Interlude 04: Awakening

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[Valcrest Plains | Helios 3rd, 2519 | Midday]

“Your mother told me she plans to move you to more isolated accommodations soon. Is that so?”

Lena hummed agreement, eyes wandering across the flower-infested fields rather than focusing on the Healer. The sun was at its highest point and the cacophony of colors did nothing but aggravate the pain flaring behind her eyes. Yet, she preferred to suffer through it in favor of avoiding the man’s scrutiny. Her mother’s words were a distant reminder in the back of her mind. Urgent, almost pleading: Jon Witters is likely the only person in Valcrest who can help you, Lena. Whether or not you like it, it’s important that you try. The Alpha wasn’t one to plead, even less with her children, so when the healer asked that she please focus, she relented, bringing her attention to him at last. “Yes, that’s so. I’m about old enough and my sisters need to be near my parents more than I do at this point. It makes sense.”

Witters smiled briefly. “Is that how you feel about this situation? Your mother believes being more isolated will alleviate the nightmares.”

“It’s one feeling I have.” Lena frowned, rubbing her eyes and looking away from the flowers now. Everything in that field was far too bright. “Why does it matter?”

“How you feel about your Enlightenment can affect it in ways you don’t yet realize, girl. The heart and the mind aren’t separate entities. Feelings generate thoughts, they generate intent, even if subconscious. And in your case in particular, thoughts can be devastatingly powerful.”

“Not very encouraging, old man. I thought you Healers learned tact as part of your training.”

Witters smiled. “True, very true. It has been many, many decades since I completed my training, however.” The old Healer’s smile persisted as he guided her on their walk, past the flower fields. “In other words, I’m far too old for such pleasantries. Likewise, you’re far too intelligent to entertain such condescensions, aren’t you, girl?”

Lena hummed, unanswering, the corners of her lips twisting in a grimace. Their walk led them past ruins, through fields of tall dry grass, and into one particular village. While not as bright as the colorful flower fields, the sun cascaded brightness and warmth upon what was almost an idyllic scene. The atmosphere was light, children played in the center square, their laughter carrying in the breeze. Why did their happiness feel like ice coursing through her veins? She swallowed a knot in her throat and finally spoke. “Why . . . Why are we here? Where are you trying to get with this?”

“Your inability to control your enlightenment isn’t the cause of these nightmares. Rather, it’s the opposite. These nightmares, or rather whatever emotional reaction you’re having to these nightmares, are likely the cause of your imbalance.”

“After I move the nightmares will stop.” Lena’s tone was more hopeful than sure. The more they walked into the center of this village the stronger her unease grew.

“These dreams may not have been born from your mind, Helena, but that doesn’t erase the fact they reside there now.” Witters smiled and nodded as passing villagers offered their greetings. “You must understand that your subconscious is the part of your mind that holds on to all the thoughts you’d rather push aside, all the memories you wish to erase, the feelings you refuse to confront. They never truly leave, girl. They burrow, they hibernate and sooner or later they awaken. For you, the more you try to escape your thoughts, the more prone to these lapses you’ll become.”

Lena hummed acknowledgment, walking in silence across the village and ignoring the occasional stares of its inhabitants. The homes were simple stone cabins with doors and windows framed in dark wood. Some had been built more recently than others, the wooden doors polished and pristine, the stone unblemished. Others looked ragged; worn and weary. One in particular sat in the distance, as though it was something the town itself was scared to touch. Her feet were drawn to it despite her will, eyes locked on the dilapidated surface of a door. The wood was cracked in multiple places, the hinges rusted over as though they hadn’t been moved in years. Flakes of light green paint still clung to the wood in places, but any real color had long been stripped by the elements. Lena’s vision of the door blurred, alternating between what was right in front of her, and what had once been. A smoother surface, colors no longer vibrant but still present, the occasional scuff mark along the edges. She reached out to touch it and the brief image of another hand, wrapped in a familiar leather bracer, flashed before her eyes, leaving her own hand in its place as it faded.

“Helena.”

A firm hand grabbed her shoulder, bringing her crashing down to reality. Lena lowered her shaking hand and forced her gaze away from the house. Her entire body suddenly felt cold and heavy. The villagers were watching her intently, some appearing frazzled and fearful, their menial tasks suddenly abandoned. Only the children continued to play, blissfully oblivious to anything strange having taken place. “I . . . Hm . . .” She closed her eyes and inhaled. “Did I do it again?”

“Briefly,” Witters informed, gently guiding her away from the house. “Don’t worry, they’re merely startled. This isn’t the worst occurrence they’ve witnessed.”

The levity in the Healer’s tone was far from reassuring. Had he been in her mind, or did he simply know to bring her here? It couldn’t just be coincidence. “May we please leave? I don’t want any more staring.”

Witters guided her by the shoulder, leading the way back to the White Shadows’ camp. “The first time we spoke, after your awakening, I explained that the life of a telepath should be an exercise in discipline. You cannot hope to gain control of yourself through frightfulness and avoidance.” His tone was soft, yet stern. “You’re still very young, Helena. At this point it’s fair to say you’ve barely lived. What you fear, what deep regrets you may have, these thoughts you wish to push to the darkest parts of your mind . . . As daunting as it all may seem to you, they are still the worries of a frightened child. If you can’t find within yourself the willpower to confront them now, I fear for how you’ll fare in the future.”

Kind as the words were, they dealt a painful blow. “It was just a dream.” Lena’s voice quivered despite her will. “I . . . I needed it to just be a dream.”

“You can’t bend reality to your will, girl. No mortal holds that kind of power, nor should they.” He sighed. “Come, let’s make you some tea. You must rest before I send you home.”

[Wolves Camp | Helios 12th, 2519 | Midmorning]

The cabin was nice; not that big but still much bigger than her space in the Alpha’s cabin. It consisted of a small living room with a fireplace and table, and a separate bedroom. Lena walked past the living room and into her new bedroom. She sat on the bed, looking up at the wall shelves, and realized she’d have to pick and choose which books to put up, at least for now.

“This looks nice,” her mother spoke from the living room. “There’s a fireplace, you can hear the stream outside, that’s good for sleeping.”

Lena smiled stiffly. “Yeah.” Her nightmares had subsided for the first few days after returning from the White Shadows camp, but soon returned. The inevitability of this moment hung over her head as the workers cleared out the cabin and repurposed it for use. Claire was right, it was nice—the bubbling river outside sounded almost hypnotically soothing—but in the back of her mind, Witters’ warning still rang persistently true.

These dreams may not have been born from your mind, Helena, but that doesn’t erase the fact they reside there now.

Her unenthusiastic response drew Claire into the bedroom, carrying the final box of her belongings which she deposited on the bed. “Those two shelves won’t be enough for all your books. You’ll have to pick what you want to put up for now.”

Lena hummed, examining her three cases of books. “I guess the nicer looking ones and the ones I don’t read anymore. I don’t have to keep reorganizing them if I don’t take them down anyway.”

“Smart girl. So these?” Claire pointed at the bigger box of the three, which contained heavier, nice looking leather bound tomes.

“Yeah those nice looking ones dad got me and, uhm,” she paused to examine the boxes, “those history books. I’ve read all of those already.”

Claire nodded and started to place the books on the shelves; the bigger, classier tomes at each end and the smaller soft leather bound books in the center. It wasn’t how she would organize them herself, but they looked good that way. With one of the shelves full, she began to place more books on the second shelf. Lena watched as each book was placed neatly upon the wooden surface, one by one, in a similar arrangement as the previous. And as she watched each book fall into place a question began to gnaw at her, more and more persistently with each one, and when the last one was finally placed on the shelf, she spoke up. “Mom . . . Who was she?”

The question was vague and the moment it left her lips, Lena was sure it wouldn’t make sense. Yet, her mother tensed where she stood, fingers digging into the book’s spine. Her body relaxed a moment later with a deep weary sigh. “You haven’t had your tea yet today, have you?” she asked, releasing the book and pushing it back so that it was leveled with the others. “Come, let’s make you some and then . . . then we can have this conversation.”

Lena nodded behind her mother’s back, unable to discern any emotion from her voice as she followed her out of the room. The workers left both a kettle and a cooking pot to be used with the fireplace. The herbs the healers supplied to try and contain the side effects of her enlightenment were stored in a small pouch secured amongst her clothes. Lena retrieved it while her mother ignited the fireplace and fetched water from the river. As the kettle hung above the flames, they sat at the small square table face to face. Lena tried to hold her mother’s gaze but wasn’t able to do it for very long. As long as she could remember, she’d never seen her look this disheartened.

“I honestly hoped not to have this conversation quite this soon,” Claire started with a heavy sigh. “Jonathan Witters contacted me when we first brought you to him and you told him about this dream you had. He explained the nature of your gift to me and warned me that this day would come soon, but I . . .  I was hopeful, and you know I’m not one to do so, but I prayed it wouldn’t be this soon. You are brilliant, love, but there are things you are still much too young to comprehend.”

“Alright. I guess ‘who is she’ is a far more complicated question than it seems.” Lena tried to smile through the rotten pit festering in her stomach.

“When you were eight and I sat you down to explain how you aren’t originally ours, I said one day I would tell you about your origins—where you come from, who you’ve come from—once you were old enough to understand it. I had planned to wait until after you graduated. I wasn’t prepared for you to dig your way into my memories the way you did.” Claire stood as the kettle whistled, her back turned as she pulled it out of the fire. “To answer your question more directly, Helena, her name was Lucille. We grew up together, she was . . . the closest thing to a sister I ever had.” Without turning around, she began scouring the small kitchen area until she located— inside the cooking pot—a dusty, unused cup. “She was, much like you, a brilliant student and a talented recruit. Much like you, she was also very aware of it.” There was a noticeable smile and a warm fondness in Claire’s voice as she prepared the tea, back still turned. “About a year before you were born—I hadn’t been Alpha for very long yet—I sent Luce on what was supposed to be a simple contract. A member of the City Guard in Blackpond had been using his position to extort some of the local businesses for protection money. Things got violent and the shopkeeps decided to pool their resources and contract us to get rid of their problem.”

Claire brought the cup of tea to the table and placed it in front of Lena, the ceramic cup making a gentle clink against the tabletop. “The contractors wanted to make it look like he died on the job. Despite the extortion scheme, they wanted to make sure his wife and small son would still be taken care of by the city after he died.” She sat and motioned towards the tea cup. “Go ahead, love.”

Lena took a small sip and grimaced at the taste. “Keep going. What happened after she took the contract?”

“I’m not entirely sure. She didn’t report back. We heard no news of the contract being completed or her whereabouts. I was . . . inconsolable, I thought something had gone wrong, that she had gotten killed or sent to the dungeons. We looked for her and . . .” Claire chuckled, a bitter note catching in the back of her throat. “Like I said, she was brilliant. And if she didn’t want to be found, it wouldn’t be that simple. Still, the scouts we sent to investigate informed that Lucille hadn’t failed to eliminate her target exactly. The truth is she never attempted. Upon further investigation it was discovered she became involved with him.”

Lena paused briefly, but nodded and continued forcing down her tea, staring down at the tabletop.

“At this point we had to consider her a deserter. We, uhm . . . I was expecting, since all she’d done so far was not fulfill a contract, that we could bring her back and resolve the situation. Talk it out. I didn’t want . . .” Claire stopped talking with a soft, ragged breath. Lena’s gaze fixed on the surface of the table with even more intensity as she recognized the sound of a restrained sob. A few moments passed before she continued to speak, her voice steady once again. “I sent three Actives to search for her, one of them was Amelia Fletcher.”

“Eldric’s mom?” Lena asked, looking up to meet her mother’s eyes.

“Yes.” Claire sighed. “Amelia was the first Wolf to find Lucille and we never learned what happened between them, but she didn’t survive the encounter.”

“Okay,” Lena mumbled, standing up from the table and walking away under the guise of getting more tea, despite hating it. “Okay, so . . . She, uh, she failed to fulfill her contract, deserted and then committed treason by killing another Wolf.”

“Yes.”

“She killed Eldric’s mother . . . that’s why . . . . That . . .” She swallowed back a lump forming in her throat. “That’s why his father hates me so much. That’s why . . .” A breath caught in her throat. “Does the entire clan know about this?”

“When a Wolf is branded a traitor the entire clan is notified. After Amelia was slain and given her burial, Lucille was irrevocably marked for execution. In light of what happened with Amelia I made the decision to personally seek her out and carry out the sentence immediately without bringing her before the clan. And that . . . that would be what you saw.”

“Alright.” Lena dropped any and all pretenses of tea, hands falling at her sides, fists clenching. She could remember the woman’s face as if she’d been the one standing at that doorway; light blue eyes reflecting the soft glow of a fireplace, dark hair cascading down her cheeks. The look of peaceful acceptance in her eyes plagued her night after night for the past year. Even in her waking hours, there was much underneath she had tried, to the best of her abilities, to decipher. “That’s where you found me.”

“Yes. That was where and how I found you.” Claire’s voice was unmistakably shaken. “You started crying, probably because you realized you were alone and I turned around, I came in, and I picked you up. I didn’t know what to do exactly, but I didn’t want to linger in Rosefeld any longer. I went to the White Shadows instead. Their leader came out to meet me and we discussed the situation. Lucille had a few friends in Rosefeld here and there, any one of them would happily take you as their own, but I . . .” She breathed out. “I couldn’t leave you. It didn’t feel right. So I brought you home. And now here we are, pup. That’s the whole story.”

“Alright,” Lena’s voice cracked, her mouth suddenly dry, and she poured herself more tea at last, taking a small drink. “I . . . Was it . . .” She took a deep breath, setting the cup back down on the mantelpiece, back still turned to the table. “Was it guilt?”

“No.” There was a heaviness in Claire’s voice as she answered, but there was no hesitation. “I’m the Alpha, Helena. I loved your mother like family; and still do no matter what mistakes she’d made, but the moment she took the life of another Wolf, she forced my hand. And she knew that. It ended the only way it could have. I don’t feel guilty, but I do regret. I regret not being the one to find her in the first place, before anything got that far. I feel that I could have prevented it. It weighs on me; it will always weigh on me, but none of that has anything to do with you.”

“Doesn’t feel like it.”

Claire’s chair dragged across the floorboards, the wood creaked as her footsteps drew closer. “Look at me, Helena,” she spoke softly, placing her hand on Lena’s shoulder, coaxing her to turn around. “You may not be my blood, but you are my child. You are mine. Do you understand me?” Lena nodded, unable to stop the flow of tears from streaming down her face and wordlessly allowing Claire to pull her into a gentle hug. “I know how confusing everything must feel right now, but never doubt that this is your home, this is your family. Because no matter what, it always would have been.”

Lena only managed another silent nod, arms tight around her mother as if the embrace was the only remnant of the reality she used to know. A long moment passed before she was able to formulate a simple answer. “I know.”

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Interlude 03: Farewell

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There was a very obvious reason why Peace chose the Plains to build her home. It was the tranquility in the sight of tall grass swaying across gentle rolling hills to the cool afternoon breeze, in the scent of flowers permeating the air from the seemingly endless fields, in the way the sun bathed those same fields in a gentle, glowing warmth, unabated. It was something that couldn’t be experienced anywhere else. The forest shrouded itself in mystery, its true nature buried within the depths of the land itself. Its beauty, whispered from the shadows, seeped into the hearts of mortals, but was often imperceptible to their eyes. The plains, however, were open land, vulnerable to the touch of the elements. The fields basked in the golden rays of the Sun, glowed silver under the influence of Moon’s light, danced with the wind’s cold touch. Even amongst ruins, even in the wake of War’s destruction, the Plains still breathed life. And the forest. The forest whispered Death. There was beauty in that, as well, there was Peace in that, as well, but it wasn’t the kind of beauty most people understood. No. It took a special kind of soul to endure the weight of such a reality. It wasn’t meant for everyone.

An assassin’s footsteps, although usually light, felt inexplicably heavier crossing those sunbathed fields; uncharacteristically brutal as they crushed innocent blades of grass against the cold, hard ground. The silence, the tranquility, and the sheer beauty of her surroundings made a mockery of the inevitability of her actions. No amount of light was enough to obfuscate the sheer bleakness of some situations. No amount of truth, no level of justification, would make light of a friend forced to hunt down a friend. It was inevitable. Like the pull of gravity acting upon the sand falling from an hourglass; unavoidable.

She stopped in the middle of the field, breathing in the scent of lilacs and feeling the wind’s soft touch. The act brought her no solace, no offerings of peace, only momentary reprieve; a futile struggle against the pull of gravity. With another deep breath she pulled back the hood of her cloak, running her fingers through her long brown hair and setting it completely loose in the wind. The sun felt warmer on her skin now, and the breeze felt colder, causing a small shiver along the length of her spine. It was pleasant. Soothing. Sobering. She wasn’t just some girl with a heavy heart, she was the hand of Death. There was peace in that, as well.

The wind picked up as the Sun began to lower in the South. Heavy boots took their first steps across the borders of a small village and a cloaked figure drew the curious eyes of the children playing in the center square. The smallest of them; a little blond girl, smiled and waved before being ushered home by a watchful parent. The assassin smiled at the scene. Only a child’s innocence would smile and wave at Death when it stepped into their home. The adults were wiser, however, and slowly but surely, the whole of the village retreated into their homes. They knew why she was there and much like the assassin herself, they knew this was something beyond their control. Peace demanded acceptance after all. The inevitability of fate wasn’t something to be fought but embraced. If the assassin had always admired one thing about these people, they understood that sometimes the only possible course of action was to stay your hands and avert your eyes. And there was nothing wrong with that. Not everything needs to be a battle.

The heavy boots dragged to a halt. Dark blue eyes scanned the surface of a door. The faded green paint stood out from the frame, its intended bright splash of color offset by the passing of time as the original dark wood fought its way back to the surface. Splintered edges matched the scuff marks on the threshold and door frame, each of them a scar left behind by the comings and goings of occupants over the course of many years.

The house to which that door belonged was something small and simple. Irregular stones made up the walls, dark wood framed the door and windows, and straw covered the roof. Without even trying, the assassin could feel the signs of life beyond the faded green door. Light footsteps grazing stone and the sweet musical humming of a very familiar voice slowly added to the heavy burden of responsibility. She pressed her right palm against the door, a heavy breath pushing its way from her lungs, her fingers grazed the wood in a gentle caress as they curled into a fist. She knocked once, her left hand curling securely around the hilt of her dagger.

The door creaked and slowly parted until fully open. The only thing separating blade from flesh now was an empty threshold; an invisible line waiting to be crossed. The dark blue eyes met a much lighter pair of blues. One stood in the dim light of the moon, the other flickered under the light of a fireplace. Words passed behind them, between them, accusing betrayal, demanding answers, shouting curses . . . begging forgiveness. None were spoken because, in the end, words changed nothing. Two full spectrums of emotion were conveyed in one moment of heavy, pained silence—the dark blue eyes fell into a state of resignation, the light blue ones into one of peaceful acceptance. The woman who answered the door retreated a few steps into the house as a sign of welcome. Her heavy boots crossed the threshold and the door closed behind them, fingers tightened around the hilt of the dagger. There, flickering in the firelight, stood the smiling figure of a dear old friend, the stone-faced silhouette of a heavy-hearted girl, and the life-shattering burden of inevitability. The hand of fate. The sand in the bottom of the hourglass.

Her blade pierced skin. Sunk into soft flesh. Blood permeated the air with the unmistakable scent of death. Dark blue eyes shut as the dagger twisted, the assassin now heavy with not only the weight of her actions but the physical burden of a limp body. The physical burden of a fallen friend. She retracted the blade and let it fall to the ground. The sound of metal hitting stone echoed and bounced off the walls around them. She cradled the dying woman in her arms and gently lowered her to the ground. Ragged breaths resonated, growing ever weaker, casting the last shreds of life from her weary body. Light blue eyes pierced into the assassin’s dark gaze without a shred of resentment, only that same acceptance mixed with a shred of sympathy. It hurt, but there was Peace in that, as well.

Seconds passed slower than ever until one last breath faded into dead silence. The hand that once held the dagger now extended, shaking, to gently close a pair of dead blue eyes. The assassin retrieved her fallen dagger, sliding it carefully in its sheath, and leaned into her now deceased friend, briefly pressing her lips to the woman’s forehead. A wordless farewell.

The assassin rose from her knees and pulled her hood over her eyes once again, a bittersweet smile concealed under familiar shadows. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was closure. And there was certainly some small amount Peace in that, as well.

Her left hand now reached for the door but froze with a tense grip on the handle. Every part of the assassin’s body held firmly in place by the most unexpected of sounds. The high-pitched wail of a child. Realization shook every last shred of resolve holding her steady, crushing it under the weight of a burden far heavier than Death . . .

Life.

[Wolves Camp | Otium 8th, 2517 | Middle of the night]

Lena’s eyes flung open. High pitched wails tugged incessantly at her consciousness. The foggy image of a wooden ceiling gradually solidified. Lena sat up with a sharp inhale and ran both hands over her eyes. “Sarah,” she whispered. It wasn’t the first time the baby cried in the middle of the night and while it normally didn’t bother her, this time the sound was causing an unpleasant feeling in the pit of her stomach. She groaned and sat up, glancing at the bed across the room. Dani was unfazed, lying on her stomach and hiding her head under her pillow to muffle the noise. Lena got up and out of bed, unsteadily reaching for the bedroom door, pulling it open. Tom was pacing the office in an attempt to soothe the screaming baby in his arms and Lena almost collided with him on her way past.

“Helena,” he called. “Where do you think you’re going?”

“Outside. The noise is making my head hurt.”

“Don’t stray too far, please.”

“Mm…” Lena hummed agreement on her way out the cabin door. It wasn’t an excuse, pins and needles had begun assaulting her temples, but she didn’t want Tom to make a fuss or her mother to catch wind of it. They had their hands full already.

Lena huddled into herself under the night’s cool breeze. Chills shot up her legs through the soles of her bare feet as they collided with the stiff earth. But along with that chill was another; a different chill, like something whispering uncomfortably close to her ear. She walked, aimlessly, until the sound began to fade into the background. The knot in her throat remained, however, and she continued until she found herself by the edges of the lake. The air was even cooler near the water and rife with the scent of wet soil and fresh grass. Deep breaths pushed the restlessness from her body. The ringing in her ears faded to dull silence. The surface of the lake lay still before her, a dark mirror reflecting the glow of moonlight and a pair of glowing blue eyes.

“Lena?” Tom called from the path, exhaustion clear in his voice.

“I’m here,” Lena answered without turning around, gaze fixed on the pair of eyes staring back at her from the lake. Only when she felt a gentle touch on her shoulder did she finally look away.

“Is everything alright? I told you not to stray too far.”

“Uhm?” Lena looked up at Tom and blinked a few times until his face was in focus. “Yeah, I just… Was having a weird dream, is all.”

“Well, Sarah’s calmed down now, and you have training early tomorrow. You shouldn’t keep Matthison waiting. You know how he gets,” Tom said, guiding her away from the lake by the shoulders.

Lena nodded agreement. It had been just that; a dream, nothing more, but as she turned to walk away she glanced at the lake one last time. Maybe it was her sleep-ridden mind playing tricks, but she could’ve sworn she met a pair of familiar blue eyes, much lighter than her own.

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Author’s Notes: 10 Years of Valcrest And The End of Arc 02

Hey, guys! Blackbird here! It’s November 27th. And if you haven’t been with us long enough to know what that means, let me tell you: It’s Valcrest’s birthday! November 27th 2010 was the date the first ever post was made in Shadows of The Enlightened, which was the original RP that started this whole entire thing. And yes, that means Plotstains and I have been working together on this for a literal decade now. I started SOE on a whim, thinking it wouldn’t go anywhere because I had never run a roleplay before and I didn’t know what I was doing, but sheer dumb luck or fate or whatever cosmic force you wanna believe makes these things happen, the very first application I got for that RP would turn out to be the one person crazy enough to stick around with me all these years. The Shadows Crew has lasted longer than a lot of marriages out there, and definitely a lot longer than most creative partnerships born out of a roleplay site. Our RPs were on the front page of RoleplayGateway as some of the lengthiest longest running works on the site and even though the third of those RPs, Shadows of the Forgotten, went unfinished, it’s pretty clear we never stopped working on Valcrest. I don’t think we ever will stop working on Valcrest. Because even with everything we have planned already, we continuously find new ideas to explore.

There’s a lot I could say about our partnership and the whole process of developing this world up to this point, but with this marking ten years since we started (and the end of Arc 02), I feel like there’s a much more important story that I need to tell. And that’s the story of Sibrand: who he was in our roleplay group and how deeply his contributions shaped not only the RPs themselves but the serial you’ve all been reading for the past year.

Before I get into this, I need to give two disclaimers.

1) I am about to speak at lengths about the events of Arc 02’s Epilogue as well as a character introduced in that chapter. If you haven’t read that far and you don’t want spoilers, I suggest you come back once you’re caught up.

2) I am going to discuss the creation of this character’s original iteration back during our RP days. And because of this I would like to make one thing absolutely clear: Shadows Rise was initially conceptualized as a prequel to the RP series. When we made the decision to turn this series into a proper serial, however, it became a reboot instead. That means that while we will be keeping a lot of the main plot of these RPs, they will change based on how Shadows Rise progresses; up to and including character outcomes. That is to say, nothing I say about Shadows of The Enlightened as a roleplay is an indication of how Shadows Rise will end.

Are we clear on that? Good. Then we can move forward.

As I mentioned before, Plotstains was literally the first application I received for SOE when I put it up. If you’re not familiar with the initial process of creating and starting a text RP, first you open the roleplay with a small description of the setting and story outline, some guidelines for character creation, and some rules for the players. Then the players will create a character and submit it for your approval. Plotstains’ character, which will remain unnamed for the purposes of this post, was the first application I received for SOE. Sibrand’s character, on the other hand, joined right when the RP had started.

This is important because I want you guys to understand that we were just about getting started with this RP when I read this character sheet for the first time. Later on Sibrand would tell me he was worried I was going to reject him right off the bat because of how his contribution would change the entire dynamic I’d already set up in the RP’s intro. But honestly, I took one look at that character sheet and I was ecstatic. My initial reaction was “this is great, how far can I run with this?”

Turns out… Pretty damn far. Lol

That character was Theron Lockwood. And the backstory Sibrand wrote in that character application was the Wolf Hunters’ original inception. Theron was a lone assassin hunter with a gigantic grudge against the Wolfpack, not only for assassinating his father when he was a boy, but for killing off his entire group. That version of Theron was much older, battle-weary, hardened, but Sibrand also described him being discovered by the Wolf Hunters as a frightened teenager, crying in this abandoned cabin in the woods in the aftermath of his father’s murder. If that sounds familiar… Good, you read Arc 02’s epilogue. Theron’s ‘backstory’ starts here.

I had never GMed before in my life, I didn’t know how you’re supposed to run a roleplay or how much freedom to give your players. That ignorance could have spelled disaster for SOE, but my willingness to let other people contribute shaped Valcrest into what it is today. And it started with Theron. Because my first instinct was to scrap some of my Wolf characters’ backstories completely, and connect them to Theron’s backstory. I sent Sibrand a Private Message about this and just like that… The beginnings of Shadows Rise had formed. Almost point by point. From the moment Theron met the Wolf Hunters up to the moment he was left alone, presumed dead by the Wolfpack, planning his revenge.

Theron’s Arc in SOE was equally beautiful and weird. By the end he’d not only found redemption, but forgiveness. He started out as a full on villain and just by how we played these characters in real time, he took on a mentor role to a lot of the main cast of that RP. And this happened because, while he was initially a ‘villain’ from the Pack’s perspective, he wasn’t the villain of that story. If you’ll recall I had other plans for SOE before Sibrand came around. The real villain of that story served as the common ground Theron was able to find with the Wolfpack in order to resolve that past.

And here, I need to remind you all, that was an RP. And if this sounds all too good and saccharine for you… Great. Like I said, we’re reworking a lot of SOE based on how SR plays out now. So redemption and forgiveness…. Eeeeh, I can’t promise something like that. I can’t even promise you Theron for SOE (and I’ve been doing my best to not name any other characters in the original RP, because I can’t promise them either). But if you’re already growing attached to him; good. Because I was too, so was Plotstains… Likewise our characters.

Theron became a very important character, as you may have realized by now, and at the same time I’d surrendered the role of the main villain to Plotstains; another very important character in this series (that I can’t get into here). At the point the three of us were very much playing equal parts in the creative process. Sibrand was constantly offering new ideas. In fact, he was the first to bring up the idea of a sequel. An idea that I’d been holding on to the first time he suddenly vanished.

Now, I’m not going to call Sibrand flaky and complain about him coming and going. I always knew that RPers come and go and, sometimes, RPs don’t get a conclusion. People have lives. Just because they enter your online storytelling game, doesn’t mean they owe you their time no matter what. The problem was more with Theron’s significance. We were struggling to move the plot along without him and we weren’t even considering writing him off in case Sibrand came back. So, Plotstains and I started discussing what to do about this. We started discussing how we thought SOE would end, and from that, developing our own sequel idea. We didn’t want to use Sibrand’s idea if he wasn’t going to be around to participate in it; it’d feel like stealing essentially. That’s how Shadow of The Past came to be.

HOWEVER, lo and behold, Sibrand came back. Not indefinitely, but just long enough to move the plot along and take part in the story’s climax. We still had to close SOE by ourselves, but Theron got to say goodbye to his new Wolf allies and ride off into the sunset a redeemed man.

Theron didn’t return for SOP. Neither did Sibrand. We were almost done with SOP when we saw him again. At that point Shadows of The Forgotten was already in the plans so I told him if he wanted to bring Theron back, SOF was the place to do it. We planned around it and in the meantime, he created another character for SOP; a Wolf. He isn’t very important so I won’t be discussing him here.

Now my plan isn’t to go over Sibrand’s entire RP history with us. He was in and out of SOF, but neither Theron or his created side characters played that major of a role in that one as they did in SOE. In the time between SOP and SOF though, Sibrand began to expand on Theron’s backstory as well as develop what he’d been up to since the first RP ended. And the specifics of it don’t matter, but what remains of that character development he did for Theron is… The Empire of Terra and basically everything else in the continent outside of Valcrest. These are elements that won’t come into play in the serials for a very long time, but I want to impact on you guys the level of influence this guy had on our creative process. Even though he wasn’t around through all of it, and even though I would often have to say no to his more outlandish ideas, Sibrand thought big and by doing so he pushed us to expand this world even further than we already had, to question what was beyond what we’d already created. And, maybe that’s something Plotstains can talk about further, since he was the one most involved in that aspect of worldbuilding and he was the one who created all our maps from the start. A lot of what we have now deviates from Sibrand’s original ideas for the continent, but he absolutely paved the way for all of it.

Back to Shadows Rise though; yes, there’s more about that. SOF rolled around and, compared to its predecessors, it was a beast of an RP. It had way too many characters, too many subplots, it was… Amazing, but also a complete disaster. And because of that, there were periods of intense activity followed by long drawn out periods of nothingness waiting for players to catch up and post. Now, one thing I did often, and still do, is reread our stuff. And I would use those periods of inactivity to either free write with my characters, reread the previous RPs, or both. In doing so I started to look back on SOE and that piece of backstory Sibrand and I created back in the day more and more. See, there’s one more thing Sibrand pioneered… Actually, two things: he was the first to write a story by himself based on these RPs. He was also the first to create a public character journal on RPG detailing some of Theron’s journey after SOE. Why is this important to the inception of modern day Shadows Rise?

Well, Sibrand didn’t create all of the Wolf Hunters. See, Kyle and Sebastian were always my characters. During those periods of inactivity in SOF, thinking about that backstory we created way back in the day, I started writing a journal for Sebastian. Not in public, just for myself in Google docs. These journal entries were my first draft of SR. I detailed Sebastian’s impression of the other Hunters, his feelings about losing his sister, questioning if this was the path she’d want him to take… His relationship with Theron. And at that point I felt I should get Sibrand’s opinion on this. It was becoming its own thing at that point. Furthermore, I was taking vague traits he’d given for these characters and expanded on it without even consulting him about it. So I did. I consulted him about it and he was very pleased with how I wrote the Hunters, with how I’d interpreted the group’s dynamic and their bond most importantly. So this was the beginning of me taking these characters he created; that were his, and making them mine. Johanna’s quiet nature, Gabrielle (the only character I renamed, because she originally shared a name with another character, and we couldn’t really have that) being the stern sort-of-leader figure, Gerald’s role as more of a teacher and an investigator, his bond with Johanna… Those were traits Sibrand created for these characters and I later expanded on. We’d talk about this idea often, he’d press me to write more of it in PMs. He was the first enthusiastic reader of the messy skeleton that would later become this web serial. Shadows Rise wouldn’t exist without Sibrand. A lot of what the main series becomes; however we choose to rewrite it, will contain elements that would not be a part of this world without him.

Ten years in the making, practically, and every time I write these characters I do so wondering what he would say if he was here to be a part of this. To at least see what we made of it.

And if you’re wondering what happened, did we have some sort of falling out? No. Sibrand and I had a lot of creative differences. He was very attached to his ideas, he had a very strong personality, we butted heads a lot, but I legitimately loved the guy. A lot of the time I felt he was too big for what we were creating. He had ideas too fantastic for the realism we wanted to establish for Valcrest and I’d often try to encourage him to do other things with them. He’d ask for my input in the RPs he ran himself, I’d read all the posts and we’d talk about it in messages. In the same way he encouraged my early efforts in telling this story. There was absolutely never any ill-will between us ever. And if he was still around and wanted to be a part of this I wouldn’t think twice about it. But he’s not. He hasn’t been since 2013. The last post on RPG from his account was a message from his brother, giving us Sibrand’s final goodbyes.

I don’t want to go into lengths about that part. I just want to finish this post by saying that Theron was not only important to those RPs, and to us, but he was also very important to Sibrand. And the process of making this character mine hasn’t been as easy as it was with the rest of the Wolf Hunters. There’s a lot of baggage there, a lot of history, but in the end we could never bring ourselves to leave him out of Shadows Rise. On my end, I hope that with his introduction now, in some way, Sibrand can still be a part of this with us.

I sincerely hope you’ll all enjoy his contribution to the serial. And that you’ll stick around to celebrate with us again next year.

B.B

The Heart of The Forest – Epilogue

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[Newhaven |Tempus 20th, 2525 | Early Afternoon]

In the earliest days of Valcrest, when the Gods still walked the Mortal Realm, one of War’s Generals asked the Twin for his thoughts on forgiveness. War’s answer was simple: “Destroy your enemies, then forgive yourself.”

Unfortunately, no answers are simple in the minds of mortals, and words such as ‘forgiveness’, ‘justice’, ‘loyalty’, ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ had their meanings warped with the times. To the God that is War, battle was a means to an end and destruction a necessary evil to be pondered upon in the aftermath; you forgave yourself because you knew it was, without a doubt, the best possible course of action. Now, you don’t forgive yourself, because you know—no matter how inevitable—the blood on your hands was far from necessary. Forgiveness is an empty word meant to illustrate a sentiment that perished with the Gods that preached it. And as times progress, I fear hope will ultimately follow.

A loud crash and a slew of curses filled the two story home. “THERON!”

Theron startled upon hearing his father coming up the stairs, nearly dropping his book and fumbling to replace it with a history book. He pushed the offending tome under his bed just in the nick of time, hiding his face in a passage about some inane argument between crop growers and cow herders in the old city of Blackhurst. Why anyone would bother learning of such dull affairs was beyond him, but he focused on the words as though every line of petty argumentation and vapid rebuttal was the most riveting work of literature ever penned. While awaiting the creaking sound of his bedroom door, in the back of his mind, he wondered how aware those people were of their impending downfall.

“Theron.” The door creaked as expected, his father’s tone gentler now. “Theron, you were supposed to pack your bag. Not distract yourself with,” he stopped to glimpse the book cover, “Historical Records of Blackhurst? Since when do we own this?”

“One of the customers left it at the store last week,” Theron admitted. “I figured I should hold on to it for now.”

His father scoffed, but attempted to mask his distaste. “That’s well and good, son, but you can read about Blackhurst nobles and their squabbles any other time. Right now I need you to finish packing and come help load the wagon. We can’t afford to be late with this delivery.”

Theron closed his borrowed book with a nod. “Yes, sir. I’ll be right down.”

Continue reading “The Heart of The Forest – Epilogue”

Halloween Bonus Chapter 2020

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[Wolves Camp | Tempus 19th, 2525 | Sundown]

The walls of the cabin groaned with a swirl of wind. A shower of dry autumn leaves descended upon the roof. Dani glanced at the source of the sound, distracted from the objects sprawled atop her bed. She let out a breath and packed up the equipment. Nothing had changed from the last time she checked it. No amount of checking would make her more prepared than she already was. A knock on the door served as a welcome interruption. “Just a second!” She set the travel bag down next to her boots, ready to be picked up in the morning, then went to open the door. “Oh. Hey, squirt. Wasn’t expecting you.”

After being sworn in, Dani started working closely with experienced Actives, going on assignments with them in order to get her bearings. It meant coming and going at all hours of the day and night. It was disruptive, not only for Sarah, but their parents as well. It became clear to everyone that it was time to claim her own space in camp; everyone except for Sarah. Dani knew there would be an argument, that her sister wouldn’t want her to leave, and she compromised by taking the closest cabin available to the Alpha’s. The cabin was built for the Beta’s use, and according to Tom, it was rarely ever occupied. Most Betas in the past—the ones who didn’t share a home with the Alpha—preferred to stay closer to encampment and utilized the cabin either as a study or a storage shed. It wasn’t a big improvement on the room she shared with her sister, and definitely not as nice as some of the cabins closer to the central clearing, but she thought being closer to home might appease Sarah somewhat. It didn’t. In the couple of months since she moved, Sarah had barely spoken to her and despite numerous invitations, refused to come over and see what she’d done with the place. Even now, she stood outside her door with a sulky expression, cowering from another gust of wind. “You said I could come by whenever.”

Dani nodded and moved to allow her in. “Is mom making you do this?”

Sarah entered the cabin, dragging her feet. “No.”

“Sarah . . .”

She sighed. “She said I’m being unreasonable.”

Dani closed the door, frowning as a trail of dry leaves now littered the floor. “What do you think?”

Sarah shrugged, examining the map Dani had pinned on the wall above her bed.

Dani watched her sister, unsure. “Did you take over my side of the room yet? I mean, more than you already had.”

“No,” Sarah mumbled. “Not yet.”

Dani’s shoulders dropped and she moved to sit on her bed; foolish of her to think getting back into her sister’s good graces would be that easy. “So, what do you think of my home decorating skills?”

Another shrug. “Pretty boring.”

Dani snorted a laugh. In all fairness, she wasn’t wrong about that. Compared to her old space, the place still felt, and looked, impersonal. A place she occupied as needed, but didn’t rightfully own yet. “Guess you’re right. These walls are pretty empty, for starters. Wonder what we could do about that.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

“Maybe, if you can afford to spare an afternoon you could help me figure something out sometime?” Dani asked, tentatively.

Sarah shrugged yet again, opting to scrutinize the cabin’s interior further instead of making eye contact. “I’ve been busy, so I don’t know.”

Dani ran her fingers through her hair, frustrated. “Listen, squirt, this isn’t easy for me either, alright? I’m not used to sleeping in this place, being here by myself when I don’t have anything else to do is pretty boring, but it just has to happen. You understand that, right?” Sarah simply nodded, staring intently through one of her boring, empty walls. “Are you having nightmares again?”

Sarah glanced at her, then looked down at her shoes. “Sometimes.”

Dani hummed. “Tell you what, kiddo, I have to go out on assignment, but . . . When I get back, why don’t you come over and we’ll have a slumber party? How does that sound?”

The offer prompted another brief glance and more mumbles. “I don’t know. Good, I guess.”

“Alright, kiddo.” Dani stood up and wrapped one arm around her sister, pulling her into a hug. “Why are you so glum? Hm? It can’t be just because I moved.”

“. . . What if you don’t?”

“If I don’t what?”

Sarah hesitated, then whispered. “What if you don’t come back?”

Dani flinched and pulled back to look Sarah in the eyes. “I’ll always come back, squirt.”

“I’m not dumb. Everyone’s always talking about how the Hunters are out there and now you’re going out there. What if . . .”

“Hey, no. It’s not happening. And I don’t want you worrying about it.” Dani was worried about it—of course she was—but as much as she hated lying to her sister, there would be no point admitting it in front of her now. “I promise I’ll be back, alright? Have I ever broken a promise before?”

Sarah let out a breath. “No, but . . . You can’t be sure.”

“I’ll let you in on a secret, squirt . . . Adults? They talk big, but at the end of the day, no one’s ever sure of anything. Not being sure doesn’t mean the worst has to happen.” Dani offered her sister an encouraging smile. “It’s okay to worry, it’s okay to be scared, even, but you should always, always, expect the people you love will come back for you. Alright?”

Sarah nodded, but the way she turned and clung to Dani’s side made clear she wasn’t over her fears. “You think I can sleep over tonight?”

Dani sighed, smoothing her sister’s hair. “I have to leave early in the morning, kiddo. But we can hang out until bedtime. Alright?”

Sarah huffed. “Mom said I need to go to storytime with the other children.”

“What’s wrong with storytime?”

Sarah pulled away with a shrug. “Dahlia always tells the same stories and they’re all for babies, but mom says I need to go because stories are how we keep our culture alive.”

“She’s not wrong, but maybe putting Dahlia in charge of it wasn’t the best idea.” Dani glanced at her travel bag with thoughtful hum. Then, with one arm still around her shoulders, led Sarah out of the cabin. “Tell you what, squirt, when I get back from this assignment you can come over, we’ll make some hot chocolate and stay up a little later playing cards if you want, but for now . . .” Sarah groaned, about to protest when Dani added, “I’m sure Dahlia won’t complain if I want to hijack storytime for a night.”

For the first time since she showed up at Dani’s doorstep, Sarah seemed legitimately excited. “You think so?”

“I know the character. She’ll jump at the opportunity to go home early and not deal with you lot interrupting her with questions for another hour.”

******

As they arrived at the central clearing, Dahlia was already having trouble controlling her group’s impatience. Judging by the exasperated tutor’s expression when she laid eyes on Sarah, Dani knew her tardiness was partially to blame. Sarah flinched and looked up at her warily, but Dani simply motioned for her sister to join the other children. “Hey. Dahlia. Uhm . . .” She glanced over to the children, offering them a smile as some of the younger ones waved to draw her attention. “Sarah wanted to spend a little more time with me before I head out tomorrow, so I was wondering if you would let me take over storytime tonight?”

Dahlia hummed and Dani could almost see the woman’s thought process unfold. As Dani anticipated, she wanted nothing more than to be done with the children for the day, but was hesitant to accept something that might allow them a fun time. Why, of all people, Dahlia was assigned to tutor children aged five to ten years old was a mystery. The woman had no patience or affinity for them. Eventually she caved with a disgruntled, “Alright. Just make sure you don’t keep them up too late.”

“Of course.” Dani forced a straight face, but winked at the kids behind Dahlia’s back. This caused a wave of giggles and a disgruntled mutter from the woman as she began to leave. Dani waited for Dahlia to walk completely out of earshot before giving the group of children her full attention. “Alright,” she told them, clapping her hands together, “now, what to do with you, little monsters?”

The group of children erupted into a chorus of excited voices, only Sarah and one of the boys remained silent and seated. The boy was shorter than Sarah, black short hair, dark green eyes, freckles. . . For all intents and purposes a regular-looking nine-year-old boy, politely waiting for storytime to begin. However, the way Sarah glared at him from her side of the circle, one could assume he’d insulted every generation of her family at some point. Dani hadn’t met all of the children in Sarah’s tutoring group, but context indicated this had to be the infamous Perry. Much like her mother often did, Dani simply crossed her arms and waited for the ruckus to die down on its own. In the meantime she assessed the group of children in front of her and attempted to draw from memory a story they might find more entertaining than Dahlia’s usual spiel, but that would, hopefully, still allow them to sleep that night. Finally it dawned on the kids that they were cutting their storytime short with the commotion and one by one they settled on the wooden benches around the campfire, leaving an empty space for her.

Dani sat and, once again, observed the expectant faces around her. Another gust of wind stirred the tall flames of the campfire, distorting the children’s shadows cast across the ground into sporadically twitching figures. A soft, thoughtful hum lingered in the back of her throat as she watched the tops of the trees sway in the distance—places the firelight was unable to touch. Her initial silence tested the children’s patience, whispers erupting despite their attempts to wait quietly. It was Sarah who inevitably spoke up for the group. “Dani, you’re supposed to tell us a story.”

“I know.” Dani smiled. “I’m just deciding if this one is a good idea or not. Lena told me this story when I was around your age and I had trouble sleeping for weeks.”

Dani sensed the collective eyerolls. Again, Sarah gave voice to the group’s sentiments. “It can’t be that scary.”

Dani knew her sister was acting brave in front of the other kids. Until a few months ago she still woke up some nights afraid of her own shadow. However, she wasn’t about to call her out on it in front of the group either. “Alright, if you’re all sure you want to know.” She scanned the group of children as they nodded agreement. “Okay, so when I was around ten years old, I decided that since I was about to start training soon and knew my way around our territory pretty well, I was old enough to start exploring on my own. Didn’t matter that my mother said it was too dangerous, I was confident I could handle it. So I packed some supplies one night, waited for everyone to sleep, and snuck out. I walked over to the lake and I found a small path that would take me further out and beyond the camp’s borders. I didn’t go that far out, but I was in the forest on my own, late at night and I was very pleased with myself for it.” She smiled as a few of the children seemed impressed with the prospect of being out in the forest alone late at night. “I wasn’t planning on going too far out. I chose a path and decided to follow it until I found a good enough place to set up a camp, which, eventually I did. So I set up a bedroll and lay down to look at the stars for a while. It was early Tempus, so while it wasn’t that cold, it was a windy autumn night, just like this one. And just like tonight, the forest was anything but quiet. With every gust of wind, dry leaves ruffled and crackled as they cascaded onto the ground, branches snapped above my head and, even though I knew those sounds as well as I’m sure you all do, they’re perfectly normal this time of year,” Dani paused, allowing the wind to emphasize her words, “it was my first time being out there alone, so I was definitely on high alert. That, and the way the wind was blowing that night, might be the only reasons why I even heard it.”

“Heard what?” One of the girls cut in.

“Probably a bear,” the boy sitting beside her chimed in, unimpressed.

“It wasn’t a bear,” Dani told them. “It was a hum. This strange, droning hum. And first I thought, I’m just getting sleepy, it’s in my head. It faded and I tried to push it out of my mind, but then, as the wind blew past again, I heard it a second time. This time, I stopped to really pay attention, but I was still trying to tell myself it was the wind blowing through a hollow branch somewhere in the distance. The wind blew past and the sound faded with it. And this time I kept my ears open, and I waited. With another gust of wind, came the same sound again. So I lay there, holding my breath and straining to hear it clearly. The same hum as before, a monotone drone at first, but more and more it changed into something that couldn’t just be wind blowing through branches. It was the voice of a woman, sweet and melodic. It was a distant sound at first, drawing closer then fading away. Like the wind itself was singing a lullaby as it passed. For a while, I just lay there and listened. And the more I listened the more I began to feel entranced. A part of me really wanted to just lay there with the music forever. And if it wasn’t for my guilty conscience, maybe I would have, but . . . This nagging voice in the back of my head kept reminding me I shouldn’t be there and people would worry if I wasn’t back before the sun came up. So I forced myself to pack up my little camp and walk away, but the music continued, and with every step I took it seemed to get louder and louder. So I walked faster and faster until I was inevitably running all the way back to the lake. The music finally silenced when I got there and I was able to sneak my way back into bed without alerting anyone, but I was shaken. Morning came and I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened. I needed to talk to someone, and there was only one person I could go to under those circumstances.”

“Lena,” Sarah chimed in.

Dani nodded. “Mhm. I confided in Lena as soon as morning came around. I told her what I’d done and what happened. I was sure she would scold me and dismiss the entire thing. She’d tell me it was just my overactive imagination, but no. Instead she became agitated. She wanted to know exactly where I’d gone and what I’d heard. When I asked her what she was so worried about she said ‘you don’t know what’s up there?’. Of course, I didn’t. Lena told me that a few miles away from where I’d set up, just a little ways up the river there’s a village. A ghost village.”

“A ghost village?” The same girl who interrupted before spoke up. “How can a village be a ghost?”

“That’s what they call it when a place is completely abandoned. It’s a ghost village because there are no people living there anymore. Lena told me this village had been abandoned for thousands of years. That ever since the last days of the Twins, it had stood there, empty. So, me, being a kid, I wanted to know . . .”

“What happened?” Several of the children voiced the lingering question, voices high pitched with anxiety.

Dani smirked. “Good question. It so happens that there is an actual myth connected to that village. It involves Heart’s eldest daughter. Have you guys ever heard of her?”

“Heart’s daughter was the first Alpha ever, wasn’t she?” Sarah asked.

“Heart’s second daughter was the first Alpha, that’s correct, but Heart had many sons and daughters and the one this story’s about was her eldest child. Have you guys been told about the First Children yet?”

Sarah frowned. “No.”

“They were the first children born from the Twins in the mortal realm,” Perry answered. “Story goes that they all went insane and committed atrocities, so after they were defeated Mother and Father wouldn’t allow them into the Immortal Realm and created Hell to keep them contained.”

Dani hummed, amused. “I guess Lena isn’t the only person in this camp that reads in her spare time. Who would’ve thought.” She chuckled. “Yes, that is correct. Though I’m not sure about ‘insane’, they did commit atrocities.”

“So what atrocities did they do to the village?” Sarah asked.

“Well, according to the story Lena told me, the Twins were, to human eyes, indescribably beautiful. That even the pictures of them we’re able to find in books and paintings today couldn’t possibly do their likeness justice. Their first children, on the other hand, were said to range from ‘ordinary’ to ‘unsightly’. And Heart’s daughter in particular was regarded as having a face only Heart herself could ever love.”

“What does that mean?” One of the girls asked.

“It means she was so ugly no one else would ever love her,” the boy sitting next to her answered.

Dani concluded, based on the glare she gave him and their matching hair colors, that he was her brother. “Alfie, that’s rude.”

“But that’s what it means, dummy!”

“Alright, easy with the name calling,” Dani warned. “Alfie is right though, that’s exactly what that means. And yes, that’s incredibly mean, but you should keep in mind that things were very different back then. The few enlightened that existed at the time were all directly related to the Twins themselves. And people generally expected them to be closer to Gods than humans. Unfortunately, the Twins’ children, especially the first to come into existence, weren’t really seen as people. But that is a discussion I’m sure Dahlia would enjoy having in class, I’m not here for that.” She briefly smirked and refocused on the story she was meant to be telling. “As I was saying, Heart’s daughter wasn’t very easy on the eyes. And for many many years people wondered how such a hideous creature could be born from such a magnificent being. That is, until the news broke throughout Valcrest the War had finally fallen. As you’d expect, the Twins didn’t concern themselves with death too much, but War’s grief-stricken generals decided to hold the biggest fanciest funeral Valcrest had ever seen. The remaining Twins, of course, wouldn’t attend, but some of their children did. It was during that funeral that one of her siblings asked her to sing. Never, since the gift of music was introduced to Valcrest, had humanity been graced with such splendorous notes. If I was a poet; which I certainly am not, I would still have trouble describing it in words, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t long before all of Valcrest caught wind of how Heart’s deformed child was able to drive even the most battle-hardened warriors in Valcrest to tears with the sound of her voice. Word spread like wildfire and Heart’s daughter went from being considered an unnoteworthy pariah to the most sought-after singer in all of Valcrest. And for a time, wherever she was called to sing, she went. She traveled the entirety of Valcrest, from the southern mountains to the northern woods beyond Blackpond, until eventually she came to a small isolated village in the depths of the forest.” Dani paused and chuckled as the mention of the village drew an excited gasp from the group.

“This village was so isolated, in fact, that they had never heard of Heart’s daughter or her incredible voice. This suited her. She settled in a simple home on the edge of the village and because of her hideous appearance, the villagers mostly kept their distance. This suited her. All she wanted at that point in life was to lead a quiet existence, tend to her home and garden, that kind of thing. She wasn’t interested in attention and the village’s apparent disgust for her appearance only seemed to serve that purpose. However, one day, while tending to her daily chores, she mindlessly hummed a melody. By the time she was finished with her tasks, a crowd had gathered around her home, drawn by the sound of her voice. And from then on, every time she was spotted outside, the villagers would flock to her in the hopes of hearing more of her singing. Over time word spread of where Heart’s daughter had settled and travelers came to the village from all corners of Valcrest only to hear her voice. As the crowds grew in size, the residents started charging visitors a fee to come and watch her sing. But the visitors had no interest in looking at Heart’s child, furthermore, overtime the crowds grew bored with only listening to the music, many expressing discontent that the singer’s likeness didn’t measure up to the wonderful music. Since this was an opportunity to keep their newfound source of income, the villagers began discussing fixes for this issue. The answer, they decided, would be to find someone whose likeness more closely matched the beauty of her music. Messengers were sent all over Valcrest, summoning all beautiful people to come and audition.”

“They just asked for ‘beautiful people’ and people showed up?” Alfie interrupted.

“Yes,” Dani answered. “And yes, before you say anything, that is pretty stupid, but I guess people didn’t have anything better to do back in the day.” She smiled at the boy’s skeptical expression. “Moving on . . . People answered the village’s call and many auditioned, but among all of them one young lady stood out from the rest. Her name was Calliope.”

“Wait,” Sarah cut in. “Why does she get a name? Didn’t Heart’s daughter have a name?”

Dani sighed. “I bet she did, but I don’t know her name.”

“But it’s her story!”

“Sarah, I’m just telling the story, I wasn’t there. If it’s not written somewhere, then I don’t know it. Now, if you kids keep interrupting me, I won’t be done before bedtime and you won’t find out what happened to the village.”

Sarah frowned. “Fine.”

Dani chuckled, but wasted no time in continuing. “Alright, so, Calliope was by all accounts everything one would expect Heart’s daughter to be; tall, stunningly beautiful, delicate, and most importantly, she was able to put on an emotional performance to match the music almost perfectly. Despite the fact even her splendorous beauty paled in comparison to Heart’s daughter’s voice, the villagers acknowledged that she was the closest thing to perfection they would find in a human being. With the addition of Calliope the show drew much larger crowds, but the crowds struggled to come closer to the performance. They would see where the voice truly came from and, with the illusion broken, complain that they had been deceived, demanding the villagers return their coin. In order to correct this, the villagers built a structure around her home, so that curtains blocked the view of the house from visitors.”

“Okay, no. Why would she just put up with that?” Sarah complained.

“Squirt, let me finish the story. You’ll see how it plays out, alright?”

Sarah rolled her eyes, but went silent, waiting for Dani to continue.

“Heart’s daughter was a little annoyed the curtains blocked her view, but she did go there to live a quieter life and not draw attention to herself, so it didn’t feel like a great inconvenience to her. The real problems arose when, over time, she wasn’t able to keep up with the performances as well as tending to her house. When chores started piling up and the house fell into disrepair she sought the aid of the village elder. There was no way she could get the place back into decent condition on her own. But the elder was dismissive. They couldn’t spare the resources, or the men, to help repair her home. Besides, the condition of her house didn’t really matter to them, as it was now hidden behind the curtains. Out of sight, out of mind.”

“What a bunch of assholes!” Sarah exclaimed, drawing an outburst of giggles from the group.

“Language, squirt. But yes, they were.” Dani gave the children a moment to settle down and carried on. “Of course, she wasn’t willing to accept the elder’s excuses. It was her voice that drew the crowds to the village in the first place. All the coin they’d spent there, down to the last piece of copper, was thanks to her and her gift. The elder and the villagers were unmoved by her arguments and uncaring to her precarious living conditions. And after that meeting with the elder, the music stopped. The decrepit, unkempt house became eerily silent. Days turned into weeks, turned into months and the village moved on. They tore down the stage, and the curtains. They used the materials to fix up the house; not in the hopes Heart’s daughter would return, but so that Calliope could move in instead. As far as anyone knew, Heart’s daughter and her music were gone, never to return.”

As another, stronger gust of wind blew past the group some of the children startled and Alfie was forced to push his sister away when she instinctively clung to him.

Dani withheld a smirk. “Then, on one foggy, cold, bleak morning, Calliope was drawn awake by a sweet melodic hum. The melody entered her ears still in sleep, dispelled whatever dreams might have been holding her unconscious and beckoned her to rise from her slumber. Rise and follow. And follow she did: out of her bed, across the small living room, barefoot on the cold, damp grass. . . As she crossed the center of the village and saw all of her neighbors, equally entranced, some barefoot and still in their nightclothes; like her, all walking in single file in pursuit of this otherworldly melody, some small suppressed part of her knew this wasn’t right, that she should be afraid. That she should turn around. But the music felt like a soft, warm blanket wrapped around the very core of her being, and regardless of what her mind knew to be wrong, her heart wished for nothing more than to be forever in its embrace.” The wind blew past again and Dani paused, briefly closing her eyes as if listening for something more than just the crackling leaves dragging across the forest floor and cascading down on wooden roofs. She reopened her eyes and continued, lowering her voice. “Calliope was at the very end of the long line of villagers and as she walked she started to hear these dull, heavy sounds. Distant at first, but closer and closer with each step. It was rhythmic and almost complementary to the sweet captivating voice, but the closer the sounds became the more they injected her with an overwhelming sense of dread. Yet, she didn’t turn around and flee. She couldn’t have if she wanted to. With her every step those sounds, as well as the song, grew closer, louder, more distinct. . . Until broken by Calliope’s own terrified scream as the ground seemed to give way beneath her feet. Her body crashed with a dull heavy sound and was quickly enveloped by furious, unforgiving, currents. As the villagers hopelessly struggled against the might of the river, the music finally ceased. And the very last sound they heard was that of a soft, satisfied, and ever musical laughter.”

The group sat silent for a long, sullen moment as the story ended and Dani watched the children’s faces as they processed the events she had just narrated to them. Non-surprisingly, Alfie was the first to shatter the moment. “There is no way you actually heard her. You have to be lying.”

Dani raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“It’s like Perry said, all of the first Children were defeated and contained in Hell.”

“Nothing in the Myths specifies what Hell is. And some of the people who like to debate these things actually have several different theories about it. Some think that Hell isn’t actually a separate plane, but a different state of existence within our own plane . . . But again, these are things you might want to ask Dahlia about in class. For now I suggest you all scatter and head off to bed.” She smirks. “Just don’t get any ideas and wander off. On a windy fall night like this? I wouldn’t risk it.”

The children scattered almost as if on cue, thanking Dani for the story as they went their separate ways. Alfie remained skeptical, but didn’t put up any more of an argument, letting his clearly more gullible sister cling to his arm on the way home. Finally, only Sarah remained. Dani smiled and held out her hand for her sister to take. “Come on, squirt. I’ll tuck you in for the night.”

Sarah took her hand with a nod, thoughtful. “So . . . Is any of it true? Did you actually hear her?”

Dani snorted softly, leading the way towards the Alpha’s cabin. “Pft, no. You want to know how it really went? Lena figured out I was planning on sneaking out, so she told me this story to scare me out of going. And it worked. For a few months, at least.”

“So there’s no village?”

Dani hesitated, eyes trained on the dark path leading away from the central clearing. “Oh, no, there absolutely is a village. I’ve been there once. It’s creepy as hell. You can ask any of the Scouts and they’ll tell you they avoid the place like it’s plague-ridden. And, who knows, maybe the myths have truth to it, maybe they don’t, but . . . If ghosts exist in whatever shape or form, you better believe it, Valcrest is probably full of them.”

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Hey, guys! Blackbird here. If you enjoyed the story Dani told in this chapter just as much as the Wolfpack’s children certainly have, consider pledging to our Patreon to gain access to the original myth written by Plotstains, which served as the basis for this chapter.

Here’s a little snippet:

So if you ever hear the voice of a beautiful maid call your way,

Shutter your ears, or be met by foul play;

For it isn’t the sweet Calliope’s face that you will meet,

It is the bitter drink of death to whom you’ll greet.

Myths of the First Children: Heart’s Daughter

Pretty cool, right? If you want to read the whole thing and a little more about the Myths of Valcrest, even our lowest tier grants full access to all of our (currently 2) blocked Patreon posts for more cool little lore bits and extra content.

Anyway, that’s enough advertisement from me. We hope you have a fantastic Halloween. Stay safe out there, guys.

B.B

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