[City of Blackpond | Lacus 25th, 2524 | 2 hours until Midnight]
A razor-sharp wind crossed the torch-lit streets of Blackpond, extinguishing several flames in one fell swoop. The first weeks of winter always caused exasperation within the already-strained City Guard, now tasked with rekindling the street lights on top of their usual duties. It made wind-swept nights like this the perfect setting for all sorts of mischief, seeing as the overworked guards were too preoccupied with fighting away the invading shadows to notice or care about what may be lurking inside.
Kyle Rivers was far from the most dangerous element roaming the city’s alleyways. A mere boy, light as a feather, shaking in a pair of worn boots clearly not made for his feet. He stood hidden in a narrow dead-end path between two buildings, under the cover of darkness, unmoving until a sound roused him. It was just a faint rasping of a leather sole against the stone-paved ground, but in the dead silence, it echoed.
As the sound drew closer, Kyle peeked around the corner into the main street. A small orb of orange light accompanied it, blurred as it moved in the distance. Its approach was a lazy stroll, gradually revealing the silhouette of a man clad in dark colors. His form shadowed, save for the gleam of the lantern swaying in his hand. The boy withheld a small snort at the sight. The engrossing darkness implied the man had passed several of those unlit streetlights without giving them a sideways glance. If there was ever one constant in the glorious “City of War”, it was the ineffectiveness of its Guard.
At the guard’s approach, a faint metallic clang came within earshot, drawing Kyle’s attention to the mace hanging from his belt. It was enough to remind the boy that he was breaking curfew—not to mention other transgressions. He retreated more into the shadows, trying to control his breaths so that they wouldn’t echo into the main street. His eyes instinctively darted to the open ventilation grate on the wall and he moved to block it with his body.
The light of the lantern peered into the alleyway, just short of reaching him, and Kyle held his breath for what felt like an eternity. If the guard had turned his head in the boy’s direction he would have noticed him there. If only he’d cared to light one of those street lights he so readily ignored, he might have found it suspicious to see a thirteen-year-old boy glued to the external wall of a run-down baker’s shop, shivering in the cold air, no doubt waiting for something. However, he never did, thus Kyle was spared being questioned for his behavior, or having to run and hide.
In time, all light faded from the alleyway, leaving Kyle once again shrouded in darkness. He held still for a few moments, controlling his breaths and listening as the guard’s footsteps grew distant. Once they were far enough away, he ventured another peek around the corner. The man’s figure was still visible, moving away at a leisurely pace, his cloak too heavy for the wind to carry. The man surely thought being warm and well-fed was worth the possibility of being stabbed in the neck in some shady corner of the city. As the cold air penetrated his thin layers of clothing, Kyle couldn’t really disagree with that notion. Though he wouldn’t be rushing to join the City Guard anytime soon if he could help it.
Kyle watched the man until his frame eventually blended into the darkness. If they were both lucky, they wouldn’t cross paths again that night.
Inside the baker’s shop, another thirteen-year-old had been busy in search of something specific, albeit with no success. Now Sebastian’s quest was for anything that could possibly be of use to him and his brother. The boy had meticulously searched the front of the shop, the storage room, the kitchen; there was nothing there he could make use of or take. After a moment of hesitation, Sebastian decided not to leave empty-handed until he exhausted all possibilities. With cautious steps, he made his way to the second floor of the building.
The upper floor had just as little to offer. The boy searched the small office and found nothing more than a desk full of financial documents. He couldn’t really understand what little he could make out in the dark, but upon opening one of the drawers, several not-too-polite letters from creditors painted a very clear picture of the establishment’s situation. Further exploration revealed a child’s bedroom, empty save for a small bed, and another empty room right next to it.
There was one last room to search, which he assumed was the master bedroom. While reluctant to do so, Sebastian slowly paced towards the door and cracked it open. Inside he could see a large man collapsed on his bed. Empty bottles littered the room, some of them dusty like they’d been accumulating over the span of days. It took some finesse just to make his way inside without disturbing anything. The first thing he noticed was a coin purse lying partially open on the bedside table; a few silver coins had spilled over, catching moonlight from the window. Sebastian’s first instinct was to reach out for it but after taking into account the owner’s financial situation, he thought better of it.
A more thorough look around the room revealed a worn cloak hanging from a hook beside the door. It was a dark faded color and even from where Sebastian stood it was possible to catch the smell of cigarettes and liquor permeating the fabric. Still, it was made of thick wool and warmer than anything the boys currently owned. There were months still left to winter and being warm right now was definitely more vital than pleasant-smelling clothes.
He reached for it. The cloak was three times his size and when he reached to pull it down from the hook it weighed on his arms. The sound of glass clatter followed as the hem touched the floor. Sebastian froze in place, his own breathing resonating way too loud in his ears as he tried to assess the situation. The room was dead silent otherwise. He slowly and carefully attempted to lift the fabric off the floor then, but wasn’t able to do so without once again knocking into more bottles. The sound rang a little louder this time and a sharp inhale coming from the bed drew Sebastian’s attention. A pair of eyes were staring back at him now. Hazy and confused at first, then wide with a mix of shock and anger.
All he had time to do was throw the cloak over his shoulders and breathe out a quiet, “Shit.”
“Come on, Seb… Hurry, before I freeze to death,” Kyle muttered, his breaths coming out in small puffs of condensation. At first, he’d been amused at his twin’s idea to go on a search for cake, but now this was turning out to be more trouble than it was worth. It was the third bakery they had broken into that night and for the time it was taking Sebastian to come out, Kyle doubted he had gotten anything good out of it.
Feeling restless, he stepped away from the grate, peering around the corner of the building into the dark streets. There was no light coming from any houses, no voices, footsteps, not even the pitter-patter of scurrying rats. It was like that almost every night in Blackpond. All life completely drained from the city with the last rays of sunlight. However, there was one place in the area still alive after hours. It was further down the road, and Kyle could almost see it from his spot in the shadows. From that distance, the Inn was just orange squares projecting from the darkness ahead. Harmless. Unassuming. Kyle frowned. “I bet it’s nice and cozy in there, too,” he muttered under his breath.
Whatever thoughts Kyle was having about warmth were interrupted by a loud crash from within the bakery. He rushed back to the grate, but the noises right above his head made clear that his twin brother wouldn’t be coming through it.
“Oh, for Twins’ sake, Seb!” he exclaimed in a rushed whisper.
Sebastian was climbing out of the building’s second story window, an oversized cloak hanging from his shoulders and a large glass bottle dangling from his left hand. “Catch!” he called out, dangling the bottle over Kyle’s head and releasing it.
Kyle caught the bottle in his arms, almost sinking under the unexpected weight of the object. Sebastian was now gripping the windowsill and hanging over Kyle’s head himself, more noise coming from inside the building causing him to let go and land on the stone paved street with an uncomfortable thud and a pained grunt. “We have to run now,” he warned.
“What did you…?”
Before Kyle could finish his question a large man poked his head out the window, eyes wide with rage. “Thieves! I’ll kill you!”
“Now. We need to run right now,” Sebastian said, grabbing Kyle’s arm and pulling him into the streets, the man’s frantic shouts still resonating within the walls of the bakery.
The twins were only a few steps away from the building when the door flung open with a bang. The angered man rushed out of the bakery brandishing a heavy rolling pin as a makeshift weapon. The boys quickened their step, the man’s cries of “thieves” carrying into the silent streets. Ineffective as they were, it was doubtful the City Guard would ignore that kind of commotion. Being out past curfew was bad enough in their books; being caught stealing would land them a one-way trip to the dungeons.
Losing the baker wasn’t much of a task. The man was drunk and out of shape; there was only so far he could chase two teenagers. But Kyle and Sebastian didn’t run too far before they were cut off by the all-too-familiar sound of boot on stone and the clang of maces swinging from belts. The rapidly approaching orange flare of lanterns caused the twins to halt in their tracks. Sebastian grabbed Kyle by the arm and steered him into making a sharp turn and entering a narrow path between two houses. On both ends of the path, the boys could see the invading light of the lanterns as the Guard patrolled the streets, forcing the twins to squeeze together in the center in order to remain in the dark.
Sebastian let out a soft breath, his eyes examining the moving shadows around them, trying to take in their surroundings. “Okay,” he whispered under his breath. “Okay, okay, okay…” He breathed a little deeper and removed the oversized cloak from his shoulders, folding it neatly under his arm. “Okay,” he repeated to himself, cautiously inching towards the moving lights and peering into the adjacent streets. There were guards stationed around the corners, more patrolling the streets and peeking into the more obvious hiding spots. Sebastian retreated into the shadows and closed his eyes for a moment. He then opened them and let his gaze fall on the heavy bottle in Kyle’s arms: that would surely slow him down a bit. He then looked to both of their heavily guarded escape routes. Leaving the bottle was always an option, but if it was up to him, they weren’t about to go through all of this just to come up empty. Oh, no.
It was too dark in the center of the passage for Kyle to fully see the expression on his face, but he could picture it clearly. He knew Sebastian well enough to know that the wheels were turning in his mind, and whatever he was planning wasn’t fully sane. Before Sebastian had the chance to act, Kyle instinctively grabbed him by the arm, forcing him to stay put. Seb looked back at him and Kyle shook his head slowly.
For a brief moment, the boys glared at each other in silence, Kyle sporting a warning frown, and Sebastian a small knowing smile. Their momentary stand-off eventually ended with Kyle sighing in exasperation, and Sebastian couldn’t help a small snicker when his twin released his arm in defeat. He understood his brother’s concerns; of course he did, but getting out of something like this called for a certain level of calculated madness. Like it or not, that was something Seb was naturally gifted in. And Kyle knew, like it or not, whatever stupid plan Sebastian concocted, it was the only one they had.
So, for a few lengthy moments, he stood just on the edge of where the lanterns could illuminate, watching the shadows move across the ground and the stone walls of the rundown buildings. When it felt like exactly the right moment, he ran out of hiding at full speed.There were two guards patrolling that street. They were facing away from one another and Sebastian came out just at the right time so that he occupied the space between them. Neither man saw the boy run out of hiding. They were only alerted to his presence when Seb made a right turn and dashed straight into one of them, tackling him by the waist. This knocked the man off-balance while Sebastian swiped the mace off his belt. The boy twisted his body away from the guard’s grip as he passed, the man’s hand finding only air where the back of his shirt should have been.
Angry curses the guard unleashed in Sebastian’s wake were enough to alert the whole of the Guard to his presence. He didn’t turn to look, but he could hear multiple people running at his heels. Sebastian, still running, tossed the stolen mace in the direction of his pursuers’ legs. The weapon spun in the air as it flew and crashed into one the guards’ knees, knocking him down immediately. The men running right behind him tripped over his fallen body. The ensuing pile up gave Sebastian a small advantage, but there was a fair number of guards left standing. As he ran across the wide open space that separated him from the Residential District, he could hear one of them shout something. Although the words were muffled by the rush of blood to his ears, the sound of pursuing footsteps scattering in several directions somehow wasn’t.
The Residential District of Blackpond, specifically the more impoverished areas, consisted of “blocks”: clusters of homes bunched together, separated only by little passages almost too narrow for a full-grown man to squeeze through. Learning to navigate these passages was what made the life of a street dweller safe. They made hiding easy, especially at night, and having them memorized could very easily get your pursuers lost. In between blocks, the streets were wider, more open, and crossing them whilst being chased by a considerable chunk of the City Guard was suicidal. Unfortunately, this layout also made it easy for a group of people to corner someone just by cutting off access to the main streets. For that exact reason, when the sound of pursuing steps changed from being directly behind to scattering around him, Sebastian started to seriously worry.
He took a turn and dashed into one of the narrow paths. His destination was only two blocks away and the last thing he wanted was to get stuck. He needed to move fast. Squeezing the folded cloak tight between his left arm and his chest, Sebastian darted through winding paths in between buildings so dilapidated that they seemed to be crumbling around him as he passed. His breaths began to catch in his throat the farther he ran, his heart pounding so violently the sound felt like it reverberated through the walls wherever he passed. Sebastian had those paths etched into his memory; he must have walked each one over a hundred times at this point, but for some reason, they seemed to go on for miles longer than he remembered. He was running so fast that it was hard to stay on track, his body bouncing against the walls several times along the way. The collisions added an extra level of pain to the pressure building in his chest and the aches developing in his legs.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Sebastian darted out of the narrow streets, only to almost crash into the back of a lone guard patrolling the main street. The boy held his breath while pacing as slow as possible behind the guard’s back, his entire body freezing when his boot crushed a small pebble and it cracked against the stone pavement. Sebastian tensed from head to toe, his body preparing to go on yet another wild dash, but much to his luck, the guard didn’t seem to hear the noise. Or, at the very least, pretended not to.
Once he had safely crossed into the next block, Sebastian slowed his pace. His breaths were exploding painfully out of his chest and his body shook from the cold air chilling his sweat-drenched clothes. He unfolded the oversized cloak and wrapped it around himself like a warm blanket. There were no more sounds of footsteps or shadows cast by lantern lights. The rush of adrenaline now gone, Sebastian felt enveloped by the gloom of a cloudy winter night in a city constantly on the brink of death, yet somehow still alive. In that moment, he felt he could relate.
Kyle’s journey home wasn’t as eventful as his brother’s. After Sebastian drew the entirety of the City Guard into a chase, all Kyle had to do was be silent. They had probably already forgotten the fact there were two of them.
It was a dull walk. They always had to be quiet going out at night—even adults weren’t allowed on the streets after sundown these days without risking prison time—but somehow Sebastian’s absence made the usual silence feel much heavier.
The past ten months had been a vicious cycle of being thrown into the city orphanage and breaking out again. The place wasn’t all that bad, but to Kyle, it felt just like being locked in a cage with constant reminders of everything they lost. It had been the one thing he and Seb could actually agree on: it wasn’t for them, and they weren’t staying. The alternative, however, was this.
Kyle stopped in front of a particular building. It was a small two-story home, no different from any other on the block. It was old, empty, and rotting away to nothing. One of many in the Residential District, but the only one in this particular area. The windows and doors were boarded shut, probably an effort to avoid squatters, like the twins. It was fruitless. There were cracks on the wooden walls large enough for a scrawny kid to squeeze through. And even if there hadn’t been, desperate times often meant having to create your own doors.
The back of the house led to a dead end street. The back door was thick solid wood and, even though broken, it wouldn’t move on its hinges. The only access to the building now was a loose board on the wall, just a few inches from the door frame. One decent meal might make it impossible for the boys to squeeze through it, but, admittedly, that was one problem they hadn’t encountered yet.
Kyle walked to the back of the building and inspected the wall. The board hadn’t been moved recently and he wondered what was taking Sebastian so long. It usually took a lot for Kyle to worry about him, but of all the stupid things he could do, this one had been off the charts.
Kyle’s worry was short-lived, though. He barely had the time to think about turning back when he was pounced on from behind. He tried his best, but was unable to withhold a frightened yelp, his voice carrying in the wind for what felt like miles. The heavy bottle he’d been lugging around slipped from his grasp and only didn’t hit the ground and shatter because it was caught by his “attacker”. Sebastian was laughing beside himself, even though he was careful not to let his voice rise too much, and Kyle immediately regretted ever worrying in the first place.
“What the hell!” Kyle hissed, shoving his twin against the wall. “Are you trying to get us both killed tonight, you idiot?”
“The irony would certainly be amusing, but no.” Sebastian groaned at being pushed, the liquor bottle crashing painfully against his ribs. Even so, he chuckled at the expression on his brother’s face. “Relax, those dumbasses probably still think they have me cornered two blocks away from here. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“I swear to the Twins, Sebastian, one day you’ll run out of luck. And then what?” Kyle scolded, pushing the loose board and squeezing his way into the house.
“I don’t ask those kinds of questions, little brother…” Sebastian followed after him, shaking his head, the amusement momentarily fading from his eyes. “They’re bound to drive you insane.”
Kyle just glared at his brother. “Bloody lunatic. Why do I even put up with you?”
Sebastian didn’t answer his brother’s rhetoric with some clever remark like he usually would. It had been a far more eventful evening than even he could have anticipated. He was too exhausted to properly annoy his twin.
“That was way too much trouble, Seb. And what for?” Kyle continued.
“I couldn’t find any cake.” Sebastian smirked. “So I decided I’d just take whatever came in handy.”
“A giant cloak and… What even is that?” Kyle pulled the glass bottle from Sebastian’s hands, hoisting it up with some difficulty in an attempt to sniff its contents.
“Liquor,” Sebastian answered with a small shrug, removing the cloak from around his shoulders and wrapping his brother in it. “Here, you’re turning blue.”
“Liquor?” Kyle repeated, pushing the heavy bottle on Sebastian and eliciting yet another painful groan from the boy. “I don’t know, Seb.”
“We’re thirteen now; I reckon it’s about time we have a taste. It’s like a rite of passage, isn’t it? We’re practically men now.”
Kyle snorted. “I don’t know about that,” he mumbled, finding a heavier block of wood to place against the gap on the wall now that they were already inside. It was definitely not enough to keep out the cold, but it served the purpose of sealing the entrance shut. It had proved effective to keep out other squatters thus far, but it wouldn’t forever.
“We’re going to need to find a new hiding spot soon. We’ve been in one place too long,” Sebastian pointed out, watching his brother double-check that his little blockade was well in place. “If any of the Guard catches up to us after tonight I don’t think they’ll just drop us back at the orphanage.”
“We could join a group. Some of them aren’t so bad. That kid, what was his name, Thorin? His crew seemed okay.”
Sebastian shrugged. “Taking what we need is one thing, but…”
“We have to do what we have to do, Seb,” Kyle insisted. “If we’re hoping to survive here, we have to stop thinking of ‘right and wrong’ the way we were taught. I mean…” He sighed. “It’s been almost a year and our options haven’t changed: we either go back and sit in that orphanage until we’re old enough to be shipped to the military or we find a way to live.”
Their current place of residence was far from what anyone would call “living”. The building was beyond saving. The very walls were rotting where they stood. It smelled of mold and dead rats most of the time and was now empty of anything useful. Even the furniture they had originally found within the house had been mostly burnt in the first few weeks of Winter. There were only a few broken chair legs left, waiting in the unlit fireplace. Sebastian dropped the bottle of liquor in a pile of dusty blankets at a short distance from said fireplace, silently searching his pockets for a tin of matches to light the kindling with.
“You know what would be great? If you, oh, I don’t know, actually take part in this conversation. Just once,” Kyle complained.
“You don’t want to hear what I have to say.” Sebastian’s answer was distant, like he was speaking of something that had already been decided for them both.
Kyle groaned under his breath, sitting down in the pile of blankets and watching his twin brother work to light the fireplace, his back turned as though the conversation was already over. “You know I hate it when you do that. Just say it; whatever it is, and if I don’t like it, then I don’t like it. Don’t have conversations with yourself, in your damned head, and act like I had a say in it.”
“We should leave the city,” Sebastian said, his tone still distant. “I don’t think anything we do here will ever be anything more than just staying alive for the sake of it. There is no life for us in Blackpond.”
It was now Kyle’s turn to be silent, his gaze darkening as he stared at the now-lit flames burning the last remains of what used to be someone else’s home. “We can’t do that,” he stated, his voice flat.
Sebastian snorted through his nose as he joined his brother in the pile of blankets. “The White Shadows would take us in a heartbeat, or the Crimson. There are better options than this.”
“This is our home, Sebastian. I don’t want… We’re not leaving.”
Sebastian heaved a weary sigh and stood. “I’m going to see if I can find some cups in the kitchen somewhere,” he declared, walking out of the room.
Kyle, on the other hand, wasn’t done talking. “You could honestly do that? Just leave this place, forget everything that happened?”
Sebastian muttered under his breath as he stepped into the kitchen, raising his voice so that Kyle could still hear him. “Kat did everything for us, Kyle. Seeing us barely scraping by like this, you still clinging to that place the way you are, she would’ve…” He paused for a second, his tone turning more hesitant. “It’s not what she would have wanted.”
Kyle didn’t answer and Sebastian let the subject die, walking back from the kitchen holding two slightly rusted metal cups and sitting down in the pile of blankets. He grabbed one and wrapped it around himself, then pushed one of the empty cups to his brother. “Happy birthday.”
“For me, really? Oh, wow, thank you,” Kyle spoke in an unenthusiastic mumble.
Sebastian snorted a laugh. “You should be thankful. The baker said he was going to shove that rolling pin ‘up my bumhole’ if he caught me.”
“That would have been an entirely different rite of passage,” Kyle chuckled, removing the cork from the large bottle and pouring some of its contents on each cup. “There we go, little brother, happy birthday to us.”