[Valcrest Forest | Lacus 26th | A few hours past Midnight]
The stranger threaded the narrow streets with the precision of a man who’d walked every path the city had to offer. What was just a casual stroll to him, felt like a frantic chase for his thirteen-year-old pursuer, who struggled to match his speed. The man hadn’t looked back once. If he knew Sebastian was following, it was due to the erratic breathing and rushed footsteps persisting at his heels; clumsy and exhausted.
His chase came to a halt at the City gates. Blackpond’s walls towered what seemed like miles over Sebastian’s head, proud and imposing; restricting and protective. In the dim torchlight illuminating the gates it was hard to see the wear and tear along the structure—years of history etched upon stone, like a warrior’s battle scars—but he remembered them well. Caught up in the memory of seeing it for the first time, Sebastian barely noticed the man’s hushed whispers to the gatekeeper. When his mind finally returned to the present, he thought he saw something exchange hands between the two, but the sound of the opening gates drowned out everything else.
Sebastian stared into the darkness ahead. Amidst the shadows he could make out the stranger’s silhouette, misshapen by the limp form strewn over his shoulder, standing very still, waiting. The way Kyle could be mistaken for a travel bag in the dark emphasized how small he was compared to this man. Sebastian forced his next steps forward and the heavy iron doors slammed shut behind his back. The sound echoed in his ears, violent and irreversible.
Blackpond had always felt too dark—too silent—after nightfall, but it was a still silence, a familiar darkness. The forest, in contrast, was anything but static. The farther they traveled from the City’s walls, the more Sebastian became aware of every rustle of leaves, every occasional snap of a twig; sometimes distant, sometimes uncomfortably close. Moonlight was scarce and the boy could barely make out the man walking in front of him or the limp body slung over his shoulder. Beyond that, there was no way to know what might be lurking in the darkness. The stranger knew where he was going and had no reaction to any of the noises chipping away at Sebastian’s nerves, but that didn’t provide him with any sense of security. In fact, it only added to the uneasy feeling in his chest.
Kyle hadn’t regained consciousness and was yet to move a muscle. Sebastian didn’t know much about alcohol consumption or being knocked on the head, but he knew for a fact that if his brother was capable of waking, he would be flailing and demanding to be let go. Sebastian’s eyes ached as he squinted in the faint moonlight, trying to keep track of the stranger. He wanted to ask where they were going and whether Kyle would be okay, but couldn’t muster the nerve to speak. Just their footsteps, however slow and cautious, felt as though they echoed and carried far into the shadows. Dry soil and blades of frozen grass crunched under their feet, twigs snapped under their weight and disrupted the air around them. They weren’t the only thing making noise in the forest, but their sounds stood out as something foreign.
“Ow. Crap!” The words exploded out of Sebastian’s mouth amidst a pained grunt. Even though muffled into something solid, they still rang much louder than he would have liked. The boy blinked, trying to make his eyes focus, and a dark heavy cloak blocked his vision. His travel partner had stopped without warning. Sebastian winced. He could almost feel his own voice still resonating in the distance, stirring parts of the forest awake.
There was a long wait for the silence to settle back in, for the world to grow still as it should be. And then Sebastian felt the man’s hand rest on his shoulder. It was just a light grip, softer than he would have expected it to be, but the contact still startled him for a moment. The touch steered him and he understood why it had to happen. They were leaving the main path and slinking into a narrow, winding trail amongst the thick of the trees. The unyielding silence was replaced with the never-ending rustling of leaves and low branches bending against their bodies as they forced their way past. Sebastian could feel thin branches catching on his clothes and adding scratches to his existing bruises. Newly-awoken aches in his muscles caused an involuntary twist in his expression. The thought of his little stunt with the City Guard had already started to feel like a distant point in his past.
The future was uncertain.
The path ended on what seemed like a small clearing—though it might be better described as an alcove carved into the mass of trees. It was a lot less claustrophobic than the path they traveled to get there, but still an enclosed circle of space. A large hollow trunk lay fallen in the center, tinted silver by the moonlight and covered in a dusting of snow and moss. The man walked up to it and nodded his head in its direction.
“There’s a bedroll stashed inside,” he said. His voice so soft that it seemed to only slightly bend the silence and not completely break it, as though it was just another sound in the forest. Like it belonged. “Take it out and set it down.”
Sebastian nodded, though unsure the man could see it in the faint moonlight, and dug his hand into the hollow tree, finding something soft inside and tugging at it. The bedroll was heavier than it looked and softer than anything Sebastian had slept on in the past year. It was lined with fur and stuffed with something soft and plush. Just holding it made him feel exhausted, but he did as he was told and unfurled the soft material, placing it down on the ground.
The man walked past Sebastian and laid Kyle down on the sleeping mat. Sebastian retreated a few steps and sat on the hollow trunk as if it were a cold, stiff bench. His eyes tracked the stranger as he leaned over Kyle’s unconscious form. Sebastian watched him press two fingers to his brother’s neck and then repeat the gesture on himself. He then pulled Kyle’s eyelids open and leaned forward to get a closer look. The man seemed like he knew what he was doing and didn’t look pleased with the results of his examination. It only made Sebastian feel worse. It was stupid of him to take that bottle of liquor to begin with; he should have at least tried harder to stay awake. Minded his brother’s state a little more. What if Kyle didn’t wake up? He didn’t want that on his conscience. More so, he didn’t know how he was supposed to go on by himself.
Sebastian’s thoughts were disrupted by something heavy falling over his eyes. He grabbed at it and pulled it down to uncover his face. It was the man’s cloak. Sebastian instinctively wrapped himself in it and looked around. His travel partner had produced a large travel bag from some other hiding spot, and sat down on a stump that probably belonged to the same fallen tree; head low as he rummaged through it.
“Your brother isn’t responsive right now but is breathing well. His heart rate is steady, which is a good sign. He may need the White Shadows, but for now it’s best to wait and see.” The man relayed the information, still focused on the bag and its contents.
“Would… Wouldn’t it be better to just go to them in the first place?” Sebastian did his best to keep his voice low and steady like the man had, but he sounded high-pitched and panicked.
“Too far,” the stranger mumbled. “You wouldn’t make it and I can’t carry you both.” His tone implied this was something he had already been considering. Not surprising, since going to the healers would be the most straightforward answer.
“Where are we going, then?” Sebastian finally asked.
“Somewhere safe. For now,” was the answer.
The man pulled a loaf of bread from the bag, split it in two, and offered Sebastian half. The boy grabbed it, immediately took a large bite, and nearly swallowed it whole. This was an act he regretted, as the lump of bread hurt him all the way down and his stomach churned from the sudden and unexpected intake of food. It had been a while. He grimaced and was surprised by a cup of water being pushed into his free hand.
“Take it easy, boy.”
“It’s Sebastian, not ‘boy.” Sebastian found it easier to introduce himself than to actually voice the question on his mind.
In the dim light, Sebastian could only feel the man’s inspecting gaze on him as he decided to answer his unvoiced question. “Gerald,” he offered. “Gerald Tucker.”
“Why were you on the Inn?” Not at the Inn. On the Inn. In hindsight, that was not a good sign.
“What is your business with the Wolfpack?” That wasn’t an answer and they both knew it.
“I have no business with them.” Sebastian couldn’t help the offense from showing in his voice. “I was there for my brother.”
“Let me rephrase that… What do you have against the Wolfpack?” Gerald asked. His tone made clear that lying wouldn’t be tolerated now.
Sebastian hesitated, trying to give Gerald the same assessment he’d been given before finally deciding there was no point in refusing to answer. “One of them killed our sister eleven months ago.” When the words left him, they rang hollow and cold. It felt like his brain couldn’t pick which emotion to convey and settled for none. It was oddly appropriate.
“I see.” Gerald let his voice trail off into a few moments of silence, taking a bite off his piece of bread and chewing on it slowly. “Was she your caretaker?”
“Why not stay at the orphanage?”
Sebastian considered the question. They had discussed it a few times, just laying low for a while in the orphanage. They had a couple of years before the city would force them to join the Guard. “Not much better than the streets, really,” that was a lie, “too restricting.” This part not so much.
Gerald snorted. “Yes. I’m sure they wouldn’t allow teenage alcoholics in their facilities.”
Sebastian cowered slightly at the man’s words. “That was my fault. I should never have…” He cut himself off and took another bite of his bread, being mindful to chew it properly this time.
“Did you shove it down his throat?” Gerald questioned. “Otherwise, I don’t see how it could be your fault.”
Sebastian shrugged. “It was our birthday. I knew he wasn’t taking it well. I shouldn’t have left him alone.”
Gerald sighed at that. “Finish eating. We still have a good walk ahead of us.”
The next few hours were spent in silence. Sebastian finished eating, they cleared up their little campsite and, once again, Gerald slung Kyle over his shoulders. They resumed their walk, this time completely engulfed by the forest. There was no trail, no set path. Somehow Gerald simply knew where to go. Sebastian had no choice but follow.
[Unknown Location | Lacus 27th | Sunrise]
Sebastian wanted, needed, to just drop somewhere and pass out. When Gerald said they had ‘a good walk’ ahead of them, he failed to mention they were at least a day’s journey from their destination. They had stopped a couple of times along the way to eat, check on Kyle’s vitals, and Sebastian had even slept for a few minutes during one stop, but it did nothing to ease his exhaustion. If anything, he had to agree Gerald had a point; if they tried traveling to the White Shadows at this pace, he would have dropped dead somewhere along the way.
The forest was still pretty dim outside the marked paths, even in the light of day, and Sebastian’s eyes were painfully stung once they finally reached open space. The boy groaned at the invading morning light and did his best to blink the pain away. Gerald’s hold on his shoulder—a constant for the last day of their journey—disappeared completely and Sebastian’s response, once his eyes adjusted, was to immediately look around for the man.
They were now standing in a large open area that seemed to have been painstakingly carved into the thick of the forest for the sake of construction. Right in the center were two ancient-looking towers; outer walls cracked and covered in a layer of snow. Underneath, shriveled vines wrapped around the structure. The tower to the East from where Sebastian was standing had one door on the ground floor and a staircase running along the outside, leading to a third-floor entrance. The first few steps were stone, matching the rest of the construction, but from there it had been rebuilt entirely out of wood. The steps were narrow and small icicles hung dangerously off the edge of each one, creating an imposing wall of spikes along the staircase. The Western tower had only one door on the upper floor, connected to its counterpart through a rope bridge that stood out as not being a part of the original design. Whatever the initial purpose of those towers, they had been turned into something strange and somewhat homely. Sebastian could see a few small flowers poking out of the snow in an area where he assumed a full garden would have been.It reminded him of the herb and vegetable gardens his sister kept in their backyard. The boy let his gaze scale the Eastern tower all the way to the top and flinched when he thought he saw movement. A second glance revealed nothing and he brushed it off. Lack of sleep, exhaustion—his eyes were playing tricks on him.
Looking away from the towers, Sebastian finally spotted Gerald. The man was standing in a patch of sunlight, which now allowed a clear view of his face. He appeared to be in his mid-twenties; younger than his voice would indicate. His eyes were a dark green not unlike the forest itself, and his nose had clearly been broken before—the bridge crooked and scarred by a small horizontal line. His hair was a golden color just light enough to be considered blond. The short wavy locks were in disarray, sticking out in several directions as though continuously ruffled by nervous hands. Sebastian watched him mutter under his breath and ruffle them once again. Some longer strands wrapped around the man’s fingers and formed tiny curls on the back of his neck the moment they were let go. It was clear Gerald had been preoccupied with something, but just as Sebastian opened his mouth to question, he shook his head and started moving.
“Follow me, boy,” he muttered, indicating the staircase with a nod and starting to slowly climb the steps with Kyle in tow.
Sebastian followed the man, carefully looking for patches of ice as he climbed the narrow steps and pressed his palm to the cool stone tower for balance. The top of the staircase ended in a narrow ledge that connected the entrance to the rope bridge. Gerald entered the tower while Sebastian stood in the doorway for a few moments, casting a curious glance to the closed wooden door on the other side.
“In here,” Gerald called.
Sebastian winced. The man’s tone was calm but made the boy aware of the fact he was almost prying. He turned away from the bridge and crossed the doorway into what was clearly a two-person bedroom. It was small, even for one person; the top of Gerald’s head actually brushed against the ceiling. It was equipped with two single beds, a small table, and two chairs. Ignoring the fact there was little room to move around between them, it was a comfortable setup. Gerald had already deposited Kyle on one of the beds and was once again checking that he was breathing fine. It seemed as though there was no change in his condition.
Gerald stepped outside and Sebastian moved to sit on the vacant bed. His back was to the only window and he could see his own shadow projected on the opposite wall, looming over Kyle’s unconscious form. It was quiet enough that he could actually hear him breathe now. He sounded asleep. Just asleep. Like the last two days never even happened.
“Come on.” Gerald had reentered the room, a bucket in hand. “I know you probably just want to sleep now, but there’s one more stop we need to make before I can let that happen.”
Sebastian frowned. He didn’t think he could handle much more walking.
Gerald placed the bucket next to Kyle’s bed, where the boy could easily see it upon waking. He then nodded towards the door. “Don’t worry, we’re not going far.”
Sebastian groaned, forcing himself to stand up and follow Gerald out the door. The man led him across the rope bridge and knocked on the heavy wooden door twice. No answer. Gerald waited a couple of seconds and then pushed his way inside. The room was dark—only a few rays of sunlight crept after them through the now-open door. Gerald pushed Sebastian into a vacant seat and closed the door, lighting the room with candles. The place they were in now looked like an office, or study. It was furnished with a heavy looking oak desk and a few chairs. Two of the walls were lined with bookshelves stocked full of books and another one had a small fireplace built into it. Gerald sat down across from Sebastian, on the other side of the desk. The man was sitting upright, seeming almost apprehensive about disturbing the writing utensils neatly placed on the desktop. The silence was tense for reasons Sebastian couldn’t, or was just too tired, to fully grasp.
“What is this place?” he questioned.
“Somewhere safe,” Gerald repeated. “That’s… That’s all you need to know for now.”
Sebastian frowned, rubbing his eyes. The nervousness in the man’s words was making him uneasy. “What was this place, then?” he prodded. “It looks… Old.”
“This was a military outpost. Blackpond built it centuries ago when The War was still raging at full strength. It’s been abandoned for a long time. And there are no records of it existing, as far as we were able to investigate.”
“So you live here?”
Gerald snorted. “You can say that.”
Sebastian couldn’t think of any more questions and soon the room fell into a heavy silence; exhausted, apprehensive, and, for some reason, uneasy with anticipation. They sat there, on a standstill, for quite some time until finally a noise stirred them out of their stupor. Gerald straightened in his chair and motioned for Sebastian to stay put.
The sound had come from behind one of the bookshelves. Sebastian turned his head just in time to see it move slightly away from the wall, as though someone was cracking open a door. And, apparently, someone was. From behind the bookshelf came the sound of sturdy leather boots pacing against stone. The person that emerged into the candlelit room was just as tall as Gerald, if not more, face obscured by the brim of a leather hat and a face scarf, a large crossbow slung across their back. With another step forward the light of the candles finally reached their eyes. They were unlike anything Sebastian had ever seen, or even heard of; dark and gray like storm clouds. They pierced him like cold, unwavering steel.
The figure pulled down the scarf, revealing the face of a young woman. Her dark eyes were still on him. She removed her hat and ran slender fingers through long raven-colored hair before setting it back down gently on top her head. And her eyes were still, persistently, on him. Sebastian squirmed in his seat, wondering if he should say something. If she expected him to say something. Her expression was stony and cold as though she wasn’t looking at a human being, but an unwanted object someone dropped on her living room floor. Finally, she turned her attention to Gerald, her voice low and steady as she spoke:
“Tucker. What is the meaning of this?”