[White Shadows Encampment | Lithius 21st | Early morning]
Gabrielle inhaled deeply. Every step from her heavy boots brought forth the earthy scent of freshly trampled grass. Her steely gaze traveled the multitudes of white tents spreading across the vast fields; ornamented by broken stone walls and ruined buildings. What was once the great city of Blackhurst, now a campground of neatly rowed tents which spread as far as the eye could see. White-gowned people marched in and out. Traversing the encampment could leave anyone in a constant state of deja vu—every tent, and every row of tents, looked exactly the same—yet the healers never seemed to waver in their stride or lose their sense of direction. Like worker ants, they walked the narrow paths of the encampment in a steady pace; dutiful and filled with purpose.
“Greetings, Miss. I’m sorry, but if you wish to enter, I must ask you to disarm.”
She stared down at the timid looking gentleman clad in white robes, her expression neutral as she nodded in agreement. The healers were amusing folk. Most were soft spoken, overly polite even, pacifists. They couldn’t physically force anyone to disarm, or even prevent anyone from entering their territory if they wished. Yet, when a White Shadow asked a hardened killer to disarm, they did so. Harming a healer in Valcrest would be easy, but it would also earn you the wrath of both cities and every unnamed village in between. It was a strange kind of power to wield, in Gabrielle’s opinion. An immunity to the violence that plagued this land for as long as anyone could remember. The sort of ‘untouchable’ status that Blackhurst itself, with all its good intentions; or perhaps because of them, could never have achieved. Gabrielle herself wouldn’t have crossed the white flags that marked the limits of the camp without being explicitly allowed to do so. And those who knew her well enough could attest, there were few acts in this world she wouldn’t dare commit.
The White Shadow stood quiet and observed as, one by one, Gabrielle drew and surrendered her blades.By the time she was about through, a small pile adorned the man’s arms. Yet, he patiently smiled. “The crossbow, miss?”
Gabrielle unsheathed the weapon and with a loud click disengaged the compartment holding all but one of the bolts. Then she disarmed the mechanism and removed the last remaining bolt from the weapon. She handed this over and once again sheathed the empty crossbow across her back. “This stays with me, if you don’t mind.” Her tone was void of any aggression, but wasn’t open for discussion either.
“Very well, miss.” His smile never wavered as he carefully stored the weapons for her to retrieve later. “May I ask what ails you?”
“Nothing, I would like to speak to Jon Witters, if he could spare the time.”
His smile lingered for an uncomfortable moment until it finally slipped into something close to genuine concern. People didn’t ask for the leader of the clan unless they had something dire to discuss. “May I ask what is the nature of your visit?”
Her expression was unchanged as she answered. “Personal.”
“I see. If I may ask, miss, how urgent is the matter?”
“Potentially urgent.” She pressed the point with: “Please inform him that I may not be able to return another day.”
“Of course.” He was giving her a more scrutinizing look now underneath all the mild manners. “May I have your name, miss?”
“Porter. Gabrielle Porter.”
The healer nodded politely at her introduction. “Please feel free to roam, miss Porter. I’ll inform Witters of your presence. And of your request.”
Gabrielle nodded, watching the man turn on his heels and make way to the center of the camp. His pace was hurried and a tad irritated. If it was due to her refusal to provide him with answers, it caused her no remorse. She respected the White Shadows, but wearing a robe didn’t excuse intrusiveness in her eyes.
The invitation to roam the camp didn’t encourage her to move far from where the healer had left her. Only her eyes followed the movements of perpetually busy healers, their white robes almost blending in with the white canvased background. Even before entering the camp proper it was possible to smell herbal tea, wild flowers, and cooked vegetables. Not a bad combination of scents to take in with your last breaths. She wondered if it was deliberate. Somewhere in that camp someone was crying, bleeding out, agonizing… but from where she stood now everything looked utterly clean and undisturbed. She couldn’t decide if that was thoughtful, hypocritical, or some strange combination of both.
The leader of the White Shadows was a respected figure, but he was no king. Requesting an audience was as simple as saying so. Being granted the man’s time was rare only because he rarely had time to spare. If the matter was pressing enough and you were a familiar face, your odds improved considerably. Gabrielle had met the man a total of four times—once in passing—and while her matter could become urgent, she wouldn’t call it so in this instance. So when she saw him walking towards her, the only conclusion was that this must have been a very slow day for the healers. That, or the man was curious enough to personally question his summoning. Either way, his motives were inconsequential.
Jon Witters was as tall as Gabrielle, if not taller. His dark brown hair grayed from age, long to his shoulders and bound in a ponytail. The man’s robes were impeccable aside from grass stains along the hem. He smiled at her, a pleasant smile that reached his eyes. “Ah. It’s been a long time since I’ve last seen you, child. What brings you?”
Gabrielle didn’t return the smile, but her posture relaxed by a small fraction at the greeting. “I need some guidance on a matter, Witters, if you can spare the time to talk. I understand you’re a busy man.”
“I’ve been informed this is, what was it, ‘potentially urgent’?” The humorous note in his tone was discreet, but there nonetheless.
Gabrielle noted the man’s amusement, but chose not to address it. “Yes. As it is, nothing bad has happened, but the potential exists and I’m not too proud to admit when I lack the knowledge and expertise to handle a situation. However, I would very much appreciate it if this matter stayed private.”
“I see.” The man’s eyes turned from kind and amused to scrutinizing in a heartbeat. His tone pleasant, still, but serious. “The gardens are lovely this time of year. Why don’t we take a walk?”
Gabrielle nodded her agreement and began to walk, idle hands digging into the pockets of her coat, shoulders slouched from the weight of her empty crossbow. She cast her gaze on the path leading away from the main encampment and into the fields of wild flowers encompassing the ruins.
The gardens were open, but distant from all activities in the camp. Usually empty, save for an apprentice or two tasked with procuring medicinal components. The walk there was filled by calm silence. Neither feeling the need to engage in idle chatter.
“So,” Witters began, once they found themselves walking a path that crossed the very center of the flower fields. “What is this potentially urgent situation of yours?”
“To put it simply… A kid.”
“Oh? I’d think you’d be old enough by now to know your precautions, Porter.” Again, a thin layer of amusement coated his words.
Gabrielle snorted. “First of all, I am. Second of all, as much of a predicament as that would be, I’m certain I could handle it without your intervention. No. The kid I’m talking about is about thirteen years old. Tucker picked him and his brother up in Blackpond. Ill-advised, I know, but the situation didn’t give him much choice.”
They had stopped walking now. The flowers surrounding the footpath emanating an almost overwhelmingly sweet fragrance into the air. Gabrielle allowed herself a faint grimace as she answered the question. “The boy was intoxicated. Ranting and raving. And about to set fire to the Wolves’ little den in the city. Tucker intervened and brought him to us. With the amount he drank he recovered rather quickly.”
Witters kept his eyes on hers as she spoke, no detail escaped him and his face turned severe. “Are you saying this boy is pyrokinetic?”
Gabrielle nodded agreement. “He seems very controlled. We had barely any incidents since…”
The man cut her off by raising his hand. “How long have you had this child with you?”
She made no objection to being interrupted and gave the healer a tired shrug. “Since late Lacus.”
“You’ve had a potentially catastrophic situation on your hands for over three months and only now you think to call on us?” Witters’ tone remained calm, but the aggravation underneath was bitteringly palpable.
“I’ve thought about it sooner, Witters, but you’re not exactly within strolling distance, are you?”
“Don’t be insolent, girl.” He openly frowned now. “As abundant as magic is in Valcrest, some things are still too uncontrollable and dangerous to be taken this lightly. If not you, I’d expect at least Gerald to comprehend that. He should have brought the boy straight to us.”
Gabrielle frowned a little herself at that statement. “Tucker had no choice but to intervene and as I said; it was too far of a journey to make with an unconscious teenager slung over his shoulder, old man. We’re not idiots. We understand the severity of this situation.”
“But…?” Witters’ tone had veered right back to tranquil in the span of a heartbeat. “Because I assume, seeing as this child is not currently in your company, that you don’t intend to rectify this now.”
“If by ‘rectify’ you mean hand him over to you, then no. Absolutely not.”
The healer shook his head slowly, though his frown was accompanied by a saddened smile. “If your father could see you today.”
Gabrielle’s expression shut and what little was soft in her eyes turned to unyielding steel. “Don’t.”
“I remember you telling me, first time we actually spoke, that you had no intention to drag anyone else down this road with you. And now, every time you show up here, there’s someone new trailing right behind you.”
“I’m not the only one whose life those people have wrecked, Witters.” Her tone is cold. “Need I remind you what Johanna looked like when I brought her to you five years ago?”
“No. Of course not.” The man’s tone was torn between pitying and severe. “And do you recall the conversation we had that day? And again once she left this camp with you?”
Gabrielle flinched at the reminder, averting her gaze and running a shaky hand over her eyes. “Yes. Clearly that situation was also beyond the best of my abilities.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. That girl is no doubt better today than she was the day she left here. The same can be said for Gerald. Though it pains me to admit, it’s unlikely they would have healed with us otherwise. I understand what the three of you found in each other; destructive as it can inevitably become to those around you.”
Gabrielle scoffed at that affirmation. “I’ll never understand your insistence in sheltering those Wolves.”
Witters responded with a weary sigh. “We shelter all who seek, Miss Porter. You shouldn’t be so critical of a practice you’ve benefited from so extensively yourself.”
Gabrielle shook her head slowly, the shadow of a smile crossing her expression. “If I thought I could crack you, old man, I would have. You know that.”
The statement was more than enough to elicit a chuckle from the healer. “Yes, girl, I’m aware.” The silence that followed was heavy. “If you don’t intend to leave this boy in our care, as I would advise, what sort of help would you like from me?”
Gabrielle observed the countless flowers swaying in the breeze, sprouting from the ground in a disorganized mess of colors, her expression thoughtful. “Tucker has enough understanding of how enlightenment works to know that a pyrokinetic this young should be far from manageable. Should be. However… aside from what he witnessed in Blackpond, incidents have been minor and few and far between. He’s reined himself in, without any form of guidance, remarkably well, but… not indefinitely. And what understanding we do have is insufficient.”
“You want me to explain to you what I know of pyrokinesis so you can properly train this boy for yourself.” Witters’ eyes were piercing. “To what end?”
“For his own safety. What you’re implying, old man, is not how I operate.”
“I’m glad to hear it. For this boy’s sake as well as yours.” The expression on Witters’ face was that of a soldier resigned to fighting a losing battle. “I’ll grant you access to what little we have in our archives. It’s about all I can offer if this is how you choose to proceed.”
Gabrielle could see and understand the healer’s frustration, but was far from moved. Her mind was already made up. And she wouldn’t be swayed. “I would appreciate that.”
[City of Newhaven | Lithius 22nd | Midday]
Gerald had been quiet since they’d gotten up that morning, speaking only the bare minimum to get them to do what was needed. When they stopped by the village to borrow the horses he made them wait by the stables as he went inside. He came out minutes later with his face shaved clean and hair trimmed. The clothes he wore under his cloak were black and white instead of the usual dark green and brown fit to blend with the forest. Even the boots he now had on were spotless black leather as opposed to the worn brown ones he left the Outpost with. It made him look more like a respectable young man and less like someone who habitually perched on rooftops in the dead of night. Johanna’s lack of reaction to this implied the change to be a normal part of their excursion.
After that, they rode in silence. It was the twins’ first time on horseback and immediately Kyle decided he didn’t like it. Maybe the existing aches on his body made it more uncomfortable, but he’d still rather walk his way back to the Outpost than ride for any extent of time. The only silver lining was that it made the remaining trip to the city go by a lot faster. Before Kyle could muster a complaint at the fact his ass was starting to go numb, the sight of the city walls coming into view held him silent.
The walls surrounding the city of Newhaven were intimidating in a way their counterpart in Blackpond could never accomplish. Not only did they loom over them as they approached, but they were so impeccable it implied invulnerability. Its surface unmarred, smooth, and clean. Kyle couldn’t help feeling a stab of pity for whoever was tasked with regularly scrubbing those walls spotless. Surely they were underpaid.
The city gates were made of heavy iron and looked as if they would need the combined strength of several men to open and close by hand. They also looked old, not worn, but old, rugged, and unpolished. While Gerald stopped to converse with the guards posted at the entrance, Kyle examined the structure with a soft snort. For all he heard of Newhaven, he almost expected it to be made of solid gold. When he turned around to face his brother. Sebastian was also examining the gate with a curious look. “What?”
Sebastian snorted and turned to face him, readjusting in his saddle as he did. “Of the five cities created by the Twins. Newhaven was the first. I read about it in one of the books in Porter’s office. That door looks like it’s been there just about that long.”
Kyle shook his head. “I can’t believe you actually read up on it.”
Sebastian shrugged. “Not like we have much else to do with our free time.”
Kyle couldn’t quite argue with that. Granted, he spent most of his time wandering about, but he’d run out of places to explore before Sebastian ran out of books to read.
Gerald was still talking to the guard by the time the twins were done looking around. The man was questioning him and looking over papers Gerald had provided for him to inspect. Finally, the guard returned them with a solemn nod. “Welcome home, sir. Enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you. Have a nice day.” Gerald’s tone was polite but tired as he stored the papers back in his travel bag and motioned for the twins to follow.
Kyle spurred his horse forward, the animal responding with a soft snort as it strolled forward past the gates. “Why did that take so long?”
Gerald waited for their horses to catch up to him before answering. “Getting into Newhaven through proper means is a bit of a hassle. I’m a citizen, so it’s usually easier for me, but the two of you are not.”
Sebastian snorted in response. “You had to vouch for us or something?”
Kyle frowned, shifting in his saddle to try and ease his discomfort. “Are non-citizens not allowed in then?”
“They are, but they still need to identify themselves at the gate and state their business. And the guards usually keep more of an eye on them. Which is why it’s handy to have papers.”
“Huh.” Sebastian hummed. “Is that why you’re dressed all nice and proper there, ‘sir’?”
“Yes and no. I have to go someplace later tonight. And I hope the two of you memorized the paths well getting here because you won’t be joining me.”
This caused Kyle to flinch slightly. “Wait, what?”
“I’ll expect you to be able to go back to the village by yourselves later. Can you do that?”
Sebastian nodded. “I memorized the paths. It should be fine.”
“Are you sure, boy? Johanna will carve out my liver if you’re not there by sundown.”
Sebastian chuckled softly. “I’m sure, yes.”
Kyle was far from convinced. “Seb, are you really sure about this?”
Sebastian brushed off his concern with a small wave. “I got this. Don’t worry.”
Gerald shook his head in amusement, leading the way along the inside of the walls. “I’m confident you’ll make it.”
Kyle grumbled under his breath. “I’m not,”
Gerald led them to the public stables and they dismounted their horses, much to Kyle`s relief. Sebastian seemed equally stiff as he dismounted, though he hadn’t sworn off horses forever just yet. This part of town wasn’t all that populated and not having anyone around apparently motivated him to finally voice a few questions. “So, Tucker… Why did the people in that village think you and Jo are married?”
Gerald shot him a glance, his expression both amused and aggravated. “You step foot in Newhaven for the first time, after two weeks of travel, and that’s your first question?”
Sebastian shrugged. “It’s the weirdest thing I’ve seen since we left the Outpost.”
Gerald shook his head, amusement seeming to win the battle there. “We each have connections, you can say, from before we got into this. I have people who know me here in the City. Jo has people who knew her as well. Gabrielle has people who know her as a blacksmith and other work she’s done before. And we, for the most part, keep those things separate, yeah? I don’t show up to make Gabrielle’s deliveries. Jo doesn’t meet with my contacts in the Guard. So on so forth.”
Kyle hummed thoughtfully. “So the people in that village are Jo’s connection in some way? That’s why she needs to be the one to trade with them?”
“Yes. They weren’t supposed to know me, but… Some time ago we ran into some trouble nearby. I was injured and we were out of supplies. When Jo brought me in they just assumed.”
Sebastian smirked. “Well, you do argue like you’re married. I can see how they’d think that.”
The look Gerald gave him let the boy know he would probably pay for the remark later, but Sebastian didn’t really seem too fazed by it. Kyle shook his head at his brother, self-preservation demanding he keep his own amusement in check. “If they weren’t even supposed to know you, how did she explain us all of a sudden?”
Gerald shrugged. “I don’t really know. I don’t even know how she knows those people. I never asked.”
Kyle hummed, frowning. “Right. We don’t ask questions.”
Gerald stopped them before they reached the city proper, nodding a greeting at a couple of guards who walked past on patrol, lowering his voice even after the men had already walked out of hearing range. “Listen, we’re going into the Inn for a meal and then we’re going to walk around the city for a few hours. I want the two of you to pay attention to your surroundings at all times and try to act as casual as possible. The few people who know me here think of me as a former Knight-in-the-making and as far as anyone knows, I’m a mercenary now. I picked you both up for training, that’s it. As a general rule, don’t talk unless spoken to, don’t answer any personal questions if you can avoid it, and don’t lie if you do have to answer. Vague truths will get you by better than making up stories. Do you both get that?”
The boys nodded agreement.
Gerald gave them an inspecting glance, then nodded as well. “Not everyone at the Inn are Wolves, but there will be Wolves there. By the time we leave, I want you to tell me how many there were. And keep one thing in mind: everything anyone says, especially about themselves, is most likely a lie. Including their names.”
“Wait…” Kyle groaned, rubbing between his eyes as he tried to process the information. “Do we have to lie about our names?”
“What did I just say about lying?”
“Not to do it?” The answer had clearly done nothing to ease the boy’s confusion. “But… Isn’t it dangerous to tell them our names?”
“Why would it be? You’re just a mercenary apprentice. What could you possibly have to hide?”
Kyle hummed. “I guess that makes sense, except… We’re not. Wouldn’t they be able to recognize us?”
Gerald smiled at the question and resumed walking towards the main streets of Newhaven. “Maybe, Rivers. Good thing the dead can’t speak, isn’t it?”
[White Shadows Encampment | Lithius 22nd | Midday]
“You have been going over these files for a full day now. Care to tell me what you’ve learned?” Jon Witters’ voice resonated softly in the candlelit room. Aside from bookshelves and piles upon piles of scrolls, the White Shadows’ archives were bare.
Gabrielle had spent the past day cornered on the floor, surrounded by dusty parchments and slouched over heavy leather-bound tomes. She straightened herself with a soft groan at the interruption, blurry eyes seeking out the man’s silhouette in the dim candlelight as she muttered a response. “Being enlightened is deeply unpleasant.”
“Is that honestly all you’ve learned after a day of reading? I could have just told you that and spared you the trouble, girl.”
Gabrielle’s eyes finally obeyed and focused on the man. “You could spare me the funny remarks, old man.”
“I could. It doesn’t mean I will.” Witters smiled down at her and cleared a spot on the floor to sit, settling down beside her with a tired grunt. “As I’m sure you’ve learned, pyrokinetic enlightenments if left unchecked can lead to some disastrous results.”
“Yes. And that doesn’t quite explain how a thirteen-year-old is able to exert this level of control, if that’s the case.”
“There isn’t a lot of research currently being conducted on how certain magical abilities actually work. It takes time and resources beyond our means to conduct the type of experimentation necessary. Not to mention that test subjects would be needed and not many would be willing to subject to something like this. As you may have noticed, however,” Witters said, pulling one of the smallest leather bound books, “there are theories on the subject.”
“I’ve looked at that, yes.”
“Mhm. I imagined the author’s name would catch your eye. Marshall was a brilliant man. I always imagined he would end up leading the White Shadows when our master died.” Witters turned the book in his hands with a soft smile. “Doesn’t Gerald ever speak of him?”
Gabrielle shook her head. “We speak as little as possible of the past. Not much of a point to it, is there?”
Witters offered the book to her with a look that is almost pitying. “Around here we have a saying.”
Gabrielle shook her head, but accepted the offered book without protest. “You have a lot of sayings around here, old man. I think we can both agree they don’t suit me.”
“We tend to say that the past can never really hurt you. And if something hurts still, no matter how much time has passed, then it isn’t truly in the past,” Witters continued on, ignoring Gabrielle’s objection. “You should give that book to Gerald when you see him again. I hope he’ll appreciate it.”
“I thought removing files from your archives was forbidden.”
“A healer’s journal is considered a personal item. Those belong with the family. Marshall was dedicated to his research, I’m sure he would appreciate his son having it.”
Gabrielle grimaced as she looked down at the book, unsure of whether Gerald would appreciate this nearly as much. “I’ll get it to him.”
“I assume he’ll be taking part in the ceremony later this evening?”
“Assuming he made it to the city on schedule, yes.”
Witters nodded agreement and, thankfully, steered the conversation back to where Gabrielle wanted it. “Have you read Marshall’s notes on pyrokinesis, then?”
Gabrielle glowered at the question. “There isn’t that much in there about it. Just loose observations. He was trying to determine how fire is conjured and how fire starters generate heat, but he didn’t make it very far in his research.”
“No, but… Sometimes the key to understanding something, or someone, begins with asking the right questions. Not the ‘how’, perhaps, but the ‘why’ and the ‘when’. What generally makes a human being hot?”
“There’s a great number of things, Witters.”
“Indeed, there are. Human beings are naturally warm, yes? Our bodies need to generate heat to function, but seeing as fire starters aren’t constantly in flames, one can assume that not all of these things actually lead to them producing fire.”
“Should I also assume there is a point you’re attempting to make, or are you just passing the time by making obvious statements?”
Witters shook his head with an amused smirk. “Yes, girl, I am making a point. Pay attention.”
“Fine. Carry on.”
“What Marshall was missing is the fact that enlightenments may manifest in similar ways, but each individual is unique. You said you’ve had a few incidents, have you observed the circumstances surrounding those incidents?”
“You’re saying there’s probably some personal trigger I should be aware of.”
“Indeed. Meditation seems to help in general. but understanding what causes the outbursts would probably yield more permanent results.”
Gabrielle hummed a thoughtful note, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “That makes sense, although it’s much easier said than done, if we’re talking about emotional triggers.”
“I’m sure you’re more than up to the task, even if you’d rather have me convinced otherwise.”
Gabrielle snorted, putting the journal on her travel bag. “I appreciate the vote of confidence.”
That’s a lie but I’ll take it.” Witters smiled and rose from his seat, offering a polite nod on his way out of the room.. “Please get some proper rest before you leave us.”
[Newhaven Inn | Lithius 22nd | Half Past Noon]
The Inn was quiet compared to the city streets. The twins had been curious and excited while crossing the market, despite Gerald’s warnings to stay watchful, but the closer they got to their destination, the more they stilled.
The establishment was easy to spot from a distance. Not unlike the one in Blackpond, it was a three story nondescript building, no sign on the door, nothing to indicate that this was an Inn other than everyone in Valcrest just knowing it was.
A chime rang above their heads when Gerald opened the door. The few people already inside glanced in their direction, but didn’t pay them any actual mind. The place wasn’t what you would expect from a clan of ruthless killers. The air was warm and smelled of pinewood and honey mead, every surface was cleaned spotless, and the few patrons seated in the back of the bar, near the unlit fireplace, looked relaxed and chipper.
Gerald led them to a corner table and motioned for them to sit. Kyle noticed that it was possible to see almost the entire bar from where they were positioned as well as a glimpse of the back room. The movement there drew the boy’s attention—shadows moving across the open door, faint rattling sounds beneath the idle chatter of the bar patrons. A man exited the back room balancing an empty metal tray on the tips of his fingers, whistling a tune to himself without much of a care. As he walked from behind the counter, Kyle saw him clearly smile and shoot him a small wink before heading towards the other group of patrons. “Alright, gents, that stew will be ready in thirty minutes, and you lot better have the coin for it this time. I’m not here to run a charity.” His tone was still pleasant and almost joking as he stopped by the men’s table, but something underneath made it clear he was dead serious.
“Aw, come on James, you know we’re good for it. One little mishap and you don’t let us forget it.”
“Your ‘little mishaps’ tend to come out of my pockets, Victor. It makes them a little bit lighter than I would like. So yes, I want to see some coin upfront this time around. All of you. No fussing.”
The men frowned and mumbled but started to gather silver pieces together to pay for their meals, which the man collected with a pleased smile. “There, there. That didn’t hurt too much, did it? I’ll bring it over as soon as it’s ready.”
James then left the group of men to their sullen complaints and approached their table with a calm smile, addressing Gerald first. “Greetings, sir. What can I do for you this fine day?”
Gerald returned the smile with an ease that visibly surprised the boys. His body language was relaxed, save for some travel-exhaustion and a small hint of hesitation while considering what to ask for. His fingers ruffled the hairs on the back of his head as he hummed in apparent thought. “Think you can get us three bowls of that stew you were talking about there, friend? And… What’s good to drink today?”
James grinned. “You’re not even gonna ask what’s in the stew before you order it? Oh, I like you, bud.”
Gerald shrugged. “If it’s not dried rabbit or trail mix, I’ll be happy enough.”
James let out a small chuckle and shook his head. “Fair point. And let’s see… We have permission to sell alcohol early today due to the occasion, so you can have anything you like. As for your boys there, well, I assume they’re under the legal age so it’s water, tea, or fruit juice for them.”
Gerald responded with a nod. “Herbal tea for me, juice for them.”
James nodded agreement. “It’ll be right over.”
“Wait…” Kyle’s voice was quiet and he took a second to manage giving the Innkeeper his eyes. “What fruit is in that fruit juice? You didn’t say.”
James smiled at the question. “Ah. I see who the smart one is.” He stopped to think for a second before answering the question. “I think wild berries and lime today. It’s not a bad combination.”
Kyle hummed. “I think I’d rather have water, if you don’t mind.”
James snorted in mild amusement. “It’s your coin, kid. It’s not up to me to mind.” He then turned to Sebastian who had been uncharacteristically quiet through all this. “Juice still okay for you, champ?”
“Yeah, sure.” Sebastian’s answer was barely a mumble.
“Not much of a talker, huh?” James smiled softly. “I’ll be right back.”
After James was once again in the back room, Gerald turned to give Sebastian an inspecting look. “Are you doing okay, boy?”
Sebastian frowned, thinking about the question for a second. “I guess so.”
Kyle frowned to this. “Are you sure?”
Sebastian responded with a tired shrug. “No. That’s why I said ‘I guess’ and not ‘I’m sure’.” He leaned back in his seat and shrugged. “I’ve felt a little on edge since we crossed the gates. It’s probably nothing.”
Gerald hummed under his breath. “Something to do with your enlightenment?”
Sebastian crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe? If it is, it’s never done this before.”
Gerald nodded. “You’re probably just used to Blackpond. Things are more, hm, out in the open, there.” He followed that statement with a small smile. “Newhaven has a need to look its best even when it’s a lie. Like our friendly Innkeeper there.”
Kyle followed Gerald’s gaze to the man as he walked back to their table carrying a tray of drinks. James was tall, though not as much as Gerald. Unruly brown locks framed his face and his eyes were an odd color, almost undefinable between a dark green and a light brown. Unlike Gerald, who usually looked older than his actual age, this man had an air of youthful carelessness. It made Kyle uneasy to think that if he’d met him anywhere else he would immediately trust him.
“There you go, fellas. Ten more minutes on that stew. It’s venison, by the way. Just in case you were curious.”
Gerald nodded taking a small sip of his tea. “We weren’t, but thank you.”
Sebastian took a drink from his juice and hummed. “That’s actually not bad at all.”
James nodded. “What did I tell ya?”
Sebastian took a larger drink and set the cup down. “Hey, what… What did you mean when you said ‘due to the occasion’? Is something going on today?”
“Oh. I assumed you were locals. Do you not know what day it is?”
Gerald hummed into his cup of tea. “I’m local, sort of. I picked the kids up in Blackpond.”
“Ah, I see.” James pulled up a chair and sat down beside their table, his expression turning more interested. “You don’t have the Night of The Hourglass in Blackpond, then?”
“The what now?” Kyle asked, glancing at his brother in mild confusion.
Sebastian shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe they do and we didn’t really notice.”
James shook his head. “I suppose with the curfew in effect you wouldn’t really notice.” He leaned back in his seat and pulled a few strands of hair away from his eyes. “The Night of The Hourglass is a night where the city stops to mourn their dead. After sundown all businesses close, people either retreat to their homes or gather at the cemetery, and they turn an hourglass to symbolize every life lost in Valcrest. For a whole hour after sundown no one makes a sound. It’s the only night in the year where Newhaven just… stops.” For a moment, the Innkeeper was silent—almost pensive—as he looked past the boys, then stood up from his chair. “If you’re still in the city after nightfall, I’d advise you to take part.” He placed the chair back in its place. “Excuse me. I’ll go see about that stew.”
“Do you?” Sebastian cut in. “Take part?”
James didn’t as much as hesitate. “Every year since I’ve come to the city. There isn’t a soul in Valcrest who hasn’t lost someone at some point. Or isn’t about to. Ain’t no exception here.”
Sebastian gave no answer and the Innkeeper didn’t wait around for one. In the minutes it took him to come back with their food, the bar began to fill. The man’s attention then shifted to the new swarm of customers, leaving the boys and Gerald to enjoy their meals in relative peace.
Kyle’s eyes occasionally wandered across to other tables, or moved to the door at the sound of the little chime going off to announce new arrivals. Every face was average, every man and woman to step in and out of the bar seemed either tired from travel or chipper from alcohol. After a while he stopped trying to find something off about them and refocused on his food.
By the time they were finished eating, the Inn had become just as crowded and noisy as the streets outside. Kyle observed that once the number of patrons increased two other servers appeared to help tend to orders. He hadn’t noticed them before and didn’t see where they had actually come from. One of them, a teenage girl, seeming around the age of sixteen, came in to clear their table. She introduced herself as Anna and, much like James had done, proceeded to make polite conversation while placing their empty bowls onto a tray. Gerald thanked her for the service and paid a couple of silvers extra to stress that point.
They exited the Inn a couple of minutes later and Gerald led them to the very center of Newhaven. Market stalls and busy shoppers flooded most of the space, but one area remained untouched by the chaotic flow of commerce. There, a marble statue of two figures representing Sun and Moon loomed over a large sundial. Gerald stopped beside it and nodded in its direction. “Do you know how to read a sun clock?”
Sebastian looked at it for a few seconds then nodded. “Looks pretty straight forward. I take it that when that shadow reaches that marker it’ll be two past noon.”
“Well done, that’s correct.” He followed that statement by placing a small coin purse on Sebastian’s hand. “You’re free to explore the city. Be in this exact spot when that dial marks three in the afternoon. Don’t make me go get you, you know what happens if I do.”
Sebastian nodded. “Too well, yes.”
Kyle looked from his brother to Gerald with an amused expression. “You’re giving us spending money and an hour to do whatever we want?”
“Yes. Were you expecting me to hold your hand all day, Rivers?” Gerald’s tone started amused, but turned serious as he continued. “Listen, bottom line, if I can’t just trust you; either of you, everything we’re doing here is a waste of time. Simple as that. So be here at three, are we understood?”
“Good.” He turned to Sebastian. “And you, boy? Are we understood?”
Sebastian nodded. “Yes, sir.” His answer sounded a little weaker than his brother’s and when Kyle was just about to wander off he held him back by the arm.
“Why can’t we stay and take part in the ceremony?”
Gerald frowned in thought for a few seconds, then breathed a short sigh. “I’m visiting my mother’s grave tonight. I can’t take you with me and I won’t have either of you wandering the city after dark even tonight, but… If you want to honor your sister, you don’t need to be in the city to do it.”
Sebastian pondered the words and nodded agreement.
Gerald briefly placed a hand on Sebastian’s shoulder. “Let me tell you something, boy. According to the Myths, when Death and Life first arrived in Valcrest, Death claimed to be bearing a gift for all humanity, but refused to grant it, claiming that we weren’t ready for it yet. Humans, being what they are, insisted. They insisted and insisted until finally, Death caved. She sought her brother, Time, and together they created an hourglass filled with golden sand. Death then called upon those humans and explained to them that this particular hourglass didn’t simply mark the passing of time. Each grain of sand within was the representation of a human life and each time one of them fell it meant someone’s time in this world had expired. Death explained that Her gift to humanity had always been the knowledge that their time was limited and that She realized they would never fully appreciate all the other gifts they’d already been given until they gained that understanding. The Night of The Hourglass is supposed to symbolize the moment humanity had its immortality stripped away. It’s meant to honor lives lost, but also to reflect on the frailty of human life. On how you spend what limited time you have.” Gerald once again stopped to give them a scrutinizing look. “That’s a very important reflection for the two of you to make. Especially now.”
Sebastian’s expression was thoughtful as Gerald spoke and his answer was a simple nod of agreement. Kyle on the other hand, spoke up. “What do you mean?”
A trace of a smile crossed Gerald’s expression. “What did you think of those people at the Inn just now, Kyle? Did you like them?”
“They were nice enough, I think.”
“They were. And you know what? I like them.”
“Yes. Yes, they are. No different from all the ones I’ve hunted. They were probably nice people too. Normal people, who probably suffered losses of their own, like our Innkeeper friend.”
Sebastian shook his head. “That’s why you brought us here. Why give us the option to join you if you’re going to try and discourage us like this?”
“It’s not about discouraging you. I was a soldier, boy. Johanna lived on the streets, Gabrielle was already doing this for far longer than either of us. We went into this knowing what it meant. Simply telling you that what we do involves killing people is empty unless you see for yourselves that these Wolves are, in fact, people. That if you’re looking for some moral high-ground to latch on to, it doesn’t exist. I do this at the expense of being able to call myself a good person. And that’s something you two need to decide for yourselves if you’re truly willing to give up.” Gerald’s smile remained despite his words. “You still have fifty minutes to enjoy the city without supervision. I suggest you get to it before I decide I’m being too nice.”
Sebastian was clearly hesitant to go, but when Kyle started to drag him off he didn’t resist. No matter what questions he still had left to ask, it’d have to wait.
[Valcrest Forest | Lithius 22nd | Late afternoon]
“I’m pretty sure we’re lost.” Kyle muttered, letting out a small groan as he readjusted in his saddle.
Sebastian snorted a chuckle. “I know where we’re going. Stop worrying.”
Kyle wasn’t convinced, but held back from complaining anymore. “I like Newhaven. It’s… Different from Blackpond, I guess. Way different, but I liked it.”
Sebastian hummed under his breath. “I’m unsure about it still.” He managed to follow his statement with a smile. “It was definitely nice to have some coin to spend for once.”
It was Kyle’s turn to snort in amusement. “When was the last time we walked into a baker’s shop through the front door?”
Sebastian smirked. “I don’t think we ever had before.”
Kyle let out a soft chuckle and shook his head, falling into a long moment of silence. “What did you think about… You know, all that stuff Gerald said?”
“Do you know what I was thinking when he asked if we liked those people?”
“Kat liked her killer, too. Trusted her. Invited her in. Talked to her. And it doesn’t matter to them… Didn’t matter to them… Who our sister was.” Sebastian sighed. “It’s not right to want to do this, I get that. I never thought that it was, but… even if I like them, I can’t get past how much I hate what they are.”
Kyle shook his head, taking a couple of moments to ponder his brother’s words before responding. “What happens if we start hating what we are too?” He frowned, eyes staring into the back of his horse’s head. “What happened in Blackpond, what I almost did, I… I still don’t know if I would have… If I would have been sorry if I’d gone through with it. I still think that I might have been happy to watch that place burn. And I don’t like that.”
“You would have been sorry. Maybe not right away, but eventually. It’s what you always do. You don’t think about consequences until it’s too late.”
Kyle shook his head, his chuckle coming out bitter. “You’re calling me impulsive? You? Really?”
“I think about consequences before I do things, Kyle. Every time. All the time. I just don’t always care.”
Sebastian shrugged. “Yeah, I know.”
The boys fell into an introspective silence for the next few hours. The sun was already going down by the time they arrived, but Kyle was relieved to discover his brother was, in fact, leading them on the right path to the village. They returned the horses to their owners with a very polite ‘thank you’ even though Kyle would rather sit on broken glass than ride one again. Sebastian seemed less aggravated and was happy to help stable and feed the animals when offered the chance. Kyle decided to leave his brother to it and go find Johanna.
The village was small enough that even Jo was easy to spot, not that she was trying to sneak around this time. Kyle found her at the very center of the village, running around with some of the local children, until their parents called them inside for supper. Jo came to meet him then, a soft smile on her face, cheeks flushed from all the running. She patted him on the shoulder in greeting. “Gerry owes me five silver.”
Kyle’s eyebrow arched. “For what?”
She smirked. “Said I’d have to come find you.”
Kyle shook his head. “Of course he did.” He looked around and noticed everyone started retreating into their homes. “Are we going back to the safe house?”
Jo hummed in thought, but then shook her head. “In the morning, I think.”
“Is Gerald gonna know we stayed here?”
She nodded. “Wouldn’t be a first. Where’s your brother?”
“He was helping out with the horses…” Kyle looked around and spotted Sebastian coming down the way he came. “There he comes.”
Johanna smiled. “Good.”
Kyle noticed that the man they’d borrowed the horses from also walked directly to his house. “Are they doing the whole hourglass thing too? Like in the city?”
Johanna gave him a look of slight surprise. “Gerry told you?”
Sebastian joined the conversation with a small nod. “The guy at the Inn mentioned it first, but yes. Can we participate?”
Johanna nodded and indicated one of the nearby houses. “Supper first. Put the little ones to bed. Then turn the hourglass.” With that she started leading the way, leaving the twins to exchange a curious glance before following after her.
The house belonged to the village elder. A grandmotherly woman name Sylvie. She served them all bowls of soup accompanied by fresh dinner rolls and fussed over them until she decided they’d had enough to eat. Once they were all more than just satisfied, Johanna excused herself to clear the table and clean up. Sylvie’s reaction to this let them know immediately that the elderly woman also knew better than to argue with Jo about these things. Instead, Sylvie led them to the common room and showed them the hourglass sitting atop the mantle piece. It was large, the frame made up of intertwined wooden branches cradling the glass. Kyle inched closer to examine it with a curious expression. “Why is some of the sand red?”
Sylvie smiled. “Each grain of sand represents a life lost in Valcrest. The red ones are meant to represent people the owner of the hourglass has lost.”
Kyle hummed understanding, still staring at the object as if trying to count each individual grain of sand.
“We don’t have an hourglass,” Sebastian cut in.
Sylvie offered him a gentle smile. “That’s alright, sweetie. The hourglass is just symbolic. The important part is that you take the time to think of the ones you lost.” She let the words sink in for a few seconds before adding: “Your parents?”
Sebastian nodded. “And our sister.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sweetie.”
Sylvie offered a silent nod, her expression turning almost melancholic as her eyes shifted to the hourglass. “You know, Johanna wasn’t much older than the two of you when I met her.”
The statement immediately caught Kyle’s attention. “Really?”
“Yes. She just stumbled into the village one afternoon. Looked like she’d gone through some things. Needed help, but didn’t want to have to trust anyone. Gave us a lot of trouble until she was back on her feet.” Sylvie smiled fondly at the recollection. “She ran off the minute she was able, but… A few weeks later she came back, stayed for a few days. She’s been coming and going ever since.” Sylvie glanced in the direction of the sounds coming from the kitchen. “We realize it’s a bit weird, but everyone here just adores her.”
Sebastian nodded, unable to hold back an amused smile. “That does sound like Jo.”
Sylvie returned the nod. “When she told me Gerald found you two in Blackpond I imagined she must have seen your situation as something similar to hers. It’s no surprise they decided to take you in. He’s a good man. A bit blunt sometimes, but nonetheless…” Her thoughts trailed off as the sounds stopped in the kitchen and Sylvie lowered her voice. “Just between us now, I know they’re not really married, but… If you ask me, it’s just a matter of time. I mean, those two aren’t fooling anyone.”
Sebastian couldn’t quite hold back a laugh and the sound must have traveled to the kitchen because Jo showed up a split second later. “What’s funny?”
Sylvie smiled. “Oh, nothing, dear. Are you done with the clean up? It’s about time we get started.”
Johanna shot Sylvie a suspicious glare, but her expression softened soon after as she nodded confirmation that the kitchen was clean.
“Good. Then we can turn the hourglass.”
Sylvie lifted the hourglass from the mantle and carried it to the center of the room but before she could actually turn it Kyle started walking towards the front door. “I can’t. Sorry.”
Sebastian moved to follow his brother, but Kyle stopped him at the door. “No. You need to do this. Stay and do it, I… I’m gonna hang out outside for a bit. I need air.”
Sebastian frowned, but even though it was clear he wanted to argue all he managed was to nod in agreement. Kyle left the house and Sebastian was left frowning at the closed door. “Is he gonna be okay out there alone?”
“Should be safe.” Jo’s answer was quiet and Sebastian could almost picture the concern in her expression. After a moment she grabbed him by the hand and pulled him away from the door. “Come, it’s okay.”
Again, Sebastian nodded, following Jo back into the room. When she sat down on the floor he followed her lead. Sylvie then turned the hourglass and joined them. For the next hour they sat there in silence, watching the sand drain from the top of the hourglass. Once the very last grain dropped, Jo insisted that Sebastian try to sleep and left to find Kyle herself. Sylvie showed him to a spare bedroom and helped him settle down. The boy spent the rest of his night awake and silent, waiting to hear the sound of the front door opening, but very much aware that his brother wouldn’t be walking through it.