[Hunters Outpost |Inviditas 15th, 2526 | Midmorning]
Arriving at the Outpost, Kyle and Gerald were met by silence. Someone should be manning the watchpost. Johanna hadn’t snuck up on them at any point along the trail. The door to the kitchen was closed. The flower beds didn’t look as though they’d been tended to in days. Gabrielle hadn’t come out of the office demanding to know why they were six days late to return. Theron’s tent was no longer set up in its usual spot.
“Where is everyone?”
Kyle voiced the question as Gerald thought it and, without waiting for an answer, rushed up the stairs to the room he shared with his brother. As though hoping to find him sitting there. Gerald stood at the base of the towers, dropped the supply bags he’d been hauling over his shoulder and lingered at the base of the stairs.
He remembered finding this place; ruined and abandoned, the painstaking work it took to make it habitable, then somewhat comfortable. It felt just as desolate now without the others as it did the first time.
Legs heavy from travel, Gerald finally climbed the stairs. The still-bloodied ring of the Wolf he encountered in Blackpond weighed inside his shirt pocket. The fact they were recognized was a persistent thought in his mind, as well as the lingering question of where the information had come from. Where had they slipped? He expected to come back and discuss it, instead he crossed the bridge to Gabrielle’s office to find it closed—not locked—and empty. On her desktop, immediately visible upon opening the door, was a note pinned to the wooden surface with a crossbow bolt.
Tucker. There’s been no word from Johanna. I’m taking Lockwood to check the safehouse closest to the village. I trust you to return before we’re back. If so, please stay put.
Gerald scoffed as he unpinned the note from the desk and read it a second time. The words ‘stay put’ were underlined three times, one of which so roughly it’d sliced through the parchment. Gabrielle was not one to lose her composure easily, but if neither he or Jo returned as predicted and she was forced to make a decision, he could understand why cracks might start to show. It was easier to lose Wolves in the city than in the forest any day and the fact he was standing there with her note in hand proved her decision correct. If Jo and Sebastian got into a confrontation, they’d need the help more.
Kyle’s footsteps joined him a moment later. Gerald let the boy read the note in his hands and watched his expression turn more sullen with each passing word.
“What does she mean ‘stay put’? Are we supposed to just wait? For how long?”
“They left on the fourteenth, it’s three days to the safehouse and three days to come back. We should also give them two days’ room to account for any delays. So, a week.”
“A week?” Kyle’s voice pitched up with the question, his fist clenched at his sides. “How long ago were they supposed to be back? That’s a whole other week.”
“Rivers.” Gerald placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “We’re a day behind Porter, we’re travel weary, what do you suppose we would be able to do?”
“They tracked us down in Blackpond. How easy would it be to spot someone in that village?”
“Incredibly easy, but we don’t know if that’s the reason for their delay. And we’re not going to assume anything. We’re going to follow protocol, because rushing after Porter won’t do your brother or Johanna any good.”
Kyle clenched his fists tighter, a brief flicker of orange light igniting in his eyes before he squeezed them shut and forced a deep breath. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re right,” he muttered. “I… I guess we should put those supplies away, right?”
Gerald sighed and squeezed the boy’s shoulder before letting go. “I’ll take care of it. Try to get some rest, if you can.”
Kyle shook his head, his words pushed through clenched teeth. “If you have that covered, and it’s not a problem, I think I need to go out and shoot something right now.”
Gerald nodded. “Don’t stray too far.”
Kyle left, footsteps rushed and shoulders tense, leaving Gerald once again alone in the office. He sat in the chair across from where Gabrielle normally sat, leaned against the backrest with a tired groan, and reached into his pocket of the bloodstained silver ring. He placed it on the desktop. Stared at it until his sight blurred. Where had they slipped? How were they able to close in like this? It couldn’t just be a coincidence.
“…Where did the information come from?”
[Hunters Outpost |Inviditas 15th, 2526 | Late Morning]
The soft thump of a bolt hitting its target, a new bolt fitting into the slot, the sharp metallic click of the cocking mechanism engaging, the pull of the trigger. These were the only prominent sounds in the clearing, playing in a constant loop. It was a mindless task. As Kyle sat in the tall grass under the shade of an oak tree, his mind disengaged, while his body ran through those all-too-familiar motions. His gaze was vigilant as it swept the shrubbery for signs of movement, but even that was second nature now. His thoughts were lost to reality. Far in the future—in hypotheticals—and deep in the past. In blood soaked floorboards and unmoving limbs. In the smell of stale blood and dried roses. In feelings he hadn’t allowed himself to wallow in for the better part of two years. He knew they’d always be there, he understood that, but he’d also learned that anger didn’t have to always burn. Grief didn’t have to weigh on his lungs like soot. It didn’t have to consume him.
“You can’t control your emotions. It’s impossible. Anger, fear, grief, those things are always going to be inside you. What you can control are your actions. What you can do is choose.”
Gabrielle’s words had since become a mantra. One he repeated to himself regularly. He could control his actions. He could choose to be reasonable. Despite what his anger told him, if Gerald said they should wait. Kyle would wait.
A gentle skitter drew the aim of his crossbow and the metallic click of the trigger sent another bolt flying. A soft thud. A stillness. He didn’t get up to see if it was a rabbit or something else, it didn’t matter. He’d already shot more than enough to feed two people for a week. Some of that meat would have to be salted and dried. Good thing for the rabbit population that those buggers multiplied as fast as they did.
When he returned to Outpost, carrying far too many rabbits and one unfortunate weasel, Gerald was tending to the flowerbeds behind the eastern tower. Kyle walked past him on the way to his usual spot just outside the backdoor to the kitchen. Hunting had been his preferred chore ever since Gabrielle taught him to set traps and granted him permission to carry his crossbow at will. All it entailed usually was setting up traps and checking on them the next day, but he’d gotten the hang of knowing exactly where to place them so they’d never come up empty.
The first time Kyle saw a dead rabbit he hadn’t wanted to touch it, never mind cut it open, but Gabrielle told him to help Johanna. So he sheepishly asked her to show him how. Not unlike the crossbow, it soon became second nature. He wasn’t; and could never be, as fast or precise as Jo, but he could make quick enough work of it. If he were to think about it, it was disturbing how easy it’d become, how accustomed he was to the sight and smell of blood now; animal or otherwise. So he didn’t. Kyle focused on each individual task; each individual press of the crossbow trigger, each slash of the skinning blade, until he no longer saw rabbits.
“What do you intend to do with the weasel?” Gerald asked.
Kyle looked up, seeing the Hunter walking past, hands and part of his face caked in dirt. It made the boy snort a trace of laughter. Gerald was always poking fun of Jo for looking like she rolled around in the dirt and now there he was.
“What would Jo do with it?” Kyle asked in return, chucking the freshly skinned rabbit in a pile with the other and grabbing another one.
“Food is food,” Gerald recited, an eye roll implied in his tone. “I have serious doubts about your ability to pull that off, boy. No offense.”
“Coming from you? All the offense taken.” Kyle retorted, chuckling. “Stick to the flower beds and let me worry about the weasel roast.”
“Do we even need the weasel? That’s more than a week’s worth of food,” Gerald pointed out, leaving the fact it was just the two of them now unvoiced.
“Never too much jerky,” Kyle answered. “Do you think weasel jerky tastes nice?” he quipped, grinning as he expertly separated the animal’s hide from its flesh.
“Johanna is a horrible influence,” Gerald muttered.
“Why are you so worried about food? Looks like you’ve been eating dirt already.”
Kyle grinned when Gerald rolled his eyes and stomped his way inside, aggravated, no doubt looking to wash up. His smile faltered when he heard the man mutter something about replanting, remembering how he mentioned Jo didn’t like it when flowers wilted and died.
Kyle sighed, briefly grimacing as the already dried blood clinging to his hands. It was going to be a very long week. Maybe it was time he learned gardening.
[Valcrest Forest |Inviditas 17th, 2526 | Early Afternoon]
It was Theron’s first time experiencing what Gabrielle referred to as ‘protocol’. Before leaving the Outpost she explained that they would be operating under the assumption something went wrong. There would be no talking while traveling, they would only be taking hour-long rests; no camping, and she also provided him with weapons. The weight of the sword hanging from his belt felt foreign. It did nothing to make Theron feel any safer or in control. He felt more helpless than ever, in fact. Being dragged through this situation strictly out of necessity, not because he would be of any use. It was a constant reminder of how unprepared he truly was. A feeling he was growing to loathe with each passing day.
The sun was high by the time they reached the safehouse. Its rays peered through the thick canopy, sporadically casting light on their surroundings. The cabin stood, small and solitary, almost unnoticeable amongst the dense cover of the forest. The canopy above cast looming shadows over its frame even in the daytime, and the dilapidated wood that made up the walls matched the surrounding tree bark. Theron knew the forest was full of places like this; abandoned hunting cabins, ghost villages that hadn’t seen proper life since wartime. He could almost imagine that house sitting there year after year, faring the elements, slowly being made into a permanent part of the scenery.
Were they even there? There was an unnerving stillness to the place. The only sound was a subtle crunch of grass under their boots. Theron stayed behind Gabrielle as instructed. For someone so imposing, she knew how to move quietly in a way he hadn’t yet learned to emulate. The woman’s attention was on the house, and Theron followed her gaze as it lingered on the scuff marks under the door, on several; rather aggressive, scratches adorning the window frame. Someone was, or had been, there. Gabrielle started walking closer to the door and as Theron followed one step behind her, the feeling of something cold poking the back of his neck stopped him in his tracks.
All it took was a catch of breath from him. Gabrielle turned around, crossbow loaded and aimed at a spot just over his right shoulder.
“Didn’t you tell the new kid to always, always watch his back when out on the field, Porter?”
Gabrielle’s posture didn’t relax, nor did she lower the crossbow. Her expression was subdued as always, but her gaze was scrutinizing. Theron didn’t need to see what she was looking at, just Sebastian’s voice sounded off. As much as he tried to fake his usual cockiness, it came off empty.
“Were you keeping watch or did you hear us?” Gabrielle asked.
Theron felt the pressure on the back of his neck disappear and Gabrielle lowered the crossbow in return. Their little standoff broken, her shoulders eased and Sebastian chuckled, the laughter coming off stiff and exhausted.
“I’ve been keeping watch, but I did hear you. Well, him moreso.”
Sebastian patted Theron’s arm as he walked past towards Gabrielle, sheathing a dagger Theron immediately recognized as his own. Of course it was.
Gabrielle was unamused, her eyes fixed on Sebastian’s expression, trying to look past his attempts at bravado. “Why isn’t Johanna keeping watch?”
“Jo is… Inside.” Sebastian answered, voice dropping to a mumble. When Gabrielle moved to open the door he reached out to take her forearm. “Porter… She’s, uh…”
Gabrielle turned away from the door and waited, wordlessly, for Sebastian to finish his sentence.
“We ran into some trouble at the village.”
“Is she injured?”
Sebastian hesitated, shook his head, and blew out a breath. “No. Not physically, no.” He ran both hands over his eyes, and through his hair. They were noticeably shaking. “We came across a Wolf in the village. Well, not just one, there were two, but…”
“Rivers,” Gabrielle cut in, realizing the nervous ramble about to spill out from Sebastian. “Be concise, please. You ran into a Wolf. Did they recognize you?”
Sebastian shook his head and averted his gaze, staring intently at the grass at his feet. “I… No. I recognized her,” he admitted.
“I see.” A heaviness sunk into Gabrielle’s voice, one that came with understanding. “Jo attacked her, didn’t she?”
Sebastian nodded. “I shouldn’t have…”
“Yes, you should,” Gabrielle interrupted. “Of course you should. What else would you be expected to do, Rivers? Pretend you didn’t see anything?”
“I overreacted. I tried to draw my sword. I wasn’t thinking, I…”
Gabrielle’s shoulders momentarily tensed. “What happened, exactly?” she asked, reaching for Sebastian’s shoulder in an attempt to draw his focus. “You still haven’t told me what’s the matter.”
“Right. The Wolf… Jo drew her sword on her, caught her off-guard, it wasn’t even that much of a fight, but… When Jo stabbed her something happened. It hurt at first, I could feel my mind drifting. I saw… Parts of my past I didn’t want to revisit. It didn’t last long, I think. Sylvie intervened. Everyone came back almost right away, but Jo… She’s still in her head. Sylvie said she ‘sustained damage’. That it would possibly heal on its own, or it might not, but nothing that can be done except wait.”
Gabrielle removed her hand from Sebastian’s shoulder, her fist clenching as she lowered it to her side. “You said ‘everyone came back’. How many people were affected?”
“Everyone in the market. As far as I could tell at least. Sylvie looked concerned with how powerful she was.”
“What happened to the Wolf?”
“Like I said, there were two, and her friend rushed in to help. She was in horrible shape but still alive last I saw her.”
Gabrielle hummed. “Newhaven would be the closest safe place to bring her. Regardless of whether she made it there alive, it’s safe to assume their camp would be informed within a day, two at most.”
Sebastian nodded and leaned against the external walls of the cabin. “I don’t know what they would do in the aftermath, but at least one of them knows our faces and with Jo in this state, I wasn’t confident about making the trip to the Outpost.” Sebastian glanced at Theron, then looked back to Gabrielle. “Are Kyle and Tucker not at the Outpost yet either? They were supposed to return before we did.”
Gabrielle nodded. “They hadn’t returned by the time we left, no. That’s why I brought Lockwood with me. However, I expect they will have by the time we arrive. Tucker tends to linger in safehouses if he feels the coast isn’t entirely clear. Johanna will not. She wouldn’t stay here this long with a possible looming threat if she was able to…” She trailed off into a small, tired sigh, then turned to enter the cabin.
Sebastian lingered outside and Theron remained where he stood as well, ignoring the strap of his travel bag digging into his shoulder. There was a heaviness in the silence lingering between them and the more it prolonged, the more he felt his shoulders drop under its weight.
“How’re you doing, Earthquake Boy?”
Theron grimaced at the nickname, but didn’t complain this time. “Better than you. You look like shit.”
Sebastian chuckled. “I could still kick your ass. Try me, loser.”
Theron smiled weakly. He sincerely doubted Sebastian was in any shape to kick anyone’s ass. He looked as if he hadn’t seen a full night’s sleep in months. “Maybe after we get back. I see you still have my dagger.”
“Do you still want it? Looks like Porter has got you fitted already.” Sebastian said, nodding at the sword hanging from Theron’s waist.
“Sentimental reasons.” When Sebastian raised an eyebrow in silent question, Theron shrugged and admitted, “I want to wield it when I kill the Wolf who assassinated my father.”
“When, huh?” Sebastian mumbled. “That’s optimistic of you.”
“Do you think she lived? Your sister’s killer, that’s… That’s who you recognized, wasn’t it?”
“I wish I knew.” Sebastian muttered, pushing himself away from the wall with a tired groan. “I hate that I don’t know. If she survived, then… I don’t wanna think about it.”
Sebastian entered the cabin without another word and, after a moment’s hesitation, Theron followed.
The hunting cabin was clearly built with only one person in mind, and the cramped interior combined with the stuffy air made the space feel almost constricting. Johanna sat on the only bed, back pressed against the headboard, knees drawn close to her body. Her eyes were vacant and fixed on the opposite wall. Her arms were wrapped tight around herself. Theron didn’t always know how to react to Jo’s demeanor, but he’d grown to find her presence comforting. Even if short on words she always had a smile to offer, some silent reassurance, a cup of tea or chocolate. It was startling to see her in such a state. Body wound up into a tight ball as if backed into a corner, signs of exhaustion visible in dark circles under her eyes and in the way she occasionally swayed in place despite herself. Gabrielle was sitting on the edge of the bed, watching Jo’s expression closely, searching. She then turned to Sebastian.
“Has her state of awareness changed at all in the time you’ve been here?” she asked.
Sebastian nodded, sitting in the one available chair in the room. “She’s been more restless as of the past few days. I don’t know if that’s better or worse, but… It’s a change.”
Gabrielle nodded, then turned to Theron. “It’s at least six hours before we reach a viable campsite from here. Do you require rest?”
Theron pondered the question. They hadn’t rested since earlier that morning and hadn’t properly camped since leaving the Outpost. He could feel exhaustion setting into his muscles the longer he stood idle. “If we need to leave right away, I can make it.”
Gabrielle stared at him, assessing. “I need you to be honest, Lockwood. If you collapse I will not be able to carry you.”
Before Theron could answer for himself, Sebastian chimed in. “Don’t worry, Porter. If it means I don’t have to spend any more time in this place I’ll drag his sorry ass to the Outpost myself.”
Theron groaned, suppressing the urge to roll his eyes. “I’m tired, but I’ll be able to make it, don’t worry about me.”
“Alright, tough guy.” Sebastian stood up and stretched. “It’s not as if we unpacked, but let me make sure I didn’t leave anything important lying around.”
Theron nodded and took the seat Sebastian vacated as he watched him scan the room. Gabrielle shrugged her bag from her shoulders and plopped it down on the ground.
“One of you will have to take this,” she told them.
“You’re it, Earthquake Boy. Unless you’d rather take the supply bag?” Sebastian offered, checking the pockets on his travel bag as she spoke.
“I got it, no problem.” Theron said, and turned to Gabrielle. “Do you intend to carry her all the way there?”
“Yes. It’ll be safer that way.” Gabrielle answered with a short nod, once again assessing Johanna from head to toe. “You changed these,” she stated, reaching out to touch the wrappings around Jo’s wrists and hands.
“Yeah,” Sebastian said. He briefly looked up from his bag, then made sure it was closed and slung it over one shoulder. “I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to, but they were bloody and it was starting to smell.”
“I’m sure she’d understand the necessity, just…”
That ended the conversation and Theron knew better than to ask for whatever information was left unsaid. Sebastian took his time retrieving his sword, then Jo’s, then finally lifting the supply bag and lugging it over his free shoulder. As he did, something hit the ground with a soft metallic clink. Sebastian prodded the object with the tip of his boot.
“You mind picking that up? I’m a little overburdened here, if I crouch I’ll probably tip over,” he quipped.
Theron got up from his seat and retrieved the object. A pair of nails, bent at a particular angle and intertwined. “What is this for?”
“It’s a puzzle. You’re supposed to find the right angle to pull the nails apart.” Sebastian shrugged. “I solved it a couple of days ago, so if you want to have a go at it, be my guest.”
Theron hummed, and tried a couple of times, but no matter how he twisted the nails or how hard he tried to pull them apart, he couldn’t find a way in which the heads of the nails didn’t remain stuck. “This is impossible.”
Sebastian chuckled. “Nah. It’s just really difficult.” His expression turned to a grin. “Tough as nails, you could say.”
“Rivers…” Gabrielle groaned.
“What? It’s funny.”
Theron shook his head and tossed the nail puzzle back to Sebastian. “You’re an idiot.”
“What? You don’t want to try and solve that? Tell you what, if you can do it by the time you get home, I’ll give your dagger back.”
Theron thought for a moment, then shrugged, walking over to Gabrielle’s bag and hauling it over his shoulder. “No. You said I should take it from you. I’m taking it from you.”
“Okay, tough guy. I leave you alone with Porter for a week and you start getting bold, huh?” Sebastian shook his head and started making his way out of the cabin, purposely bumping into Theron on his way past and almost knocking him off balance.
“You could tip him over right now and take it,” Gabrielle suggested, voice slightly strained as she hauled Johanna off the bed, and onto her back.
Even though she was not full of mind, some part of Jo seemed to understand what was taking place as she instinctively wrapped her arms around Gabrielle’s neck to hold herself in place. The thought that it was likely not the first time she’d been carried this way shouldn’t surprise him. In however long they’d known each other, there must have been more than one occasion where injuries happened in the field. This was just not a physical one.
“I could,” he answered, finally. “But where’s the fun in that?”
Gabrielle hummed, walking past him towards the door. “Remember what I said, Lockwood.”
“It doesn’t have to be a fair fight, I know.” Theron nodded, walking after her and slamming the door shut hard enough to lock it in place. “There’s no such thing as a fair fight.”