Ander - Part 5: Subchapter 78

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Something grabbed him around the neck and jerked him back. Dorin screamed and, although he would never admit it to anyone, for a second he thought it was Lana's arm around his throat, risen from the dead to exact her revenge personally.

He fell back amidst flailing limbs and grunts of pain. A piercing scream drilled into his floppy ear: "What the hell are you doing, you crazy!?"

Dorin stopped struggling. There was only one Wolf with a voice so piercing. "Aisa!?" He twisted free of her grip and turned around, both astonished and angry. "What are you doing here!? Did you follow me!?"

She brushed the snow off her clothes, looking even more furious than he felt. "Yes, I did. You got a problem with that?"

"Yes!" Dorin shouted. He couldn't believe this woman. "You had no right to do that!"

"I don't give a damn about your secret pyre or your secret tears!" she shouted back. "And if you really want to kill yourself so badly, go ahead! I won't try to stop you for a second time, you coward! But before you do, there is one thing I need to know, and I think you're the only one who can tell me."

"What!? What is it!?" Dorin asked, brushing his hands through the snow, trying to find his knife. The damn thing must be around here somewhere...

Aisa didn't answer right away, and when Dorin finally looked up from his fruitless search, he was surprised to see that her face did not match the angry tone of her voice at all. In fact, she seemed very close to tears.


She looked away and put her fingers in her mouth, very reminiscent of the way her daughter used to -

He suddenly knew what this was about.

Aisa flattened her ears in shame and began to speak, her eyes never leaving the snow. "I was so angry when I saw you step through that gate. All I wanted to do was rip you apart. I hated you. It was all I could feel. Just this furious, boiling hatred. It was so thick I couldn't even breathe, like I was choking on it. And when you refused to fight back, it made me even angrier. Everything about you disgusted me. I thought I could make myself feel better by hurting you, like I did with... like I always did at home. But the more I slapped you, and punched you, the worse it became. And still, I couldn't stop. I kept going until my knuckles bled and my fingers hurt so badly I couldn't even open them. And you just took it, like it didn't hurt at all, and that confused me. I was the one hurting you, so why was I the one in pain? It didn't make any sense. And then the answer came to me, just like that. You weren't the one I was so angry with.You weren't the one I was so disgusted with. It was me. It was all_me_. I hated myself. I was so angry because you went after my daughter, and the anger felt good for a little while, but it was the anger that blinded me so badly that I couldn't even keep myself under control long enough to ask the most important thing. It was the reason I came up to you in the first place, the one thing I really needed to know." She lifted her face, her eyes brimming with tears, and asked her question. "Did... Did you see Renna?"

Dorin nodded. "I did."

"And is she... is she all right?"

"She looked a little dirty, but she didn't have a scratch on her. Except for the ones you put on her."

"Are you sure?" She clasped her fingers together so tightly they seemed to vibrate. "Your men didn't do anything, did they? They didn't hurt her or -"

"No. We didn't even come close."

"And those Wolves she's with? Are they treating her well?"

"I think so. Better than you did, at any rate."

"You think I don't know that!?" she suddenly shrieked, spittle flying from her lips and tears streaming from her eyes. "You think I don't know it's all my fault!? You think I don't know that girl is broken because of me!? I tried everything! I tried so hard to fix her, Dorin! But it's only after she left that I realised there was nothing there to fix! It was me! All me! I'm the one who- who-" She broke down completely and sank to her knees, covering her face with her hands. He could barely make out her next words through her strangled sobs, but he heard enough. "I'm the one who should kill herself..."

Dorin saw red. He grabbed her hands and ripped them away from her eyes.

"D-Dorin? What are you-"

"MOTHERS DON'T KILL THEMSELVES!!" he roared into her shocked face. He has never been this furious in his entire life. "Mothers never, ever kill themselves! They have no right to kill themselves! You have a daughter! Do you want her to walk into your tent one day to find you dead on the ground, staring with open eyes? Do you want her to walk through a pool of blood to reach you!? Do you want her to try and wake you up for hours until they come and pry her away from your body!? Huh? Do you want that!?"

"I don't have a daughter anymore!" she screamed. "I threw her away like a piece of garbage! She told me she loved me and I yelled at her to get out! That was the last thing I ever said to her! Don't you understand? She's never coming back, Dorin! Never ever!"

She looked at him with her tear streaked eyes, almost begging to be told she was wrong, that she could have a second chance, that one day she'd be able to be a mother to her daughter again.

Dorin sighed. He let go of her hands and sat down hard in the snow. He ran a hand across his tired, aching face and said, "What a sorry sight we are."

Aisa crossed her legs, covered her eyes, and wept into her palms. Dorin thought about comforting her, but he had no idea how to go about it, and even if he did, what was the point? It wouldn't bring her daughter back, and it wouldn't make him feel any less like an animal. Nothing could do that.

After a while she raised her head and wiped her eyes. "W- Why were you trying to kill yourself?"

Dorin looked to the flaming pyre. It had grown so large that Lana was little more than a shadow inside the light. It had melted the snow all around in a perfect circle, exposing the bare earth beneath. It wouldn't take much longer for Lana to disappear, too.

"Probably the same reason you thought about killing yourself just now. Because I hate myself. I've hated myself my entire life, I just didn't realize it until I took someone else's."

"I didn't mean to eavesdrop," Aisa said, "but I heard what you said to her. To Lana..." Dorin looked up sharply, and Aisa shook her head. "I won't tell anyone, you have my word on that."

"What do you want, Aisa? I already told you, your daughter is safe. Why are you still here?"

She shifted uncomfortably. "This is going to sound strange after what I did to you, but I wanted to thank you."

"Thank me? For what? Failing to drag your daughter back to the village? I shouldn't have gone after her in the first place, so you can keep your apology."

She shook her head. "No, that's not it. I'm not thanking you for failing. I'm thanking you for being glad that you failed. Thoka and the others failed right along with you, but they're not glad about it. Only you. That's what makes you... I don't know. Different, I guess."

Different? Dorin didn't know whether to laugh or cry. He was right there along with everyone else, biting and mauling like an animal when the time came to put Ander down. He was the one who had ripped Danado's claws out, and he had done it with a smile. He was the one who drove a knife into Lana's heart to save a Chieftain who had clearly gone crazy, and why? To keep the good times rolling, of course. Because he was having so much fun he never wanted it to stop.

For her to call him 'different' was an insult to every Wolf who had fought and clawed and dragged their broken bodies through miles of strife to break free from what was considered 'normal'.

Promise me, Dan...

He didn't deserve to be called different. Not like them.

Promise me you'll stay different...

Dorin clutched his head, feeling like it would explode if he didn't keep it together. She was wrong, she was so, so wrong for so many reasons, but it was too painful to explain why. It was too painful to even think about.

"I miss my daughter," she said, "but a part of me is glad she's gone, someplace far, far away where I can never hurt her again, away from the village, and away from..." Aisa looked him in the eye, and the stare she gave him was terribly cold. "You saw that hole Wardo made."

The thought alone was enough to make Dorin feel sick to his stomach. It still seemed like something out of a nightmare, far too gruesome to be real, but it was. It was real, and it was waiting. It would always be waiting. "I did."

Even though they were all alone out here, Aisa's voice dropped down to a whisper. "He said he'd only use it on criminals and murderers, the worst of the worst, but I know. I know that, if you had brought my Renna back with you... Wardo would've... he would've..." She blurted the next words out, all jumbled together into a heart-breaking sob. "He would've thrown her in there! My daughter! He'd've thrown her in the pit!" She clapped her hands over her mouth, her eyes wide and staring.

Dorin nodded. "You're right. He was going to use her to take the pit's 'virginity'. He told me himself."

Aisa stared at him a second longer, then turned her head and wretched into the snow, hawking up bitter ropes of spit and bile.

"I'm sorry, Aisa. I shouldn't have been so blunt."

She held up a hand and wiped her mouth. "N- No, don't apologise. I'm actually glad you told me. It confirms that Renna really should be away from here, that she was right to leave, and that I was right to push her away. It makes me feel less terrible. But also..."


She nodded. There was a rope of spit still hanging from her bottom lip, but she didn't seem to be aware of it. She scraped a big armful of snow over her patch of vomit and leaned back, breathing heavily, making the rope swing back and forth. "There's a shadow in this tribe, Dorin. It's been here since before I was born. It's a part of all of us. I have it, you have it, Lana had it. We carry it in our hearts and we pass it on to our children, and they pass it on to their children and their children's children. That's the way it's always been. But now... It feels like the shadow is growing too big. It's spilling over, and I don't know if it will ever stop. I don't know if it even can stop."

"It can be stopped." He said it with such assurance that Aisa almost did a double take.


"It can be stopped. Ander stopped it. Hezzi stopped it. Hell, even Danado stopped it, and everyone says he's so weak. I was there each time. I saw it happen with my own two eyes. I saw the way they overcame it. Ander is a freak and Hezzi is a runt and Danado is just a nobody, that's what they say. But I'll tell you, Aisa, that those three Wolves are probably the strongest this tribe has ever seen, because they fought against the shadow you speak of and they won. And as for your daughter? I don't think she ever had a shadow in her heart. That's what made her different from us. That's what you were trying to 'fix'. Because if she had a shadow in her heart, just like everyone else, then she wouldn't be such a target. She'd be safe. Isn't that right?"

"I shouldn't have tried to change her..." Aisa said. Sitting in the snow, she looked a bit like a child herself. "I could never understand her, but I could understand the others. The things they said, the way they looked at her. She was only just beginning to turn into a woman, but already they were staring at her like a piece of meat. I hated the way she used to walk around the village, all alone. I hated how she used to collect feathers and turn them into those little trinkets. She was becoming too much like Ander, and that scared me. Ander could get away with being different because he was the Chieftain's son, but Renna was just an oblivious little girl. And then she and that Hezzi started getting close, and that only made it worse. It was as if she was trying her damndest to get herself killed, and no matter what I did, no matter how hard I hit her, I couldn't get her to stop. I couldn't get her to be normal..." She took a deep shuddering breath and expelled it in a hazy mist of vapour. "Tell me, Dorin, am I not the biggest fool to ever live?"

Dorin shrugged. "I don't know. There's seems to be quite a few Wolves vying for the top spot in that particular race."

Aisa tried to smile, but gave up after the first try. It would probably be a long time before she would smile again, if ever. "At least she's alive. Even if she hates me, I'm grateful for that."

"She doesn't hate you," Dorin said, wondering why he was trying so hard to make this she-wolf feel better. Just a few minutes ago he had tried to kill himself. He had made peace with it. He was ready to leave everything behind.

And yet he was still here. They both were.

"She does," Aisa said. "After the things I've done, she has to."

"She said she loves you. I'll be the first to admit I know absolutely nothing about love, but I do know it isn't a word you should throw around if it's not true."

"What difference does it make? She's gone forever. I'll never be able to tell her how sorry I am. Maybe that's for the best."

"No, Aisa! Renna is not dead, she's just far away! There's a world of difference! I'm the one who can never apologise because the one I need to apologise to is dead! You have no right to sit there and act all sorry for yourself while there's still even a remote possibility that you'll see her again! Maybe she'll come back one day, or maybe the mountain will be swallowed by the earth, who knows? I'd suggest that, instead of sitting here wasting time, you go home and think up some good words for when that day comes."

Aisa finally wiped away that string of drool that had been hanging from her lip. "I'm afraid I can't do that, Dorin."

"And why not?"

"Because I'm afraid that, if I leave you alone out here, you'll try to fall on your knife again."

Dorin was taken aback by that. "Why do you care?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. It just seems like something Renna wouldn't want, that's all." She doodled idly in the snow with her finger, not looking up.

Dorin smiled, despite himself. "I thought you said you didn't understand her?"

She shrugged again and said nothing.

"Hey, Aisa? What if we made a deal?"

She looked up from her doodles. "What kind of deal?"

"I'll promise not to kill myself as long as you promise not to kill yourself."

"What, you mean like... a reverse suicide pact?"

"If that's what you want to call it."

"And it goes both ways?"

"Both ways."

She appeared to think it over. After a short while she nodded her head. "All right. I can do that."

"Okay." Dorin stood up. After all that time sitting in the snow, his feet had fallen asleep. It was a weird feeling, but not entirely unpleasant. It was a sensation he wouldn't have felt if Aisa hadn't stopped him from falling on that knife, so maybe that's why it felt more intense than usual. He took her by the hand and pulled her up.

"Aisa. I promise I won't kill myself as long as you don't kill yourself."

"And I promise I won't kill myself as long as you don't kill yourself."

"Then we have a deal." They shook hands, and Dorin couldn't help but marvel at how fundamentally useless such a sequence of words truly was. It held no real power to stop either of them from doing exactly what they had promised not to do, and yet it was a promise that had stayed Danado's hand. It was a promise he had made to his dying sister that had ensured Dorin would be alive to make one of his own.

If a promise by itself was just a sequence of words, then where did all that power come from?

"You go on ahead. There's one last thing I have to do."

"You're not going to kill yourself, are you?"

Dorin chuckled. "No, I'm not."

Aisa reluctantly walked to the edge of the clearing, but refused to go any further than that. She stood among the trees, waiting patiently. It was all right. This wouldn't take long.

Dorin turned back to the fire. It had reached its peak, and the bottom of the construction was starting to buckle and crack, spewing burning coals to roll and hiss over the melting snow. The smoke towered straight up in a dark plume, its rise to the heavens unhindered.

"You made your brother promise to stay different. You made him promise not to become just another animal. That promise saved my life. I don't know how that makes you feel. Hell, I don't even know how it makes me feel. Maybe this whole thing was just a huge coincidence and none of it really means anything, but if it's not, and it does, if there's something left for me to do, some reason for me to stay, then all I can say is... thank you." The flames roared and the heat washed over his face. "Thank you."

Dorin started to make his way back to Aisa, but it wasn't until he reached her that he realised he still hadn't found his knife. It was still lost in the snow somewhere, waiting.

"Is there something wrong?" she asked, looking closely at his face.

Dorin shook his head. "No. I don't have to carry it anymore."

Behind them, the smoke kept climbing higher and higher, unbound by the weight of the world.

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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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