The Battle of Heart and Mind 3.20

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[City of Blackpond | Aurelium 25th, 2526 | Midmorning]

Blackpond had never been kind to Sebastian. His time living in the city was filled with hardship and any good memories he still held were few and far between. Yet, a small part of him felt inexplicably at home roaming the city streets. Even as his eyes darted across unmarked buildings in the residential district’s backstreets, his feet knew where to take him. Of the five establishments Gabrielle mapped out for him earlier that week, he’d visited two with no success. Gerald had advised him to scour the city’s bars and he’d inevitably come across Jo’s brother. The alternative would be to enter the military district; a risk even Sebastian could agree wasn’t worth taking.

The third location proved harder to find. It didn’t surprise him that some of the markers were in the city’s slums. And he knew not all establishments operated above board there; in fact, most didn’t. Still, it slipped his mind how difficult it could be to tell them apart from ordinary homes. He knew his information was correct, though. It had to be somewhere nearby. He just had to keep looking.

A cold tingling crept up Sebastian’s spine and concentrated on the back of his neck, like the gentle brush of ghostly fingertips. He flinched. The sensation faded as quickly as it came. His hand lingered near the dagger at his waist; concealed under the hem of his tunic, as he listened for movement. Hearing nothing, he lowered it, telling himself he must have imagined it. By now he should have learned to listen to his intuition.

From behind Sebastian heard the familiar sound of leather on metal, but before he had a chance to see what it was, someone grabbed him by the collar and yanked him back. He flew for what felt like several meters, a shadow cast over his face as his uncontrolled fall brought him into a narrow alleyway. Pushing his hands behind him helped to break his fall and save his back from the cobbled path but provided no defense from his assailant, who wrapped their legs around both his arms and pressed their knees deep into his shoulders. Sebastian let out a grunt as pebbles attempted to dig holes into the back of his shoulder. Any attempt to struggle halted when something cool and razor sharp pushed against his neck.

“Who the fuck are you,” she said.

That wasn’t what Sebastian was expecting to hear. His immediate thought was that someone had taken him for an outsider, deemed him an easy mark, but muggers don’t care who their marks are. He then took a moment to look at her. She was young. Probably a few years older than him. Her mousy brown hair half-covered her face in a tangle of wet strands. Spite glistened in her eyes between tears as she wiped the strands away from her face with her free hand. It wouldn’t surprise him to come across someone else with a grudge after what happened on their birthday, except… He couldn’t recall seeing this woman before even in passing.

“Who are you?”

He instantly realized his mistake for what it was in the form of an elbow which struck the side of his face. Looking down with a dissatisfied glare, however, she went for another; this time, aiming for his nose, which swept specks of blood across her nose and cheeks.

“I may have looked homely the last time we met. Don’t mistake me for an idiot. Your friend is dead and I won’t hesitate to make an example of you next. You must’ve thought we were an easy target. A friendly young man and his quiet wife. A new couple—just moved in.” She looked wild, like a wolf about to enjoy their next meal. The bloody specs only added a sense of derangement.

Despite the pain he was in, he still felt safe enough. The pressure from the blade on his neck had subsided, if anything. A little less and he might break free.

She continued. “Were you staking out the place? Seeing if we had some nice valuables? We didn’t. I don’t know why you decided we were still worth it. For your friend’s sake, you should have reconsidered.”

What the fuck. Sebastian racked his brain for something even remotely similar to what she was describing. And, granted, the blows to the face didn’t help but he was sure he would know if he’d done anything like it. Even when he and Kyle were living on the street they’d avoided robbing homes. He coughed, the feeling and irony taste of blood hit tongue and he turned away to spit it out. Whoever she was looking for couldn’t be him. This didn’t concern him. He wasn’t here for this.

“Someone tries to bleed you, Seb, don’t hesitate.”

If he strained, he could feel the hilt of his dagger just within reach of his fingertips. That was certainly a path he could take; for better or worse. Possibly a quicker path than trying to reason his way out of this, but as he turned to face this woman; this stranger, he couldn’t deny that he knew the look in her eyes all too well. He’d seen it every day for the past three years. He’d see it whenever he looked in the mirror if he bothered with them.

“Whoever you’re looking for, hope you find them, but they aren’t me. I’m not a robber. I don’t have a lot of friends either, and they were all very much alive when I left them.” She must have taken his words for mockery because the blade tightened against his throat. He insisted, more forceful. “It wasn’t me.”

“I don’t forget a face,” she sneered.

Sebastian held in his breath then exhaled slowly through his nose. He kept his focus on her face, refusing to let his eyes dart around in search of an escape. He didn’t want to appear as trapped as he felt. Gerald taught him to read others’ expressions, to suss out lies, and Sebastian liked to think he’d taken to those lessons well, but he felt at a loss. Because this woman fully believed what she was saying and he knew it couldn’t be the truth.

Unless.

“I don’t forget a face.”

Did he ever ask Kyle what happened when he and Gerald were in Blackpond? So much had happened by the time he’d returned to the Outpost. It completely slipped his mind. He did know he and Gerald ran into a pair of Wolves, though. And he also knew Gerald had killed one of them, but the one who’d chased Kyle out of the city was still unaccounted for. “Alright,” he breathed. “Alright, alright, listen… This person you said is my ‘friend’, were they wearing a silver ring?”

She sounded dumbfounded as she said, “Yes,” in a way that made it sound more like a question than it was an answer. “You know people can add and remove jewelry from their person without much trouble?”

Sebastian would have laughed if the situation wasn’t so dire. “What did you do after you killed them? They broke in, right? Did you contact the City Guard? Did you tell anyone?”

“I’m really tired of the games you’re playing with me.” She sighed. “The guards don’t care about my dead husband on the living room floor as much as they don’t care about the dead woman beside him. They probably won’t care much for you either. Do you want to tell me why the three of you are all connected or not?”

“First of all, I’m sorry about your husband, honest. We try to not get people involved as a rule,” Sebastian drew a deep breath. Gabrielle was likely to kill him for this, but what choice did he have at this point? “The person you killed wasn’t my friend, they were probably trying to track me down and you and your husband got caught in the middle.” He hesitated, still unsure how much he was willing to give away to someone threatening his life; regardless of circumstances. “I’ll be honest I don’t really remember you. It’s been a rather eventful time, but I’m pretty sure this woman you killed was a Wolf. You know about the Wolfpack, right? If you were born in Valcrest you must have heard about them at some point. So I need you to think carefully about what you did after you killed her, because if this can be traced back to you I’m going to be the least of your problems.”

She pressed herself down on him a little harder, straining her muscles to do so. But as she eyed him closely, trying to detect a lie, Sebastian saw a glint of realization click somewhere deep within her pupils. 

“You’ve killed a Wolf, too?” The weight slightly subsided.

She asked as if she’d already accepted that she’d killed a Wolf herself. Sebastian frowned, conflicted between not wanting to reveal too much and feeling as though she deserved to know as much as possible. “Yes,” he answered. “Although I knew what I was doing when I did it.”

Angry voices drew his attention. They sounded as though they were coming from one of the several narrow streets in their general vicinity; one of them louder and more slurred than the other. The reminder of why he’d come and the realization of the time this confrontation had taken away from his task caused Sebastian to jolt. The cold press of metal against his throat kept him from initiating a struggle. “Look, clearly this situation demands a more involved conversation than these circumstances allow. Not to mention I have somewhere to be. So have you made up your mind not to slit my throat yet?”

The lady’s eyes softened. Tears tensely sat across her bottom lids, refusing to slip from where they kept station. “My husband hoped he’d see you again,” she faintly muttered as she lifted herself off Sebastian, grabbing his shoulders to lift him up along with her. 

Sebastian steadied himself and rubbed the ache forming in his shoulders. He didn’t know how to respond to her words, or what to feel. They weren’t for him; he’d never actually met this man and never would. He felt his jaw tense and his teeth grind as he turned to walk away, following the sound of that drunken altercation. That sounded like the place he should be heading next.

A soft drubbing of her footsteps followed closely behind him. He looked back, greeted by a completely different face to the one he’d learned while staring her down just moments before on the ground in the alleyway. It was homely, with a welcoming smile. She took a quick few paces forward to follow lock and step beside him and said, “get used to me, friend. I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I know enough to know that’s not the last Wolf I plan to kill and I know you’ll help me find more.” The welcoming smile on her face was spine-chilling, knowing its sinister implications. A spark of rage again flickered in her eyes. “Where to?”

******

Sebastian groaned as a disgruntled man purposely collided with his sore shoulder, squeezing between him and his… Companion? Pursuer? No matter.

The man had just picked himself off the ground, unsteady on his feet and cursing up a storm as a heavy door shut in his face. Clear as day, he was itching to take his frustrations out on anyone who gave him reason. Any other day, under different circumstances, maybe Sebastian would have taken that bait. Today he just gritted his teeth and kept his head down. The drunkard grumbled at his lack of reaction, but continued on his unmerry way. Sebastian listened for the man’s footsteps until they faded, and only then approached the heavy wooden door he’d watched him get expelled from.

He slammed the side of his fist against the door and waited. Clandestine pubs and gambling parlors were common around these parts, but Sebastian had never seen one for himself. Still, he knew the best way to get by in Blackpond was to always act as though you belong. Even if you have no idea where you’re getting yourself into.

There was no response from within the house, and Sebastian knocked again, harder. All he’d told his companion was that he was looking for someone and had to deliver a message. The truth; but only a fraction. Under different circumstances he would at least try to get away from her, but there was no scenario he could envision in which that ended well. So he conformed to the unwanted company and tried to pretend she wasn’t there. This wasn’t his mess to begin with. Finding Alex was a far more pressing issue.

His boot hit the door in tandem with his fist, and finally it swung open. The cacophonous sounds of drunken chatter that flooded the backstreets made it abundantly clear why it was so difficult to make himself heard. The man standing in the doorway was tall and broad enough to fill the entire frame. His expression shifted from annoyance to shock, then suspicion upon seeing Sebastian on the other side. He must have assumed the drunkard returned and was demanding to be let in. He groaned, his tone disdainful as he muttered, “we don’t serve children.”

Sebastian pulled two gold coins from his purse and held them out. “I’m old enough.”

The man grinned. “You shouldn’t be flashing that kinda wealth in a place like this, kid. Gonna get your throat sl—”

Sebastian’s dagger was pressed against the man’s throat before he could finish the sentence. “Someone’s already tried today,” he told him. “Be better for business if you take my coin and let me worry about my safety, don’t you think?”

The man seemed unfazed, his amusement turning to scrutiny as he reached for the gold and pocketed it. “You a Wolf or something, kid?”

Sebastian was about to lower his dagger when the question gave him pause. He held the man’s gaze and injected as much threat into his tone as possible. “Who’s asking and why do they want to know?”

The man tried to lean in as if to take a closer look at him and Sebastian tightened his grip on the dagger, silently adding pressure on the man’s throat. He retreated a step and chuckled—shaky despite his attempt to sound nonchalant. “No one. Just keep any messes out of my bar, kid.”

“Noted,” Sebastian muttered, lowering the dagger at last.

“The two of you together?” the man asked, looking over Sebastian’s shoulder, to his unwanted companion.

“Who’s asking?” she replied.

Sebastian bit the inside of his cheek and followed the man’s gaze to the woman in a silent request to not escalate this. “Yeah,” he muttered. As much as he wanted to reject that notion, something in his gut told him it would be better to keep her around. Not to mention that trying to get her barred from entering would only be met with resistance.

The man nodded, ignoring her interjection entirely and urging them inside. “Two gold will cover the both of you, then.”

They entered and the man shut the heavy door behind them. The house’s interior was dimly lit with candles and poorly ventilated through the boarded up windows. The stale air reeked of cheap ale, sweat, and something else Sebastian wasn’t willing to speculate the origins of. The counter and the tables looked homemade and not as thoughtfully crafted as the ones Gerald made for the Outpost. A tall muscular woman with a noticeable scar on her left cheek poured ale from a row of barrels into metal cups—some of which were visibly rusting over—and passed them along to patrons seated in precariously built stools.

Sebastian scanned the room for familiar faces. He didn’t want to consider what might be going on in some of those people’s lives that they were sitting in a shoddy bar in the middle of the morning, but it wouldn’t surprise him to find Jo’s brother among them. Alex wasn’t at the bar, but Sebastian quickly realized that most of the excitement he’d been hearing was coming from the back of the house.

Sebastian followed the sound of chatter through an open doorway. The back room was occupied by about a dozen people, crowded around a couple of square tables meant to seat two. Those tables were occupied by two patrons each. Both pairs had a chess board on the tabletop between them and nursed cups of liquor or mugs of ale as they leaned over the game. Other patrons whispered excitedly from the sidelines as they followed the players’ every move, some commentating on the plays, others trying to predict the players’ next moves. How anyone could concentrate amid that ruckus was beyond comprehension, but the chatter seemed to have no impact on the players whatsoever. One of those players, seated at the table farthest from the door, was Jo’s brother.

Making his way past the small captive audience, Sebastian stopped near the table to wait. He may not be the most knowledgeable about chess, but he knew that interrupting a game was a surefire way to get into someone’s bad side.

Once the game was through and Alex’s opponent left defeated, Sebastian walked up to the man. “Hey,” he said. “I don’t know if you remember me? I was here with Jo a few months ago. I need to tell you something.”

Swallowing down a shot of some clear drink and slamming it on the table, he shouted, “sit down and play or shut up!”

That clearly hadn’t been the first drink he’d had tonight. Did Alex even hear what he said?

“He was studying the board, you rooster.” Sebastian’s companion said. No one had ever called him a rooster. She walked over to the board and looked at it herself for a moment. “Your opponent shouldn’t have forfeited. You didn’t have a mate.”

“Ahhh! So want to talk too or play?” Alex asked.

“As long as you listen to what the boy has to say when I beat you.”

He smiled and waved his hand to offer her a seat. Sebastian’s new companion took the seat opposite Alex, quickly gathered up her pieces and placed them onto their correct squares. When she was finished with her side, she grabbed a black pawn from his side, attempting to place it on the board for him. She jumped nearly as high as the pieces did when he smashed a fist against the table. The pieces which she had neatly placed on her side were now scattered about the table, making a clattering of sounds as they scattered and rolled around. He looked hazily towards her, with frustration.

“I can do it,” he said.

She gracefully bowed her head and motioned with her hand to continue, but then shot her head up with a playful grin to say, “but please don’t waste my time.”

Alex growled and started to rearrange his pieces. Again, by the time he was half finished with his, she was completely finished. This time, she methodically touched each of her pieces one more time, placing them precisely in the center of their respective squares. By the time she was finished, he was ready.

The woman reached out her hand offering a handshake, which was customary among Blackponders playing a betting game of chess. “My name is Rita, by the way.” She looked over to Sebastian as if it was more for him then it was for the man across the board. 

Alex grabbed Rita’s hand with more force than he probably intended, pushing her hand to the side and aggressively shook. It impressed Sebastian to see her keep herself grounded to her chair. Giggling a little, she skillfully led his arm around the pieces, preventing them from having to set the board for a third time.

“No name? Okay.” She said and played her first move.

What followed was a flurry of five or six moves, played seemingly without thought and faster than Sebastian could track. When the dust settled, Alex sat in for a think. Two of the center pawns had already been taken. He fondled the white pawn he’d captured in his right hand as the other hovered over the board. After a few minutes, he moved the queen, only for Rita to move her queen instantly.

He looked up at her, perturbed. She leaned in with a coy grin before looking off to the side of the room where two men quietly sat; drinking but saying nothing.

“I’m going to have to get serious,” he grumbled, taking the final sip of his ale. The bartender was there with another one before he’d even wiped his chin of some stray drops that had managed to miss his mouth.

She looked back. “You’re a good player.”

“Of course I am!”

Alex’s next move came with aggression. Another couple of moves followed quickly until Rita had castled on the queen’s end of the board, causing Alex to think for another moment before pushing a pawn towards her king. A guttural laugh bellowed through the bar as Alex watched Rita go for a move but swiftly retracting her hand.

“Almost got you there.” He continued to laugh.

“Almost.” She shortly retorted before pushing a pawn of her own on the other side of the board. 

“My mind’s a little fuzzy.”

“Because of the ale or because you can’t remember your theory?” She asked.

His head swiveled up to meet Rita’s narrow gaze. The movement of his head was unnatural in the way it bobbed trying to hold its position. He laughed, moving  the horse-shaped general. She took a piece, as well, but not the general. The looks in the crowd of people who’d been watching were starting to light up with anticipation. People would look to the person next to them and whisper softly, nodding in approval of their thoughts with great grins. It was at this point that Sebastian wished he knew what was going on.

As the game went on, the anticipation continued to grow but over all the excitement, neither side seemed to show on their face either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. It was the move of a cleric which led Alex to explode with frustration. From the crowd a few seemed to understand what was going on. Why was she giving up that cleric for free?

A few voices let out a gasp when Alex didn’t take the piece, but opted for a trade which would leave him without a queen. That’s when the crowd erupted in rapturous cheers.

“It’s not over yet!” Shouted one man.

“Yes it is, you idiot.” Replied Alex, who despite his tone had a smile on his face.

“Just move your general.”

“Move my general and lose the game.” He got up from his chair and stared down at the board from a higher angle. To Sebastian’s surprise, he didn’t stumble. He almost looked sober. “That was a fine game of chess you played. Can’t say there are many who have your sort of skill. Are you military?”

Rita simply shrugged, giving nothing away. “I won, no name. My friend here wants to talk to you.”

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