[Hunters Outpost | Inviditas 2nd, 2526 | Early Morning]
Sebastian heaved breaths from his chest without a sound. His sweaty hand tightly gripped the hilt of his sword. Eyes darting from side to side, he frantically searched the area below his perch on a somewhat precarious tree branch, seeking any trace of movement. Sebastian couldn’t hear, but felt the wood giving way under him. The memory of a similar branch snapping under his weight followed by the sharp pain of an arrow sinking into his side briefly flashed and he instinctively gripped the branch above his head with his free hand.
The soundless pulse of blood rushing to his ears was a constant reminder that Johanna had to be somewhere nearby. Sebastian wasn’t sure how far she could extend the silence she created, but it couldn’t be that far. Staying where he was would lead to his eventual discovery, but having no clue where Jo and Gerald were, moving out of hiding was equally as dangerous.
It was only the first day of spring. The faint morning breeze still carried the remnants of a winter chill, but the sun was glaringly bright and the smell of damp grass rose from the once frozen soil. Within the week Kyle would be complaining about all the flowers making him sneeze. Kyle was currently at the forge with Theron and Gabrielle however, leaving Sebastian to deal with Gerald and Johanna on his own.
Their stint in Blackpond, a welcome reprieve as it was, severely changed Jo’s disposition towards Sebastian’s training. Whereas before she’d told him there was nothing left for her to teach him, now she seemed to be under the impression the lessons hadn’t quite sunk in as she intended. Whether that was a sentiment born of concern for his well-being or as punishment for his hesitation in taking down ‘Ol’ Crip’, he wasn’t sure. Both, probably. Gerald, on the other hand, showed an interest in learning more about how Sebastian’s enlightenment behaved under stress, or in combat scenarios and, admittedly, that was something Sebastian had an interest in knowing as well. Sometimes he could see paths extending in front of him, as many of them as the situation would allow. Sometimes he would feel a pull towards a specific path or action, he assumed in moments where acting on something or not were the only options. He was learning, but it sure wasn’t helping him now.
In however long he’d been perched on that branch, hiding, there’d been no sudden flash of intuition telling him how to proceed. Of all people, Sebastian should know that the price for indecision could be steep. And the feeling of something whizzing past his head acted as a stark reminder of that fact. He dropped from his perch, landing clumsily in a patch of grass, and immediately bolted into the cover of the forest. Raw instinct guided him as he ducked out of the path of two more arrows.
Sound returned to the forest all at once. The crackle of his footsteps against the earth, each shallow breath bursting out of his lungs, rustlings in the bushes, birds persistently chirping overhead, everything rang far too loud and way too sudden. Sebastian shook his head mid-run and almost collided with a low branch in the process. Where previously he couldn’t pinpoint any signs of life in his surroundings, now there was too much of it. A gut feeling—an invisible pull—drove him to take a sharp right turn. Two more arrows splintered against a tree trunk to his left. He knew Gerald was now giving chase. Unsurprisingly, there were no signs of Jo, though Sebastian was sure she wasn’t far.
One problem at a time, he decided. Gerald was the most imminent threat and Sebastian wasn’t sure how to confront him. He was more dangerous at range, but that didn’t mean he’d be easier to take on up close. From the corner of one eye, he found a new hiding spot in the hollow of a tree trunk, just wide enough to squeeze into. It was uncomfortably tight and the smell of old wood and moss caused his nose to flair up, begging him for a clean breath of air. This spot provided only a partial view of his surroundings through the narrow opening in the bark, but it was enough to make out shadows moving across the ground, accompanied by the sound of approaching footsteps.
Gerald came into view, bow in hand, scanning his surroundings carefully as he walked. Sebastian knew there’d only be one chance to sneak up on the Hunter. He watched intently and waited for a moment where Gerald’s attention was directed elsewhere, then slipped out of hiding, drew his sword and charged.
Sebastian slashed at Gerald’s back, and while the Hunter caught the movement in time to defend himself, placing this bow between himself and the blade, it was clumsy enough for Sebastian to gain better footing over his opponent. His second slash was caught between the body of the bow and the string, Gerald used this positioning to push the blade down and away from himself. Instead of pushing back, Sebastian twisted the sword so the edge of the blade was now facing the bow’s string and slashed downwards, breaking it in half. The bow’s limbs snapped up with the sudden release of tension forcing Gerald to recoil with it. This distraction was more than sufficient for Sebastian to end this; if not for the cold chill creeping up the back of his neck, nagging at him to turn around. He spun, slashing in a wide arc. His sword collided with something metallic at first and his following strike met only air. Johanna grinned as she twisted out of the way of his blade. A familiar iridescence blurred the edges of his vision as he avoided her counter strike and brought his blade towards her arm in an upward slash. She avoided him, blocking his next strike. Swirls of prismatic light emanated from her form in multiple directions, silhouettes mockingly dancing around his every movement. Sebastian’s enlightenment only allowed him possibilities, and every possible action here still resulted in Jo having the upper hand. Even foresight couldn’t put him on her level.
Jo’s next strike knocked the sword from his hands. Sebastian could faintly feel the cold press of metal against his throat, the sensation muted under the sharp stab of pain assaulting his temple. He was supposed to yield, but he couldn’t more than groan as a flash of white filled his vision and he was overcome with a wave of dizziness. His knees buckled, but someone caught him; he assumed Gerald. He could hear his voice though the words were muffled. Sebastian groaned and shook his head.
“…Too much, Gerry,” Jo mumbled.
“We should get him back right now and worry about ‘why’ later,” Gerald responded.
Jo snorted, but didn’t argue further. Slowly focus returned to him and Sebastian straightened up with a deep inhale. “I’m fine. I think… Might have overdone it.”
“Possibly, yes,” Gerald agreed. Sebastian could see the concerned frown in his expression now. Jo had turned away and occupied herself with collecting Sebastian’s sword and Gerald’s bow which was also left on the ground. “That could become an issue since you have no control over whether your enlightenment activates.”
“Yeah, well… Guess if I get jumped out in the field I’ll just have to kill them faster than this, huh?” Sebastian quipped.
Jo shook her head, silently sliding his sword into its sheath and wrapping one arm around him protectively. “Food and water, come on,” she said, guiding him towards the trail.
Sebastian sighed, leaning into Jo as they walked. “Jo-Joooo… I’m okay. I promise. Wasn’t the whole point of this to learn more about what I can do? We definitely learned something new today.”
It was obvious his attempts were doing nothing to ease Johanna’s concerns, but she forced a small smile and ruffled his hair. “Yes. We did.”
“Did you have to cut my bowstring, you little prick? It could have damaged the bow.” Gerald complained.
“Don’t use your bow to parry. You have a perfectly good dagger on your belt, Tucker.” Sebastian grinned. “If this was one-on-one I would have had you, though, admit it. Jo saved your ass back there.”
Gerald scoffed. “That’s not entirely tr—”
“It’s true, Gerry. I was there,” Jo said. A more genuine smile broke through, undeniably proud. “He had you.”
Gerald groaned. “You know what? We’ll see about that next time.”
Sebastian chuckled. “I don’t know about the bow, but your ego sure looks a bit frayed there, Tucker.”
Gerald groaned. “You know the only reason I’m even allowing you to act this smug is that you look like crap and Johanna will not allow me to punish you right now, don’t you?”
Sebastian grinned. “Of course I do.”
[Hunters Outpost | Inviditas 3rd, 2526 | Early Afternoon]
Sebastian groaned as he tied the laces of his boots. He could feel Kyle’s stare from across the room. They had separate trips to make that week, Kyle was to accompany Gerald to Blackpond and Sebastian convinced Jo to let him tag along on her visit to Sylvie’s village. Or he had convinced her prior to his little episode the day before, after which he spent several hours convincing her again. Kyle was clearly unconvinced that he was fit for travel even as they prepared to leave and, while Sebastian understood his concern, it was starting to get on his nerves. “I’m fine,” he muttered, finally.
“Are you sure? Because you were still looking a little shaky last night.” Kyle said, crossing his arms. “It’s not a short trip is all I’m trying to say.”
“As long as I’m not fighting it should be okay. And I’ll probably be fully recovered by the time we get there. Look, just don’t get Jo all worked up about me again or she won’t take me. I like Sylvie and her family, I’d very much like to see them again.”
Kyle nodded, though disgruntled. “I still think it’d be safer if you stayed and let Lockwood go instead, but if you’re determined, I know I’m not gonna stop you.”
“I just need to find a way to manage my enlightenment somehow.”
“Yeah, somehow. It’d be nice to know how before going out there.”
Sebastian laughed. “I’m not turning into a hermit because I got woozy once during a spar, Kyle. I’ll be with Jo the entire time. I couldn’t possibly be safer than that. Stop freaking out.”
“Can you blame me? We don’t know how this works at all and until now we had no reason to think it could actually hurt you,” Kyle argued. “Mine? Yes, fire bad, we know that, but we don’t know how yours messes with your brain, if at all, whenever it happens. Or what triggers it.”
“I think I know what triggers it,” Sebastian admitted, “though I don’t know if it’s possible to not trigger it yet.”
Kyle hummed in surprise. “You do?”
“I think it only triggers in situations that can be directly influenced by a decision I’m about to make. In fights that’s a given, but in general these intuitions don’t come if I can’t affect the outcome. Like the baker, or…”
“Kat?” Kyle sighed, rubbing his eyes. “Seb… You know… It was not your responsibility to save her. Even if you could have seen it coming, it… You have to let that go.”
“It’s not that simple. It just isn’t. I can prove to myself a thousand times that there’s nothing I could have done to change it and the feeling won’t leave me. When we got here I thought maybe hunting them could fix it, but I’m starting to realize… Nothing ever will.” Sebastian took a deep breath, standing up and grabbing his travel bag. “Maybe that’s okay, I don’t know, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to feel like. Porter was right, it’s better now than it was two years ago, maybe it’ll get even better in another year or two.”
“I don’t know, for me… Sometimes it’s almost like she’s fading,” Kyle muttered, slinging his own bag over his shoulder. “I’m not sure how okay I feel about that.”
Sebastian shook his head. “Remembering her doesn’t have to hurt. I’ve started to realize that too. You know, when we were in Blackpond, I thought she would have liked that. She would’ve found it fun.”
Kyle chuckled. “She would have loved the Crimson Shadows. They are so happy!”
“She would like those weirdos downstairs too,” Sebastian said, nodding towards the door leading outside.
“Oh yeah. You know what else? I think…” Sebastian started, putting one arm around his brother’s shoulders and guiding him out of the room. “I think she would be just delighted if she knew you got yourself a girlfriend.”
“I don’t have—she’s not my girlfriend. I just walked the girl home,” Kyle protested.
“And she kissed you.”
“On the cheek!”
“Are you going to see her again while you’re there?” Sebastian questioned, eyebrow raised.
“I don’t know. If I can, sure.”
Kyle snorted. “Stop that, Seb.”
Sebastian laughed, but stopped his teasing, allowing Kyle to take the lead in descending the stairs.
The rest of the group had congregated in front of the towers by the time they reached the ground. Gabrielle stood, arms crossed and one eyebrow slightly raised under the brim of her hat, and an amused gleam in her eyes. Sebastian followed the woman’s gaze to Jo and Gerald, who were clearly in the middle of a serious discussion. Theron stood beside her, hands in his pockets, shoulders hunched, looking utterly confused.
“I’m not taking it off,” Gerald exclaimed. “It’s never been an issue before.”
Jo huffed in exasperation. “It always is. I always tell you and you never listen. Every time.”
Sebastian stood on Gabrielle’s other side and whispered, “what’s up with them now?”
“She wants him to take off his Sun pendant before going to Blackpond,” Gabrielle told him. “This happens often.”
“It does?” Kyle asked.
“Every time I go to Blackpond.” Gerald told him. “It’s tucked into my shirt, no one’s going to see—”
“Alex.” Jo hissed.
Gerald sighed, running both hands over his eyes. “One time. He would have figured it out eventually. He’s a drunken asshole, but he’s not that stupid.”
Jo’s fists clenched tightly at her sides then slowly uncurled as she forced herself to take a deep breath. “Fuck you,” she muttered, voice shaking.
Gerald groaned, forcing a deep breath of his own and rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry, that was out of line, but you do realize this is important to me?”
Jo frowned, her tone softening. “Of course I do.”
Gerald hesitated but finally pulled the chain over his head and held the necklace out for her to take. “Don’t lose it, please.”
Jo flinched. “Gerry… Gabe can just…”
Gerald shook his head and took her hand, placing the chain and pendant into her palm and gently closing her fingers around it. “Don’t lose it.” He released her and turned around to leave, calling over his shoulder. “Boy, let’s go.”
Kyle flinched. “Oh, crap, that’s me. Later, Seb.” He patted Sebastian on the shoulder and rushed to catch up with Gerald as he walked off.
Johanna stood watching them walk away for a long moment, then calmly put the golden chain around her neck, over the one she was already wearing, and turned to Sebastian with a small smile. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “Are you alright?”
Jo nodded, starting on the path that would lead to the village. “Will be.”
[Wolves Camp | Inviditas 3rd, 2526 | Early Morning]
“Why are we doing this, again?” Dani asked, watching as Sarah scavenged the area around the lake for any early blooming flowers.
“Because I want to.” Sarah answered, rolling her eyes. “You don’t have to come with me, you can just wait here if you want.”
Dani huffed out a chuckle. “I have no problem tagging along, but if you want to go by yourself I’ll wait.”
“No,” Sarah answered, a bit too quickly. “I mean, it’s my first day off in a while and you’re actually here so…”
Dani held back a sigh. She had two other contracts to fulfill after arriving back from Newhaven. The nature of these contracts were straightforward compared to the one in Newhaven, but one of them involved a fair amount of waiting for a good opportunity to strike. Between her responsibilities and Sarah’s new schedule, it didn’t leave them a lot of time to see each other. “How come you have free time today out of the blue?”
“Mom called Lena into the office early this morning. They seemed eager to get rid of me before saying anything, so I don’t know what it’s about. All she told me was to inform Perry training was suspended for the day.”
Dani smirked. “Did you?”
“I may have forgotten. A lot on my mind lately.” Sarah said, straight faced.
“He’s smart, he’ll figure it out.”
Dani shook her head, amused. Sarah hadn’t complained about Perry as much since Dahlia ceased to be a part of her life, some of her distaste seemed to die down under Lena’s training; at least enough to leave the ‘ass’ out of ‘smartass’, and Dani assumed it had to do with receiving equal treatment compared to tutoring. Lena was right, it seemed to boost her confidence some. It didn’t, however, warm her disposition towards their older sister.
“How much longer do you plan on giving Lena the cold shoulder, by the way? This has been going on for months, it’s time to stop, don’t you think?” Dani asked.
Sarah shook her head, satisfied with the meager offering of flowers she managed to scavenge and starting to lead the way down the path to her destination. “I don’t know,” she mumbled.
Sarah’s tone didn’t leave much room for questioning and Dani decided not to press the issue. It was obvious that Sarah was having trouble working through her feelings in this situation and maybe that wasn’t something Dani could help her with. At least not until Sarah decided she wanted to be helped. Dani followed her sister in silence, keeping a watchful eye on Sarah’s posture as they traversed the winding paths from lake to cemetery, registering each purposeful step.
She remained silent until they reached the bridge, then asked, “Why is this so important, Sarah?”
Sarah crossed the bridge in silence, answering with a simple shrug at first, then admitting. “I don’t know. I just feel like I should.”
Dani had mixed feelings about Lena’s decision to talk about Lucille. It wasn’t something they’d be able to keep from Sarah forever, and Lena did have the right to choose how and when she told her, but Dani knew how much the whole ordeal still hurt. It still hurt Lena, and it still hurt their mother. Lucille’s gravestone was a scar that would never fade. That still ached on particularly bleak days just as a reminder. “Have you been here by yourself before?”
Sarah shook her head, walking to the grave and depositing the flowers. “I was waiting for spring.”
The words struck a chord and Dani sighed deeply. “Squirt… You wanna get something off your chest… Neither of us has anything else to do today, so now’s probably the time.”
“I’m not angry anymore,” Sarah admitted with another dull shrug. “I’m not angry, but I still feel hurt and I don’t know how to stop. I want things to feel normal again, but I just don’t. I can’t.”
“You’ll have to talk. As hard as that may be. Things like this don’t just go away on their own and avoiding it won’t fix it.”
Sarah groaned and sat heavily in front of the grave. “Did you two ever talk? I mean… Lena said you weren’t exactly happy about being her Recruit either.”
Dani nodded, sitting next to Sarah. “No, I wasn’t exactly happy, but… It was a different ordeal. Assassin training is a lot harsher than Basic. It involves honing very specific skills. And it’s supposed to break you down, then build you up again. I wasn’t angry with Lena for that, not like this, but it can be hard to keep things separate. Our last session, graduation, felt like a weight off both of our shoulders. And I don’t know, squirt, maybe we should have talked. It might have settled things a lot sooner.”
“Yeah,” Sarah muttered. “Maybe I should just wait until graduation. Might be easier.”
Dani chuckled. “Squirt, that’s going to take years. I don’t think that constitutes easy.” She wrapped one arm around Sarah’s shoulder and pulled her into a side-hug. “You know Lena loves you, right? A lot of things can and will change, but that will never be one of them.”
The crunch of boots against soil cut into their conversation as it slowly approached. Dani turned her head in the direction of the sound and saw Lena standing there, just a couple of steps away. The look on her face was a mix of deep worry and mild confusion.
“Hey,” Dani greeted, frowning. “Is everything alright?”
“No. Not really. There’s…” She paused, glanced at Sarah, and grimaced. Before she had a chance to say anything Sarah stood up and walked away, staring at the ground the whole way. Lena pinched the bridge of her nose and groaned. “Fuck.”
“You should go talk to her, this it getting out of h—”
“I can’t. I have to leave within the hour,” Lena said.
“Wait, what do you mean? What happened?” Dani couldn’t keep her voice from rising in pitch. Lena wasn’t supposed to take contracts anymore, she had Recruits under her care, their mother wouldn’t just pull an Instructor from their duties on a whim like this. “Why did mom call you into the office?”
“Madeline, Dani. She has failed to report back. There’s been no word from her in the past month. Either something happened to her or someone’s been intercepting her messages and regardless of which, it’s too dangerous for mom to just send out a Scout to investigate. She also doesn’t want too many people to know of this village.”
“I know about it. I can go. I’ll go with you.”
“No.” Lena’s tone turned to scolding. “Absolutely not. You’re not going anywhere near this. If there are any Hunters currently in that village…”
“Then they’ll kill you, Lena.” Dani winced as her voice rang far too loud to be respectful considering their location. She lowered it almost to a whisper. “You can’t just go by yourself, that’s insane.”
“Going in a group would draw more attention. I just need to find out if she’s there and bring her back if she is. And if she isn’t,” she swallowed, hard. “If she isn’t then we’ll know.”
Dani shook her head, she could feel her heartbeat drumming against her ears, a lump forming in the pit of her stomach. This couldn’t end well. It wouldn’t end well. “How the hell did mom sign off on this?”
Lena sighed, placing both hands on Dani’s shoulders. “I asked to go. I want to go, Daniela.”
“You want to go back to that village? Where there might be Wolf Hunters and there absolutely is an old lady who can fuck with your mind. I know you and Maddie bonded but you’ll be vulnerable as long as Sylvie is around. Don’t do this.”
Lena squeezed Dani’s shoulders in an attempt to give her some reassurance. “She wasn’t staying inside the village. I won’t have to actually go in there, just investigate her campsite. Kiddo, I’ll be safe, I promise. I’ll be home before your birthday.”
Dani wasn’t buying it. Not in the slightest. Not when Lena looked so rattled. She was better at hiding her emotions than this. Something about this situation was getting to her in such a way she wasn’t able to fully pull it off this time. “I can’t talk you out of this, can I?” she muttered.
Lena shook her head, releasing Dani’s shoulders and lowering her hands to her sides, her tone apologetic. “No.”
“You better not be lying to me, Helena. Because I swear to all the Twins, I’ll never forgive you if you don’t come back safe.”