Chapter 14

Once the hole was dug the others stepped back and let Aroki get in and lay down. Once Aroki was settled Kynoki stood at the edge of the hole and began chanting in the ancient language of their people, before they were thought the modern language. Hearing the Anio language for the first time since her arrival Auree listened carefully, mentally comparing Anioian with other languages that she's heard. Eventually she just figured it was just their own unique way of speaking.

Tuning out Kynoki's chanting Auree looked down at Aroki. In the dim lighting of the crystals around them Auree could see his eyes trained to the ceiling, refusing to look at his family or his leader. Auree tried getting his attention for a brief moment by squatting down next to him, but he still didn't look at her.

"Aroki. Do you think you can quickly tell me about Fallri?" Auree asked.

Aroki breathed a deep and sorrowful sigh. It was obvious that he was expecting Auree to finally say something against him, but he was so caught off guard about her question about Fallri that his old heart began to give him that all too familiar ache whenever he thought about his former lover.

"I have nothing to say to you about her, outsider." Aroki nearly growled, his hateful eyes turning to her. "But don't you dare hurt this village."

Just then Zoki gently pulled Auree back while Kynoki crouched over Aroki, a knife in hand. "Goodbye, my friend. May your spirit finally find rest." Kynoki said and slit the Mask Maker's throat. Zoki had tried to turn Auree away before it happened but she gasped as she saw Aroki's blood begin to run down over the sides of his neck. After looking sadly at the former Mask Maker for a few more moments did Auree allow Zoki to block her line of sight.

"I'm... sorry." Aroki's voice rasped quietly as he lay dying in the hole.

Surprised everyone turned to really look at him, wondering if they heard him right. Looking at his face, as best as they can in the dim cave, they saw his eyes were slightly unfocused, his hand twitching slightly as if he were trying to lift it and reach up to whatever he was looking at. Before anyone could say anything Aroki's eyes closed for the last time, exhaling one more time and remained still.

Everyone was quiet in the cave as they stared at the former Mask Maker's lifeless body, each of them lost in their own thoughts. Eventually Kynoki nodded to Enari and Yunri, signaling to them to cover Aroki with the dirt that was dug up. Once that was done Kynoki left first then everyone followed.

"leader Kynoki." Enari said while they were walking through the narrow tunnel leading to the cave entrance. "Who will be the next Mask Maker now the Aroki is..." Enari looked briefly at Zoki's family. "No more?"

Instinctively, everyone looked to their leader. Enari wasn't the only one wondering about that. Traditionally it was the former Mask Maker that would reveal through the powers of the Masked God Rioki who would do what and, nearing the end of their life, mark the new Mask Maker.

"I will council with Emoki and hear what he says." Kynoki replied after a time.

On their way back Auree clung to Zoki as she began to feel exhausted from all the events that happened. Glancing over her shoulder to look back at the bone cave Auree still couldn't believe that it was Aroki that would be the person who tried to kill her, but she still believed that he was still a good person. When they arrived at the village, Kynoki dismissed the rest of the villagers but Zoki and Kelri's family stayed a bit to talk with their parents.

"Father, mother, did you know about uncle Aroki?" Kelri asked, holding a sleepy Kitiri in her arms.

Their father shook his head, but the mother spoke instead. "We did not know." She said in that harsh kind of tone that Auree was beginning to associate with the subject on her. "We were aware of his hatefulness towards your outsider, but not of his attempts on her life."

"Father." Zoki said. "Why didn't you tell us the truth about Fallri? That it was the outsider that she loved and he killed her?"

"It was not something that we had wished to talk about." Their father said. "I may have killed him all those years ago, but what happened has affected both our families. We promised to never really talk about it."

Zoki nodded silently, looked to Kelri, and then turned to leave. But Auree didn't move.

"Wait. Can I... Can I ask you something?" Auree asked. The old couple didn't say anything and just stared at her. "I know that you don't like me very much because I wasn't born Anio and," She gave a quick glance over to Zoki then back at his parents. "Yeah. But I was wondering, and I know it may sound stupid, but I wanted to know what could be another reason why you don't, you know, like me?"

The mother stared at her, the colors on her markings turning a little white with a little hint of red and yellow. A seemingly long moment of uncomfortable silence passed for Auree, making her shift a little uncomfortable.

"I just do not trust you, outsider." The mother said and turned around to leave. The father gave her more of a neutral look, even through the mask, and followed his wife with a good evening to all of them.

Auree sighed a little sadly as Zoki wrapped an arm around her and led her back to the Warrior's hut. On the way back, Auree couldn't help but think that meeting a guy's parents wouldn't be as hard as this if she were back in the modern world. Taking a quick glance up at Zoki, Auree also wondered if it would even be possible for Zoki to meet her family. Would he really be willing to discard his mask, something that is a sacred and important tradition ever since he was little, just to take a look at her world as she did with his? She sighed again and winced slightly.

"Auree, are you hurt?" Zoki asked as he looked down at her, his markings coloring a deep gray.

Auree shook her head. "No, I'm okay. Just a little bruised." Auree said.

"I will look at it once we return to the hut." Zoki said.

"Uh, you don't have to. I'm fine really." Zoki stared at her, his markings turning a little purple. "Okay, fine. I surrender." Auree put her hands up, making Zoki give her what looked like a kind of confused look. "It's just a saying. A figure of speech, forget I said it." Zoki shrugged and held the fur pelt off to the side so that Auree could go into the hut first.

Inside the others were taking care of any wounds that they received from their battle with Aroki. When they saw Auree everyone stopped what they were doing and came over to her.

"Auree, are you well?" Yunri asked, gently taking Auree by the arm and sitting her down next to the fire pit, Zoki following closely behind her.

"Yeah, I'm fine. It was just one hit." Auree said. "What about all of you? You're the ones who actually got in a fight. I'm just happy he didn't even kill you." Auree was feeling embarrassed that all her friends were worrying about her when they should be worrying about their wounds. Even in the dim lighting of the nearly dying fire, Auree could see all the scratches the others received from the fight. A few of them have still yet to wipe away the dried blood.

"Dispite my uncle's ill-intent towards you, he was stil Anio." Zoki said as he began to take off the warm armlets so that he could push away Auree's sleeve to take a look at her arm. "His only goal was to kill you and not anyone else." He tugged her arm closer to him when Auree tried to pull away.

"What do you think of your uncle now?" Auree said after watching Zoki for a silent moment.

"I do not know." Zoki answered. "I am only glad that I found you first before my uncle did."

At Zoki's response Auree was sure she could feel herself blushing so hard that her mask markings must be glowing very bright pink. Too distracted, Auree didn't notice what Zoki was doing until he pulled up the side of her top to examine her side that she had been unconsciously favoring.

"H-hey hey, Zoki! What the heck are you doing? I'm fine!" Auree said as she tried to pull the hem of her Anio shirt from Zoki. "The others are still here." Without a word Zoki turned to the supposed others, who were sitting and minding their own business on the other side of the hut.

"I just want to make sure you are unhurt." Zoki said.

"Zoki, I am A-ok. It's just a little bruising from being whacked around on the snow... By giant claws." Auree pulled her fur cloak around her in a small attempt to prevent Zoki from prodding at her again, and because she felt a little cold.

Zoki sighed in temporary defeat and pulled Auree to him, just wanting her near him, especially after the scare today. They sat in comfortable silence, each one to their own thoughts, until the others went to their own beddings. The fire burned low until it was nearly completely dark in the hut, but still just bright enough for the two to still see each other.

"Would you like to take off my mask?" Zoki offered suddenly. It took a moment of for Auree to understand what it is that Zoki was talking about.

"W-what? Um... What are you... aren't you..." Auree paused to sigh for a moment. "Why?"

"You're my mate. Just take it off." Zoki said, turning to face Auree completely. With slow hesitant hands, Auree reached up to the edges of Zok's wolf mask. She remembered that she had seen Zoki with his mask off once, but she'd already forgotten what he looked like in that short moment. Hooking her fingers around the edge of the mask, she lifted the wolf mask until the fur cloak pooled down behind Zoki.

Once off Auree couldn't help but stare a bit. "I'm sorry but, I kinda find it odd now to look at faces. I'm so used to seeing masks after being here for so long." Auree said.

Zoki nodded. "Would you allow me to take your mask off?" He asked.

"You don't have to ask, just do it." Auree answered in a tone that sounded it should be obvious, even though she pretty much understood why he would ask.

"Do you truly understand the meaning behind taking off another's mask?" Zoki asked, his hands already hovering over over both sides of Auree's face.

"It means that we're together...?" Auree said, feeling unsure if that's what he meant. "Right?"

Zoki gave her a soft smile and shook his head a bit. "It is not only that. When you allow someone else, even your own mate, to take off your mask, it means absolute trust. You don't just let anyone remove your mask. Family, friends, not even the Mask Maker, unless you allow it."

"Oh." Auree looked past Zoki at his mask and cloak on the floor. She knew that taking off one's mask was like being exposed and open to others, but she didn't think that there would be more to it. With a nod Auree leaned forward, signaling that she's allowing Zoki to take off her mask

Behind them the eyes of three bears and two wolf warriors were watching the couple with half closed eyes. Having arranged their fur bed pallets closer to one another, they were able to quietly whisper to each other.

"What is taking them so long?" Miri whispered to whoever would bother to answer her.

"Miri, keep it down a little. You are still too loud even though you are whispering." Azuri said as she subtly lifted her head to see if either of the two heard them

"Zoki just wants to make sure that Auree knows what is going on. If she is to stay here, she should know everything about what we do in the village." Whispered Yunri. She jumped when Janri lightly kicked her to be quiet.

"They should just kiss already." Miri half whined impatiently, this time her voice at a lower volume.

"How about we all be quiet and just watch. I can't hear a thing with all of you whispering in front of me." Janri said, really wanting to move closer and watch how her friends are getting along. In agreement the others became silent, shifting ever so slightly as if in sleep.

Once Auree's mask was off she touched her cheek, rubbing them in circles and making silly faces. "Dang, it's been a while since I've felt my own face. I know that you guys wear your masks for a reason, but I'll just say that I'm so glad to have it off. Even if it's just for a little while, I guess." Looking up, Auree was met with Zoki's somewhat mesmerized face. "Are you okay? Zoki?"

After a few moments of staring at her, Zoki leaned forward and kissed Auree, surprising her so much that she became still from shock. Eventually Auree returned the kiss, hugging him back when he pulled her to him, and for a moment Auree could feel Zoki smiling a bit. Then suddenly they pulled apart when they heard Miri's exclamation of excitement that was just a little too loud.

"Miri!" The other girls hissed at her, then averting their eyes from Zoki and Auree since their masks were off.

Blushing red Auree hurriedly put on her mask, said a quick good night to Zoki, and left for her own bed. Smiling a bit to himself, Zoki also put his mask back on and got up to go to the other side of the hut. As he passed by Auree's spot he stooped down to brush the back of his hand against her jawline and left behind the divider. Still feeling flustered Auree hid under her fur blanket and cloak while ignoring her friends who were trying to get her attention as they excitedly whispered her name until others shushed them. Reluctantly Miri and the others back off. Just for the night.