‘Three hundred and one… three hundred and two… three hundred and three… three hundred and four….‘
I crept my fingers like legs along the wooden panel as I sat curled up on the seat of the windowsill nook. In my head, I would count the steps I made until my hand couldn‘t reach any further… then I‘d repeat. How many steps could I count until I was eighteen?
Everything felt like it blended together, almost as if two timelines were now indistinguishable. It must have been at least a month or two since they dragged me in here kicking and screaming. I had tried to run the minute I saw where they were taking me, a reaction that surprised even myself. But this place held worse memories for me than even the trial grounds where I‘d died.
‘“No, not here,“+‘ I had said adamantly as they tried to force me to go inside. ‘“Anywhere but here.”
‘“This is where you‘ve been instructed to live, Ma‘am. It‘s not up for discussion.“”
I was addressed as ‘Ma‘am‘ or ‘Miss‘ now. No longer a Beta heir, not yet a Luna, but everyone too nervous to call me Saintess in light of the events of that day.‘“Tell Tytus that if he wants something of me marked so badly, then he can mark my words,“‘ I‘d spat back at them when things had escalated to a point beyond reason. Their hands had grabbed at me around my waist as I had tried to wriggle free. ‘*“Tell him that as soon as I‘m free, I‘m coming for him. Tell him that he can go f#ck–,”
| shook off the memory, focusing back on my counting instead. They ended up having to lock me inside for the first few days until I stopped pounding at the door. Then, once the first week had gone by, time started to blend together. Now they couldn‘t get me to leave.
Some days I wondered if I was even brought back to life or whether the events up until now were all a fever dream I‘d concocted after failing to escape with Sophie. Everything looked the same, felt the same, smelt the same… the only difference was within the people who visited… and this collar around my neck.
“Ariadne,” a familiar voice echoed, like a distant memory.
In the past, I used to go into the garden; it was somewhere I‘d go when I needed a break from it all. I would go running in the woods and let my wolf explore before we‘d inevitably have to drag ourselves back to reality. I didn‘t have a wolf yet though and it wasn‘t like this collar would have made that of any benefit anyway. But more so than that, I just didn‘t like the idea of people seeing me like this. The less that knew, the better.
Even the books here were ones I‘d already read repeatedly. There were only so many times I could read about the ‘100 Greatest Battles of Wolf Kind‘ or ‘The Twenty Steps of a Successful Luna‘ before beginning to hate even the thought of picking a book up. But even if I asked someone to go to the library for me, it was unlikely there would be many books in there that I hadn‘t already read at least once.
‘Three hundred and eighty–four… three hundred and eighty–five… three hundred and eighty–six….’
“Aria!” the voice cut through, forcing me to realise it wasn‘t just in my head.
I looked up startled, blinking several times as I refocused.
It was Aleric. How long had he been here?
“Oh… hello,” I said, my voice sounding distant. “I didn‘t hear you arrive. Have you been here long?”
I rigidly stood up, inclining my head in a bow of respect per standard protocol for higher ranks. After all, I wasn‘t a Beta heir anymore.
“…About five minutes,” he said slowly, frowning at the formality. I had the feeling that perhaps it made him uncomfortable but I continued to do it regardless.
“Apologies for not realising… I was just lost in thought.”
He stared as if studying my movements. Most likely, he could tell my behaviour was more forced than genuine. “…It‘s fine.”
“Did Sophie offer you any tea yet?” I asked, walking past him towards the kitchen.
I could recall that there were at least two sections in ‘The Twenty Steps of a Successful Luna‘ that specified that, not only should I be presentable at all times, but that I should also ensure an Alpha was made to feel comfortable and at ease.
I was pretty confident that the author of that book and my old Luna studies teacher, Mrs Stewart, would have a fit if they saw me like this now. Though I wondered what they would say given my circumstances. Surely my situation negated several areas of required etiquette.
I stopped in my tracks and cursed internally. “Ah… I mean… I mean Lucy. Apologies.”
I rubbed at my head. Timelines.
Aleric followed closely behind as I walked us into the other room to start making some tea.
“Aria… are you okay?” he said, as if he‘d been holding off from asking for a while. “Every time I visit, it feels like you‘re slipping into a different world sometimes.”
More like a different time, if we were being completely accurate,
“I‘m fine,” I replied flatly, handing him a cup. “You saw me only yesterday. It‘s not like anything has changed.”
“…I‘ve been gone for a week, remember?” he prompted. “I had that meeting out of town and I said I wouldn‘t be back for a while? I just got home this morning.”
“Right… I remember,” Ilied, brushing it off. “How did the meeting go? Was it… pleasant?”
“It was boring. Just like all the meetings. They can‘t agree on how best to handle an influx of refugees stemming from a defeated pack up north. No one wants to waste resources screening for rogues.”
“I see. I‘m sorry to hear that.”
He raised a brow at me. “I don‘t suppose you have any suggestions?”
I could feel as my back stiffened, my eyes narrowing ever so slightly. So it was beginning already? Trapped in this place, oppressed by the very hierarchy I was told to serve. This position demanded that I be used as a tool, yet stripped me of every freedom I had.
In actuality, I had several suggestions. None of which I felt like sharing.
“That‘s a shame,” he said, sipping at his tea. “Then there is the issue of petty disputes. There‘s a pack fighting over a boundary line since the original territory documents that were drawn up have been misplaced. They‘ve requested our involvement to mediate the process.”
“Sounds like you‘re going to be busy.”
“Okay, then… two pack members are requesting permission to build a new business in town but it conflicts with a similar business‘ interests.”
Now I knew he was grasping at straws. Anyone with half a brain could assist with that one. Each issue he‘d listed was easier than the last to resolve.
“… What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?” he asked sharply, his tone annoyed.
I stared back stoically. “I‘m not sure what you‘re referring to.”
“This. Whatever this* is,” he said, waving a hand towards me.
“I apologise that I‘m not able to assist you with these issues,” I frowned. “I guess that‘s why they leave all pack leadership to the men around here.”
There was no mistaking the undertone of distaste behind my words. He would pick up immediately on what I was implying.
“That‘s not.… What? That‘s not what I meant,” he said, his jaw clenched. “I‘m talking about how it feels as though I‘m talking to a wall, like you‘re a shell not really here.”
I stared at him and could feel the emotion behind what he was saying. But I felt… empty.
“…I don‘t know what you want from me,” I finally whispered, looking back down at the cup in my hands.
“I want you to care about something again, anything.” He sighed and walked around the room, pacing in thought.
“Is it because of the collar? Because we both know there is nothing I can do about that,” he said, inspecting the bookshelf by the couch that was only collecting dust.“…Or maybe it‘s because Cai left–?”
“Don‘t say his name,” I hissed without missing a beat.
His words had triggered a reflex inside and I could feel the sting that accompanied hearing the name after all this time.
Aleric looked up quickly to where I stood, just as surprised as I was over my blatant reaction.
But just as quickly as I looked up, I turned away again, instead deciding to focus my attention on a lampi In the corner.
“…I apologise for my outburst,” I said quietly, resuming my composure.
He exhaled in defeat and ran a hand through his hair. “…No need to apologise. It‘s nice to know at least something gets a real reaction.”
We stood in silence for a few moments, the tension in the air needing time to release, before Aleric finally broke it.
“I‘ve got that big annual meeting tomorrow,” he said. “The one where all the small packs in the vicinity get together. Tytus asked me to go this year to oversee it since he finds them too bothersome. It‘s being held at the Diamond Claw pack.”
‘Tytus‘. My ears hadn‘t failed to pick up how Aleric said his name with a tone of irritation rather than refer to him respectfully as ‘Father‘. When had that started? Probably when Tytus decided to force us together. I could see how the unwanted outcome would put a strain on their relationship.
“That sounds…,” I started but my voice trailed off. I knew if I said ‘nice‘ he‘d probably be triggered by my attitude once more.
“Boring as hell,” he provided, finishing the sentence for me. “…Which is why you‘re coming with me.”
I looked up shocked, unsure if I‘d heard him correctly. “Pardon?”
“I said you‘re coming with me. To the meeting. We‘re leaving tomorrow morning and we‘ll be staying there overnight so get Lucy to pack a small bag for you.”
My hand reached up and touched at the collar. “Tylus knows about this? About letting me leave the Winter Mist to attend a pack meeting?”
“He knows,” he confirmed.
I didn‘t want to go. I‘d been hiding myself away from my own pack these past few months and was sure that rumours had spread already about my new… jewellery. The last thing I wanted was to be at the mercy of other pack leaders and suffer their mockery.
“I‘m not a Luna yet,” I objected weakly.
“I‘m not an Alpha yet,” he retorted.
“I‘m too tired to go.”
“You do nothing except sit around all day.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. It looked as though there was no getting out of this. But he was grossly mistaken if he thought I‘d help out with the meeting in any way. After everything I was being put through, I didn’t owe this pack anything.
“Okay…,” I mumbled, finally yielding.
“Okay,” he repeated, sounding slightly relieved.
Nothing really became of the conversation from there. I reverted to autopilot responses as I withdrew inside my head, thinking about all the pack leaders I‘d need to face tomorrow.
At some point Aleric said he had to go and would see me tomorrow. So, with nothing else to do, I headed back towards my bedroom in a daze, wondering what to do first to prepare.
Before I could get there though, an image suddenly flashed next to me on the wall that immediately caught my attention. It was a mirror. A mirror that caused me to flinch at the sight.
And slowly, I brought a hand up to touch my face.
My eyes looked dull, ringed within dark circles, my cheeks more hollow. Around my body, I could see that I‘d lost some of the muscle mass i‘d accumulated over the last few years of Beta training. I looked weak.
I looked almost as bad as my past self.
“…I see you,” I whispered to my reflection. “You used to be a ghost living in the furthest part of my mind, barely visible within my eyes. But look at you now. It‘s almost like you never left.”
I felt the absence of her voice, her normal whispering not coming forward to torment me. In fact, when I thought hard about it, I hadn‘t heard her speak in forever.
“What? Nothing to say now? I remember you had plenty to express back when you were urging me on to try and kill Thea. Look at how great that turned out.”
However, once more, I was met with only silence.
I scoffed, “Have I fallen too low for even you now? What a joke.”
I turned my back on the mirror, no longer wanting to see the reminder, and resumed on my way to start packing. I knew Lucy would be returning soon and could do it but I felt the need to be doing something to distract myself.
Though now I thought on it, I had no idea what was happening outside in the world anymore; something.
that only fed my anxiety. There could have been an apocalypse unfolding and I‘d probably be sleeping through it. I struggled to find the energy required to focus on it anymore and, deep down, a small part of m e had even begun to hope this place would burn to the ground.
So was Aleric right? I really hadn‘t shown interest in anything since arriving. When was the last time I‘d even thought about Thea? About any of the pending doom Selene had cursed me with knowing about, yet had refused to elaborate on? Everything seemed like such a blur after the first week I came here. Had! been justified or neglectful in my refusal to try anymore?
The image of myself in the mirror flashed inside my mind once more, reminding me of my current state. Perhaps I had let things go too far but it had become so easy to forget given the circumstances. Especially since I hadn‘t seen Thea around.
She had been declared long gone within the days that followed her disappearance. Just as I had originally suspected, Jonathan‘s body was found. It was messy, rushed; evidence clear that it had been done on impulse rather than premeditated.
But further surprising was the disappearance of several other warriors i in the days that followed. I could speculate that either they were assassinated as a precaution or just got
spooked, running away before Thea could get her hands on them.
She would be back, it would be naive to think otherwise, but things wouldn‘t be able to transpire anywhere near the same as it had in the past. From talking to her, I knew Aleric wasn‘t her goal. At least not romantically. I could only surmise then that it was something bigger.
Something I was a part of. But if she had really intended to kill me, as she had so tastefully mentioned in the hospital, why didn‘t she just… do it?
She was clearly physically stronger than most were giving her credit for. After all, she had thrown me across the room with ease. And whilst she had denied behind a rogue herself, she obviously had some sort of sway or influence over them if she was managing their movements.
Thinking about it in detail, it seemed almost strange that I had survived this long not only now, but in the past also. Couldn‘t she have just killed me herself before I dug up any information on her? I wasn‘t even shifted yet. So what was stopping her?
And then a thought came to me.
…She needed me alive.
Her hospital stunt must have been a bluff to scare me off that day. She never even tried to chase me after I had attacked her. So for some reason, whatever it may be, she needed me. Breathing. At least for now.
Based on that, I could guess that maybe I trigger something in the future for her. Something I could only assume had something to do with the end of werewolves per Selene‘s warning.
But I couldn‘t recall anything special I‘d done in the past. Perhaps it was related to the wars Aleric waged in which I‘d acted as a complacent enabler in? I‘d only been killed after we‘d succeeded in that venture. Was that the missing link? Did we kill someone during that time that we weren‘t supposed to?
None of this sat right with me but it did give me a small peace of mind. I knew now that Thea wouldn‘t come for me directly. Not for a while anyway. My death was after I‘d gained influence as a Luna so as long as I kept Aleric under control, we would probably be okay in the meantime.
When had I ever been able to stop Aleric from doing what he wanted in the past? Even in this life, he showed a lot of determination in doing whatever he believed was the right thing to do.
And whilst things had become rocky between us the last few months since the collar, he was still actively seeking me out and trying to give me company.
And I didn‘t resent him, even though I assumed he believed that was the case. How could I possibly hate* this* Aleric after everything he‘d tried to do for me the last few years? He chose me over Tytus when we.