[Abandoned Outpost | Lithius 12 | Morning]
“Now I’ll concede that maybe Gerald is trying to kill us.”
Kyle chuckled at his twin’s remark, both of them almost keeled over with the weight of lumber slung across their backs. With the arrival of a new season, the warmer weather, and the permanent addition of two more members to the group, Gerald had decided that better accommodations were in order. It hadn’t really occurred to the twins that they had been occupying what appeared to be the only bedroom in the Outpost until the man stated there was no way in hell he would be permanently sleeping in a tent. Their guilt was short-lived because, of course, Gerald’s solution involved putting them to work between all their training exercises.
Time that had been previously spent in boredom or in the quiet solace of books was now filled with endless tasks and chores. And while at first the boys had uttered complaints about the workload, after a time the protests were kept up more for the sake of appearances. Twins only know what would happen if Gerald came to the conclusion he was going too easy on them.
The boys had stopped in a small space they helped Gerald clear of trees and brambles just a week prior. Only one lone tree remained in their construction site. Kyle had been excited at the prospect of a ‘tree house’ although Gerald corrected him, saying that it was a watch post. Despite the man’s lengthy speech about how it would provide excellent cover and visibility over the whole Outpost, Gerald’s annoyance was something even Gabrielle seemed to openly enjoy and, sadly for him, it resulted in the silent understanding that the watch post would only be referred to as ‘tree house’ from then on.
Sebastian dropped his pile of lumber by the base of the tree and took a deep breath. The weight suddenly lifted from his body left behind a satisfying ache in his muscles. One he was now starting to appreciate. On the other hand, Kyle wasn’t quite at the same level of appreciation when it came to the amount of hard work they were doing. Especially when the top of his lumber pile began to collapse. One of the smaller pieces of wood fell over and landed painfully on the tip of Kyle’s toes which, in turn, made him drop the rest of the pile and curse the heavens at the top of his lungs. “Shit! Fuck! Aaaah!”
Sebastian snorted, trying to hold back laughter. “Are you alright?”
“What do you think, asshole? My foot’s broken. Fucking hell.”
Kyle stiffened and immediately turned to stare at Gabrielle. The woman seeming to come out of nowhere right behind the twins. “I’m in pain, give me a break.”
“This was your last warning. If it happens again…” The woman shrugged.
“Yes, yes…” Kyle muttered, throwing his hands up and limping his way back to the towers. “I’m gonna go ask Jo to check if my foot is broken.”
“It’s not broken,” Gabrielle stated, watching as the boy hobbled past her.
“Leave him. He just wants to be coddled.” Sebastian chuckled, taking upon himself to organize the scattered lumber his brother dropped into a neat pile.
“Suppose that’s fair,” Gabrielle stated. “Has Tucker talked to you about tomorrow yet?”
“Tomorrow?” Sebastian finished organizing the pile and turned his full attention to Gabrielle.
“I’ll take that as a no,” she deadpanned. “Where is Tucker?”
Sebastian looked around for a moment. “He was here when we left to pick up the materials. I don’t know where he went.”
Gabrielle crossed her arms and turned her gaze upwards. Sebastian did the same and noticed a rustling in the tree above their heads. The woman drew her crossbow and without an ounce of hesitation aimed it at the branches.
“Porter, what are you…?”
The bolt was released from the weapon before Sebastian could finish the sentence. A moment of silence was immediately followed by an annoyed grunt and Gerald’s head emerged from the foliage. “How many times do I have to tell you? Use your words.”
“Just keeping you alert, Tucker.” Gabrielle shrugged.
Gerald disappeared amongst the tree branches with an audible scoff then proceeded to drop down, landing next to Sebastian with a soft thud. Gabrielle’s bolt in his hand. “What is it?”
“I was asking Rivers if he’s been informed of what we discussed last night.”
“Oh.” Gerald held the bolt out to Gabrielle and shrugged. “I was going to discuss it during lunch. I don’t think Jo knows yet either. Unless you talked to her.”
Gabrielle took the bolt from Gerald’s hand and nodded. “I haven’t told her either.” As she spoke, she detached the bolt dispenser from the lower section of the crossbow, placed the single bolt into the magazine and clicked it back into place. “I’m going to be heading out this evening and I need to prepare, so unless you want to handle that conversation by yourself, I suggest we do that now.”
“I’ll accept that suggestion.” Gerald wiped dirt from his hands and started to walk in the direction of the towers. “You know that if I try to do it by myself things will likely turn bad.”
Gabrielle snorted. “Yes, I know.”
Sebastian wasn’t sure he understood what was happening, but it seemed like he was about to be told. He held back his questions and followed the Hunters in silence. Upon reaching the towers they immediately spotted Johanna crouching in the center of what was previously empty frozen soil, now a promising flower patch. The woman’s hands and face were covered with a thin layer of dirt. A much thicker coating covering her bare feet.
“Were you rolling around in there, Johanna?” Gerald quipped.
Jo jumped to her feet, glanced at Gerald with a confused expression and then down at herself. She looked back to Gerald with a grin that made the man immediately back away a couple of steps. “Oh, no you don’t. Don’t you dare touch me with those filthy hands.”
Jo looked about ready to chase Gerald down but stopped when Gabrielle grabbed her by the shoulder. “Would you mind washing up and meeting us inside?”
Johanna’s entire demeanor changed immediately. She glanced up at Gabrielle, her expression starting out concerned, then setting into resignation as the woman nodded her along. She offered Sebastian a small smile and turned away, disappearing behind the Eastern tower. Sebastian watched her go, making note of the fact her tension seemed to escalate with every step.
Gabrielle and Gerald entered the kitchen without waiting for him. Sebastian lingered outside for a couple of minutes, trying to acclimate to the way everyone’s demeanor had shifted. Finally, he let out a calming breath and followed suit. The Hunters were sitting around the table, and Kyle was already occupying a third chair, busy with peeling potatoes. This left two vacant seats for him and Johanna to take.
The chairs had been a gradual change. The twins decided to get into the habit of sitting down for meals and, over time, the only two chairs in the kitchen were joined by three others. On occasion, Jo and Gerald would occupy theirs, but the fifth chair remained consistently empty until now. Gabrielle was only ever in the kitchen for small periods of time—usually for late night cups of tea—and preferred to have her meals alone in the office. Sebastian sat across from Kyle, watching with little interest while his twin continued to peel and cut potatoes. There was a strange silence in the air that he didn’t quite understand. Gerald’s hands were clutching the edge of the table as though he was bracing himself, Gabrielle was staring a metaphorical hole into the wooden surface, her hands had a visibly tight grip on her hat when she moved the object from her head to her lap. There was only one empty seat around the table now, waiting for Johanna’s arrival.
Kyle had finished with the potatoes by the time she entered the room. It was painfully clear she was stalling. It wouldn’t normally take her this long to wash up. As Jo occupied the fifth chair, the three Hunters were silent. The sense of unease seemed to escalate the more that silence lingered, until Gerald took it upon himself to break it.
“We need to talk about tomorrow,” he told her.
Johanna shook her head, raising from her seat in protest..
“Jo, sit down. Please.” Gabrielle intervened.
“I don’t agree,” Jo stated. She settled back into her chair at Gabrielle’s request, but her brown eyes shifted between her two companions as though she were accusing them of conspiracy.
“What are you guys talking about?” Kyle voiced the question Sebastian had been holding in. “I mean, I’m assuming this affects us if you’re arguing about it in our presence like this, but… Some context would be nice.”
“It’s very simple, boy,” Gerald answered. “I think it’s time we put some of your training into practice. Johanna begs to differ.”
Jo opened her mouth to protest, but Gabrielle silenced her with a gesture.
“The situation, Rivers, is that the three of us have errands we need to run elsewhere at this time. Tucker has business to attend in Newhaven, Johanna has been putting off a scheduled supply run for a week now, and I need to start delivering some of the weapons I’ve forged last month. That would leave us with two options: leave the two of you in the Outpost alone for two weeks to possibly a month, or…”
“I said I can wait.” Jo protested.
“It can’t wait, Jo. We shouldn’t delay supply runs and you’re a week late as is.” Gerald crossed his arms over his chest. “Either way, I think it’s time. There’s only so much I can teach them with punching bags and talking.”
Johanna snorted. “They should go with Gabe.”
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. “No.”
“Newhaven is far,” Jo argued.
“Yes, but Tucker is in charge of their training. It makes sense that they travel with him. Besides, you’ll be with them for most of the trip as well. There’s strength in numbers.”
Gabrielle’s argument was sound and Jo seemed particularly unhappy about that. “It makes us more vulnerable.”
“That’s true, but it’s a calculated risk.” Gerald shrugged. “Nothing needs to happen as long as we’re careful.”
Johanna heaved a sigh of defeat and shrugged. “If you decided.” She pressed her hands on the tabletop and pushed herself up, then scooped the potatoes Kyle had chopped into a bowl and turned away from the table to place them in a pot.
The twins stared at the woman as she started preparing lunch in a resigned silence, then turned to Gerald who looked like he’d been repeatedly slapped in the face.
Their acquired habit of using the kitchen table and Kyle’s constant presence helping Jo in the kitchen had commanded another change. Gerald added a wooden counter to the wall adjacent the stove. Jo never complained about the space they occupied when using the table—she adapted to her environment and carried on as though nothing had changed—but she was still happy when Gerald presented a solution. The downside of this for everyone else was that it made it easier for the woman to ignore them. She could keep her hands busy and her back turned to whoever else was in the room for as long as she wanted. Gerald really didn’t think that one through and he was beginning to realize that now.
Gabrielle was quick to break the silence when Gerald’s expression began to turn angry. “Tucker, why don’t you take these two and explain what they’ll be needing to bring for a trip to Newhaven?”
Gerald pushed his chair back with such force it slammed against the wall behind him. “Of course,” he muttered.
Kyle and Sebastian stood up immediately and followed Gerald out of the room without a word. As soon as they crossed the door, Sebastian could hear Gabrielle speak something to Jo, but her voice was too soft to make out any words.
“What was that all about?” Kyle mumbled, more to himself than anything. It caught Gerald’s ears, however, and the Hunter let out an aggravated snort.
Sebastian gave his brother a reprimanding glance as they climbed the stairs to the top of the tower. Gerald led them across the bridge, into the office, down to the armory and then down one more level. The eastern tower’s lack of a ground floor entrance was the result of structural issues. According to Gerald when they found the place he concluded that walling up the collapsed doorway would be safer than trying to recover it. The twins had never been in that room, but once Gerald lit a torch and placed it on the wall, the first thing they noticed was the frame of what used to be a door. The room itself was being used for equipment storage. It was full of all sorts of things lumped together in a disorganized mess. Some objects were stored in homemade shelves, but most were in heaps on the floor. A lot of it was what you’d expect; tools, bedrolls, travel bags, rope, other items the twins weren’t entirely sure what they were, even less their use.
With the same unease from before still permeating the air, Gerald instructed them on how to pack light for the trip; only a bedroll, a water bottle, and rations that would be provided later. He also told them to pack a change of clothes or two if they felt it necessary, but to not complain about the extra weight if they did. He stressed this point by giving Kyle a sharp glare. The boy huffed a little but didn’t say a word in protest. They discussed the trip more on their way out of the tower, Gerald didn’t say why he needed to go to Newhaven but told them they would be using this as an opportunity to learn more about the Wolfpack and put some of his teachings into practice. It was also important that they learned their way around the forest. The man was quiet, unlike his usual self, and the conversation never strayed from what was strictly necessary. When everything relevant to their trip had been said, Gerald told them they had the rest of the day to themselves and left. Based on the direction he was headed, Sebastian assumed he was starting construction on the tree house by himself.
[Abandoned Outpost | Lithius 12 | Evening]
The rest of the day carried a false sense of tranquility. The atmosphere in the Outpost made it the worst possible time to not have chores to do. It made the twins uneasy to just sit quietly. Kyle had tried to offer Jo more help in the kitchen or in the gardens, but the woman had turned him down. Likewise, Gerald didn’t want any help with the tree house, even though they had been helping earlier in the morning. After hours of fidgeting, Sebastian seemed to have accepted his fate and curled up with the book Gabrielle had given him. Kyle settled for practicing some of the knots he’d learned while hunting and trying to build a castle with some playing cards Gerald had let him keep.
Meal times had been equally unnerving. Jo sat with them, but her mood hadn’t improved. Not only had it not improved but it seemed to sour further when Gerald didn’t show up for food on any occasion that day. When Gabrielle came around for lunch, Jo pushed an extra bowl of stew on the woman with no further instructions. It seemed like this wasn’t a first-time occurrence as Gabrielle’s only response was an aggravated snort.
Gabrielle left to run her errands at sundown, however, and it was Kyle’s job to bring Gerald dinner. The man had set up his tent near the construction site and showed no signs of returning to the towers that night.
“I’m starting to think you’re hiding out here just to piss her off,” Kyle muttered, handing Gerald his bowl of reheated stew.
“I’m sure she thinks so too.” Gerald shrugged, sitting near the tent and fiddling with his spoon. “Word of advice, boy; if you anger a woman, walk away. Time heals and all of that.”
“Well, this is going to be a fun trip,” Kyle quipped.
Gerald chuckled. “If you were expecting this to be fun I might have been too light on your training.” The man ate a few spoonfuls and continued. “But then, you didn’t have to walk here like your brother, right?”
Kyle frowned. “You don’t have to keep bringing that up.”
“Oh, I feel that I do,” the man smirked.
Kyle shook his head, holding back another aggravated protest in favor of questioning the man further. “Okay, Tucker, really…What is going on with you and Jo?”
Gerald’s expression shut immediately. “We had a disagreement. Wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.”
Kyle shrugged. “I can see that. That’s not what I meant.”
Gerald ate some more, a deep frown marking his features as he finished his dinner. “When Jo brought me in; after Porter finally decided not to kill me in my sleep, and we actually became a group, we agreed that we wouldn’t make any decisions unless we could reach a consensus. If we didn’t all agree with it, it wouldn’t be done. Jo doesn’t agree with this for reasons that… Hmph… Bottom line, Porter and I decided that this time we’d have to decide without her.”
“I see, but…” Kyle bit his tongue for a moment but eventually decided to question a bit more. “Why does she seem to only be angry with you?”
“Because it’s easy.” Gerald shrugged at the confused look the boy was giving him. “Look, I don’t expect you to understand this now, but… Some things, coming from certain people, tend to sting a bit more. It’s just how it is.” He pushed his empty bowl into Kyle’s hands, ending the conversation.
“I see,” Kyle mumbled. “Well, I hope she gets over it soon.”
Gerald openly laughed at this. “Yes, one can hope. Either way, you might want to save your strength for the trip,” he snorted. “Go to sleep, boy.”
[Abandoned Outpost | Lithius 13 | Past Midnight]
Sebastian was awake. He hadn’t woken with a start like he would have some weeks ago, but he was feeling restless. Maybe it was the trip, maybe the overall strain they had all been suffering from the previous morning. Whatever the specific cause, he was wide awake and it was still dark out. Kyle’s snores were reverberating off the walls, his twin was out cold, as usual. Sebastian decided to defy better judgment and get out of bed. He found his boots in the dark and carefully walked outside and down the stairs to the base of the tower. He’d done it enough times by now that the path was memorized. He wouldn’t be surprised if he walked it in his sleep at some point.
The boy reached the ground outside, rubbing his tired eyes awake. Contrary to his expectations, it wasn’t pitch dark. There were lights and movement coming from inside the kitchen. Turning to face the doorway made Sebastian’s eyes sting from firelight. He squinted and inched into the room, calling out, “Jo?” Who else would be in the kitchen at that hour?
There was no verbal response, but the woman had clearly stopped what she was doing as the kitchen fell completely silent. Sebastian walked further into the kitchen and found one of the chairs. He sat down and took the time to let his eyes adjust before he said anything else. Jo had been watching him in silence but turned around once his eyes met hers, returning to whatever she had been doing. The light was coming from the stove. She was baking something. Of course she was. “Too worked up to sleep?” he mumbled.
Once again, there was a pause in her actions. Sebastian watched her hold very still and stare straight ahead at the wall. She was deciding on what to say or, even, whether to bother speaking. It was still a mystery to him; when, how, or why Jo decided to speak. Observing the woman for the past weeks hadn’t made it any clearer. The boy had noticed that the act of raising her voice seemed to require effort on Jo’s part sometimes. It could make communicating with her extremely difficult if she decided that expressing her thoughts wasn’t worth making that effort. If, say, she was angry, for instance.
True to that sentiment as always, Jo responded with a silent shrug, back still turned and continued with her baking.
Once again the woman paused her actions, her head shooting up as she silently awaited his next words.
“Could you… Can I have some tea, please?” Sebastian felt bad asking. He really should have learned to make his own tea by now. It didn’t look that difficult. Heck, Gerald could do it and the man couldn’t boil an egg.
Johanna didn’t speak, but filled up the tea kettle and put it on the stove.
Sebastian leaned against the table to wait. He’d been doing better at sleeping, but not all nights were good nights. This had led the boy to discover Gabrielle’s late night tea drinking habits. The first time he ran into the woman there he didn’t make much of it, but after the third or fourth time, it became apparent that, yes, she did it every night. After further encounters, Sebastian would come to the kitchen to find a cup waiting for him on the table across from her. He didn’t know how she knew he’d gotten up, but she always did somehow. It had become a constant that, right now, he was missing.
The kettle began to heave with steam and Johanna pulled it out of the fire. Seconds later, she turned around to face Sebastian for the first time since he’d entered the kitchen. She had a cup of tea in one hand and a muffin in the other. Sebastian couldn’t help but laugh when she placed them both on the table in front of him. “Are muffins your answer to everything?” he questioned.
Johanna stared at the muffin, then raised her eyes to meet his with a poorly concealed smirk. “‘T’s how I roll,” she answered, giving a casual shrug and returning to her previous activities.
Sebastian was halfway into taking a bite of the muffin when he stopped himself and stared down at the baked good in his hand. The boy shook his head, failing to withhold a surge of laughter. It wasn’t even that funny of a pun, but wordplay was definitely not something Seb had been expecting from someone who so often avoided words altogether. “Clever.”
Johanna let out a tiny snicker but otherwise didn’t respond. Sebastian chewed on his muffin and drank his tea in silence, watching the woman work as he did. It took him a while to realize what intense kitchen work Jo would need to be doing in the middle of the night, but then it hit him that getting to Newhaven would take them well over a week. “Rations?” he asked.
Jo nodded her confirmation. “Should’ve done it earlier. Forgot.”
“Do you need help?”
She shook her head. Of course not. “Back to sleep.”
“In a bit.” Sebastian knew that arguing would do him no good here. “Are you worried about the trip?”
Johanna didn’t answer right away. She finished what she was doing and put a tray of… something… in the oven. Then she moved to sit across from Sebastian. “Are you concerned?” she asked.
Sebastian smiled. “Tucker taught us that answering a question with another question is the easiest trick when you don’t want to give an answer.”
“Silence is easier. Gerry would know that.” Johanna raised an eyebrow as she spoke. “Know who you’re dealing with, Rivers.” Her tone was unusually serious and almost taunting. More like one Gabrielle would take.
Of the three Hunters, Johanna was the one Sebastian felt closest to now, but at the same time, the one he knew the least about. Moments like this only served to illustrate that fact. There was definitely something underneath the woman’s gentle nature. And she was right, of course, he shouldn’t play mind games when he didn’t know who he was dealing with. Gerald had told him that as well. “Should I be concerned? About the trip. You’re the one who knows what we’re doing, you sounded concerned.”
Johanna shook her head, her eyes softened for the first time since their little meeting the day before. “Always be concerned.” She gave a long pause and added. “But Gerry is right. Nothing bad will happen.”
“You suggested we go with Porter.” Sebastian pointed out. “I took that to mean you thought we’d be safer with her.”
Johanna frowned for a moment, her expression showing a hint of concern now. “No. I… Gabe is going west… The Plains. Not safe, but… Safer.” Jo mumbled the word ‘safer’ in a near-whisper. Her frown deepened for a moment and Sebastian was sure she realized at least part of Gerald’s frustration.
“You seemed pretty mad at Tucker, though.”
Sebastian knew he was pushing it now, but he couldn’t possibly make anything worse. He leaned back in his seat and watched Jo’s eyes turn cold. A small huff escaped through her nostrils, she crossed her arms in front of her chest and averted her eyes—an angered glare now piercing straight through the tabletop. “Never listens. Just brushed me off… Like I’m some…” She seemed to struggle for a little while with either finding the right word or bringing herself to say it. Finally, she stomped her foot and forcefully tapped her index and middle fingers against her right temple. It wasn’t hard to figure out.
“I’m sure Tucker doesn’t think you’re an idiot,” Sebastian answered.
“Acts like it.” Jo huffed, still glaring at the table.
Sebastian held back a smile. Surely, Gerald didn’t mean to do that, but the boy knew better than to try making that point while Jo was still so visibly angered. “Are you going to be traveling on no sleep? That can’t be good for you.”
The question seemed to take Jo’s mind off of her annoyance. “I wake Gerry then go to sleep.” She paused. “In thirty minutes or so.”
Sebastian fought back the urge to wonder how an angered Johanna would go about waking up the source of all her frustrations. He just nodded his understanding. “Okay. So long as you get your rest too.”
Jo smiled as if to say, ‘don’t worry about me’. That wasn’t happening. After all, she was always fussing over everyone else all the time. It was only fair. “I’ll check up on you when I wake up so you better not be tired.” he threatened.
Jo snorted at this, amusement growing on her face. “Good night, Rivers.”
[Valcrest Forest | Lithius 18th | Sundown]
Sebastian wasn’t sure how Johanna decided to wake Gerald for their trip, but he was sure it wasn’t pleasant. And he wasn’t sure how Gerald reacted, but he was sure it wasn’t pleasant either. He knew because what was awkward silence and tiptoeing one day had turned into full-blown hostility the next, with no signs of improvement over the course of their journey.
Gerald’s instructions had been simple leaving the Outpost; no talking, no stopping for any reason until they reached a safe location, and staying close at all times. Those rules apparently only applied to them, because the moment they entered the forest, Johanna disappeared. Gerald didn’t seem alarmed by this and the boys accepted it as normal Jo behavior.
For the first five days of travel, they weren’t allowed to set up a proper camp and only stopped for hour-long breaks every now and again. The twins tried to catch as much sleep as possible in those instances while Jo and Gerald took turns on lookout. In those five days, those instances were the only moments when the twins saw them interact. It was always silent and increasingly tense every time.
On the fifth night, Gerald stopped them in an enclosed area, not unlike the one he and Sebastian had occupied on their way to the Outpost all those weeks ago. There they were finally allowed to set up camp for a full night. On previous instances—when they had stopped to rest—Johanna had been waiting for them as though she had been tracking ahead the whole time. This time she didn’t show up until they were halfway into setting up a fire. They didn’t have tents to assemble; that’d be too much to carry, but stopping for the night and making a fire meant they could have a cooked meal. The moment Jo rejoined the group, Gerald announced that he was going to hunt, picked up his bow and quiver, and disappeared. Sebastian couldn’t tell if she looked more angered or hurt by this, but one thing for sure; it didn’t make anything better.
When Gerald came back with two dead rabbits, Jo immediately took them off his hands and disappeared into the woods with them. He snorted, muttered that he was going to check the perimeter and went off in the opposite direction. The moment they were both out of sight, Kyle let out a frustrated grunt. “Someone needs to say something.”
“Kyle, no. Leave it.” Sebastian warned as he put down his bedroll. His voice was hoarse from disuse. He wondered if that’s why Jo mumbled so much. “Whatever is going on with those two, confrontation won’t make it any better.”
“We’re, what, five more days away from Newhaven? Do you really want to put up with this for that long?” Kyle’s tone was exceeding normal human levels of exasperation at this point.
“We don’t have a choice. This is clearly about more than some disagreement over this trip.” Sebastian glared at his brother. “And we don’t want to get involved in whatever it is. Let it go.”
“They’re being so stupid, Seb!”
Sebastian chuckled at his brother. Not that he didn’t share his frustration; he most definitely did, but he had resigned himself to fate at this point. Nothing they could say or do was going to help the situation. “They’ll work it out eventually. I doubt this is their first fight in three or so years.”
Kyle gasped in aggravation, unraveling his bedroll with exaggerated force and raising a small cloud of dirt as he dropped it on the ground.
“You want to know what else?” Sebastian asked, smirking. “We’re actually about six or seven days away from Newhaven. That if we keep the same pace starting tomorrow.”
Kyle groaned loudly at this. “How do you even know where we are?”
Sebastian sighed softly at the question. “I paid attention when Gerald was going over the map with us at the Outpost.”
Kyle gave his brother a little snort in response to his tone. “So did I. Excuse me if I don’t remember everything after five days of meandering through the trees.”
Sebastian’s initial laugh echoed a bit too loudly and he was forced to hide his face in his hands until it subsided. “Alright, alright. That’s fair. I’m not going to say this hasn’t been horribly disorienting. I agree.”
Kyle shrugged. “I’ll ask him if I can see it again. After all, we’re supposed to learn to navigate, right?”
Sebastian nodded his agreement. “Might be a good idea, yes.”
The quiet mumble behind their backs caused them to simultaneously turn around. Johanna was back, both rabbits now skinned and ready to be skewered. Kyle offered her a smile as he answered. “Looking over the map again.”
She returned the smile. “Might be.”
Only a few seconds later, Gerald returned. He offered them a mumbled ‘all clear’ and dropped a bundle of herbs near the fire, which the boys assumed were meant for cooking. Johanna had crouched by lit fire, impaling one of the rabbits on a makeshift skewer, and lifted her head at the movement. Her eyes landed on the bundle of herbs then trailed after Gerald, who was already walking away. There was a small crease in her forehead and she motioned with her hand towards the herbs, her fingertips just lightly brushing them before she pulled it back. Gerald pretended not to notice this and busied himself with unstringing his bow.
Kyle waited until Gerald put away the weapon before approaching him. “Hey, Tucker. I was wondering if we could go over the map again.”
Gerald looked up and then nodded to the spot beside him on the ground. “Sure.”
Kyle sat down in the indicated spot and Sebastian sat next to him to watch as well. Gerald pulled the map from his pack and opened it on his lap. There were no markings on the map, other than landmarks, like the Cities, some villages, the White Shadows camp in the plains and other widely known locations. Gerald had pointed out to them in the Outpost where they would stop for the night and where the safe house they would be occupying was before they left, but those weren’t marked on the map. They’d need to memorize those locations. And the paths to reach them. The Outpost itself wasn’t on the map and the first thing Gerald asked was: “Can either of you point out to me where we started this trip?”
Sebastian casually pointed his finger to a spot just south of Blackpond. It was off by a bit and Gerald pushed his finger to the right location.
“Alright, where do you think we are now, then?”
Again, Sebastian pointed it out.
“That’s correct. Well done.” He put his own finger on the spot Sebastian had indicated, tracing a path along the depths of the forest, away from the roads, to another spot not far from Newhaven. “And this is our destination.” He gave the spot a small tap. “It’s a little cabin that’s been swallowed by the forest. It’s hard to locate and hard to reach, which is why it’s perfect for us.”
“It’s crap,” Johanna mumbled.
“Yes, but it’s safe crap.” Gerald retorted. His tone was neutral but caused the woman to shrug and disengage from the conversation again. This put a small frown on his expression, but he went on as though it hadn’t happened. “What you need to understand is that the Wolfpack has its base somewhere deep in the forest. They’re protective of their territory and that means they watch the roads at all times and have eyes and ears all over the forest. “
“That’s… Why we weren’t allowed to talk on the way here?”
“Exactly, yes.” Gerald’s expression turned serious as the topic of conversation changed to the Wolfpack. “You can’t actually avoid the bastards, we probably crossed paths with several of them so far, in fact, So it’s important to lay low as much as possible. The forest is vast and dense, though. Too much for even them to be able to fully monitor. So there are blind spots. Like this one.” He gestured at the small clearing around them. “It’s important to always search your perimeter before actually settling in one of these places because they won’t continue to be safe forever, but they are the closest thing to safe as you can get.”
“The Outpost is two huge towers. How is it a ‘blind spot’?” Kyle asked.
“It was built that way. A lot of military outposts are built in hard to reach or hard to find areas. You don’t want them captured or destroyed by enemy forces.”
Sebastian was looking at the map as they talked, trying to identify places Gerald had shown them before but raised his head at this. “How did you find it?”
Gerald looked past Kyle to stare at Sebastian. “I was looking for safe areas to make a stationary camp. Places that are hard to reach and hard to find. I came across it by accident.” Before Sebastian had the chance to ask anything further he nodded and added. “Yes, there is a possibility that someone else may accidentally come across it again. That’s why one of us needs to stand guard at night.”
Kyle stared at him for a long moment then said, “there’s no one there now.”
Gerald responded to his statement with a simple nod. “I’m aware, And ideally this wouldn’t be the case but we all have things right now that couldn’t be delayed any further.”
The words carried a small edge and one glance at Johanna made very clear that she’d noticed it. Kyle furrowed his brows at Sebastian as if to say ‘are you seeing this?’ and Sebastian shrugged in response. A blind person could have seen that. Not so visible was the way Jo flinched, how she parted her lips as though she was about to say something only to give up with a tired sigh, how her gaze softened into something deep and incomprehensible for a split second before returning to impenetrable stone. If Gerald noticed he pretended not to.
“What are we even doing in Newhaven?” Kyle’s question broke the silence, and at least some of the renewed tension.
Gerald met his eyes for a second before answering. “I have something I need to do that involves being there by a certain date. That’s all you need to know.”
Kyle was clearly a bit off-put by this information. “Wait, how much time do we have to get there, then?”
Gerald smiled at this, it’s wasn’t a very good omen. “Four days. So I suggest the two of you eat and get your rest in.”
Kyle’s only response was hiding his face in his hands and letting out a pained growl.
[Safe House West of Newhaven | Lithius 21st | Daybreak]
The three days that followed their little rest stop were a blur. An exhausting, silent, pain-filled blur. If either had any energy left they would have complained, but by the time they arrived at their next destination all they managed were exhausted grunts. The ‘safe house’, as Gerald called it, was more the size of a shed. The only furniture was a small table, two chairs and a two-seater sofa that looked extremely uncomfortable. The floor space was just enough for their bedrolls, though, and upon arriving, all the twins could think to do was set them down and sleep. Gerald had other plans.
“I know you’re both exhausted right now, but there’s one thing you need to do before you can get any sleep.”
Kyle snorted. “Come on, Tucker. We’re dead already. Why do you need to beat up our corpses?”
“You’re alive enough to complain aren’t you?” The Hunter’s response was equally exhausted and his tone made clear that any further complaints wouldn’t be treated with the same leniency. “There’s a pond a little ways from here. Go wash up.” He then turned to Johanna and his tone softened just a bit. “Will you show them where it is, please?”
The twins froze in place immediately. It was the first time since the Outpost that Gerald had actually talked to Jo directly. Her reaction was… Inconclusive. She looked at him for a very long moment and her expression was so unreadable it made Gabrielle look emotional. Then she nodded in agreement and started leading the way out the door. Maybe that was some form of progress, but it was hard to tell.
The pond wasn’t very far. It might have felt like another hour, but in reality, it only took them a few minutes to reach it. Day was just breaking. The rays of sunlight which reflected off the surface of the water were scarce and pale. The morning breeze still held the same damp chill it did the previous night; it clung to their noses with a stale scent. A dip into possibly freezing water wasn’t an appealing thought, but they had been traveling for a week without a proper wash or a change of clothes. And one thing they hadn’t forgotten from their time on the streets was that beggars can’t be choosers.
Kyle hated cold, and his miserable expression stared back at him, reflected on the surface of the pond. Sebastian, on the other hand, immediately stripped off his clothes and jumped in, letting out a small yelp at the temperature shock. That reaction didn’t seem to motivate Kyle to follow suit. At all.
“The sooner you get in the sooner you can get out.”
He turned around to look at Johanna. The woman was leaning against a tree, her back turned to the pond, stare fixed on the narrow path they’d taken to reach it. He couldn’t make out her expression from that angle, but her posture was only halfway relaxed. And on her hand, barely visible under crossed arms, a small blade peeked out between her fingers. It was weird to think about, but Kyle had seen Jo wield knives a thousand times. It never occurred to him before she could use them as weapons. Unlike the other two Hunters, she didn’t give off that impression. Not usually. Right now, the way she was watching the trail, on guard, she was almost someone else entirely. It only stressed the fact that even in a ‘safe’ spot, they weren’t entirely safe.
“Are you going to stand there all day? It’s really not that bad.”
Kyle turned back towards the pond and groaned at his brother. “Yeah, yeah… I’m going.” He shrugged off the bag he had slung over his shoulder and stripped his clothes. Jumping into the water felt like being assaulted by tiny pins and needles and he let out a loud groan at the invading cold. “Shit. Shit. Fuck. Shit.”
Sebastian laughed at his string of curses. “I’m telling Porter when we get back.”
“Shut up. Ugh.” Kyle glared at his twin. “You said it wasn’t that bad.”
That prompted another laugh. “Your body will get used to it. Just give it a minute.”
Kyle huffed in response to his brother’s laughter, but stopped complaining and tried to get his body to relax into the change of temperature. It took, as Sebastian claimed, about a full minute, but the sensation of tiny knives piercing his lungs eventually eased. In truth, the cold did serve the purpose of dulling some of the aches in his muscles; as much as he hated it, and he did feel cleaner.
There wasn’t much talking after that. They weren’t there to play around in the water and enjoy what was probably shaping up to be a pleasantly warm spring day. Wasting time here meant less time for sleep. Sleep was precious. So they washed up a week’s worth of filth as efficiently as possible. Sebastian jumped out the moment he was done. Kyle was reluctant.
Sebastian snorted while tying the laces on his pants. “You’re gonna live in there now?” His tone wasn’t as mocking as before, just inquisitive. If anything, he knew when to take Kyle’s complaining more seriously.
“Of course not.” The response is muttered and he makes no actual effort to move.
“You haven’t moved since you last said you were ‘going’.”
“Let him take his time.”
Sebastian glanced at Johanna. If he didn’t know better he’d think he imagined her voice because she was still watching the path, unmoving. “I’ll start heading back then, I suppose.”
This prompted a nod and he took it as confirmation that heading back to the safe house alone would be okay. Kyle made no objection to being left alone with Johanna either, so Sebastian nodded as well and walked back the way they came. When he entered the house, Gerald was lying on the two-seater sofa with a book in his hands; his neck bent in an uncomfortable position and legs sticking out over one of the arm rests. He didn’t take his eyes off the pages as he spoke. “There’s food on the table. Where’s the other two?”
Sebastian glanced at the table and spotted a meal of jerky and dried fruit waiting He wasn’t particularly fond of either but didn’t hesitate to sit and eat up anyway. “Kyle doesn’t want to get out. Jo’s babysitting him.”
Gerald sat up to look at him. “Why?”
Sebastian shrugged. “He gets cold really easy. Been that way since his awakening. Sleeping in abandoned buildings for months didn’t help matters.”
Gerald frowned at this information. “Hm. His body temperature must be higher than normal because of his pyrokinesis.”
Sebastian paused halfway into tearing into a piece of rabbit jerky. “Is that… Normal?”
Gerald hesitated for a moment, then shrugged. “For someone with his enlightenment, probably. He looks healthy and I’m sure if he was feeling unwell he would have said something.”
Sebastian snorted, biting into the leathery dried meat. That was true. If anything, his brother was very vocal about not feeling well.
“Eat and try to get some sleep. We still have some ground to cover tomorrow.”
“How far from Newhaven are we now?”
“About five hours on foot, but there’s a village nearby. That’s where Johanna’s headed. We can borrow horses there and that will cut our travel time.” Gerald laid back down and turned his attention to his book once again. “If we leave close to sunrise, we’ll be in the city in time to grab lunch at the Inn.”
“Hm,” Sebastian mumbled over a mouthful of fruit, the prospect of having actual food again distracting him from that implication for quite some time until it finally hit him. “Wait, did you say…?”
“Like the one in Blackpond?”
“Haven’t we been trying to avoid the Wolfpack all this time!?”
Gerald snorted, amusement clear in his tone. “As much as you try to avoid rabbits when you hunt them, boy. You just don’t want them seeing you before you see them.”
“Rabbits and expertly trained assassins… Are not the same thing.”
“It’s good that you understand that.” The Hunter smiled, glancing at him a bit awkwardly from his position. “It’s just an Inn. They make good stew. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“Kyle won’t enjoy hearing about this.”
Gerald sighed softly, going back to his book. “Least of my worries. I haven’t told Johanna either.”
The sound of the opening door followed his statement. “Haven’t told me what?”