"Mara, how much farther is it?"
The icy, howling wind that swirled around her, made it difficult for Mara Frost to hear her sister's voice.
Jan had confronted Mara yesterday, wanting to know where her younger sister disappeared to every afternoon. Mara had agreed to bring Jan with her today on the condition that she swore not to tell anyone.
Mara was beginning to regret this now. Jan had been nothing more than a steady stream of complaints since they set out fifteen minutes ago, and they were only halfway to their destination.
"I told you before." Mara said wearily as she pulled the hood of her cloak out of the wind's grasp and back over her head. "It's at the base of the mountain."
"Which mountain?" Jan asked her. "There's six of them!"
"It's at the base of the entire Noct Range." Mara replied.
They had descended from Mount Vapmir, the Noct Range's tallest peak and the home of Mara and her family. The range itself was the residence of every member of Order Alucard. But the Frost family inhabited the highest peak, as Willard Frost, the father of Mara and her siblings, was the leader of Order Alucard.
"Why couldn't we ride down?" Jan persisted.
She and Mara were both Riders for their Order, and they always did prefer to leave the Noct Range on the back of a Valcor; at least as opposed to scaling down the mountain steps. But Mara did not want to draw any attention to their departure, and thought that riding from the mountain while seated on giant bats would be quite the giveaway.
Valcors were a common sight to Order Alucard's members, but they were never ridden away from the mountains, unless they were going into battle.
"We would be seen." Mara said.
"What difference would that make?" Jan asked. "We're going to the base of the mountains, but we're not leaving the mountains."
Mara fell silent. The truth was that they were leaving the mountains once they reached the bottom. She had not imparted this information upon her sister, because telling Jan ran a risk of being overheard. Showing her would be easier—and safer.
Jan seemed to take Mara's silence as an ominous sign. "We're not leaving the mountains…are we, Mara?"
Mara did not respond. Jan had already figured out the answer, but apparently she was hoping that Mara would disprove her assumption.
When Mara's silence lingered awhile longer, Jan came up beside her. She grabbed Mara by the arm and said, "Tell me that we are not leaving the mountains."
"I can't." Mara said calmly. She pulled free of Jan's grip and continued on.
Jan followed; her complaints now replaced by remonstrations.
"If we leave the mountains, we'll be in the woods." Jan pointed out. "Are we going to Order Syl?"
"Past them." Mara said.
"But, that…that's Elgrans territory."
"They're our enemy."
"Yes they are."
"If we're seen…"
"We won't be seen." Mara said, now feeling both impatient and irritated. "I haven't even come close to being spotted yet."
"That's where you go every day?" Jan exclaimed. "The woods?"
Mara did not answer this last inquiry, but merely said, "Let's keep moving."
She continued and half-expected Jan to stop following her now that she knew where they were headed. But when Mara looked behind her, it was to see Jan only a few paces back.
The rest of the journey was finished in silence, but when they reached the foot of the mountains, Jan hesitated.
Before them, was the lush scenery of green grass, elegant trees, and shrubs bearing beautiful flowers and various berries.
It was always warmer here as well. The sun, which was non-existent in the Noct Mountains, shone brightly in the woods. Mara removed her cloak and stepped into the rays of light, absorbing the warmth.
"It's too hot down here." Jan complained as she removed her own cloak. "It always is."
"I like it." Mara told her.
Members of Order Alucard were used to the harsh, frigid conditions of the mountains. They were adapted to it and found it enjoyable. Any temperature above freezing was deemed too hot and uncomfortable for them.
Mara was the exception.
She had been born and raised in the Noct Range, the same as every other Order Alucard member. But Mara never came to love the wintry weather that her fellow Order members so relished. Mara preferred the sun and gentle breezes to blizzards and raging winds. Level ground to mountain heights.
And Order Elgrans to Order Alucard.
But she would not even confide this secret to Jan. Mara rather thought that Jan would keep this to herself, but only after a lecture about Mara's loyalties to Order Alucard, and the fact that their father was the leader.
And if anyone else were to find out, it would only be a matter of time before Mara would be asked to account for her treachery.
They crossed through Order Syl's territory without incident of course, as Order Syl was Order Alucard's ally. Soon enough, they were in Order Elgrans.
Mara went to a nearby bush and began picking some berries, while Jan cautiously stepped forward as if she were expecting an ambush.
"Here, try these." Mara said, holding some of the fresh berries out toward her sister. "They're delicious."
Jan gazed down at the berries as if she had never seen such a thing before.
"What is it?" Mara asked her.
"You can't just pick some random berries and eat them. They could be poisonous for all you know."
"These are fine. Elgrans members eat them all the time." Mara indicated a shrub of orange berries to their left. "Those are the ones that you want to avoid."
Mara took one of the berries and popped into her mouth, savoring the flavor. Jan looked slightly hesitant, but followed suit.
Voices were suddenly heard in the distance.
"They're coming." Mara whispered. "Come on, follow me."
Jan looked puzzled as ever, but followed Mara who approached a huge oak tree. She began climbing up and glanced back down at Jan, who was gazing at her in surprise.
"Hurry up!" Mara insisted as the sounds of voices and footsteps drew nearer. "Come on!"
"Up there?" Jan asked with incredulity.
"Yes! And quickly!"
Jan approached the tree and began clambering up to where Mara sat on one of the branches. Jan seated herself on a branch just behind Mara's and said, "What are we doing?"
"The Riders of Order Elgrans are going to begin their training for the day and this is the best place to watch from." Mara told her. "It's a perfect location, a perfect height, and well-hidden. As long as we don't make any noise, they'll never know we're here. I've been watching them train for weeks now. This is where I come every day."
Jan looked a combination of shocked and frightened. "Why?"
"I like the way they train and the strategies they use." Mara replied. "And the Sebars are gorgeous."
Jan opened her mouth in another protest, but the sudden appearance of Order Elgrans members below caused her to change her mind. Two humans, two elves and a human-gazelle creature called a zaltaur, entered the scene, riding on their respective Sebars.
The sunlight played beautifully on the Sebars' orange stripes within the pure black fur, making the tiger-like beasts look majestic.
Mara leaned back against the trunk of the oak to watch. Reflecting, as she often did, on what it must feel like to be a Sebar Rider. Mara glanced over at her sister.
Jan seemed most apprehensive, watching the Riders with a wary eye. She was not nearly as relaxed as Mara was, and looked a bit startled at Mara's lack of concern.
Mara was glad they had to remain quiet; else Jan would no doubt be issuing more complaints and reproaches.
Mara, like most of Order Alucard, knew who the majority of Order Elgrans' members were from a former alliance with them. And many of them knew the Order Alucard members as well.
Indeed, Mara recognized the stern elf, Reman, who was Order Elgrans' head Rider. She also recognized a Riding student, the zaltaur, Fosso.
The Riders trained for two hours and Mara surveyed every moment of it with interest.
When they were finished and gone from sight, Mara climbed down from the tree; Jan did the same.
No sooner had Jan's feet touched the ground when she exclaimed, "You do this every day?"
"Yes." Mara said simply.
"What if you're seen?"
"They never look up in the trees."
"Sebars can climb trees."
"I know." Mara stated firmly, feeling slightly irritated. "But they don't climb during the training." She turned and began leading the way back to the Noct Mountains.
Jan was not through. "If you're ever caught—"
"—I won't get caught, Jan!"
"How do you know?"
"Eight months, Jan. Eight months I've been watching Elgrans train on a daily basis and I haven't been caught yet. Nor will I in the future."
"Why are you so interested in watching them train?"
Mara shrugged and thought, Should I tell her?
"You must have a reason." Jan continued. "You come here every day and risk getting captured by the enemy just to watch them train after all."
"I told you," Mara began, "I like they're training techniques."
"I didn't see anything special about the way they train." Jan said. "There must be something else."
"There is." Mara said.
When Mara did not elaborate, Jan asked her, "What?"
Mara hesitated, then stopped in her tracks and turned to face her sister. "Swear that you won't tell anyone."
Jan nodded. "Okay, I swear. I won't tell anyone."
Mara drew in a deep breath and, after a short pause she said, "I want to join Order Elgrans."