[Hunters Outpost | Aurelium 28th, 2526 | Midday]
With every step Sebastian took towards the Outpost another rock dropped to the pit of his stomach. His intuition had kept him alive on the streets and in his few confrontations with the Wolves thus far. Whether it was due to dumb luck or precognition didn’t matter; he’d learned to trust it. Kyle would often berate him for his reckless decision making, when, in reality, it was rare that he didn’t know what he was getting himself into. Reckless as he sometimes could be, Sebastian liked to think his self-preservation instincts were sound. But even he couldn’t justify walking into the Outpost with a surprise visitor in tow. Not even at the best of times, if those even existed, and especially not while one of their own was currently fighting to survive.
Yet, since leaving Blackpond, every time he considered giving Rita the slip, something told him that would be a mistake. For the first time, Sebastian could safely say he had no idea how following his intuition could end in anything other than absolute disaster.
On a surface level, nothing felt amiss. The forest was lively as always. Leaves and grass crunched in the distance, likely under the paws of some scurrying animal, birds chirped in the trees overhead, and all of it was drowned out by an uncomfortable sense of impending danger, as though his every step was teetering on the edge of a precipice.
The extra travel companion delayed his return. After everything that transpired during their latest excursions, Sebastian knew this meant not only would someone be watching for his return, it would also likely be the last person he wanted to see in this situation. If Gabrielle’s reaction to Gerald leaving the Outpost unannounced was anything to go by, he reckoned he might end up with a confrontation on his hands.
Another step, and as soon as his boot crushed grass, a shiver crept up the back of his neck. He reacted by side stepping and placing himself in front of Rita and felt something whiz by and nick the side of his face. The familiar click of Gabrielle’s crossbow preceded her emergence from within the tree cover.
Her eyes were obscured by the brim of her hat, the freshly reloaded crossbow was steadily aimed at the person standing behind Sebastian. It moved with Rita when she tried to peer around him and he promptly sidestepped to put himself between her and the weapon. He gestured for her to be still and hoped the severity of this situation was obvious enough that wouldn’t elicit any form of defiance.
“Hey, Porter. Sorry I’m late,” he greeted, and his voice wavered despite his best efforts to sound nonchalant.
Gabrielle’s finger tapped the crossbow where it rested; not yet touching its trigger, and he registered the way her jaw momentarily clenched when he spoke her name aloud. “Explain.”
“Very long story short… This is Rita. We may have gotten her husband killed and she killed a Wolf as a result. So I decided to get her out of the city as quickly as possible.” He shrugged. “Also, she refused to leave me alone.”
“There are many ways to coerce someone to leave you alone, Rivers. Am I to believe you’ve exhausted all possibilities?”
Sebastian didn’t answer. He could feel himself grimace despite the fact he meant to hide it. That was enough of an answer, it seemed. Gabrielle’s shoulders dropped slightly with her next exhale and her tone lost a shred of its harshness. “Step aside.” When he hesitated, she scoffed. “As if that would stop me. Step aside.”
“Yes,” he said as he stepped out of the way. “All possibilities I considered viable anyway.”
Gabrielle only spared him a brief glance and a hum under her breath. Her gaze remained locked on Rita over the aim of her crossbow, cold and scrutinizing. Across from her, Rita stood, her eyes gleaming as though the tip of Gabrielle’s crossbow bolt itself were in their reflection. Underneath that shimmer in her eyes, there was a promise that left Sebastian uneasy.
“Wolf?” she asked. And Sebastian immediately knew it wasn’t directed at him, or their guest.
“Hard to say,” Gerald answered, his voice echoing somewhere in the treetops. “None of the ones we encountered, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
“She’s not a Wolf.” It was Kyle who spoke this time, though his voice was noticeably unsteady. Sebastian heard boots hitting the ground behind his back, and the familiar sound of his brother’s crossbow disarming. “The man who helped me escape that Scout in Blackpond… This is his wife.”
“I killed that Scout’s partner,” Gerald chimed in. “It’s not unreasonable to assume she would have attempted to track us down.”
Gabrielle looked past Sebastian. “Are you sure, Rivers?
Sebastian turned just in time to see Kyle nod and answer with a stiff, “yes,” then, reload his crossbow, and dart away in the opposite direction of the Outpost. Into the woods.
Gabrielle lowered her crossbow, her expression unmoved. “Tucker, would you mind handling this from here?”
Gerald soundlessly dropped from the tree branches to Sebastian’s left. “I got it.”
“Good.” Gabrielle turned her attention to Sebastian, fully focusing on him for the first time since they’d arrive. “Go see how your brother is coping, Rivers. That sounds like a simple enough task for you to accomplish without dragging further complications to our doorstep.”
Sebastian felt his nails sink into his palms, his jaw ached with tension, but he bit back on the urge to argue. The situation had de-escalated and there would be no point in raising tensions again. Gabrielle’s gaze briefly lowered to register his balled fists, but she said nothing of it and opted to address Alex instead. “Come with me,” she said, and began heading back towards the Outpost.
As the two walked away, Alex’s jovial voice boomed out, “good to see you, Gabrielle, how have you been!”
A hand landed on Sebastian’s shoulder and he instinctively shook it off before realizing it could only belong to Gerald.
“Easy, boy.” Gerald lowered his hand and calmly nodded towards the path Kyle had taken. “Go. Can’t let him stray too far right now. I’ll handle this from here.”
Kyle hadn’t strayed too far. After only a few minutes of walking, Sebastian heard the familiar click of his crossbow trigger and the dull thuds of bolts hitting solid wood. As he drew closer to the sound, he spotted scuff marks on the barks of several trees and a few stray bolts scattered on the ground along the path. Most of them still looked intact, and Sebastian picked them up as he passed. When he reached the clearing where Kyle had settled, having chosen one single tree to inflict his wrath upon, he had a handful of them.
“You shouldn’t waste these so much. It’s not like wood grows on trees,” he quipped, holding up the bolts.
Kyle didn’t look away from his target as he took the discarded bolts from Sebastian’s hands and placed them in his quiver. “I have plenty.”
Sebastian hummed and leaned against the trunk of a tree a few steps away from the aim of his brother’s crossbow. He watched as Kyle slipped another bolt into the crossbow, cocked it, and released without a pause. The bolt grazed the bark and ricocheted, splintering on a nearby rock. Kyle was unfazed as he loaded another bolt into the weapon. The tremble in his hands was hard to miss, as well as his unfocused stare. Sebastian wasn’t surprised when this shot, too, missed the tree and pierced the earth instead.
“It’s not your fault,” Sebastian said.
“Shut up,” Kyle muttered. His hand slipped as he tried to fit another bolt into the crossbow and he cursed under his breath. “You can go back and tell the others I’m not going anywhere if they’re worried, but I don’t wanna hear it right now.”
“Look, there’s nothing you could have done to change this.”
“I said I don’t wanna fucking hear it, Seb!”
Kyle turned on his heels, the loaded crossbow still in his hands, his grip on it much steadier when aimed at his brother than when he was attempting to aim at mere trees. Without a flinch, Sebastian walked up to his brother and pushed the crossbow down. A soft click followed and the bolt barely had space to fly before embedding into the earth between Sebastian’s feet. Kyle blew out a breath and let the weapon fall as well.
“It doesn’t fucking matter,” he said. “Does alleviating my guilt undo anything?”
“No, but beating yourself up doesn’t either.” Kyle groaned and turned away, leaving the crossbow on the ground. Sebastian sighed and picked it up. “Look, you didn’t barge into that man’s house, you didn’t ask him for help. He didn’t get killed because of you. He got killed because he was a good man. And Valcrest eats people like that for breakfast.”
Kyle let out a bitter chuckle and the tiniest burst of flame hit the nearby bushes, igniting them and immediately dying down as though they’d never happened. “No good deed left unpunished, right?”
“Not a single one,” Sebastian muttered, calmly inspecting the crossbow in his hands. “Especially in Blackpond.”
Kyle shook his head and plopped down on the grass, under the shade of the same tree he’d been using for a target. “Did she do that to your face or did you run into Ol’ Crip again?”
“Hm?” Sebastian mumbled, looking up from the crossbow to stare at his brother, momentarily forgetting that the bruises from his scuffle with Rita hadn’t yet faded. “Oh. Yeah, she snuck up on me.”
“Huh. Wouldn’t have taken her for a fighter when I met her before.” Kyle said, a frown creasing his forehead. “How badly did she beat you? Or did you just choose not to fight back?”
Sebastian shrugged, pulling the discarded bolt from the ground and trying to load it back into the crossbow. “I had a hand on my blade. I was either going to talk her down or I wasn’t.”
“Not the best gamble, if you ask me.”
“I had a gut feeling.” He tried to get the bolt in, but realized he must have done something wrong when he tried to draw the string and the mechanism jammed.
“Your gut is bound to get us all killed,” Kyle muttered. “And stop fucking with that. I’ll burn your ass if you break it.”
Sebastian scoffed, but swiftly tossed the crossbow towards his brother with a smirk. “I think there’s something off with that cocking mechanism. Are you sure you assembled it right?”
Kyle caught the weapon and immediately released the jammed bolt from the mechanism. “Someone will have to reassemble you if I find you broke anything, I swear to every Twin.”
“It’s probably fine, I barely touched it.”
“Barely is enough to wreck months of my hard work,” Kyle chastised. He spent some time inspecting the crossbow, then let out a heavy sigh, not taking his eyes off the weapon. “The more we encounter those Wolves, the more I hate them. I don’t regret staying. Becoming a hunter. This life… Probably not gonna be very long, but it’s an alright life.”
“… But?” Sebastian asked.
“But…” Kyle sat the crossbow down across his lap and looked up to meet his eyes. “The past three years felt like a decade. I never wanted to be the reason someone else ends up here.”
Sebastian shook his head, a rueful smile crossing his lips. “You aren’t the reason she’s here, brother. He is.” He walked over and sat on the grass next to Kyle, subduing an exhausted groan. “They are.”
“Semantics, Seb.” Kyle resumed tinkering with the crossbow. “I led them there. They know our faces and they’re the ones hunting us now. And I know Porter said it was bound to happen eventually, but…” He chuckled. “There really is no coming back from this, is there?”
“No. I don’t think so.” Sebastian stretched his legs, his feet spilling over past the tree’s shadow and starting to quickly heat up inside his boots. “But we already knew that. On some level at least. It’s never gonna be over, because it doesn’t work that way.”
Kyle loaded the crossbow with a fresh bolt and locked it into place with a click. “If Kat’s killer died in that village, do you think you’d feel any different?”
The question was spoken so casually Sebastian almost didn’t register its implications, and when they finally dawned on him, all he could do was breathe out a laugh. “Who told you?”
“Porter. Considering that you had to ask, though, I’m assuming I’m the only person you thought didn’t know.” Kyle scoffed, letting the bolt fly across and bury itself on a tree across from theirs. “Nice. Real nice.”
“Theron was there when Porter asked me what happened and I talked to Gerald about it some time after we came back.” Sebastian chuckled. “He told me Porter convinced him it wasn’t their place to tell you, I reckon it was because she already had. Hadn’t she?”
“The night after you came back, yeah. She told me I shouldn’t push you to talk about it, but I did have a right to know what happened.”
“I hate that I can’t even be mad because she’s right.” Sebastian sighed. “No. I wouldn’t feel any different. I don’t know what I feel anymore. She could have died somewhere on the road to Newhaven and it wouldn’t change a thing.”
“If I’d gone with Jo instead I wouldn’t… I wouldn’t have recognized her.” Kyle laughed. “How fucked up is that?”
“She would have recognized you. I know she recognized me.” Sebastian watched several more bolts burrow into the same tree trunk, one after the other, finding it easier to focus on that than look his brother in the eyes. “I don’t know if it’s better or worse to know, to be honest.”
“How normal she looked,” Sebastian mumbled.
If he closed his eyes he could still see, clear as day, how unassuming that woman looked. How easily she smiled as if she didn’t have innocent blood on her hands. He could also still see the fearful shock in her eyes as Jo’s sword ran her through. He could still hear every pained breath that rasped from her lungs every time his mind idled. Even in his waking moments. And if he was perfectly honest with himself, as much as the thought unsettled him, he was convinced that somehow she still drew breath.
“I don’t know if it makes it better or worse to know they bleed and fear death like everyone else. I don’t know what it means that I know that and I don’t care,” he continued. “Probably nothing good, but this is where we’re at, right?”
“No turning back from this,” Kyle repeated, and reloaded his crossbow.
Gerald kept an arrow nocked on his bow as he waited for the others to disperse. Though he’d eased the tension on the string and pointed the weapon downwards, away from their visitor, it was important that it remained there for the time being. He knew Sebastian wasn’t as careless as he let on, and didn’t think the boy lacked judgment to the point of taking a complete stranger entirely on their word. Something drove him to believe this woman. However, that didn’t mean Gerald would be foolish enough to let his guard down in front of someone who claimed to have killed a Wolf. Even if it had been a mere Scout.
“So, Rita,” he spoke. “Who are you, really?”
“Rita.” She shrugged. “Who are you?”
“I’ll answer your question when you answer mine,” Gerald said. “I’m sure the boy must have told you something about us or you wouldn’t have come. You killed the person who killed your husband, haven’t you? Yet you’re here. If you’d like I can give you more specific questions: why are you here, where were you trained, how were you able to kill a Wolf, but I think I don’t need to know all of that yet. Just enough to decide I shouldn’t kill you for knowing we exist.”
A rustling of trees came off in the distance and her head darted towards to meet the breeze that followed. She squinted as the wind drifted past, pushing her hair out of her face. As the breeze died down, she looked back to Gerald, taking a few steps away from him to lean against a tree before saying, “I’m here because I don’t have a home, I was trained by many talented fighters, and I managed to kill a Wolf like anybody would have—by stabbing her. Now are you satisfied or are you going to kill this widowed woman in a place where the people who care for her will never know where to look?”
Gerald watched the woman as she talked, paying careful mind to the pitch of her voice, her posture, whether her eyes wandered too much. The confrontational tone of her answers might have been a front, or it might not, but there was an emptiness underneath that was impossible to fake. Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen from lack of sleep and shed tears and something told him that if he were to kill her there, she would die uncaring. “If you’re looking for home, head south. The Crimson would take someone with your level of skill without a second thought. If you’re looking for pity, go to the White Shadows. You’ll find neither here, but I suspect you know that. So, one more time: why have you come? The truth. If you can’t admit it, then we’re both wasting our time.”
“If you can’t connect dots, maybe we should get that boy with the doppelganger to explain it to you. He didn’t seem too smart and he could figure it out just fine.” She replied dryly.
While she tried her best to look calm in front of him, Gerald could see the tension forming in her jaw. Like the losing side of a tug of war, all that tension broke. Her head sank, and she muttered something which he couldn’t hear. When her head darted back up, she said with a sense of sincerity almost impossible to fake. “I’m sorry… You know why I’m here. I’m not going to say it, but I’m not leaving.”
“You should.” Gerald sighed and unnocked the arrow from his bow. “You should leave.”
Rita nodded. “Probably.”
“Nothing good can come from being here. You seem smart enough to understand that without me having to tell you.”
She stood up from the tree, kicking a few pebbles around her feet as she shuffled cautiously towards Gerald. “Okay, now… who are you?”
She paused, stopping in her tracks, again looking in the direction the wind had come earlier. She looked almost frozen, looking at nothing in particular, but strangely intent in her focus. Then her focus came back to Gerald. “You know what? I’m not that interested in who you are right now. How about you show me around?”
With no indication of direction from Gerald, she began to make her way towards the clearing. In a flash, Gerald nocked the arrow back onto his bow, and without hesitation, aimed and released. It crossed Rita’s path—close enough that the fletching nearly grazed the tip of her nose—and then burrowed into the trunk of a tree. She stopped in her tracks, staring down the shaft of the arrow, near inches from her face.
“Never mind who trained you, who the hell taught you manners?” Gerald muttered as he walked over to retrieve the arrow, then took the lead in the direction of the Outpost. “We’ll provide you with a tent to sleep in, the kitchen is on the ground floor, the bathroom is beneath it. Upstairs is off limits, and I suggest you respect that.”
“Where I grew up, manners meant the soldiers who ran through the town would step all over you.” She said as she continued to walk.
“We all have our sob stories and we’ve all ended sadder lives than yours,” Gerald said, continuing to lead the wait without sparing her another glance. “You want to be here, I won’t stop you. I could, but I won’t. However… I don’t know you, I don’t trust you, and as much as I’m willing to admit your tenacity is somewhat admirable, it’s already proving itself more trouble than it’s worth.”
“Get used to it or get out of the way because it isn’t going to change.”
Gerald shook his head and fell silent, finding no point in continuing the conversation. The Outpost wasn’t far and the silent walk would hopefully allow for thoughts and emotions to settle. Johanna might have berated him for his tone. Rolled her eyes and called him callous for his words. And if she were able, perhaps this interaction would have played out differently, but in the current state of things, tact felt like a scarce resource. The unpredictability of strangers was a risk they could no longer afford to take, but better it be met with his harsh words than Gabrielle’s crossbow. For the moment, at least.
As the towers came into view, Theron stood waiting at the base of the stairs. He greeted them with a nod, then walked over to meet them.
“Ah. I see,” he mumbled to himself, then louder. “Porter asked me to wait for you to come back, but wouldn’t tell me why you stayed behind.” He glanced past the two of them. “Where’s Seb and Kyle?”
“Catching up, I presume. They’ll be back shortly. In the meantime…” Gerald sighed and placed the arrow he still held back into his quiver, freeing his hand so that he could rub the lingering exhaustion from his eyes. “Go into the storage and see what temporary accommodations we can scrounge up out of our travel supplies.”
Theron nodded, then glanced towards the top of the stairs. “For two extra people?”
“Yes. I don’t know how long we should expect to have guests, but if needed, I’ll arrange for something more permanent later.”
“Alright,” the teenager said, offering a mock salute, then addressing Rita with a sarcastic “welcome to the Outpost” before being on his way.
Once he’d gone, Gerald pointed towards the open door of the kitchen. “Like I said, the kitchen is there, the bathroom is down the hatch in the basement, upstairs is off limits. I’m Gerald. You’ll get introductions out of the others at their own discretion.”
From above, a door slammed and from it Alex stumbled onto the stairs jutting out from the outpost. He didn’t step down the stairs in any discernible pattern and by the way he rocked back and forth with each step, the threat of falling from the stairs was ever present. About half way down the stairs, he stopped, steadying himself with one hand on the rock wall and aggressively punching it with his other hand several times before collapsing out of sight on the stairs. All that could be heard to indicate that he was still there was his loud sobbing.
Rita huffed a sigh. “I guess I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me. Am I allowed to eat the food? I haven’t eaten much in the past few days.”
Gerald ignored the question initially and waited a few moments to see if Gabrielle would leave the room after Alex, but once it was clear she wouldn’t reemerge, he averted his eyes. Regardless of his feelings on Jo’s brother, he had no right to intrude on this moment, and if there was something that could be done to help him, Gerald was the last person who should attempt it.
“You’re welcome to anything in the pantry. We have set meal times, you’re welcome to those as well, if you would like. Now if you’ll excuse me, I haven’t slept for quite some time and I’m meant to keep watch tonight.” As he turned to walk in the direction of the watch post, hoping to get some rest before nightfall, Gerald added as an afterthought, “welcome to the Outpost.”