[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Midmorning]
Madeline was helping one of the village workers hold down a sheep when Lena walked past the paddock. She watched her with just the corner of one eye, not allowing herself to distract from the task at hand.
“I hate the smell of sheep,” she muttered under her breath.
“Not as fun to handle ‘em alive, eh, hunter?”
It took restraint not to react to the word. Hunter… How ironic. Maddie shook her head. “Not even remotely as fun. Don’t call me again unless you’re ready to roast some lamb.”
Laughter spread amongst the workers and Madeline fell into an easy silence, letting the others chatter around her. She split her focus between the manual labor and keeping an eye on her surroundings, only responding briefly when spoken to, making sure to keep up with the light banter and not let any tension seep into her demeanor. The village was tranquil as far as she could tell, but just the knowledge that her messages were being intercepted for the past month, put her on edge. Otherwise she might not have paid any mind to the pair who crossed along the center of the village. The woman wasn’t the only visitor who matched the Hunter’s description, but the teenage boy trailing after her could have just as well been shouting his intentions. He was carefully examining faces in the crowd, distracted from his companion, his hand occasionally touching the hilt of the sword sheathed at his waist. He was nervous, though trying to push it down. Then he saw Lena and all attempts to keep his composure shattered. He stopped dead in his tracks. Though it was hard to make out his expression without fully staring, the way his whole body went stiff he looked as though he’d seen a ghost. She didn’t like the way he’d been reaching for his blade; like a self-soothing gesture. And as he reached for it again, the woman turned and stopped him. They were having a small debate amongst themselves and Lena was still none the wiser. That was a problem.
Madeline remembered, vividly, the one instruction Lena gave her before they separated: “You don’t know me, I don’t know you, no matter what happens”. She shouldn’t intervene, but as the woman calmly turned away from the boy and reached for her own blade, Madeline promptly abandoned her tasks. Leaving her partner to handle a feisty sheep on his own as she grabbed the nearest weapon she could find; a wood axe, and rushed towards the scene.
“Oy, hunter, where are you going?” He called as she jumped the fence.
Madeline ignored him. Soon the sound of two blades clashing answered the question on her behalf. Thankfully, Lena reacted in time to avoid being immediately cut down, but it’d been a clumsy parry, something this woman—this Hunter—wasted no time in exploiting. Chaos erupted in the aftermath of the attack, most villagers fled the scene, someone barked at one of the workers to find Sylvie, and while some people were brave enough to rush towards the scene, these people weren’t fighters. They could do nothing more than stand helplessly on the sidelines.
Madeline saw it before it even happened, the way this would end—like the pieces laid out on a chess board right before delivering a checkmate. Because for some Twins-forsaken reason, Lena hesitated. Her sword fell to the ground and the Hunter’s blade pierced through her gut. Lena gripped the sword by the blade on instinct. It stopped. The Hunter stopped. Lena pushed herself off the blade and collapsed onto the ground, gasping for breath.
It happened in an instant. Even at a full sprint Maddie wouldn’t have reached them in time. She scrambled to Lena’s side and her knees sunk into the already dampened earth. The blade didn’t push all the way through, but the wound it left behind was deep and bleeding profusely.
“Shit. You absolute moron. How do you just forget to watch your own back?”
All she got in response was a half-aware whimper. Lena’s eyes were alight and unfocused, and only then did Madeline realize that the Hunter had stopped dead in her tracks, mid jab, for a reason. Not just her, but the boy she was with, Stanley, every bystander as far as she could see; possibly further still. They were frozen in place, staring blankly at nothing.
Lena disliked talking in detail about her enlightenment. Even during her attempts to break through Maddie’s defenses, she’d only vaguely warned her about the dangers should she actually succeed. Seeing the distressed faces of every individual around her, unable to even fathom what made up the walls of their mental prisons, it caused a chill to crawl up her spine. There was nothing she could do for them, however. So she sat the wood axe on the ground and removed her coat, using it to apply pressure on the stab wound. Try to at least slow the bleeding, though she wasn’t sure what good it would do.
“How the hell do you expect to get out like this, genius?” she muttered. “It’s not like I can just carry you out of here, is it? Can you even hear me in there? Fuck.”
She looked pained, but Madeline wasn’t sure if she was even aware of the gaping wound in her stomach or if it was the strain of trying to get a grip on her mind. No wonder she was always chugging tea and trying to act like her headaches weren’t a big deal.
Gradually, like a fog slowly lifting, awareness started to return to Lena’s eyes and she gripped Maddie’s wrist hard, despite her cleaved palm. Her attempt at speech turned into a pained wheeze and once again her focus started to drift.
“No no no, Lena. Stay with me. Stay awake. Stay awake.“
It was no use. Between the blood quickly soaking through fabric and whatever hold her enlightenment had on her consciousness, she was slipping. Madeline could feel the hold on her wrist starting to go slack.
“Lena! Come on, no. Stay awake. Shit.” She drew a deep breath, swallowing down a surge of panic. “Listen here, you arrogant, obnoxious, piece of work. You fight this. Fight! Because I’m not going to be the one to tell your sisters that you’re not coming home alive.”
The sound of gentle footsteps broke Madeline out of her panic. “You’re going to need proper bandages if you intend to contain that bleed, girl.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Madeline hated the way her voice broke in this woman’s presence.
Sylvie breathed a tired sigh, dropped a small bag on the ground and kneeled beside her, gently nudging her hands out of the way. “You did what you could,” she said.
Madeline blinked, letting out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. “You’re not affected either?”
“Yes and no.” Sylvie opened the bag and quickly got to work packing the wound with clean bandages. “I need you to lift her up, just enough so I can wrap these around her torso.”
Maddie nodded and obeyed, carefully pulling Lena up just enough to give the elder room to do what she needed. “What do you mean ‘yes and no’?”
“Yes, I am affected, I just have a very high resistance.”
Sylvie grunted as she wrapped the bandages and secured them tightly enough for Lena to jolt awake with a pained yelp. The elder locked eyes with her and uttered a quiet “shh.” Her eyes momentarily glowing a more golden shade of brown. Lena silenced and immediately went slack against Madeline’s hold, unconscious, and she carefully lowered her back to the ground. As soon as she did, the village began to slowly return to life. One by one, the people around them awoke, either gradually, or with a startled jolt. Of the two Hunters, the boy started to regain conscience first. The stiffness that seemed to take hold of his body eased and he landed on his hands and knees with a groan. Then quickly scrambled to his feet and reached for his weapon.
Madeline didn’t know when Sylvie left her side, but the old woman was standing between them in the blink of an eye. She grabbed the boy’s wrist and softly told him enough was enough. It was soft-spoken, but felt like a command. It must have been, because he gave up the sword, fist clenching at his side. Maddie glanced at Lena. She was completely knocked out, unmoving except for the unsteady rise and fall of her chest. No trace of awareness, or pain, in her expression. She looked up at Sylvie again.
“What did you do to her?”
“Nothing permanent. She’ll wake. Although judging by the severity of that stab wound, I suspect she’ll wish otherwise.”
Madeline breathed a sigh. Blood had stopped seeping through the bandages and she tried not to focus on the feeling of it drying on her hands. Sylvie looked like she knew what she was doing, but this wouldn’t hold forever.
The boy’s gaze remained on Lena’s unconscious form, as if nothing else existed. The coldness in his expression felt out of place in someone so young, as though he wasn’t seeing a wounded human being, lying helpless on the ground. A predator staring down his prey. Madeline suddenly understood why those people struck such fear into the hearts of the Wolfpack. He stepped closer, and Madeline instinctively grabbed the wood axe at her side and stood, pointing it towards his face.
“One more step,” she warned. “Take one more step, kid. I’ll bury this into your skull.”
The boy glanced at her, unmoved by her threat, and once again, Sylvie stepped in between them.
“Lower that,” she commanded.
Madeline ignored her and kept her eyes on the boy, hand tight around the axe’s handle. There was no way in hell he’d take one step closer without a fight.
The intensity of Sylvie’s glare was tangible as she drew closer and whispered, “Whatever you believe should happen after this, it will not be taking place in this village.”
Madeline flinched, briefly glancing at concerned expressions of the few people still standing around and conscious enough to bear witness. Disrupting these people’s lives as little as possible was a main directive of her assignment here. This was exactly what they’d been trying to avoid. With a sigh, she lowered the axe. Not fully, but enough to ease the hostility.
“Take a step back,” Sylvie told the Hunter, her watchful gaze still on Madeline.
The boy flinched, his cold exterior momentarily cracking under the weight of indecision. Behind him, metal clattered against the ground, shattering the tension. His friend still stood frozen exactly where Lena had left her. The woman wasn’t dazed like the others, she seemed anguished. Tears were trailing down her face, her hands shaking severely enough that her sword had slipped through her fingers. And Madeline could have imagined it, but she swore she saw a faint blue glow reflected on her dark brown eyes. Suddenly, she recalled sitting together by the lake, chess board between them, while Lena described what happened to the unfortunate bastard whose memory she attempted to alter.
The sound of the fallen sword drew the boy’s attention away from Lena. He rushed to the woman’s side and, as if she was suddenly watching an entirely different person, his demeanor shifted to that of a frightened teenager; helpless, unsure of how to act. He turned to Sylvie first, finding the woman’s expression shut into a scowl of concern. “What did she do to her?”
Sylvie didn’t answer right away, likely because she didn’t have an answer. The lack of response turned his fear into frustration; to anger. When he turned again it wasn’t with the same cool indifference as before, but with reckless fury.
“What did you do to her?”
Sylvie grabbed him by the arm, her voice firm. “She can’t answer you, boy. You need to let this end here.”
He pulled his arm free and stood in place. While the anger in his eyes hadn’t waned, it was offset by something else. Regret? Doubt? Madeline couldn’t know for sure. Regardless, she once again stood in his way, unwilling to trust some faint possibility of remorse. Their standoff was short-lived this time. Behind him, the woman’s expression twisted into pain, fear, and something else she could only understand as broken. She keeled over, hands clutching the sides of her head, her breath sounded like it was fighting its way out of her lungs as her voice rose from pained whimpers to an agonizing scream. It turned the boy around—made him forget the object of his anger, at least for the time being. He rushed to her side, caught her before her knees fully buckled, and dutifully nodded when instructed by Sylvie to lead her back to her home.
Madeline swallowed a dry lump lodged in her throat. What had Lena done to her?
“Stanley,” Sylvie called.
The smith approached the two of them, casting Lena a wary glance. “Yes?”
“Persuade Clint to give up one of his horses for the day. I would like these two young ladies to be on their way to Newhaven as soon as possible.”
[Unnamed Village | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Late Morning]
Jo only stopped screaming when Sylvie rendered her unconscious. Despite the elder’s assurance that she was simply asleep, her stillness only gave Sebastian more cause for concern. As did the grave look in Sylvie’s eyes as she finished assessing her condition. “Do you have somewhere safe to go?” she asked, finally.
“I… Uh… Yes. If we can make it there.”
Sylvie sighed heavily, then urged him to follow her out of the guest room. “Come have some tea, boy.”
“I…” Sebastian hesitated, he didn’t want to leave Jo alone, but told himself she would be safe and nodded, following Sylvie to the kitchen.
“Sit,” she told him as she set the kettle on the stove.
Sebastian sat at the table and leaned his forearms against it. “What happened to her? Wh—what happened back there?”
“That girl is an exceptionally powerful telepath. Abilities of this nature can be unstable. As far as I’m able to assess, Johanna has sustained severe psychic damage. She will likely recover in time, on her own, but it’s also possible that…” Sylvie trailed off, occupying herself with fetching cups and fussing over her tea boxes. “…It’s possible that she won’t.”
Sebastian barely felt his fingertips digging into the tabletop. “Can’t you do anything? I mean, you’re a telepath too, right? That’s how you put her to sleep.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Sebastian.”
“How does it work, then?”
Sylvie pulled the kettle from the stove and fixed two cups of tea, coming to sit across from him at the table. She pushed one of the cups in his direction.
“Think of it as any other injury,” she said. “When you hurt yourself your body has ways to naturally heal. Stitches, bandages, medicine, are meant to help that process along, but in the end, your body still needs to take the time to regenerate. The mind works similarly. The human psyche has an incredible ability to heal over time. However, not unlike physical injuries, if the damage is too extensive…” Sylvie sighed and took a sip of her tea. “As of now, for what I was able to assess, her memories are scattered. She’s unable to discern past from present, she feels as though whatever memories her mind is reliving are her reality. It’s possible that she will gradually regain a semblance of awareness. That she will eventually be able to fully wake. At this point in time, the burden lies on her to fight this and heal.”
Sebastian nodded, staring at his tea cup. “And if she doesn’t?”
“If she doesn’t, the most likely outcome is that she’ll remain trapped within her own mind indefinitely.”
Sebastian leaned back in his chair and hid his face in his hands. That was a lot to process. “How long could someone survive that way?” he muttered.
“The White Shadows might have a more accurate answer to that question, but as far as I’m aware, the longest someone has lived in such a state was eighteen months. At this time, Johanna doesn’t seem aware she’s in her memories, but it’s possible that awareness may come eventually.”
Sebastian lowered his hands back to the tabletop and after a moment reached for his tea cup in order to keep busy. “If she does ‘heal’, would we be able to know, or…?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been a telepath for many years, boy. I’ve witnessed the effects of my abilities in many ways over those years, but I’m no Healer and the mind is unpredictable. It may be a gradual change or it may be that she’ll just awaken one day.”
“Alright.” He took a sip of tea and stared down at it. “I should take her away from here, right? Whether or not that Wolf lives, the rest will hear about this.”
“By tomorrow if they reach Newhaven within the next few hours,” Sylvie said, taking a sip of tea, her expression torn. “I don’t know what the Wolfpack has done to you; or her, but I can’t have the people of this village bear the consequences of your actions any more than they already have. I know Johanna understands this.”
Sebastian nodded, setting his cup down on the table and once again running his hand over his eyes. If he’d been thinking, he would have realized sooner that this meant coming here was no longer safe for anyone involved. And Sylvie was right; Jo understood that. She had to know she’d be giving up this place the moment she dealt the first blow. “I’m sure she expected to at least be able to…” he trailed off, shaking his head. Say goodbye? Is that what he was about to say? Sebastian didn’t know what Jo had been thinking. Not really. Only that dying telepath—his sister’s killer—knew. He went back to sipping his tea.
“I’m sure she did,” Sylvie said, her tone gentle. “Come join us once you finish that.”
Sebastian nodded, staring at the tabletop as she stood and slowly made her way back to the bedroom. He stalled on finishing the tea. The quiet that permeated the house, previously a comfort, felt almost suffocating now. Underneath it, he could hear traces of Sylvie’s voice through the thin wooden walls; too soft to make out words, but warm, gentle, fond. And he hoped, above anything else, that Jo was able to hear it.
[Valcrest Forest | Inviditas 7th, 2526 | Mid Afternoon]
The closest safehouse to the village was the one Theron destroyed. And while its location wasn’t compromised, Gerald had deemed it structurally unsound. As a result, the safehouse Sebastian led them to was one he’d never been to before. Thankfully, Gerald forced him to study the maps and learn their paths front to back. It was a small wooden cabin, difficult to spot in the thick of the forest. If he hadn’t known it was there, he might have never found it. Even with his knowledge it took him a couple of passes before he spotted the faint glimmer of light bouncing off a window.
“We made it,” he declared.
As expected, Jo didn’t answer. Upon waking from her sleep, she was no longer screaming or outwardly distressed. If anything she shut down into a blank expression and vacant stare. But she was steady enough to stand, and could be coaxed to walk when tugged by the hand. They’d borrowed a horse, but when the forest became too dense, Sebastian allowed it to return to the village. They walked together from then on, Johanna trudging along behind. It made for an excruciatingly slow journey, but at least they arrived without incident.
The cabin’s door was stiff and jammed from misuse and it took Sebastian throwing his full weight on it a few times to dislodge it from the frame. The air inside was stale and dusty. Traces of cobwebs and specks of dust swirled before his eyes, illuminated by the invading rays of sunlight. He blew out a breath.
“Well, this place is a mess, but it’ll do, right?”
Sebastian shook his head as he pulled into the cabin and closed the door, gently giving her hand a squeeze before letting go. He knew he was probably just talking to himself, but he needed to fill the silence with something. To distract himself from the severity of the situation. To make sitting there and waiting for the others to find them less daunting a prospect. And he’d weighed their options very carefully for once. Getting back to the Outpost with Johanna in her current state was too much of a risk.
The cabin only had one room furnished with a single bed, one table, one chair, and a small stove. It was clearly meant for one person and likely not a permanent residence. Upon trying to pry the only existent window open, Sebastian found it was even more jammed than the door. It was possible Gerald or Gabrielle might be able to do it, but he couldn’t get it to budge. Resigned to his failure, he left the door open just a crack; only enough to let some light and some fresh air in. Jo remained how he left her until he once again took her hand and coaxed her to sit on the bed, after which; as though on instinct, she curled into herself, hugging her knees, and sat staring at the wall. He unloaded their belongings in the corner of the room and took the chair, leaning into the backrest with a tired groan.
“You didn’t have to do it, you know?” he mumbled, staring at the ground in front of him. “Not like that. Not for me, Jo. That place was important to you and I didn’t even think about that. I don’t know what I was thinking. If I was. Probably not, but… I didn’t want this.”
Johanna’s sword now rested innocently against the wall beside his; blade still covered in dark crimson blood. Sebastian had been the one to pick it up. He’d been the one to carry it this far, and with a tired sigh he stood up to retrieve it. Finding a piece of clean cloth and pouring some of the contents of his water skin onto it, he returned to the chair. Sword and cloth on hand, he started meticulously wiping away the blood. The silence that enveloped them was heavy and mournful. As he worked, Sebastian found his thoughts drifting. He wondered if, in the aftermath of it all, that Wolf managed to reach Newhaven alive. The Inn had to be the closest place she could get help. He wondered how they planned on getting into the city, what were the odds they had someone on hand who could treat a wound that severe. Could they find a Healer?
If she survived, was all of this for nothing?
Sebastian allowed those doubts to take hold of his mind, eventually working past the point of necessity. The sword was clean. The cloth in his hand, formerly white, now stained a coppery red. The sight of it made his stomach lurch. He tossed it carelessly into a dark corner; out of sight, as he stood to place the sword in its sheath and lean it against the wall where it’d previously been.
On his way back to the chair, something caught the tip of his boot, and a faint metallic clink drew his attention. His foot had tugged on the strap of Jo’s travel bag, causing it to tip over. And laying innocently on the dusty floor was the same nail puzzle he failed to solve in Sylvie’s kitchen. The nails once again intertwined. When did she take this? Sebastian was sure he’d returned it before they left. He slowly crouched to take it, and absent-mindedly tried to twist the nails in a few different angles, still unable to find the correct one. He scoffed, gingerly placing the puzzle back inside her bag, setting it upright again.
Jo hadn’t moved. Still sitting as he left her, curled in on herself, eyes vacant and fixed on the wall. Sebastian tried not to remember the laughter in her voice, the satisfied grin on her face. Tough as nails. It’d been such an obvious pun he didn’t even want to laugh at it, but he had. He did. Although now it spilled over amidst a painful lump in his throat;: broken and devoid of humor. He pushed what was left of it down, furiously wiped the tears from his eyes, and forced his breath to settle. Because he didn’t know if somehow she was able to hear him, but right now he really hoped she couldn’t.