Uprise 1.05

Shadows Rise

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[Abandoned Outpost | Lunaris 2nd | Morning]

Sebastian brought the axe down and observed the feeble dent it created upon the surface of a log. He frowned, repeating the action once, twice, and a third time before the wood finally split with a satisfying crack. Each strike formed a new layer of aches across his shoulders and back muscles, but he ignored it. Setting the axe down, he arranged the cut firewood in what would be the start of a neat pile and placed another log atop the dead stump he’d been using for a chopping block.

The axe came down again. Sebastian’s hands hurt from the impact, and as the sensation traveled from his wrist to his elbow, he once again ignored it. The sharp blade slashing the air and the crackling of splitting wood were the only sounds in the air that early in the morning. It was soothing, almost hypnotic, and made it extremely easy for the boy to lose himself in the mechanical task. In the time since his arrival in the Outpost, Sebastian hadn’t strayed from the main clearing. He had noticed trails leading into other areas in the campsite, but made no attempt to take them. He hadn’t even bothered to explore any other rooms other than the sleeping quarters he and Kyle had been offered. Truth be told, he hadn’t spent much time there, either. Since Kyle woke up, he had been making sure to leave the room before sunrise and to come back as late as possible. Last night, Kyle had actually stayed up waiting for him. Not that it made much difference; all they were able to do was stare at each other in silence.

Sebastian placed a new log on the chopping block. He gripped the handle of the axe tight and took a long breath. It came out heavy with the burden of exhaustion and a million unwelcome thoughts. If only ridding himself of those was easy as expelling air from his lungs.

“You can’t avoid me forever, you know?”

Sebastian frowned, staring intensely at the ceiling above his bed. He’d been staring at it for so long in the past few days he’d memorized every little blemish in the wood.

“Hey, knucklehead, I’m talking to you.”

“I said it’s fine, Kat. We don’t need to talk about it anymore.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Okay.” Sebastian sighed, choosing to rephrase his previous statement. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

There was a very thick moment of silence after which Sebastian felt her weight slowly descend upon the edge of his mattress. “Sebby. I need you to listen to me.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not listening. Listen.”

Sebastian closed his eyes. He could still see all the little dark spots on the ceiling, flashing behind his eyes. He took a long breath, opening them and turning to look at Katherine for the first time in two days. For some reason, he expected something had changed in the way she looked at him, but no. The smile she offered was tinged with sadness, but her eyes were as warm as they had always been. Sebastian didn’t know where the feeling of dread had originated from, but was relieved to feel it melt away under his sister’s gaze.

“Okay,” he repeated.

“You do understand that this isn’t your fault, don’t you? Mom’s death was not your fault, or Kyle’s, things like this… They happen. It was a risk she was happy to take.”

“I understand.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Stop… Saying that.”

“Then don’t lie to me, Sebastian.”

“I do understand. It’s just… Knowing that doesn’t fix anything.”

“I know. I’m sorry. That’s my fault.” Kat exhaled in a soft sigh. “The reason I never told the two of you about mom was this. I didn’t want this, right here, but… I didn’t realize that I wasn’t just protecting you from guilting yourselves for something entirely beyond anyone’s control. I was also keeping her from you. I never told you about mom’s death, but most of all, I never told you about her. Who she was. Mom… Loved you, Seb. She wanted you to live. She would have wanted you to be happy that you’re alive. I need you to understand no matter what; I am happy that you’re alive. Do you understand?”

A weak nod was all that Sebastian could offer in response. The gesture was enough to put Katherine at ease and her smile turned genuine. “Oh, guess what? I completely forgot to give you your birthday present!”

Sebastian snorted, withholding a chuckle. “Oh, no, what a disaster.”

Katherine arched an eyebrow at his mockery. “If you don’t want it, I can just keep it,” she teased.

“No! I mean… Sure, I want it.”

Kat shook her head, amusement shining in her eyes as she stood from the edge of the bed, leaving a book sitting on the mattress. “Good. I’m going to go get dinner started, then.”  She started to leave but paused for a moment at the doorway. “And Seb, think about what I said.”

Sebastian gave his sister a questioning look as she exited, reaching out for the book and flipping through the pages. It was completely blank except for the very first one. Kat had left a note for him there: ‘For all those pesky thoughts that cause you so much grief. Let them go’.

“Boy, let go.”

Gerald’s voice cut through Sebastian’s stupor like a sharp knife. The axe was halted in mid-swing and Sebastian looked down at the chopping block, realizing that the log he meant to neatly split in half had been brutally reduced to wood chips. The boy cringed and slowly turned his head to look at Gerald. The man didn’t seem angry, or even confused at his behavior. His right hand had a firm grip on the axe’s handle as he patiently waited for Sebastian to let go. The boy released the axe and lowered his arm.

“You should go rest,” Gerald suggested. “Go into the office and pick up a book if you want something to occupy your mind. Or better yet; get some more sleep.”

Sebastian turned his gaze towards the towers, the open door to the study was visible from the ground. He hadn’t gone there since the night he arrived.

“Porter won’t bite your head off. I assure you.” Gerald added, pushing Sebastian aside to take over the task of cutting firewood. “Go on, kid.”

Gerald was nice enough not to make a big deal out of this and arguing against the man’s advice wouldn’t do Sebastian any good. So, with a deep sigh of resignation, Sebastian turned around and proceeded to walk up the staircase, giving a brief glance to the inside of the bedroom where he saw Kyle, still fast asleep. He was asleep more than anything the past couple days, but Gerald said it was to be expected, so Sebastian decided not to worry unless something else happened to warrant it.

He turned away from the bedroom door and slowly paced across the bridge, feeling the ground sway under the soles of his boots with every step. He approached the open door with caution and peered in through the doorway. The room was far less intimidating in the light of day. Just the open door was enough to illuminate it completely and the lack of windows didn’t feel as incarcerating as it had then.

“In or out?”

Sebastian nearly jumped at the sudden voice. He’d seen Gabrielle sitting behind the office desk, but the woman was so still he felt trying to engage her would be too disruptive.

“Uhm… Gerald said I could borrow a book?”

“Are you asking me or telling me?” Gabrielle looked up from her reading material with an expression that conveyed polite curiosity.

“Telling you, I guess?”

The woman arched her eyebrow.

Sebastian sighed and walked fully into the room. Hopefully, Gerald was right and she wouldn’t bite his head off.

“Tucker is many things, but a liar isn’t one,” she said, turning her eyes back to her book. Sebastian looked on in confusion at how the statement lined up with his inner thinking until the woman casually waved towards the bookshelves. “Take your pick.”

Oh, right. Books. Sebastian shook his head and walked towards the shelves. Reading random titles to see if something caught his interest. He wasn’t much of a reader and had no idea where to start. For a few moments, his eyes strayed from the books to the large crossbow sitting on the ground next to the woman’s chair. He winced and instinctively touched his arm where he’d almost been shot by the weapon. He could feel the woman’s eyes on him then and without looking to confirm she was watching, turned his attention towards the books. Finally, one in particular caught his eye and he picked it up off the shelf. He gave another sideways glance to Gabrielle. The woman was leaning over a worn book, her chin resting on her palm and propped against the tabletop by her elbow. Her eyes moved slowly from left to right and tiny creases formed on her forehead from concentration. He wondered what could possibly have her so engrossed, but either way, she didn’t seem to mind his presence.

Sebastian looked down to his book and scanned the room for a place to settle down. Two armchairs sat close to the unlit fireplace, and another across the desk from Gabrielle. Deciding to put as much distance between himself and the woman as possible, Sebastian chose the armchair furthest from the desk. Just as he was about to sit, a sudden noise startled him and he straightened himself, looking around to see that Gabrielle had tipped her chair and propped her feet on the desk. The woman had her arms folded under her head like a pillow, and her hat covering her face. Sebastian thought she’d noticed him startle and wondered if he imagined the hint of a smirk peering underneath the leather brim. He brushed it off and took a seat, opening up the book and trying to keep his thoughts from wandering places he didn’t want them going.

[Abandoned Outpost | Lunaris 2nd | Sundown]

Kyle woke up coughing and jumped out of bed to find the water pitcher on the table, grabbing for it blindly and taking a large gulp without bothering with a cup. His throat hurt as the liquid went down, but it gradually eased the more he drank. He looked around, the sun was coming in red through the window, he couldn’t remember if he’d woken up at all throughout the day, but he was sure hungry now. Food had been left on the table. Some fruit; again, and a couple bread rolls. Kyle set the water pitcher down and grabbed a roll, taking a small, cautious bite. Keeping food down had been a gamble as of late.

“About time. Jo was worried you weren’t going to be up at all today.”

Kyle’s eyes darted across the room. He’d failed to notice Sebastian there until just then. He was sitting back on the other bed, his eyes fixed on the pages of an open book. Kyle was unsure if he was reading or simply trying to ignore his presence. “Strange lady,” he mumbled.

“She’s nice, though.” Sebastian shrugged. “A little overbearing sometimes, but nice.”

“I guess.” Kyle continued to nibble on his bread roll, watching Sebastian flip the pages of his book, not giving him as much as a sideways glance. The ensuing silence was uncomfortable, but Kyle didn’t know how to go about breaking it. His first instinct was to try and express some form of regret. Except, he didn’t know for sure if he could be genuine. If he did, in fact, regret what he’d done. “So…” He mumbled. “I guess we got to leave the city after all.”

Sebastian slammed the book shut in response, turning to glare at his brother with a fury neither of them knew he possessed. “Are you amused right now? Is this some fucking joke to you? Or did you forget the stunt you pulled?”

“I remember,” Kyle muttered. “I just don’t know…” He sighed, suddenly feeling extremely tired, and discarding his half-eaten roll. “What do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know, Kyle. Honestly, what is there for you to say?”

Kyle let out another sigh and curled up on the bed, lying on his side. The small table partially obstructing his view of the rest of the room and protecting him from his brother’s vicious glare. “I’m… Tired…” He mumbled. “Everything hurts… And I can’t… I just can’t.”

“I know.” Sebastian snorted, standing up and taking a piece of fruit from the table with a little too much aggression. “Where the hell do you think I’ve been for the past eleven months?”

“I’m not sure. Where the hell have you been?” Kyle sat up and faced his brother, his tone now matching Sebastian’s anger. “It’s like none of this even registered with you. At all.”

Sebastian shrugged and it looked about as exhausted as Kyle had felt all day. “You’d rather I cry and scream and punch the walls all day? Do I have to prove to you that I’m angry, is that it? Let me tell you where I’ve been, Kyle… I’ve been trying. I’ve been trying really hard. Because you know what? As you were so kind to point out the other night; Kat isn’t here anymore. One of us fucking has to!”

“Honestly, Seb? I wouldn’t have minded some crying and screaming. I wouldn’t have minded if you’d punched the walls a little. Heck, punched me if you had to. Something. Anything. Just so I don’t feel like I’m screaming at the walls all the time. To myself. Just so I don’t have to feel so fucking pathetic all the time because I can’t do what you’re doing! I can’t!” Kyle stood up and stumbled, leaning against the table. He could feel warmth coursing through his veins, he felt it burning in his hands, in his eyes. He could almost see orange light emanating from his reflection on the metal pitcher while he stared at it. He forced himself to breathe it away. This wasn’t going to happen again. It wasn’t going to happen now. Not on top of everything else he already had to deal with.

“Breathe,” Sebastian mumbled, pouring a cup of water and pushing it towards his brother. “I saw her. The girl who killed Kat. I saw her face, Kyle. I see her face every time I close my eyes. And I have to keep telling myself that it didn’t matter. That I couldn’t have done anything even if I knew who she was. I have to convince myself that I didn’t somehow let our sister die.” He sat back down on the bed, leaning against his knees as though holding himself up was too much to handle. “I’m not going to cry, or scream, or punch anything, because I’m so angry that if I do that… There’s not a force in all of Valcrest strong enough to make me stop.” He let out a bitter chuckle and leaned forward some more, hiding his face in his hands. “I would let that place burn if I thought for a second it would help. If I thought it would fix anything. I would burn the whole world down if that could bring her back. But it won’t. It can’t. It doesn’t work that way.”

Kyle was staring at his cup of water, trying his best to keep his breath steady and in control. His thoughts traveled back to the scene in front of the Inn and how close he’d been to doing something irreversibly stupid. “Leaving the city didn’t really matter, did it? Everything just followed us here… Wherever the hell we are… Whoever these people are…” Kyle gulped down the water and sat back down. “Why would they even help us?”

“I’m not sure,” Sebastian mumbled. “Gerald had been watching the Wolves I think. He never actually answered when I asked what he was doing at the Inn that night. The other two… Well, Jo is not a talker and…” The boy shook his head.

“There’s three of them?” Kyle questioned.

“You haven’t met Porter yet, have you? She’s… A scary woman.”

Kyle arched an eyebrow at this. “Scary how?”

Sebastian snickered. “Let’s just say that you don’t want to get caught snooping around in this place.”

Kyle opened his mouth to question further but stopped himself at the sound of steps climbing the stairs outside.

“I know. I’m just saying you don’t have to…” Gerald argued. His statement followed by a way-too-soft-to-hear response. “Fair enough. I guess so.”

The twins exchanged a look and turned to watch the door. Gerald entered with Johanna following right behind him. The woman was holding a muffin in each hand, a tiny lit candle sticking out from each baked good. She placed them on the table and smiled.

“It’s for your birthday,” Gerald explained, very clearly holding back the urge to roll his eyes.

Sebastian looked from the table to his brother and shrugged. “We don’t celebrate our birthday anymore.”

Kyle looked at his brother in silence for a moment, then cracked a smile. “Well, it’s not actually our birthday tonight.”

“You just want muffins,” Sebastian snorted. He shrugged and returned the smile, however, taking one of the muffins and blowing out the candle. “Can’t hurt, I guess.” He turned to Jo and couldn’t help a grin at the satisfied look in her eyes. “Thank you,” he told her.

Kyle was already halfway through his muffin and held up his thumb in a show of approval.

Johanna offered the boys a playful bow and made her exit, giving Gerald a firm pat on the back as she passed him.

Gerald shook his head in amusement, but said nothing in response to the woman’s gesture, turning his attention to the boys. “Listen, I know it’s been a strange couple of days for you. I’m sure you have a million questions about who we are and why we’re helping you. If anything, you’re probably questioning what’s in it for us, no?”

Kyle swallowed hard, once again wondering whether the man was a telepath after all. He exchanged a look with his brother and both boys nodded in response.

“I thought so.” Gerald crossed his arms and leaned against the door frame, green eyes examining the twins carefully as he continued. “We’ve discussed it amongst ourselves and came to the conclusion it might be best if we all sat down and had a talk. So I’d like to ask you two to cross the bridge first thing in the morning so we can have a meeting.”

“A meeting?” Sebastian questioned.

“That’s what I said, boy. A meeting.” Gerald snorted. “It will probably be easier on everyone if we’re all present. We can explain some things. And you can ask your questions. Then we’ll see where things go from here.”

Sebastian nodded once again in response, parting a piece of his muffin and chewing on it slowly as he watched Gerald take his leave. Kyle was munching on the rest of his muffin in silence as well. None of them sure of whether they should be worried about this.

Kyle curled up in bed again. “I don’t know if I like the sound of that,” he mumbled.

Sebastian sighed. “This is Valcrest. Something sounds too good to be true, odds are it is. There’s always some catch.” He shrugged, taking another bite off his muffin. “Go to sleep. Worry about it in the morning.”

Kyle snorted, finishing the last bite of his muffin and holding the tiny snuffed out candle between his fingers. “That’s your philosophy now, huh?”

Sebastian chuckled. “Yep. One horrifying gut-punch at a time, that’s how I decided to deal with life.” He paused for a moment and heaved a small sigh. “Seriously, though, past eleven months considered, how much worse can it get?”

[Abandoned Outpost | Lunaris 3rd | Morning]

Sebastian woke up a little after sunrise, opting to wake Kyle upon noticing the bowls of still-warm oatmeal left upon the table in place of the half-eaten fruit platter from the night before. Although Kyle complained about being woken up, his mood improved instantly at the sight of food, the bowls of oatmeal accompanied by a fresh muffin and a small jar of honey, which Sebastian had immediately added to his breakfast in generous spoonfuls. Despite always waking up to the offer of food and Jo’s persistence in chasing him down wherever he was at meal times, Seb hadn’t been eating much the past few days. He realized the woman was sincere in her concern and he could appreciate that, but accepting it hadn’t been easy for him. Kyle, on the other hand, had no reservations whatsoever in accepting food. While Sebastian was idly stirring his oatmeal with his spoon, Kyle had gone through half his bowl and was happily chewing on his muffin.

“Have you thought about this meeting thing?” Kyle questioned, swallowing his mouthful of muffin and pouring himself some water. “I mean… This is all very nice, but, let’s face it… It’s unlikely these people are going to let us stay.”

Sebastian hummed, forcing himself to eat only so he could buy more time to think. “I don’t know. I think they might if they think there’s something to be gained from it. I mean… Gerald saw what you almost did. They know… What you can do.”

Kyle seemed immediately uneasy at the prospect. It clearly hadn’t crossed his mind until now. “You think so?”

Sebastian shrugged. “I don’t want to think that way. They’ve been good to us so far, but there’s something strange about these people. This place.  Gerald’s a nice guy, but he was definitely up to something in Blackpond that night. Johanna comes out of nowhere like some ghost which I’m pretty sure is not a common thing people do, and… Hmph…”

Kyle let out an amused snort at his brother’s expression. “This Porter woman, she really gets to you, huh? Never seen you scared of anyone before.”

Sebastian sighed and shrugged. “She… I don’t know. And I guess that’s the problem.” He fiddled with his breakfast some more and decided to stop being fussy and get as much food out of this deal as possible. While it lasted. “You’ll see what I mean.”

Breakfast done, and with other morning necessities dealt with, the boys finally headed for the office door. It was closed but since Gerald had told them to go there, Sebastian decided to knock. The door immediately opened and Johanna greeted them with a cheerful smile. The twins entered the room and Kyle’s eyes immediately landed on the woman sitting behind the desk, her eyes were dark and piercing, but her expression was neutral. Kyle’s attempt at forcing a smile failed miserably and he simply nodded in an awkward greeting, she responded in kind, slightly tipping her hat in his direction. He had no idea whether to be reassured by that or not.

“Morning,” Gerald greeted. The man was definitely the most vocal of the three by far. “Why don’t you take a seat over there?” He pointed at the two chairs placed near the dying fire. Gerald himself took a seat across from Gabrielle, and Johanna sat on the edge of the desk blocking Gabrielle’s view, which resulted in a slight frown to disrupt the woman’s stoic aura. Johanna seemed to immediately realize this and moved to sit on the arm of Gerald’s chair instead. The man nonchalantly pushed the woman from her perch and she hit the ground with a thud. Jo glared up at Gerald who snorted and failed to hide a smirk, but at the same time stood up and offered a hand to help her, pulling her onto his vacant seat and opting to lean against the wall.

“Are you two done playing around like children?” Gabrielle questioned. Her tone was, much like her expression, void of any discernible emotion,

Gerald’s tone was a little too innocent. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Johanna shrugged.

“Mhm,” Gabrielle mumbled in response. She took off her hat, the shadow of the leather brim lifting from her eyes. She placed it gently on the desktop and leaned forward in her seat, her grey eyes scanning the boys’ faces. “I’m sure the two of you have your share of questions to ask, no? So why don’t we start with that?”

“Who are you?” Sebastian asked.

Gabrielle tilted her head slightly, her eyes narrowed for a brief moment. “That’s both incredibly complicated and oddly simplistic as far as questions go. Why don’t you try elaborating a little bit?”

“Who are you? As in… This… You…” Sebastian elaborated on his question by gesturing to the three of them with his hand.

“Ah. Now, that… That is a very pertinent question.” She gave a small nod of approval. “We are, well… Hunters, so to speak.”

“Porter,” Gerald interjected with a small huff. “Don’t purposely confuse the children.”

Gabrielle shrugged slightly. “I was getting there. If you know a better way to explain this, by all means…”

Gerald sighed. “No, no… Carry on.”

Gabrielle turned her attention to the twins once again. “Wolf Hunters, that’s what we call ourselves; although far from being an official name. We hunt assassins. Plain and simple.”

Sebastian looked at Gerald. “So you were on the Inn because…”

“I was hunting that night. Yes.” Gerald confirmed, nodding at his own statement. “I was waiting for one of them to leave so I could follow them.”

Silence lingered for some time following this admission. Sebastian wasn’t sure why he hadn’t been expecting something like that. After all, why else would someone be perched on top of a building that way?

Gabrielle was the first one to speak, her eyes still fixed on the two boys. “Now, I have a question for you… Do you understand the gravity of your actions that night?”

Kyle swallowed hard at the question, his eyes lowering to the ground. “Yes.”

“Mhm,” Gabrielle mumbled. “Are you sorry?”

“I…” Kyle cut himself off with a frown. “I don’t know.”

“Is it over?” Gerald questioned.

Kyle turned to face the man with a look of confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you moved past it? Have you accepted the reality of your situation? Have you made peace with it by now? Is it over?”

It took a moment for the twins to understand exactly what Gerald was asking and when it dawned on them, it turned out to be a far more difficult question to answer than either of them expected.

“Listen, here’s the situation as it stands…” Gabrielle spoke up. “The two of you nearly caused a fatal incident that would not only antagonize the most powerful group of killers known to Valcrest but also result in the deaths of innocent bystanders. Had you, by some stroke of dumb luck, survived that fire, you would be on those people’s list for the rest of your lives. Trust me, that’s not something you want. Now, because Tucker intervened, the Wolves don’t know you exist. You could walk away from this as though it never happened, but you have to ask yourselves… Can you?”

Sebastian’s hands were hurting, his knuckles white from gripping the arms of his chair, his eyes were fixed on the blurry image of the uneven-shaped stones that made up the ground. His chest started to hurt and he exhaled sharply. The silence was more and more thick and suffocating. Could he? “What if… What if we can’t?” The question left him before he could properly think it through. He could feel Kyle staring at him and he didn’t blame his twin for acting surprised.

“Then you need to ask yourselves what you want to do about that,” Gabrielle stated. “I want to make something very clear before we discuss anything else; we are not vigilantes. We’re not here to enforce some misguided notion of justice. We do what we do because the Wolfpack has, in one way or another, harmed us. This is revenge. Plain and simple. We’ll kill as many of them as we can until they stop us. That’s it. There’s no higher purpose. There’s no victory. It’s not possible to destroy something as ancient and as powerful as the Wolfpack. Sooner or later they are going to kill us one by one. That’s where he road ends.”

“Porter, you really shouldn’t say such ominous things to young impressionable children,” Gerald protested, although his tone was genuinely amused as though his colleague hadn’t been blatantly speaking of their certain deaths.

Gabrielle turned her gaze to the man, her tone taking a very sharp edge. “I see no point in sugarcoating anything in this situation. The clearer the facts, the better.”

“Fair enough,” Gerald conceded with a calm shrug.

“You…” Kyle’s voice came out weak and he forced a small cough to clear his throat. “You sound like you… Respect them.”

“I do.” Gabrielle shrugged. “I’ve been doing this for fifteen years now. Or at least something close to it. I understand that right now it’s easier for you to think of the Wolfpack as, what their name might suggest, animals; monsters, something far greater and more frightening than mere humans can ever be. Truth of it is, like it or not, they’re only human. They’re people. And what we do is kill people. Same as them. Worse than them if that’s what it takes. Most of the time, that is what it takes.”

Sebastian stared at the woman in silence as she spoke. She looked young. Closer to her thirties than the other two, but still young enough that fifteen years ago she wasn’t that much older than they were now. He couldn’t imagine how something like that could change a person. He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out. “You sound like you’re making us an offer.”

“No. An offer would imply there’s something to gain.” Gabrielle’s tone was almost eerily calm. “This is a path. It’s a path that no one in their right mind should ever take. Thus, our question stands; is it over? Because if you can honestly see yourself walking away from this right now. Take it from me; that’s exactly what you should do.”

“However, if you feel that you can’t. That you don’t see yourself capable of moving past this, then… Yes, it is possible to become one of us,” Gerald added. “However, like Porter said, we’ve gotten to where we are from a place where we saw nothing left. And being a Hunter doesn’t mean fighting some faceless evil, it means killing people. It means becoming what you hate. It means stooping lower than what you hate. This isn’t a path you take because there’s nowhere else to go, this isn’t where you take some heroic final stand, this is where you fight for however long you can until Death takes you. And there’s no coming back from that.”

Gabrielle followed Gerald’s statement by opening a drawer on the desk and pulling from it a ring. It was smooth, made of silver, and it shone in the rays of sunlight coming through the open door. “Wolves wear rings like this. This one belonged to the first Wolf I killed. I wasn’t much older than you are, only fifteen. He was younger than that.” She followed this statement by digging into the drawer one more time and pulling from it a string of identical rings bound together by an iron chain that passed through their centers. Sebastian tried, but it was impossible to count exactly how many there were. He glanced at Kyle and saw his brother had a mixed expression of shock and admiration on his face. He could surely understand why. It wasn’t just that the woman had killed all those people, but that she had survived doing so.

“Gabe…” The voice that sounded in the room was foreign to the boys and very soft; just barely louder than a whisper, “It’s too much.”

Kyle and Sebastian turned to Johanna and saw that the woman was staring at Gabrielle with a slight frown of concern marking her features.

Gabrielle sighed, her eyes seeming to soften under the other woman’s gaze. “Yes, you’re right,” she agreed, retrieving the rings and placing them back in the drawer. “This is a lot to take in at once.” She leaned back in her seat. “Why don’t you take some time to think about it. Let it sink in. And we’ll talk again later?”

Sebastian nodded in agreement, then turned to Johanna. “I thought you didn’t talk.”

“You never asked,” the woman replied with a shrug.

“Gabe?” Kyle mumbled, his expression momentarily amused.

“Don’t call her that. Trust me.” Gerald advised, pushing himself away from the wall and turning as though to leave.

“Actually…” Sebastian called. “I need to ask for a favor.”

“Oh?” Gerald turned back around to stare at the boy. “And what might that be?”

“We left some things behind in Blackpond. Personal items.”

“How important are they?” Gabrielle asked.

“Important enough not to sell for food,” Kyle answered.

Gabrielle offered the boys paper and pen. “Make a list and write down directions. One of us will get it.”

Gerald shrugged. “I’ll go.”

Gabrielle nodded her agreement. “Alright.” She turned to the twins. “It’ll take Tucker four days to walk to Blackpond and come back. “How about we discuss this again once he returns? That should give us all enough time to think things through.”

Kyle took the pen and paper and wrote down a list of their belongings. With it, he sketched a little map alongside written directions to their last hiding place. “Hopefully, everything will be there,” he said, handing the paper to Gerald. “Either way, we appreciate it.”

Gerald nodded, taking the paper with a smile. “If it’s there, I’ll find it,” he assured, folding the paper in his hand and taking his leave. Johanna stood up and left after him without a word of warning. Kyle stood up as well, he waited for Sebastian but he didn’t follow, nodding at his brother to go on without him. Kyle hesitated but left the room as well.

Gabrielle leaned forward in her chair. “Anything else you need?” she asked.

“I have one more question for you if you don’t mind,” Sebastian mumbled.

The woman stared intently into his eyes for a moment before nodding. “Sure.”

“Why keep the rings?”

Gabrielle shifted her gaze to the closed drawer and, surprisingly, she smiled. “Because it hurts them. It hurts them more than death ever could.”

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