When Mary landed by the river in the forest, she looked about. She half hoped the Grey Wolf from before would appear again, leading her to Mara. She sighed heavily, knowing how pointless it was to make such a wish.
The late morning sky brought a sense of peace to her spirit once again. She sat down against a tree to admire the beauty around her for a moment. She felt the burden on her shoulders lighten as she breathed in the sweet scent of the Smereka trees. Her thoughts turned Wes again. Her crimson eyes softened, if only she could bring him here. This place might do his spirit some good, too.
Suddenly, Mary felt a nudge at her hand, which was braced behind her. She gaped. Glancing from the corner of her eye, she saw gray fur. Could it be? She turned about to look. It was a wolf, and with those ice-blue eyes, she knew it had to be the wolf that led her to Gabriel. She was finally willing to accept that this lupine was no typical creature.
Reaching her hand up to touch it, she paused. It leaned forward to touch his cool nose to her palm. She stroked the wolf’s head, eventually rubbing its head affectionately with both hands. The animal sat beside her, indulging in the touch. It seemed to long for the attention as much as she desired the company. They stayed this way until Mary started to cry, making the wolf lookup.
“Can you show me where to find, my sister? You brought me to Gabriel. Surely, you know what I’m looking for...”
The blue eyes locked with hers. They looked so sad. She gasped. It couldn’t understand her, could it? Animals didn’t look at humans with that kind of empathy.
“What are you? You aren’t a normal wolf. You led me to Gabriel on purpose. You knew he was there. Why? Why would you come back? Are you just using me? If only you could tell me...!”
The wolf broke away from her finally. It made its way back toward the water. She watched it cautiously. Leaping up onto a fallen tree that was partially in the river, the beast draped itself on the trunk. It appeared to be looking down at the water.
Standing up, Mary approached carefully. What was so special about the water? She’d seen it before without noticing anything. Looking down at the surface of the water, she gasped loudly, covering her mouth to hold back a scream. The wolf’s reflection was not of a wolf.
Instead, she saw a man sitting on the trunk of the tree, looking back at her from the surface of the pooling water. Once the shock wore off, she looked at the man again. He was the most noble person she had ever seen. Skin pale as ivory gleamed in the sunlight. His ice-blue eyes, just as the wolf’s, looked back at her with a regal, patient expression. His hair was golden blonde, but it was bound behind him, hidden from view. A silver cord was tied around his forehead.
His clothes looked to be from a time far older than the feudalistic styles she was used to, meaning he had to be older than Gabriel. He was wearing a loose-fitting, beige shirt of some kind with a sash tied about his waist with brown pants. A wolf’s pelt adorned his broad shoulders, but it was draped more as a shawl rather than bound. His large feet were bare, and based on his reflection, they would have been touching the surface of the river. He stared back at her, bracing himself on the trunk of the tree with his hands.
“Fear not.” The Slavic accent was thicker than Gabriel’s, and it sounded like it was coming from beneath the water rather than from the wolf. Mary gulped, wondering just what kind of being had come to her aid. “Prithee, beest not afraid, Mary Black. I am a cousin to thee. Shouldst thee desire to findeth thy twin, thee shall needeth those folk.”
“Just... who are you? How could you possibly know my name? Why don’t you come out of there and talk to me like a normal person?”
Mary’s failed attempt at remaining calm was perhaps the only reason the man did not feel offended. Her mind reasoned that anyway. After all, one did not carry on conversations with people talking out of rivers. There was no way she could treat this as if she were chatting with Wes or Mitch. He couldn’t expect people to just accept it without question.
“Answer me! You owe me some kind of explanation for... this!” She motioned her hands from the wolf to the river and back.
“With great regret, we cannot tarry long. Time is short.” His face looked sad, and his voice was burdened by something. “All shall cometh to passeth in due time. Doth thee desire to free thy sister from Darkness?”
“Of course I want to save Mara! That’s why I’m here!”
“Thy sister is not all at stake.” He looked back at her gravely, but the sadness never left his eyes. She quieted, listening. “I canst guide thee to thy twin. Yet, thee shouldst knoweth thee square not solely for thy own blood. All life is at stake. Shall thee square for those folk as well?”
“If it will get me my sister back, I will fight whatever gets in my way,” Mary said with conviction. Her crimson eyes stared hard back at the man in the river. He nodded as he stood from the trunk. The wolf also stood up.
“Valorous. Cometh then.”
The wolf leaped behind her into the trees. She ran after him. The creature moved faster than she expected a wolf could, but she wasn’t exactly a slow runner either. Pushing herself as fast as she could, without losing sight of where she was going, she managed to catch up a few paces behind.
As determined as she was not to lose the wolf, Mary couldn’t help but feel exhilarated. She had never moved this fast on foot in her life. At the rate they were moving, colors began to blur into lines. The greens in the trees and other foliage blended. The blues from the sky and water streamed lined. Even the grays and browns from the mountains and earth meshed together, all like paints on an artist’s palette.
The two rushed through the trees and brush for some time. Mary didn’t spare the thought to try measuring how long they had run. When they leaped from the forest into the clearing by the river, she had to dig her boot heels into the earth to stop herself from falling on her face.
The wolf looked back at her unfazed, walking up to her like he had run that way a million times before. Leaning her hands on her knees, she gasped, trying to catch her breath. She smiled as she watched the lupine’s tongue hanging from his open mouth while he panted. He almost seemed amused.
She wondered just how many times the wolf had run through these trees. He had to be well acquainted with the area around the mountains and perhaps up them as well. She was still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that the reflection was of a man. She had to wonder what kind of creature he was. Was he a human turned animal or the other way around? Why did he want to help her? What could she possibly have that this beast needed?
She remembered all that talk about Darkness and such, but she was more focused on how any of this was tied to her finding her twin. She didn’t like feeling so distrusting of someone offering their help, but knowing what she was up against, the young woman wasn’t sure who she could trust. As much as she wanted to ask her questions, they would have to wait until she felt out this newfound ally.
She finally looked up past the wolf. Her crimson eyes gaped as she slowly straightened upright. Now that her heart rate had calmed, her senses could take in the scene she had been led to. Before her stood a stone castle; massive walls concealed most of the structure, but the tower was visible along with the variant-heightened roof of the building. It was surrounded on three sides by the soil and sand mingled earth with smaller trees leading to their larger parents to her left. To her right, the river ran beside the castle, where the sound of a wheel could be heard turning with the current. It must have been attached to the side of the castle wall that went into the river. What an interesting design. She wondered if Mara had been living inside this place. It looked well kept, but who were the groundskeepers?
“Mara... Is this where they’ve been keeping you all this time?” Mary took a few paces toward the castle. “All these years, you’ve been in a castle in Transylvania. I should have known vampire myths had to have roots in reality somewhere. Finally, I came to bring you home!”
“Maketh haste, Mary Black,” the voice of the man in the river called to her, urgently. Mary turned to look toward the water. The wolf was standing next to the river this time, making the reflection of the man only partial. Apparently, that was enough to communicate though.
“Just a moment,” Mary turned to face the lupine. Crossing her arms defiantly, she narrowed her eyes with suspicion. “Who are you? Why did you lead me here? How do I know this isn’t some kind of trap?”
“Thee doth not, but thee shouldst believeth in me.” The man’s eyes were sad. Mary felt badly for being so judgmental, but she was up against things that had murdered her parents and taken her sister. Who knew what else they were capable of? She didn’t want to fall prey now when she had struggled for so long. “Doest not thy heart compel thee to followeth, young one?”
Mary grunted, turning back toward the forest. Digging through her pockets, she forgot which held the bottle of serum, which only increased her irritation. When she finally found it, the blonde nearly tore the lid off to take a good, long gulp. As she stared back at the trees, her anger dissolved quickly.
Lowering the serum from her lips, she thought about how helpful the lupine had been to her. He had led her to Gabriel, even if she still wasn’t sure why. He knew her name and her sister's situation. Would a traitorous enemy try to help her that way? Running a hand through her golden locks, she looked over her shoulder at the wolf that stood patiently, waiting. Sighing heavily, she screwed the lid back on the bottle, starting to turn back around.
“I see your point,” she replied in a tired tone of voice. “I’ll trust-”
“What’s this?” A cheery voice called to them, making Mary look back at the castle. “There appear to be two visitors rather than one. I wonder which one I was to play with. How to tell? How to tell...?”
Mary walked toward the castle walls, sluggishly. Her feet felt weighed down, like cement blocks around her boots, as she gaped up at the top of the wall. Could it be? That voice, it had to be. Her eyes were sharp enough to see the figure of a woman dressed in black, standing atop the stone wall. A breeze rustled a long, blonde ponytail across the pale visage grinning at them both. There was no mistaking it. After eleven years, the sister she had lost was now before her. Mara Black was staring down at her with the look of a wicked, little imp on her face.
Mary felt hoarse suddenly. Was it the shock or the emotions from the reunion she had longed for? A smile spread across her face, slowly. This was wonderful. She had dreamed of how their meeting would take place. Never had she imagined it would be so simple though. She had thought there would be more of a fight, but maybe she had been a bit dramatic. This wasn’t an action movie. This was reality, and good things could happen to good people, right? Reaching up, she tried to speak up, so her sister could hear her properly.
“Mara... It’s me... You know me... Don’t you...?”
The vixen watched the two below. The countess hadn’t mentioned what kind of visitor was coming. Was this not who she was to greet? As she watched the female in the coat walk up, she rose her eyebrows in surprise. What was she doing, dragging her feet like that across the sandy soil? She could barely hear what she was saying from where she stood. The vixen groaned. Was it so much to ask a person to project their voice? Jumping down from the wall, she decided to get a better look at this fool. When she landed in a crouch, her crimson eyes looked up, blinking curiously.
“How interesting,” Mara said as she stood up slowly. “Do my eyes deceive me, or am I looking at a mirror? How do you have my face?”
Mary froze. What had Mara just said? How could she not remember her own twin? It occurred to her that it had been eleven years since they had seen one another. Perhaps her sister had become used to not having her around. Mary thought about how ridiculous that sounded inside her head, but she was desperately pulling at straws to explain those words that cut into her like a blade. Her sister seemed to notice her distress, tilting her head and walking closer to her.
“How strange... You really do look like me close up,” Mara said once they were close enough to reach out to touch one another. “Are you a shapeshifter? I’ve heard they can take the form of whatever they desire. Though I was under the impression that they were extinct, but I suppose one can never really know about a thing that can change form. Haha!” She laughed like a little girl, sounding silly and amused with herself.
“Mara...” Mary said once her voice returned to her. Her awe had worn off by this point. She didn’t see what was so funny. How could she not know her? “Mara, it’s me. I’m your-”
“Hence from that lady!” The man’s voice yelled, suddenly. The wolf barked before running up to get between the two.
Mary stumbled backward at the sound of the animal’s cry. Mara continued to laugh for a moment before she noticed the wolf was coming toward her. She flipped backward, eyeing the creature with a wild look in her eyes. Baring his fangs, the Grey Wolf growled as he crouched in front of Mary, ready to pounce if necessary.
“Wolf, what are you doing? This is Mara! I asked you to lead me to her, and you did! Why are you keeping her away now?” She suddenly realized the animal wasn’t near the water, so the man couldn’t answer her questions now. She grabbed her face in frustration. “Bloody wolf…! Don’t attack her!”
“Oh my...” Mara said in a strange voice. It sounded nasally and high-pitched. It sent a chill through her sister. What was happening here? “Were you the real visitor my mistress spoke of? She did say you would be troublesome.” A smirk spread across her face as she reached for her saber from where she knelt on the sandy soil. Sweeping the blade through the air, she spoke louder. “I promised to play with you for a while. Should we begin?”
“Mara... Why do you have a sword...? This isn’t funny...” Mary fell backward as she gaped at her twin. This had to be a lie. This couldn’t be Mara. Mara had always made her smile. She had always tried to encourage her, stand up for her. Who was this person before her now? This couldn’t be Mara Black. She didn’t want to believe what was happening right before her eyes. She couldn’t...
She was reminded of the words the man had said to her about fighting not only for her sister. A darkness of some kind was threatening the world. Had something happened to turn her sister into this? Was the wolf trying to protect her from that right now? But if this was the case, this was her sister, her twin sister! She couldn’t hurt her, could she?
The creature growled louder at the sight of the blade. Knowing full well that they were no match for a weapon, he rose from his crouch. Opening his mouth, a howl similar to the one Mary had heard when Gabriel fell on her came from his throat. However, this one was louder, so much so that she felt a sharp pain in her ears. Both girls tried to cover their ears, but the howl only grew in intensity, making it impossible to ignore.
Mara could feel her blade begin to tremble. The vibrations made her gape, looking over at her sword. How was this wolf able to make her saber tremble? The harder it shook the more her crimson eyes gaped in fear, wondering if the metal could shatter if the wolf’s cry got any worse. No way...
Was this some kind of monster? Thoughts of past panic and anxiety swept over her, bring tears to her eyes. Michael? Where was Michael? Grabbing the crown of her head, she trembled terribly. She was frightened! She needed Michael!
Crawling on her hands and knees, Mary made her way over to the animal. Her ears felt like they were being pierced deeper and deeper the closer she drew. She could see Mara was being affected as well. Perhaps a panic attack of some kind? She had to stop this before Mara got hurt. She didn’t care what happened to her. All she could think of was helping her sister. Mara had always tried to protect her from the children that picked on them, and now, Mary would try to help in kind. Draping her arms around the wolf, she embraced him, pulling the creature close to her.
“Wolf! Stop! She won’t try you now! Please stop before you kill us!”
The animal was stunned by the grasp, quieting after a brief moment. A soft whimpering came as he looked back at her. The blue eyes looked troubled. Was he sorry for hurting her? Before she could think over the idea, she noticed Mara stumble backward, shakily. She looked terrified. The lupine looked back as well, giving her a hard gaze in warning. The vixen flinched, turning to run back for the wall.
Mary reached out as if her hand could keep the other from leaving. When the fact sunk in that she had retreated into the castle for protection, tears welled up in her eyes. She started to stand to try going after her, but the wolf closed his jaw on her coat. She looked down at him, wanting to scream at the lupine for frightening her sister away, but after seeing that look on her face and the sound of her voice, Mary knew that her sister was trapped by more than just those walls. Slumping to the earth once more, she gripped the dirt with her desperate hands, crying loudly.
“Mara... Mara...! Mara!”