Title: Ariokas – Activation
Author: Claire Watson
Word Count: 5,324
Fandom: Teen Wolf/Fantasy AU
Relationship(s): Derek/Stiles future
Characters: Stiles, Noah, Derek, Talia, Peter, Cora
Genre: Fantasy AU
Content Rating: Gen
Warnings: None at present
This was written for the July 2017 RT Challenge, which was episodes. It’s the first part of an arc of six stories. They won’t be posted properly until they’re all ready, but for now here is the first one.
Episode 1: Activation
“Are you sure you’ve got everything?” Noah asked, giving their lightly laden donkey a critical look. “It doesn’t seem like all that much to me.”
Stiles rolled his eyes. “I promise that I’ve included everything we should need and even one or two that we shouldn’t. I worked this out not long after we started travelling, and I’ve been refining the list ever since. There’s no point in weighing ourselves down with things that will just get in the way.”
Noah regarded his son fondly. “Sometimes you do the weirdest things. But I suppose it’s working in our favour now, so good job!”
“Being prepared for as many eventualities as possible isn’t ‘weird’,” Stiles replied indignantly. “We’ll see whose laughing when there’s a volcanic eruption and everyone but me is running around like chickens with their heads chopped off.”
“What can you possibly have planned for a volcanic eruption?” Noah asked, amusement colouring his tone as he checked the donkey’s straps again.
“I’m not going to tell you just so you can mock me,” Stiles stuck his nose in the air, delighted at his dad’s chuckle.
“Well, I’ll leave it up to you then.”
Stiles gave a short, decisive nod. He took one last look around him before picking up Jack’s lead rope and heading east along the Western Road.
It had been mere chance that led to Stiles and Noah being part of the festivities during the Eclipse. Six years had passed since Claudia’s death, and it was their first Eclipse without her, without her boundless enthusiasm and joy and her certainty that Noah was one day destined for Ariokas.
Noah had never shared her certainty but was loath to argue the point. What did it matter, after all? And then she was gone, taken ill with a wasting sickness that stole her away, almost before her husband and son knew that her life was in danger. Shortly after her death, Noah had chosen to join the travelling caravans, the wanderlust he’d felt in his youth returning.
Stiles had been given the choice of joining his remaining parent on the road or staying with distant family, in the village that he had grown up in. No one was surprised when he declared that he would go with his father. It turned out that a nomad’s life was ideal for Stiles; there was always something interesting to see, someone new to learn from. The caravan membership was fluid, changing constantly as people joined up and left. Some merely took advantage of the safe—if slow—method of traversing the roads between the towns and larger villages and some made travelling their lives work.
Noah was well-integrated with his totem spirit—a giant anteater—and his main trade was smith-crafting, a highly sought-after skill that would allow him to settle almost anywhere, if that was his choice. Stiles, who had manifested at puberty as a badger, had yet to choose a craft. His mastery of his totem was progressing rapidly enough that it had been suggested he might be suited to become a scholar, or even a Servant. Whatever his choice was to be, he was in no hurry to make it. Likewise, Noah appeared to be in no hurry to force the issue, content to provide for his mostly grown son.
The caravan had no set timetable, Tendlar, the nominated head of the small governing council, was a relaxed man, more concerned with the welfare of the caravan’s charges than in acquiring as much wealth as possible.
“There’s no point in hurrying to get rich,” Tendlar was fond of saying. “Only asking to robbed, that is. No, nice and easy is the way to do it. Rushing here and there only gets you sore feet!”
There were very few places where the caravan wasn’t welcomed with open arms; when that did happen Tendlar just shrugged and moved on. He only dropped his general laid-back demeanour when the caravan came under attack. Then, he would erupt into vicious violence and no one was left in any doubt that his totem spirit was a large and powerful predator.
It didn’t happen often, since bandit groups tended to be rather small in comparison to the rather formidable caravan, but it was often enough that the travelling traders never really dropped their guard.
After a short stop, the caravan had been due to leave Meltanuk for Faltira over a week ago. A late snowstorm had convinced Tendlar to delay long enough for several of the supply wagons to undergo some regular maintenance a little earlier than usual. Since Meltanuk had no Augur or Oracle, the village was only made aware of the upcoming Eclipse two days in advance. Tendlar postponed their departure yet again when he learned of it.
Stiles would have been just as happy to sit this one out but, as the only smith-crafter present, Noah was expected to preside over the forge. Father and son half-heartedly joined in the celebrations, donning the hooded cowls offered by the village and taking their place in the circle as the moon began to conceal the midday sun.
As totality was reached, every adult present drew back their hoods, revealing their bare heads. It was an old tradition, a way to show respect to the gods as well as to allow for early celebration if any should be activated as a candidate.
This was Stiles’ first Eclipse standing with the adults rather than watching with the children, as well as his first without his mother. He knew that he was supposed to watch the moon but instead found himself watching his father instead.
Which meant that he was watching as all the colour leached out of Noah’s hair, as it took on the metallic silvery sheen that marked him as a candidate for Potentate.
The people of Meltanuk were still celebrating when Stiles and Noah took their leave. Witnessing the activation of a candidate was seen as a good omen for the future, and the small town was getting into the spirit of things with great enthusiasm.
There had been a brief discussion about the possibility of the caravan diverting from it’s intended path to Faltira in order to deliver Noah to Ariokas, but in the end, it had come to nothing. The two places were very nearly in opposite directions, and while the caravan had no set timetable they did have a set route, and there were villages whose survival depended on the semi-regular trade with the travellers. In the end, they were given the most experienced travel donkey and wished the best.
There were many heartfelt goodbyes, and Tendlar promised to stop by the capital the next time they were in the vicinity. Stiles wasn’t paying too much attention though, he was doing his best to copy the maps available to them and marking out areas of concern on the road ahead of them. Traditionally an activated candidate could take ten or more companions with them, but on this occasion it would only be the two of them, and they needed to take all the precautions possible.
Eventually, they were on their way.
“All going well we should be there before the next full moon,” Stiles mentioned, leading their partially laden donkey, Jack.
Noah snorted. “I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to tempt the fates. Still, if this hair colour is good for anything it should at least give criminals pause before they decide to attack us.”
“Did you know that in the last five hundred years every single candidate for Potentate on record has had an apex predator as their totem?” Stiles asked.
“Yes,” Noah rolled his eyes. “You need some new material.”
Stiles shrugged. “If I can get myself admitted to the Conservatory then that shouldn’t be a problem. I’m just not sure they’re going to be all impressed with my badger totem, that’s all. Badgers are not exactly known for their tenacity or inquisitiveness.”
“Your totem is important, but you don’t have to let it limit you,” Noah reminded him.
“Come on,” Stiles muttered, “no one takes someone with a shy totem seriously.”
Noah frowned. “What is this really about, Stiles? It’s unlike you to be so pessimistic.”
“I’m just not all that keen on being laughed at by a wide audience,” Stiles replied, mouth pulled down at the edges. “It didn’t matter so much when we were travelling, although I could have done without the constant snide remarks about my destiny as a farmer. But when we get to Ariokas then that’s going to be it for the foreseeable future.”
“You can’t let idiots like Seliwyn get to you,” Noah said sympathetically. “Most of her venom is based on jealousy, you know. You’re smarter and faster than she is, you did better in all of the more practical challenges. She’s been brought up to believe that her totem made her better than everyone else, and I think you were a bit of a nasty shock.”
“True,” Stiles nodded, before tilting his head slightly in reflection. “But it seems to me that a bigger population means more entitled pricks, not fewer.”
“You’ll find your feet,” Noah assured him. “And if you discover that life in the capital isn’t for you then you can always start travelling again. I’m the one that’s headed towards a life sentence, not you.”
“Go off travelling and leave you there, alone amongst the sharks?” Stiles sent his father a look that he hoped properly conveyed his incredulity. “Some people might believe all the mystical hype about ‘the gloriousness of the high council and their divine purpose,’ but those of us who look a little deeper are aware of the rather high incidence of early deaths amongst candidates in the last fifty years.”
“Yes, thank you, Stiles,” Noah sighed. “Just the vote of confidence I needed.”
“Well, one good thing about having a badger totem,” Stiles perked up as the thought occurred to him. “Pretty much everyone is going to underestimate me. I should be able to weasel my way about and hear all sorts of interesting things. I can be your spymaster!”
“I’m not going to need a spymaster.”
“Pffft, you say that now,” Stiles gave a grandiose wave of his hand. “When you enter the viper-pit you’ll change your mind.”
“There’s no viper-pit. Look, I know that nothing I can say is going to stop you doing what you want, just… make sure that when you go spying, you’re the best spy that ever was.”
“Sure thing, Daddy-o,” Stiles gave a sloppy salute before beginning to turn the idea over in his head some more.
The first two days of their journey were uneventful. It was still too cold for many people to be travelling and which meant that Stiles and Noah were able to pick their sleeping spots without concern as to if they would already be occupied. They decided to set traps and snares around their chosen area rather than keep a full watch since it was more dangerous for them both to be sleep deprived than to have four hours or so a night when they were more vulnerable to attack. Stiles was a night owl while Noah was a natural early riser, so it worked out remarkably well, all told.
Stiles spent his time working on his totem boosts. He’d decided, since his totem wasn’t anything particularly inspiring, that he was going to do his best to achieve a full transformation. He’d met an old woman called Trina, who could fully shift into her otter form, once. He’d found the concept to be fascinating and had spent the entire time the caravan was in her town pestering her with questions. After they’d left, he’d thought up other things he should have asked her and had waited impatiently for the caravan to pass through again, only to discover that Trina had died in the interim.
On the third day of their journey they reached the north-west crossroads. The main western road that they’d been travelling met the eastern and northern roads. The northern road was the widest and most used, and it was well known that the few miles on either side of the intersection were prime spots for bandits to lurk in wait for unwary travellers. Stiles and Noah walked either side of Jack, their weapons at the ready and their attention on their surroundings.
It wasn’t long before Stiles realised that they were being shadowed. He carefully readied the small smokebangs he’d prepared earlier, giving Jack the ‘evade/hide’ signal he’d been trained to recognise.
When it happened, it happened fast. A group of bodies erupted from the bushes to Stiles left. He threw his experimental smokebangs, just as Jack bolted, as instructed. Black smoke billowed from where the smokebangs landed and Stiles ended up back to back with his father, waiting.
It was then that he was able to get his first proper look at the group. There were four in full view with at least two more hovering in his peripheral vision. Going by Noah’s curse, he wasn’t lacking in opponents either.
“Well now,” said the man who was presumably their leader, stepping forward slightly. He was holding a greatsword, but from several paces away Stiles could see several rust spots on the dull looking blade, so not exactly a prime weapon. Not a trained fighter either, since no-one who’d learnt to fight from any reputable master would allow his or her blade to deteriorate like that. “What have we here, lads? Looks like we got ourselves a can-di-date, all ripe for the picking.”
Stiles felt like rolling his eyes. Seriously? They were going to go the bad dialogue route?
“Do we gotta go through all this talk?” One of the bandits off to the left asked, apparently as bored with the drama as Stiles. “We’re being paid by the head, not to stand here listening to you yapping.”
That caught Stiles’ attention. “Someone’s paying you to kill candidates? And you’re just going ahead with it? You do know that the High Guard are going to know that it was you lot, right? Your hands will be stained silver, and no one will want to have anything to do with any of you in case it spreads to them.”
Leader Bandit scoffed. “That’s just a pretty story, told to keep the sheep in line. Ain’t none of our hands turning silver, and even they did we got ourselves a good deal. We keep bringing in the heads and we’ll be rich, won’t matter none when we got gold and jewels dripping off of us.”
“You have this promise of riches in writing, do you?” Noah asked in dry tones. “Because it sounds to me like someone else’s got themselves a good deal. You’re the one taking all the risks, and when you’re caught, you’ll be getting all the blame. Do you even know the name of the person hiring you? Or was it a shady type with a cloak and a hood in some seedy tavern?”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, silver-hair!” Leader Bandit snarled, even as some of the others started exchanging wary expressions. “You high and mighty types never bother looking down where the real people live, you just step all over us as often as you please! Well, us’ve all decided that we’re kicking back! See if we can find where that silver spoon was lodged, while we’re at it! Not so high and mighty now, are you, now that someone’s standing up to you!”
This time Stiles did roll his eyes. “Excuse you, do we really look like nobles to you? Really? Nobles who’re conveniently travelling alone without any sort of guard in some kind of arrogant assurance that we won’t be accosted? Does overwhelming us in numbers like this give you some feeling of moral superiority? Will winning make you believe that that you’re better? Newsflash dude. We all know that you’ve got a tiny dick, it’s obvious, what with the overcompensation going on.”
“Stiles,” Noah’s voice was all strained amusement. “Maybe this isn’t the time?”
“Time should be catching up with us any moment now,” Stiles replied. “I’m not sure ho—”
The previously thrown smokebangs had been releasing smoke since they’d landed. The attackers had initially been rather wary of them, but when nothing else happened they’d been dismissed as unimportant. That was a mistake.
The way the smokebangs exploded were a distraction all by themselves, staggered slightly as they were. The heated chemical mixture that was flung into the air and onto the nearest bodies distracted the attackers even more, and Stiles and Noah took the small window of opportunity offered and managed to take out three of the closest bandits, Noah with his claws and Stiles with his daggers.
Unfortunately, that still left too many for the two of them could handle, and Stiles was out of incendiary devices.
“You’re going to regret that,” Leader Bandit growled.
“You’re going to kill us anyway,” Stiles replied, deciding that if he was going to die then he was going to sell his life as dearly as possible.
“You’re going to beg for death by the time we’re finished with you,” Leader Bandit said with a sneer. “Come on then you lot. Let’s get them!”
Stiles had no formal fighting training. He’d taken part in all the competitions that he was eligible for over the years and knew that he was faster than most, but his usual style was being hampered by the need to protect Noah’s back. He knew it wouldn’t be long until they were overwhelmed. He bared his teeth in anger, wishing that he had a totem more suited to fighting and raised his twin daggers into the ready position.
Then the first one attacked. Stiles used his daggers to deflect two incoming blades, grinning savagely when one bandit ended up stabbing their comrade when they couldn’t pull their blow in time. Another blade made it through, and he felt the scrape down his right arm even as he kicked out at a knee that had come too close. There was a strange roaring sound in his ears and his perception of time seemed to slow. Another blade made it through his guard, a thrust to his right side that pierced nearer his shoulder. His father was still a solid presence behind him; Stiles gritted his teeth against the pain and tried to adjust for the weakness in his right arm. He stopped defending and struck out, catching one attacker on the face and another in the throat.
All of a sudden his opponents were turning away from him even as the sounds of fighting stepped up a notch. Stiles swayed on his feet slightly, wondering if he was hallucinating. There was a huge grey wolf right in front of him. He watched as it neatly hamstrung three bandits, one after the other. There was a crash and some howling, and he looked up just in time to see the Leader Bandit get his throat ripped out by some rather serious looking claws attached to a partially shifted woman his own age.
It was at that point in the proceedings that everything went black, and he passed out.
Stiles awoke to pain in his shoulder that seemed to shoot straight up into his brain. He squinted blearily against the weak afternoon sun.
Noah’s voice came from beside him, and Stiles turned his head to one side to see what had his father so upset. That caused the pain in his shoulder to flare up again, which kind of answered that question.
“How are you feeling?” That was a new voice. Female, confident. He swivelled his eyes over to where a woman, who looked about the same age as Noah and who had the same silver hair, was standing. She had dark eyes and a kind smile, and he smiled back in response.
“I’ve been better,” he croaked, flushing slightly when he realised that he was naked from the waist up for the world to see.
“Here, have some water.” Noah held the cup so that he could drink.
Just drinking the water without spilling was quite tiring, but Stiles’ mind was starting to move, albeit somewhat sluggishly. He knew that they couldn’t afford to stay put. They needed to get to Ariokas as soon as possible. Someone needed to be informed that there was a bounty out on activated candidates; an investigation needed to be started.
“We’re sitting tight until tomorrow,” Noah said, no doubt familiar enough with Stiles’ thought processes to guess what he was thinking. “Then we’ll be travelling as a group. There may be others out there hunting candidates, and we’ll all be better off together.”
Stiles let himself relax a bit. He wasn’t going to move until he absolutely had to. “Was there a wolf? Or was I imagining it?”
Noah reached out and stroked his hair back. “That was Talia. Talia, this is my son Stiles. Stiles, this is Talia Hale, her brother Peter, her son Derek, and her daughter Cora. They weren’t far behind us and came to our rescue when they realised what was happening.”
“Thank you,” Stiles said gratefully. He examined his father with a critical eye. “Are you alright? You’re not hurt at all?”
Noah shook his head. “They never properly engaged with me. I think they were trying to take you out so that they could surround me.”
Of course. Take out the easy prey so that the main target is isolated. Pretty standard tactics. Stiles felt tears prick at the corners of his eyes and blinked them back furiously. They were both alive, he wasn’t going to get all upset about being useless, not when he had an audience of badass fighters standing right there.
Talia was watching him with knowing eyes. “You took out three of them before we got there. Knife to the eye, knife to the throat, and blade to the stomach. A fourth was bent over clutching his knee and not much trouble at all. Quite impressive, since your father tells me you’ve had no formal training.”
Even knowing that she was trying to make him feel better, Stiles let the information perk him up a bit.
“Impressive for a badger, maybe,” someone out of view muttered sotto voce.
Before Stiles could deflate again, a good-looking man with brown hair leaned in, looking at Stiles with assessing eyes. “I’m more interested in those things that gave off smoke before exploding. We could see the smoke from some distance away. How are they made?”
“The Smokebangs?” Stiles went to shrug and winced as his shoulder objected rather strenuously. “Well, before you start you need to—”
“Talk about it another time,” Noah interrupted. He gave Stiles a stern look. “You need to eat something and then see if you can get some sleep. Talia has agreed to distribute our gear amongst their belongings which means that we can free up Jack for you to ride. It still won’t be fun, so you need as much rest as possible.”
Stiles knew that look on Noah’s face meant that he was serious and not open for negotiation, so he sighed, rolling his eyes to indicate that he was doing it to humour his father rather than because he needed the rest. He closed his eyes and was soon asleep.
When he next awoke, Stiles’ head was considerably clearer, even if his body felt like it’d been trampled by a stampede of deer. It was dark and chilly, but the hesitant chirps he could hear indicated that dawn wasn’t far off. Stiles had been positioned in such a way as to get prime benefit from the firepit glowing merrily a few feet away; the warm body at his back was his father, going by the familiar soft snoring.
On the other side of the firepit, he could just make out a tall, dark figure. Male, if the broad shoulders and narrow hips were a reliable indication.
Stiles yawned, wondering if it was a good idea to ask for a drink of water. On the one hand, hydration. On the other, what goes in must eventually come back out again, and Stiles was in no hurry to experience the joys trying to take a leak with his dominant hand and arm all but useless.
“Are you thirsty?” a soft voice asked.
Stiles blinked, coming back to himself. “I think I’m fine for the moment, thanks,” he said finally. He cocked his head, trying to get a better look at the man talking to him, before wondering if he was hallucinating. There was no way that anyone could actually be that good looking.
“Well, let me know if that changes,” came the reply. “My name’s Derek, by the way.”
“Stiles,” he said automatically. “But you already knew that, because my dad would have told you. And since there’s two of us, it would be pretty easy to remember our names. Unless you have a problem remembering things like that, which would be totally alright. Not that I’m saying you’re forgetful, but if you were it wouldn’t be a big deal. And I’ll just shut up now.”
The corner of Derek’s mouth twisted up in a half smile that only made him more attractive. Stiles decided if this was a hallucination, he was quite happy to stay sick in the head.
“Try to get some more sleep,” Derek suggested. “There’s still about half an hour before daybreak, and then it will be another hour before we even think of getting moving for the day. You should rest while you can.”
“Yeah well, I’ve never really been a big sleeper,” Stiles said, even as he stifled a yawn. “So, Derek, whereabouts are your family from? I don’t remember seeing you before, and the caravan tended to get around a bit.”
Derek shrugged. “Our community was pretty self-sufficient,” he answered, poking at the fire, frowning at it briefly before adding a largish branch to the centre. Flames jumped high as it caught, bathing Derek’s face in light and shadow. Stiles watched, entranced.
Derek tensed for a moment and glanced off to the left, head cocked in a way that made him look slightly like a dog. After a moment he relaxed again and went back to poking at the fire.
“Your totem has good hearing,” Stiles remarked. He hadn’t heard anything other than the fire and the occasional experimental chirp as birds started to wake up.
“My whole family tends to have wolf totems,” Derek looked over to Stiles. “Different breeds of wolf, but it breeds pretty true.”
“Your mother was able to perform the full shift!” Stiles recalled. “That’s amazing! Has she given you any pointers on how to do it?”
Derek’s face closed off slightly. “My older sister can shift fully as well. It’s why she was left behind to take charge. There’s only ever one person in each generation, so I won’t ever achieve it.”
“Ignore all that ‘one in a generation’ superstition crap,” Stiles said firmly. “It sounds like an excuse to give up to me. What I heard was that your family has an aptitude, and you should take as much advantage of that as you can.”
Derek raised his eyebrows. “You think that you already know how it works better than my family when we’ve been living it for hundreds of years?”
“Hundreds of years?” Stiles felt his mouth drop open and closed it with a snap. “Why aren’t you in the record books?”
Derek shrugged. “We like being left alone. None of our full shifters has ever been activated before, at least not that I know of. I’m not sure if Talia is planning to reveal her other form to the High Council or not, she hasn’t said.”
“I haven’t decided.” Talia spoke from the shadows on Stiles’ other side.
Stiles nearly leapt out of his skin in shock. He sent a reproachful look Derek’s way at his lack of surprise. Derek was poking industriously at the fire again, small half smile firmly in place. Dick.
Talia moved closer to the fire as the sky began to lighten. The birdsong had picked up, and now that Stiles was paying more attention he could see that the others were starting to stir themselves awake.
Talia smiled at her son, casually sweeping her hand down the side of his face and over his neck to his shoulder. “Run and get me a couple of pots of water, Derek. I’ll get started on breakfast. Once we’ve eaten, I’d like for us all to sit down and talk about the implications of what happened yesterday.”
Derek nodded and went over to the now visible pile of gear, rummaging around for a few moments before striding off out of sight. Stiles watched him go, appreciating the fine figure he made.
“What’s there to talk about?” came a grumpy voice from the sleeping roles as another dark head popped up. “We got here in time to rescue another candidate and his badger companion from being made mincemeat by a bunch of bandits. Now we’re going to nursemaid them all the way to Ariokas, because ‘it’s the right thing to do’. There. No need for a discussion let’s just get on with it.”
“Cora!” Talia frowned. “If you’d been paying attention, you’d know that those bandits were being paid to specifically target newly activated candidates. There’s no certainty that they’re the only group we’ll come across as we get closer to our destination. Both Noah and I agreed that travelling together gives us an advantage that we would be foolish to dismiss. Also, taking the time to get to know each other will allow us to build trust and learn each other’s styles, which may be pivotal in the future. Next time you wish to air ignorant opinions fuelled by prejudice maybe you’ll obtain all the facts before making such a fool of yourself!”
“Well, sor-ry,” Cora muttered, rolling her eyes. “How was I supposed to know all that?”
Talia’s expression hardened. “The discussion that Noah and I had last night would have been well within your ability to hear if you had been paying attention. Aside from that, I am your leader. Any issue you have with the decisions I make should be taken up with me in private, rather than aired before newly met allies. Of course, that requires that you first wait to hear what my decisions are, before making assumptions followed by rash and rude statements. Unless you wish to contest my leadership?”
Cora met Talia’s challenging stare for two or three seconds before averting her eyes, studying the fire as if it held all the answers.
“I didn’t hear you,” Talia said pointedly.
“No,” Cora mumbled, “I have no wish to contest your leadership.”
Talia nodded sharply, before turning her back on her daughter and moving around the fire in a purposeful manner. Cora went back to the bedding area and began to shake out the blankets. Peter moved from where he had been sitting over to speak with Talia quietly as she organised food, and when Derek arrived with two full water skins a few moments later he cast a single glance at his sister before proceeding to ignore her.
Stiles exchanged a significant look with Noah, who at some point had risen to sit beside him. Noah’s expression would look blank to anyone unfamiliar with him, but Stiles could tell that his father was as curious about the byplay as he was.
Well. Regardless of what was to happen with regards to bandits and whoever was paying them to hunt candidates, Stiles thought that it looked like just watching Talia and her family interact together would be something to keep him occupied for the rest of the journey.