Of Lashes and Lies
Elsewhere, at the same time
A gust of wind rushed eastward carrying with it the dust which had risen off the ground. The barren land was getting eroded continually and the people who owned it cared two hoots about it. They didn’t want to grow anything there. They had a very different agenda.
A small village had been created by these owners and a small self-sustaining economy had been established. The central aspect of the village was a huge, forbidding skyscraper. There was a large signboard on it, which didn’t mince any words saying, ‘FLO23. Residents’ entry to the side’.
It was around sixty floors high. One would have thought that people would notice when a building suddenly popped up out of nowhere a few years ago, but none of the villagers even knew that the building existed.
Needless to mention, it was the work of the mages. It was rather a simple chant for them. The chants had different levels and the more powerful a mage was, the higher the level of chants she could use. But it was also true that the more the practice with higher level chants, the easier it was to become more powerful.
And so the building stood protected from prying eyes. If they couldn’t see, how could they question?
At that moment, the air a few feet from the entrance shimmered, and the air seemed to open in that spot. A leg popped out of the opening, a hand and then a body. It was a girl who looked barely fifteen or sixteen. Another leg stuck out, and another body exited. It was a boy who looked only slightly older than the girl. The boy was a space-dominant mage. He was responsible for all the magic relating to space like teleporting. Once he created a portal to this village, all his comrades could arrive there.
More people came out in a constant stream. Nearly seventy people gathered in front of the building. The girl who came out first went forward, leading the group. She glanced around at the big bunch and nodded grimly, looking too mature for her age. She gestured for them to follow and the group complied.
The boy walked forward and muttered a chant that allowed him to get through the invisibility barrier. Once the group crossed the barrier, the building came into view. They walked to the side of the building.
‘RESIDENTS’ ENTRY’, a board hung above the steel door. The girl pressed her hand against the door. The door broke into two panels which slid to either side. One by one, they walked in. Once inside, the boy who came out second said, “Steady.” His staff appeared and a second later, they were in a large hall which was bustling with activity.
There were two prominent elements in the hall; on either end was what looked like a reception counter. The girl and rest strode purposefully to the left end. “Reporting,” she said.
The man behind the counter looked at them lazily. He looked quite average, but he had a distinct mark on his left temple which resembled an ancient sign. That made people hard to forget him. “Name?” He drawled.
The group was immediately irked by his attitude. The girl gritted her teeth and replied, “Gwen—”
“Not yours, rookie, the name of the motley crew you can barely call a squad,” the man continued in a bored tone.
The air was suddenly filled with growls and hisses. The vampires bared their fangs and the werewolves’ eyes changed colours.
Suddenly, the man sat up straight. Gone was his languid demeanour. In its place were sharpness and vigour. His eyes gleamed strangely. He stared at the girl whose hand trembled a little. His eyes swept past the group. “Name, rookie,” he said in a low voice.
“D-Dawn Guard,” she muttered, hating that she stuttered.
“Dead?” The man asked bluntly.
The girl widened her eyes. “Six,” she whispered.
“And how many were you?”
“Seventy-five,” her head lowered until it couldn’t lower anymore.
“The dead are gone and it was because they were weak. Incompetent. Inattentive. Just as I expected from you lot,” he sneered. This time, they didn’t dare to be hot-headed. From his aura, they identified him as a high-ranking person from one of the top floors.
Gwen, the girl, did have a strong sense of responsibility. She explained, “We were conducting the exercise in Wanderer territory. As we progressed, we didn’t realise that we had neared royal pack’s border,” she said earnestly.
“The royal pack’s border,” the man echoed, staring at the lot of them. “What gave you all the courage to go even fifty kilometres near the royal pack when you can’t even hide your scent properly?”
“B-before we noticed, the tracker had already traced us. We were only a few seconds late to react before the regiment arrived and charged at us,” she paused. “We were taken off-guard but we responded almost instantly. Most of us were racking up kills well, but those... six lagged behind. They were too slow and got themselves killed,” she ended her account firmly.
The man stared at them impassively. “You will know the results of your performance in two and half hours. Until then, you’re permitted to rest,” he informed them.
Their taut bodies sagged with relief. Some of them even began to smile. The man turned to leave, creating an opening in the air, a portal. Before entering it, he turned back and said casually. “Oh, and prep your bodies for the chambers.”
He entered the portal and vanished from their view, but not before seeing their aghast expressions.
“I think it’s time, Alex,” Danielle said solemnly, buttering the bread with a knife. They sat at the dining table for breakfast. Andrew wasn’t present for the meal and Helena had exercised her privilege of having breakfast in bed. Alex sat at the head of the table while Danielle sat on an adjacent chair.
Alex nearly choked on his food. What was she trying to bring up now? He looked at her with a raised brow. Early that morning, he wore a black buttoned-up shirt and black pants. She, on the other hand, wore a new t-shirt he had bought for her along with beige capris.
“The lashes,” she said earnestly. “You said we would talk about the lashes, remember?”
Alex barked out a laugh. “I did no such thing. It was you who assumed,” he said, amused.
Danielle pouted. And at that moment, Alex got to say one of the rare sights in the world; his mate behaving like a child.
Alex sighed. “Okay, what about the lashes?”
“Why do you do it?” She asked, seeming more curious than anything.
Alex frowned in thought, thinking about how to explain it to her. “It’s more than a punishment,” he murmured. “It’s about motivation, I suppose, to make sure everything runs smoothly. This is the most important pack of all, the centre of the werewolf kingdom. If it isn’t run properly, then I’m jeopardising the safety of millions.”
This got her thinking, as she moved on to having her Greek omelette. “I disagree,” she said finally. “What if you use rewards as motivation and taking away privileges as negative reinforcement? Wouldn’t that work too?”
Alex was startled first, then looked at her fondly. He was looking at her, but he wasn’t really seeing her. “Father used to advocate a lenient rule like the one you’re suggesting. Finally, his own gamma led him to the Wanderers who—” Alex abruptly stopped. It turned out that the Wanderers had become taboo in his own house.
He cleared his throat. “Suffice to say that I believe keeping the pack on a tight leash will do the kingdom a great deal of good. At least that way, the chances of regicide are less,” he said matter-of-factly.
Danielle smiled, rather sadly in his opinion. “I can’t convince you of anything, it seems,” she murmured. Then she chuckled, saying, “Rather useless for a mate.”
She reached for the napkin and wiped her hands. Looking everywhere except at him, she rose to leave the hall. “Sit down, Danielle,” he said quietly. “Please,” he added.
Very cautiously, she sat down, absently brushing at her dress. The next second, she yelped as he dragged her chair towards him. When they were close enough to kiss, he held her hand in hers. It was much smaller than his, but not at all dainty. “I’m sorry I made you feel that way,” he said in a low tone. “You have no idea how much of an impact you have had on my life. I promise you that you’re more than a glorified assistant to the king.”
Danielle had her head down, staring at their joined hands, so he couldn’t see her expression. “What is my role then? As the queen.”
“You can be whatever kind of queen you want,” Alex said as if it were obvious.
Danielle’s looked up incredulously. “And you would allow that?”
Alex scoffed. “There is nothing for me to allow or disallow. The queens of werewolves have always done what they want, and as their mates, we don’t much of a desire to stop you. A force of nature, that’s what you are.”
Hearing those words, Danielle’s eyes glazed over, reliving a memory.
Her body was on fire. Every inch of her body burned until she thought she was going to pass out. She grit her teeth and held on. She had taken the decision and she would follow through all the way. “Ugh!” she grunted as another searing lash landed on her shoulder. These were whips coated with silver. They were covered with spikes. And they didn’t show any mercy.
With a crack, the whip slapped her shoulder at the same place. At this point, though, she was beyond complaining.
Whistle, crack! Whistle, crack! The man behind her was unrelenting and unsympathetic towards the girl tied up in front of him. He gazed impassively at the crisscrossed lines all over her body. With clear-cut precision, he raised the whip again and was about to crack down on her when he heard her hoarse voice, “Your symbol,” she said, “does it mean the god or the devil?”
The man froze. He slowly came around and lifted her bent head with her chin. The man who was known for being stoic was smiling at her. “You’ll go places, Danielle,” he said, “you’re a force of nature.”
Danielle jerked out of her reverie and blinked. She looked at Alex whose face was contorted.
“When were you planning to tell me?” he asked hoarsely.
Danielle was puzzled. “What?”
“That man, Danielle! When were you planning to tell me about him?” Alex raised his voice.
“What ma— oh goddess, no,” Danielle whispered. She quickly collected herself. ”Projecting my thoughts was an accident, Alex. I am not going to explain things. You already made a vow about this too.”
“You’re missing the point, Dani,” he said softly. “That man, I know him. I know who he works for. My question is, why do you, a youngster, know him?”
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