The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.11

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[City of Blackpond | Inviditas 4th, 2526 | Midday]

The loud, joyful chatter of the general populace intermixed with the loud calls of merchants peddling their many wares, created a melodious cacophony in the air. Despite the sunny day, the cheerful ambiance, and the ease with which they’d gotten through their morning shopping, an unease settled deeply into Gerald’s mind . Something was off—out of place—and he couldn’t immediately discern what it was.

The Hunter’s keen eyes scanned the Blackpond market crowd at regular intervals and nothing caught his attention. Parents trying to keep track of their young, couples holding hands as they lazily inspected the many stalls, and a few cutpurses searching for their next easy target. All of it belonged amidst the ruckus of a city market.

“Do you think I should bring flowers?”

Gerald blinked, turning to face Kyle with a look of confusion. He’d told the boy he could go see the girl he’d met on his previous visit so long as everything ran smoothly and so far it had. “Does she like flowers?”

“I haven’t really asked. Don’t most girls like flowers?”

Gerald stared at the boy curiously. “How do you expect me to know that?”

“I don’t know. Past experience?” Kyle scratched his head as he examined the colorful display of flowers in one of the nearby stands. “Haven’t you ever tried to woo a girl, Tucker?”

“No,” Gerald answered.

“…A boy?”

“No.”

“Other?”

Gerald breathed a short laugh. “I went on one date when I was sixteen. I didn’t want to go. And my date’s mother later complained to my mother that I was extremely uninterested and rude. Which, in all fairness, I was.”

“Why did you go, then?”

“Noble kids are brought up to be marriage obsessed and I was apparently a ‘good catch’. She was pursuing me quite aggressively. I decided to get it over with.”

Kyle shook his head. “I mean, if she practically harassed you into agreeing, I don’t think she has much grounds for complaining you were uninterested. What did your mom say?”

“She thought it was funny.” Gerald half-smiled. “You already bought her chocolate. It’s only the second time you’re meeting, maybe don’t overdo it?”

“Ah. Fair point.” Kyle stepped away from the flower stand, hands in his pockets. “Does Jo like flowers?”

Gerald once again turned his attention to their surroundings, answering the question without much thought. “If they’re in the garden. She doesn’t like it if you pluck them because then they wither and die.”

“Speaking from experience?” Kyle asked. His voice carried a noticeable teasing lilt, not unlike the one Sebastian used when speaking of his brother’s new ‘friend’.

Gerald snorted, but begrudgingly answered, “yes.”

Kyle’s chuckle fell on deaf ears when from the corner of one eye Gerald spotted one of the many couples strolling past. Young, both in their early twenties if he were to venture a guess. The man was tall and muscular, the woman shorter and lithe. Their demeanor was overtly cheerful in a way that, while not unnatural for a pair of lovebirds, felt almost foreign in a place like Blackpond. They examined the market stalls with interest, and as the man leaned in to whisper something to his partner, his eyes briefly flicked in their direction. Subtle. So much so Gerald could have imagined it, and yet…

“We’re being watched.”

To his credit, Kyle masked his reaction well. His posture remained relaxed, his expression unmoved, Gabrielle would be proud. “How many?”

“Two at least. There might be more,” Gerald said. “Sorry, boy. Maybe next time.”

Kyle breathed a long suffering sigh, frowning at one of the displays of figurines being sold by a local carpenter, passing his frustration off as indecision on what to buy for his date still, despite the fact it wouldn’t actually happen now. “Do we split? I know the residential district like the back of my hand. I’m not as fast as Seb, but I can probably lose one on my own.”

Gerald hummed, coming closer to the stand himself and inspecting one of the figurines. “Losing the city guard and losing a Wolf are far from the same.”

“If all else fails I have my crossbow,” Kyle reminded, picking up the figurine of a wolf and calmly paying for it with two silver pieces. He smiled as he tucked the piece in his coat pocket. “And that hasn’t failed me yet.”

“Don’t be arrogant,” Gerald scolded, nodding the boy along as he led them away from the market stalls. The two lovebirds lingered near the stall they pretended to examine, moving away at their own leisure, keeping a respectful distance. Following.

The contingency plan was to lose the Wolves, leave the city as soon as possible, meet at the safe house, and lay low. Simple in theory, but in practice all plans had the potential to fail. Gerald kept track of their pursuers with the corner of one eye and, without turning, held out his hand. “Give me your supply bag,” he commanded. “It’ll weigh you down.”

“Won’t it weigh you down?” Kyle questioned.

“Rivers,” Gerald scolded. Kyle knew he wasn’t supposed to question. In the field he was supposed to follow directions, especially in situations like this. Without another word, he relieved himself of the burden and passed it over to Gerald, who slung it over his own shoulder. “Go.”

Kyle snorted, clearly displeased, but didn’t waste time arguing further. Taking a sharp turn, the boy disappeared into the masses within seconds. Gerald hoped he could navigate the city’s district as well as he claimed. Stopping by a produce stand, he feigned interest in a head of cabbage in order to keep an eye on his pursuers. The couple stopped to say goodbye as they parted; like one would at the end of a casual encounter. It was a display a casual observer would perceive as a heartfelt exhibition between two lovers, but Gerald noticed the way the woman squeezed the man’s fingers, only slightly, before he released her hand. Then the subdued smile they shared as she turned from him and how his expression set once she’d left his line of sight.

Gerald smiled apologetically at the vendor—who had been trying to get his full attention all the while—and excused himself. He weaved through the crowd, in the opposite direction Kyle had gone, steadily navigating the sea of bodies. There was no need to check again. The Wolf wasn’t far behind.

The central square where the market was assembled each morning connected the commercial and residential districts. The fastest way to the main gate was through the residential district; the direction Kyle had gone. Gerald moved into the commercial district, in the opposite direction. The city’s poor economy forced many businesses to shut their doors in recent years, leaving gaps of boarded up buildings in the midst of bustling thriving shops. Gerald knew this area well, he could remember seeing some of these establishments open just a couple of years ago, in fact. Where he was heading had only recently begun recovering. The few shops that were open hardly saw any business and so as Gerald entered it and the flow of people gradually thinned, he began to hear the gentle scuff of boots in his wake.

With fewer onlookers Gerald dropped all pretense of not knowing. He picked up his pace, not to a full sprint—not yet—as he darted into a narrow alleyway. Kyle was right, the second bag would slow him down, but the little Gerald was able to discern told him this Wolf was lighter and faster than he was. He wouldn’t be able to outrun him anyway. And his height made it difficult to blend into the crowds as well.

The first thing he learned upon joining Gabrielle is to never engage a Wolf unless you’re able to control the situation. Being caught off guard in any way, even for a brief moment, could easily get one killed. Gerald hoped that attempting to lure in this Wolf would dissuade him from engaging in a direct confrontation. However, Gerald had no such luck. When he looked over his shoulder, his pursuer was nowhere to be seen, but that gut feeling, that unease he’d felt back at the market was still present.

“You’re really going to make me do this today, Wolf?” he muttered under his breath.

There was nothing. No sign. Gerald lost track of him so quickly he wasn’t able to pinpoint when it happened.

Pressing his back against the outer wall of an abandoned warehouse, slowly, he reached for his belt. The only sounds were distant, the sparse footsteps coming from the main streets. There weren’t many places to hide in the general vicinity. The rooftops maybe, but Gerald was sure he would have heard it if the Wolf climbed on to them. He’d been paying close attention. Quiet as assassins can be, it made no sense for the man to just disappear. The Hunter focused, inhaling deeply and blowing out a slow breath. The silver light igniting in eyes was accompanied by an all-too-familiar pressure in his temples; one that reminded him not to abuse this aspect of his enlightenment. Gradually, ever so slowly, his awareness extended beyond just himself. To every trace of movement in his general vicinity; no matter how subtle. The soft padding of a cat’s paws as it traversed the rooftops above. The frantic scurrying of the rats populating the dark crevices of abandoned buildings. The occasional human being warily crossing the main street nearby. And then cautious, slow pacing just a couple of meters to his left. There was nothing there Gerald was able to see, but there definitely was movement. He pulled out a small throwing blade and the movement ceased—froze—but the Hunter had what he needed. He threw the blade, willing it to pick up extra speed as it traveled through the air.

The blade seemed to stick in mid air. A muffled groan and a faint shimmer gave away the Wolf’s position; the blade embedded into his leather armor, but hadn’t passed through. Invisibility, or some form of illusionary enlightenment. That would explain the man’s overconfidence in following him here. Gerald frowned and pulled another blade as he advanced on the man’s reappearing form. He threw the second blade and heard it clang against the assassin’s blade. Despite the man’s quick response, the blade awarded Gerald enough of an opening to catch him off guard. He tackled the Wolf into the nearest wall, the impact causing the blade to slip from his grasp. Gerald used his whole body to pin him there, face pressed into the stone, breaths heavy as he attempted to free himself to no avail. Agile as the man was, Gerald was stronger.

“Clever trick, but you should have walked away,” the Hunter rasped.

The Wolf attempted to struggle with all his might, and when his efforts yielded no results his shoulders slumped in resignation. “Just get it over with,” he sneered.

Gerald held the man in place and carefully reached for the knife on his belt. “Soon. First, you’re going to give me some answers.”

The Wolf twisted in his grasp, barely managing to look at him over his shoulder. “If you think I’m going to tell you anything, you’re wasting your time.”

Gerald’s smile held no trace of humor. It was cold in a way those closest to him would deem unrecognizable. “You’re going to tell me what I need to know. One way or another, mutt. If you speak and make this ordeal easier on us both, maybe I’ll grant you one kindness in return.”

The Wolf’s grin matched, cold, spiteful. “Is this where you offer to let me leave with my life if I cooperate? Do you think I’m a fool?”

“I can’t let you live, but…” Gerald found the man’s hand with his knife, the tip of the blade finding his ring finger. “Maybe I’ll let you keep this.”

“If I speak, then I’ll no longer be worthy of it,” the Wolf muttered. “Take it. Choke on it!”

Gerald shook his head. “Admirable. And unfortunate.” 

The knife in his hand; Gabrielle had designed it during their first year living in the Outpost—one of the first pieces to come out of the forge once it was completely set up. A single edged blade, serrated jagged edges ran along the back of it, not unlike an arrow, once the blade sunk into flesh, it would tear its way out. It was a cruel weapon by design. One Gerald rarely chose to use. He turned the knife around, hooking the man’s finger on the serrated side of the blade, and heard his breath hitch, muscles tense as he braced himself for pain. Admirable. Gerald would give him that much credit.

“You made us back there. I want to know how. What were you looking out for? What are your orders, Wolf?”

There was no answer, but Gerald wasn’t expecting one. At least, not a verbal one. One of the many privileges of his upbringing was having very close contact, and the ability to learn under White Knights directly. His mother in particular was an expert interrogator. It’d been part of her job to interrogate uncooperative prisoners. She’d been the one to instill in him the notion that it wasn’t always necessary to get someone to speak so long as the right questions were asked.

“What were you looking out for?” Gerald repeated, leaning in so that he could see the man’s expression more clearly. 

“You had a description, didn’t you?” Silence, but he pressed his lips together as if trying to hold something in.

“Was it me?” Again, no words, just a barely perceptible twitch.

“Was it the boy?” The response was similar, Gerald frowned. 

“Both then. Where did the information come from?” The question drew a different response; his expression smoothed over almost immediately, a poorly contained sigh slipped through his nose. Relief. 

“You don’t know. You wouldn’t know, would you?”

The Wolf scoffed, but said nothing. He wouldn’t know. It wouldn’t be smart for him to know anything beyond specific orders. Gerald sighed. There was no point in prolonging this encounter any further. He caught the Wolf’s ring with the jagged indents of his knife and slowly pulled it from his finger. At this, the man struggled more fiercely than he had at any point thus far. It took effort for Gerald to actually hold him in place. When the ring slipped completely from his finger and fell to the ground all fight finally left him with a soft, resigned laugh. The plunge of Gerald’s knife into his back turned the sound into a choke. He hesitated, for just a fraction of a moment, then twisted the blade and withdrew it with one steady, forceful pull. The man’s body fell limp with a dull sound.

Gerald sighed as he sheathed his knife, taking a step back as a pool of crimson began to form around the motionless body. He crouched. The Wolf’s eyes still carried a faint spark of life, just enough to bear witness as the Hunter collected the blood stained ring that lay beside him on the ground.

******

As Kyle holed up in a narrow path between two long-forsaken homes, he wasn’t entirely sure if the Wolf lost track of him, or if he lost track of her. The woman was fast, agile, and seemed to know the streets almost as well as he did. Almost. He tried to quietly load his crossbow with shaky hands. The strain of keeping his breaths silent made his chest hurt. It was too quiet for him to risk a deeper gasp for air.

He tried not to think about how close he was from where he started out two years ago. The last hiding spot he occupied with Seb wasn’t too far from his current one. It was hard to remember the specific house they’d holed up in last. They all looked similar—especially after the last bots of furniture were turned to firewood—but if he let his mind wander that far back he could still smell dust and rotted wood, feel the unrelenting chill of winter sinking into his bones even under piles of moldy blankets. If his brother could see him in this situation he’d probably be amused. Although, getting killed in the slums of Blackpond as though he never left in the first place wasn’t the kind of irony either of them would appreciate. He managed to get the bolt in place, and cock the weapon after a couple of tries, mentally scolding himself for not having that reloading mechanism perfected yet. It might not be as silent, but it would have been quicker.

Prior to their first active hunt, Gerald explained that not all Wolves were assassins; some of them were Scouts, and some of those Scouts were messengers, while some acted as Recruiters. Kyle wasn’t sure how he’d obtained such information, and never thought to ask, but he recalled Gerald’s breakdown of what each of those roles meant in detail. What he couldn’t do was discern the nature of his pursuer with any level of certainty. Scouts weren’t as dangerous as the assassins themselves, and what this woman was doing in the market would fit the role of a Scout, but Kyle didn’t feel confident acting on that assumption. He clutched his crossbow tight and left his hiding spot. Attempting to sneak across the back streets in broad daylight felt like a foolish endeavor—and if the Wolf had taken to the rooftops, a fruitless one—but being a moving target was better than allowing himself to be cornered. Kyle knew where to go and how to get there, he moved as swiftly as possible, with as little sound as possible. It wasn’t long until the soft scrape of boot on stone caught his ears, like feet planting on the ground, dropping from a roof. Fuck. He abandoned all pretense and bolted, as fast as his legs would carry him.

The Wolf gave chase. Her footsteps were gaining on him. There was no way he could outrun her at this rate, so Kyle turned, aimed his crossbow as best he could, and pressed on the trigger. The clumsy shot bought him time to dart into an alley that carved a path in between two houses. If he was quick enough to get across, maybe he’d be able to lose the woman a second time. It was a solid plan, immediately thwarted by a door flinging open and a firm grip pulling him into one of the houses.

“Are you alright there, buddy?” The words were muted by the sound of the door closing behind him.

Kyle struggled to free himself from whoever this person was only to be immediately released. The rush of adrenaline and panic still made it difficult for him to think clearly or draw proper breath. “What the fuck,” he rasped. “…the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Uhm. You looked like you needed help.”

Kyle couldn’t help a strained laugh. He leaned against the closed door at his back, forcing deeper breaths until his body finally settled into that rhythm. The room was still blurred at the edges, but he was able to finally focus on the man responsible for this bizarre situation. He was taller than him, looked to be in his early twenties. Strands of short blond hair obscured his blue eyes, seemingly fallen out of place during their small scuffle. He was holding his hands up, palms out in a reassuring gesture, and actually backed away a step when Kyle slowly reached for another bolt in his quiver.

“Relax, it’s not for you,” he muttered.

It felt like a rude thing to do, arming himself inside this stranger’s home, but he did need to reload before going back out there. He finished and lowered the crossbow to his side, sparing his host another look. He was tanned, muscular in the same way Theron was; the type of build of someone who was accustomed to heavy lifting. The calluses on his hands supported that assumption. This man wasn’t a fighter, didn’t carry himself as one, and his expression was predominantly one of genuine concern.

“You’re not from around here, are you?” Kyle asked.

He couldn’t be. No one who’d lived in Blackpond for long would ever be this naive.

“We’ve been living in the city for a couple of months. I just started an apprenticeship and we managed to buy this house for cheap,” the man told him. He seemed happy about the situation and Kyle wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “I’m Edmund, by the way. This is my wife.”

Edmund gestured towards the other person in the room with them. Kyle had failed to notice her, but… Right. He did say we. Didn’t he? She couldn’t have been much older than Kyle was. Maybe a couple years. When she stood next to Edmund, holding her hand behind his waist, she only stood around her husband’s shoulders. Her grassy green eyes were big and spoke of curiosity towards the stranger in her house, but the expression she carried across her rounded face spoke to her welcoming nature. She waved with a friendly smile and Kyle nodded a greeting. 

“It’s not a very sought after neighborhood. That’s why it’s cheap.” He grumbled.

Kyle pushed himself away from the door with a groan. Aches started to settle into his muscles, and he became increasingly aware of the sweat drenching his clothing and hair. As much as he hated being in this stranger’s home, laying low for a few minutes could help his situation, so he examined his surroundings. While the outside of the home didn’t stand out from the rest, the interior was nice. The furniture seemed to have been newly made, there was a soft-looking rug in front of the small fireplace, and the cushioned chairs placed on top of it looked soft. Damn it, he needed to not think about being exhausted.

“If you plan to last long living here, install some sturdy locks on that door, on the windows if you can afford to, and wise up. No one in this city is worth the risk you just took with me. I’m definitely not.”

“You sound awfully jaded for someone so young,” Edmund said. “Do you have someone looking out for you?”

“Yes.” Kyle paused, finding his tone had come off exceedingly harsh and taking a moment to compose himself. “Yes, I do. I just need to get back to them and I’ll be fine. Do you have a backdoor? Or a window that leads to the back street? I probably shouldn’t go out through the front door.”

Edmund frowned, opened his mouth as if to question, then closed it again. Kyle watched the man’s eyes lower, his brow furrow deeper as he processed a thought, then smooth as he reached a conclusion. “If you need help making it to where you’re headed, I could—”

“No.” Kyle cut the man off, purposefully harsh this time. “You don’t know what you’re messing with. And it doesn’t involve you. I’m going to leave, preferably not the way I came in, and that’s all the help I need.”

“The upstairs window leads to a back alley. Are you sure, kid? You’re looking a little rough.”

Kyle shook his head. “Listen, Edmund, right? The most important lesson you’re ever gonna learn is that in some situations you can only either be kind or smart. The two of you have a good thing going here so be smart about it.” He sighed, checked his crossbow to make sure nothing got jammed in his rush to reload, and began staggering his way up the stairs. “Stop letting strangers into your house.”

It wasn’t a bad drop from Edmund’s window to the street below. Kyle landed with a wince, less from the impact and more from the thud his boots made against the stone ground. The streets felt eerily empty. There was no sign of the Wolf. Maybe he’d lost his pursuer in the confusion of what just transpired. Maybe the woman decided against turning this into a confrontation. For once, Kyle didn’t want to waste time thinking through all the possibilities. He still needed to make it past the city gates and hoped Gerald didn’t dispose of their supplies while making his escape. The rest of his trek across the residential district was quiet, but each step dragged on as if he were wearing sacks of flour for shoes. His breaths, which he had difficulty controlling before, slowed and relieved him of the pressures he’d faced earlier. It was soothing, but it dulled his mind and weakened his senses. 

No one followed. Not as far as he realized.

It wasn’t until Kyle walked across the gates of Blackpond, head low as he blended in with a rowdy group of hunters; no doubt celebrating a lucrative day of trading furs, that he remembered the—now melted—bar of chocolate still tucked inside his coat pocket.

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