She wiped her hand on her tunic and ran her fingers through her hair. “No one’s going to say it, but I can tell they need me to be ready for this. The more this conflict with the Hunters escalates the more I feel the clan looking to me like I’m their safety net. It makes me feel responsible, and I’m not sure if I want to be.”

Dani stared at the grave, almost hopeful, as if the gentle rustling of grass could suddenly transform into an answering whisper. No answer came. Dani shook her head, her chuckle broken by a choke. “Don’t know what I was expecting there.” Her laughter softened, then ceased with a soft exhale.

Dani had only been ten years old when she started coming here alone. Back then it felt more acceptable, more natural, to assume the grass could whisper, or that rocks could somehow speak for the dead. Her father’s voice had always been—always would be—a figment of her imagination. A game of pretend she played with herself. Another bout of stray, shaky laughter escaped as Dani wiped her eyes on her sleeve. She briefly glanced at the wet spot staining the fabric before letting her hand drop, holding her head up, and forcing a steadier breath.

“So that’s what’s been going on in my life the past year or so. How have you been?” she mumbled. “Is the weather nice down there?” She leaned back on her hands and looked up at the swaying tree branches hanging over the field, an easier smile gradually forming on her lips. “I bet you miss the fresh air, right? I’d miss feeling the breeze . . . The smell of grass and flowers. Also food. Food is great. Definitely worth living for. Lena and I went to this village, you know, to try to get some information on the Hunters and hmmm . . . They made some really great corn cakes. It’s a shame we can’t go back there anymore.”

Dani examined the grave with a sideways glance, laying down on the patch of crushed grass. The silence that permeated the air was heavy and comfortable, like a thick blanket. Warm rays of light spread out further over the graveyard with the passing of time as the sun rose higher. Sarah would be awake soon, and like it or not, Dani knew she wasn’t allowed to spend her birthday in complete solitude. Even if Lena would be willing to respect her space, Sarah knew no such boundaries. She sat up and stretched. “I should go. I don’t put it past Sarah to track me down this far. She’s persistent, that one.” Dani got on her feet and brushed stray blades of grass from her hair. “I love you, dad. See you next year.”

[Wolves Camp | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Midmorning]

Frantic, consistent knocks rose Lena from her first decent sleep in over a week. She groaned in frustration and tried to ignore, but of course it didn’t stop.

“Is someone hammering something?” Eldric muttered, his voice muffled on her shoulder.

“No. It’s Sarah.”

Eldric hummed. “Who gave the nine-year-old a hammer?”

Lena opened her eyes and gently elbowed him away so she could get up. “She’s just knocking on the door, you dope.”

Eldric groaned and rolled away. “She’s not gonna stop, is she?”

“No.” Lena sat up, rubbing her eyes. “It’s Dani’s birthday today.”

“Oh.” Eldric stretched with a tired yawn. “So you’re going up the river?”

“Yes.” Lena found a pair of slippers and left the room to finally get the door open. “Alright, I’m up, stop it.”

The knocking stopped, but upon opening the door Lena was met with the crossed arms and raised shoulders of an agitated nine-year-old. “What took you so long!”

“What do you think, Sarah? I was sleeping.”

Sarah frowned. “It’s the middle of the morning, you should be up by now.” She assessed Lena carefully, her expression softening. “Does your head hurt again?”

“No, I feel fine. I just wanted to sleep in. I thought Dani would be doing the same.” Lena made way for Sarah to enter the cabin. “Sit down for a bit. I need to change.”

Sarah entered and took a seat at the table. “Dani wasn’t home when I woke up and no one’s seen her around. I wanted to go look for her at the cemetery but dad said I’m not allowed to bother her there.”

“And he’s right. You don’t disturb someone when they’re at the cemetery. It doesn’t matter who. If Dani’s out there, she’ll be back soon.”

“I don’t understand why she has to go there every year,” Sarah said, tapping her foot against the floorboards.

“That’s a good thing,” Lena said. “People go to the cemetery to talk to people they’ve lost. Why they do it is up to them, but it’s like any other conversation: it’s rude to interrupt.”

Sarah hummed. “So, if anyone in the clan dies, they go to the cemetery, right?”

“I mean, they don’t go anywhere if they’re dead, but . . . They are buried there, yes.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “You know what I meant. Don’t be a word-mincer.”

Lena chuckled. “Word-mincer?”

Sarah shrugged. “Isn’t that what you call someone who picks other people’s words apart?”

“I guess it can be.” Lena shook her head and turned towards her bedroom door. “Just, sit there for a second and let me go change.”

Sarah paused for a moment, frowning, then asked: “Is your real mom there too?”

Lena froze with her hand on the door handle and, pushing past a moment of hesitation, answered, “She’s not my ‘real mom’, Sarah. But yes, she’s there too.”

Sarah shifted in her seat. “Oh. Birth mom, then?”

Lena relaxed with a soft sigh. “That’s more correct, yes. Think about it like this: am I your real sister?”

“Don’t be stupid. Of course you are,” Sarah scolded.

“Then, by that logic, who is my real mother?”

“. . . Mom is.”

“That’s right.” Lena opened her bedroom door. “Just wait a couple minutes and we’ll go see if Dani’s back.”

“Okay.”

Lena entered the bedroom and closed the door behind her back. Eldric was already out of bed and dressed for the day, occupied with the laces on his boots. “Are you alright?” he asked without looking up.

“I’m not so sure,” Lena admitted. “It’s complicated.”

“If she’s asking questions you don’t feel comfortable answering, you should let your mother handle it.” Eldric finished tying the laces and looked up. “There’s no reason for you to feel responsible. Most of it happened before you even existed. It’s their mess.”

Lena didn’t meet his eyes as she walked past the bed, focusing on fetching a change of clothes from. “It’s not about responsibility, El. I guess I just,” she paused, rummaging through her dresser’s contents while attempting to organize her thoughts. “As stupid as it may sound, I just want to be able to control the narrative for once. It is technically my past, right? So why have I never had a say on how, or under what circumstances, this story gets told? It’s alway something people find out about me sooner or later and no one ever questions whether I have anything to say about it.” She picked up her clothes and tossed them on the bed. “You’re right, it all happened before I even existed, but hey. . . I exist now.”

Eldric sat on the edge of the bed throughout her rambling, and Lena could feel his attention on her as she kicked off her slippers, the footwear slamming into the wall with a harsh thud. The wooden frame creaked under the thin mattress as he leaned more heavily into it. “I don’t think that sounds stupid. I understand,” he told her. “Sarah asked about the cemetery, right? Why don’t you take her there sometime? Just tell her the whole story, be straightforward like you would be about anything else. And if she asks how you feel, be honest about that too.”

Lena nodded, silent as she changed her clothes and put on her boots. Sarah’s impatient foot-tapping could be faintly heard coming from the other room. “What are you going to be doing today? She asked, sparing him a short glance.

Eldric sat up straighter, scratching the back of his head. “I don’t know yet. I think I’ll just go around camp and see what work needs to be done.”

“Mhm,” Lena mumbled, looking around for her hair brush. She spotted it on the floor, but as she bent down to get it, Eldric scooped it up instead. Lena reached to take the brush out of his hand and frowned when he pulled it away, concealing it behind his back. “Eldric, what are you doing? Give me that.”

He offered a calm smile. “I will, I just want you to pay attention to me for a second.”

“I’ve already been paying attention to you for fifteen seconds. Considering how you’re asking, I think that’s more than enough.”

Eldric shook his head, amused. “Why are you so damn stubborn, kid?” He held the hair brush out to her, but refused to let go when she grabbed it, pulling her into a hug. “I just want to remind you that you’re going to spend time with your sisters for Dani’s birthday. All this heavy subject matter will still be there tomorrow. Your sister will only turn sixteen today.”

Lena scoffed half-heartedly, the hug doing its job of mellowing her out. “You’re right. I know.”

Eldric’s smirked. “I’m always right.”

Lena shook her head and finally pulled the hairbrush out of his grip. “Just go on and be useful. I can’t leave Sarah waiting too long, she’ll get bored and start touching my stuff.”

Eldric chuckled and let go of the embrace. “Alright. Just remember to have fun today.”

“I will.” Lena smirked, raising her voice. “Careful crossing the living room. She’s bitey today.”

“Hey!” Sarah complained.

Eldric snorted. “Don’t provoke the kid like that. She already hates me.”

Lena withheld a headshake, running the brush through her hair. “Sarah doesn’t hate anyone, El. She’s just pouty about not getting more attention. It doesn’t have that much to do with you.”

“I don’t know, those dye pellets to the crotch felt awfully personal,” Eldric muttered, opening the bedroom door. “I’ll see you later.”

“Later. Remember to have fun too.”

Eldric shook his head as he walked out into the living room, offering Sarah a casual greeting as he walked past. The fact her sister refused to utter a response wasn’t lost on Lena and she added this animosity to the growing list of topics she’d need to address as soon as possible. With her hair finally done, she left the room as well. “Alright, squirt. Let’s go see if Dani’s back yet and, if you want to go fishing you know what we’re going to need.”

Sarah jumped out of her seat, ready to get going, and then immediately lost her excitement. “Ugh, worms. Gross.”

Lena smiled, leading the way out of the cabin. “The fish don’t think so.”

“Why can’t fish like fruit?” Sarah complained, kicking up dirt as she followed Lena down the path to camp. “Why do they have to eat live things?”

“I don’t know. I mean, if you really think about it, is it that much better for us to eat dead things?”

“I’m becoming a vegetarian.” Sarah declared, disgust clear on her face.

“That’ll be over next time there’s mince pie for dinner and you know it.”

Sarah let out an exaggerated groan of defeat. “You’re right. Ground up animal corpses are too delicious. I’m not strong enough to resist.”

“Then you shouldn’t judge the fish. Worms are like mince pie to them.”

Lena stopped as they reached the center of camp and glanced around the central clearing. It was late enough into the morning that there was constant movement between Instructors and Recruits heading out to the training grounds, Workers busying themselves with whatever was necessary to keep the encampment running, and Actives making preparations to leave on their next assignment; same as any other morning. Upon first glance Dani was nowhere in the area. “Alright, why don’t you go get your fishing pole and whatever else you want to bring? I’ll go look for Dani and grab some food in the mess hall. We can meet back at my house and start going up the river from there.”

Sarah nodded, her “Okay!” already distant as she ran off to grab her things.

[Valcrest Forest | Inviditas, 15th, 2525 | Early Afternoon]

The heat of the early-afternoon sun was offset by a cool breeze. The smell of sweet berries and herbal tea mixed with the earthy scent of damp grass emanating from underneath their picnic blanket. Dani’s favorite fishing spot was a grassy field upstream from camp. The area was just outside their territory, but still deep enough into the forest—and close enough to the clan’s protection—for them to feel at ease. The stronger current made fish sprier there and if not for Sarah’s insistence in tossing them back into the water, they would be going home with a decent haul by the end of the day. Dani complained that all they were doing was fattening up the fish for someone else to eat, but the nine-year-old was adamant in allowing them to live another day. Sensing that their little argument might escalate, Lena diffused the situation with a suggestion. She and Dani could play a few hands of Olith and leave the fish to fend for themselves. Sarah’s enthusiasm was obvious compared to Dani, but she agreed to the game, recognizing that upsetting her would potentially sour their entire afternoon together.

Sarah rushed to get her Olith deck and box of tokens from her bag and they all sat together on the grass, under the shade of an oak tree. Lena didn’t usually partake in card games, so, in order to avoid any further arguments, took it upon herself to deal their first hand. They each received seven cards, appraised what they had, and made their starting bets. After that, Dani had a choice to make; try for a military or diplomatic approach. Military hands were easier to make as they utilized the number cards; which she had plenty of, but they could be easily trumped by Diplomatic or Divine hands. She could either keep her number cards and hope she can build a strong enough hand with those to win, or… Relinquish all of her number cards and hope for a Diplomatic hand instead. Dani looked up, Sarah had already exchanged two of her cards and was unabashedly enjoying her struggle. Dani snorted and turned in her five number cards, hoping for the best. Lena dealt her replacement cards and left them to it, turning her attention to a book she had brought. Dani examined her newly-dealt hand and held back a smile. Once again Sarah was waiting for her to make a move.

“Dani, come on. In or out? Why are you taking so long?”

Dani glanced at Sarah from behind her fan of playing cards, eyes narrowing. Her sister’s expression was uncharacteristically stoic as she sat lazily on the grass, cards resting face down beside her. Dani focused her attention back on her own hand with a mutter.

“I’m thinking.”

“Thinking is for chess. This is Olith; you either have a hand or you don’t.” Sarah smirked. “I’m thinking you probably don’t or you would have called by now.”

“Funny, I’m thinking that since you’re being so cocky, I should probably raise.”

Sarah stared her down, unmoved. “You wouldn’t. You don’t have the balls.”

“Excuse me, what?” Lena interjected, glancing at them from behind the pages of her book.

Dani had been doing a good job of keeping a straight face so far, but Sarah’s innocent “What?” finally caused her to break into hysterics.

Lena glared at Dani, keeping her tone even. “Sarah, where did you get that from?”

“Uhm, from watching some of the older boys play last week.”

Lena pinched the bridge of her nose. “Alright, that shouldn’t surprise me. Just . . . Don’t go around repeating everything they say.”

“What’s wrong with what I said?”

Lena hummed, looking out into the river. “Well . . .”

Dani managed to control her laughter in time to cut in. “Balls are ‘boy parts’, you know, private parts. It’s a rude thing to say.” She chuckled, toying with her pile of tokens. “You are right though, I don’t have them, but I am going to raise you.”

“Daniela,” Lena scolded.

“What?” Dani shrugged, tossing her token down on the grass between Sarah and herself. “She’s not too young to understand there are boy parts and girl parts.”

“That makes no sense,” Sarah muttered, tossing her own tokens on the grass to cover the bet.

“Of course it does,” Dani answered. “See, boys have—”

“Not that!” Sarah laughed. “I know about that. I mean, it makes no sense to say that if you want to call someone a coward. If no girls have balls that would mean all girls are cowards. Which is stupid.”

“Stop saying ‘balls’.” Lena warned.

“You just said it yourself,” Sarah argued. “Don’t be so hyper-critical.”

Dani chuckled. “I think you mean ‘hypocritical’, squirt.”

“Oh.” Sarah turned to Dani, inquisitively. “What’s the difference?”

“Hypocritical is when you criticize someone for something that you do yourself, which . . . Lena can be sometimes. Hyper-critical is when you just criticize people a lot; which is something Lena is all of the time.”

“Hey,” Lena objected. “Not all of the time.”

“Helena, I bet one day your gravestone will read ‘actually, this is why you’re wrong’.”

Lena shook her head, trying to disguise a trace of laughter. “Alright you two . . . First of all, I only tell people they’re wrong, when they are. I don’t see how that’s my fault. Second, I’m a grown adult and I can say ‘balls’ as much as I damn please.”

Sarah arched an eyebrow. “Is it any less rude if an adult says it?”

Dani shook her head. “No, but see . . . If an adult does something rude, they have to face adult consequences for it. You’re a child, you’re mostly exempt from those consequences, but you also have to obey the adults in your life.”

Sarah frowned. “Ugh, does that mean I have to obey you now?”

“Technically, yes.” Dani shrugged. “It’s not a great deal for me either, kiddo. Now I’m responsible for you too, you know?”

“Oh, so . . . If I do something wrong, you could get in trouble too?”

Dani shook her head. “Before you start getting any ideas in your head, no, it’s not exactly like that. It’s a little more complicated, which is why we should probably stop talking about this stuff.” She gestured towards Sarah’s cards. “Show me what you have.”

Sarah collected her cards from the grass. “You’re talking about ‘adult consequences’.”

“Mhm.” Dani smiled. “Don’t make me say it.”

Sarah rolled her eyes. “I’ll understand when I’m older.”

“Exactly.” Dani smirked. “Come on, are you gonna show me your hand or not? You were all talk just a couple of minutes ago.”

Sarah smirked. “You raised, why don’t you show your hand first?”

“Alright, sure.” Dani lowered her cards, laying them face up on the grass. “I have a Peace Treaty. Five Queens backed by Knights.”

Sarah appraised the displayed card with an impressed hum. “That’s a solid hand. I probably would have raised too if I was holding one of those.”

Dani frowned. “You have a Divine Hand, don’t you?”

Sarah lowered her cards with a satisfied grin. “Five Twins of different suits. That’s a Holy Fist!”

Dani groaned. “Ugh, you absolute brat.”

“I was going for a full Pantheon, but I didn’t have time to switch out the last two cards while you were busy laughing.” Sarah’s grin was unwavering as she collected the tokens.

Dani shook her head in disbelief. “I can’t believe you won’t even let me win on my birthday.”

“Humility is a gift,” Sarah told her, nodding along to her own words, her grin widening as she added: “Happy birthday.”

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The Plotstains Perspective 2.11

Hello again. Time for another Plotstains Perspective. This time around, we’re talking about the goings on in Shadows Rise 2.11, so as always, go have a read if you haven’t already. I think I’d like to have a little fun with this issue. I’d like to exclusively talk about a single sentence in the story and discuss why we nearly had a terrible misunderstanding. Then I’ll have a small bit about the chess that was played. 

So early into the chapter, we get a look at Madeline. She’s quite hung over from the night before and we can primarily blame it on Lena, who convinced her into a drinking contest. This, of course, wasn’t the smartest move because Lena can’t get drunk, but Madeline didn’t know that. She’s woken up and tells Lena about how she’s happy to know that she was the only one who took advantage of her that night.

I flagged this moment, instantly, explaining that I didn’t mind the comment, but warned that it might not look all too great in the #MeToo era. And while Blackbird agreed that it might not be kosher, that it is a fact of Valcrest that people who do this exist and there was no reason to hide that, to which I agreed. I did, however, mention that it seemed as though, in the original draft, that Madeline was talking about men in the Wolfpack taking advantage of her, to which I received back a text-based look of horror. 

I can’t remember exactly how the original draft went, but it had somehow made it sound like the men at the Wolfpack were a bunch of perverted rapey guys, which totally isn’t the case. The Wolfpack as a group wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour in their society. Given how close a tight-knit the group is, it would be wildly inappropriate for anyone to act in such a way. What Blackbird had meant to say was what, I hope, was finally implied in the chapter; that before her time in the Wolfpack, when she went to taverns and got drunk, men would often try to take advantage of her. 

The worst part was that if it weren’t for the fact that I just wanted to make Blackbird aware of the #MeToo thing, the original version of the sentence would have probably made it into the final draft. 

If you’re an author, this is something that you need to consider. Take a close look at every sentence you write and consider how someone who is reading it for the first time will look at it. An editor isn’t going to be able to catch a mistake like that because they might not realise that it’s a mistake, and neither will the reader. They’ll get an impression of something in a wildly different way than you intended. Sometimes their idea might be better, in which case, own it! In this case, however, we probably would have gone our merry ways, while people thought that the Wolfpack was full of rapists. That’s no good and I’m glad we caught it. 

Now, onto chess! 

I’ve been watching a lot of chess recently. As some of you may be aware, chess has seen a massive boost in popularity in part due to the pandemic, but also due to some major Twitch streamers helping to popularise it. I’m not going to go into much detail about that, though, as it doesn’t really matter. Needless to say, I’ve always enjoyed chess, but recently, the activity behind the chess scene has made the game a lot more fun. 

Chess is super important in Valcrest. Being a game which is presumably created by the god of war himself, it’s literally a sacred game. So be warned that this isn’t the last time chess will pop up in our series. 

This is the first instance where a game of it is actually played, though, and because of that, I wanted to make sure that the terminology and play sounded realistic. First step was to ask Blackbird what sort of skill level both players were at. How close was the game? Who wins and with what pieces? Then came the research. Since Blackbird knows next to nothing about chess, this was exclusively a job for me. 

I looked through a bunch of games over on chess.com, humming and hawing over how I wanted the game to play out. Of course, the best descriptions of chess will hopefully say something about the characters themselves and the things they are talking about, too, so I kept that in the back of my head as I searched. In the end, I didn’t find any specific games, but I was inspired by a couple of games that I watched. Unfortunately, I don’t have the games on hand to show you, but I’d be glad to do that in the future. 

What do you think? For the next game of chess (and there will be a next), should I find an actual game for you to follow along after you’ve read? I’d be happy to provide something like that in the future. Let me know in the comments. 

Until next time,

-Plotstains

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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Valcrest Update [12/08/2020]

Good day everyone! As promised in the latest Plotstains Perspective, there were a couple of projects in the pipeline that we wanted to talk about. One of them is a special Plotstains Perspective that is still in the works, but the special perks for Patreon are now ready!

We’ve updated our map! 

Although not too dissimilar from the old map, it has a few new features added, which have us excited. Over the course of three hours and with the art skills acquired from my terrible experience in grade 9 art class, The Crew has come up with some fancy new emblems. Six locations have been given unique markers.

These photos are available for anyone to have a look (just follow this link to view the official page), but we are offering something extra special to our most generous Patrons. The lovely artist, Plotstains, will hand draw the map with the new symbols and a personalized message and mail it directly to your address. 

Please have a look at our Patreon if you are interested. Not only will you receive some great perks by donating, but it also helps The Shadows Crew focus more of their time on writing fantastic stories for you. 

-The Crew