Uprise 1.11

Shadows Rise

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[Valcrest Forest | Helios 2nd | Late Afternoon]

Sebastian ducked behind the trunk of a tree. His whole body shuddered as he struggled to control his breathing. With each frantic beat of his heart, listening to his surroundings became increasingly challenging. His right hand was tight on the hilt of his sword. Peering from behind his cover felt like too much of a risk. Any sign of movement would be enough to give him away, but against his better judgment, he closed his eyes. Gerald had taught him to meditate and while Sebastian was sure the man would call being chased through the woods the wrong time and place, what he needed was to be calm. Be still. To stay focused.

Since his arrival at the Outpost, Sebastian witnessed Johanna sneaking up on people multiple times. While he’d thought that to be an amusing character quirk at first, his opinion changed drastically while under her training. Facing her on a regular basis; like it or not, made him feel a small shred of pity for anyone she might genuinely strive to kill.

His encounters with the City Guard in Blackpond had been nothing more than sport. He had taken pride in taunting his pursuers, finding new ways to best them, memorizing every nook and cranny where their lights couldn’t reach, just for the satisfaction of seeing them bumbling around in the dark. A group of heavily armed men couldn’t strike fear into Sebastian the way a single woman wielding a thin branch had proven herself capable of doing.

As his mind regained focus, the world went static. The silence that descended upon the forest caused a chill to slither its way up his spine; cold and unpleasant, as though all life had suddenly drained. He drew in a deep breath and stood up, breathing out slowly and readjusting his hand around the grip of his sword. Eyes still closed, he was able to sense the movement behind his back—just a hint of displaced air in his direction—and leaned away from it just in the nick of time. He felt the impact against the tree trunk reverberating right beside his head, but once again, no sound accompanied it. He twisted around with a slash of his sword, but met only air and saw nothing where the attack originated.

Cautiously, Sebastian paced forward,away from his hiding place, boots soundlessly crushing the soft earth and green blades of grass. He inspected the shadows cast by the cover of trees, his mind repeatedly conjuring up images that weren’t actually there—like a frightened child waiting for a monster to crawl out from under his bed. Again, he felt the movement before his sight was able to catch on and reacted on sheer instinct, his body twisting to avoid the oncoming lash of Johanna’s branch, then coming back with a slash of his own, this time fast enough to split the wood clean in half.

Johanna stood still in the aftermath, flecks of golden light draining from her eyes at the same rate as sound returned to the world around them. Her smile was soft, almost proud, but even as she let the remains of the sliced branch slip through her fingers, Sebastian didn’t fully relax.

“I hate it when you do that.” He grimaced at the sound of his own voice. It almost felt foreign after being silent for so long.

Jo arched a brow, questioningly.

“It’s not fa—” And, just like that, his voice died out mid-word, leaving him to silently glare at Johanna, mouthing a complaint of ‘not funny’.

“No such thing as a fair fight, Seb.”

Sebastian frowned, but nodded agreement. He forced a small cough to test his ability to produce sound before trying to speak again. “I guess you’re right. It’s still creepy, though,” he muttered, grip still firm upon his sword.

Johanna snorted with a trace of laughter. Her hands were relaxed at her sides, away from the sword sheathed at her waist. Although she appeared at ease, Sebastian was reluctant to lower his guard. He’d learned how quick Jo could be; both on her feet and in drawing her blade. She was also not prone to giving warning on when or where she planned to start a spar. Either he was quick enough to do something about it, or he wasn’t. The latter was more common.

Johanna shot him another smile, her eyes registering his tension as she turned to lead him on the return path to the Outpost. Sebastian walked behind her with cautious steps, observing her demeanor as she strolled along the trail and hummed a soft melody under her breath. Her sword was still nestled in its sheath—hanging harmlessly from her belt. It almost made her look like a different person entirely, and Sebastian wondered just how accurate of an assumption that was.

As they continued to walk, he kept a close eye for any signs of change, for her to acknowledge his presence in some way; for the smallest trace of tension, but found nothing. Mind made up, he measured his movements carefully, inching closer with his sword in hand. Just as he slashed, Johanna twisted her body away from his blade and drew her own. Her answering blow was swift and harsh. He managed to avoid it but lost his footing and stumbled backwards several steps, landing painfully on his butt.

Jo pressed the tip of her sword against his throat as Sebastian tried to scramble to his feet. Her eyes were on his; appraising, severe, but not angry. “Initiative. I like it.” She resheathed her blade and offered him her hand with a soft snort of disapproval. “Terrible execution. Too predictable.”

Sebastian chuckled softly and slid his sword back into its scabbard. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to sneak up on you, but… I wanted to know what would happen if I tried.”

Johanna smirked, shaking her head. “I’m being generous; so nothing. Next time… You better make it count.”

[Abandoned Outpost |Helios 5th | Midday]

Kyle waited with bated breath for Gabrielle to inspect his work. His previous attempts to correctly assemble the mechanism on his crossbow resulted in multiple failures. Failure on the railing, on the cocking mechanism, a jammed trigger, a misfire. This time, he was almost sure he’d gotten everything correctly in place, but he wasn’t going to get excited until he heard confirmation.

Gabrielle’s expression, as usual, gave away nothing as she turned the newly-assembled weapon in her hands, tested the trigger, the railing, the loading and cocking mechanisms. Finally, she lowered it with a nod. “Alright. Let’s take it outside and load it to see if it shoots.”

Kyle couldn’t help a surprised noise from escaping him. “Really? You’re not gonna make me forge arrowheads or something else like that? I can try to shoot it?”

Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. “Would you like to spend the day forging arrowheads? Tucker is running low…”

“No. Nonononono… Let’s take it outside.”

“Mhm. That’s what I thought.” The amusement was faint in her voice as she began to lead the way out of the forge.

Kyle couldn’t help a small shiver as they stepped outside. It was a warm summer day and the sun was at its peak, but the air felt cold compared to the stifling heat of the forge. It was much brighter, as well, and he squinted, adjusting to the glare of sunlight. The Outpost was silent. Gerald was away doing something Gabrielle had referred to as ‘scouting’, and Jo had taken Sebastian deep into the forest early that morning.

The path Gabrielle led him through ended on the same clearing where Gerald had taught them to punch all those months ago. She placed the crossbow in his hands and drew a bolt from her own quiver for him to load into it.

Kyle had questioned why he couldn’t build a repeating crossbow instead of having to manually reload. Gabrielle’s answer had been that it would be too bulky for him to carry comfortably. She then illustrated that point by dropping her crossbow in his arms. It was much heavier than it looked, likely due to being mostly made out of metal, while his own was a simpler, lighter, design, with the main body crafted out of yew. It would have surprised him that Gabrielle was able to wield it as easily and deftly as she did, if not for the month or so he’d spent watching her mold metal by hand. Even if he’d grown taller, the woman still towered over him. With all the strength training he’d endured, if she were so inclined, she could still snap him like a twig without effort.

Far from being intimidated by that realization, Kyle decided that, one day, he would be strong enough to carry a crossbow like that. Even if it took him years to get there. For the moment, however, just arming the one he had was proving a challenge; the tension on the string making it hard for him to reset the mechanism. It was a slow process, but he managed to lock it in place and load the bolt into the weapon.

Gabrielle watched him struggle with no comment, then pointed to one of Gerald’s straw dummies. “That’s your target right there. Go ahead.”

Kyle drew a long deep breath and rose the crossbow to eye level, carefully aiming and then placing his finger on the trigger to let the arrow fly.

It missed.

It missed by a mile.

“Damn it!”

“It shoots.” Gabrielle’s tone was even as she took the empty crossbow from him. “Go find it and try again.”

Kyle sighed as he obeyed, his excitement over having a finished crossbow dampened by the realization it would probably take months for him to gain the skill to hit a rabbit. The bolt had flown past the dummy and embedded itself deep into the trunk of a tree. He struggled to dislodge it from the wood, and it was hard not to question what it could actually do to a person. Once he managed to pull it out, he inspected the shaft for cracks or other damage before returning to Gabrielle with it in hand. He took the crossbow back from her and once again went through the process of manually loading it. Once he was through, Gabrielle placed her hand on the crossbow to keep him from raising it a second time. Kyle looked up at her in question. “What?”

“Raise it again, the same way as before, but don’t shoot it yet.”

“Alright.” He did as he was told, holding the crossbow up at eye level without pressing the trigger.

Gabrielle paced around him and crouched so that she was looking to where he was aiming, then straightened up. “Close your left eye. See how the fletching and the head of the arrow aren’t actually aligned?”

Kyle obeyed, and sure enough, the problem became clear. “Oh.”

Gabrielle carefully corrected his stance so that the crossbow was properly aligned this time. “Try again. Aim for the chest.”

“Okay.” He double-checked to make sure he had it right before pressing the trigger. While the bolt did hit the dummy this time, it embedded itself right on the head.

“Well, on the bright side, that would definitely be a fatal shot. However, you don’t want those to be unintentional, do you?”

“Probably not.” Kyle muttered, walking over to retrieve the bolt. “It recoiled.”

“Then compensate.”

“How are you such a fast shooter?”

“Muscle memory. Repetition.”

“Trial and error?” The question carried a note of resignation. Kyle knew this was going to be his new daily routine now.

“Yes, precisely.” Gabrielle nodded. “Until you’re able to make your shots land exactly where you want them every time. And then, until you’re able to just look at something, raise your crossbow and shoot without stopping to think about it. Until you see something move and you’re able to calculate its trajectory to accurately take it down.”

“You said I’d be able to shoot my first by summer. We’re five days into summer,” Kyle pointed out, reloading the crossbow for a third time.

“If you didn’t screw up the assembly, but you did; a few times.”

Kyle flinched as he started to align another shot. “How long do you reckon, then?”

“You can shoot one tomorrow if you’d like. If you really apply. And I mean, if you live and breathe archery from now on, maybe you’ll kill one before your next birthday.” Gabrielle snorted and it held a faint hint of laughter. “Luckily for you, human beings are easier to hit than rabbits.”

“What?” Kyle’s startled response caused him to release the bolt without the proper care. It flew in downward angle, past the target, and shattered on a rock.

Gabrielle watched its trajectory and shook her head. She drew another bolt from her quiver and held it out. “Maybe my estimates were a little too optimistic.”

Kyle took the bolt from her a little more forcefully than he should. “Shut up, you distracted me.”

“Did you just tell me to shut up, Rivers?”

Kyle grimaced, his focus honed on reloading the crossbow. “Yes. Sorry.”

“Apology accepted, but ideally, you shouldn’t do things that require you to apologize.”

Kyle nodded. “I know. I was just frustrated. Won’t happen again.”

“Mhm.” Gabrielle glanced around until she spotted a nice area in the shade to sit and relocated, settling down in the shade. “Don’t worry. You’re still far from shooting anything alive. Focus on the strawman. Aim for the chest. Go on.”

Kyle glanced over before raising the crossbow again. It was difficult to see Gabrielle’s eyes under the brim of her hat, but he was sure she was watching him closely. Pushing that unsettling thought out of his mind, he focused on making his next shot. The weapon’s recoil was still something he needed to adjust to, and even though his aim was still off, he performed better than before.

The afternoon was spent in silence, save for the dull sound of arrows meeting straw and wood. Every now and then Gabrielle would remind him to aim carefully, but most of the time her interference wasn’t needed.He tried his best to keep his shots consistent, but he couldn’t hit the center with every single one. And as he grew more tired, his accuracy suffered as well. And yet, he only stopped shooting once the sunlight started to dwindle and Gabrielle declared he’d done enough for one day.

As they reached the Outpost, there was movement in the kitchen and Kyle was able to see Johanna moving about, getting dinner started. “Hey. You need any help?”

The answer was, as expected, a negative headshake.

He smiled. “How about some company?”

Johanna paused, thoughtfully, but as she turned to look at him she once again shook her head. “Wash up and rest.”

“I’m not that tired, it’s okay.”

With another shake of her head she wiped her hands clean on a cloth and reached out for the crossbow he was carrying. “Let me see.” Kyle handed the crossbow over and Johanna inspected it with interest. “Nice. What did Gabe say?”

“She said ‘it shoots’.”

Jo snorted in amusement, returning the weapon to him. “High praise.”

“I guess it is, in a way. It does what it’s supposed to do. I’m just not a great shooter yet.”

Jo nodded, turning back to face the kitchen counter and resuming her activities. “You will be. Just need to work on it.”

“That’s the plan, yeah.” Kyle inched closer to see what she was doing. He could smell meat and vegetables on the stove. On the counter, Jo was kneading some kind of dough. “What’s that for?”

“Pies.”

“Pies?”

She hummed. “Meat pies.” She paused her kneading momentarily. “Boar, I think? Deer maybe? Ask Gabe.”

“You don’t know what it is?”

Jo shrugged. “It’s good. Looks fine. I can cook it.”

“That… Sounds logical, I guess.”

Jo picked up on the doubtful tone in his voice. “I never food-poisoned anyone. Gerry’s job.”

Kyle laughed. “Mean.”

Again, she shrugged. “True.”

“Why do you keep insisting he tries to cook then?”

“Same reason you’ll keep shooting. It’s how you learn.”

“I don’t know. Maybe some people can’t learn some things. It’s just not in them.”

“It is when it needs to be. Survival.”

“You’re saying that Gerald can’t cook because he’s spoiled and never had to feed himself?”

Jo smirked. “You know… Newhaveners.” But her tone sobered right after. “No. Because he can, just not well. And if he’s hungry enough… Doesn’t matter. Survival.”

Kyle hummed a thoughtful note. “Guess you have a point.”

“Same with shooting, with killing. You learn so you survive.”

“You don’t hunt assassins to survive.”

Johanna frowned. “Yes. It’s a reason.”

“A reason to survive?”

“Yes.”

Kyle fell silent, staring at the ball of dough on the countertop. “I should go. You know, wash up and rest.”

“Tired after all?”

“Yeah. I think I am.”

Jo nodded with a soft hum. Kyle assumed she was alright with ending the conversation and took his leave.

As he walked up the stairs to his room he had to force a deep breath. Part of him struggled with the notion of killing another person; even a Wolf, but at the same time he couldn’t get over the sick anger Katherine’s death injected into him. Whatever his conscience might have to say, that feeling was still his driving force. It was still the reason he had been working so hard. Every minute spent creating a weapon, every shot into that training dummy, all of it would be wasted if he didn’t see this through.

Sebastian was already getting his rest when Kyle entered the room. Fast asleep for once. His journal was visible poking out from under his pillow and his sword was propped against the wall beside the bed, within reach. Kyle headed to his side of the room and placed his crossbow against the wall by his bed, kicking off his boots halfway into the act of lying down. As soon as his head hit the pillow, he realized that he was, in fact, exhausted. And a lot more sore than he expected to be. For a moment he considered just staying in bed and skipping dinner altogether, but his stomach protested with a roar as if on cue. Mystery meat or not, the kitchen smelled nice and he hadn’t eaten anything all afternoon. Johanna would probably drag him down anyway if he didn’t go willingly.

Kyle glanced towards the window at the fading rays of sunlight and concluded he had an hour, maybe two, before dinner time. He drew a deep breath and closed his eyes, deciding that sleep would be the best possible use of that time.

[Abandoned Outpost | Pyros 16th | Early Morning]

Dedicated to their respective training routines, sharing a quick breakfast in their room was the only down time the twins had enjoyed together in the past weeks. They were both present at dinner most nights, but more often than not, those meals were spent in an exhausted stupor. Gerald was still absent from the Outpost and in his absence, Johanna and Gabrielle had taken on some of his usual chores. This allowed them the occasional day off, but even then, they chose to carry on training, even without supervision. For Sebastian, that involved spending his time exploring the forest as much as possible in preparation for his next spar. He wouldn’t say he wasn’t making progress in his training, but Johanna wasn’t moving it forward, which meant something was lacking. That something, he decided, was a successful ambush.

Kyle wasn’t glad to hear about his ideas. “I’m sorry, you want to do what?”

Sebastian coughed, his brother’s exasperation nearly caused him to choke on a piece of bread. “You heard me. I need to catch her off-guard. It’s the only way to win.”

Kyle snorted, head low as he got his boots on. “Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of a spar, Seb?”

“You’re gonna give those rabbits a fighting chance when you go out there? There’s no such thing as a fair fight.”

Kyle laughed, standing up and stomping his feet to make sure they were comfortable. The boots were loose when they first arrived, but he might need bigger ones soon. “Considering my current skill, I’d say the rabbits have the upper hand already.” He picked up his crossbow and checked if it was in order as well. “It’s my job as your brother to let you know when you’re being insane. I know you’re not gonna listen, but for the record; you’re insane.”

“No. I’m pretty sure this is what I need to do to move forward. It’s what she wants me to do.”

“You are way too optimistic about this suicidal act you’re about to commit.”

Sebastian shrugged. “Hey, if it’s my time, it’s my time. Better make it count.”

The quip was met with a scolding glare. “Not funny, asshole.”

“I’m kidding… For the most part.” Sebastian sighed. “Listen, your goal is to shoot a rabbit, right? Because if you can kill something that small, and that fast, a person should be no problem.”

“That’s the idea, yeah.”

“This is something like that. I’m probably not going to do it today, but it’s what I have to aim for.”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “Well, the rabbits won’t beat the daylights out of me if I miss.”

“They probably would if they were able.” Sebastian grinned as he finished his bread and started to strap on his boots. “Maybe they’re sitting in their little burrows right now plotting… Waiting…”

“Don’t be an idiot, Seb.”

Sebastian chuckled, slinging his sword’s scabbard across his back. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you when those bunnies come back to seek revenge.”

“If they do, it’ll be my fault for letting them get out alive, won’t it?”

Sebastian paused in the doorway, one foot past the threshold. “Yeah. It would.” He shook his head, forcing a note of amusement in his voice as he continued out of the room. “I’ll see you later, don’t get your ankles bitten.”

“I won’t.” Kyle gave Sebastian a few minutes of head start before following him out of the room.

[Valcrest Forest | Pyros 16th | Mid-Afternoon]

From the first time Sebastian stepped foot in the forest, he’d learned that it was never truly silent. There would always be the chirping of birds, the rustling of leaves and grass, the crackling of twigs and dry soil, as well as many other, subtler, signs of life. Moving around unnoticed was challenging, but with all the forest’s activity, it wasn’t impossible and Sebastian decided that any free time he had would be spent training himself to achieve that. If the environment was making his spars difficult, if it was turning him into easy prey, he was going to make them as familiar as the streets of Blackpond had once been.

Johanna’s first advice to him had been to listen. Be silent and just listen. It wasn’t easy. He had never been a static person. He needed to move around, to do things. Being loud in one way or another had always been in his nature. And his brother had always warned him that one day it was going to end up getting him killed. Sebastian wasn’t willing to admit it, but it was a valid concern.

The trails leading in and out of the Outpost looped around and connected with one another, none of them led to the forest proper. He always paid close attention when Johanna led him deeper into the forest. And even then, his first excursions almost led to him losing his sense of direction multiple times. Jo didn’t always take him to the same spots or use the same paths; which he concluded by now had to be intentional. If she knew what he had been doing, it was likely she’d take him to completely new locations from then on.

One of the paths he’d memorized led to a small stream. A few weeks ago, when he’d first found it, there were deer drinking from it. Sebastian knew there were plenty of animals in the forest. Deer, wildboar, wolveshe could hear them howling some nightspossibly even bears; but the only ones he’d seen were the ones Gerald and Gabrielle brought back from hunts. He’d never encountered anything living before. And on that occasion, he didn’t encounter them for very long. The deer heard him coming and bolted away as quickly as their legs allowed. With the amount of hunters in those woods, their survival would depend on being alarmed by any foreign sound, no matter how small.

A return visit to that same stream revealed it to be a popular drinking spot for deer; there was frequently one or more there in the afternoon. Sebastian decided that if he could sneak up on a deer, he’d be able to sneak up on a person. Even if Johanna was that person. Accomplishing that task, however, had proven itself a tremendous test of patience.

As he approached the stream this afternoon there were two deer already there. One of them had two small bumps on its head where horns would grow out and the other was an adult female. Sebastian didn’t know all that much about deer, but he had the common sense not to risk making any adult males feel threatened, or any mothers with small fawns. The last thing he needed was to end up being chased or kicked in the head by an angry deer. As soon as he was close enough to see them, he could tell he had been noticed. The deer froze and their ears twitched. In weeks of trying, he hadn’t made much further than that. The animals always heard him coming no matter how quietly he tried to move.

Sebastian held back a sigh, and much like in his training sessions, tried to still as much as possible, focus more. The sun wasn’t at its highest anymore, but even under the shadows of the forest, the air was stifling. He could feel sweat trailing down the back of his neck and his shirt had started clinging to his skin. Despite his discomfort he remained frozen in place until he saw the deer had turned their full attention back to the stream, to grazing. He exhaled slowly through his nose and tried to move closer, just an inch. Immediately both deer shot their heads up, noses and ears twitching, and bolted in the opposite direction. Sebastian growled under his breath. “Damn it!”

“You’re looking at it wrong, boy.”

Sebastian flinched at the sound of Gerald’s voice as though the man had just caught him elbow deep in the cookie jar. “How long have you been watching me?”

“A few minutes.” Gerald’s tone made clear he was smiling. “Although, I don’t know what you’re hoping to accomplish.”

“I’m practicing.” Sebastian turned around to face Gerald and frowned. Although the man was smiling, there was pure exhaustion underneath. His beard and hair were overgrown and it was obvious he hadn’t washed up or changed his clothes in at least a week. “You look terrible.”

“What were you practicing? I can see you were trying to sneak up on the deer, but why?”

Sebastian wasn’t pleased that his concern was being ignored, but shrugged and answered. “I figured, if I can do it with a deer, I can do it with a person; any person.”

“Oh, I see…” He grinned. “Is Jo giving you that much of a hard time?”

“Yes.”

Gerald huffed a trace of laughter. “First time Jo and I sparred, she managed to get my belt off and tried to choke me with it.”

“Seriously?”

“Mhm.” He started leading the way back to the Outpost, staggering after a few steps, but steadying himself quickly. “Deer are always going to know you’re there. They can smell you for miles before you’re even within earshot. On a day like today with all you’ve been sweating? Forget it.”

“Oh.” Sebastian grimaced, disappointed that he might have just wasted his time.

“That doesn’t mean you’ve got the wrong idea, though. Where you’ve gone wrong is trying to go unnoticed. What you need to do is blend in. Make your movements more fluid, less hesitant, like you’re something that’s supposed to here. Something that’s always been here.”

Sebastian hummed, glancing at Gerald as he followed the man back to their headquarters. Sebastian had seen where he was born and could imagine that being a Knight’s son Gerald’s start in life had been much different than what his life had now become. Yet, he did look the part of someone who had always been roaming the woods and navigating shadowy rooftops. “So, what were you off doing anyway? You look worse off than I was back in Blackpond.”

Gerald snorted. “I’m alright. It’s been a long trip back; longer than it should have been, but… Nothing catastrophic happened, don’t worry.”

“You’re ignoring my question.”

Again, Gerald smiled. “Yes, I am.”

[Abandoned Outpost | Pyros 16th | Late Evening]

As soon as they entered the Outpost, Johanna appeared at their side. And if Sebastian was concerned by Gerald’s appearance, her reaction was a mix of over-the-top concern and outright indignation. Despite his insistence that he was fine, she immediately dragged him inside, presumably so she could verify he was, in fact, unharmed. Jo’s agitation wasn’t a great sign. Although Gerald didn’t appear injured; just exhausted and filthy, her reaction made clear this wasn’t normal even after being gone for over a month.

Whatever he had been off doing, it hadn’t gone entirely to plan.

Sebastian had no choice but to go back to his room and spend the rest of his afternoon reading. When Kyle returned later in the afternoon he told him that all three Hunters had gathered in the office and locked the door. Dinner time had come and gone with no sign of life from the office door. And besides the fact they were growing hungry, it was odd that at least Johanna hadn’t come out by now.

“There’s still bread, I think. And jerky,” Kyle mumbled.

“We should go get something, doesn’t look like they’re coming out any time soon.”

Kyle stood up, running both hands back and forth through his hair. “I don’t like it. Whenever they argue behind closed doors, it’s bad news.”

“You don’t know if they’re arguing.”

“If they were, would we even be able to tell from out here? Not as if there’d be any shouting, Seb.”

Sebastian couldn’t help a chuckle. “Damn it, you’re right.”

Kyle shook his head, but cracked a smile. “We probably should go scavenge in the kitchen. Whatever this is, it might take a while.”

Sebastian put down the book he was reading and sat up to get his boots on. “I need to learn to make tea.”

“I don’t understand how you’ve gotten so obsessed with tea. It’s gross.”

Sebastian shrugged, standing up and heading for the door. “I like it.”

“I’m sure Jo will teach you if you ask.” Kyle followed him down the stairs and into the kitchen. While usually there would still be light coming from the stove at this hour, tonight the room was pitch black. Without thinking, he ignited the stove and all the torches on the walls as he crossed the doorway and proceeded to rummage through what food was available.

Sebastian remained frozen in the doorway. “Did you just do that?”

Kyle glanced back at him, confusion in his eyes. “What?”

“Did you just light all of this?” He gestured at the wall sconces.

“…Yes. Was I not supposed to?”

Sebastian let out a confused choke. “Kyle, since when are you able to control your enlightenment like that?”

“Oh.” Kyle flinched as he started placing what food he could find on the table. “A few months? I’ve been practicing.”

Sebastian paced into the kitchen and took his habitual seat. “Were you planning on, I don’t know, maybe telling me?”

“Yeah. I… I wasn’t hiding it on purpose. I just didn’t want to talk about it either.” Without thinking he filled a pot with water from the nearby tin and placed it over the stove.

“Is that what Porter’s training was helping you with?”

Kyle nodded, taking his seat as well. “It was part of it, yes. Let’s just say I learned to operate a blacksmith forge in less than conventional ways.”

Sebastian smirked. “Clever.”

Kyle scratched the back of his head then busied himself with parting the remaining half loaf of bread and offering Sebastian his share. “I don’t know how I’d feel about actually using it. Especially after what happened in Blackpond, but… I still need to practice so it stays under control.”

Sebastian accepted the bread with a hum. “It’s your magic. You never have to use it if you don’t want to.”

“Yeah. That’s what Porter said.” He took a bite of bread. “At first I thought she’d want me to use it.”

“Like a weapon?”

“Mhm.”

Sebastian frowned, but before he was able to voice a response, footsteps were heard coming down the stairs. Gerald and Johanna entered the kitchen; him looking cleaner but still exhausted, and her just as aggravated as before, if not worse.

“I told you, see? They’re eating. It’s fine.” Gerald said, watching as Jo walked past to uncover the leftover jerky and dried fruit Kyle hadn’t been able to find. He walked to the stove and glanced at the water pan Kyle had set there. “What’s this for?”

“Seb said he wanted tea. Figure I’d give it a shot.”

“There’s a kettle right there, Kyle.” He picked it up and set it on the stove, carefully transferring the warm water into it. “I’ll do it.”

Jo took the empty pot out of his hands with a glare. “Sit.”

“I’m well enough to make tea, Jo.”

Johanna wasn’t moved, her tone sharper the second time around.“Sit, Gerald.”

Both boys grimaced. They had never in the time they had known them heard Jo use Gerald’s full name. And judging by the man’s reaction, if she ever had, it wasn’t in a positive context. Gerald recoiled and, holding up his hands in defeat, moved to take his seat.

“So… I take it you guys were disagreeing again?” Kyle chimed in, forcing a small smile.

“No. We agreed. We’re just… Not very happy about it. Neither of us.” Gerald answered, reaching for a piece of jerky and biting off a chunk.

Sebastian hummed. “So what were you doing? Gabrielle said you were ‘scouting’, but we don’t know what that means.” 

“Scouting means preparation. Going certain places, talking to certain people, gathering information. It’s the same as when you hunt an animal. Even Wolves leave tracks.”

Sebastian nodded, his focus in watching Jo set tea cups on the counter with stiff movements; as though trying her damndest not to slam them down. “Hey, Jo…” He watched her pause with a soft hum—just long enough for him to see she was listening. “Gerald was telling me earlier that the first time you two sparred, he nearly got choked to death with his own belt?”

“No.”

Gerald shook his head. “Yes. You strangled me.”

“Not nearly to death. Didn’t even pass out.”

Kyle snorted. “That’s still a little extreme, wasn’t it?”

Johanna pulled the kettle out of the fire with a small huff and a soft mutter of, “entitled jerk.”

Gerald burst into laughter. “Alright, yes. I was. Maybe I deserved it just a little.”

“Definitely.” Jo muttered, although her posture seemed more relaxed to a degree as she brought two cups of tea to the table.

“I learned my lesson.”

“Not so sure some days.” That was a quieter mumble, her expression setting as she turned to prepare a third one.

Gerald sighed. “Maybe trust me a little more, yeah?” Jo gave no answer and Gerald stood up, leaving his cup untouched. “Thank you for the tea, but I should probably go rest up.” He gave both boys a small pat on the shoulder on his way to the door. “I’ll see you two tomorrow.”

The twins mumbled a good-night as he left. Sebastian caught on to the fact that Johanna was stiff where she stood, glaring straight at the wall, and nudged Kyle, indicating they should probably go too. Kyle frowned and made sure to gather some food to bring back to their room, but nodded agreement and led the way out of the kitchen.

As they walked across the threshold, they swore they heard a faint sob.

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