Alyona leaned back in her chair and resisted the urge to tap her fingers on the desk. So, it is you, you hateful little bitch, she thought as she coolly regarded the sixteen-year-old girl standing before her.
“Show me your hand.” Talia demanded. Her dark spiteful eyes were narrowed, uncertainty danced across her delicate features along with a cold fury that Alyona could not quite place.
Alyona’s answering smile was slow, “I’ll show you mine…” She murmured; her suggestion heavy between them.
The girls temper flashed, but she held her tongue and waited, confirming Alyona’s suspicions that this was the child she had been sent here to find. Alyona let the tension draw out for another long moment before she slowly extended her arm across the desk, palm facing up. They were alone in the classroom, the two of them, and the steady stream of chatter and footsteps swam in through the open door only accentuating the utter silence between Alyona and her pupil at that moment. Talia stared at the Mark on Alyona’s upturned hand with glittering eyes, her top lip curled in either disgust or anger – Alyona was not sure which.
“That’s not a tattoo.” Talia said at last, her tone clipped.
Alyona inclined her head, considering her own palm, “No.” She agreed.
The Mark of the Tiger lay in the centre of Alyona’s palm; it most certainly was not a tattoo. It looked more like the scar of a branding iron; the off-pink colour of puckered scar tissue in the shape of a tiger’s face staring dangerously up out of Alyona’s palm.
“Then what is it?” Talia demanded.
Alyona let her gaze stray to the girls own left hand, “Do you always wear gloves to school?” She asked with a knowing twist of her lips.
Talia flinched and quickly crossed her arms defensively; she had no reply though Alyona noticed with a sense of satisfaction. She merely glared at her teacher, that sparkle of distrust and fury somewhat brighter than before.
“Show me.” Alyona said softly, her own hard stare never faltering. Experience taught her that she should not show even the slightest bit of weakness in front of a headstrong, angry young person if she wanted her respect. Talia was about to become a very different kind of pupil it would seem, and Alyona had the joyous task of being her guide. The quicker the girl learned to curb her temper, the better.
“Show you what?” Talia sneered, left hand clenched tightly under her arm.
“Show me your Mark.”
The girl wanted to fidget, Alyona could tell. She was furious and confused; a deadly combination for any Guardian, least of all one freshly Marked. It was Alyona’s job to keep the girl in control of her new powers, and to explain what was happening to her as clearly and honestly as she could. But first the girl would have to lose the attitude and learn a modicum of respect.
Damn the Prophetess for sending Alyona to pick up this one! She knew first hand that Alyona had a pretty wicked temper of her own, with very little patience for babysitting fledglings.
“What animal is yours?” Alyona asked the girl.
Talia bit her lip but said nothing.
“Is it… an Eagle?” Alyona grew very still, not wanting to reveal her own tension.
When the girl flinched again, Alyona knew the truth. Standing before her was a young girl freshly Marked with the magic of the Eagle. So, not only had Alyona been lumbered with babysitting duties, she was actually facing the most important fledgling of the century.
Alyona wet her lips and indicated the seat on the other side of the table, “Shut the door and sit down. We have much to discuss.” She said.
Talia’s nostrils flared, “There is nothing to discuss.” She snarled.
Alyona cocked her head, “Then why come to me?” She asked the girl.
Warring emotions flitted across the girls features in quick succession, curiosity, confusion, anger, denial. She stamped her foot in her temper, “This is insane!” She cried, sounding very much like a petulant child. “I woke up with this stupid m-mark on my hand – a mark that looks eerily similar to my frigging maths teacher’s tattoo! – and I just don’t feel like myself anymore… I feel so wrong!” She whined.
Alyona tried to arrange her own features into as sympathetic an expression as she could muster. Quite honestly, she could not relate to Talia at all. She, herself, had embraced the change of her own Mark when it first appeared all those years ago, had relished the power and the connection to the Guardian people. It wasn’t wrong; becoming a Guardian had been the most real thing that had ever happened in Alyona’s pathetic human life. It was right. It was destiny.
“Don’t look at me like that!” Talia snapped. “What’s wrong with you, what the hell kind of teacher even are you?”
“I am not a teacher at all,” Alyona admitted. “I am a Guardian of the Tiger and I was sent to this school to find you.”
Talia gaped, “But why?”
“Shut the door and sit down and I can answer all of your questions.”
The girl shook her pretty little head, her hair rippled across her shoulders in gossamer waves, “I’m out of here.”
She snatched her bag from the desk behind her and hurried out the open door without even a backward glance. With a sigh, Alyona considered going after her, but could not risk pushing the girl even further away. She had come once for answers, her curiosity would bring her again before long.
Alone in the classroom again. Alyona hated it. She hated the classroom, she hated the school. She generally hated humans with their inflated sense of importance and their inability to be loyal despite their limited lifespans. They were completely oblivious to the magical world around them. She could not understand them. And, yes, technically she had been one of them for the first sixteen years of her life, but when she reflected back she had always known she was destined for so much more. She had now spent the better part of two hundred years serving the Ancient Tiger, and the Prophetess of course.
Thinking of the boss-lady, she had better get a message to her and let her know the fledgling had been Marked at last. Alyona had been stationed here for six months in preparation for this fledgling. The Prophetess had hinted heavily that this was a very special child she was waiting for, and Alyona had already guessed it would be the next Eagle. While there were hundreds, even thousands of other Guardians for the Tiger, the Wolf, the Snake and so on, there were only ever two Guardians of the Eagle at one time. Only two in the whole word. The Prophetess had been the only one for so long now, and here was the second. An apprentice at last. It almost alarmed Alyona to think that Talia was the one. The girl was a menace at school, could be cruel and selfish and had even been suspended last month for setting another girls hair on fire in the corridor. Was this girl really destined to become the leader of all the Guardians? What a frightening idea. She certainly hoped the Ancient Eagle knew what it was doing, Marking this one with such power.
She gathered her things in her usual end of day routine, quickly but carefully filling her bag and draping it over her shoulder. There was a bristle of relief beginning in the back of her mind as she realised very soon she could quit this undercover role. No more long nights of marking GCSE coursework and making lesson plans. Halleluiah.
Alyona scanned the crowds of teenagers as she left, looking for a glimpse of black, silk hair but there was no sign of Talia. She had either retreated into the depths of the school or had already left the premises in her hurry to get away from her maths teacher. Alyona could track her easily if she wanted to; her Tigress powers came with a powerful sense of smell and an instinct to hunt, it was a power she had to shut down completely in order to work at the school day in and day out. Her sanity depended on her tuning out the stench of hormonal adolescent humans, either that or she would likely have slaughtered them all on day one just for the fun of it. A hungry Tiger could be dangerously impulsive, she thought with a teasing smile.
The little black Nissan Micra sat where she left it in the staff car park, Alyona climbed in thinking longingly of her private collection of muscle cars back home. Going undercover to this extreme meant she could bring very little of her own personal effects, six months ago she couldn’t have cared less what she was leaving behind but now she was starting to miss that life. Living as a human was dull.
With any luck she would only have to stay here another couple of days. Once Talia was ready to accept what she had become they could board a plane and head back to the States where the Prophetess eagerly awaited her new apprentice. Alyona missed California, she missed the heat. Her Russian birth had put her entirely off cold climates and although England was nothing like the winters of her childhood it was damp and grey enough here to make her thoroughly miserable.
By the time she pulled up outside her flat, the grey tumbling sky was spitting rain and the air was tight and chilled. A brewing storm was never a great sign for a mission, but Alyona didn’t believe in omens. She had held the Prophetess in the midst of one of her Visions, felt the tremble in her limbs and wiped spittle and blood from her lips as the woman bucked and spasmed. Real magic, like predicting the future, didn’t come from reading the weather or looking at tea leaves, it came from inside a person and it was never pleasant.
She dashed from the car to the security door and into the stairwell, managing to stay fairly dry. Because the mission was always going to be a long one, she had set up a small place for herself here to go with the school job; it was a one-bedroom hole in the wall, but Alyona was comfortable. The neighbours let her keep to herself and the flat was big enough for just her.
She travelled light, heading to England an hour after finding out about the fledgling here. Unable to bring anything that might be used to track her, she saw this mission not as a fresh start per se, but as taking a break from her real life. A much needed break, she thought with a pang.
Typically, Alyona would never have been selected for a mission like this; collecting freshly Marked fledglings was a Trackers job, and Alyona was not a Tracker. She was a Hunter. When she fell into the Prophetess’s private chambers and begged on her knees for a mission far, far away, overseas, if possible, this was the mission that the Prophetess assigned her. It was top secret, not even documented on the SGN, it was perfect. Not only could Alyona blend into the human world for several months, she was going alone and so undercover that not one single other soul in all of the Guardian world knew where she was going or what she would be doing. Perfect. Getting away from California then had been paramount to anything else. She ignored the hollow ache in her chest as the thought of what she had been running away from.
Her flat was on the second floor, opposite an Albanian couple who sometimes argued quietly in the early hours of the morning. Alyona had her Tiger hearing to thank for knowing the ins and outs of that relationship. The familiar pine door stuck stiffy for a brief moment as she turned her key, the old thing was swollen and damp with age and severely limited any chance she had of sneaking in or out, not that she needed to.
Inside, she chucked her keys and school bag on the kitchen side and headed for the bedroom. It was cosy, furnished exclusively with Ikea furniture; it was almost the exact replica of a showroom with modular storage, a white metal frame bed and a tall spacious wardrobe against the wall. One thing was out of place, however, and that was a huge metal birdcage in the corner. Inside, staring distantly out the window, sat a small Eagle. Its size meant that it would be easily mistaken for a smaller bird if it were spotted out and about, but anyone who knew the Prophetess would recognise it. This was a messenger Eagle, conjured up by the Prophetess to flit between her and her people delivering sensitive information. It had arrived here the day after Alyona and stayed with her since, leaving only at night through an open window to hunt its own supper.
“I have news.” Alyona said quietly to the bird. “A girl at the school has been Marked. By the Eagle.”
The small bird turned its head, one black beady eye staring at her evenly. She thought perhaps if the bird could talk it would say, “Yeah, and?” Of course, a tiny replica of the Ancient Eagle would already know a girl had been chosen.
“Tell the Prophetess… I think this might take a little longer than usual.” She said, wishing she had more information to relay. “Maybe a week? Also, I need to know how she wants the girl brought in, are we keeping her from the public for now or can I bring her straight to the penthouse?”
The Eagle nodded its head once, eyed her for a moment longer perhaps waiting for anything else she might want to add before it hopped out of its cage and over to the window. Alyona swung it open wide and watched as the small bird leapt out into the rain fearlessly.
In the modern technological world, these kinds of messenger animals were all but obsolete, after all what could a messenger relay that couldn’t be clipped off over the phone or by text message? It was a sign of how imperative the secrecy of this mission was to the Prophetess that she insisted on only communicating this way. The politics of their world was getting more and more dangerous and difficult to traverse as the years ticked by.
A knock at the door turned her attention away from watching the bird’s departure. She wasn’t worried about the Eagle, however, the Prophetess’s birds always knew exactly where to go.
More curious was the knock.
She never had visitors here. Ever. Followed? It was a possibility she had to admit. Being off duty like this had lulled her into a sense of security and working at the school had her senses turned down so low that if she was followed, she never would have noticed. The realisation alarmed her.
The knock came again. She edged toward the door, cautious, and peered through the peephole. A woman was standing there with her back to the door, her short pixie hair was familiar and Alyona realised it was her Albanian neighbour.
She opened the door, trying on a friendly, casual smile but ended up looking simply frightening. Alyona Ivanov was anything but friendly.
Her neighbour grinned nervously; in her arms she held a massive bouquet of red roses. She held them out to Alyona, beaming, and she started explaining where they came from. Alyona didn’t hear a word the woman said, however, but she already knew exactly who they were from. He who had delivered these flowers had made sure his scent clung to them like rainwater, he knew it would stop her heart and halt her breath. She was hot and cold all at once, burning with the chill of his presence here, now, after six months of hiding from him.
The pixie neighbour was still holding them out to her and reflexively Alyona took the bundle, that scent suddenly billowed up and cocooned her until she was dizzy from the dark, familiar heat of it.
“He said he was sorry he missed you.” Pixie said in her lilting accent. “And that he’ll call again soon.”
Alyona felt like something had just been tugged out of her gut at those words, elation, desire and absolute terror rose up like bile in the back of her throat. She shut the door in her surprised neighbours face without a word and carried the roses with her into the bedroom. She sat on the bed and lay them delicately in her lap. They were a beautiful bunch, crimson velvet petals with dark thorny stalks. The sweet delicate scent of the roses served only to enhance the spicy male aroma that wafted up at her. She noticed a card nestled amongst the thorns; her name written in his slanted scrawling hand.
An oh-so-familiar ache pulled her body inward on itself, she seemed to shrink where she sat; a fragile shade of herself. It was the ache of loss, the ache of pain that could never be undone. Surrounded by his scent now she couldn’t help but gulp it in, craving him, needing him as she always had. Missing him as she always would.
How could he be here? Why? Only the Prophetess herself knew Alyona was here in this back of the woods town in Essex, England, and she would never have told him, not for anything. There was no way he could know she was here.
Nevertheless, he had found her.
She traced the letters of her own name on the card with her thumb, remembering him. Her love, her life.
“Daniil…” She whispered through tears.
“I’m sorry Daniil.”
A low growl rumbled through Daniil’s chest, a sound more animal than human, “You will be you wet dog!” He snarled. “Bumbling, fucking moron! You must learn how to hide your scent.”
Zach clenched his teeth to hold back the retort that bubbled for his mentor. His temper was often quicker than his common sense, but after several days under Daniil’s wing he had quickly learned to reign it in. “I’ll do better.” He spat out eventually.
Daniil snorted his disgust. They were inside the high school, having scaled the fence with ease and jimmied open a window. No alarms, no sensors, security here was an absolute shambles but it made his task so much simpler. Once inside, Daniil had been able to identify Alyona’s scent instantly and follow it directly to her classroom. She hadn’t attempted to hide herself here which meant she either believed herself to be completely hidden from anything ever finding her here or she was cocky enough to think she could defeat whatever came at her anyway. He had to admit she was a glorious fighter, in an even fight she would probably destroy Daniil. A slow grin split his lips; it was a good job he didn’t plan on fighting fair.
“What’s the mission?” Zach asked quietly. He had that eager eyed, wet behind the ears excitement about him.
“Mind your own fucking business, that’s what.”
The wolf-pup let out a long breath of frustration, “Why did you take an apprentice? Why am I even here, you obviously don’t want me.”
Daniil shrugged, “Didn’t have much of a say in the matter.”
Zach sighed again, “Well if you don’t tell me the mission, how am I supposed to help?”
“Don’t need your help.” Daniil grunted.
It was hard to picture two Wolf Guardian’s more dissimilar than these two; Daniil was broad and thick with rough muscle while Zach was tall and slender. Daniil’s unruly black hair and uneven beard where he had been neglecting shaving gave him the look of an unhinged, possibly homeless, ex-military man. Zach had front page good looks, a dimpling smile and neatly combed brown hair with a charming nature that eased their way into the country and definitely helped them get a hold of some weapons. Seen together in the street they were often mistaken as drunken father and his well-groomed, educated son – most especially because they seemed to despise each other with every word or look they shared.
They were in the classroom now, surrounded by the vague outline of desks and chairs in the gloom. Moonlight slanted in through the cracks in the blinds, more than enough to see by, not that the Wolves needed it. They traversed the school relying mostly on their keen sense of smell, both men were now sniffing the air to confirm Alyona’s presence in this room. She was everywhere; her scent a little fragmented in the halls flowered here in this room like a fountain of honey. This was clearly somewhere she spent hours each day, old and new scents intermingled to remind Daniil of her stark absence back home. His body warmed, feeling so close to her now after so long apart. Her presence here was so strong it was almost palpable, and Daniil wanted nothing more than to hold her, to bury his nose in her neck and absorb her.
“Can you smell that?” Zach asked, suddenly alarmed.
“Fledgling.” Zach said, taking another deep breath. “There was a fledgling here.”
Daniil scowled and focussed on his sense of smell; he had been so distracted by Alyona that he hadn’t even attempted to single out any other Guardians here. He channelled magic to his nose from the Wolf Mark on his palm and inhaled deeply, “Damn,” He muttered. “They weren’t lying about your nose.”
Zach looked very pleased with himself, acknowledging the praise with a small shrug of one shoulder. The kid had been recommended to Daniil as an apprentice on account of his potent sense of smell, powerful even for a Wolf. The kid didn’t need to change forms to use his full wolfen senses, he could summon that nose even in human form. He was already coming in handy, it seemed.
“I smell it now.” Daniil said. “Can you tell how fresh the fledgling is?”
Zach closed his eyes and cocked his head as he analysed the information his nose was supplying, “Only a day or two, at the most.”
So definitely not an apprentice then, Daniil thought. That could only mean that Alyona was the Tracker on mission to fetch the little bud if the two had crossed paths here. It would explain her bizarre choice of undercover location and job. What on earth was Alyona doing on a Tracking mission?
Getting away from me, he realised with a pang.
“What are you doing?” Zach cried as Daniil lowered himself into Alyona’s seat behind the teacher’s desk. “You’re leaving a scent!”
Daniil’s grin was predatory, “That was the plan.”
Zach shook his head, nonplussed, “You just said-”
“I said you should be covering your scent, boy, not me.” He snapped.
Daniil closed his eyes and imagined Alyona sitting here. Her golden blonde hair would be wild about her head, a cloud of electric curls. She favoured a dark lipstick, one to accentuate the pale glow of her grey eyes. He could almost picture her barking instructions at the human kids just as she used to bark orders at him when they were on mission. She would be a firm teacher, he knew, direct and to the point. Fair, but tough and no-nonsense. Just as she was about everything.
He remembered with shocking clarity the day that they had parted. That old desperation rekindled in his gut, knowing what he must do but unable and unwilling to do it. Alyona stood opposite him, close enough to kiss, and yet she had never felt so far away than that moment. “Tradition be damned, rules be damned!” He had cried. There was no such thing as a life without Alyona by his side. And then… she done what he could not.
Without a word, probably with the intention of only returning once the deed was done and there was no going back. She disappeared off the face of the earth, it seemed like. There were no records of her whereabouts, he broke into the top secret files at HQ and there was nothing; no travel documents or mission files, there was barely even a trace of her scent left on his sheets. She did not mean to be found.
“I want her to know I was here.” Daniil said at last, his usual gruff voice soft and unnaturally tender. “I want her to worry, I want her to be scared. I want her to feel every ounce of terror that I felt when I could not find her.”
Zach’s glassy look was uncertain, “What kind of mission is this?” He asked.
“It is my mission.” Daniil murmured. “Rules be damned.”
A dark presence fell over Marleigh Park High School that night, a shadow in the wake of Daniil and his apprentice. Indeed, it had followed them here to England, certain they were looking for the same thing. It had not been mistaken.
It appeared here as a Wolf, stalking the streets behind its prey with its nose to the ground, tracking them. It was a quick animal, large with coarse wiry fur, it darted between cars and stuck to the shadows, stealthily avoiding the great splashes of lamplight dotted along the paths. As it tracked Daniil to the school, a stillness seemed to follow it, leaving a path of silent insects and cowing pets in its wake. Even the streetlights seemed to grow dimmer as this Wolf passed by, as if it were sucking power from everything nearby, frightening even the electric light into hiding.
The Wolf had a dark grey pelt, perfect for melting into the shadows with wide circles of white fur around the eyes. It had the strangest front legs, furless and scarred, the pale exposed flesh there was almost glowing in the early evening moonlight. When it moved, the creature looked almost fluid so smooth and fearless was its stride, so intent were its pale glittering eyes.
This grey Wolf did not follow the others into the school; he didn’t need to. The stench of the Tigress was all over the school grounds, it was clear she had been here repeatedly for several months now.
He lopped over the gate with the same grace and ease as his predecessors, careful not to leave a scent. He went as far as the wide double glass doors that served as the main entrance into the building and sat down on his hunches, his tongue lolled between yellow teeth and for all the world the Wolf looked like he was grinning. This Wolf’s nose was not as sharp as the apprentice inside, so he did not notice yet the faint aroma of the fledgling delicately hovering about the school.
He was too fixated on his prey, on his plans and his hunt.
High above the school the moon was at its peak, blurred by throbbing rain clouds, the air was damp and alive with the tang of wet grass and sour mud. Suddenly there was a new smell, the bittersweet aroma of Guardian magic.
The grey Wolf on the path shuddered as invisible yet unmissable magic rolled off the beast in lashing waves. Its pelt rippled; fur withdrew into skin. Bones just beneath the flesh creaked and then snapped as the creature Changed forms. Those hairless Canine front legs thickened into arms, back legs were suddenly the veiny calves of a man, and the snout withdrew to reveal a face so handsome it could not have been of this world.
The Wolf became a Man.
He shifted again. Arms shrank and sprouted feathers, the nose curved into a sharp beak and the legs spindled into the clawed feet of an Eagle.
The huge bird stayed low to the ground, seemingly to try and regain its balance and strength in this new form. The stench of magic dissipated as quickly as it arrived, and the Eagle leapt up and took to the sky a moment later. It gathered height and circled the building, waiting for the two Wolf Guardians to emerge. It would follow them a little while still, until it was certain they were of no further use. Then it would kill them and claim the Tigress’s magic.
The heaving clouds above held onto their water, almost as if they were afraid to spill a single drop on the dark thing that navigated the skies. There had never before been a creature that could take the form of more than one animal, it was unnatural. Only the Ancient Animals could reach through reality and Mark a human child, naming them as Guardian and gifting them with the power to Change forms.
One Mark, one Animal.
© Emma Stead
Drenched in Moonlight, Chapter Two … https://emmaswritingthings.wordpress.com/2022/04/04/drenched-in-moonlight-chapter-two/