The path on which he traveled was worn from Dravara patrols.
Zayne knew that he was only a few mere miles from the Dravara stronghold, but the weight of an apparently inevitable made it feel closer. He thought about what she would say, what he would face. Would she really kill him?
He had failed.
She had every right to.
Aurora was nothing, a memory, a traitor left behind with the others all doomed to die. Going against a force, the one greatest force, was a death sentence for all of them. They were liars, he reminded himself. They couldn’t be trusted.
As much as he hated himself for even considering it, some small portion of belief clung to the back of his mind. A story so elaborate, shared by all of them, had to contain some truth, however small that was. But the Dravara were their protectors, a salvation against the horrors over the Rift. That was the one thing he knew for certain.
That constant couldn’t change.
His thoughts cleared when he heard the sound of hoof beats behind him. Zayne spun his horse quickly, reaching for his gun reflexively, only to relax again when he recognized the galloping figure.
“What do you want?”
“Just want to talk, Crossvale.”
He glared. “Will you stop calling me that?”
“What do you want to be called then?”
His eyes returned to the road again. “Zayne.”
“Well, Zayne, I just want to talk.”
He ignored her.
“Do you think he was lying?”
Zayne scoffed. “Of course. I know about the creatures out here. They’re dangerous and we both know that.” He paused, swallowing. “They need to be…dealt with.”
Aazyra was silent.
“Why? Do you honestly believe him?”
“He’s a traitor to the Dravara and to every living person-“
“I don’t think he was lying, Zayne.”
“That’s what they do!” he spat. “It’s just who people like them are…liars.”
Aazyra reached down towards him, snatching his reins back and forcing his horse to a halt beside hers.
“And what am I, Zayne? By what you’re saying, I’m a traitor too. I ran away so my brother would be safe. So, what does that make me?”
Zayne stammered. “I-I don’t want to talk about this. You…you are...” His words trailed off, picked up again in a huff. “You’re different. What you did was for your brother while Aurora is just trying to destroy the natural order of things.”
“Natural order?” Aazyra snapped. “You mean forcing families apart and killing anyone who doesn’t go along with it? Shooting people for saying something is wrong, you mean? They’re killing things that don’t need to be killed. If this is the natural order, I’m glad somebody decided to try to fix it.”
He gaped, appalled.
“Watch what you’re saying when you’re talking about traitors, Crossvale,” she grumbled. “Might end up losing the only friend you’ve got right now.”
They road in silence for a short while.
Zayne cleared his throat. “Why do you seem so surprised? I was sent after them and Rowena is counting on me-“
“And what do you think she’ll do when you come back without them?”
“She will understand.”
“Understand?” Aazyra laughed. “She’ll kill you.”
He grit his teeth. “And so what if she does?”
“You’re a damned idiot. Those people are giving you a chance to live. Why won’t you take it?”
Zayne swallowed harshly. “Can’t you understand that I don’t want to hear you talk about them? I don’t want you here at all!” he barked. “They’re traitors and sympathizing with them only makes you one too.”
Aazyra looked wounded for the first time.
“I was trying to help you, Crossvale. Go on then,” she hissed. “Go get yourself killed and see if I care.”
His grip tightened on his reins. “And now you’re just turning your back on me? Fine, go with them, but don’t blame me when they hunt you down and kill you. They can and they will.”
“Fuck you, Crossvale. I was beginning to think you were something better than just a spoiled piece of shit from Aldyra.”
His expression fell. “Excuse me?”
“Guess I was wrong.”
Her heels dug into the sides of her horse as her arm swept sideways, an arc, and the next moment they were galloping away. Gone.
Zayne was left in the middle of the road, stunned and blinking as he turned his horse to face the direction of the fleeing rider. They disappeared in the distance, diving into the forests and off the path to where they had been before. He swallowed harshly, shaking his head and swinging his horse around again. There was a job to be done, an obligation, a task to be completed.
The Crossvales didn’t disappoint.
In that moment, he had never hated those words more.
His horse whinnied, hooves pawing anxiously at the ground in front of them and teeth gnashing on an iron bit. He frowned, pulling back on the reins and reaching down to run a hand along the neck of his steed reassuringly.
A hand reached slowly down for his pistol as the forests rustled in front of them. His horse was still, legs locked forward as if prepared to bolt.
Zayne held fast.
Its growl would never leave his head.
The creature stood, blue eyes staring back into his as it padded closer. It was massive, taller than a man and grizzled with scars that seemed to have only recently healed. The pelt was speckled, covered in rosettes almost invisible against the darkness of its pelt. He had never seen anything like it, unsure if there even was a sight that could rival what stood before him.
There was a formalness, a quiet intelligence, about it.
That quickly evaporated as soon as its mouth dropped open, a line of drool glinting in the light, and Zayne reached for his gun. Tufted ears pinned back and the beast growled, stopping him. The thought of death flashed into his mind, the feeling of claws sinking through soft flesh and the sound of his own bones snapping. Teeth would tear at his throat, ripping through his jacket and slicing through skin as easily as they would snow.
Things would fade into red.
That never happened.
“Go,” it rumbled.
He closed his eyes, choking on his breath.
It was gone the moment he opened them.
“T-That isn’t possible.”
Whirling around, he faced the way she had gone. His eyes stared down at the hoof prints, the trail left in the snow. Truth, she had said, some part of the story had to be true.
For once, he considered it.
Zayne stood in his saddle.
~ ~ ~ ~
“You and your brother are a rare breed.”
Aurora didn’t look away from where he had been staring, eyes glued to the river he sat beside atop the trunk of a fallen tree.
“How is he?”
“Allikeo? He’s just fine now. Dianna, the woman you met before, had a stern talk with him, but he’s alright-“
“Does he know where you are?”
He nodded, relieved.
“Do you plan on going home now?” Benjamin asked.
The man had a way of speaking to where every question sounded obsolete, something he knew the answer to before the words even left his mouth. He was commanding, not threatening, but an officer’s manner never went away fully. Daniel retained some of it too, but Aurora had always wondered what part of that had just been there already.
Some, he decided, but not all.
Aurora let his shoulders rise in a shrug. “I don’t have anywhere to call home. If I had one, I wouldn’t have dragged Daniel into this mess with me.”
“What Norton did for you was honorable. I don’t know many men who would have done the same-“
“Idiotic,” Aurora corrected, looking up. “But I’ve tried to refrain from telling him that any more than I already have.”
“Well, we are all glad he did it.”
A flicker of a smile.
Benjamin cleared his throat. “May I sit?”
The man moved slowly, caution in his limbs as he lowered himself down onto the trunk beside Aurora. He reached down, fingers dusting snow aside to close over a smooth stone from beneath their boots.
“Do you know why I’m here?”
He nodded. “I want you to ride back with us. I know this may not be something you want to hear, but as long as you’re alive, she will come after you. The path the two of us and many others have chosen to follow is dangerous.”
A hand unconsciously slid down to brush over his abdomen. “I know.”
“There are some things worth the danger,” he paused, “worth the danger. We could use more like you and Norton too if you would join us-“
“Eleven and some years ago, you came to the inn. We ran. You followed us.”
Benjamin was silent.
“You lied to me when you said Jackson was dead.”
Again, the man didn’t speak.
“I killed her.”
Aurora felt a rage swelling in his chest. His knuckles whitened against the trunk, fingers digging through his gloves to hook into rotting bark. He braced himself for an explanation, some excuse as to why the death wasn’t his fault. It was something that had been drilled into his head by Daniel while the opposite was beaten into his bones by Rowena.
It never felt like one.
“I’m sorry. For a long time, I stayed in plain sight. Rowena never saw through, and losing that would mean losing everything we have worked for.”
Aurora shut his eyes.
“I’m sorry for what happened that night. There are many things I regret, Aurora, but there comes a time when you’re allowed to move on. She would have wanted you-“
“She would have wanted to be alive,” he hissed, standing shakily.
Benjamin shook his head. “She would want you safe…happy.”
He laughed weakly. “Happy?”
His hands went to his hair and his nails dug in beyond his hair, biting into his scalp as he fought back the panic rising in his throat. For a moment, he was choking, drowning on nothing but the air being forced into his lungs.
“Aurora,” Benjamin called gently. “She loved you.”
“And I killed her,” he croaked. “Who is to say I won’t do it again? It could happen to Silas...to Daniel.”
The fingers knotted in his hair were pulled free gently, arms returned to his side as Daniel stepped around him. One hand stayed on his arm, a gentle reminder that he was there. He wasn’t alone. He wasn’t a mistake. He wasn’t some unfortunate waiting for the right moment when a bullet would kill him rather than wound him again.
He had Daniel.
Even when he had nothing and his hands were still caked in blood he couldn’t bear to wash away, Daniel was there to do it for him.
“We are moving towards a war,” Benjamin continued. “Soon, this is going to involve more than just you and I. The resistance is growing, but the Dravara are going to fight back. We know that, but not when.”
“I’ll leave the two of you to discuss it.”
Aurora stared down at his boots.
He listened to the crunch of snow as Benjamin walked away, reaching up beyond his jacket and scarf to feel for the compass around his neck. The weight of it all had always been there, unacknowledged for far too long, but he always felt it. Truly, it was one thing that never went away.
“The two of us have been through everything together.”
He cleared his throat. “One last time. Will you…join me, Aurora?”
“If you’re proposing an engagement, I think a later date would be more appropriate.”
A laugh. “I was beginning to think you were gone again.”
“I’m right here,” Aurora answered softly, looking up. “Always have been.”
Daniel just smiled.
“One last time,” Aurora agreed.
The very last.
Daniel had gone for a short while, returning to ready the horses with the rest of the resistance. Aurora stayed in his place, eyes still watching the river race by in front of him. The air was calm, quiet.
That changed when branches rustled behind him.
Aurora’s eyes met those of the faeloren, the sunken in shapes of blue against the coal of his pelt. He smiled, watching the faeloren’s mouth curl up on one side to mock the expression. Everything about him was worn and he looked older, ragged unlike the hulking form he knew from before.
Battered, not broken.
They shared that.
He reached up with one hand, bowing and sweeping his arm downward to drag the feather of his hat through the snow. Shaah said nothing, only huffing softly in something Aurora had come to recognize as a laugh, as forced as it was. Standing straight again, he set the hat back in its place again, nodding and taking a step backwards.
Shaah’s head ducked, a sign of respect.
Aurora tipped his hat.
There wasn’t a word said, not even a sound, as Aurora started away from the faeloren clan leader and back into the trees. A spark found its way into his eyes, something growing from where it had burned out before. No words were needed.
All that ever needed to be said came in the returning fire in his eyes and the tip of a hat.