The pack vault.
Reserved for only fully sworn–in ranked members and Elders. It was a place where the Winter Mist‘s most valuable possessions and secrets were kept, passed down through all the generations.
It was my first time coming down here in this life and, out of all the people, I never expected to be accompanied by Brayden; someone who was neither a full-ranked member nor someone I particularly liked.
I knew he would take this experience to engorge his ego but there didn‘t seem to be much choice. I refused to spend my time doing nothing when there was so much going on. Thea or not, I would still make myself useful somehow.
The vault was huge and packed from top to bottom with everything one could imagine; books, important documents, items, weapons, and heirlooms. A collection more diverse than probably all other packs in the country. Now, considering what I knew about the lineages, I wondered if perhaps our ancient origins were to be thanked for that.
But, more so than what we could visually see, I couldn‘t discount the smell of the old literature surrounding me. A scent that I was so familiar with and took immense comfort in. If I closed my eyes, I could even recall some of my fondest memories spent in libraries; once somewhere I took sanctuary in.
“So, this is the pack vault,” Brayden said next to me as we entered through the large metal door.
The undertone of excitement in his voice was impossible to miss but I brushed it off, doing my best to ignore him. Or at least I tried to.
He walked directly ahead of me towards a cabinet of artifacts and was about to reach out and grab one when
“Don‘t touch anything,” | snapped, his hand pausing only inches away from a chalice. “I have no choice but to let you in here but you‘re sorely mistaken if you think this is some sort of reward.
You‘ve been tasked with keeping an eye on me. I don‘t see where in that order it says you can take a private tour of the vault. I o me, that would be considered doing the opposite of what you were instructed to do.”
Brayden‘s jaw tightened in disapproval but he dropped his hand nevertheless.
For a Gamma heir, he sure didn‘t show much promise in the ways of using his head or following directions correctly. Perhaps his position was something I would need to reconsider in the future.
“This way,” I said, and started walking towards the back of the room.
I hadn’t explored everything in here but I did have a basic understanding. I knew it was sorted by age and then into each individual category within that e.g. books, artifacts etc. In the past, I‘d only stuck to modern history, focusing on war and politics, so it was my first time seeing the very back.
And it did not disappoint.
A sharp inhale of surprise passed my lips as I saw what was waiting for us. The books were as beautiful as they were old, someone obviously taking the time to embellish the covers long ago. By all accounts, they were stunning
“I‘m going to start reading through these. There is an armchair in the corner if you want to get comfortable,” I said to Brayden and sat myself down at a nearby table.
And so it began. Reading carefully through the books around me. They were far too fragile, and the majority written in the old language I could only vaguely understand, but I persevered regardless. If
anything seemed remotely useful then I knew I could always ask Elder Luke to translate it correctly for me later.
But with the success rate I was having, that seemed like a small chance anyway.
After an hour of reading, I was yet to find anything with even the tiniest mention of Thea, the lineages or even just Selene in general. Everything I‘d found was mostly historical and spoke about the pack affairs at the time of writing, or just the pack itself.
And Brayden wasn‘t making the process any easier.
He sat in the corner, staring daggers at me the entire time. Presumably making a point at how miserable h e was and attempting to make me as uncomfortable as possible.
Admittedly, it was working.
“Okay, fine!” I finally burst out, frustrated from both the lack of results and his behaviour. “You win. I can‘t focus with you acting like a bored toddler.”
He perked up in his chair immediately but was still hesitant, waiting for me to give him verbal permission. “…What do you mean?”
“I mean go and look around. Leave me in peace to read and, in return, I won‘t tell Aleric you wandered off,” I said, defeated. “But I‘m serious when I say don‘t touch anything. If you accidentally break anything then you‘ll have the entire council demanding punishment for your carelessness.”
He didn‘t need to be told twice, suddenly a new spring in his step as he basically skipped down the aisle and out of sight towards the weapons section.
I sighed at that. Very typical.
Turns out that being left alone didn‘t prove to be that much different in the end. I still struggled to find anything useful.
However, though not overly important, I did find it interesting to learn that the Knight family, Cai‘s ancestors, were once a part of the Winter Mist. In fact, it looked as though the two territories used to be combined but broke off somewhere down the line.
The ‘silver lake‘, which eventually became the pack‘s namesake, used to be connected to the same river system that flowed through the Winter Mist. Would they then be the Silver River pack if still connected today?
For some reason, something about that was nagging in my head, as though I should be remembering something I couldn‘t. What could be so important about that though?
“Aria,” Brayden then said nearby, returning already from his short expedition.
But I didn‘t look up, trying to remember the thing I was close to forgetting. I couldn‘t lose focus and he was literally the last distraction I wanted right now.
“Aria,” he then said again, more urgently this time.
“What!?” I snapped and looked up furiously.
…And there she was.
In the flesh.
And an all–too–familiar looking sword in her hand that was being held against Brayden‘s neck, keeping him hostage. The ancient sword that once beheaded me in the past.
My body instantly froze in shock, almost as though time had stopped. Of all the moments she could have chosen to appear, now was by far the worst.
With Brayden at sword point, myself in handcuffs, and all of us so far underground inside the vault that no
one would hear us call for help, we were basically at her mercy. The real question was how she managed to get inside the most secure location of the entire pack without anyone even seeing her… and why she was choosing now to appear.
“Aria,” she greeted, her sickly sweet voice sending dread through me.
Calm, I needed to remain calm. She couldn‘t touch me which meant I already had the advantage. From everything I‘d learned, she would always bet everything on me acting emotionally without much thought; something that her influence moulded me to become.
“What do you want?” I asked and slowly started to stand up from the table.
“Ah–ah, don‘t do anything stupid now,” she warned, pressing the blade deeper against Brayden to make me sit back down. “I came for the sword but this little one caught me in the act. Told me you were still wearing your new accessory. Of course, I couldn‘t resist corning over to say hi.”
Brayden told her I was still wearing the handcuffs? So she didn‘t already know? That was interesting.
“What‘s so special about the sword?” I asked, keeping my voice as even as possible.
“Oh, this?” she said, looking it up and down, “This right here is an instrument of my most recent troubles. The weapon forged by my daughter in the Silver River, now imbued with the souls of Gods upon my children‘s deaths.”
And then I realised why that sounded so familiar earlier, ‘Argyros‘, as in the Argyros River from the origin lore Selene showed me, translated to ‘Silver‘ in the modern tongue of today. The river that used to connect the Silver Lake and the Winter Mist was the very one that had birthed our kind. We were once ground zero,
So what made the sword so special that Thea wanted it?
Well, unfortunately, I could already begin to answer that without thinking too hard. And I didn‘t like what it meant for me.
Under the table, I started to tug on the handcuffs, knowing that getting them off was possibly my only chance at survival. But freeing myself would prove to be almost impossible. Not without….
“It astounds me how hard it is to get into this shithole vault,” she continued. “Breaking in is hopeless… and yet I hear there are merely ten people who have access to it; none of whom ever seem to come down here.”
And now I had just opened the door for her.
“So instead of just leaving with what you wanted, you took Brayden hostage and came to gloat?” I asked.
“Something like that,” she said. “I have a bit of a soft spot for you, I guess you could say. We‘re not so different when you really think about it. Both of us having our lives ruined by Selene. Both of us sacrificing everything for our duty and then losing everything we love anyway.”
I gritted my teeth. “You ruined my life,” I argued. “You ruined both my lives. And now you‘ve manipulated and turned me into … into whatever this* is. You took away those I loved and made me push away those I still had.”
She paused to consider for a second. “I guess that‘s true. I didn‘t know about the prior timelines until I met you, I‘ll be honest. Every now and then you would just give me snippets until I finally had full control. I was extremely entertaining to see.
I knew Selene was marking those selected from the original lineages but I never realised that they had been reborn by her own making. I wonder how many times I‘ve succeeded in my goal without ever knowing.”
Snippets… so she couldn‘t see everything; not at the beginning anyway… and apparently not everything of late either. It meant there were limits to what she could do.
“Is that why you targeted me instead of Aleric? Because of the mark?” I asked.
“Oh, right, because that‘s how it went the first time, right? I suppose that would be the case. I found out you were looking for me and discovered Selene‘s energy radiating off you.
You were the bigger threat out of the two. Of course, I didn‘t expect you to let me in so easily. It took a lot of work to break you down to pieces… but when you finally gave in to me completely? …Bliss.”
“Two? Why not Cai?”
Truthfully I was surprised she was telling me any of this but I also realised that this must have been a big moment for her. Thea liked me to know how badly I‘d messed up, know where I‘d gone wrong so she
could revel in it. Just like how she left the note on Myra‘s body. She‘d been working towards this for years, if not centuries, so of course she wouldn‘t miss the opportunity to brag about it.
I wasn‘t upset either. Partly because I was finally getting answers, partly because I was waiting for the perfect moment to do what I needed under the table.
“Cai? Well… he‘s fun, isn‘t he? You two once had a thing, right? I can see why,” she winked, causing me to wrinkle my nose in disgust. “Alas though, his genetic predisposition is too similar to my own.
At best, I can influence only on a surface level but to fully manipulate someone who by nature can also manipulate, even if that‘s in a slightly different way…? It just doesn‘t really work.
Just sort of made him sick. Like two magnets of the same pole repulsing each other. I did what I did purely to break you down further. Create chaos and feed fuel of mistrust.”
Cai had mentioned that he wasn‘t sure about ‘Caitlyn‘ when I questioned him. In fact, the more we spoke about it, the more uncertain he sounded. Was he therefore more immune than the rest of us? Becoming a little unwell seemed like a fair price to pay for retaining control against what she was truly capable of.
But… hearing this from her, I quickly realised that the information about Cai was pretty invaluable to us. A bit *toot important to just let slip. More so than what could be justified by only wanting to gloat.
“…Why are you telling me all of this?” I finally asked warily.
“Well… it doesn‘t really matter, does it?” she said, almost a little smug. “I‘ve got the sword… I‘m sure you‘ve already worked out what that means from just the fact I want it.”
So I was right. The sword meant that she was able to somehow break the protection.
It meant I couldn‘t let her leave with it.
…But… one wrong move and she would just kill Brayden.
A fate, I realised, that was probably inevitable, if not required here.
As horrible as it might seem, to me, it felt like fair collateral damage. One life to potentially save our entire species. To save myself. It was a logical decision.
Given how much Brayden likes to brag, he‘d be dying in the best possible way. A hero‘s death, of sorts. And I, for one, sure as hell wouldn‘t miss him on a personal level either.
All I‘d need to do was wait until she was talking out another lengthy explanation, execute my plan with the handcuffs, and then, whilst she was taking care of Brayden, I would use that time to disarm her. Best case scenario would be if I could kill her right here, right now. End this once and for–.
“Aria… please,” Brayden then whimpered, bringing my attention to him. “Please… I–I‘m sorry for ever being mean to you. I–I‘m sorry.”
It didn‘t take a genius for one to realise that he probably wasn‘t going to survive this, no matter which way it went. Even if Thea got her way, she wouldn‘t just let him live once it was over. No loose ends. He was likely already dead the second she found him.
But there was something so tremendously pathetic in the way he looked at me which made me realise that perhaps the decision wasn‘t as obvious as I thought.
Once this was all over, would this just become another moment for Cai to look at me with disgust and call me a monster for letting Brayden die so easily? Was the ‘moral‘ choice to find a solution to let us both live, whatever that entailed?
… Would Aleric slowly begin to see me as a monster too if I didn‘t?
The problem was that there truly was no option that had good odds for both his life and the sword retrieved.
Not to mention, implementing a plan with less chance of success seemed far too risky when the stakes meant Thea could leave with the sword. And then what if I failed? Would they then criticise me for not stopping her, no matter the cost?
How was I meant to make the correct choice when I didn‘t even know what | thought was right, when I didn‘t even know what was me and what was just Thea‘s desire now ingrown within? When I was so damaged inside that it was like I couldn‘t even trust myself?
The choices were to let Brayden die… or open ourselves up to the possibility of thousands eventually dying. So if I saved Brayden now but lost the sword, would there be another chance to stop her before she finally killed us all off?
To say I was panicking over this decision was an understatement.
…But, as difficult as that choice was, after a few more moments of consideration… I did manage to make up my mind. I knew what I needed to do.