2. Battle Of Wills

4999 Words
As the first rays of sunlight gently streamed through the delicate curtains, Astrea stirred from her slumber and stretched in the soft satin sheets, her eyes flickering open to take in her surroundings. For a few seconds, she was sure it was a dream, a cruel hallucination she had while slowly dying at the bottom of the silver pit. There was no way she would be back in her old room in Teacher’s mansion. However, goosebumps rushed through her skin when she sat up, and her bare feet touched the familiar soft fur rug. It was real. Since she was around ten years old, she used to call this place home. It was as if the last few months didn’t happen, and only the sore bruises on her skin reminded her of what she had gone through. I guess we are back, Nova pointed out sceptically at the back of her mind, and she didn’t find a good response to that. Her wolf was one of a kind, adding a pinch of salt to everything. Sometimes it made life more flavourful, and sometimes… it was extra. Astrea quickly scanned the room, and a beautiful black dress with a note attached to it hanging from the expensive crystal chandelier grabbed her attention at once. She was used to this. The Teacher loved surprising her with things like this. Things she could never reject. She walked towards the gown on slightly shaking feet, surprised she could walk at all. A diamond-studded snake necklace collar was curling around a golden hanger and holding together a few pieces of black silk fabric that flowed freely to the floor, leaving the back bare. She opened the note with only one sentence: The dinner is at 8pm. There was no doubt that the dress was for her to wear. He had always done that. Wear this, do that with your hair, use this dagger for that mission... The Teacher loved to control everything. But she was too tired to object. He was probably still going to kill her in the end. Nothing changed. She could at least look nice and have some dignity. Only now, Astrea realised that a soft white towel was wrapped around her body that had no open wounds anymore. She walked towards a tall mirror with a golden frame and took a proper look at herself. Her silvery-white hair cascaded in soft waves down her shoulders as if she didn’t spend months in a dirty hole. Her skin, however, still had red marks from where the silver chains had touched her. Those would take a while to heal. Her usually bright sky-blue eyes seemed duller now, as if there was no life in her left. “This will not do,” she sighed, clenching her fists. She refused to admit defeat. Not like this. If he wanted her to die, he shouldn’t have got her out. Astrea took a long shower, scrubbing every inch of her body despite having already been cleaned by someone. Then she took time to do her nails, makeup and hair to perfection. It didn’t help, and she still didn’t feel like her old self. But she could pretend... *** The doors to the dining hall opened, and she entered the silvery-grey marble area, her heels clicking and her head held high. If she had to meet Death itself today, she would do it with as much confidence and self-respect as she could muster. Whatever the cost. The Teacher was sitting at the head of the long table, and just two places were set for the meal. His and the one right next to him. He looked exactly the same as always. Tall and broad-shouldered, with perfect noble features, blonde hair brushed to one side and piercing green eyes that slowly took her in. Not a year older than thirty. And this was how he looked for over the decade she knew him. “Finally.” Joran Nathair, the mentor who taught her everything she knew, gestured at the empty seat. “Please, join me.” Astrea did not want to play this game and moved to sit in the chair opposite him, the one at the end of this very long table and with no plates and cutlery ready. “Thanks,” she offered him an unamused smile. Joran’s lips pressed into a thin line. There was one thing he hated the most. Defiance. Not to mention that he wasn’t used to getting it from her. But she was already in deep trouble, and it couldn’t possibly get any worse. After the silver pit, what did he expect? “I would prefer you to sit closer,” he said, voice void of emotions, but she knew he must have been fuming. “And I would prefer to make my own decisions,” she retorted. “Since I am going to die anyway.” He drummed his fingers on the surface of the table while his eyes burned holes in her skull. “Is that what you think?” He raised his brow questioningly. “Astrea, if I wanted you dead, you would have been dead long ago.” “But you chose to torture me instead!” she huffed a dark laugh. “To educate you. You needed a lesson in humility.” As always, he saw it through a prism in his own light. “Some lesson that was,” Astrea shook her head with a disappointed smile. “How long was it? Four months? Five?” “Four and a half,” he told her, not looking guilty at all. “I aimed for half a year.” “Gee, I feel so lucky to be let out early,” she glared at him. “Take your seat,” he repeated in a calm tone that did not fool her. “I am fine here, thanks.” She tried to match his tone, the two of them staring at each other across the long table in this grand room. Astrea felt it was another test, but she was too tired to play the role he wanted her to play. Something broke in her while she lay at the bottom of that silver pit, in chains with barely enough food and water to survive. It was an irreversible change, probably deeper than when she chose not to kill the Northern royal family and their friends at the Luna Trials. “I have to say I am really disappointed in you.” He took the ring off his napkin, still not looking bothered by her behaviour. “After everything I did for you, this is how you chose to repay me!” She felt a wave of guilt wash over her. Denying that this man saved her from death early in her life and gave her a home, education, training, and purpose would be a lie. She knew she owed him, but a part of her felt like she had already repaid him for everything. “It wasn’t right.” She lowered her head, not wishing to elaborate. “They were good people. They didn’t deserve to die.” “Sometimes good people stand in the way of the greater good,” Joran sighed heavily, back leaning over his chair. “This was the case here. They had to die so that many other people could live well.” “Doubtful!” The words left her mouth faster than she could process them. “Just because you failed to see the bigger picture doesn’t mean it’s not there, Astrea. I thought I’d taught you better than that.” “You did,” she admitted because it was the truth. Her training was hard, but it had impeccable results. It wasn’t her training that failed her. It was the emotions she felt on that mission. The people she met at the Luna Trials had become her friends. Or at least the closest thing she had to friends. “So, why did you defy my order? Why did you betray me?” Joran still appeared calm, cold even, but it did not fool her. “Because I just couldn’t do that! It was not right! The Queen from the Western Kingdom was pregnant, for Goddess’ sake— she was the kindest person I’ve ever met. And her baby… I can’t kill children! I told you that before!” she snapped. “You could have poisoned everyone but her then. I would have forgiven that!” Joran’s jaw tightened. “But you made me believe you completed the mission, setting me up for failure when we left the North, and everyone I thought dead suddenly appeared alive on a battlefield. Do you know I lost someone I cared about because of what you did?” She didn’t know that. She didn’t even know there was someone he cared about. Joran continued as if he heard her thoughts. “There were just two people dear to my heart. One died, and the other is a traitor now.” For some reason, that hurt. They’d spent too many years together for her not to care. However, she didn’t have any illusions either. “So, where do we go from here?” Astrea asked quietly. “Take your seat, and we will talk,” he cut her off, still seeking to bend her to his will. “I am fine here.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “So, you choose to stay stubborn,” Joran sighed, and she could feel his anger rippling through the air even if nothing in his appearance gave it away. “What now?” she asked, tired of all this. “Are you going to kill me or not?” “Kill you?” The man scoffed, chuckling darkly. “Astrea, why would you think that? I would never hurt you. I simply can’t. You are my Dragonfly.” She almost wanted to laugh at that, considering her hands and neck still had traces of the silver chains. “We need more wine here, please!” Joran raised his voice, and Niki walked in with a tray, making Astrea’s confidence fade. Her ward poured the ruby liquid into Joran’s glass and paused before the second glass at the empty seat. “Excuse me,” she asked quietly, knowing her place very well. She was still a trainee, and the Ascension was before her. “Should I take the glass to Astrea?” “Of course not!” Joran’s lips curled, “Astrea is joining me here. Aren’t you, Dragonfly?” It was a threat. A warning. Niki was here for a reason, and every cell in Astrea’s body screamed that it was a new sick trap. He couldn’t sway her determination, so he found leverage… She thought that no one knew they had gotten close. She tried to make it look like a regular mentor/ward relationship to avoid this exact situation. Of course, he found out. The Teacher always knew everything. She was stupid to think she could outsmart him. “Of course,” she replied, trying to hide the venom in her voice, rising gracefully and concealing the storm of emotions inside. As soon as she sat next to him, Joran’s mood improved. Victories affected him like that, and Astrea already knew she’d lost their first battle in minutes. How stupid was she to think she could last longer? She couldn’t let Niki die or get hurt in her stead. He figured out her only weakness. Their food was served less than a minute later, but she couldn’t find it in herself to touch anything. She felt trapped again. This wasn’t the bottom of the silver pit, but somehow, it was just as bad. “Eat something,” Joran told her lazily. “You need to regain your strength. The steak looks especially good today. Just the way you like it.” “I haven’t eaten normal food in months,” she replied curtly. “If I start shoving meat into my stomach, I will only make myself sick.” Everyone was gone, and it had been just the two of them again. Joran took her hand and brought it closer to his face, examining the marks on her wrists. “I am sorry you had to go through this. You know the rules. I am already breaking them by letting you stay alive, but you are the only one I would ever do this for.” He brushed his thumb over the red welt, and she hissed as it was still too fresh. However, waves of relief rippled through her the next moment, soothing the pain and making the marks disappear. “That looks better. Now eat.” She indeed felt better, her physical strength replenishing from a single touch of his. She’d known he was not a simple shifter creature and had all kinds of abilities for years, but it was rare for him to demonstrate it like this. They ate in silence, and she was lost. He wasn’t going to kill her; he’d made that clear. But he also couldn’t trust her anymore. What was this dinner for? What was his plan for her? Too many questions she couldn’t ask directly because she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answers. “You think I am too cruel,” he said out of the blue when their plates were taken away. “I am disappointed you feel this way, but I feel that it’s partially my fault. I still can’t process that you believed I would let you die.” “I know the rules,” she responded quietly, trying not to move her hands to show him how stressed she was by the whole situation. “Any Firstborn who disobeys you dies.” “But you are not just any Firstborn!” he slammed his fist over the table, making the glasses on it bounce and skitter precariously. “You are my Dragonfly! My one and only disciple. Why do you think I taught you everything I could?” “To make me your weapon,” she responded bluntly, and he threw his wine glass against the opposite wall, smashing it to pieces. Niki immediately appeared to clean the mess, and Astrea couldn’t help but feel nervous. She did not like that her ward was so close when the Teacher wasn’t in a good mood. “Is that what you think?” he caught her hand, making her look at him. “Why else would you train me?” she snatched her hand from his grasp. His eyes gleamed with fire. “To make you strong! To make you what you are today.” His response shocked her, but she tried not to read too much into this. “Don’t tell me you never knew how special you are to me, Dragonfly.” “You had four more Dragonflies,” she reminded him, averting her eyes from his heavy gaze. “I wasn’t that special.” “Well, it’s three now, thanks to you.” He reminded her that she killed one during her rebellion. “But also— they are there just to be your team when you need it. I only keep them for you and only call them that so that outsiders don’t know which one of you I really care about.” Astrea didn’t know what to do with this information. Her Teacher wasn’t a good man. This wasn’t a healthy relationship, and if he wasn’t training her to be his weapon, then she didn’t want to know why she was here in the first place and why he needed her to be that strong. “I want out,” she said, knowing this was the only rational decision she could make. She couldn’t pretend that everything was fine; she couldn’t act as if she was his little obedient Dragonfly anymore. She had changed, and if she had to die for it, at least she would die true to herself. He was silent for a while, and she was afraid that he would tell her off now, return her to the pit or worse - kill Niki in front of her. The latter would be the most painful, so she tried really hard not to look in her ward’s direction. “Let’s make a deal then,” Joran said in a calm voice which echoed through the marble halls, and her eyes darted at him, lips parted in shock. She knew very well her Teacher’s deals never ended well for the ones who took the bait. The whole Firstborn army was proof of that. They were not called Firstborns for nothing. Once upon a time, each of their parents struck a deal where they promised their firstborn children to Joran in exchange for something, and her Teacher collected without delays. Most were brought here by the age of eight. Astrea was the only exception because he saved her when her family died. Technically, there wasn’t a deal tying her to this place. “No,” she said in a tone that took no objections. “I don’t want any deals with you.” “That means I taught you well,” he smirked, placing his large palm over her delicate hand on the table. “However, this time, it’s the deal or nothing.” “I’ll take the nothing then.” She gave him another defiant look, which only amused him more. “I would like more wine.” He accentuated the last word, and Niki appeared instantly. He clearly made a point and reminded her that she had already lost that argument. Niki disappeared again, and Astrea shot him an irritated look. “You know she is your best trainee, right?” the woman arched her snow-white brow. “No one’s ward is better than her, and you haven’t had anyone better since–” “Since you. I am aware,” Joran confirmed nonchalantly, brushing his hand through his dark blonde hair. “She should be preparing for the Ascension and not pouring wine into glasses!” Astrea spat the words out, regretting them almost instantly. She didn’t need to draw even more attention to Niki. “And she will be. Once we are done with this nonsense.” Her Teacher wasn’t bothered at all. “It’s all up to you.” “Then stop pretending that I have a choice!” Astrea was losing her patience fast. “You do have a choice,” he corrected. “It’s just that it’s not unlimited.” “What’s the deal then?” She decided not to beat around the bush. “See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Joran let out a celebratory laugh, and when she did not react, his grin widened. “Anyway, nothing too difficult this time. Not for you, at least.” She did not buy it. He wouldn’t be asking it of her if it was easy. There had to be a catch somewhere. “I’m listening.” Astrea wanted to be done with this conversation quickly. “You already know that, thanks to you, my previous plan failed, and we did not conquer the Northern Lycan Kingdom,” he informed her, and she frowned, secretly happy. In truth, she wanted to grin at him but knew better. A display of emotions could cost her. “So, now I need you to fix your mistake.” “You want me to conquer a Kingdom?” she snorted loudly. This was ridiculous. “I want you to help me finish what I started,” Joran looked as serious as ever. “Moreover, I will give you what you so desperately desire.” “Freedom?” she taunted, getting braver by the minute. He was not going to kill her, and she felt like being a brat to him. This was the only bit of joy she still had, trapped in his clutches again. “I will give you your freedom if you succeed,” he taunted back, and her arrogance faded. “You’re joking!” Astrea was sure it couldn’t be true. “I am not,” he assured her, a smirk spreading over his face slowly. “Interested now?” “Me and Niki,” she said at once. It wasn’t like she had a lot to lose. She could try to save her ward too. “No,” Joran replied firmly. “What do you think this is? A charity auction? This deal is for you and you alone.” She bit the inside of her cheek, trying to calm herself. The adrenaline was coursing through her. She could think of saving Niki another time. If she got out and then caught Niki on one of her future missions, she could help her ward flee. “Don’t tell me it’s going to be a problem for you,” her Teacher was enjoying this. “You’ve already left her behind once. What’s the problem with doing it again? You abandoned us pretty easily.” Us. Not just her. “There was nothing easy about it,” Astrea locked her eyes with him, seeing an ocean of emotions in this usually cold man. “Oh?” he tilted his head, watching her intently. “I am pleased to know that.” “When I couldn’t follow your order, I knew I was doomed,” she confessed honestly. “I just took the last chance I had to survive.” “You could have come to me,” he interrupted, but a laugh escaped her when she heard it. He gave her a glare, and she bit her tongue. It wasn’t the time to make him angry. “What was the mission again?” she decided to return to the original topic, avoiding dangerous grounds. “I want you to go to the East,” he replied dryly. “That’s where you were headed, weren’t you? Well, there you go. Your wish is granted.” “Why would you need me there? That kingdom is long gone. There is nothing to conquer, nothing to gain. Only rogues live there–” She stopped talking when the realisation hit her, eyes darting at her mentor in shock. “I see you are already on the correct path of thinking,” Joran nodded at her with the corner of his lips tugging upwards. “I want to use the rogues in the upcoming war. They should fight on the side of our Southern Lycan Republic.” She stared at him in shock, speechless. “Come on, Astrea, even you have to admit it. The plan is perfect. Rogues are expendable. They will be our perfect warriors. There is only one problem.” “What is it?” She didn’t like this mission already. “Their King is too secretive, and I want you to discover all his secrets. After all, I need to know who I am working with.” “What will they think I am doing there?” She wondered. “Oh, that’s easy. The second part of your task is to prepare those rogues to meet the Alpha Convocation in a few months. They need to know what to say and, most importantly, what not to do for us to be able to form an official alliance with them. Not every Southern Alpha agrees to this project, and I want to persuade them all.” “You want me to give etiquette lessons and play dress up with rogues?” She knitted her brows. All this still felt like a joke. “After your experience at The Luna Trials, I think you will be perfect for the task,” he taunted. “Any more questions?” Astrea took a sip of her wine. Suddenly it felt like she needed it. “Will you really let me go?” Their eyes locked in a silent resistance against each other. “Once this alliance is made, I will grant you your freedom. If you would still want it, of course.” Joran’s lips curled. “Why wouldn’t I want it?” She finished her glass and placed it back on the table. “Anything can happen.” He looked smug for some reason, but she couldn’t quite decipher him yet. She would have never agreed to a deal with him if it was a choice. However, right now, she had to be wise. This was a game of survival, and she was still in. As long as she was alive, it wasn’t over yet. And who knew, maybe Teacher would keep his word. He never broke a single promise he gave her as of yet. She had to give him that. Not to mention that escaping from the Eastern Perished Kingdom would be easier than from this island. So, if everything went wrong, she had other options. “Will there be any killings involved?” she wanted to clarify. “That will depend on the kind of information you bring me,” Joran smirked. “Is that a problem for you?” “No,” she replied without delay. It really wasn’t. She could kill rogues if necessary. For her freedom and potentially for Niki. “Glad we are on the same page,” Joran stood up. “And now, to the important part. Your tattoo.” Astrea shivered at the thought. The people who got on the island trained for years in the camp, and then they had to undergo the ceremony of Ascension. On the auspicious date of the year, they were sent to the woods filled with deadly magical beasts and traps, and only those who came out alive were then called Firstborn and granted a special gift by Joran. This was also when they could stop calling him Master and started calling him Teacher. It was part of the privilege they shared. The said gift was a tattoo filled with divine magic. It multiplied whatever powers they had tenfold, and it could only work on the first child of shifter parents. This was the reason Joran was only interested in those. The perfect way to build the strongest army, and since he took them away from their families quite young, they were devoted to him. When Astrea fled after tricking everyone, she burned the dragonfly tattoo on her skin so that Joran couldn’t track her by using his magic in her system. Sadly, werewolves regenerated quickly, and the tattoo was back after some time, making her repeat the burning over and over again. Even in the silver pit, it managed to heal. “What about it?” she gulped when he was already towering over her, his fingers brushing over the tattoo on her back, eliciting a rush of goosebumps. “You tried to destroy it, and I think you need a new one,” he mused, and the blood in her veins froze. “A new one?” she jerked away, leaving her seat. His dry chuckle followed. “Why a new one? The old one came back as a charm!” “Because I want to ensure you can’t burn it off or cut it out anymore,” Joran smirked. “Come here.” He went toward his office, and she followed him, knowing she’d better not prolong this. “Where do you want me?” she asked absentmindedly when they both were inside, and his lips curled. She decided to take it like the soldier that she was and be done with it quickly. “Window,” he told her, and she obeyed, her knees shaky. “Hands on the glass,” Joran stepped right behind. Knowing that if real tattoos hurt, the divines ones were hundreds of times worse. It was another thing some of the trainees couldn’t survive. She was different, though, and she could take it for the second time. Joran slowly removed her long hair from her neck, lacing his fingers through it and brushing it to one side. “When I touch your locks, it’s as if I am touching the starry sky,” he murmured, and she paid no attention to that. He skillfully unclasped the snake necklace on her neck, making the fabric fall. She barely caught it with one hand to stay covered and save some dignity. “Now, where do I place it?” Joran examined her skin as a map, stopping to trace the dragonfly tattoo shining brightly on her skin. Then his fingers moved to her neck, creating more goosebumps as they went until they wrapped around it tight, making her throw her head back. Joran was in complete control. “Remember that this is necessary not only for tracking you down but mostly for your protection,” he whispered into her ear. “When I lost you the first time and didn’t know where you were, my biggest fear was that something bad happened to you. It was so bad that I made crucial mistakes in the war. And I never make mistakes. You know it, Astrea.” “Sorry.” She said it because she knew he wanted it, not because she felt it. “That’s okay now,” Joran sighed, and his second hand touched the available area at the back of her neck. “We are going to fix it all together. And then– then we will see how it goes. If you want to leave me and be free, it’s fine. But if you would like to return to my side at any moment during or after this task, I will always take you back. I want you to know this. You are very special to me, Astrea. So, this is the new agreement between us. Deal?” His hot breath burned her skin. “Deal,” she breathed out, and the next moment, a flash of searing hot pain pierced her whole body.
Free reading for new users
Scan code to download app
  • author-avatar
  • chap_listContents
  • likeADD