The Heart of The Forest – Epilogue

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[Newhaven |Tempus 20th, 2525 | Early Afternoon]

In the earliest days of Valcrest, when the Gods still walked the Mortal Realm, one of War’s Generals asked the Twin for his thoughts on forgiveness. War’s answer was simple: “Destroy your enemies, then forgive yourself.”

Unfortunately, no answers are simple in the minds of mortals, and words such as ‘forgiveness’, ‘justice’, ‘loyalty’, ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ had their meanings warped with the times. To the God that is War, battle was a means to an end and destruction a necessary evil to be pondered upon in the aftermath; you forgave yourself because you knew it was, without a doubt, the best possible course of action. Now, you don’t forgive yourself, because you know—no matter how inevitable—the blood on your hands was far from necessary. Forgiveness is an empty word meant to illustrate a sentiment that perished with the Gods that preached it. And as times progress, I fear hope will ultimately follow.

A loud crash and a slew of curses filled the two story home. “THERON!”

Theron startled upon hearing his father coming up the stairs, nearly dropping his book and fumbling to replace it with a history book. He pushed the offending tome under his bed just in the nick of time, hiding his face in a passage about some inane argument between crop growers and cow herders in the old city of Blackhurst. Why anyone would bother learning of such dull affairs was beyond him, but he focused on the words as though every line of petty argumentation and vapid rebuttal was the most riveting work of literature ever penned. While awaiting the creaking sound of his bedroom door, in the back of his mind, he wondered how aware those people were of their impending downfall.

“Theron.” The door creaked as expected, his father’s tone gentler now. “Theron, you were supposed to pack your bag. Not distract yourself with,” he stopped to glimpse the book cover, “Historical Records of Blackhurst? Since when do we own this?”

“One of the customers left it at the store last week,” Theron admitted. “I figured I should hold on to it for now.”

His father scoffed, but attempted to mask his distaste. “That’s well and good, son, but you can read about Blackhurst nobles and their squabbles any other time. Right now I need you to finish packing and come help load the wagon. We can’t afford to be late with this delivery.”

Theron closed his borrowed book with a nod. “Yes, sir. I’ll be right down.”

Thankfully, Theron’s father left the room without noticing the already packed travel bag on the floor next to his bed. As the door closed, the seventeen-year-old breathed a sigh of relief, discarding the history book. He fished out the old leather-bound tome he’d carelessly hid under the bed and frowned, as though it had deliberately caused his situation. After a moment’s hesitation, Theron grabbed his bag and stuffed the book inside. This delivery would be a week-long trip, maybe he could read a few more pages while his father slept. As long as he was careful, nothing bad would come of it. Satisfied with its contents, Theron flung the bag over one shoulder and walked out.

The upstairs hallway was dark with all the lamps extinguished and windows latched shut. His father’s door was closed at one end of the hall, the hatch leading up to the attic, closed and locked up tight as well. The hall ended in a cozy living room, framed by bookshelves and wall decorations; souvenirs and artwork from foreign places he’d never actually visited. Cushioned chairs sat near an unlit fireplace. The books on the shelves were mostly decoration; business ledgers and fancy editions of history books meant to fill the space and look nice. His father wasn’t an avid reader, the only books worth reading once belonged to Theron’s mother and were now locked in the attic along with any other reminders of her presence in the home. A narrator in one of the heroic tales she read to him as a boy might refer to those shelves as empty shells where her soul once resided. If they did, Theron was sure she’d find that beautiful. He found it unfair.

Hardwood steps creaked under Theron’s boots as he descended the stairs. His father’s office—usually neatly organized—was in disarray due to his rushed preparations. This delivery was a last minute request. A client needed supplies delivered to the desert within the week and the pay was too great to refuse. No matter how many times he asked, he’d never been allowed to go on deliveries, but accepting this job meant Theron would be left to spend his birthday alone and that was one argument his father wouldn’t win.

A chime on the front door announced the coming and going of potential buyers in the store front. Martin; the only other employee besides Theron, greeted them amicably. They must not have found what they wanted, because they left before Theron came out into the store. Martin grinned at him. “You finally get to go on a trip, eh, boy? S’like my old ma used to say, ‘you be careful what you wish for’. Could be spending your birthday at the Inn having a pint, maybe find yourself a pretty girl… You’re gonna end up stuck in the woods with your old man, bored to death.”

Theron rolled his eyes. “I can have a pint when I get back, Martin. When will I ever have another chance to go to the desert? Meet the Crimson Shadows?”

Martin hummed softly. “Well, there are some pretty girls in the Crimson Shadows too. Them folk over there are rather… Loose. Nice thinking, kid.”

Theron groaned. “They’re a proud clan of warriors and smiths, Martin. Honestly, you’re such a simple-minded lecher.”

Martin leaned over the shop counter, a momentary scowl crossed his features, but was pushed aside with a scoff. “Whatever, kid. Here,” he muttered, pulling a box from behind the counter and pushing it towards Theron. “Happy birthday. Just don’t tell your old man where you got it.”

“My birthday isn’t for another three days,” Theron pointed out, but took the box and opened anyway. Inside was a simple dagger. Nothing fancy, but definitely something his father wouldn’t want him to have. Theron looked up, staring at Martin inquisitively.

“Your old man babies you. You’re almost your own man now. About time you carry one around.”

Theron glanced to where his father was struggling to load the heavy cargo into the back of their wagon outside. “Thanks,” he muttered, taking the dagger and hiding it in his backpack. “Don’t set the place on fire while we’re out.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it, kiddo.”

Outside, their two horses neighed and huffed in anticipation for the long trip. Another aggravated call drew him outside to help with the crates and Theron took the time to pet both animals before taking the next crate off his father’s hands. “Sorry. Martin was being a nuisance.”

Theron took after his father in many ways; same dark brown mussed up hair, same dark brown eyes, same jawline, same nose. However, Theron was taller than his father by several inches, and being made to do most of the heavy lifting in preparation for these trips helped build him up stronger as well. Despite this, his father never approved of Theron learning to fight or wielding weapons. Martin’s gift was the second piece of contraband he would be bringing along for this trip. His guilty thoughts were interrupted by a heavy crate being dropped onto his arms. “Here, son. Finish loading the wagon while I make sure the house is locked up,” his father said. “Did you remember to close the window in your room?”

“Uhm. . . ” Theron dropped the crate on the back of the wagon and wasted no time picking up another. “I think so?”

His father sighed. “I’ll double-check. Martin will lock up the shop when he leaves for the day. Hopefully he won’t forget.”

“You trust the man with the books, but won’t trust him to lock the back door.” Theron’s laugh strained from the weight of another box. “At least you know where your priorities lie.”

“Being bad with numbers will cost you more in the long run, Theron,” his father chastised.

Theron rolled his eyes, loading the final crate into the wagon and tying up the cargo so it wouldn’t jostle too much during the trip. “I’m sure there are people you could hire that can do both, pops. If you can’t rely on Martin for anything beyond bookkeeping then what’s the point in keeping him?”

Theron’s father shook his head, smiling. “You’re barely seventeen and you’re already trying to tell me how to run the business, huh?” He gave his son a pat on the shoulder, “you’ll make those decisions one day, but not today, son.”

Theron hummed softly, throwing his bag onto the wagon. “The cargo’s ready. If you’re going to double-check that window you should get on it, sir. We only have a week to deliver this, you know.”

“Wise ass,” he scoffed, heading inside the house for one last inspection.

“At least you didn’t raise a dumbass, Greyson,” Martin chimed in from inside the shop.

Theron shook his head. It was such an old stupid joke, yet he found himself laughing when his father shot back with “an ass is still an ass, Martin.”

The horses snorted in unison, and the male pawed at the stone ground. Threron made his way around to greet the animals, placing one hand on each of their heads to scratch between their ears. “Easy now, we’ll be off soon. If you’re lucky we’ll come across some nice apple trees in the forest, huh? They should be nice and ripe this time of year.” The male, Dusk, snorted and turned his head to try and chew on Theron’s hair. “Hey, no,” he scolded, pushing the horse’s snout away. “I’m not due for a haircut for at least another month.”

“I don’t know about that, I think you should let him trim some of it,” his father chimed in, ruffling the back of his own hair as he took his seat at the wagon. “You left your window open, by the way. Be more careful next time.”

Theron sighed. “Yes, sir.” He gave the horses a few extra pats before joining his father and handing him the reins. “What are we delivering anyway? It’s a big shipment on such short notice.”

“A little bit of everything. It’s on short notice because the people taking the goods to Terra are on a tight schedule. It seems something happened to their original shipment.”

“Why do they need to acquire goods from us to sell in Terra? I’d think an empire of their size would be able to provide for itself.”

“There are things that can only be obtained in Valcrest. Teas, some spices, they look down on our craftsmanship but it’s considered a novelty over there. Sort of like those glass sculptures we brought in last month sold so well. No one here sculpts glass like they do in Terra, so it’s a big deal. It’s useless, but since when do nobles care about that?”

Theron chuckled. “Alright. I see what you mean. Is that why they’re offering so much for it? They’re going to make twice as much selling our useless craftsmanship over there?”

“Something like that, yes. We also might be able to trade for coffee and chocolate, which is good because our last shipment is almost all gone.”

“We need to start growing coffee,” Theron complained. “It’s so expensive.”

“Climate and soil conditions or what have you.” His father shrugged. “If Valcrest wasn’t the mess it currently is and trade agreements were in place like when Brightvale still stood… But that’s not something I’ll be able to see in my lifetime. You likely won’t either, the way it’s going.” Greyson’s hands were tight on the reins and Theron watched him confused. Despite his original rush, he hadn’t spurred the horses to move yet. “There’s one more thing, son. When we reach the desert, I would like you to stay in the Crimson Shadows’ camp while I make the delivery. Some of these foreigners, they don’t… Enlightenment doesn’t sit very well with them.”

Theron scoffed softly. He never understood his father’s paranoia over strangers finding out he was enlightened. He’d even told him to keep it hidden from Martin, even though he worked at the shop for years. It made him wonder if deep down his father was the one with a problem. “You think they’ll even be able to tell? I’ve gotten good at hiding it.”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry. They may notice or not, they might take issue or not, I would rather avoid it. Besides, you’ll have a better time with Crimson anyway.” Greyson smiled, finally getting the wagon moving. “Just tell them you didn’t get a proper birthday celebration and watch what they do.”

[Valcrest Forest |Tempus 23rd, 2525 | Nightfall]

Theron’s birthday was spent in an exhausted stupor. They didn’t set up camp for the first three days of the trip, only making occasional stops to rest and water the horses. As the sun went down on the third day, they’d covered enough ground to warrant setting a proper camp. The spot they chose was one his father considered safe; a small clearing near a stream. It was close enough to the trail for them to hear any other travelers passing through, but protected enough by the cover of trees to provide some privacy. Theron took it upon himself to set up their two small tents while his father gathered dry wood to make a fire. Dusk and his partner, Dawn, were by the stream indulging in a well earned drink after an arduous day of travel. While he wasn’t able to find any apples along the way—his father explaining that those trees were usually found deeper into the forest—he had the foresight to pack a few carrots as a treat for them. His father often accused Theron of spoiling the animals, to which the boy replied it was only fair, seeing as he wasn’t allowed a dog. He also lacked any friends his age. Sitting there, surrounded by the ambiance of the forest and the crackle of dried leaves only made Martin’s words to him ring truer. Not that he regretted the trip, but Theron couldn’t deny that most normal boys his age would have friends, or maybe even a girlfriend to spend their birthday with.

The pleasant scent of burning wood filled the air as the campfire was lit. Theron’s father wasn’t the best of cooks, but he scrounged together two bowls of tough-yet-cooked rice and some over-boiled vegetables to eat alongside their rabbit jerky. It wasn’t great, but after three days without a warm meal, his stomach wasn’t about to complain.

Theron’s thoughts kept him silent through most of the meal. When his father held out a cup he distractedly took it, assuming it to be water, finally snapping back to reality as the alcoholic vapors began to burn their way into his nostrils. He coughed. “Whoa, what’s this?”

“Rum.” His father smirked. “It’s not the cheap kind either, so don’t spit it out.”

“I can handle it. Just surprised me,” Theron said, his first sip followed by another poorly disguised cough.

“I can see that.” His father took a sip of his own and sighed. “Seventeen years old. Twins. It’s true what they say, ain’t it? Time is unforgiving.”

Theron took another drink, more composed this time. “If you’re about to contemplate your own mortality, at least wait until I’m through with this first,” he quipped. “It’s not like you’re the one who’s gotten a year older today.”

“Of course I am. After you have kids you only get older when they do. That’s how it works.”

Theron chuckled. “Bullshit. You’ve always been old.”

“If you’re going to disrespect me like that, I’ll drop you off you here and you can walk home, wise ass.”

“Alright, alright.” Theron laughed. “I mean, It’d make for a fun story, but I’d still rather get to the desert.”

His father shook his head with a disgruntled mutter, then reached for his bowl. “Are you finished with that?”

“Yes, of course.” He handed the bowl to his father. “So, do I get to pick out my present when we get there or did you get me one already?”

“Oh, I’m not sure.” His father stood and walked to the stream to rinse their empty bowls. “I was thinking I’d let you pick out a blade when we got to the Crimson’s camp, but you’re choosing to be a little shit, so maybe I won’t.”

Theron nearly jumped to his feet, completely ignoring the halfhearted threat. “You’re serious?”

“Maybe,” he answered, back turned as he put the clean bowls away. “The Crimson are only the third best smiths I know; if I’m to be perfectly honest, but I wouldn’t give any Blackponders my business if I can help it. Can’t trust those fellas with an Olith deck, let alone a sword.”

“You’d think Blackponders would be more trustworthy with an Olith deck. If they knew what to do with it, then you shouldn’t trust them with it.”

“Alright, so don’t trust Blackponders, or anyone at an Olith table. There’s your life lesson for the year.”

Theron snorted and emptied his cup, standing to go rinse it out himself. “I’ll try to still remember it in the morning.” He dried off the cup and put it away with the rest of their utensils. “I can keep watch first if you want to get some early sleep.”

“No, it’s alright. I’m not tired yet and not many bandits come around these parts. You can go ahead and sleep. I’ll wake you up in a few hours.”

“If you’re sure.” Theron nodded and patted his father on the shoulder on the way to his tent. “Night, pops. Call me up when you get tired, alright? Don’t try to stay up all night just to prove you’re still a spry young man.”

“You’re pushing your luck tonight, boy.”

“What can I say? You raised an ass, pops.” Theron smirked.

Greyson Lockwood shook his head, unable to hold on to his scowl as he pulled Theron into a tight embrace, catching him off guard. “Happy birthday, son.”

“Yeah. I guess it has been.” After a momentary flinch, Theron hugged his father back. His old man was never much of a hugger, but he assumed the rum must have finally gone to his head. When his father released him, Theron chuckled. “I’ll come out in a few hours so you can sleep that off. Wouldn’t want you steering the wagon under the influence, would we?”

Theron let his father’s ensuing protests over the implication he couldn’t hold his liquor fall on deaf ears and retreated into his tent. If he shot him with yet another comeback they would be going back and forth all night, and they were on a tight schedule. Birthday drink or not, they couldn’t relax too much and miss the delivery date. He settled into his sleeping mat with a tired groan. His body stiff from sitting on the wagon with barely a break to stretch his legs. He considered lighting his oil lamp and trying to read for a few minutes, but sleep overtook him before he was able to act on the thought.

Around the tent, the wind whistled and tree branches crackled. The occasional scurrying across dried leaves or peep of an owl sometimes tugged at Theron’s awareness, but not persistently enough to stir him awake. Hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep passed before something managed to get through to him; Dawn. The horse was agitated for some reason. That in itself wasn’t so odd, but his father’s inaction was. Even if just a short-tempered mutter to “shut up”, the horse’s neighing and stomping would normally warrant some reaction. After listening for some time and hearing nothing, Theron finally opened his eyes. His immediate thought was that his father must have fallen asleep without waking him and there was no one watching over the wagon.

Theron sat up and rubbed his eyes. The horse silenced. It was possible nothing was wrong and she’d been startled by a fox, or raccoon, but something felt heavy in the pit of Theron’s stomach. On instinct, he reached for his bag and pulled out the dagger Martin gave him, assuring himself it was just a precaution. He then flung the bag over one shoulder, thinking the carrots he’d packed might help soothe the horses if necessary. Theron poked his head out of the tent, hiding the blade on the sleeve of his tunic, just in case his father was still awake out there. He didn’t want to get in trouble for having it, or get Martin in trouble for giving it to him, but if a bandit was rummaging through their belongings he might be able to intimidate them with it.

Their fire had died. It was darker outside the tent than when he’d gone to sleep. Faint beams of moonlight allowed him to make out vague shapes in his surroundings: the tents, the wagon, their horses… Theron registered everything that should be there before forcing himself to acknowledge the silhouette standing beside the two horses. A cloaked figure, too slim to be his father. They had their back to Theron, one hand gently patting Dawn’s snout, the other at their side, wrapped around a metallic object. While they seemed distracted, Theron noticed the slightest of shifts in their stance as he stepped out of the tent. They knew he was there, even if trying to pretend otherwise.

Theron clutched the dagger tighter, palms sweaty against the handle. It seemed as though he could physically overpower this individual, but this was Valcrest. Twins only knew what they were capable of. Even if the element of surprise was lost on him, he needed to tread carefully. Slowly, he inched a step closer to the intruder. And just as he did, his eyes—now more accustomed to the dark—noticed another silhouette, a motionless heap at this stranger’s feet. A strangled sound caught in the back of Theron’s throat as he noticed the dark pool forming around familiar tufts of brown hair. He wasn’t able to discern where it was pouring from, but he knew there was too much of it.

Far too much blood.

As if on cue, the rusty smell rose from the soil and caused Theron’s stomach to twist in painful knots. Another choke hitched in his throat; a whimper mixed with a gag. Slowly, the stranger lowered their hand from Dawn’s snout as if preparing to walk away and Theron responded with another step forward. His father’s crossbow lay harmlessly by his limp hand, still disarmed. The bolts had spilled out from his quiver, untouched. Had he even seen what struck him? The stranger took a step away, ignoring Theron’s presence as if he was part of the scenery—insignificant. The thought echoed, painfully, in his mind erasing all semblance of reason in its wake. With a raw, primal scream, he lunged towards the murderer, leading each swing by his dagger. Of the million feelings coursing through him, anger reigned supreme. It didn’t matter who this person was or why they’d come, all that Theron cared about was the justice he’d enact on them. Each slash of the blade left with it a space where his father’s murderer used to be. Only after his fifth swing did the figure bother to turn and face him, their features obscured behind the shadows of their hood. Strike after careless strike, Theron stumbled towards his opponent, only to have them step back with calm indifference. The unrelenting assault chipped away at the killer’s patience until, with a discontented sigh, they struck. He didn’t feel it at first, the hard, blunt object crashing into his skull; his vision exploded into a flash of red and a high pitched whistle drowned the sound of his body crashing into the ground. He could sit there on the cold forest floor and accept defeat, but something inside him kept him tethered to reality. Anger, fear, sheer survival instinct, whatever the reason, he scrambled to regain his footing and fight back. His fingers ached as they curled in, his arm felt coated in lead as it swung, blindly and unbalanced. His assailant wasn’t expecting such a quick recovery. Where his dagger had met only air, his fist broke through, pushing the murderer off balance and knocking her hood right off.

Her hood. Theron stood frozen, shocked to see a girl, no older than himself staring back at him. Her pale face stood out like a full moon in the dark forest. She grabbed her hood almost intuitively and threw it back over her face, tucking in a lock of red hair that obstructed her view. She calmly walked closer and only then did Theron break out of his trance, taking a step back. The taste of blood coated his mouth from the blow she’d dealt him and, upon closer inspection he realized she wielded a blunt weapon in her left hand and a bloodied blade in her right. His thoughts came back to those hero stories his mother liked to read. A hero would take a stand even at the expense of his own life, but Theron… Theron ran.

[Valcrest Forest |Tempus 24th, 2525 | Past Midnight]

“This is messed up.”

Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder and Kyle flinched, muttering an apology. The boy wasn’t wrong. The scene they encountered was, to say the least, unexpected after a fruitless night of hunting. The merchant’s wagon was untouched, the horses gone; cut loose. Their owner lay motionless in a pool of dried blood. Johanna chose not to linger at the scene and took Sebastian with her to canvas the area. She probably knew the search would yield no results and just wanted an excuse to step away from how, as Kyle would put it, ‘messed up’ the scene was. The way the campsite looked almost untouched and the near perfectly clean cut across the man’s throat left no room for doubt. The Wolves had done this.

“Awfully close to home,” Gerald muttered, “but it’s probably a coincidence. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been through here in hours. Whoever did this is likely back at their camp now, sound asleep.”

Gabrielle hummed. The only reason they’d explored the campsite was due to the proximity to their safehouse. It was too late to track down the Wolf responsible and there was nothing to be done for their victim now. “We should move on.”

“What?” Kyle’s voice painted a clear picture of the shock and disapproval in his expression. “We’re just leaving him here?”

“There’s nothing we can do here, Rivers. There’s nothing to salvage and nothing to hunt. It’s in our best interest to leave this scene undisturbed and move on.”

“There are two tents here, Porter. And one body.”

Gabrielle turned to face the teenager, his expression was as expected; disapproving, defiant. “And whoever that tent belongs to is either dead or reaching the nearest village by now. Either way, I see no need for us to get involved.” Kyle frowned, his jaw set. It was obvious he wanted to argue even though he couldn’t find anything else to say. “You can either be kind or smart here, Rivers. And we need to be smart.”

The words sunk in and Kyle’s shoulders sagged with a sigh of resignation. “Right. You’re right.”

Johanna and Sebastian returned from searching the perimeter and she informed the group with a shake of her head that they found nothing. Neither of them objected to leaving the scene as soon as possible. If Sebastian shared his brother’s sentiments, he did a better job of concealing it. As they turned to leave Gerald, lingered still, taking the time to mutter a prayer under his breath. Gabrielle didn’t slow down on his behalf, but made no attempt to rush him.

The group walked in the midst of a heavy silence. Gabrielle and Johanna in front, the twins at their heels, and Gerald in the rear. Despite the fact they hadn’t encountered any Wolves themselves all night, Johanna was the only person in the group to not have a weapon ready. Nothing disturbed them on the way back to the safehouse. The forest remained peaceful around them; nothing but the soft breeze, the crackling of leaves, and the usual sounds of nightlife, as though nothing was wrong with the world. The stone cabin they’d set up in was just a short walk from the main trail, but concealed by thick vegetation. The walls themselves covered in moss and vines to the point of blending in.

As they emerged from the trees, just a few steps away from the door, Johanna stopped dead in her tracks. Gabrielle managed to avoid colliding with her only to have Kyle slam up behind her with a pained groan. The twins whispered in confusion, trying to look past to see what the problem was. Gabrielle held up her hand to silence them and felt the boys freeze in place behind her. The heavy wooden door of the cabin was bent and splintered along the base. The stone framing the entrance was caved in. The earth itself was cracked and raised around the outer walls. Gabrielle frowned, armed and cocked her crossbow, then took a cautious step closer. Johanna grabbed her wrist in a silent bid to stop her, but Gabrielle calmly worked it free. She gestured for the others to wait and continued forward.

The cabin door was jammed into the collapsed door frame, but slightly ajar. Peeking through the gap, she made out a shuddering heap slumped in the corner, among pieces of broken furniture. She strained to listen, picking up on the faint sobs resonating within the cabin’s walls. Gabrielle exhaled a soft breath, focusing all of her attention on the door before forcing it open. It splintered as it dislodged from its unnatural frame, landing on the cabin floor with a loud bang. The intruder cowered further against the wall with a choked whimper, but the way the ground shuddered under her boots wasn’t lost on her. The past couple of years taught her first-hand the effect heightened emotions had on elemental enlightenment. Through the faint moonlight, she found a candle lying on the floor where a small kitchen table used to be and carefully reached for it. She set down the crossbow in favor of a tin of matches she kept in her coat pocket, and as the flicker of candle light filled the room, Gabrielle finally got a better look at their unwelcome visitor. Just a frightened teenager, wide eyed, shaking and sobbing like a small child. “Alright,” she spoke, careful to keep her voice soft. “What’s your name then?”

There was no immediate answer. Gabrielle hummed, examining the room to assess what was left intact. The table and chairs were in pieces, the small sofa Gerald had been awkwardly using as a bed had broken in half, there were dents on some of the walls and the floor had split open in some places, but nothing else seemed to have been touched. She picked up one of the chair legs and used it to start the stove all the while feeling the boy’s frightened gaze follow her every move. The stove heated, she found the kettle and filled it with water from her flask then leaned against the wall opposite to him, waiting for it to boil. He continued to watch her and she held his gaze. The faint amber glow in his eyes was more distinct now under the candle light. It was unclear whether he even realized the damage he caused. For now, she chose not to mention it, and simply allow her question to linger in the air.

“What…? Who…?” He mumbled.

“I believe I asked you a question first,”she reminded, calmly.

“Theron. Theron Lockwood.”

“Lockwood,” she repeated. “Good. Was it your father back there?”

Theron swallowed, trying to hold back a look of surprise. “Yes. You, I—” he grimaced, his voice dropping to a whisper. “I left him. I should have… ”

“There’s nothing you could do for him.” The kettle whistled, startling the boy into dropping a small dagger onto the floor. Gabrielle turned to take the kettle off the stove. “That wouldn’t have helped you.”

“I tried. I tried to fight her, but…”

“Have you ever fought anyone before? Doesn’t look like you have.” She started preparing tea, balancing two cups on the small counter by the stove. “Even if you had, odds are it wouldn’t have mattered.”

“It matters. I abandoned him. I shouldn’t have just abandoned him.”

Gabrielle sighed, bringing one of the tea cups to him. “It would have been a useless death.”

Theron frowned, accepting the tea with a mutter. “Who are you?”

“We’ll get to that, but first I need you to drink some tea, take a deep breath, and tell me everything that happened back there.”

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