Ander - Part 5: Subchapter 74

Story by Contrast on SoFurry

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It was the longest, most tiring journey of his life. The sun had already started to crest the mountain by the time they finally made it back home. The gate swung open with a groan, scraping the ground clear of snow. It made a shape like a pair of dirty old wings.

"How are you doing, Denko?" Dorin asked as their rag-tag little group of survivors stepped over the threshold. He honestly didn't care all that much, but it was something to say.

"I'm fine," Denko replied with a forced smile. "Never better. I feel like I could run laps around the village, no problem."

Dorin glanced down at the length of wood still sticking out of his knee and knew this Wolf would be lucky to walk again, let alone run. "Yeah. You do that."

The others weren't faring much better. Seffer, with a giant bloody lump growing out of his forehead, was trying his very best to support Ivio, but his charge could barely take a single step without mewling in pain. Both his feet were pierced right through and left crimson paw prints wherever they touched the frozen ground. Yanek and Vekka seemed to be uninjured, at least on the outside, but they had a haunted look about their eyes now, suggesting wounds beneath the surface. Thoka's nose had stopped bleeding, but the one slumped over his shoulder was a different story. Hyker's face looked even worse in daylight, covered in countless cuts and scratches. His unhinged jaw hung open like a rotted piece of fruit, exposing his broken, bloody teeth to the icy wind. He still hadn't woken up.

Thoka frowned. "Hey, what's going on over there?"

Dorin looked ahead and saw what looked like the entire tribe gathered around the Cora statue's feet, pushing and shoving. There was a lot of talking and shouting going on, many angry voices demanding to be heard.

"It must be the empty cage," he said without surprise. "Don't worry. I'll take full responsibility."

They nodded and grumbled their thanks, but Dorin could smell their fear. They knew they had messed up and they knew the punishment would carry over to them all. It might not happen today, or tomorrow, or next week, but it would come. Dorin felt bad about whatever awaited his men down the road, but at the same time he was thankful he wouldn't be around to see it.

The going was slow, but they finally got close enough to make out some snippets of conversation.

"That is the damndest thing I've ever seen."

"I don't like it. It just feels... I dunno. Wrong somehow."

"Can you imagine what it must feel like?"

"By the Cora, I don't even want to think about it."

"This isn't traditional!"

"It's about bloody time, I say! We should have had something like this ages ago, something to put the fear of the Cora into all these blasted sinners popping up all over the place!"

"Are you saying this is a good thing?"

"This is genius, is what I'm saying!"

A sense of uneasiness stole into Dorin's heart. This wasn't the kind of talk he'd expect around something as mundane as an empty cage, but what else could it be? He walked up to one of the Wolves struggling to get a good view over the heads of his peers. "Hey, what's going on?"

The Wolf glanced back with hardly any interest, then did a double-take, his eyes growing wide as he took in the carnage. They must look like war victims. "By the Cora, Dorin! What the hell happened to you lot? Is that... is that Hyker!?" His voice climbed to a rather shrill note at the end, and now everyone was turning their heads, creating a bizarre ripple effect through the crowd, their angry shouting gradually giving way to gasps of surprise.

With the entire tribe staring at them, Dorin felt like some deformed creature on display, something to be pitied as well as feared. He licked his dry, cracked lips and said, "Please let us through. We need to see Shekka-Kai right away."

"Is that my right-hand Wolf I hear?" Wardo's voice came from the depths of the crowd, making Dorin groan on the inside. He was hoping to get his men in to see Shekka _before_their failure came to light, but apparently that was too much to ask for.

The crowd slowly parted and there he was, his arms open wide in welcome, that blasted necklace still hanging around his neck. "Dorin! You're finally -"

His face fell and his arms slowly sank down to his sides. As bad as his oversized smile was, Dorin actually would have preferred it to this angry scowl spreading over his countenance, eating away his good cheer like a fungus. His eyes moved across the group, scrutinizing every individual, from the arrows lodged in Ivio and Denko's bodies to the mangled remains of Hyker's face, gleaning the whole story in a matter of seconds. "You let them get away." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.

"I let them get away, yes," Dorin started. "These men followed my orders to the letter, so I take -"

"Be quiet, Dorin."

"- full responsibility for our failure, and any punishment associated with -"

"I said be quiet."

Dorin closed his mouth and steeled himself for the tirade about to come.

Wardo came closer, each step filled with so much anger it was a wonder the snow didn't melt beneath his feet. "Three women, one of them a little girl and the other a plump tent-wife. Three men, two of them horribly injured. They were to stand trial today for crimes against our tribe! Treason! Conspiracy to commit murder! Aiding the escape of two heinous felons! Desertion! The list goes on! I send eight strapping young Wolves to bring them to justice and they crawl back to me with their tails between their legs? Half of them unable to stand!?"

Dorin wasn't all that bothered by Wardo's words, but he could feel Denko shivering beside him, could smell the putrid stench of fear in his sweat. It was because he wanted to keep on living, no matter what the cost. It was the desire for life, and the prospect of losing it, that sparked his fear.

Dorin felt nothing like that anymore, because what was there to fear but life itself?

The crowd was deathly silent as Wardo's screams intensified, spittle flying from his gnashing jaws. "I trusted you, but you failed! There was going to be a great trial! A spectacular unveiling for the Pit! You'd all have been hailed as heroes!"

The pit?

"But now look at you! Pathetic! Every last one of you!" He rounded on Seffer first. "You!"

"Yes, Chieftain?" If Seffer was trying to put up a brave face, he was doing a lousy job of it. His ears had gone flat and his lips were trembling so badly it looked like he might burst into tears at any moment.

"You're supposed to be one of the best archers this tribe has to offer! What's this, then!?" He reached out and poked the lump on his forehead, making him wince. "If you're such a good shot, how do you let an enemy get close enough to whack you on the head!? Huh!?"

"It was an ambu -"

"I don't care about excuses!" He rounded on Ivio next. "And what the hell went wrong with you!?"

Ivio tried his level best to stand up straight and address the Chieftain like a real warrior, but he could barely keep his eyes open. "It's nothing, Sai," he wheezed. "Just a coward's trap."

"Let me guess, you ran right into it, didn't you?"

"It's because I was so eager to serve -"

"No, it's because you're an idiot!"

"Y-Yes, Sai."

Wardo stomped over to Yannek and Vekka next. "And what about you two? Why are you practically unscathed while the others look like they've been mauled by a mountain lion!?"

They glanced at each other nervously. "Well, Chieftain, we were very fortunate to avoid most of the -"

"Shut up! I know exactly what happened! You two came to me with stars in your eyes, begging for a chance to show you were capable of more than just the humdrum gate guarding of your everyday miserable lives! You said you would prove yourselves to me, and this is how you return from your very first mission? The moment things got hard, you ran like cowards with your tails between your legs, didn't you!?"

"No, Chieftain! We didn't run! We'd never leave our comrades behind!"

"Oh? Then tell me how you were so 'fortunate' to escape bodily harm?"

"We..." Vekka swallowed the lump in his throat. "We surrendered. I am deeply sorry for -"

Wardo slapped him across the face hard enough to knock him to the ground. The crowd gasped as their Chieftain leaned over him, slobber dribbling from his fangs. "You surrendered!?" he shouted into Vekka's upturned face, his eyeballs practically popping right out of his skull. "To those feebs!? The others might have failed miserably, but not nearly as badly as you did! You didn't even _try_to fight!? A real Wolf would never surrender!"

"I'm sorry, Chieftain!" Vekka said, rubbing his cheek. "I am incredibly sorry!"

Wardo hawked a steaming glob of spit directly into Vekka's face. "You can keep your useless apologies, you spineless worm!"

Vekka covered his face in shame, not making a sound, and Wardo continued down the line until he reached Dorin and Denko.

Give me your best shot, you demented sack of filth, Dorin thought. See if I care.

But Dorin wasn't the target of Wardo's wrath. Denko was.

"Another archer who claimed to be the very best. Well, it looks like there was another archer out there slightly better, wasn't there?"

"Chief -"

It happened so fast Dorin didn't have any time to react. He knew Wardo was a sick, sadistic piece of work, but he never thought anyone, not even a Wolf such as he, would stoop so low.

Wardo drew back and kicked Denko squarely in the knee, driving the stubby piece of broken arrow even deeper inside. It cracked and splintered and Denko collapsed to the ground, howling in pain. He writhed in the snow, clutching his spouting leg, while Dorin stared, unable to believe what he had just witnessed.

"That's for putting our whole tribe in danger, you incompetent waste of space!" Wardo lifted his leg to stomp down on Denko's knee yet again, and Dorin quickly stepped between them, causing a hush to fall over the crowd. It was the exact same kind of silence that had descended upon his men after they had goaded Ivio out into the open, the same kind of breathless anticipation of coming bloodshed.

Wardo stepped back, his whole face contorted into a hideous amalgamation of anger and frustration. "Dorin."

"Denko performed his duty as tracker without fault, but it was dark, and our enemy had the high ground." Dorin didn't think a rational argument would have any effect, but what else could he do? "That arrow was unavoidable, but what you're doing right now isn't. We fought hard to make it back home alive, and for you to treat the warriors who put their lives on the line for you in such a way goes far beyond disrespect, Chieftain. It is the act of a petulant child."

"Whoooaaah!" The crowd was loving every moment of it. They drank it all up with eyes the size of pottery lids.

Wardo didn't seem particularly troubled by the insult, though. He regarded his 'right hand Wolf' with a look of utter contempt, a small smile forming around the corners of his mouth. "A child, Dorin? Weren't you the one who came crying to me almost every day since you took over Garten's job? Weren't you the one who begged and pleaded for me to find out what really happened to your precious mother all those years ago? You were a pup back then and a pup you still are, but maybe it's time I told you the truth."

A nasty pang of fear shot through Dorin's insides, making him feel sick to his stomach. "Sai, that is a private matter."

"What is privacy to a petulant child like me? I think everyone here would love to know all about it. Isn't that right, people?"

They cheered and clapped their hands. Together, they were just a mindless hive of excitement, following emotion rather than logic.

"Sai, I apologise for calling you a child. There is no reason to drag this issue out here for everyone to gawk at."

"It's not like they don't know, Dorin. It only happened twenty odd years ago, if that. Such an exciting little break from the humdrum, it was. Little puppy Dorin came running out into the village centre one day, his hands and feet covered in blood, wailing and screaming and crying and wetting his pants all at once. Remember that?"

Dorin wanted nothing more than to punch this farcical Chieftain in his smug face, but there was his men to think about. They were a bunch of savages, and he himself was no exception, but he didn't want to be responsible for what might befall them should his composure fail. He was still their leader, and right now he was the only thing standing between them and whatever torturous punishments were floating around inside Wardo's twisted brain.

"We went to investigate and what did we find inside the little puppy's home? His poor, dear mummy, stone cold dead, lying in a pool of blood, her arms cut wide open from elbow to wrist. What tragedy! It was enough to make a grown Wolf cry." He rubbed an imaginary tear from his eye, his mouth turned down in mock sadness. "And here we are, nearly two decades later, and the little puppy is still walking around, wagging his tail, hoping to find out who could have done such a horrible deed. Who could have murdered his dear old mummy? Who could have orchestrated such a diabolical act without leaving a shred of evidence behind? A neighbour? A friend of the family? His own daddy, perhaps? Someone living within these walls this very moment, laughing behind the puppy's back? Do you want to know, Dorin? Do you really want to know?"

Dorin's knees went weak and his stomach did a complete flip inside his body. This wasn't just some angry tirade. Wardo wasn't simply dragging old demons out of his past to slap him in the face. "Did you find out who did it?" he asked, hating himself for sounding exactly like the desperate little pup Wardo was making him out to be.

"Oh yes. I've known for a while now, but you were so obsessed with it I thought it might be best to leave it be."

Dorin seized Wardo by the necklace and jerked him closer, nearly lifting him right off his feet. "Don't play games with me, Wardo!" he shouted. "If you know who killed my mother, you better damn well tell me right now!"

"Are you suuuuure?" Wardo said in an annoying little sing-song voice. By the Cora, was he enjoying this? "It might destroy you if you're not careful."

"I don't care! Just tell me who did it!"

Wardo lips peeled back, revealing his yellowed teeth one by one until they were all on display. He opened his jaws and his tongue was like a red, slimy snake slithering inside his mouth, waiting to release its venom into the world.

Dorin held his breath. Finally, after so many years of searching, he would have the answer to the question that had plagued him almost his entire life. But the words that flowed forth from Wardo's poisonous tongue was something he could never have prepared himself for. It was something he had always known, and something he had always denied, creating a wound in his soul that could never heal, because it was always there and not there, festering away, deep inside, invisible to his eyes but not to his heart.

Wardo licked his lips and said: "It was you."


The necklace slipped free of Dorin's grasp and Wardo dropped back down to his feet, still wearing that smug grin. "There was no wild conspiracy, Dorin. No elaborate cover-up. Everyone knew exactly what had happened, but that was never enough for you, was it? The easy answer was too painful to think about, the truth too sharp, so you convinced yourself your dear mummy must have been murdered. It was the only thing that made sense, the only way for you to keep hold of your sanity, because the alternative..."

"You're lying."

"... would mean that she really did kill herself. But why would she do that if she had a little puppy to look after? Unless..."

"Shut up! You're a liar, so just shut up!"

"It was your fault, Dorin! Your mother killed herself because she had a pitiful little weakling like you for a son and a violent mate who beat her so badly she could never try for another! She was stuck with you and she hated you! That's why she killed herself! She couldn't stand to even look at you!"

"You're wrong! You didn't know her!"

"I know she took a knife and she stuck it inside her arms and she ripped herself open, and she did it with a smile, knowing she'd never have to hold you to her breast ever again!"

"You sick son of a bitch..."

"And without a mate to beat senseless every night, your daddy dearest turned his fists on you. Maybe he blamed you for murdering his original punching bag, but I think it was more a way for him to balance things out. Maybe, if he could turn you into a real Wolf, maybe even convince you to grow up to be a warrior, it would prove that mummy needn't have killed herself. Maybe it was his way to have revenge against the pathetic little cry-baby you once were."

"I did not kill my mother. It was my father! Even if she did do the deed herself, it was his hands that guided her blade, not mine!"

"Then why didn't you stop him? Did you even try? All those nights we heard the screaming coming from your tent, did you ever step between your parents like you just stepped between me and that lackey behind you? No! You curled up into a tight little ball and hid your face and pretended you were someplace else, didn't you?"

"I was a child. There was nothing I could've -"

"Of course there was nothing you could do, but it wasn't because you were a child. It was because you were weak!"

"I... It wasn't my fault..."

"No matter how you try to spin it, it was your fault. Whether your mother hated you and the misery her life had become, or if it was your father who ended up pushing her just a little bit too far, it all comes down to you. You were the one who failed to make her happy, you were the one who failed to protect her, you were the one who failed to save her from herself. It was all you, Dorin. You failed her back then, and now you've failed me. But I guess that's all you're really good at, isn't it? Failing."

Mother? Are you all right? Does it still hurt?

Leave me alone, Dorin.

Is there anything I can get you?

Not now, Dorin, I'm too tired. Go play outside for a while. I think I'm going to... take a nap. Yes. I just need to sleep for a while.

Are you sure?

Yes. Run along. And if you see your father, tell him... tell him I'm sorry.

Sorry for what?

Just go, Dorin. Let me sleep. I am so tired. Just... tired.

Okay, Mother. I'll tell him.

That's a good boy.

Wardo pressed his advantage. "You hated your father so much, and everyone knew it. You very nearly killed him during a sparring match, remember that? I certainly do. The way you climbed on top of him, punching him in the face again and again, just like he used to punch your precious mummy. Drew quite the crowd, it did, once you started screaming about how you'd rip his claws right out of his fingers for what he had done. It was a work of art, really. If Chieftain Kadai hadn't been there to ruin all the fun, I think you would have gone through with it, too. Just rip out the claws that had scratched your mummy dearest so many times, slowly turning her pretty little face into a grid of scars over the years. Now that would have been justice."

Don't worry, Dorin, it's just a little scratch. It doesn't hurt. Shekka-Kai will make it all better in no time.

"I wonder, when you were cutting Danado's claws from his hands, did you look at him and see your father staring back at you? Were you trying to do what you couldn't back then? Were you trying to save Mummy dearest from the claws that kept slicing her face wide open? Were you trying to make it so that he could never punch her again without feeling pain even worse than what he had inflicted upon his own family?"

Just listen to him squeal! Do 'em all, Sai! Do 'em all!

Stay still, you bastard, or we'll go after your sister next!

Fun... fun... fun...

"I'm surprised your mother took so long to off herself, living with such a messed up family."

Dorin felt like all his guts had slowly been pulled right out of him, leaving only an empty pelt where he once stood. It felt like he could barely support his own weight. He remembered the long, endless nights with his parents. The way they'd shout, then scream. He remembered closing his eyes, covering his face, and curling up against the wall of their tent. He remembered how the world would sound like a distant rumble of thunder when he pinched his ears shut, and he'd imagine he was there, where the thunder was, someplace far, far away, waiting for the storm to pass. If only an adult could do the same thing, simply close his eyes and be somewhere else, he would do it in a heartbeat. He would...

... go to sleep for a while.

Wardo leaned in close and whispered: "You're the child here, Dorin. And don't you ever forget it."

Dorin didn't want to fight anymore. He just wanted to lie down and close his eyes and wait for the storm to pass. "Yes, Chieftain."

Wardo stepped back and looked him up and down, like a craftsman inspecting his handiwork. Apparently satisfied, he nodded and continued down the line.

Unlike his comrades in arms, Thoka immediately went on the defensive. "It wasn't my fault, Chieftain! I fought with the strength of ten Wolves! Ask anybody! These others, though, they were pathetic! You should have seen them, dropping like flies! I was practically the last one standing! I would have gotten the little one for you, but -"

"Mellah decked you!" Yanek interjected, helping Denko back to his feet. "Laid you low with a single punch, you fatass!"

"I don't want to hear that coming from a guy who threw down his weapons without even trying to use them, you bloody coward!"

"Your fur-brained charge nearly got us all killed! Idiot!"

"Yellow belly!"

"Damn fool!"

Dorin could barely make out anything they were saying. There was so much pain building inside his throbbing head that it transformed all their shouts into nonsensical gibberish. Even the whispers of the crowd had taken on an abrasive quality, grinding against his skull like the drone of angry bees. None of it really mattered anyway. Not anymore. The one thing he had left, the one thing he had been fighting for, had been taken away from him. There was nothing left. Not even the illusion of hope.

"Shut up! Both of you!" Wardo shouted. "Passing blame will do you no good because I already blame all of you!"

"Apologies, Chieftain."

"You were supposed to bring them back. I had it all set up. It would have been beautiful, but no! You ruined everything! It's because of you the Pit will have to stay dry!"

Dorin's ear twitched. What was this 'pit' he kept talking about? Something to replace the cage? Or some new punishment, perhaps? He didn't care. Once Wardo was done with his asinine ranting they could all go home and rest.

"Did you really let Mellah knock you out, Thoka?" Wardo asked, sounding just as perplexed as he was disgusted. "Mellah, of all people!?"

Thoka shrugged. "She didn't knock me out, just down. And it was a lucky hit. And the kid threw snow in my eyes."

"Pathetic! Every last one of you! Especially -"

Wardo's rant cut off so abruptly that Dorin couldn't not notice it, even in the depths of his despair. The silence made him feel uneasy, like he was back in the woods, waiting for an arrow to come flying out of the darkness.

Wardo was staring at Hyker's limp form, cocking his head from side to side like a pup inspecting some wondrous new creature he's never seen before, a colourful spider, perhaps. "What on earth happened to Hyker?"

"Danado did, Sai," Thoka explained. "Took his head and smashed it against a tree. Repeatedly."

"He's not dead, is he?" Wardo stuck his finger beneath Hyker's bloody nose to check if he was still breathing.

"No, Sai, he's just unconscious. We tried to wake him up, but... well, you can see how badly he's hurt. It'll probably take a good long while before he opens his eyes again."

"Huh..." Wardo scratched his chin, still staring at the way Hyker's jaw was hanging loose, dripping blood onto the snow, and suddenly his face started to change. It reversed direction completely, as if time itself had decided to flow backward. The scowl disappeared and the smile returned, growing back to its familiar, hideous proportions. "You know what?" he said, suddenly all chipper. "I shouldn't be so hard on you guys. You obviously did the best you could, like the strong, proud Wolves that you are."

Dorin suddenly got that edgy feeling again, like an icicle was being dragged along his spine by a ghostly hand. This sudden change didn't make any sense at all.

"Those cowards you were after," Wardo continued, his voice dripping with syrup, "you said they used some form of trickery? Ambushes, traps and the like?"

"Both!" Thoka cried out, grabbing desperately at the thin ray of hope before him. Dorin wanted to reach out and slap him.

"Both!?" Wardo gasped dramatically. "Those waylaying scoundrels! What you need right now is a good doctor, a good meal, and a good rest. How does that sound?"

This sudden reversal triggered every instinct in Dorin's body telling him to run as far and as fast as he could, but the others didn't seem to get it.

"Thank you, Chieftain!" Thoka said, almost crying with gratitude. "You are too kind."

"Sorry I was a bit... riled up before. It was only because you all have so much potential, and I just hate seeing potential go to waste. Now go on. You all look like death itself."

They bowed their heads and stammered their thanks as they slunk off towards the doctor tent, doing their best to ignore the crowd's booing, hissing, and catcalling.

Dorin, however, never wanted to set foot in that dark, dank, foul-smelling place ever again, with its weird symbols and bone ornaments and eye-watering concoctions on every shelf. He just... wanted to go to sleep. Just for a little while. Or maybe a long while. Just like Mother.

So he went in the opposite direction, back towards his own tent and whatever dreams may wait for him inside.

But Wardo called him back. "And where do you think you're going, Dorin?"

Without turning back, he replied: "I am not seriously injured, Chieftain. I just need some rest."

"You can rest later. Right now there's something I'd like to show you. Something to... inspire you to do better on your next mission."

Next mission. Those words meant about as much to Dorin right now as next year's snow: something unpleasant he wouldn't be around for. "What do you want to show me, Chieftain?"

"You're going to love this." He turned towards the crowd and threw his hands up as if shooing a pesky fly. "Make way! Make way for your beloved Chieftain and his greatest warrior, you gawkers!"

The crowd parted as Wardo moved through it, and Dorin didn't have much of a choice but to follow close behind. Wolves stared in at them like walls with eyes. He didn't know what was happening, but common sense told him it couldn't be good.

Wardo turned around, his eyes wide and crazy, showing the whites all around. "While you and your men were off gallivanting in the woods, making complete fools of yourselves, I was back here, working hard to supervise the construction of the greatest artistic feat this village has seen since the holy statue itself."

The last layer of Wolves parted, revealing a sight at the statue's feet that made Dorin stop dead in his tracks. He clapped a hand over his mouth, fighting against an overwhelming urge to vomit.

He thought he knew what insanity really was, but even he was not prepared for something like this.

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 187

187 Kiana didn't think she had ever been in a formation quite as lopsided as this. She had Hezzi's arm slung over her shoulder, and she, in turn, had her arm slung over Valery's shoulder, whose knees were just about shaking under all the weight. Hezzi...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 186

186 _Vallah! Get down from there before you break your neck!_ _But there's this huge bug up here, Father! You gotta see it! Its fangs are like, this big!_ She held her arms as far apart as they would go to indicate the sheer size of the mystery...

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Ander - Part 6: Subchapter 185

185 A deep, low-pitched creaking noise filled the mill. It was the kind of sound you'd hear right before a tree finally fell to the axe. It was the unnerving groan of wood under strain. Mateo had been pushing his shoulder up against what felt like a...

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