The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.12

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[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Midmorning]

“Pack up your camp. We’re leaving.”

Packing up took longer than Lena wanted. She had to help Madeline deal with the animals she trapped the previous night because the Scout insisted that she wouldn’t allow her efforts to go to waste. Even though Lena wanted to argue, she decided helping would get them out of there faster.

“You realize you’re actually not a hunter, right?” she asked. “Because I don’t think you’ve been out here long enough to get into an identity crisis.”

“Emmett warned me it happens.” Madeline shrugged. “It’s why some Scouts never return to camp.”

Lena chuckled. “Yes, but it usually takes years for that to happen, not a few months.”

“Honestly? I can’t wait to go back, this place is boring as fu—”

Madeline stopped talking, her gaze fixed on a distant point down the hill. Lena glanced in the same direction and spotted one of the village men slowly walking towards their camp. She tried, in the duration of one brief glance, to urge Madeline to end this conversation as soon as possible before finding a hiding place among the trees.

“Hey, Clint!” Madeline greeted the man.

“Heya there, kid. Are you about to move out?”

“Yeah. Big game kinda scarce around these parts. Think they’re on to me at this point. Thinking about heading further north for a while, but hey, maybe I’ll stop by again on my way back.”

“Hope you do. It’s been really nice having you around.”

“That’s very sweet of you to say, Clint.”

Lena recognized the sugary sweet tone Madeline’s voice took as a facade, but she couldn’t deny how genuine it sounded. The two engaged in small talk for a couple of minutes, but it was clear there was something Clint was tiptoeing around. He either wanted a favor, or Maddie was about to get asked on a date. She was clearly aware of this, and growing impatient with his hesitation.

“Listen, sweetie, as much as I enjoy talking, I do have plans to get at least on my way before I start losing daylight. Have you come here for a reason, or…?”

“Oh, oh, right! Yes. Uhm, well I wasn’t expecting to catch you leaving. This might be a little too much to ask now, but I could use some extra help. We have a lot more outsiders than usual today and Sylvie has some friends visiting; they often come around this time to trade. We don’t really have all the supplies they need, so she wants me to go on a run to the city tomorrow to get it, but I have a lot I still need to get done and we’re a little short-handed.”

“You want me to come down and lend a hand, is that it?”

“Only for a few hours. And I’m more than willing to compensate you for your time, of course.”

Lena frowned. She knew what Madeline was thinking, because she was thinking it too, and it was a terrible idea.

“Sylvie has friends visiting, huh?”

Lena didn’t know how Madeline managed to make such obvious prodding sound so unassuming, but she somehow did it. Even if she hadn’t, Clint didn’t seem the type to know the difference.

“Yeah,” Clint answered. “This girl Sylvie sort of adopted a few years back. She comes and goes. Sometimes she brings friends. Good kid, if a little bit strange.”

“Strange?”

That seemed to be a step too far and Clint’s response became slightly more guarded. “I don’t know her story, but she seems like she’s gone through some things.”

“Ah,” Madeline turned immediately apologetic. “Say no more. I’m not in the business of prying into the tragic backstories of strangers.”

There was a prolonged pause through which Lena hoped, to every individual Twin, that she would have the presence of mind to decline his offer.

It wasn’t long before Maddie blew out a sigh. “Alright, just… Give me a couple of minutes to finish clearing out my campsite and I’ll come down for a couple of hours. There’s pay involved, yeah?”

“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t ask you to work for free.”

“Then I’m up for it. As soon as I finish up here. I still want to move out today.”

Clint agreed and the ensuing silence told Lena that the man was making his way back to the village. Madeline confirmed it by addressing her directly.

“I know what you’re about to say.”

Lena stepped out of hiding, arms crossed. “Absolutely not.”

“Yeah.” Madeline smirked. “That’s exactly what I was expecting you to say.”

“You’re not going down there. No. We’re leaving.”

Madeline groaned, resuming the clean up Clint interrupted. “I’ve been stuck here for months waiting for this! We’re here. They’ve shown up. It’d be a waste to not go through with it.”

“It’d be irresponsible and dangerous. If the woman Clint mentioned is a Wolf Hunter, we don’t know what they know at this point. We don’t know if they could recognize you or what they would do if they could. It’s not a risk worth taking.”

“It’s not a risk worth taking if it’ll turn this situation around, Lena? Haven’t you been dealing for as long as your sister’s been alive?”

Lena flinched, silently getting started with tearing apart the tent.

“It’s my risk, I want to take it,” Madeline insisted. “A couple of hours to see what I can find out.”

Lena shook her head. “It’s not your risk. If you think I’m going to just let you go out there without backup, you’re stupider than I thought.”

“They know you. They know your face. More importantly, Sylvie knows what you can do,” Madeline argued, roughly yanking the folded canvas from Lena’s hands. “I’ll be safer if you stay up here. You’re not responsible for me.”

Lena scoffed. “No. That’s wrong. Very incorrect.”

“I’m sorry?”

Lena groaned and glanced around, lowering her voice just in case. “I swore you in, Maddie. Do you remember the words of the oath you took? Or have you been stuck here long enough to forget it?”

Madeline’s posture stiffened momentarily, and relaxed with a long suffering breath. “No. I haven’t forgotten it. I still think it’s a risk worth taking. We need some advantage over them, that’s why your mother sent me here, isn’t it?”

Lena shook her head and looked down over the village. “I’ll give you a twenty minute head start. Once down there, no matter what happens—and I need you to be clear on this—no matter what happens, you don’t know me. I don’t know you. Do you understand?”

Madeline’s jaw tensed for a brief moment. Lena could tell she understood the implications and wasn’t exactly pleased with them. “I understand.”

Lena nodded. “Good. Go before I change my mind.”

[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Early Morning]

The village looked as a painting would between visits. Nothing had changed. The sun was bright, the children were running loose—always in full view of at least one familiar adult, but free to roam and play as they pleased. For a brief moment, Sebastian felt a twinge of resentment, of longing for something that he’d never been allowed to have; never would have. It wasn’t a thought worth lingering on, especially when they were suddenly swarmed by children almost as excited to see Johanna as Gerald was on Creation Day morning.

Their trip had been uneventful, but tense. Sebastian felt fine after his training  incident and dismissed it as over-exertion; something he needed to find a way to combat, but nothing to be concerned about. If the intense watch she kept on him the entire way was any indication, Johanna begged to differ. Thankfully, arriving at their destination without incident put her more at ease, as she sat her bag down and gave Sebastian one last stern look as if to say “don’t stray too far” before allowing herself to be dragged away by the children.

For a time Sebastian stood around, his travel pack weighing on one shoulder, and watched as a game of hide and seek was set up. Jo, of course, was supposed to seek. His gaze followed the scattering children to their hiding spots, and while Jo’s eyes were properly covered and she made no attempt to sneak any looks between her fingers, the ruckus they were making ensured she’d roughly know their whereabouts regardless. When their time was up, Jo made a show of searching for them, lingering near their hiding spots and walking past, making sure her footsteps crunched against the earth, feigning ignorance of the muffled giggles and soft gasps of the hiding children every time she drew near. He could see a few of them poking out from their hiding spots; behind some of the houses, crates, underneath the village’s few market stalls. One of the smaller girls managed to climb her way into what looked to be a fish barrel and Sebastian was sure her parents would be absolutely delighted when they found out.

“I see the little ones wasted no time giving Johanna something to do.”

Sebastian noticed Sylvie’s approach from the corner of one eye, smiling as he greeted the elderly woman with a nod. “Not a second.”

Sylvie chuckled and Sebastian could feel her eyes persistently on him. “How are you, Sebastian? You’ve grown since you were here last.”

Sebastian resisted the urge to shrug. There wasn’t much point trying to deny he’d changed in two years. He was taller, his voice had changed, he assumed that some of the more personal changes he’d experienced would, in some ways, also be noticeable to someone as observant as Sylvie.

“A lot happens in two years.” He smiled, trying not to dwell on the reason why he wasn’t allowed to come the previous year. He focused on his environment instead. “This place, though… It looks exactly the same.”

Sylvie shrugged, her tone unassuming as she answered him with, “sometimes not enough happens in two years.”

“Sounds nice,” he mumbled, a distracted smile forming on his face as Jo chased one of the children out from their hiding spot, the little boy squealing and laughing, as she caught up to him and lifted him off the ground. “Nice and boring. Don’t know what that says about me.”

Sylvie gave him a gentle pat on his free shoulder. “It says you’re still young.”

“I read a book recently about Time,” Sebastian started, readjusting the strap on his left shoulder, “in which one of His self-professed disciples supposedly questions Him about the concept of aging. And Time asks him, how do you measure your existence, Mortal? Are you young because of how little you’ve lived, or are you old because of how little you might have yet to live? So in my case, I’d say that’s relative.”

Sylvie hummed, thoughtfully. “Well, the good thing about living as long as I have is that either way you look at it, I’m still old.”

Sebastian laughed. “That’s true. I guess living a long life is one way to solve that dilemma.”

“It may not be the easiest way,” Sylvie said, “but it certainly is a way. Life isn’t easy. Young as you are, seems as though you know that well.”

Sebastian nodded. He wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Thankfully Jo finally looked their way, grinned widely upon seeing Sylvie and excused herself from the game by tapping one of the older girls on the shoulder and mumbling “you’re it”.

“That’s tag! We’re playing hide and seek!” the girl complained.

Jo shook her head, still smiling ear to ear as she walked up to Sylvie and wrapped the woman in a tight hug. Sylvie calmly patted her on the back before stepping out of her embrace and holding her at arms’ length. The scene was very reminiscent of what Sebastian imagined a parent welcoming their child home would look like. Down to the way Johanna visibly flinched under Sylvie’s scrutinizing gaze, as though worried about what the elder could be seeing.

“You look well,” she finally declared, giving Jo’s shoulders a gentle squeeze before releasing her. The relief on the younger woman’s face lasted for only a few seconds before Sylvie followed up with, “is that new chain around your neck?”

“Uhm,” Jo flinched, reaching out to touch the golden chain peering out from the collar of her tunic. “Yes,” she mumbled, and tucked it fully into her shirt. “It’s Gerry’s.”

“Ah. I see.” Sylvie smiled. “How is he?”

“Hopefully well,” Jo answered, picking up her bag from the floor and rummaging through one of the pockets for an exceedingly long time.

“Have you brought a list of the supplies you’re in need of?” Sylvie asked, watching her carefully.

Jo nodded, breathing a small sigh of relief as she produced a folded paper from her bag. She offered it to Sylvie with a subdued smile.

Sylvie took the list and went over it with a thoughtful hum. “Most of this can be easily arranged. We are short or leather and hide, but I’ll ask Clint and see what we’re able to spare on short notice. In the meantime, go on ahead and make yourselves at home. I’m sure you must be tired and hungry.”

Jo responded with another nod and, flinging her bag over one shoulder, started to lead the way to Sylvie’s house. The elder left them to see Clint about the leather.

As soon as she was out of earshot, he turned to her and asked,”Are you still worried about Tucker being in Blackpond?”

Jo frowned and thoughtlessly tugged at the chain around her neck. It dawned on him that it was poking out from under her collar because she’d been toying with it frequently throughout their trip. “Yes,” she admitted.

“I’m sure he’ll be okay, Jo. I mean, Kyle’s with him, right?”

Sebastian knew that if anything came up that Gerald couldn’t handle, Kyle would probably fare no better. And while that possibility also made him nervous, the remark was enough to earn him a soft chuckle. That was all he really needed to achieve.

Sylvie’s house also looked exactly the same as he remembered. Immediately upon entering, his gaze was drawn to the hourglass sitting innocently on the mantelpiece. Specks of red intermixed with smooth golden sand pooled on the bottom half, static, untouched, likely since the ceremony the previous year.

“Want one?” Jo asked.

Sebastian startled, despite the softness of Jo’s question. “What?”

Jo took a deep breath, forehead creasing as she pondered what words to speak and how to force them out. “An hourglass,” she started, her tone just barely audible. She forced another breath and elaborated, a little more firmly. “Do you want one? One that’s yours?”

The question caught him off guard. He’d considered asking about it on that first night. He’d considered it a few times since, despite telling Theron that symbols like that weren’t important. A lengthy silence hung between them as he considered the question one more time.

“No. I like the ceremony. I like having a day to remember her, but… I don’t want to carry a constant reminder of my losses. I don’t want to think of my sister as a speck of sand amongst many, even if that’s true. I don’t want to think about my parents at all.”

Jo nodded, coming to take his pack from him and then carrying it back into the same room they’d shared on their last visit two years prior. When she returned, she silently pulled him away from the hourglass and into the kitchen. He sat at the table and watched as she rummaged through the cupboards and the pantry to gather what food was readily available.

“Do you have one? An hourglass?” Sebastian felt the question slip before he had a chance to hold it in.

“No. I have…” Jo shook her head as she set a plate of corn cakes on the table. “I have other reminders.”

Sebastian saw her glance down briefly and tug at one sleeve before turning away to fetch something else, and took it as a clear indication to abandon his line of questioning. Instead, he reached for a corn cake and took a bite. Jo set a couple of jars on the table, then sat across from him. He watched her take one of the corn cakes and pile an exorbitant dollop of jam on it before taking a big bite, smiling ear to ear.

“How big of a sugar high are you planning to give yourself this morning? Twins.” Sebastian laughed.

Jo shrugged, then scooped another spoonful of jam and plopped it onto the cake he was eating before he had the chance to take another bite. “Extra energy.”

Sebastian shook his head, but continued eating the cake, mindless of the extra serving of jam. “If they can’t provide the leather, are we just going home without it, or—”

Jo’s expression twisted and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Newhaven.”

Sebastian winced as well. “I hope they can get some. I don’t know why but that place unnerves me.”

Jo muttered something unintelligible in agreement and stood up again to make tea. Sebastian made a mental note to stop touching on sensitive topics today. They didn’t have a lot of time to spend here and it wouldn’t be fair if she didn’t get to enjoy it. By the time she returned to the table with two steaming mugs, the tension seemed to have already eased from her shoulders and when Sylvie’s grandniece and her son joined them moments later, she immediately perked up.

There hadn’t been much opportunity to get to know people during his last visit. He’d only briefly greeted Emmeline then. Her son, Leo, was already asleep by the time Sebastian and Kyle arrived from Newhaven. The five year old was full of energy this early in the day and excited to show Johanna all of the toys his dad made for him since her last visit. Stanley was the village ironsmith and something of a tinkerer. The man was currently minding his shop, but Emmeline was more than happy to talk Sebastian ear off about the interesting toys and puzzles he liked to make as a hobby and proudly showed off a few puzzles consisting of two or more intertwined nails. They looked simple enough to solve, but after several attempts, Sebastian was struggling to find the right angle to separate the nails in the one that looked the simplest to solve. When Sylvie returned, he was still absorbed in trying to solve the puzzle and barely paid attention as she and Johanna discussed the list of supplies.

“Seb,” Jo called.

“Hm?” He set the puzzle down on the kitchen table and immediately realized he missed something by the way both women were now looking at him.

Jo reached out to take the puzzle from the table top and calmly toyed with it in her hands as she asked: “Go to Newhaven for leather or stay here another day?”

“Oh. Here. Definitely here.”

“Thought so.” Jo smiled and set two separate nails down on the table, one at a time. “We’re doing chores,” she declared.

Sebastian grabbed the nails, perplexed. “How the hell did you solve this?”

“You’ll figure it out. It’s not h—”

“Yes it is. It’s very hard,” he complained.

Jo grinned ear to ear nodding towards the door. “Tough as nails?”

Sebastian clenched his jaw until it hurt, unable to hold back a trace of laughter. “I just… I walked right into that, didn’t I?”

 “Too easy.” She smirked.

Sebastian shook his head as he followed Jo out of the house. The sun was higher now than when they entered, and the village was bustling with activity. There had been an influx of visitors in the time they’d been indoors. Johanna informed him she’d agreed for them to help Clint tend to the animals, but Sebastian wasn’t fully listening. He was examining faces as they passed, nodding politely to the few people who noticed him. The few stands he’d seen that morning were now concealed by people looking to buy or trade. The bits and pieces of conversation he was able to catch informed him that many hailed from other similar villages, but some had come from the city itself. Most were dressed to blend in with the forest, a lot of people wore silver rings. They were fairly common, and especially popular in Newhaven. No one stood out to him at first. Not until Stanley’s workshop came into clear view.

The smith was standing in the doorway, talking excitedly over a wooden piece he was showing off to someone. A young woman. She was mostly facing away from him, her attention focused on the object Stanley was holding as they conversed. Sebastian didn’t have a clear view of her face, but something in that scene filled him with a sense of familiarity and dread.

For a moment the memory flashed to the forefront of his mind, clear as though it was happening now: Kat standing in the doorway, smiling, bright-eyed and cheerful. And that same figure stood across from her, making casual conversation. The same silhouette, the same black hair partially tucked into a dark green hood, exact same mannerisms; as though being this casual was a skill, perfectly honed; practiced. She shook her head in response to something Stanley said, and Sebastian glimpsed just one side of her face. An amused smile curled the corner of her lips and ice flooded his veins. He knew that smile. He’d never be able to forget it.

Sebastian stopped in his tracks as if suddenly the pull of gravity was too much to withstand. The sickening sweet smell of roses and iron seemed to suddenly fill his senses. Bitterness rose in his throat. Caught there. The furious screams rising within his mind translated into a weak, pathetic, strangled whimper.

“Seb?”

Jo’s voice was drowned out as his ears flushed with intense heat. His hands were shaking, his fingers stiff as he mindlessly reached for his sword. A firm grip around his wrist kept him from actually unsheathing the weapon. Sebastian met Jo’s eyes then, her expression was alarmed and filled with an unvoiced question he didn’t know how to answer. He wanted to, but his voice seemed to have abandoned him. Jo briefly turned to glance at where he’d been staring, then turned to watch his expression more closely. “Her?” she asked.

All he could do was nod.

“Your sister?”

This time he didn’t nod. His eyes tightened and as he refocused his sight onto the assassin standing mere paces away.

Jo’s expression hardened. “Okay,” she mumbled. Calmly, she pried his fingers open, forcing him to release his sword. “Okay,” she repeated, taking his hand in hers and squeezing gently.

Jo released Sebastian’s hand and fully turned around. He watched her draw her sword as she made her way directly to Stanley’s shop. The smith was the first to notice, his expression shifting from cheerfulness to alarm and confusion.

[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Midmorning]

As much as Lena enjoyed being in this village again, she hated it in equal amounts. Her mother had warned her about a report sent by Madeline in which a villager mentioned her. She knew some people would remember, but she didn’t expect warm smiles and cheerful greetings from every villager that crossed her path. It unnerved her.

Madeline was out in the open, helping one of the villagers shear some of the sheep. It made keeping track of her easy as she browsed the market stalls and made conversation with some of the chattier villagers. The gossip was tiresome and yielded nothing worthy of note, but she feigned interest in order to burn time. One of the stands, which carried a motley assortment of junk, also had a few books on display that caught her eye. They all turned out to be recipe books, but they were in good enough condition that she considered purchasing at least one of them. Absently, she took the one at the top of the pile. The book itself was similar in style to the journal she’d gifted Sarah on her birthday, just older; worn. She flipped through some of the pages and stopped abruptly as the vague scent of cinnamon and spice flooded her memory. Gradual and familiar as though she could actually recall standing in this woman’s too-warm kitchen, listening to the distant sounds of children playing in the living room, intermixed with a man’s soft amused laughter.

“I recommend that one. Octavia makes excellent apple pie.”

Stanley’s voice cut through her thoughts abruptly and Lena tried to hide a startled jolt, almost dropping the book as she returned it to the stand. She offered a quiet thank you to the woman she assumed was Octavia then turned to address the man.

“I’m not much of a baker, Stanley. I just enjoy books.” She sighed. “I should thank you. You may have startled me out of an unnecessary purchase.”

“You were staring at it quite intensely, that’s true.” Stanley smiled, but the hint of concern underneath made Lena wonder how long she’d been staring at that one page.

“It’s a nice looking book, if a bit worn,” she said, trying to brush off the man’s concern. “Since you spared me the waste of coin, maybe you could help me with something.”

“What do you need my help with?”

“Well…” Lena drew a deep breath, taking pause, questioning how honest she was willing to be about this. “I seem to have gotten on my youngest sister’s bad side recently. I’m hoping it’ll help initiate dialogue if I come home with gifts.”

“Ah. Silent treatment?” The smith smiled. “Children can be ruthless.”

“Notoriously so in my family.”

Stanley nodded. “You purchased some puzzles and a few figurines from me on your last visit, is that right?”

“Correct.”

“Alright, let me see what I can do for you.”

Lena followed Stanley to his shop as they discussed gift options. She made sure to let him know she wouldn’t be able to wait on a custom piece and wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, restricting her options to what he already had available for purchase. In all honesty, she also hadn’t brought much coin with her. Coming into the village wasn’t in the plans. All of that considered, they settled on a simple crafting kit. Sarah liked projects and, as much as she complained about Eldric, she did like some of the things he could make. It might not be enough of a bribe to get the girl talking, but felt like a safe enough bet. Stanley underpriced both kits she chose as a courtesy and, while she would normally argue, she wasn’t really in a position to refuse. So she swallowed her pride and thanked him for the gesture.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Actually, I have one more thing to show you. I had someone commission it a while back and they never came back to pick up. I don’t know who else could possibly want something like this.”

Lena hummed, rummaging through her coin purse for the man’s payment. “I’m intrigued. What is it?”

“Give me a moment, I’ll get it.”

Stanley retreated into his workshop, leaving Lena outside to wait with five silver coins in hand. She heard rummaging from inside the shop, then a crash followed by a soft curse. The man came back eventually, holding one box that could just barely fit in her travel bag and a second, smaller box. He held out the bigger box. “These are the two kits you purchased. Each of them has instructions to build different wooden models. I hope your sister enjoys it.”

Lena took the box and carefully rearranged some items in her bag to fit it inside. “I’m sure she’ll have fun with it.”

Stanley tapped the smaller box in his hands excitedly, then held it out for her to see. It was a dark wood box, painted with an intricate pattern of golden vines, leaves and flowers. It looked like an ornate jewelry box at first glance, but upon a closer look Lena noticed that the vines didn’t quite connect.

“Is that a sliding puzzle?”

“Yes.” Stanley turned the box over, showing off the fact that the puzzle extended across all four sides of the box. “Like I said, this traveler commissioned it, but after three months they never retrieved it. I don’t appreciate seeing my work sitting on a shelf collecting dust, so… Throw a couple more silver on what you owe me, and I’ll let you take it off my hands.”

Lena frowned. “I can’t do that. Even if this was just a plain box it would be worth more than a couple silver, Stanley.”

“The person who commissioned it paid for it in advance, the price is symbolic if anything. I just want someone to appreciate it. I mean the guy seemed excited, but clearly something happened.”

“Huh. And you’re sure he won’t come back for it?”

Stanley shrugged. “He said he’d come for it in a few weeks. After three months, I’d say it’s his loss.”

Lena gave the man a doubtful look, but added two extra silver to his payment and handed it over. “You drive a hard bargain, good sir.”

Stanley chuckled. “I’m an expert negotiator, what can I say?”

Lena shook her head, smiling. “Seriously, stop selling yourself short. You’ll never turn a profit that way.”

Stanley’s amused retort died in his throat. The ironsmith’s expression abruptly shifted from proud satisfaction at making a sale to startled confusion. His eyes widened as he stared over Lena’s shoulder seemingly frozen in place.

Lena dropped her bag on the ground while hurriedly drawing her sword with her off hand. She raised the blade in front of her body just in time to catch an incoming sword strike. Metal clashed. The impact travelled the length of her blade up to her elbow, eliciting a hiss of pain. The subsequent strike took advantage of her discomfort and her clumsy stance, the impact putting deliberate strain on her wrist. Lena ignored the pain in favor of creating distance between the woman’s blade and her body. Her assault was relentless. Each individual strike was furious and precise. It left her no room to maneuver, think, or try to wrestle for control. Every slash of this woman’s blade carried enough intent to ensure the smallest of slip ups would be the end of this confrontation.

For a brief moment, just a fraction of a second, Lena caught the Hunter’s eyes. Dark, cold, and filled with an intensity that felt way too personal for just a predator in search of prey. She didn’t know her, she’d remember. So why…

“I’m sorry I have to do this.”

Why?

“What about my brothers?”

“I’m not here for them.”

Why?

“Then I forgive you.”

The familiar voice surfaced without warning. Without reason. The world blurred at the edges as the memory threatened to pull her under. It was a flinch—a stutter—but it cost her. Another swipe of the Hunter’s blade knocked her sword aside, violently enough that it escaped her grasp. There was no escaping the plunge of the Hunter’s sword as it ran deep through her stomach. She wheezed. A mix of blood and bile hit the back of her throat with a strangled whine. Her mind drifted out. Her head swelled with pressure as she desperately endeavored to regain control of her senses. Pain assaulted her temples, the backs of her eyes. The echoes flooded in, all at once, like ghosts. A cacophony of voices lost to time. Flashes of memories flickered in and out behind her eyes, too fast to be discernible. A part of her could feel hard ground against her back, the sun high overhead; almost unbearably warm, the pain rising in her chest with every ragged breath. A panicked voice calling out. Begging her to stay awake.

“They’ll kill you.”

Stay awake.

“I can’t talk you out of this, can I?”

Stay awake.

“I’ll never forgive you if you don’t come back.”

Stay…

The greater part of Lena’s consciousness was lost to reality. To deafening sounds. The smell of explosive powder and smoke. And desperate, anguished screams.

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