[Hunters Outpost | Inviditas 5th, 2526 | Midmorning]
The Outpost felt different with most of its inhabitants gone. Theron went on his morning run as usual and tried to get through his training exercises as thoroughly as possible without Gerald’s guidance. Having Sebastian as a sparring partner didn’t help enormously—the disparity in their skill levels being a frequent source of friction—but it was still more effective than an inanimate strawman. Fighting by himself felt as though his morning had gone to waste.
Gabrielle was in the kitchen when he returned to the towers, facing the counter and silently cutting a root vegetable Theron couldn’t identify from the doorway. Her heavy coat was off and draped over the backrest of one of the vacant chairs—her hat occupied the seat—and her long hair was bound in a ponytail. It was strange to see her there instead of Jo. She looked uncomfortable. Out of place in such a domestic setting. Though she worked with the same dextrous ease as Johanna.
Theron sat at the table and reached for the water pitcher, poured himself a cup and drank it down. He poured himself another cup, sipping it slowly this time and listening to the rhythmic sounds of the knife against the wooden counter for a few moments.
“Anything I can help with?” he asked, finally.
“No need,” she answered. “Are you finished with your exercises?”
“Yes. Although the training dummies don’t pose as much of a challenge,” he admitted.
Gabrielle hummed softly, and even though her expression wouldn’t show it, there was a faint trace of amusement in her voice. “Are you contemplating what a quiet life without those two would actually look like?”
Theron scoffed. “I just feel like I haven’t made as much progress by myself, is all. I need to catch up.”
“Catch up to who, Lockwood? You can’t possibly expect to make two years’ progress in a matter of months. Don’t let Rivers get in your head.”
“He’s not wrong, Porter. I wouldn’t be able to hold my own if I came across a Wolf today.”
Gabrielle glanced over her shoulder. “And you think he would? Or me? No, Lockwood. Absolutely not. Not alone. You never want to face a Wolf unless it’s on your terms. That’s why we go through such lengths to avoid them until we’re in a position to hunt them.”
“But you still hunt alone. Don’t you?”
“If, and only if I find myself in a position to do so,” Gabrielle said. “I was alone for quite some time before I met Johanna, I have that experience, but it’s ill advised nonetheless.”
“How long was ‘quite some time’?” Theron questioned. Sebastian had warned him against asking Jo any questions like this, but said that Gabrielle would warn him if something he said crossed a line. So far, it seemed he hadn’t asked anything she wasn’t willing to answer.
“Four years,” Gabrielle answered, placing the chopped vegetables into the stew pot boiling on the stove.
“That’s a long time to be alone,” Theron mused, staring at the woman’s back as she meticulously cleaned the countertop.
“I got used to it quickly.” She finished the clean up and sat across from him.“ Unfortunately, it’s just as easy to get used to people, isn’t it?”
Theron hummed, staring at the kitchen table. “How long ago have you and Jo met?”
“Seven years ago,” Gabrielle answered. “It’s been more than ‘quite some time’.”
“May I ask why?” Theron attempted to pry further. “Strength in numbers?”
Gabrielle leaned back in her chair. “I told Rivers a couple of years ago that in some situations you can only be cruel or an idiot. Meeting Johanna was, undoubtedly, my greatest moment of idiocy.”
Theron hummed, drinking his water in silence for a moment, then asked with a smirk: “Which one?”
“Which one, what?”
“You said you told ‘Rivers’. Which one?”
Without missing a beat, Gabrielle answered, “The grumpy one.”
Theron snorted. “I’m assuming that’s Kyle. So, if he’s the grumpy one… Which one is Seb?”
“The idiot one.”
Theron tried and failed to hold back a fit of laughter, almost spilling his water in the process, but as it faded, his mind returned to Gabrielle’s previous statement. To what the woman had just moments referred to as ‘idiocy’. Sebastian could be ruthless when they sparred—something Theron learned was inherited from his training with Johanna—but only an idiot would cut their way into someone’s tent when that person wanted to be left alone. Only an irredeemable idiot would allow himself to get beaten by a drunken cripple he could have, just as easily, struck down. He frowned. “Well, that idiot still has my dagger so I need to make better progress.”
Gabrielle hummed from behind the rim of her cup. “Have you considered asking for it?”
“I’ve asked for it, yes.” Theron muttered, rolling his eyes. “He said I can have it back if I can take it.”
Gabrielle arched an eyebrow in mild surprise. “Interesting. Did he specify how you should obtain it? Did he specifically say you need to win it back in a spar?”
Theron shook his head. “He just said ‘take it’.”
“Then maybe you should be assessing the problem from a different angle,” she offered. “You can train all you want, and you should, but even if and when you master yourself, there’ll always be people you couldn’t possibly defeat in a fair fight. And the way to go about that is by not making it a fair fight.”
Theron contemplated the woman’s advice. As sound as it was, he wasn’t sure how to apply it. At least not yet. Gabrielle finished her water and stood, walking to the stove and peering at the stew pot.
“That needs to cook for some time,” she declared, grabbing her coat and hat, then heading out the door. “Come outside, show me what progress you’ve made.”
Theron choked on his last sip of water. Gabrielle never took part in any sparring. Sebastian had even claimed to never have seen the woman fight in close combat before. He coughed away the irritation in his throat, forcing a deep breath.
“Today, Lockwood. If you don’t mind,” Gabrielle called.
Theron winced as he stood up and made his way out of the kitchen. Gabrielle was standing, arms crossed, in the center of the clearing. The long coat made her frame bulkier and more imposing. The brim of the hat cast a dark shadow over her eyes. Theron couldn’t help but recall the night they met, the feeling that this would be the last thing he saw before death. For some people out there, that was true.
Gabrielle motioned him closer with a curt nod and once he obeyed, she changed her stance, holding her palms out to him the same way Gerald would in training. Except Gerald normally wore padded gloves. Theron flinched in light of this, then reminded himself he’d seen Gabrielle literally shape metal. It was more likely for him to hurt his fists on her palms. After another encouraging nod, Theron punched, a little hesitant, drawing a soft sigh from Gabrielle.
“You can do better than that, Lockwood. Come on,” she said, calmly.
Theron drew another deep breath, his next attempt more focused, earning him a small nod of approval. He continued, his blows increasingly heavier each time, building up a rhythm he slowly grew comfortable with. He tried to ignore the fact he could feel the woman’s eyes on him, and not think about how she barely reacted to his punches no matter how much strength he injected into them. There was something about Gabrielle’s calm demeanor, combined with her raw strength, that just unsettled him to his core.
Theron tried not to think about it, but he did. Distracted by his thoughts and far too comfortable in the rhythm he’d set, he wasn’t fast enough to catch himself when Gabrielle abruptly pulled her hand away. His fist punched through empty space, the momentum made him stumble forward, and the woman’s fist struck his face in a quick jab. It was surprisingly light, barely a tap. He shook it off with a groan.
“Pay attention, Lockwood. The next one will hurt,” she warned.
There was no bite, no edge, to her voice. Even the blow had been dealt with the utmost restraint. Theron knew she could have knocked him down with that punch if she wanted. He ran one hand over his face with a small sigh, then resumed his stance. He punched with more force now and less caution. He kept in mind what Gerald had taught him, he wasn’t reckless enough to forsake his form entirely, but he’d abandoned all concern that he might do any form of damage to Gabrielle’s unprotected hands. Because if he could—if any of it caused her even the slightest discomfort—she was doing expert work of keeping it concealed.
The second time she pulled her hand away he did catch himself in time to duck under her swinging fist, but failed to protect himself from a follow-up strike. As promised, it was forceful enough to hurt, his eyes momentarily blurring from the impact. This time Gabrielle said nothing and simply waited for him to recover. Theron shook his head, resumed his stance without hesitation, his blows more forceful and on the verge of reckless now. He wasn’t sure why, but her calm demeanor, that tranquility that seemed to just emanate from the woman at all times, grated on him. As if nothing he did could ever truly faze her. And the familiar sense of helplessness felt like ice crawling its way up his spine, sinking into the base of his skull, numbing his rationality. He didn’t immediately realize his strikes had become more furious, vicious enough to push Gabrielle back a slight amount each time.
It happened a lot faster. Gabrielle pulled back, Theron caught her movement in time to barely avoid the incoming blow, used his forearm to block the following strike, and managed to push her fist aside. He stepped forward and aimed a strike of his own directly at the woman’s face.
It wasn’t part of the exercise, and in his right mind he never would have attempted it, but the dominant part of his mind wanted to at least force a reaction. Draw some emotion out even if it was anger. Something. Anything. Gabrielle stepped out of the way of his fist, and grabbed his arm, twisting it behind his back with one hand. The other gripped the back of his neck, holding him in place. Even then, it was just enough force to hold him in place, just enough to immobilize him, the only pain he felt was when he attempted foolishly to struggle.
“That’s enough, Lockwood,” Gabrielle said. There was no sternness in her voice. She didn’t seem taken back by his outburst. If anything, it seemed as though she’d been expecting it. “It’s time to stop.”
Theron stopped resisting and gradually relaxed enough that Gabrielle deemed safe to release him. The boy straightened up with a groan. “Sorry, I think I got a little carried away.”
“No harm done,” Gabrielle answered. And Theron was sure there was a note of amusement underneath her usual monotone. “Why don’t you wash up again while I finish this,” she nodded, indicating the kitchen’s interior. “We can pick this up again tomorrow.”
“I don’t see why not. Do you?”
Theron flinched. “I… I don’t know why I got so heated. I should be more careful.”
Gabrielle hummed and casually glanced at their surroundings. “I didn’t feel any tremors, Lockwood. The towers are perfectly intact. What else is there to be cautious about?”
Theron ran his fingers through his hair, not knowing how to answer that question. Gabrielle sighed softly and a trace of something—recognition, sympathy, maybe? He couldn’t discern. Whatever it was momentarily softened her expression.
“I’ve already told the grumpy one this, and ultimately you’re no different: you can never hope to control something you fear. Your rage can either fuel you, or burn you, and it is entirely up to you which one it’ll be,” she told him, not waiting for a response and making her way back to the kitchen.
[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Early Morning]
Madeline was thankful for spring’s arrival. The warmer weather over the past few days gradually thawed the forest soil. And while nights were still relatively chilly, it was far more tolerable weather for sleeping in a tent in the woods. Her routine in the past few months had been simple: wake up at sunrise, wash up, survey her surroundings and check her traps, breakfast, working on whatever she might have caught in those traps. Life while impersonating a hunter and waiting for something interesting to happen was frustratingly tranquil.
The village was exactly as Dani and Lena had described. The people were friendly, if a little untrusting of strangers. Sylvie and her family were accommodating, and within the first week of her camping on the outskirts, she’d made it a habit to join them for breakfast every other day. The old woman was quick to notice her immunity to telepathy and calmly questioned her about it one morning. Sylvie was kind and motherly at all times, but she had the aura of someone who outlived more than one person’s share of misfortune, and could outlive you as well if it came to that. Madeline told her the truth about her enlightenment and the fact she didn’t know exactly how it worked. There was no reason to lie about that part. They didn’t speak of it a second time.
The village embraced Madeline quickly with Sylvie’s acceptance. She played her part well enough to talk shop with the village hunters effortlessly and in no time she’d learned all their names and faces. She befriended Stanley and his apprentice Bobby, having to hold back amusement whenever the man brought the one visitor able to easily solve all of his puzzles, and made sure to include it in her following letter. Surely Lena would find it amusing.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened throughout winter, but spring was when the Hunters were supposed to come. Maddie made sure to come to the village for meals more frequently as it arrived; and she had to admit it was infinitely better than what she cooked for herself. Yet, there was barely any movement in the first few days of spring. A few visitors arrived two days prior, but they didn’t match the description, and they didn’t stay long.
Madeline breathed a tired sigh as she walked back to her campsite after breakfast. Like it or not she had rabbits to skin and a raccoon she’d contemplated releasing since the night before. The pelt was worth selling, but the meat wouldn’t fetch a decent price; and quite frankly she didn’t want it either. Maddie shook her head, chuckling to herself. She’d been playing this part too long already. Being away from camp had hit a lot harder than she expected. Dani was a brat and Lena needed constant ego checks, but she’d grown attached to them during training. She’d missed them. Twins, Even Eldric and his idiot friends would be a welcome sight to her now. She was tempted to write Lena letters some days. If only she was allowed personal correspondence. The raven she was assigned should only be sent out with reports every three or four days. Nothing more. She’d sent it out the previous morning and wasn’t expecting it back for another day.
Her tent was set up on top of a small hill. The spot provided a good vantage point over the town and decent cover. It felt safe upon arrival and for the past months, it had been. For that reason, Madeline was caught completely off guard by the sight of an open tent. She’d closed it. She always made damn sure to close it. She froze, slowly reaching for the knife on her belt. The stupid idea that maybe that raccoon got out and was looking for food briefly crossed her mind before she reminded herself of how unlikely that was. Other than the tent being open, nothing seemed to have been disturbed. It was too neat. Even if she wanted to be hopeful, animals aren’t this meticulous.
That’s when something grabbed the back of her tunic. Maddie spun around to face her assailant, hand tight on the knife handle. She was met by familiar blue eyes, startled and—strangely—relieved. “Lena? What the f—”
Lena grabbed her by the tunic a second time and practically dragged her towards the tent. “Get in,” she told her in a whisper.
Madeline obeyed, still trying to process what was happening. The tent was cramped for two people, but Lena squeezed in after her and closed it.
“Why haven’t you been reporting?” she demanded.
“What?” Maddie mumbled, shaking her head in confusion. “What are you talking about? Why are you here?” She frowned. In the time she’d gotten to know Lena she’d never seen her quite this frantic. If anything she could be infuriatingly composed at times. “What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Lena ran one hand over her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Madeline, we haven’t received anything from you in over a month. We thought…” She let out a harsh exhale, as though she’d been holding it the entire time. Concern. That’s what that was. “You have been reporting?”
“Yes. I sent my latest one yesterday morning. The bird has been coming back empty and on time as usual. How long did you say it was since the last time you received one?”
Madeline sighed. “Fuck. I…” She hesitated, but continued. “The bird did come back looking a little ruffled a couple weeks ago. I thought maybe it got into some trouble with a predator on the way back. It seemed fine and it recovered so I didn’t make much of it.”
“That means someone has been intercepting your messages for the past month. Your identity is, without a doubt, compromised. It’s no longer safe for you to carry out this assignment. I’m ending this here.”
Madeline ran both hands over her eyes. With the tent closed it was hard to clearly see Lena’s expression, but her tone was decisive. “It’s been a month, why has nothing happened, then?”
“I don’t know, but these people are too dangerous for it to be worth finding out.” She opened the tent. “Pack up your camp. We’re leaving.”