The room around me was spinning as I opened my eyes. My head was whirling as if I were a little girl again and had just gotten off of the old wooden merry-go-round my uncle had built for me near the field so I could watch them train and not wander off. I could hear soft whispers outside of my bedroom door, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. My mother and father had gotten used to speaking low and vague enough that I couldn't understand them even when I strained my lupine senses to their limits.
I studied the plastic vines that draped across the canopy of my bed, almost willing myself to be transported back to the simpler time when I thought they looked so real and welcoming. Natural. How I ever saw these fraying plastic vines as natural was beyond me. A lot of things had changed in my life since I was a little girl. The bedroom around me that used to look so large and cheery now just looked like an outdated room from one of those tacky design books my mom kept around the house to seem 'welcoming to guests'.
I heard the door open slowly, wood groaning as if it couldn't handle movement for many more years. I was actually starting to stand in agreement with that poor old wooden door.
"Ray, honey?" My mother's twinkling voice echoed across the room, full of anxiety and, surprisingly, anger. Was she angry that I fainted at the sight of Elders in our home? Sure, I had seen them a million times in my life - I had even trained with them. After all, it was my sworn duty to protect them from the outside. But honestly, I never imagined that I would have one in my kitchen. My little community had sworn an oath centuries ago to protect and serve these people - if you could even call Elves people - and in return we would share in their bounty of resources that they could provide. I personally thought they were just lazy egomaniacs and tyrants.
After seeing them today though, I was pretty set on my opinion. The House of Cruor always was willing to help us train, these were the Elves that looked most like us and came from a similar line of life as us: they were shapeshifters, though they had the choice on what they wished to shift into until their 16th birthday. Granted, the Elders lived a much longer life than we did, but they would never have the bond that we had. Or the guts.
The men in my kitchen looked nothing like the shifters that I trained with on a regular basis. These Elders were more.
"You need to get up, Ray. The Elders have come to speak to you. It's serious." My mother whispered, brushing a lock of hair away from my face. Shivers raced down my spine at the thought of facing them again.
"What did I do? Is this about the test?" I asked, not letting my fear show through. Instead, I pulled an annoyed look over my face. Never show weakness.
"No, I don't think so. I think they just have some questions." She said softly, but I could tell she was lying. They wanted something from me. I could sense the anger spilling from the other room, filling mine with angst.
I rolled my eyes at my mother. Sometimes she had no idea how to handle me. While I loved her more than anyone in this world, she was not very well versed in treating me like an adult. She always was saying that I would always be her baby and while I didn't exactly feel a ridiculous amount of love or affection from my dad, I did prefer his honesty and respect.
"I guess the only way I'll find out what they want is if I talk to them, right?" I couldn't help it. I snapped. She seemed shocked by my sudden annoyance, but she said nothing. I knew I would regret it later after our 'guests' had left.
Right at this moment, I could care less what kind of punishment she would have for me later. Right now, I wanted these Elders out of my face and out of my house.
I forced myself out of bed and past her, throwing open the door with an amount of confidence I was unsure I had. It was time to face the wolves.
Or in this case, Elves.
I instantly frowned as I caught sight of the two males sitting at the table. I would have laughable seeing these big intimidating men, awkwardly sitting at my mother's tiny flower covered table, if I didn't have other things to worry about.
The girl with my face was gone.
"Where is she?" I snapped, looking around the room as if she would just appear from thin air.
"Who?" One of the men asked slowly, almost as if he were confused. Surely there was a girl here before... right? I had seen her. She was the reason why I had passed out and smacked my head on the kitchen chair!
"That girl! The one that looked like you... but me!" I said loudly, but the words coming from my mouth just made me sound crazy. "I mean, she looked like me, but she was... I don't know. She was an Elder. I think." I said, starting to confuse myself as I saw the amused look on both the men's faces.
"There was no girl here, Alaray. We came here, just the two of us, to speak to you." The taller male said with genuine kindness in his tone. I could tell the other man thought I was absolutely nutso, but he also seemed kind of like he had a stick up his ass too, so I wasn't all that worried about his opinion of me.
Us Guardians were all below these Elders. We lived in small Pack communities and had our own culture. These people before me lived in giant elaborate mansions and secretly hated each other. To them, we were uncivilized and generally savage animals. But we protected them, so we were permitted to stay.
Basically, we were the hated family dog that got what was left of the scraps after dinner and told we couldn't sit on the furniture.
"Whatever." I huffed, welcoming myself to the seat in front of these men. "What do you want?" I growled, signaling a cough of disapproval from my mother behind me. Apparently now she thought it was a good time to make an entrance to the stand off.
"Well, you jump right in to it, don't you?" The other male said with a snooty attitude which only lead me to believe that he definitely had an issue he needed to resolve. "Do you not even care what our names are? Thankfully, your mother has already extended us a beverage, but your little fit earlier made me think better of it."
This guy was rainbows and sunshine, I could tell. I opened my mouth to speak, but the soft warning sniffle from my mother stopped any retort from slipping out.
"Forgive my dear friend, he's a bit..." he coughed to cover his next words. "My name is Jonas of Cruor. This is Merith of Brun," he said kindly, a sparkle in his eyes, "as if you couldn't tell from his attitude."
I almost laughed. Almost. But then, as a fire Elder from the House of Brun, I really didn't feel like going up in smoke at that moment.
What I didn't understand was why bring along someone from the House of Brun anyway? Was I a threat?
The House of Brun had long been known through the Pack as the safeguard of the Elders. These were the Elves who 'took care of' other Elves and Wolves who broke their laws. And there weren't many laws for Elders to break. In short, House of Brun was full of lazy fire starters with hot heads and bigger egos. Aside from the Queen, they were the law.
The other question that had been burning in my head since I had seen these two were - how did I not know this Jonas guy? If he were of the House of Cruor, I would have met him in training by now, wouldn't I? Unless he came from the Council...
The only reason why someone from the Council would be here is if I was in deep shit.
"Hi, Jonas. Merith." I said quietly, taking in the reality of the situation. "Can we discuss why I'm meeting you today?" I asked equally quietly.
"Well, Ray... I can call you Ray, right?" He asked, almost as an after thought. I nodded and he shot me a smile that took my breath away. Even though these men were terrifying and definitely looked nothing like me, I had to admit that they were both absolutely stunning. Like meeting a model. Neither were necessarily attractive to me, but their perfection was hard to miss. "You have a very... interesting background we would like to discuss." Jonas continued gently, almost as if he were afraid to continue.
He seemed nice enough. Almost like he didn't want to take me with them and kill me for whatever reason they had decided with the Council. Maybe it was my fear of death or maybe I really was nutso, but I couldn't help but feel like I could trust him a little. This probably had to do with the fact that I was a female and going to be leading a pack of strong men. Just because we were trained the same, didn't mean women weren't still looked down on further than males.
"I'm actually afraid you're going to faint again if I tell you too much information at once, but we need to explain the situation in order to move on with our process." Jonas continued cautiously, looking at me as if I may burst into flames right in front of him. And maybe I would if this Merith guy had his way.
"I'm not glass, you know. I get it, really. If I did something wrong, just tell me. I am smart enough to know you're with the Council and also smart enough to know that when the Council knocks on your door, you don't live long enough to tell the Pack about it." I said honestly, suddenly feeling a little warm. I couldn't tell if this was my lupine side trying to run away from me or if I really was going to burst into flames.
My eyes darted over to Merith, taking him in. While he looked to be concentrating, he did not look like he was trying to openly blow me up at the moment. In fact, he looked more bored with me and more interested in the family portrait that was hanging on our wall. Maybe, being a Council member and having a stick up his ass meant he didn't have a family. Maybe the whole picture was confusing to him.
"Well. You are smart. Maybe a touch paranoid, but I'm impressed that you put together on your own who we were." Jonas said happily, leaning forward into the table and slouching to my level. "You will come with us, but not as a prisoner. And you most definitely don't have to worry about being silenced." He said with a much more serious tone. I instantly was confused. I had seen the Council appear in the Community before. I had seen houses sit empty where friends and Packmates used to live.
"Listen, if I'm not in trouble, I'm definitely not going anywhere with either of you!" I shouted, jumping up from my chair and preparing to stand my ground. They must be lying to me. Maybe this was how they got people out of their houses to quietly go with them.
Why were these men here?
And why did I smell smoke?
"Oh!" My mother gasped loudly, nearly falling over my chair trying to get behind me. I knew now what Merith was doing:
Our family portrait was on fire.