It was the most difficult decision I‘d ever made. Sacrificing someone in order to save myself. I felt sick even thinking about it… but I didn‘t have a choice here. And not just that, but I also didn‘t have time to digest it further if I wanted to escape safely.
On the off chance that Thea had people lying in the wait to catch me, I gathered only whatever I could pack quickest, ripping open the emergency envelope with my location and beginning the long drive home. And whilst I had taken the time to retrieve the ring, I, unfortunately, couldn‘t risk wearing it. If I were suddenly ambushed, then I needed to be ready to fight. One critical blow to my body and I would be instantly dead in seconds without my natural healing, something the ring would prevent.
It meant I needed to work even harder to keep Thea out of my head, despite everything threatening to overwhelm me.
‘Everything was fine.
We were two hours drive west of the Winter Mist and I was both sad and relieved when I finally returned to the pack. There were going to be a lot of questions, I knew, but I just needed to take it one step at a time.
‘I could do this.‘
‘I needed to do this.‘
Heading directly to the packhouse, I immediately had patrols start double–checking the borders, wasting no time in ensuring we were ready for if Thea decided to attack. There was always the possibility that she assumed we were weakened right now by her kidnapping Aleric, and I didn‘t want to give her the satisfaction.
“Send out only the most trusted warriors we have,” I instructed. “I want a status report that everything is secured within the next two hours. After that, we‘ll review again if anything needs to be changed. And I need you to send word to–.”
“Aria?” I heard someone say behind me in surprise.
I instantly spun around to see Cai by the entrance of the door, frowning.
“Cai,” I greeted. “We‘ve got a lot to do and we need to start working on a plan.”
“Woah, woah, woah,” he said, putting his hands up. “Slow down. What the hell is going on? Where‘s Aleric?”
“Not here,” I replied stoically, swallowing back my pain. “Thea had rogues grab him whilst we were at the cabin. They took him down before I could make it to him. She‘ll most likely try and use him as bait”
“Then shouldn‘t we be getting you somewhere safe? I can find Elder Luke and start working on a plan.”
“I‘m feeling fine,” I said, picking up the shift roster for patrols. “I‘ll be assisting with the planning. Once Elder Luke has been made aware, we can begin looking at different options.
And I looked up at him, finally meeting his eyes.
I could tell he was analysing me carefully, his eyes narrowed slightly as he watched me. But then the tension broke as he sighed in defeat. “Alright. Fine.”
…And I immediately got to work.
It took another three days before I felt reassured Thea wasn‘t planning anything directly against the pack. With the people within the Winter Mist safe at least, I could begin thinking of ways to counter her movement. But without much information surrounding her whereabouts, I was beginning to wonder what her next step was. It‘d been eerily silent since I‘d returned. Well… except for her presence every now and then in my head.
I was doing a pretty good job at keeping her out for the most part, but I‘d be lying if I said everything had been going smoothly. At times, my anxiety would get too much and I‘d start to hear those thoughts again. The ones nagging at me to stop wasting time and focus completely on trying to save Aleric. To ignore the pack, Cai, everything else, and do whatever it took to rescue him.
In the last few days that had passed, I‘d used the time in sending scouts out to find information. And whilst there were a few potential leads, there wasn’t really anything definitive enough to warrant building an entire strategy for. There was yet to be any real confirmation.
“… What are we doing, Aria?” Cai suddenly asked in the meeting room, breaking me from my thoughts.
We were usually holed up in here all day unless we were briefly needed elsewhere. It was important to be accessible in case someone needed to find us.
Today, Cai seemed agitated. Restless, even. He‘d given me several suspicious glances the last day or so and they were slowly becoming more frequent. An added stress that was not needed, nor wanted, given how hard it already was to remain focused.
“Maybe he doesn‘t care if Aleric dies. He‘s never really liked him. Perhaps he‘ll use this as a chance to hurt me.‘
There it was again. Getting more and more frequent. I needed to be more careful.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… It‘s been three days and we still don‘t have a plan. What are we doing?”
I immediately put my pen down to look at him, addressing him in an even tone despite the mild attitude ! was sensing.
“We‘re ensuring the pack remains strong until we can track her down. After that, we can look at the different options to hopefully recover Aleric. Until then though, we‘re managing resources to ensure we‘re fully prepared to leave at a moments notice.”
There it was again.
Another guarded look that seemed borderline distrustful.
“…I thought leaving was meant to have helped you with getting better,” he said, finally deciding to say whatever he‘d been holding back. “Instead, you‘re possibly even colder than when you left.”
‘He‘ll stop me from trying to save Aleric. He thinks I‘m dangerous. What if he locks me up?‘
| swallowed back against the urge to lash out, reminding myself what was more important right now. And I wasn‘t giving in to those thoughts.
“I don‘t know what you‘re talking about, Cai. That‘s exactly what I did.“
Standing up, I then walked away, turning my back to him so I could concentrate on literally anything else. Anything to stop the thoughts surfacing that I was trying so hard to push down.
From his perspective, I knew why it might have seemed like nothing had changed… but, in reality, it was because of how much I‘d managed to recover that I was now more vulnerable. It was a struggle to remain so collected when I was so emotionally attached to someone now.
“Then how can you just act like nothing is really happening? As if we are just discussing petty pack issues?”
I remained silent, trying to ignore him.
“… Do you even give a shit that he‘s gone?”
That did it.
Of everything to assume, that was taking it too far, piercing directly into the thin shield I’d managed to create inside.
I instantly spun around to face him again, teeth gritted.
“Of course, I care! How could you possibly think that?!” | bit back, a flood gate opening inside. “You think I don‘t want to break down, scream or cry because I‘m scared of losing him? That I don‘t want to rush into action and do everything I can to save him?!”
I balled my hands into fists, taking several steps towards him.
“I‘m sorry if I seem cold, but it‘s because I care that I‘m trying not to endanger us further! This isn‘t the first time Thea has done something like this. She wants me to get angry.
She wants me to yell and stop thinking rationally. I‘ve already told you that‘s how she digs her claws in. It is taking literally every ounce o f my restraint to resist playing into what she wants.”
He was taken aback by my response, looking a little guilty as I confided in him all of this.
“…I‘m terrified, Cai,” I said, a tear falling down my face. “…I can‘t lose him. I… I can‘t endure any more pain. I‘ve lived two lifetimes of it and I just want this to be over. I just want–argh.”
I‘d said enough
And I took a deep breath, calming myself.
This wasn‘t going to help Aleric. If I was starting to crack this bad already then it would be near impossible to resist should Thea decide to start messing around in my head more.
But… was it even possible to fight her when it was already this difficult? My resolve was getting weaker every day the more anxious I became, the urge to just give in becoming too much. It was inevitable that I was going to snap like this soon. And maybe the next time would be worse.
I‘m not strong enough. He‘s going to die because of me.‘
I couldn‘t even tell if that was her or my own thoughts anymore. Either way, it was probably a bad sign.
“Aria… I‘m sorry, I didn‘t–.”
“Can we let it go, please?” I asked, wanting nothing more than to drop it before it had worse consequences. “I just want to focus on what we need to do next. She‘ll be expecting me to–“.
And the words cut short in my mouth as I realised something. Something that seemed so obvious.
The answer was simple.
…We just needed to give her what she wanted. To completely eliminate the chance of accidentally snapping by doing exactly what she expected of me.
It was time to just… give in.
My mind started to whirl with ideas as it all came together, letting me see exactly what we needed to do. How we could win.
…But it was risky. Incredibly so. Doing something like this was reckless and might not even work.
“Cai… I’ve changed my mind…,” I said distantly, thinking it through. “…I need you to call me heartless some more.”
And I‘ve never seen someone look more confused.
I punched Sophie‘s jaw with enough force to send her straight to the ground. Blood immediately beginning to ooze from her nose from the impact.
“Please…,” she whimpered feebly, trying to crawl away.
But I just revelled in the cries of my old attendant, enjoying every second. I‘d dreamt of doing this for years, Dreamt of making her life miserable as retribution for her betrayal. And, based on how unphased she seemed today upon entering her cell, clearly killing Lucy hadn‘t been enough.
‘She deserved this. She was a monster.‘
‘Most importantly, she was the only link I had to Thea. Every second she wasted now was another second Aleric was kept captive.‘
‘It was her fault.‘
“Then tell me what I want to know,” I replied, though unable to hide my smile.
It was true I wanted answers quickly… but that didn‘t mean I couldn‘t enjoy myself a little either.
“I–I already told you…,” she said, cowering. “I don‘t know anything.”
And I kicked her in the ribs.
“Lying to me isn‘t in your best interest,” I said, crouching down to her eye level. “Thea isn‘t here. I am the only one you should be worried about. Prove yourself worthless and….”
I grabbed her throat, tightening my grip enough to make her start choking.
‘Maybe it wouldn‘t be the worst thing if she didn‘t tell me. Then I could….‘
“Aria, stop!” I heard someone yell by the cell door.
“Don‘t tell me what to do,” I bit back, never breaking eye contact with Sophie as I watched her struggle.
If she didn‘t want to help me find Thea, find Aleric, then I‘d just take her to the brink of death. Give her a taste of fear.
‘I am the only God here.’
“Aria!” Cai yelled again before dragging me away from Sophie. “Stop it.”
“No!” I growled. “We agreed that this was what we needed to do! Why are you chickening out now?”
He pulled me up and forced me out the cell door, leaving Sophie on the ground to cradle her wounds.
“I said stop it! I didn‘t agree for you to kill people. Just let me handle it.”
And he walked back into the cell, shutting the door in my face to keep me from following him inside.
“Cai! Let me in, dammit!” I yelled, pounding on the door.
But nothing that I proceeded to say nor do apparently made any difference as he remained in the room for several minutes. He was adamant about making me wait.
“Cai, I swear, if you don‘t let me in right now I‘ll –,”
And I almost toppled over the other side as the door then abruptly opened, Cai somehow catching me and pushing me back out to stop me from falling.
“You idiot, why didn‘t you just let me–,”
“Three hundred,” he said, his face stern as he cut me off. ‘There are three hundred rogues located in a camp near the Silver Lake. Makes sense if those are the same rogues that were harassing us a few months ago. There is a large area of unclaimed land not far from the pack which Sophie said they were occupying.”
I stopped to look at him, shocked by the revelation. “Three hundred rogues? That‘s insane. They‘ll have us outnumbered after we subtract the amount of people needing to stay behind to defend the Winter Mist.”
“I realise that. I‘m just telling you what she told me though,” he said.
And I sighed in frustration, turning away. This was going to be more difficult than I expected.
“Aria… I need to be honest. In my opinion, I think you should give up on trying to rescue Aleric. Or, at least attempting to do so anytime soon. It‘s too dangerous. You know it is.”
This caught my attention again as I snapped back to him in disbelief.
‘He‘s going to try and stop me. He doesn‘t care if Aleric dies whilst we wait, safe in the pack.’
‘He‘s an obstacle.
“Abandon me in this now and you‘re dead to me, Cai,” I spat. “You‘ll make yourself an enemy of this pack and to our kind. Aleric is integral to our survival. This is a war. Ust against her* Who‘s side are you on?”
“I‘m on the side of sanity,” he said. “The side that doesn‘t needlessly die for no good reason, especially when that results in only further problems. It‘ll be my head at her feet the moment she‘s done with you.”
“You‘re a coward,” I yelled, grabbing his shirt. “Too scared to fight when so much is on the line.”
He immediately pushed me backwards but I held on. “No, Aria, I‘m a survivor. If you‘re so determined to get yourself killed then leave me out of it. I‘ll get out of your way and leave the Winter Mist first thing tomorrow morning.”
‘He‘s going to let me sacrifice myself to do the right thing whilst he cowers away in safety.‘
Betraying me when I needed him most.’
“…Don‘t ever come back,” I hissed and shoved him away.
And I instantly turned my back on him, swiftly leaving. I didn‘t want to even look at him.
There were a lot of arrangements to be made for the upcoming battle. People to be notified, final strategies to be discussed. Now we knew where we were headed, it was time to put everything in motion.
Tomorrow, we went to war.
The rest of the day was extremely busy, to say the least. There was of course pushback, resistance, but in the end, I had the final say. There would be no debate on this. The battle to ensue was one that everyone was a part of, whether they realised it or not. It was time for them to pay the dividends they owed me. after everything I‘d sacrificed for this pack. Even if that was with their lives.
…Because if we failed, they would be forced to pay that price anyway
By the time night time fell and I was lying awake in my bed, so many thoughts were consuming me. So much had happened in such a short amount of time. I felt exhausted.
And, as I slowly started to drift to sleep, finally enjoying a moment of calm respite… I slipped on the silver ring that had been hiding in my pocket.
…Now to hope it had worked.
“It‘s done,” I called out into the dark.
And I felt as a presence immediately slipped through my bedroom door, walking over to lean on the opposite wall facing me. A shadow in the night now my senses were dimmed.
However, once they were closer, the moonlight streaming in from the bedroom window became enough to illuminate Cai‘s face.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
I sat up slowly and just shrugged. “As okay as can be expected. But I‘m in control again, if that‘s what you mean… But are you okay? I didn‘t hurt you, did I? The shoving was probably a bit rough.”
He laughed. “I‘ve completely recovered since Thea was messing with me. You don‘t need to worry about that. I‘m sure I could even kick your butt again in a fight, just like the old days.”
And I smiled a little. I missed those days spent in school. Training with Cai and studying in the library with Myra.
The worst thing I could do was think about her now. I was wearing the ring but that didn‘t mean I wanted to limit test its effectiveness. Too much was riding on this working. Thea needed to believe everything she was seeing from my perspective
Hopefully, after all this effort, she was under the assumption that I was currently fast asleep. Something! needed to keep that way.
“Are you ready for tomorrow?” he asked after I hadn‘t said anything for a while.
“…I think so. We‘ll head off first thing in the morning and should make it to their camp before midday.” || then bit my lip, hesitating. “What about you? Are you…?”
“Don‘t worry about that. I‘ve got it covered.”
And I just nodded my head.
I didn‘t want to know the details of what he was planning just in case something accidentally slipped into my head. The last thing I wanted was for Thea to see something she shouldn‘t, jeopardising Cai to what could have been an avoidable danger.
The extent of my knowledge was that he‘d used his ability on Sophie to gain information. It was invaluable in situations like this. A way to manipulate someone into wanting to please him.
Part of my plan was that I‘d mess her up first and make it easier for Cai to get through to her. He really did come in clutch, especially since I didn‘t want to waste my own strength on commanding her right now.
“Do you think Thea noticed?” he asked.
I gave a small sigh. “I think so? I could feel her influence at the very least. With any luck, she now thinks I‘m continuing this solo in a mad frenzy.”
“And_does that hurt? Her in your head like that?”
I paused, reluctantly thinking about it. The feeling of her presence inside that I despised so much.
It’s like a burning in my mind. A flame that fuels me to move, justifying everything I do so it‘s hard for me to distinguish right from wrong. Makes me… not myself. I can see what I‘m doing but, for the most part, I‘m not driving it.”
We were both silent for a moment as neither of us knew what to say. But there was one thing that was weighing on me, something I needed to mention now before tomorrow. Especially after seeing how easy I t had been for me to let go earlier.
“Hey. if I completely lose it… if I start to hurt innocent people, I need you to promise me something.” | said, choosing my words carefully. “…I need you to stop me before it comes to that. Even if that means killing me and hiding my body from Thea.”
“Aria. No,” he said, frowning.
“But that is the risk we need to accept with this plan,” I calmly argued. “When I give in? When I completely let go in those moments…? It‘s like the only thing I see is my own rage, my own goals, my own pain. No matter the cost of accomplishing it. Anyone who doubts my mission or methods is just the enemy: Collateral damage.”
“You‘re going to be fine. We‘re not going to have to resort to something that extreme.”
“But Cai..,” I started, my voice trailing off.
I‘m probably not going to survive this until the end anyway, even if we do somehow defeat Thea.’
I bit at the inside of my cheek. “…Nothing. Just um… thank you… and good luck tomorrow.”
There was no point telling him about my Selene theory. It wasn‘t going to help us save Aleric or kill Thea I t was only going to add more unnecessary stress.
“Okay, well… be safe, Aria. I‘ll see you soon for the celebration party,” was all he said before leaving.
And whilst I didn‘t know what Cai was planning to do, I at least knew what came next for me, what was waiting for me tomorrow. Something I hated even the thought of, now I was in a sane state of mind.
Because tomorrow I‘d be implementing the most important part of my plan. Yet it was also the most insane part.
An all-out attack on Thea that seemed completely irrational and erratic. … The very thing she would be expecting from me.