I walked up and approached the stump slowly, unsure if I even wanted to proceed.
Just being here made me feel sick. Ever since coming back, I’d always purposely avoided this place, knowing it would dredge up memories that already haunted me more than enough.
And that‘s exactly what was happening.
I could see flashes of it all happening before me again as if it were real. An alternate reality where I was convicted of a wrongful death.
I saw the faces of the pack members as they stared at me with such malice, parting the crowd to let me walk up. I saw the Elders sitting in the chairs assembled in a semicircle… and, of course, Aleric and Thea. Thea who was seated in the Luna‘s seat.
In a daze, I continued to walk forwards, the large oak stump beckoning me on like an old friend. Hadi become delirious? When was the last time I had even slept? The combination with my weakened state probably wasn‘t doing me any favours as it all felt so real.
But nevertheless, I kept walking forwards until I stood before that stump and, immediately, I sank to my knees, just as I had in the past. The ground felt just as cold as I remembered and that same shiver went down my spine.
This was it. This was the place it had all ended. I could hear as the voices around me recited the words of the trial as if I were there once more. Usually, I did everything I could to block out the memories, to repress it, but this time I sat and listened quietly, letting it all play out just as it had.
‘“I think the evidence here has weighed in an obvious result. Do you have anything to say in your defence, Ariadne?“‘ I heard Aleric‘s voice ask.
It was my line next. I still remembered the words perfectly.
‘” sincerely hope the Goddess smites you all for the murder of an innocent you are about to carry out,“+‘ || said quietly to the panel of ghosts trialling me. My voice only held sadness now, not the bitterness I‘d felt when I‘d first spoken these words. ‘“There is nothing I can do anymore to prove myself not guilty against the stacks of false evidence you have brought forward, but deep down… I hope you all suffer. When I am gone and you are alone, I hope I haunt you. I hope my face is what you see when you finally meet your demise. My only mistake was in loving someone.”*‘
It was strangely true that I had come back to haunt them, just not in the way they would expect. I suppose they should consider themselves lucky I didn‘t make it my goal to kill them all as soon as I returned.
A small smile tugged at my lips humourlessly over that thought as I gently reached out, placing a hand on top of the stump that had held my last moments. So much pain I‘d felt at that time, so much betrayal and hurt… so much emptiness.
And I realised it was similar to how I felt now. It was as if I‘d gone full circle having become someone I was finally proud of… only to revert back. I‘d reverted back and become someone so much worse.
But this didn‘t need to be me. Whoever this was now.. it was dark. It was someone… unpredictable, scared, and seeing enemies in even those I cared about. So terrified of the past reoccurring that I‘d pushed everyone away and tried to kill Thea myself.
I was acting insane in my desperation to prevent the same future.
In a weird way, Thea had been right. I was meant to be smarter than this, a logical thinker, and yet I‘d done several stupid things tonight without a second thought. I‘d always felt my strengths were aligned in
my ability to think out a strategy but it was clear I was still weak when it came to my own emotions and other people.
Sighing, I calmed myself in my mind, letting go of the things I‘d been holding onto. This wasn‘t the past anymore and I needed to focus on the future.
…Including learning to accept Myra was dead… and move past it.
‘“Therefore,“‘I heard Aleric‘s voice once more, the trial having continued the duration I was in thought, ‘” with the power held within me, I, Aleric Dumont, Alpha of the Winter Mist Pack, sentence you, Ariadne Chrysalis, former Luna of the Winter Mist Pack, to death. Your sentence is to be carried out immediately. “
I didn‘t feel scared though. This trial wasn‘t real and it didn‘t need to hold power over me anymore.
Instead, I turned around and rested my head on the stump as I stared up into the sky. It was a cathartic experience, one that left me feeling… peaceful.
I knew this darkness was something I‘d need to be careful about from now on. It was clear just how quickly I could negatively impact everything around me and lose my ability to think logically.
…And it was clear just how quickly I could become dangerous. To both myself and others.
At some point, I must have fallen asleep as I laid on the ground by the stump. Because the next thing! remembered was a voice calling out to me.
| stirred but didn‘t wake up. I still felt so exhausted from the night before, my body feeling too heavy to move.
“Aria, are you okay?” they called again.
I begrudgingly opened my groggy eyes finally and saw Cai standing near me.
He sighed in relief when he saw I was okay.
“Do you have any idea how worried I‘ve been?” he stressed. “I went to your house a few hours after you left and the attendants told me you still hadn‘t made it home yet.
With how you were acting, I freaked out thinking the worst. I‘ve been searching all night for you, tracking your scent, terrified something had happened to you.”
I could see that behind me the sunrise was starting to dimly light the area around us. It lit up his features enough that I could see how angry he looked but I knew it was just out of fear for me.
I couldn‘t help but find my breath catching slightly at the sight of him though. The warm orange tones of the light made him look almost otherworldly.
I smiled at him a little, something that only deepened his frown, but I couldn‘t help it. His concern only heightened how I was feeling.
I sat up and reached my hand out towards him silently, indicating for him to come closer and take it. He hesitated for a second, regarding me warily, before finally giving in.
Immediately, I could feel how warm his hand felt in mine as I pulled him towards me, drawing him in until he was next to me on the ground.
“What the hell, Aria, you‘re freezing,” he said and quickly wrapped me up in his arms, rubbing them down to warm me up. “Were you here all night?”
I sighed contently and nestled my head into the crook of his neck sleepily, gently grabbing onto his shoulder. I could feel him begin to relax at my touch, just the same as how his presence made me feel calmer too.
“Yes,” I answered quietly.
I shrugged my shoulder slightly. “I did some stupid shit and fell asleep here.”
He pulled away slightly in surprise, trying to look down at me to see if I was being serious. A part of me whined inside as he moved away and I grabbed onto him a little tighter.
“Are you in danger? Do you need help?” he asked.
I shook my head and smiled. “I‘m fine. Genuinely, this time. Believe it or not, my camping adventure was very therapeutic. Maybe it can be a new hobby. I‘ve never really had one of those.”
He looked at me incredulously as he gauged my seriousness and I could see how it might be hard for him to trust anything I was saying based on our last conversation.
But to my relief, he finally cracked, his lip twitching at the side into a small smile at my joke.
“I‘ll have to give it a try sometime,” he said. “Though, if I‘m being honest, the trial grounds in my opinion would be like camping in a haunted house. Why would you come here of all places?”
A quiet half–hearted laugh escaped me and I reluctantly pulled away to rest my head back on the stump. The stars above were starting to fade as the sun rose higher and I gently entwined my fingers with his, hoping some of his strength would pass to me.
“Because I‘m connected to this place. A piece of me lives here, reliving the same memories. I guess you could say that I‘m one of the ghosts haunting this place,” I said softly, feeling too exhausted for more excuses. “… This is where I died, Cai.”
I didn‘t turn to look at him but I felt him tense up, his fingers pressing harder against my own.
It was time. Even if he thought I was insane, even if he never wanted to see me again, telling Cai was well overdue.
If he knew then at least he could understand what was actually happening and what I was currently going through. Or maybe he‘d just call me crazy and that would be that.
“I died here,” I repeated. “Eight years from now I get wrongfully convicted of poisoning Aleric‘s mistress and causing a miscarriage. The pack condemns me and in my final moments, I die here alone, scared and in pain… and at the hands of my own mate.”
I knew what he was asking.
I turned to look at him, meeting his gaze so he could feel how genuine I was being about this. But it wasn‘t an unpleasant moment. It was the first time I‘d been able to talk, or even think of the past, without immediately bawling my eyes out.
Seems as though last night really had allowed me to make peace with it.
“Aleric,” I answered. “Just as the Elders predicted.”
I could see a flash of pain in his eyes momentarily at the confirmation of who my mate was and I quickly squeezed his hand in mine for comfort.
His reaction made it seem as though a part of him had still been hanging on to hope that maybe I was his. My heart ached for him.
He cleared his throat, pausing before saying anything else. I knew how difficult this was to believe but I was relieved he was at least not completely dismissing me yet.
“And the mistress…?” he finally asked.
…Thea. The girl who killed Myra. The one they‘re allowing to be treated as a patient in the hospital right now. She manipulated those around me for years until it eventually ended in my death sentence.”
He understandably looked incredibly confused as he frowned, trying to comprehend exactly what I was telling him.
“Aleric… didn‘t love me,” I finally explained after he hadn‘t spoken for a while. “The different person he was in the past is someone I hope you‘ll never have to meet, or anyone else meet for that matter.
I dedicated my life as a Luna to him, thinking that because he was my mate, that one day he would finally love me. Instead, he used and hurt me for years only for his pursuit of becoming the country‘s most powerful pack. Something that, once we had accomplished that feat, I was discarded.”
“… That‘s why you were so scared of him.”
I nodded. “That day we bumped into Aleric after the Jade Moon attack was the first time I‘d seen him since being executed. It had barely even been a week at that point since I‘d been brought back.”
There was a pause in conversation as I turned my eyes away. What was he thinking? He‘d told me he would be there for me even as a friend and it was something I‘d been willing to accept as a risk once opened my mouth. But even friendship was more than I had a right to ask for right now after pushing everyone away in my life.
He tugged at my arm gently until I finally met his eyes, and slowly, I moved towards him as he pulled me closer.
“Come here,” he said and propped me into his lap facing him. “You should have told me sooner, little wolf.
Tears stung at my eyes over hearing him say that. He believed me. He actually believed what I was telling him. “I know,” I whispered.
There was another moment of silence, both of us having too much to say and not knowing where to start, before he finally spoke again.
“…Should I be worried you‘re taking advantage of me?” he eventually said lightly. He leaned away and used his arms to support himself as he regarded me.
I frowned, unsure what he meant, and worried whether he felt used by me keeping my secret for so long.
“I don‘t…,” I started, tilting my head.
“Well, you‘re… what? Twenty… six now?” he said, his lip curling in one corner as he failed to hide his smile. “Aren‘t I a bit young for you?”
| stared at him in complete disbelief for a second before bursting out into laughter. Of all the things he could have been freaked out by, he was making jokes about my goddamn mental age.
“Yeah, you‘re an immature pest, that‘s for sure,” I said, still laughing. “Especially when you talk down tom e. I conquered an entire country, was a renowned and feared strategist, and yet you kept petting my head like a damn ten year old.”
“You‘re right,” he said, chuckling. “I really should respect my elders more, my mistake.”
I gently hit his shoulder only causing him to laugh harder. His entire body was shaking under me as I sat against his legs and I could feel my body warming up even without his arms around me.
When the laughing had died a little he sat upright, his face suddenly inches from mine, and stared at me with all seriousness. “I guess it would be really inappropriate if I wanted to kiss you then.”
His eyes burned into me and I felt my cheeks redden. Everything around me felt unreal as my heart started pounding quickly in my chest.
“Would you still want to…? Even after everything I‘ve told you…?” I whispered, unable to stop myself from staring at his lips. His face was so close I couldn‘t help but feel a buzz of energy drawing me near.
“It‘s fine,” he quietly replied as he leaned in. “I‘m not opposed to dating older ladies.”
I couldn‘t help but laugh at his joke, breaking the trance as I looked away. “I swear I‘m going to actually hit you in a second for a real.”
He wasn‘t deterred though and quickly grabbed my chin to make me look back at him again. The sudden movement forced a small sharp breath to escape me out of surprise.
“Kinky,” he was all he whispered before finally bringing his l!ps to meet mine.
Instantly, flames ignited inside me, overwhelming me to the point of stopping any other thoughts or laughing at his last remark. It was stronger than any of the previous times, something that I couldn‘t help but wonder whether it was because I‘d finally opened myself up to him.
I felt as though I would melt away at that very second if it weren‘t for his strong grip on me still. With one hand on my waist, his other hand had weaved itself through my hair and was preventing me from even thinking of pushing away, not that I could have convinced myself in a thousand years to do so in that moment anyway.
“Cai,” I breathed against his lips as I pressed myself against him more, my hands already greedily grabbing at his body to feel him closer.
His lips suddenly broke into a smile and he pulled away laughing lightly.
“I said a kiss, Aria,” he joked. “You realise that we‘re sitting two feet away from where people get executed, right?…Unless you‘re into that sort of thing… little freak.”
I sighed in mild annoyance, a small embarrassed smile spreading across my face, and felt my cheeks burn deeper. “I‘m already regretting everything and it‘s only been five minutes.”
He mustn‘t have liked that answer as he grabbed at my th!ghs and dragged my body flush up against him, his lips suddenly right at my ear. My mind went blank and any grievances from me were quickly wiped away with just his touch.
“No, you‘re not,” he quietly growled as he nipped softly at my sensitive skin there. A noise somewhere between a gasp and a sigh escaped me before I could stop it, instantly making me forget where we were again.
I would have been happy to resume where we‘d left off but he chuckled again and gently tapped my legs to say we should get up.
“Come on,” he said, gently helping me back to my feet. “This place is fucking dismal and cold. I don‘t wanna hang around here any longer.”
I wasn‘t even sure I was ready for walking yet after feeling like a melted puddle only a minute prior, but somehow I managed. He had a point though. I needed real rest and this place really was horrible.
After finding my balance and retrieving my dagger, we started walking back in the direction of civilisation. Immediately, he grabbed my hand in his, something I couldn‘t help but smile over. I wouldn‘t tell him how happy it made me though; I had a feeling it would only go to his head right now.
“I obviously have a million questions,” he said as we walked. “But there‘s one that‘s sort of burning in my mind more than the others right now.”
I nodded. “That seems fair.”
He stopped and turned to look at me, his expression becoming serious.
“Did we know each other in that previous life? Were we at least friends?”
And all the blood that had been blushing my cheeks immediately drained from my face, feeling myself freeze. It was insane how quickly a moment of feeling on cloud nine could easily be dragged down, kicking and screaming, back to reality.
Because I‘d neglected to divulge one of the most crucial details of all. … That i‘d killed him.