[Valcrest Forest | Pyros 18th | Midmorning]
It would be a quiet, peaceful morning in the forest, if not for the click of a trigger followed by the growls of a frustrated thirteen-year-old. It had happened so frequently over the past three weeks that Kyle’s angry groans and disgruntled curses had almost become a part of the forest’s ambiance. Except this morning, it was followed by the discreet twang of a bow string and a soft thud against the ground.
“Rabbits are assholes,” Kyle muttered.
Gerald shook his head, pacing carefully to retrieve his arrow and the dead rabbit. “Don’t blame the rabbit for not wanting to die.”
Kyle’s steps were heavier due to his aggravation. His bolt was embedded deep into the trunk of a tree—at least he’d gotten better at yanking them out. “Solid Porter impression, there. That’s exactly what she’d say.”
“Thank you. I spent four years perfecting it.”
Kyle shook his head with a disgruntled laugh, finding it hard to hold on to his bad mood. “Jo’s right, you are a knucklehead.”
“When did she say that?
“Well, she didn’t actually say it. She gestured it.”
“Mhm.” Gerald glanced at him as he led the way down the trail. “How did she gesture it?”
“It was something like. . .” Kyle stopped walking and smacked the middle of his forehead with the side of his fist. “Like this.”
Gerald chuckled. “Yeah. I guess that’s roughly what that means.”
Kyle’s eyes scanned the treeline for any sign of movement as he carried on walking. “Is there a chart somewhere I can look at?”
Gerald shook his head, his focus on the opposite side of the trail. “No. It’s not an actual language, it’s just mannerisms. You learn from experience what most of it means.”
“Why. . .?” Kyle stopped himself before the question fully formed, reminding himself not to pry.
“I don’t know why. I’m not really sure if she knows either.”
“Is that. . . Has she always. . .?”
“For as long as I’ve known her, yes.”
Before Kyle was able to ask anything else, Gerald stopped. He held up his hand and then silently pointed toward a subtle rustling in the bushes. Whatever lurked in there was too big to be a rabbit. Gerald edged closer. After a brief moment of assessment, his posture relaxed and he smiled, drawing an arrow from his quiver and nocking it. In one fluid motion, he raised his bow, drew the string to full tension, and allowed it to slip through his fingers. The arrow sang as it cut through the air at optimal speed, whooshing into the cover of trees.
A familiar yelp followed.
Kyle recognized his brother’s voice and rushed ahead. “Seb?”
“I’m fine. Damn it, Gerald. What the hell?”
Gerald chuckled. “You need to be more careful, boy. There are a lot of trigger-happy hunters in these woods.”
Sebastian came out of the bushes, looking disgruntled but unharmed. “I see that.”
“What are you even doing here, weren’t you supposed to be with Jo for the day?” Kyle asked.
Sebastian raised an eyebrow. “I am.”
Kyle flinched and immediately started looking around for any signs of movement. “What, where?”
Sebastian’s smirk was devious. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Gerald lowered his bow with a scoff. “Is this part of your training?”
“Stealth training.” Jo’s voice sounded right behind Kyle’s back. “Needs improvement.”
Kyle startled with an undignified yelp. “Aah! Where the hell did you come from!?”
Jo hummed a soft note, the hint of a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth. “I was right here.”
“Really cute,” Gerald cut in. “You know, I was teaching Kyle how to track, so. . . If you want to make a game out of this, let’s play.”
Jo tilted her head to one side, looking at him and Kyle in silent appraisal before asking, “Rules?”
“You hide, we seek. If we find. . . We shoot.”
Woah, woah, woah, wait,” Sebastian cut in. “If you’re going to shoot me, that’s one thing, but I don’t trust Kyle not to kill me.”
“I would be offended, but he has a point.” Kyle eyed his brother with a hint of bemused dissatisfaction.
“I have a solution for that,” Gerald told them, rummaging through his quiver and pulling out a couple of bolts. They had little sand bags in place of the metal heads. “You can use these. They’ll hurt, but they won’t be lethal.”
Kyle took the bolts and examined them. “They’re heavier than what I’m used to.”
Sebastian rolled his eyes. “I bet that’s going to be his excuse when he hits me in the face, too.”
Johanna arched an eyebrow. “That means he found you. Whose fault is that?” Sebastian’s shoulders sagged and he muttered, wordlessly. Jo smiled. “Exactly. But that won’t happen, so don’t worry.”
“That’s optimistic of you,” Gerald teased. “I mean, he wasn’t difficult to spot.”
Jo snorted. “To you.”
Kyle frowned at her. “I saw him too.”
Jo shook her head, her tone patient. “No. I saw you.”
Kyle’s frown deepened and he began to load his crossbow with the blunt projectiles. “Thirty seconds.” He looked up at his brother. “You have thirty seconds. Go.”
Sebastian flinched, but, recognizing that Kyle was done kidding around, turned and dashed into cover. Johanna nodded approvingly before following suit, albeit in a more leisurely pace.
Gerald watched the aggravated tension in Kyle’s demeanor gradually dissipate with each passing second and as the last of them burned away, he moved in the direction his brother had disappeared—every step slow and meticulous.
The forest had once again fallen silent. Under Jo’s guidance, Sebastian had done a decent job of disappearing, but Kyle wasn’t discouraged. He scoured the grass, the barks of every tree, the bushes. His jaw was set, eyes narrowed, one finger resting beside the trigger of his crossbow; waiting, biding his time. Not before long he saw a spot of trampled grass, snapped twigs, scuff marks running along the trunk of a tree. His gaze trailed up the trunk and before it reached the top, there was scurrying, a soft thud, then the swift pattering of leather soles across the ground. He was just barely able to catch a glimpse of Sebastian running back into the bushes. He cursed fiercely and started giving chase. Sebastian was faster than him, and more familiar with the area. It wasn’t long until he disappeared again. A couple of minutes later, Gerald caught up to him. “Did you lose him?”
“Yes,” Kyle mumbled.
“You should have taken the shot.”
Kyle’s tone turned harsher and he kicked at a stray pebble. “Yeah, I see that now. Thanks.”
“Calm down,” Gerald warned. “Use your head. You’re not tracking an animal. Sebastian is your brother; how does he think? What would he do?”
“Trust me, I’ve been asking myself that for thirteen years now.”
Gerald chuckled. “Alright, I can see that. So, what does that tell you?”
Kyle fell into silent introspection. His brow furrowed as he once again observed his surroundings. Sebastian was impulsive; he knew that. He was smart about it, but he usually made his plans on the spot. He wasn’t a good climber—the scuff marks showed he struggled making his way up that tree. They had also given him away. And if anything, Sebastian was quick to adapt and smart enough not to make the same mistake twice. He would look around for what he could use next and he would do so as quickly as possible. “Okay,” Kyle mumbled under his breath. “Okay, okay, okay. . .” He resumed pacing. Sebastian wouldn’t be high up this time, but would still favor a hiding spot that allowed him to observe his surroundings.
With all of that in mind, Kyle set off again, searching for tracks and analyzing possible hiding spots as he passed them. He didn’t stop to look at anything closely, rather, he tried to think what decision his brother would make in the spur of the moment. There was a cluster of trees—thick, intertwined trunks forming a small alcove at the center. This time, he didn’t stop to think about it and aimed his crossbow as best as he could. The bolt infiltrated a gap in the wall of branches and hit with a dull thud.
“Ah. Crap. That hurts!” Sebastian scrambled out of cover, one hand covering his abdomen. “Shit.”
Gerald walked up to meet Kyle and offered an approving nod. “Excellent. Well done.” A small smirk followed. “But you forgot one thing.”
Kyle opened his mouth to ask what he meant, but his question was immediately answered when he felt sharp metal press again the back of his neck and a soft whisper of, “Dead.”
He’d forgotten Johanna.
Kyle glanced at Gerald. “You were supposed to be on my team.”
“I am. I’m teaching you to be alert. You never know who or what is gonna be lurking around, and you need to remember that. Got it? Yes, I will have your back whenever possible, but don’t rely on that.”
The cold of the metal lifted from his skin and Kyle drew a deeper breath, but turned to glare at Gerald. “Traitor.”
“Don’t be overdramatic, boy.” Gerald looked towards Sebastian sitting under a tree, holding his side. “Speaking of, you alright there?”
Sebastian hissed under his breath. “No.”
“I told you those would pack a punch.”
“I’ve been punched. Multiple times. This is not just a punch.”
Johanna frowned and walked over, crouching beside him. “Let me see.”
Sebastian lifted his shirt. There was a small bruise forming on the left side of his abdomen.
Jo hummed softly as she inspected the contusion. “It’s not so bad. Walk it off.”
Sebastian let out a shaky laugh. “I can’t get up, Jo.”
Jo straightened up and offered him a helping hand. “Come on.”
Sebastian took Jo’s hand and was able to get up with assistance, leaning on her and taking a few uneven steps.
Gerald watched with concern. “We might want to invest in some body armor before attempting this again.”
Sebastian chuckled softly. “Please.”
Jo wasn’t pleased with the suggestion. “It’s restricting.”
Gerald shook his head. “So are broken ribs, Johanna.”
“It’s not broken.”
Sebastian groaned. “It feels broken.”
“It’s not broken.” Despite arguing, Jo started helping Sebastian back to the Outpost. “You’ll be fine.”
Kyle started following them. “You sure he’s gonna be alright?”
Johanna nodded. “Yes.”
Sebastian chuckled again. “Good thing you didn’t actually get me in the face though. Twins.”
Kyle grimaced. “Could have happened, I didn’t quite have a visual on you. And even if I did, my aim isn’t that spot on, yet.”
“You did catch me twice, though, so. . . Well done.” Sebastian forced a deeper breath and after a couple more steps managed to straighten up and walk on his own.
Kyle shrugged, disarming his crossbow and slinging it across his shoulder. “I’m still ‘dead’.”
Sebastian shook his head, rubbing the bruised spot on his abdomen. “Cry me a river there, bro.”
Johanna reached out to pat Kyle’s shoulder. “You did well. Accept that.”
Kyle smiled a little. “Alright.”
“Good. It’s important to acknowledge progress.”
Sebastian chimed in. “How’s my progress?”
Johanna snorted softly. “You’ll get there.”
Sebastian chuckled, though a pained grunt followed. “Ow. Thanks. My ego feels better, at least.”
[Abandoned Outpost |Pyros 18th |Late Night]
Sebastian brought his journal with him to the kitchen. Kyle fell asleep immediately after dinner, Johanna was supposed to keep watch tonight so that Gerald could sleep, and Gabrielle hadn’t been seen since the night before. It came as no surprise to him that the room was completely dark. He placed his journal and writing supplies on the table and set out to ignite the stove and find the kettle. Upon request, Johanna had set aside some time to instruct him on how to make a proper tea, but this would be his first attempt to do it on his own. Once he’d put the water on, he brought a lit candle to the table, placing it at a safe distance from the journal, and sat down to write.
Sebastian opened the book and stared at the blank page. He didn’t know how to feel about the training session that morning. Johanna was right, he only had himself to blame for being discovered. And he wasn’t looking forward to being shot with a crossbow again any time soon; armor or no armor. He needed a better strategy next time.
By the time the kettle whistled he was already finished with his entry, and closed the journal before standing up to pull the kettle from the stove. He located tea leaves, two cups and sugar, then gave it his best shot at making something drinkable.
When he was done he brought both cups to the table, set one down across from him, and took a small sip from his. It turned out to be sweeter than what he was used to, but he decided this was more to his liking
The pain from the crossbow shot had dulled throughout the day. The dark bruise on his abdomen was now painless unless he poked at it; which, admittedly, he had done once or twice. It wasn’t enough to keep him awake. Nor was his failure at stealth earlier in the day. There was something else nagging at his subconscious. Like a faint whisper, telling him to sit here and wait.
So, Sebastian sat, taking small sips of tea, distracting himself with the cacophony of cricket-chirps playing out outside. He only looked up when he noticed the silhouette standing in the doorway—recognizable by its tall frame and brimmed hat. He indicated the tea cup across from his and smiled. “It’s still warm.”
Sebastian’s smile shut when Gabrielle staggered into the kitchen. She leaned on the back of the chair for a few seconds before she was able to pull it and sit with a tired sigh. “Did you know I was coming or did you make that just in case?”
“Yes.” Sebastian smirked, but it was offset by concern. “Are you hurt?”
Gabrielle drew the tea cup closer with an amused sound. “And you two complain I’m cryptic.”
“You’re ignoring my question. Should I go find Jo?”
Gabrielle snorted, taking a small sip of tea. “That won’t be necessary, Rivers. I injured my leg yesterday evening, but it’s nothing serious.”
“How did you injure your leg?”
“Jumping down from a ledge, had a bit of a rough landing, hit my knee on the ground.”
“Why. . . ?”
“Don’t push it.” Gabrielle’s tone, while calm, carried warning.
“Gerald came back looking like crap the other day, now you’re coming back with a limp. There’s something going on that you aren’t telling us.”
“There is always something going on that we aren’t telling you. And you’ll hear about it when you’re ready to hear about it. Until then. . .”
“I don’t like. . .” Sebastian shook his head, his fingers brushing the leather exterior of his journal. “I don’t like the idea that one of you might just not come back one day.”
“You don’t have to like it.” Gabrielle took another sip of tea and leaned back in her chair, stretching her injured leg with a small groan. “But you should accept it. Because it’s a very real, very likely, scenario.”
“Jo was crying, after Gerald came back.”
“Don’t let her know you heard that.” Gabrielle set her tea cup down and removed her hat, smoothing down loose strands of hair. “And that doesn’t surprise me. She was scared for him.”
“Were you scared for him?”
“Concerned might be more accurate.” She placed the hat on her lap and reached for the cup again. “Just because you accept the likeliness of something, doesn’t mean you’d want to see it happen. Or that you would allow it to happen if you are in a position to stop it, Rivers.”
“I don’t know that I would be. I mean, if something happened, I don’t know if I’d be able to do something about it.” Sebastian frowned at his cup of tea. “It feels like, no matter how much progress I make, I’m not strong enough.”
“What does that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“Being strong enough. What does that mean? What is ‘strength’ to you?” Gabrielle watched him over the rim of the cup. “Are you here because you’re strong enough to fight back? Or are you here because you’re too weak to move on?”
Sebastian scratched at the leather journal with his fingertips, forehead creasing. He wanted to be mad at the question—call it unfair—but if he was honest, he had been asking himself the same question on some level.
After a few silent moments he stilled and lowered his hand to his lap. “Yes.”
“Hm.” Gabrielle drained her cup and set it down. “I see.”
“Those things you haven’t been telling us. . . We’re gonna have to hear about them sooner than you’d like, right? Is that what Gerald meant when he told us you all agreed on something, but you weren’t happy about it?”
“That is. . . A likely scenario. That said, not if I’m in a position to prevent it.”
Sebastian snorted a chuckle. “Twins. Alright. I guess, from you, that’s a straight answer.”
“I always give straight answers, Rivers. You’re not listening correctly.”
“How is ‘yes and no’ a straight answer to whether someone gifted you a book?”
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow. “Yes, my father gifted me a book. And no, my father never gifted me a book.”
“That’s a contradiction, Porter!”
Gabrielle shook her head, amused. “Unless. . . ?”
“Unless? Unless. . .” Sebastian ruffled his hair, glaring at her in frustration. “There’s no way both those statements are true, unless. . . You’re talking about two different people.”
“That’s not possible.”
Gabrielle rolled her eyes. “I held your hand enough. Figure it out.”
“Unless. . .” Sebastian muttered under his breath. There was something he was missing, he knew that. “Oh.”
“. . . Oh?”
“The dedication on the book. It said ‘welcome home’.”
“Mhm. What conclusion have you drawn from that?”
“You were adopted. Your adoptive father gave you the book. As a welcome.”
She nodded. “Correct.”
The surge of excitement over the discovery drained as Sebastian held Gabrielle’s gaze. He fidgeted in his seat, averting his eyes.
“I finished it.”
“Is that so?”
“Mhm. Last night.” Sebastian drank the last of his tea and stood up to refill his cup. “I understand it, in a sense, but. . . It’s still very confusing.”
“I imagine it would be.”
“Frustrating too. I mean, sometimes I think I know what I’m doing. You know? It makes sense. I should be able to trust my gut, but. . .” Sebastian shook his head, staring at the wall behind the counter.
“No one can predict the future, Rivers. Not really. Not in any straightforward sense. If Time himself existed, as that book describes, even he wouldn’t be able to have that level of certainty.”
“Too many variables. Yeah. I understand that.” Sebastian finally refilled his tea cup, but didn’t turn around. “I also understand that knowing the odds of something happening doesn’t make one responsible, still. . .”
“If you could have seen it, you wouldn’t have been able to stop it. That’s the reality of the situation. And if you have been telling yourself otherwise, I suggest you stop.”
“I know it’s. . . It’s irrational. I get that. There’s nothing I could have done to change things even if I could have seen it coming, but. . . I think about it. I do.” Sebastian took a small sip of tea, still facing the wall. “Kyle was telling me how he’s learning to keep himself controlled and I thought, you know, if I could’ve controlled this. Maybe.”
“That’s a dangerous path for you to wander, Rivers. It only goes around in circles. It leads you nowhere. All it’s going to do is leave you exhausted and miserable. If you want to do something, focus on what you still can do. Not what you should have or maybe could have done. Do you understand?”
Sebastian shot a brief glance towards his journal, then nodded. “I should go up and try to sleep. I’m sure Jo will drag me out of bed to get shot again early tomorrow.”
Gabrielle hummed. “Who shot you?”
“I hope Gerald gave him blunt arrows. Otherwise I need to take that crossbow away next time I leave the Outpost.”
“Yes. Those still hurt, I’ll have you know.”
“They’re supposed to hurt. It’s your incentive not to get shot again.”
“I suppose we’ll find out tomorrow if it works, won’t we?”
Sebastian emptied his tea cup for the second time and turned to retrieve his journal from the table. “Good night, Porter.”
Gabrielle nodded. “Good night.”
[Valcrest Forest | Cosmos 20th | Early Afternoon]
Over the course of a month, Sebastian felt the intensity of his training escalate exponentially. If he was able to find the slightest reprieve, Johanna made sure to take it away immediately. When avoiding Kyle started to become easier, Gerald started instructing him to lay out traps for him. When he’d learned to avoid those, Gerald began to actively hunt for him as well. When he managed to avoid Gerald’s bow, Johanna flipped teams and began stalking him through the woods—with a branch in hand at first, later replacing it with her actual sword. They would go into the forest early in the morning and he was only allowed to leave after he was caught, or. . . Well, he wasn’t sure. No matter how long he managed to endure, it always ended the same. With two new bruises. One to his skin, the other, his ego.
Sebastian lost track of how long he’d spent on the run this time, but if the sun wasn’t enough indication, the empty feeling in his gut left no room for doubt. Lunch had past. He was also thirsty, sweaty under his padded tunic, and weighing the risk of another direct crossbow shot against being able to breathe easier without it. He reached for the laces with a slow, deep breath. “No pain, no reward, right?” he mumbled under his breath. The tunic was discarded in the bushes and he made a mental note of where he’d left it. His undershirt was drenched and clinging to his body. Drops of sweat trailed down his forehead and threatened to fall into his eyes. He would find the nearest pond and dive straight in if he wasn’t sure Kyle boobytrapped every water source in the area. The asshole.
Sebastian shook his head, with an amused huff. He was letting his discomfort get the best of him. Being emotional would only make him careless and worsen his situation.
The forest appeared still. He found a good hiding spot amongst the branches of an oak tree, but sitting there until nightfall wouldn’t accomplish anything.
Glancing around for any signs of movement, Sebastian hung from the lowest branch of the oak and carefully dropped down, landing on a small patch of grass. He momentarily froze, waiting for a sound, or another sign of movement, but found none. Assured that he hadn’t given himself away, he started to move.
Over the course of these exercises Sebastian learned to identify Gerald and Kyle when they were out hunting for him. Gerald was difficult to detect, but he wasn’t completely silent. Johanna, however, was still a ghost. Any time he was out in the open, there was a possibility that she was already stalking him, and he wouldn’t know until it was too late. Despite that risk, going on the offensive now seemed like his only course of action.
Sebastian moved swiftly, weaving in between the trees, keeping to the shadows as much as possible. His eyes scoured his surroundings for signs of movement. The forest was vast and, while Sebastian didn’t stray too far from the Outpost, there was no agreement on how far they were allowed to extend this little game. It could take hours for him to come across anyone; even if they were actively hunting for him.
The sun was starting its descent by the time a faint rustle drew Sebastian’s attention. He ducked into cover in the nick of time and watched from his hiding spot as Kyle came out from between two trees, forehead creased, eyes moving from side to side as he scanned his surroundings. Despite this, he passed Sebastian without noticing him and once he had walked far enough away, Sebastian crawled from out of his cover, silently following his twin at a safe distance. He considered an abush. He could, at the very least, get back at Kyle for all the crossbow shots he’d sustained over the past month. This would likely give him away. Gerald and Johanna would very easily get to him if he couldn’t silence Kyle quickly. On the other hand, he might lose any trace of sunlight before he managed to track either of them down. Finding them at night would be impossible. Especially Johanna. Drawing them out might not be the worst idea.
“Ow! Son of a. . . Oow.” Kyle’s voice echoed as he rubbed the back of his head. He tried to look around through tear-filled eyes, but his assailant had all but disappeared as quickly as he’d jumped out of the bushes. “That was fucking low, Seb!”
“No such thing as a fair fight.”
Kyle snorted, not at all surprised that Johanna was right behind him. His cry was loud. “I want to hear you say that when he knocks you in the back of the head.”
Gerald joined them a minute later, holding the padded tunic Sebastian had discarded earlier in the afternoon. He showed it to Johanna. “I guess he agrees with you about armor being restricting.”
Kyle tried to shake his head, but stopped himself when it exacerbated the pain in his skull. “Asshole.”
Gerald couldn’t help a small chuckle. “You’re gonna get a little bump, it’s not that bad.”
Johanna didn’t look as amused. Her eyes narrowed as she paced around, investigating every dark corner of their surroundings. Her hand crept to the hilt of her sword, her body tense as though bracing for impact.
Kyle frowned as he watched her. “You think he’s still ar-”
“Ssshh.” Jo hissed, with each finger methodically tightening around the grip of her sword.
Something rustled to her right and when she turned towards the sound, Sebastian emerged on her left side, his sword slashing dangerously close to her face.
It caught her off-guard.
Jo stumbled back in order to avoid the blow. She recovered quickly with a counter, but a thin line of blood formed along her cheek.
Kyle had raised his crossbow the moment his brother emerged from the trees, but Gerald reached for it and pulled it down in a silent command not to interfere. He obeyed, but seeing how Johanna’s eyes had turned to steel made him think Sebastian might be better off taking another crossbow shot. He glanced at Gerald in question, but the man wasn’t looking at him; his eyes were fixed on the pair of swords clashing just a few feet away.
Kyle had never actually seen his brother fight before. Sebastian had talked about his training in extensive detail, and Kyle had witnessed the aftermath of his spars with Johanna multiple times, but seeing it unfold made it all too real. Despite the fact that Sebastian had gone into this visibly exhausted, he was still able to swiftly dodge and parry most of Jo’s strikes. Some of the more forceful blows against his blade seemed to take a toll on his balance and Johanna knew how to take advantage of that—her strikes coming down with greater force each time. Sebastian’s response to this was to lean more on dodging rather than blocking. Even tired he was agile, and it seemed as though the more he succeeded in avoiding Johanna’s blade, the more accurate he became in doing it. So much so that her sword began to meet nothing but air. Johanna increased the speed of her attacks. Precise and methodical at first, but as Sebastian continued to avoid her completely, they became frustrated.
Kyle could see the trace of a smirk begin to form in Sebastian’s expression. That all-too-familiar glint in his eye. The same one he was used to seeing whenever his brother managed to make one of his insane ideas pay off. All his dancing around was the means to a particular end—one that, for now, only he was able to see.
Sebastian’s eyes were focused on Johanna’s every move, his fingers tensing and relaxing on the grip of his sword, waiting for a split-second advantage, one careless lunge. If exhaustion got the best of him before it happened, he knew there would be a steep price to pay. Of all people to be toying with, Johanna was the absolute worst one; he knew that from experience. Thankfully, he didn’t have to wait much longer. Johanna overreached, creating a perfect opportunity for Sebastian to slip past her guard. He grabbed the wrist of her wielding hand and struck the side of her face with the hilt of his sword. Jo released her sword and stumbled back, falling to one knee and shaking her head with a soft groan of pain.
Gerald released Kyle’s crossbow then with a small nod of consent. Kyle glanced at the man for confirmation then raised the crossbow, aimed carefully, and released the bolt. It his Sebastian in the lower back and he hit the ground with a yelp of pain.
“Son of a. . . Ooow.”
Gerald walked over to help Jo back to her feet. “Do not, under any circumstance, remove your armor. Are we clear, boy?”
Sebastian drew in a sharp breath and hissed. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” He walked over to help him up next. “Well done.”
Sebastian leaned on Gerald with another pained grunt. “Thank you. Can I crawl into a hole and die now?”
Gerald chuckled. “Sorry, kid. Not on my watch.”
Sebastian groaned, “Fine.” He forced a deep breath, glancing at Jo. There was a bruise starting to form on the side of her face. A small stab of guilt hit him. “Are you alright?”
Jo smiled, though she still looked a little woozy. “Takes more than that. Don’t worry.”
Gerald rolled his eyes. “Wouldn’t happen if you wore a helmet.” He smirked and poked Kyle on the back of the head. “Both of you.”
Kyle winced and swatted his hand away. “Don’t poke my head bump, asshole.”
Sebastian snorted. “I’d feel bad about that if you hadn’t shot me straight in the back.”
Kyle scoffed. “Trust me, you’d feel worse if I’d hit you where I’d actually aimed.”
Sebastian initially glared at his brother, but shook his head right after, mumbling. “Reload.”
“Just. . . trust me. Reload.”
Kyle frowned in confusion, but grabbed a bolt from Gerald’s quiver and loaded it into his crossbow. “There. Reloaded.”
Sebastian nodded approvingly. “Let’s head back. I’m starving.”
Kyle looked to Gerald and Johanna for clarification, but they looked as confused as he was. “Alright.”
The walk back to the Outpost was slow. The last rays of sunlight were falling over the crest behind the world when they finally stepped into the clearing. Kyle trailed behind Gerald, still inspecting the occasional movement in the shadows; more out of habit than for any particular reason. Which is why it took a moment to register the fact something in there was, in fact, scurrying. Recognizing the movement, Kyle fumbled to aim his crossbow and pressed on the trigger. The bolt went flying into the bushes and penetrated something, the end feathers sticking out from the leaves at an angle.
The sound drew Gerald’s attention and he turned around to look. “What did you shoot?”
“I hope it’s a rabbit, but I’m not sure.” Kyle walked to the bush in question and crouched down to see what his target had been. He grabbed the end of the bolt and pulled it closer, dragging a small body along with it. “Holy crap. I actually got one.”
Gerald smiled. “It’s a little small, but. . . Yes, you did.”
Kyle inspected the rabbit. The bolt had penetrated the back of its head, killing it instantly. He grinned, grabbing it by its hind legs and scrambling to his feet to run ahead. “Porter needs to see this!”
Gerald chuckled under his breath, watching the teenager run past the other and scramble up the stairs to reach the office.
Johanna grinned. “Too small for a stew.”
“It is, but he’s proud of it. Let him have it.”
Jo nodded with an agreeing hum, watching Sebastian as he continued to stumble his way to the Eastern Tower—presumably to reach the bath. “Good thing he reloaded.”
[Safe House | Duellum 12th | Nightfall]
Sebastian frowned at the crackling beneath his footsteps. The warmth of the sun, present throughout most of the afternoon, faded with its last rays of light. With the descent of shadows over the forest, a light breeze started to blow through the canopy above, covering the ground with a fresh layer of dry Autumn leaves. As a child, he enjoyed crunching them under his boots or in his hands. Back then, the sound used to elicit joy and satisfaction. Tonight, it made him feel like he’d swallowed a bag of rocks.
When he and Kyle were informed they would be brought along on an actual hunt, Sebastian wasn’t sure how to feel; excitement, dread, pride. . . It all amalgamated into a single feeling of discomfort in his gut. One that didn’t alleviate in the five-day journey to the safe house, and only grew more intense as he stood there, awaiting the full cover of night.
The cabin they were occupying was deep within the forest, south of the Outpost. Unlike the one they’d occupied in the trip to Newhaven, it was spacious and supplied well enough to accomodate a group of five. Johanna and Gabrielle had arrived with them, but only stayed long enough to go over their plans one more time.
There would be two groups of Wolves traveling nearby. Johanna and Gabrielle would attack a group of four. Gerald was tasked with hunting down the other two. Kyle and Sebastian were to remain hidden and observe. The words “no matter what” had been used repeatedly during their instruction. They were to remain hidden, they were not to interfere, if anything should go wrong they were to return to the safe house immediately. . . “No matter what. Do you understand?” While Gabrielle’s expression was never less than serious, her eyes sat on the boys with a deadly intensity. They nodded, silent. “Good.” Tension drained from the room with her exit, but the severity of her words still lingered, heavy on the boys’ shoulders.
Sebastian drew a deep breath, tilting his head back until it met the outer wall of the safe house. It was a clear night. It was possible to see glimpses of starry sky beyond the cover of trees—moonlight flickered in and out as branches stirred in the breeze.
Sebastian turned to face the now-open door of the safe house and saw Kyle standing there, looking as shaken as he felt. Sebastian forced a smile. “Hey.”
Kyle looked odd in leather armor, though Sebastian knew his own appearance mirrored his twin’s in most things. He looked down at himself with a thoughtful frown. At least this was proper armor: fitted to their bodies, not as bulky as the padded tunic Gerald made him wear during training. The bracers he was given resembled Johanna’s; malleable leather that covered the length of his forearm and palms. Kyle’s were different and, he assumed, better suited for archery.
Kyle watched him for a long moment, then stepped outside to lean against the wall. “What are you thinking about?”
Sebastian smiled. “If you really want to know. I was thinking it’s a lovely night. Not a terrible time to die.”
Kyle grimaced. “Twins, Seb. Really?”
Sebastian chuckled softly. “I didn’t say it’s going to be me. Just, in general, not a terrible night.”
Kyle shook his head. “It’s my fault for asking.”
“Yeah, it is. You should know better.”
Kyle snorted something in between amusement and aggravation, but Gerald stepped out before he could voice a reply.
“Go pick up your weapons. It’s time to go.”
The twins both nodded and entered the house, leaving Gerald to wait outside as they collected their gear. Gabrielle had given Kyle a nice quiver as congratulations for finally shooting a rabbit and he’d worn it on his waist every day since like a badge of honor. Even though his access to real arrows was still restricted. Gerald had provided him with six of them tonight, but the idea was that he should start making his own soon. Kyle loaded the bolts into his quiver, slung the crossbow over his shoulder and headed outside immediately.
Sebastian lingered, even though all he needed to do was collect his sword. The feeling in his gut was starting to nag at him. It lurched on him as if he were slowly approaching a cliff edge. As if another step could lead him hurtling to the rocks below. He must have lagged behind for longer than he thought because Gerald came in to check on him.
“Hey, are you alright in there?”
Sebastian nodded, finally hanging his scabbard across his back. “My nerves are getting to me, I think, but I’m alright.”
“Look, kid, if you think you’re not ready, you can wait here. No one’s going to think any less of you.”
“I want to go. I’ll be alright, really.”
“If you’re sure.” Gerald looked him over, assessing. “Do you remember what you have to do?”
Sebastian rolled his eyes. “Stay hidden and not get involved.”
“Good, you paid attention.” Gerald urged him out the door with a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Everything goes to plan, we’ll all be back here safe and sound by morning.”
[Valcrest Forest | Duellum 13th | Late Night]
Sebastian’s eyes grew heavier the longer he tried to focus down the narrow path he was supposed to be watching. The tree branch he was perched on wasn’t too uncomfortable at first, but after a couple of hours, aches flared up in his lower back. Kyle perched on another tree across from him, almost out of sight. If he really focused, it was possible to make out his silhouette in the dark, posture slack, crossbow laying across his lap. Gerald was on the ground somewhere. There hadn’t been much sign of him in the hours they’d been sitting there, but he was there.
Gerald had warned them that it wasn’t completely possible to predict which paths the Wolves would take, and cited “nothing” as one of several negative outcomes. Even though “nothing” appeared to be the case, Sebastian couldn’t shake off that feeling.
His toes dangled at the edge of the cliff. It was quiet. Had been for hours. A lot quieter than it would be normal in the forest. No crickets, no owls, no signs of life whatsoever. The only sound Sebastian was able to hear was the faint rustling of leaves above their heads as the breeze blew past.
It wasn’t until a couple more hours went by that the silence was shattered by a loud snap. The forest instantly sprung to life. Sebastian sat up straighter, frantically scoping the shadows below, trying to find some sign of movement. The sound echoed and reverberated among the trees, making it hard to identify where it had come from. As Sebastian inched closer to the end of his perch he was able to see rustling, and hear footsteps and rushed voices coming from below.
“No. Head back to camp. Right now. There has to be more of them around. Don’t—”
The sentence was cut off by a groan and wet gurgling sounds. A dull thud followed. More rustling. A cloaked figure stumbled out of the trees. The man was clutching at his throat, chokes and wheezes escaping him as he struggled for breath. Hints of moonlight reflected oddly off his shimmering black hands—coated in blood. Another shadow stepped out of the brush as the assassin crumbled to his knees; a familiar silhouette. Gerald towered over the man as he grabbed him by the hair, pulling his head back. His other hand ran across the assassins throat. He shook in a sporadic twitch and quickly fell limp. Gerald released the fallen assassin and crouched down beside the body. Sebastian had to lean forward to see what he was doing. He was searching for something. Whatever it was; he couldn’t find it.
Footsteps drew near and Gerald stood upright, clutching his bow. They were supposed to be hunting a pair. One was already down. There should only be one more, but the footsteps seemed like they were coming from different directions. Much like the snap from before, the noise bounced around between the trees. Gerald nocked an arrow, trying to make sense of where to aim. Sebastian watched him stand in place, body tense, head low. One moment he was motionless like a statue, the next he drew the string of his bow, aimed it, and released. It was too dark to see the arrow fly, but another heavy thud confirmed that it found its target. Gerald reached for another arrow and as he pulled it from his quiver, something large flew out from the darkness and collided with him. The arrow fell from his grip as he stumbled under the impact.
As Gerald wrestled the assassin in the dark, Sebastian spotted another silhouette stirring between the trunks of two trees below, the shape of a bow being drawn. Gerald’s reminder to not interfere whispered in the back of his mind. He’d seen Gerald easily deflect Gabrielle’s crossbow more than once before, but he was preoccupied. He wouldn’t see it coming.
The familiar click of a crossbow trigger broke through Sebastian’s thoughts. The bow-wielding shadow stumbled forward and fell on one knee. Another click and the assassin collapsed, face down on the ground. Sebastian looked over at his brother and saw Kyle fumbling to reload. He was well aware of the noise his crossbow made.
Another rustle made Sebastian clutch the grip of his sword. It came from right below his perch. Leaves crunching under leather soles. As it drew closer, Sebastian heard a hitch of breath; rapid, almost panicked. He looked around for the source of the sound. It had to be close. He inched a forearm’s stretch closer and then. . . The branch cracked under him.
The ragged breaths he had been listening for stilled. The twang of a bowstring accompanied a stab of pain so intense Sebastian didn’t realize he had been knocked off the tree until his back hit the ground. He groaned and blinked, trying to make sense of the shadow obscuring his vision of the canopy. It was a person standing over him, bow in hand, another arrow nocked.
The sound of Kyle’s crossbow echoed a third time. The figure standing over Sebastian flinched and turned away, leaving him to stare up at a small patch of star-pricked sky above.
It was, no doubt, a lovely night.