[The Outpost | Spiritus 1st, 2526 | Sunrise]
Sebastian woke to an empty room. The first day of the year wasn’t quite as exciting as Creation Day. Kyle wasn’t in bed; he likely woke up early to check the multiple rabbit traps he’d laid out around the Outpost. There was no other reason why he’d be out this early in the winter. If Gerald allowed him to stay under his blankets, he would.
The room was colder than it had been the previous morning. Gerald’s heating system required the forge, and the cost of roping Gabrielle into their antics on Creation Day meant a considerable loss of heat within the Outpost. The usual warmth of the stone felt astonishingly cold against the soles of his feet, and Sebastian scrambled to find his socks and boots in the dark.
Sebastian briefly discussed some ideas with Gabrielle the night before, as well as some things he would need and where he planned to go if Theron did leave his tent. He didn’t have a solid plan for what to do after coaxing him out—if he could even accomplish that much—but he knew that whatever happened after needed to occur further away from the towers. In true Porter fashion she asked no prodding questions and offered no advice, allowing him access to supplies and the armory without any form of supervision. This was the first time she’d let him do that. As hard to read as the woman normally was, Gabrielle always had a way of getting her feelings across on a matter—disapproval especially—and Sebastian had expected to meet some resistance when offering to take charge of this situation. If not from Gabrielle, then from either Gerald or Jo. It made him wonder if they were already at such a loss with Theron that they saw no alternative. Or maybe they just wanted to see if he could pull it off. Sebastian wouldn’t put it past them to turn this into some sort of trial.
It was still dark out. The snowfall ceased overnight, and in its wake a cutting wind swept across the forest. It was never as cold here as the streets of Blackpond had been, but the howling of the wind as it flowed past the trees in the horizon still made him feel uneasy. As though something alive was constantly lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce. Sebastian huddled into his cloak as he navigated the staircase leading down to the kitchen, but as soon as he entered, the faint firelight and the warmth emanating from the stove provided an instant sense of comfort. There was no one in the kitchen itself, but the backdoor was open and he could glimpse movement outside. “Kyle?”
“Yeah,” his brother’s voice answered just beyond the doorway.
Sebastian took the time to put a kettle on the stove before meeting his twin outside. Kyle was sitting in a wooden stool, wielding a sharp blade and working on skinning one of many dead rabbits he collected that morning. “Wow. Those traps finally paid off.”
“Yeah, I think I found the right way to lure them in now. Though Porter warned me I need to move them around before the little buggers start to get wise.” Kyle breathed out a cloud of condensation and looked up. “Suppose you’re not here to offer a hand, huh?”
“No. Sorry. I’m just grabbing some tea and a bite before I go wake up the new kid.”
“About that,” Kyle started, putting down the knife and scratched his chin, smearing a line of rabbit blood across his face in the process, “do you know what you’re going to do?”
“In theory, yes. It all depends on how he reacts.”
“He hasn’t opened that tent for anyone. He only talks to Porter; and barely. I don’t know why you think this will go any different.”
Sebastian shook his head and stepped into the kitchen, dipping a washcloth in water and offering it to his brother. “You have rabbit on your face,” he told him. “I don’t expect it to go any different, actually. I expect him to ignore me like he ignored everyone else.”
Kyle took the cloth and wiped his face, groaning at the cold water. “And then what?”
Sebastian heard the kettle whistle and once again stepped into the kitchen, Kyle following at his heels this time. “He’s in a tent, not an impenetrable fortress.”
“Oh, I see. So your plan is to antagonize the earthquake boy. I don’t know why I’m surprised.”
Sebastian smirked, searching one of the cabinets for his favorite tea blend. “Honestly, I don’t know either. Reckon you’d know better by now.”
Kyle shook his head, taking a seat at the table while Sebastian prepared his cup of tea. “He’s almost Gerald’s height and build, you’re not going to drag him out.”
“I don’t need to drag him out.” Sebastian took a sip of his tea, hummed, and added more sugar. “Look. You almost burned down a building, I stared at a wall for six days, we all handle stuff in our own way. And sometimes you need a push, or, you know, you need someone to cut your tent open and force you out.”
Kyle chuckled. “Never mind, I should be more worried for earthquake boy. He clearly doesn’t know what he’s up against.”
Sebastian hummed, taking a sip of tea. “You want some?”
“No, thanks. I need to finish skinning those bunnies before Jo comes around and tries to take over. Her wrist is still hurting and she’s being stubborn.”
Sebastian frowned. “I didn’t think it was that bad. You think she’s going to be okay?”
“She wasn’t letting Gerald look at it, but he thinks she just needs to rest for a couple of days.” Kyle smirked. “It’s going to be a really long week for all of us.”
Sebastian finished his tea and stood. “Yeah, good luck with that. I’d rather deal with earthquake boy.”
The tent was still. Rigid despite the howling winds. If the canvas wasn’t clear of any snow build-up, Sebastian would assume it hadn’t been touched in days. He made no attempt to disguise his approach, ensuring that his every step crunched against the snow. “Lockwood, rise and shine! You’re coming with me today.”
No response, predictably.
Sebastian sighed, circling the tent and stopping in front of the sealed entrance. He waited and listened. There was obviously no way Theron was still asleep, but it took at least a minute for him to hear any movement from inside. “I don’t have all day to sit here, Theron. If you don’t come out by yourself in the next sixty seconds, I’m coming in to get you,” he warned.
Time passed. Second after second burned away and Theron, predictably, didn’t come out. In the minute he’d spent waiting, Sebastian listened. The inside of the tent was no longer still. There was shuffling, fidgeting, barely audible mutters. While Sebastian knew he wouldn’t draw the older boy out with words alone, it was clear to him his presence had caused a reaction. “Last chance. Are you coming out, or no?”
More agitated shuffling, more mutters, but no response. The tent didn’t open.
Sebastian breathed out an exaggerated sigh, loud enough for Theron to hear from the tent, and without another word of warning pulled a blade and stabbed into the canvas. With one clean downward slash, he cut the tent’s wall from top to bottom and tore it right open.
Theron startled and scurried into the back-most part of his tent. “What the hell! What the fuck is your problem!?”
It’d been at least a couple of months since he’d seen the older boy outside his tent, and considering how unkempt he looked—and smelled—Sebastian guessed he’d been avoiding it more as weeks passed. His clothes were dirty, his hair long and disheveled, and he needed a shave. “Oh, buddy, you really put yourself in a state, huh?”
“Get out,” Theron muttered.
Sebastian smiled. “I gave you fair warning and you chose to ignore me. You’re coming with me today.”
Theron’s expression darkened at first, his body tensed, and for a moment he sat straighter against the canvas wall of the tent, but thought better of whatever he was about to say or do, clenching his fists tight and then forcing them open with an even breath. “Look, Kyle, is it? I really appreciate being allowed to stay here, but I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Sebastian chuckled. “That’s my brother. Longer hair, scar on the chin, you’d know the difference if you got out more,” he said, holding out his hand. “I’m Sebastian.”
Theron ignored the offered handshake. “Okay, Sebastian. Leave me alone.”
Sebastian sat on the snow just outside the improvised entrance he created. “There’s been a lot of talk of what to do with you. I’d expect you to at least want a say in it.”
“Whatever you decide, I’ll do.”
“That’s not how it works.”
Theron simply shrugged, fixating on a spot on the ground, avoiding Sebastian’s eyes completely.
Sebastian let out a genuine sigh this time. “Look, two years ago, I was you. However many years ago, so were those guys,” he said, pointing towards the towers despite the fact Theron still refused to look at him. “What happened to you that night happens all the time. It’s nothing special. A grain of sand in the hourglass. Your father’s death doesn’t matter. It’s only ever gonna matter as long as it matters to you.”
“It matters to me.”
“Does it? Because from where I’m sitting, it doesn’t look like it matters nearly as much as wallowing in self-pity.”
Whatever Theron tried to push down was fighting its way to the surface. The ground beneath Sebastian shuddered, and as Theron lifted his head to glare at him the unnatural glow of his eyes faintly illuminated the tent’s interior. Sebastian didn’t know if his silence was an attempt to keep some semblance of control over himself and his enlightenment, or just another extension of his anger. It could be either, or both. He was sure he’d find out soon enough.
“This is yours, isn’t it?” Sebastian asked, raising the blade he used to slash open the canvas. “Gabrielle took it from you and said it needed to be in the armory while you’re here, right?”
Theron nodded. “Why do you have it?”
“It was sitting in the armory. I thought it was neat.” Sebastian felt the weight of the blade in his hand. Of course, he’d taken it specifically because it was Theron’s, but the dagger had caught his eye. It was perfectly balanced, and dangerously sharp, but the worn leather on the grip and the faded designs on the hand guard and pommel suggested it to be much older than either of its recent wielders. “It’s in really good condition. Family heirloom?”
Sebastian hummed, and after a pause asked, “did you steal it?”
“I wasn’t gonna judge you if you had.” Sebastian carefully inched closer and held it out, just beyond Theron’s reach. “Do you want it back?”
“Gabrielle said I’m not allowed to have it on me.”
“That’s not what I asked. It’s yours, do you want it or,” he pulled his hand back, “should I hold onto it?”
Swirls of light suddenly blurred the edges of his vision creating a prismatic aura that emanated from Theron’s form in small ripples. As though he was a leaf disturbing the surface of a crystalline lake. Time seemed to stand still, sounds muffled; their original resonance forgotten, and Sebastian’s focus sharpened. Every minor shift in the other boy’s expression. How his fists tightened until color drained from his knuckles and his eyes pierced right through him with rigid determination; all of it stood out like a single red flower in a sea of green fields. When asked, he’d only ever described his enlightenment as ‘intuition’. Deep down, he thought that was accurate. Sometimes it manifested so quickly he didn’t even register what he’d seen, only how to react. Other times, such as this, every little detail was painstakingly clear.
Theron’s aura leapt from his motionless body, lunging forward—slowly as if moving through water—unbalanced and clumsy with one hand outstretched towards the dagger and one tight fist towards Sebastian’s face. Sebastian then saw a similar aura ejecting itself from his body, one hand catching Theron’s wrist and twisting it away, his other hand tight around the dagger as he brought it pommel first towards his face.
No. That’s not what he’d come here to do.
The lights faded. Reality crashed into him all at once: the howling winds, the rustling branches, and the chill of winter seeping into his clothes where he sat. Sebastian knew what to do before Theron even formed his thoughts. He instinctively pulled back as Theron lunged—unbalanced and clumsy with one hand outstretched towards the dagger and one tight fist towards his face. He jumped to his feet and ran into the woods for cover. Theron was still scrambling to regain balance as he broke line of sight and ducked behind a tree. Sebastian waited, listening to the approaching footsteps. The faint crunching of snow seemed to move further away. “Well, at least you’re out and about, huh?” Sebastian heard Theron stop and took the opportunity to move behind a new tree to regain his cover.
Theron’s footsteps stopped just a few steps away from Sebastian’s new hiding place. “I’m not interested in playing hide and seek with you, alright? I want my dagger,” he said.
Sebastian poked his head from behind the tree. Theron didn’t see him, facing the direction of his previous hiding spot. With extra caution, he slowly crept out from behind his hiding tree and silently stood behind him. “I didn’t say I was going to just let you have it.” Theron whipped around and tried to grab Sebastian, which he dodged with a calm step backwards. “You should stop doing that. It’ll get you nowhere,” he warned.
Theron scoffed. “Did you drag me out just to mess with me? What are you after?”
“First of all, I already answered that. You’re coming with me today,” Sebastian turned and was almost immediately forced to duck out of the way of Theron’s fist again. He started making his way back to the campsite, ignoring the older boy’s frustrated growl as though nothing happened. “Second, you didn’t let me finish. I’m not going to just give this dagger back to you, but…” Sebastian stopped beside the torn tent, where he’d left the supply bags, picked one off the ground and pushed it onto Theron’s arms. “If you can take it from me, I’ll talk Porter into letting you keep it.” With that, Sebastian showed he had the dagger’s sheath on his belt and slid the blade into it, picking up his own bag and starting down a path away from the Outpost. “But not here. It’s too close to the towers. We don’t want you causing any accidents, do we?”
Sebastian walked away, again, without looking back. And despite not hearing any pursuing footsteps he didn’t stop or slow down. He’d almost slipped out of sight by the time he heard Theron running to catch up.
[Valcrest Forest | Spiritus 1st, 2526 | Mid-afternoon]
The two boys walked in silence for hours. The path Sebastian took led them through heavy forest to a more open area at the foot of a hill. When Kyle first showed Sebastian this clearing it was the middle of spring and everything was covered in grass and wildflowers. Now, the area was barren and covered in leftover snow and tufts of frozen grass. Sebastian set his bag down and stretched with a groan. “Alright. This will do.”
“This will do, for what?” Theron asked, setting his bag down as well. “What’s the purpose of this?”
“Two things, really.” Sebastian paced around until the tip of his boot found a rock partially covered in snow. “I want to see what you’re capable of and I want to see how angry you are.”
Theron’s eyes darted across their new surroundings. “That’s a terrible idea.”
“Yeah, I’m full of them.” Sebastian smirked. “Listen, what I said back there? That’s the truth. The world’s not gonna stop because your dad got killed. Life moves on and it expects you to do the same. And if you are able, I’d advise you to do it, but… Are you?”
“I don’t want to be.” Theron muttered. “I should’ve stayed and fought. I should have stood my ground no matter what.”
Sebastian shook his head, calmly poking at the stone with his foot. “You couldn’t possibly win. And if you think you should have died trying, well, I’d argue that you already have.”
“What do you mean?”
“The person you were before that night? He’s dead. The person you would have been? That future? It’s all gone now. So you’re standing there. You’re breathing, sure, but you died that night. And until you figure out who you want to be from now on, you’re still no better than a ghost.”
Theron turned his back, running both hands over his face and through matted hair. “Have you ever killed one of them?” Sebastian hummed, unsure how to answer or whether to answer. Mistaking his silence for confusion, Theron added: “That’s what Gabrielle said you people do. Isn’t it?”
“Yes. I just wasn’t aware you’ve been actually listening.” Sebastian ran one hand over his face as well. “And yes, I have. One. Kyle and I aren’t allowed to do much just yet.”
“Did it make you feel any different?”
“Honestly? No.” Sebastian crouched to pick up the stone and weighed it in his hand. “The training changed me. Almost dying changed me. Killing one of them felt like… it felt like nothing.”
“I don’t feel anything,” Theron admitted, his gaze following the rocky formation surrounding their clearing. “I was angry right after it happened, I was desperate, but now there’s just nothing there anymore.”
Sebastian chuckled. “Oh, don’t worry. It’s all still there. It’ll come flooding right back sooner or later. Always does.” He tested the weight of the stone in his hand one more time before throwing it directly at the back of Theron’s head with all the strength he could muster.
Theron seemed aware that the stone left Sebastian’s hand despite having his back turned. He stepped out of the way, letting it fly past his head, then whipped around with one hand outstretched, propelling the stone in the opposite direction. It whizzed past Sebastian’s head and crashed into the trunk of a tree, breaking apart and leaving a dent in the bark. Sebastian stared at it with interest. “Huh.”
Theron was initially silent, staring at Sebastian in visible confusion, as though his mind couldn’t fully process what just happened. Slowly but surely, realization hit and his confusion turned into fury. “What the hell is your problem!?”
“That was impressive considering how terrible your reflexes were while trying to get me back there. Can you just sense rocks?”
“I don’t know. I never had a lot of practice. Do you realize how horribly wrong this could have gone?”
“It would have been fine.” Sebastian reassured, searching around for another stone. “Want to try another one?”
“No. Do you have some sort of death wish?”
“I’m just trying to help.” Sebastian chuckled. “You literally haven’t managed to lay a finger on me both times you’ve tried, and even if you had, it would have ended badly for you. If you want your dagger back you’re going to have to be a little more resourceful than that.”
Theron frowned. “You don’t think I can take it from you without my enlightenment?”
“I’m pretty sure.” Sebastian shrugged, finding another rock and prodding it with his boot. “Probably not even with it—you clearly don’t know what you’re doing—but you’d have better odds.”
The rock Sebastian was examining flung upwards from the ground, barely giving him enough time to cock his head back enough to dodge. It threw his balance but he recovered quickly and spun around to face Theron. The rock was sitting on the palm of his hand, motionless.
“Not bad,” Sebastian praised. “But not good enough, earthquake boy.”
Theron closed his fist around the rock and it crumbled. “Alright. If that’s what you want…” He let the leftover dust from the rock sift through his fingers, brushing the remains off his hands, and closed his eyes; an amber glow visible through his eyelids. A deep rumble stirred the earth beneath their feet, seeming to extend across the entire area, growing louder and more intense with Theron’s each subsequent breath.
Sebastian swallowed hard and pushed down every thought of how horribly wrong this could go. He’d read about elemental-based enlightenment as much as he could in the past two years; mostly for his brother’s sake. The consensus amongst scholars who studied them in the past seemed to be their sheer destructive power. Especially in untrained individuals; which Theron clearly was. The possibility of the ground opening up and swallowing him whole sat dreadfully in the back of his mind.
Theron opened his eyes and the ground cracked and split around Sebastian with a startling sound, one by one, spikes made of solid rock shot up from the ground, like the bars of a prison, attempting to trap him inside. He barely had time to pass through, one of them tearing the sleeve of his coat on its way up. Faster, the spikes rose, each time, giving him less opportunity with each dodge to avoid entrapment. Resourceful as this was, Sebastian wasn’t about to let anyone get the better of him without a challenge. He turned to face the treeline and darted at full speed into the woods, almost losing balance as one spike nearly caught his arm on its way up.
Breaking Theron’s line of sight turned out to be the right idea. Once Sebastian was concealed by the woods, the spikes ceased. Sebastian stopped with his back against the trunk of a tree. The forest fell silent aside from his own frantic breathing, and once he managed to get it under control, there was nothing. Not even footsteps. Theron didn’t know how to move quietly in the forest; not yet, so what was he doing?
The answer came in the form of another tremor, faint at first, but gradually stronger. A loud snap followed. Sebastian frowned and peered around his tree, searching for the source of sound. A louder snap followed the first. Then several more in rapid succession. Sebastian stood, frozen as two lines of trees leading up to his hiding place were uprooted, and simultaneously collapsed, leaving a clear path in their wake. Theron stood at the end of the newly carved trail, breathing heavily from the strain.
“What in the actual fu—”
More spikes rose from the ground, caging him inside this time. The gaps between the stone were so narrow he had difficulty seeing through them, but he could faintly make out Theron’s form slowly approaching. His makeshift cell did provide him with enough space to sit, and he did so, with a tired sigh.
“Deforestation is a bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“I told you I wasn’t interested in playing hide and seek with you, didn’t I?” Theron rasped. It was clear he was feeling the effects of what he’d just done.
Sebastian tried to get a better look at Theron through the spikes. “Was it worth it, though? Because you don’t sound great.”
“I did a lot more than I’m used to, so no, but I’ll recover.” Theron groaned and sat, his eyes back to their normal dark brown as he peered into the spike prison. “Are you comfortable in there?”
“I’ve had much worse, honestly.”
Theron chuckled. “Great, because I think I’m tapped out after that. So you’ll be in there probably overnight.”
Sebastian snorted. “You can’t be serious.”
“Dead serious.” Theron groaned, pushing himself up. “Hang on, I’m gonna get our stuff and, I don’t know, try to make a fire.”
Sebastian propped his back against the wall of spikes behind him, falling into a full fit of laughter. “You can’t even get to it!”
“The dagger. It’s trapped in here with me. You… Heh… You can’t even get to it now.”
Theron flinched. “You’re right, I can’t.” He stretched with a deeper groan, clearly trying to fight off a wave of exhaustion. “Guess I’ll have to try again tomorrow, huh?”