[City of Blackpond | Lacus 26th | A little past Midnight]
Sebastian lay back against his pile of blankets. The rush of adrenaline that kept him on his toes earlier in the evening left his body with a soft exhale. Only a multitude of aches and a dull wave of exhaustion remained. The small flame crackling in the fireplace wouldn’t last through the night, but it warmed the room well enough for now. The warmth in the air combined with the vapors emanating from the open liquor bottle formed a mist in the boy’s mind, almost comfortable enough to make him forget the night’s ordeals; like nothing ever happened. Right now, Sebastian just wanted to sleep; or, at the very least, pass out.
“So, you think you broke that guard’s knee cap?”
Kyle’s question took an instant to register fully, but once it did, Sebastian let out an aggravated snort and nodded. He had already told his brother all the details of his daring escape. With the adrenaline pumping and his heart still pounding in his chest, he’d felt extremely proud of it, but in the warm, hazy aftermath of his antics, the amusement was starting to fade. “There was a small chance he’d jump over it. I decided to be optimistic,” he muttered.
“I’m sure he appreciates that, Seb.” Kyle let out a very audible snort followed by a few poorly contained chuckles. “Don’t beat yourself up over it. You did what you had to.”
“I guess…” Sebastian frowned, glancing at his nearly-untouched cup of liquor and considering whether to give it a second chance. His first attempt went down like a mouthful of scalding piss and left him coughing and heaving for several minutes. Kyle had grimaced and groaned, but swallowed it down nonetheless, probably just to prove he could take it. Sebastian called it quits the moment he verified he wasn’t actually about to die. Never mind the fact this had been his idea; he wasn’t too proud to admit it was terrible. Even so, the vapors alone were making his eyes water and his mind drift into a pleasantly empty state. He couldn’t deny the appeal of scorching his insides again if it meant slipping away a little faster. In the end, he decided it was probably not worth putting his body through any more ordeals that night. “I just wish it had gone another way,” he concluded.
“If it had, maybe he would have caught up with you,” Kyle pointed out, taking his brother’s discarded cup and emptying it in one large gulp.
“That’s a possibility,” Sebastian mumbled. He was doing his best to keep his eyes open, if only for his brother’s benefit, but as he watched shadows flicker across the ceiling overhead, he struggled to keep them in focus. “But then maybe not,” he added under his breath.
“Do you think it’s past midnight already?” Kyle’s question was casual, but the bitter edge in his voice was very noticeable. Even if it hadn’t been, Sebastian knew what he was thinking.
“Probably. Birthday over,” Seb responded with a tired sigh.
Kyle shook his head. “Kat always made such a big deal out of birthdays, didn’t she?” he mumbled. “She would’ve found this sad.”
Sebastian snorted a chuckle. “If she was here she’d probably argue that this place just needs a little decorating. We’d be making little paper flags and hanging them on the ceiling.” While his tone had initially been amused, something in that thought caused it to sour. “Paper flags fix everything, right?” he muttered, draping his left arm over his eyes to shield them from the firelight.
Kyle gave no answer, pouring himself another drink.
Sebastian welcomed his brother’s silence and soon his breaths resonated in the small living room, slightly uneven but overall peaceful. It was clear he’d finally succumbed to exhaustion even before his brother could muster a thought. The amused smile on Kyle’s face disintegrated the moment he realized this and he let a long deep breath escape into the stale atmosphere around him. Silence fell thick, he was far from feeling tired, and all the alcohol in Blackpond would never be enough to drown out some particular thoughts. The numbing effect of the first few shots of liquor was fading at an alarming rate and his stomach twisted the more it did. He felt sick. He felt a sickness he knew wouldn’t disappear in the morning. In the past ten months it had never left him and, at this rate, he felt it probably never would.
Kyle’s hand trembled on its way to the liquor bottle. He didn’t want to think about it; how she wasn’t there, that they would never celebrate another birthday together. It was too much. It felt like a knife gradually sinking into his side, twisting further at every mention of her name, every thought of her. It felt like poison tainting the memory of everything that used to bring him joy.
If he closed his eyes and tried, really tried, to cling to Katherine’s memory, there were specific things he could reminisce on. Her golden-hazel eyes and how they seemed to change colors in the sunlight. The way her hair cascaded down her shoulders, how it would always come loose and curtain over her face when she was hunched over a book. The different smiles she wore so no one else would ever worry about her. All the little ways her expression changed when she laughed. The smell of her favorite flowers. There had been nights when, right before drifting into sleep, he could swear he felt gentle fingers sift through his hair or heard the faint hum of a lullaby. Those were things he could actually recall; details, moments, but they were too scarce, too fleeting. Not quite whole. Remembering Katherine was like trying to put together a puzzle with a handful of pieces that didn’t connect. He could look at them all he liked, he could rearrange them in any way he chose, but the picture he wanted would never form.
The most vivid memory Kyle had of Katherine depicted her lying on the floor. Her arms straight at her sides. Her chest unnaturally still. Every line of her face smooth, like a mask, drained of all color or feeling. Her eyelids were marred by dark red fingerprints. The air was a mix of those flowers she loved so much and the stench of stale iron. The floorboards were soaked in red and her skin was white stained in more red. Yet, she looked undisturbed. Peaceful. Empty. Like a hollow shell. It looked like her, but it wasn’t. Not anymore. Not ever again. Kyle knew that Katherine had been a joyful, smart, caring, living, breathing person, but in his mind, all of that had given way to shattered memories and distant echoes.
So instead of trying to force himself to remember, Kyle just sat on his pile of moldy blankets and, one cup of liquor after another, tried to make himself forget her altogether. Just for one night. Just so he could sleep in a comfortable void where her ghost couldn’t reach him. But that didn’t work either. The harder he tried to push the thoughts away, the louder they echoed in his mind.
Kyle squeezed his eyes shut when the walls started to sway, only opening them when he realized his breaths were growing more shallow by the second. In some distant part of his mind that was still rational, he worried that he might just start screaming. Because he wanted to scream. He wanted to scream until all air left his lungs and his voice faded into nothing. Incoherent, desperate screaming was the only form of communication he still felt capable of. Everything was spinning. The air felt way too stuffy and the smell of rot from the blankets and walls aggravated the sick feeling in his gut. Kyle swallowed hard when he felt a bitter taste trying to claw its way up his throat and decided he couldn’t sit there all night. He needed to move. He needed out.
The moment Kyle stepped outside, a gust of wind assaulted his body. Normally that would have him rushing back inside where it was still warm. Not tonight. He stumbled and swayed precariously with each step, but he wasn’t shivering anymore. Cold had become just another feeling numbed by alcohol. If anything, he felt a little too warm, like he’d been trying to breathe through the cover of a wool blanket. The streets were dead silent. Static. As though there hadn’t been a gigantic commotion just a few hours ago. The sound of his own boots was the only sign of life in Kyle’s general vicinity. His eyes stung and his mind was lost in a thick fog, but his feet kept going. He didn’t need to see, or think; there was only one place to go in Blackpond in the dead of night.
The Inn stood on the corner where the main streets of the Residential and Commercial Districts met. Despite towering three stories high, it didn’t stand out much in the light of day. It was a nondescript building; no displays on the windows or signs hanging above its door. An old enough structure that no living citizen could remember the face of Blackpond before its existence, but well-preserved to the extent of not giving away its age. Even so, most people passed it without giving a second look or sparing it a thought. It was there. It had always been there. There was no reason to pay attention. But at night, the only traces of life, or warmth, left in the city of Blackpond radiated from its ground floor windows—square orange beacons of firelight. And drawn to it like a particularly stupid moth to a particularly destructive flame, was one intoxicated teenage boy.
The orange lights swayed in front of Kyle’s eyes, unfocused, occasionally flickering in and out of existence altogether. He reached out and found a wall to steady himself against, the empty bottle in his right hand clanking against the stone. They were only specks in the distance earlier, but now he could walk across the street and be close enough to touch them. Or, better yet, shatter them. Kyle glanced at the bottle in his hand. It was empty but still heavy enough to smash a window. The thought brought a smirk to his lips and he pushed himself away from the wall with newfound determination. Maybe a little too much determination, as it turned out. Kyle propelled himself forward a little too hard and, seeing as he had no equilibrium left, stumbled forward a couple steps, then backwards, one arm flailing in a frantic attempt to steady himself and not land face-down on the stone pavement.
Once he managed to straighten up, albeit with some difficulty, Kyle inhaled a slow, deep breath; his exhale ending on a soft, bitter, laugh. She wouldn’t have condoned this. No. Kat would never approve of even petty vengeance. She was too good for something like that. But he wasn’t. Not anymore.
Nodding vigorously to himself, as though settling a debate that occurred solely within his mind, Kyle held the bottle tight and swung it back over his head. He swayed a little, trying to take aim at one of the windows of the Inn through blurred eyes. When he thought he had a firm grasp of where his target was, he swung his arm a bit further back, channeling as much strength as he could muster into his throw only to have it thwarted by a hand firmly gripping his wrist.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Kyle could recognize his brother’s voice, though he didn’t turn to face him. His own words felt distant as he replied, “What’s it look like?”
Sebastian pulled Kyle’s arm further back until he was forced to turn around. Kyle watched his brother’s eyes land on the empty bottle and rise back to meet his face. “It looks like you’re about to get us both killed.”
Kyle snorted. “I don’t recall inviting you, actually.” The words didn’t come out as amused as he meant it. He shook his head, though it hurt, to try and ease the tension. “Just…Just…Go back to sleep, Seb.”
“Go back to sleep?” Sebastian let go of Kyle’s arm. “Are you stupid? I mean, I can see you’re wasted, but are you actually fucking stupid? Do you know what you were doing?”
“Nothing. This is nothing.” Kyle didn’t want to fight his brother, but he could feel his temper rise to a point where there would be no diffusing it. “What’s a broken window to them? It’s fucking nothing compared to what they deserve, but, hey, it’s all I got. I got nothing! Might as well let ‘em have it!”
Sebastian shook his head, pulling Kyle further away from the Inn by his shirt. “Okay, this isn’t a joke Kyle. It’s not funny. Do you seriously think breaking their windows is worth getting killed over?”
Kyle pushed Sebastian away with a surprising amount of force considering his compromised sense of balance, not seeming one bit remorseful of the fact he’d shoved him against the outer wall of someone’s house. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. The cold night breeze was carrying the muffled sounds of music and laughter from the establishment. The sounds of happy, careless, warm, well-fed people. Happy people. Kyle never thought a sound as innocent as laughter could ever cut this deep. These people, of all people, didn’t deserve safety or happiness. Not after they’d taken his away like it was nothing. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. “What right do they have? What right do they have to take her from us and go about their business like it didn’t matter? Like it changed nothing!”
Sebastian heaved a sigh. “I know, Kyle. I know, but… This is the Wolfpack you’re talking about. They’re untouchable. We can’t hurt them. Going after these people, even just their windows, is suicide.” It wasn’t the first time they had this conversation—it probably wouldn’t be the last—and it always devolved into fighting, but something was different this time. Seb could actually feel it in the air between them.
Kyle was silent for a very long time. His eyes strayed from his brother to both ends of the empty street that separated them from the Inn. No guards. No nothing. They were alone there, surrounded by cold, empty silence. “Who cares?” he whispered. “We lived past our birthday and who cares? Kat was the only person who cared that we’re alive. If we die tomorrow, no one’s going to know. No one will care. It’s like we never existed.”
Sebastian shook his head slowly. He could see what was going through his brother’s mind. He could see it written on his face and he didn’t like what he saw. “Stop that. Just stop. Whatever you’re thinking right now… It’s not worth it.”
Kyle snorted a laugh. “What I’m thinking?” He tightened his grip on the liquor bottle and pivoted, releasing the heavy glass object and watching it smash—not through the window, but at the Inn’s doorstep. Kyle spread his arms, facing the closed door. “The Wolfpack is a SHIT STAIN ON THE FABRIC OF CREATION! IT SHOULD BE FUCKING WIPED FROM EXISTENCE!”
Sebastian’s face turned pale and he quickly ran to stand between his brother and the door, pushing Kyle against the wall he’d been thrown into earlier. “Keep your voice down! Fuck!” he muttered. “You can’t do this!”
Kyle tried pushing past Sebastian, this time finding it a bit more difficult to escape his twin’s hold. Neither of them was particularly strong, and they were both exhausted, but Sebastian was fully sober and knocking Kyle back against the wall was only a matter of giving him a well-placed nudge. “Get off me, Seb!” Kyle snapped, struggling when Sebastian had him pinned by the shoulders.
Sebastian shook his head and refused to budge. “What are you trying to do here? Draw them out so you can yell insults at their faces? They’ll either laugh at you or kill you where you stand. Either way, it won’t matter. It doesn’t hurt them because they don’t care.” He took a deep breath and backed away, holding up his hands. “Look, just, please calm down. Please, just… Stop. Let’s go back. This isn’t right. It’s not… Kat wouldn’t want this…”
Kyle’s eyes widened, his expression twisting as though Sebastian had punched him right in the gut. He slouched against the wall and lowered his head. For a moment it seemed like the will to fight had finally left him, but it didn’t last very long. Kyle clenched his fists tight at his sides and slowly pushed himself away from the wall. “Katherine’s dead, Seb. She doesn’t want anything. She can’t want anything. She’s gone. She’s not here… She’s… Gone… Because of them!” He spat the last word out, gesturing towards the closed door of the Inn and making another attempt to get past his brother.
This time, when Sebastian tried to push him back Kyle was fast to swing his fist without a hint of hesitation. Sebastian was knocked back a step and doubled over, holding his face in his hands. He hissed at the pain, wishing he had a bit more to drink earlier; maybe that would have made it a bit more tolerable.
“How long do you think she was dead on the living room floor while we were out in the yard playing? Playing. Like stupid children.” Kyle’s voice was cold as he walked past him, towards the door. “How long do you think it takes for someone to bleed out like she did? For that amount of blood to leak from a person’s neck? Soak through hardwood floors? Do you ever wonder about that, Seb? I mean, I couldn’t even imagine there could be that much blood inside a single person and now I can’t… I can’t stop wondering… Every day… How long did it take? How long did she have to lie there?” He stopped talking for a few seconds as he paced across the street. “I wonder how scared she must have been.”
Sebastian straightened himself up with some effort, a bleeding cut in the corner of his mouth. He could feel his head throb from the blow but forced himself to ignore it, forced himself to push Kyle’s words out of his mind, because this was far more pressing than whatever pain they might have caused. Sebastian tried once again to reach for his brother, but he felt warmth permeating the air around him and recoiled immediately. His next plea held a stronger sense of urgency. “No… No, no, no. Stop. Right now. Stop it.”
Kyle stopped in front of the door. “I’ve also wondered why not us, but I realized… We just weren’t a threat. We weren’t worth the coin.” He unclenched his fists, a long, deep breath passing through his lungs. “Real men protect their family, but we’re not men, Seb. We’re nothing. That man just walked into our lives and reduced us to nothing. And these people made that happen. They make it possible for greedy little cowards to get their way in the world. Where’s the justice in that? It’s not right.”
Sebastian was paying as much attention to Kyle’s rants as his angered twin had been heeding his advice. He could feel any sort of control he might have hoped to gain slipping further and further from him with every passing second. Standing just one step away from his brother now felt no different than huddling in front of their fireplace. He swallowed hard, the urgency in his tone giving way to a high-pitched note of panic. “Kyle, come on, you know you can’t control this. Think about what you’re doing.”
“I know exactly what I’m doing, Seb.” Kyle took another deep breath; it came out shaky. He glanced over his shoulder and Sebastian could see trails of orange light spreading across his eyes like threads in a spider’s web. It wasn’t just a reflection of the firelight coming from the windows, it was something a lot more intense and frightening than a simple optical illusion. “Do you… Do you remember what dad said to us before he died? A real warrior meets Lady Death standing.”
“No. Just shut up. Shut up! Stop!” Sebastian’s voice carried and he could swear there was a small fraction of a second where the noise coming from within the building faded in and out.
Kyle shook his head, ignoring his brother’s pleas, and took another deep breath. This time his whole body was shaking as if he was burning in fever and just as the air escaped his lungs, orange flames began to slowly rise from his fingertips and curl into spheres in his hands.
Sebastian instinctively backed away now, his mind both frantic and void of any useful arguments. He was frozen where he stood and for once, where it really counted, he didn’t have a plan. “Ky—”
A figure dropped from the tavern’s roof. A tall, cloaked man landed between the two brothers with a heavy sound and immediately knocked Kyle in the back of the head. The fire extinguished from his hands and the boy collapsed against the stranger, who didn’t hesitate to haul him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
Sebastian let out a weak startled noise, eyes wide with confusion and fixed on this intruder who was now carrying his brother away from the scene of their argument. His fists clenched at his sides, but he was too frozen to even question what was happening, let alone attempt to take action.
“Move, boy. You don’t want to be caught idling in this place after the commotion you just caused,” the stranger muttered over his shoulder.
The man didn’t stop or turn to check if he was following and it seemed Sebastian had no choice but to run and catch up to him. As they started to gain distance from the Inn, Sebastian felt some of the tension in his chest start to release. Maybe it didn’t matter that this man was a stranger who dropped from the roof of a building. It didn’t matter who he was and where he intended to lead them. At this point, as far as Sebastian was concerned, there was absolutely no way this night could lead to a greater disaster than the one he almost witnessed.