[Newhaven Inn | Lithius 7th, 2526 | Middle of the Night]
“Do you know how memories work, Eldric?”
The scene was faded, like an old sunwashed portrait exposed to the elements; sitting together in a sunny clearing, leaning against each other, silent until she spoke up. Comfortable. But she wasn’t there. That day was far in the past now. She knew. Her own voice echoed in her mind like a ghost. And she knew she wasn’t there.
“What do you mean?”
Eldric was right there. Just centimeters away. She knew she was looking at him, but his face blurred in and out of her sight. Everything felt so fragile. So fleeting. Like keeping water from escaping between her fingers. Something was pulling at her consciousness. Something that didn’t belong.
… The creak of wood, the rolling of wagon wheels. The smell of sulfur. Of smoke. This piercing noise in her ears that wouldn’t leave. Aches in her body that didn’t feel hers…
Where was she going…? How…?
“…When we forget things, we have this notion that the memory is gone; erased, but it’s not. It’s just… Buried.”
Her own voice caused a jolt, as if for a second she’d forgotten it was hers. She’d said that. She sat there with Eldric just a few weeks after…
“I should know better than most how impossible it is… To live with a mistake, to cope with regret. Because even if you can make yourself forget, the memory’s not gone, not really. It’s still buried in the back of your mind. It’s still a part of you. I should know that every little act is a burden I’m forced to carry with me forever.”
… She wanted to scream. Scream and never stop screaming. The thought of there being nothing left for her but screaming was intrusive and persistent, but her body wouldn’t obey…
“Just because you’re forced to carry your mistakes, it doesn’t mean they have to burden you.”
Eldric’s answer echoed. Further away. The clearing faded, slowly. The sunbathed tall grass, the gentle rustle of leaves overhead, the earth beneath her… Darkness overtook it at all. She clenched her fists around something and the sensation shifted between soft fabric and something thorny and familiar. The irony-sweet smell of blood stained roses invaded her senses.
… Mixed with smoke. The sharp pain in her abdomen didn’t feel right…
Where was her mind going? Why wouldn’t she stay? Voices echoed in the depths of her consciousness; withering threads tugging at her awareness.
“If you don’t come back safe…”
Lena’s chest heaved. Pain flared from her abdomen and coursed through every fiber of her being. The screaming echoing within her skull turned to a feeble sound in the back of her throat. Reality brought with it the awareness of stale blood and bile coating her tongue and the inside of her nose. She could, just barely, feel her hands stiffly clutching the bedcovers, but her arms and legs were dead weight holding her in place. So much felt wrong. She wanted to coax feeling back into her limbs. To clear the putrid taste lingering in the back of her throat. She wanted her eyes to open. To wake up. And no matter how much she tried, her body refused to comply with any of it. There was a darkness gripping her consciousness, pulling her under. A coldness that seemed to originate from within. And with what little conscious thought she had left, Lena couldn’t help but wonder if this was what Death’s touch felt like.
“Do you remember when you broke your wrist?”
They were sitting by the lake. Dani had just come back from her first contract. Their mother asked Lena to go have a talk, assess her emotional state; ensure that she was doing well after what she’d done. They did little talking until she spoke up. Just sat in silence watching the dry autumn leaves cascade down and idly float on the surface on the lake. Dani didn’t answer at first, crunching a leaf between her fingers and letting the crumbs fall back to the earth. Finally, with a sigh, she answered.
“No. When was that?”
“You were only six. It was the first time I caught you trying to climb that enormous tree in the center of the forest. You didn’t make it very far before you slipped and landed on your wrist. I immediately knew it was broken but you didn’t even cry about it. You were just angry you didn’t make it higher.”
Dani chuckled. “I don’t remember that. I guess I must have blocked it out somehow.”
“You wanted to try again. Got angry when I said you couldn’t. You told me you would climb to the top of that tree one day. That you wanted to ‘see the forest from the top’.”
“I did,” she mumbled. “Did it for the first time two years ago. Several times after that. It’s nice up there. It’s peaceful.” Her tone dropped further, almost inaudible. “It’s distant.”
“Of course you did, kiddo. What can’t you do?”
Her own voice was echoing, distant, but Lena remembered the note of pride in her tone clearly. As though for a moment it was real. As if she was really sitting right there next to her younger sister and it was possible to reach out and touch her. It wasn’t. The realization stung. Reality felt like a punishment, and her mind a prison. Lena wasn’t home. Not yet.
Dani’s mouth moved without sound.
… Her voice wasn’t strong enough to break through the deafening ringing in her ears. The flare of pain assaulting her entire being. The smell of explosive powder and bloody roses didn’t belong…
Her next spark of awareness was calmer than the first. No pain. No feeling at all. Just the vague notion of wakefulness despite the darkness behind her closed lids. It was uncomfortably floaty, but somehow better than the agony and panic she previously experienced. It was bearable.
“I should leave for the plains in the morning,” a man said. His voice was familiar—not from the distant past—Lena heard it somewhere before. “There’s no reason for the both of us to remain. My assistance may be required elsewhere.”
“I agree. Your return has already been delayed and I’m more than capable of accompanying the girl back to the encampment once she recovers.”
“Once she recovers?” The man had a smirk in his voice. “That’s highly optimistic considering her current state, Miriam.”
The woman didn’t respond, or if she did, Lena couldn’t focus on it over the feeling of hands prodding her abdomen. Of being moved without much regard and cloth tightening around her torso. Pain spiked with the act, drawing a deep groan of protest.
“You’ll wake fully soon,” the woman—Miriam—explained. “Silas is an excellent Healer but he doesn’t understand that not all medicinal treatment is effective with all enlightened.”
Bandages finished, the Healer settled her back into a stiff mattress; and once still, the pain eased once again into comforting numbness. “W-wh-” she coughed, the dryness in her throat aggravated by her attempt to speak.
“You’re in Newhaven. Your clan’s Inn.” Miriam said.
It took an immense amount of effort, but Lena cracked open one eye. The room was dimly lit and her sight was blurry, but she could faintly recognize the rows of cots and the plain stone walls of the underground dormitory. Not comfortable, not yet home, but familiar.
“You were stabbed, do you remember?”
Lena tried to cough away the dryness in her throat. She wanted to laugh but couldn’t. It turned into a harsher coughing fit, then a wheeze, as the strain pierced daggers into her chest. Even then, she groggily tried to glare at the woman as if to let her know how foolish the question was. Did she remember? If only she could make herself forget.
“Easy,” Miriam scolded.
After a moment she felt the rim of a cup touch her lips and accepted a small drink of water, thanking every single one of the Twins individually that it wasn’t tea. Though perhaps that was by design. Just one sip was enough to make her stomach churn. She tried to push down the nausea but it continued to build, her breath quickening as she tried to fight back the urge to retch. It must have shown on her face, because Miriam wasted no time helping her turn on her side and pulled a bucket closer in the nick of time. The water came back up, then bile, until there was nothing left to expel. Dry heaves reignited the pain of her wounds. Once they finally ceased, Lena whimpered, slumped over the age of her cot, unable to find the strength to right herself. After a moment, Miriam once again helped settle the wounded assassin onto her back. When the woman touched her forehead, Lena hissed in protest; the touch was ice cold against her skin.
“This fever is as stubborn as you, girl,” the Healer grumbled.
Lena felt as though her body had forgotten how to naturally function. Each bid for air was a struggle. Words were self-inflicted torture, but she forced herself to speak anyway. “How… How… Long have I been here?”
“It is currently the seventh day of Lithius. You arrived here on—”
“Inviditas,” she rasped.
A month. She’d lost an entire month.
Miriam hummed agreement and turned away to fetch something just out of Lena’s field of vision. The feeling of a soaked cloth placed on her forehead drew another hiss. It felt ice cold against her skin.
“I know it’s bothersome but we need to keep that on for now. It would also be helpful if you were to stay awake for a little while.”
Lena breathed through a more violent shiver. “If it’s been a month, how… Is the wound not healing?”
“It is healing, superficially it has healed, but you lost an astounding amount of blood on your journey here. Your body has been overworked just trying to sustain itself over the past few weeks. However, Silas made the astute observation that your enlightenment is causing the fever to persist. That’s why he called for me.”
Lena hummed, then coughed a lingering itch in the back of her throat. Miriam was one of the Healers who assessed her case in the time she spent in their camp. They hadn’t talked much then, but she remembered the woman being a constant presence.
“Are you a telepath?”
“Yes. Although my abilities manifest differently from yours.”
Again, the woman offered her water, this time holding the cup within her reach and silently encouraging her to take it. Lena stared at the cup, torn between the dryness still aggravating her throat, the heaviness in her limbs, and the knot in the pit of her stomach. In the end, she persuaded herself to move her arm, just enough to unsteadily reach for the cup.
“We’ll need you to keep some water down. Once your stomach is able to tolerate it, I’ll make you some tea. It should help subdue the fever.”
Lena grimaced, but cautiously brought the cup to her lips and took a small sip. The wave of nausea that followed wasn’t as sudden or intense as with the first attempt, and she could get through it and keep the water down.
“Good,” Miriam said. “Drink that slowly, don’t push yourself.”
Lena nodded, holding the cup in both hands. “Is Madeline still here? Do you know?”
Miriam raised an eyebrow, her expression almost mirroring Lena’s prior exasperation at a foolish question being voiced. The Healer stepped aside and casually nodded towards the bunk in the far corner of the dormitory, just out of reach of the dim candlelight. Of course. Lena shouldn’t be surprised she stayed.
“She hasn’t left this room, asked me to wake her up the moment you regained awareness, but I feel it’s best to wait until morning, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Yes. Of course.” Lena attempted another sip of water and forced a steadying breath as her stomach once again protested. “When do you think I’ll be able to go home?”
“Perhaps in the summer. Your fever needs to fully break and your body needs to regain strength before I would even consider it safe to make such a strenuous trip.”
“Summer is three months away.”
Miriam smiled, although it barely masked the unease in her eyes. Lena could tell she was trying to conceal, or at least sugarcoat, the severity of her condition. “I wouldn’t consider allowing you to travel until that fever breaks and you’re able to hold on to a proper meal, but we’ll see how you fare now that you’ve regained consciousness.”
Lena frowned, feeling an uncomfortable twist in her stomach as she stared at her half-empty cup of water. “Three months. That’s your estimate?”
Miriam nodded. “At the moment, judging by your current state, yes.”
Her fingers tightened, though weakly, around the water cup and she forced the rest of the water down in one gulp. She endured the discomfort with gritted teeth and offered the empty cup back to the Healer.
“I’m doing it in one.”
[Hunters Outpost | Lithius 9th, 2526 | Midday]
Returning to the Outpost brought Sebastian no comfort. The atmosphere was tense from the moment they’d arrived. Gabrielle took it upon herself to explain the situation to Gerald, but Sebastian was the one who’d witnessed it. And while Gerald had gracefully avoided the subject with him, Sebastian knew there were unanswered questions between them. It was only a matter of time before they were finally voiced.
Sebastian knew this, and yet whenever he had free time and the opportunity to have these conversations, he strayed from the Outpost, took to the training grounds by himself, and channeled his nervous energy into aggression. Whether that was better than bottling it up, he wasn’t sure. It was a change.
The steady rhythm of his fists striking the sand bag were lulling. The protective wrappings around his hands were damp with sweat, and the aches in his knuckles and arms long since numbed over. The crisp morning air gradually shifted to a stifling afternoon, but he refused to acknowledge it.
“You can’t avoid me forever.”
The words echoed; a faint whisper in the back of his mind, driving more force behind each of his punches. The memory of his sister’s voice refused to subside. Kat’s voice in the back of his mind had been a constant ever since they’d arrived at the Outpost. A ghostly echo haunting his very being, but one he’d accepted; welcomed. To have some semblance of her lingering within his conscience felt bittersweet. Painful, but comforting. Now, all it did was add to the anger simmering in his chest. He wished he could silence that part of his mind, bury it, but at the same time, that would require letting go of his sister’s memory in a way that felt final. Irreversible.
The gentle grind of dirt under a pair of boots drew Sebastian’s mind back to the present. He momentarily glanced at his sword; resting against a tree trunk just within reach, but at this point Sebastian could recognize Theron’s footfall meters away. He stopped punching and let his hands fall to his sides, fists still clenched. As his shoulders dropped, just that small bit of relaxation caused a wave of painful exhaustion to wash over him instantly. Not wanting it to fully settle in, he spared Theron only a glance; spotting him just on the edge of the clearing, then turned to resume punching the bag.
“You can turn around and tell Porter I’m not hungry,” he muttered, raising his fists to resume striking the sandbag.
The beating of leather against skin filled the gap of silence left between an exasperated sigh and what Theron said next. “Do you really want to make her come get you? How do you think that’ll end?”
Sebastian shook his head, fists striking the soft leather bag, fresh waves of pain flaring from his raw knuckles all the way to his shoulders. “Better than sending you, I assume.”
Theron scoffed, taking several steps closer. “You’ve been here since, what, sunrise? You look like a breeze could knock you over. If I wanted to drag you back to the Outpost, I could.”
“If you want to be delusional, try me, big guy.” Sebastian muttered, not turning around.
Theron let out a humorless chuckle. “Do you remember what you told me about wallowing?”
“I’m not wallowing, I’m seething.”
“Just as stupid and even more selfish, considering the situation.” The statement was matter-of-fact, fully objective, not unlike his own all those months ago. As much as part of him appreciated Theron’s attempts to reason with him, reason was the last thing Sebastian wanted. He didn’t answer, injecting more force into his next blow. “I should leave to your own devices until Gabrielle comes to drag your ass to the Outpost, but frankly, I don’t think it’s fair that she has to do that.”
Theron’s footsteps drew near, and that gave Sebastian pause. He lowered his hands and drew a deep breath. “She doesn’t. She doesn’t have to do that. I’m not hungry. I want to be left alone, I need to just deal with this. I get…” Sebastian ran both hands over his face, still facing the punching bag rather than Theron. “I get why she’s doing it but it doesn’t—”
“Jo isn’t dead,” Theron interjected.
“I know that.”
“Do you?” Theron asked. When Sebastian didn’t answer, he carried on speaking. “No one’s hungry. No one’s sleeping easy. We’re all exhausted and angry. None of us really want to sit around that kitchen table trying to ignore her empty chair, but she’s still alive. The things she cares about still matter. And whether you like it or not, those things include you.”
Sebastian shook his head, giving the leather bag one final blow before admitting defeat and collecting his sword from its resting place. His stiff knuckles made grabbing the sheathed weapon an awkward ordeal and he couldn’t fully stifle a pained groan in doing so.
“You’re fucking insufferable, Lockwood,” he said.
“Learned from the best, didn’t I?”
Finally, Sebastian turned to face Theron. He crossed his arms over his chest, not a hint of amusement in his expression; definitely taking a page out of Porter’s book. Sebastian snorted and punched him hard in the arm as he walked past. Theron didn’t even seem to feel the impact, but Sebastian immediately felt the pain reignite in his hand. Ignoring it, he muttered, “learn to block, then, Earthquake Boy.”
“Why would I stop you from hurting your fist on my arm? It’s amusing.”
Sebastian didn’t turn around as he trudged down the path to the Outpost, but he could almost hear the satisfied smirk in Theron’s voice. Asshole. “I did this to myself, don’t act so smug.”
“Strange brag, but suit yourself.”
The others had come and gone by the time Sebastian settled down to eat. Normally the kitchen was kept spotlessly clean and tidy, but there were still empty bowls left on the counter to be washed later, utensils carelessly placed on the wrong shelves. Not that the space was filthy or in disarray, but there was a sense of wrongness in those small imperfections. Sitting there alone with his bowl of warmed stew, Sebastian couldn’t help but think how Jo’s absence in that room amounted to so much more than just an empty chair.
The sun was bright outside. The stone walls of the tower weren’t enough to fully contain the disjointed symphony of different bird songs emanating from the forest trees. Sebastian never thought of springtime as something to be enjoyed or missed out on, but he wouldn’t deny it was lovely this time of year. It only served to fuel the lingering sense of wrongness. As if nature itself had no right to go about its business.
“Staring at that bowl won’t do you any good, boy.” Gerald’s low grumble cut into his thoughts.
Sebastian grabbed his spoon and absentmindedly pushed a potato around in lieu of a response, scraping the bottom of his bowl with every push. Gerald’s gaze lingered, but he left him to it. Keeping his head down, Sebastian tracked the man’s presence through the scuff of boots on stone, the metallic clank of a tea kettle landing on the wooden countertop, and just a trace of movement on his peripherals. The faint smell of damp earth indicated Gerald had been tending the gardens. The thought crossed Sebastian’s mind to ask how the flowers were faring, but he couldn’t bring himself to break the silence.
Warmth drained from the bowl with each passing second. It’d be harder to push it down once it went cold, yet he continued to stall his first spoonful, listening as the tea kettle filled with water and was placed over the lit stove.
“You can’t avoid me forever.”
The voice entered and left Sebastian’s mind so abruptly he startled out of his seat, dropped the spoon on the table with an audible clatter and muttered, “I know! Shut up!” before he was able to hold himself back. A blur started to form at the edges of his sight and he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to push down the pain threatening to assault his temples.
A steadying hand on his shoulder pushed Sebastian down onto his chair. He felt the room spin even through closed eyelids. His stomach twisted. The sudden wave of nausea forced him to double over in a futile attempt to stop his body from convulsing. Every muscle in his body strained, his throat felt raw with the effort to expel what wasn’t there. He retched, wheezed through an ensuing coughing fit, and as quickly as it began, his body settled into shivering exhaustion.
Sebastian obeyed. He could still feel Gerald’s hand on his shoulder and the feeling was grounding enough to slowly pull his mind back to the present with every shuddering breath. He pressed his hands against the tabletop to brace himself against another dizzy spell, reigniting the dull aches from his excessive training. The kettle whistled and Gerald stepped away to retrieve it, leaving him trembling in his seat; mind racing with confusion. What happened? It wasn’t the first time he felt dizzy, but it’d never been this abrupt, or intense. “I don’t know what…” he trailed off, trying to push away the ghost of his sister’s words and the feeling of dread rising in his chest.
“When was the last time you had a full night’s sleep, Rivers?” he asked.
“Not sure,” Sebastian admitted. “Haven’t been able to stay asleep for long since… Suppose since we’ve been back.”
“Hmm.” Gerald placed a cup of tea on the table next to his bowl. “Drink.”
Sebastian groaned at the smell of tea, but the man’s tone left no room for discussion and he had no energy to attempt one. So he drank.
“You can’t carry on this way, boy. What are you punishing yourself for?”
“I’m not—” Sebastian cut himself off mid-protest, briefly glancing at his raw knuckles as he reached for the cup. He knew lying to Gerald was a fruitless endeavor and a defeated sigh escaped him as he drank.
“Listen…” Gerald sighed as well. “I know this isn’t what you want to hear; it’s not something I particularly want to say if I’m to be honest, but the truth of what happened that day is that Johanna made a choice. There is nothing you could have said or done to dissuade her. There is no such thing as dissuading her; for better or worse. There never has been.”
Sebastian stared at his teacup for a long moment before forcing himself to take a sip. The warm, bitter liquid immediately eased the sick feeling in his stomach. “I know that, but it doesn’t help, does it? Whether I could have changed it or not, it still happened. And for what? That Wolf… I don’t know… She was in bad shape, but she could have lived for all we know.”
“Does that matter?” Gerald asked. “If there was no possibility of that; if she died right then and there, do you think that would be worth what Jo is going through right? Do you think you’d be sleeping soundly right now?”
Sebastian drank more tea, frowning. The questions held no accusation; Gerald was kinder than he’d been to himself in that regard, but that was barely any consolation. “No. I don’t. It would have been… Not a comfort, but I guess one less thing to worry about. One less thing out of many at this point. A part of me can’t get over the fact she was right there. She was lying there injured and I couldn’t do anything about it; not under those circumstances. And there may never be another chance.”
“The future is uncertain, Rivers; even for you, but… for your own sake I suggest you learn to focus more on the present. You’ll be no use to anyone, least of all yourself, if you carry on skipping meals and working your knuckles raw.”
Sebastian nodded and, after emptying his teacup, pulled the bowl of stew closer and took a spoonful to his mouth. Much to his dissatisfaction—but not to his surprise—it’d already gone cold. “I haven’t told Kyle yet. Who that Wolf really was.”
“I know. Porter and I debated telling him, but she convinced me it was not our place to do so. I maintain that he has a right to know.”
“He does.” Sebastian grimaced, but forced another spoonful down. “I just wish I could tell him this is over.”
Gerald watched him inquisitively, then asked, “would it have been?”
“I don’t know.” Sebastian admitted. “I don’t know if it can.”