The first thing I try to do is push the wagon, just in hopes it will move a little bit through the mud. Where we are now is a terrible place to stop with the area having absolutely zero obstacles that can protect us from rain. The closest thing is a large rock formation towards where we were heading.
To both my expectation and sadness, the wagon doesn’t budge. And even if it did, what would I do? Push it for miles? I shake my head and get back in the wagon as lightning strikes and thunder booms in the distance. Once under the canopy of the wagon, I look at the others and shake my head. Then, I speak up, instantly regretting opening my mouth as my voice comes out raw and bloody.
“We’re gonna have to go by foot from here on out. I need to rest my voice. Throat hurts.”
The mood immediately drops. No one wants to have to walk in this storm. Can’t we just catch a break? Earl begins to argue that we should have listened to him at first and stopped the wagon, but I just shake my head and down on a piece of paper how it’s likely the Nain Rouge’s misfortune. Earl ends up agreeing after a moment of thought.
“Yeah, you’re probably right, Wyatt. He must’ve done something to us with that word he said. I’ve got no idea what, though. None of the manuals have details about languages other than Chero.”
Then the discussion returns to what we should do next and for a while, we are undecided, mostly me, Earl, and Elizabeth having input while Leonard sits on the side, still upset about Lonnie. During our talks I hold my fox and feed it some of our remaining food, trying to ease its worry and wrap it up in a small blanket to keep it from freezing in the cold.
The conversation continues for a while in the rain, we just cannot decide on our next move. I want to continue northeast, Elizabeth now wants to stay, and Earl has changed his mind, wanting to head straight eastward towards a town called Rustbend. In the middle of our discussion, though, Leonard speaks up.
“Has anyone seen Esther lately? I haven’t heard from her in a while.”
We all turn our heads and look around the small wagon that’s completely cluttered and trashed. Where did she go? Everyone else starts looking behind and under stuff. My first idea is to check outside the wagon, and I do so, again not seeing anything alive or moving in the mud. Then, a memory flashes of me trying to cheer her up.
I check the blanket that she and her kits hid underneath in the corner and when I lift the blanket, I find her. Curled up and crying holding her baby foxes. I kneel and hug her, trying to comfort her.
“You’re safe now Esther. It’s okay. The spirits are gone.”
She looks at me all teary-eyed and pushes me away.
“Go away! It’s all your fault! No one got hurt before you showed up! If it wasn’t for you Lonnie would be fine! We’d already be far away in a nice place if it wasn’t for you!”
Her words sink in deeply. I am the reason they are still not safe. They were forced to make several stops for me to hunt, and if they had never found me, they would have had enough food for weeks of travel by rationing it off. But being the starving man afflicted by the Bloody Palm that I am, I ate the vast majority of the food.
Then as I just crouch there and look at her, Esther yells at me again full of tears and snot, and breaks down at the end of her scream.
“You said you’d protect us! That’s why… That’s why we weren’t scared to stay there… I hate you! Go away!”
This one hurts so much. I did promise I’d keep them safe. Multiple times in fact. Them trusting me is why they wanted to stay the night. Yet, I failed their trust. Tears come to my eyes just as Elizabeth brushes past me and grabs Esther. Elizabeth then looks at me and softly whispers to me.
“She doesn’t mean that. Lonnie was her twin, they were inseparable. Just give her time to calm down.”
I nod somberly before backing off and sitting at the other edge of the wagon from Esther. With the mood the lowest it’s ever been and the literal atmosphere thunderous and furious, we just decide to stay here for the rest of the night until morning. I check my pocket watch as the rest of them try and get a little more sleep despite the traumatizing night.
It’s 4:28. Only a couple more hours until sunrise. I sit on the edge of the wagon with most of my body in the rain watching where we came from. Waiting for the Nain Rouge and its misfortune to reach my eyes.
I put my hand on my hip instinctively for the warmth and security of my rapier, just to find none. I left it embedded in the damn red imps cane. Fuck. I’m just a hard case, aren’t I?
Lost the last of my family, Butter.
Lost the last thing from Ma, the Lily.
Lost the last thing from Edmund, my Deft Talon.
Lost the first person I promised to protect, Lonnie.
What’s next? Am I gonna lose the rest of them? And have nothing? I'm probably just a day or so away from losing this watch. I just sigh again in sorrow for what I have already lost. All within a short month. Just a fraction of my whole life. This is not at all what I imagined. It’s likely to only get worse unless we make it to a big town or city soon. Winter’s coming soon after all.
To distract myself from the sad reality of my life, I draw my two serpentine daggers and play with them using the hoop on their ends. It brings me some joy just watching the daggers spin around my recovered fingers.
Nothing eventful happens as the sands of time pass and the sun slowly lights up the world from behind me. I let the others sleep a little bit longer past sunrise as I stare at my pocket watch. I use the small ticking hand to ground myself and my mind.
I watch the time slowly change.
And so forth until it’s almost eight.
Only after, do I wake them up after I gaze at the ever-ticking watch long enough just to think. Think about my life. And the thing that bothers me the most, is those few memories of my Ma that I’ve remembered differently. The odd and weird ones. The ones that someone helped me in those bleak times despite the contents and portrayal of her being antithetical to everything Ma was.
But, I am unable to find an answer to this question either. And I give up on trying for now. Every question I seek to answer I either make worse or am unable to find the resolution. The only thing I can do is do better. Somehow. Practice more Ether. Train with my daggers. Exercise my body to improve my speed. And I can’t believe I even have this thought, but I could learn a bit more.
If I had known what the Bakwa were at first glance, or even just fifty percent faster, Lonnie would be alive. Again, I have to force myself to stop with what ifs and questions as I get up and wake everyone else. I don’t wake up Esther, though, I let Elizabeth do that. I think she wants to talk to me or even look at me.
Then, together all drowsy and tired from lack of sleep, we gather our belongings while we wait for the rain to stop. It soon does and we begin our walk east, making a new way towards Rustbend, a town known for its relatively shady dealing and lack of active Hunters. I asked Earl if this meant that it was unprotected and he said not at all.
Rustbend has a bevy of inactive Hunters, possible Outlaws, and other powerful figures. This comes from it being a frontier town but not one within Tornridge Territory. Apparently, despite Tornridge being human lands, few Hunters, Outlaws, or other Sigiled ever enter it. I'm sure that's my father at work. Rustbend, though, is the closest large settlement to Tornridgge, and it’s also a fairly large settlement, more fitting to be called a burge or small city. A few thousand live there.
While we walk, Earl goes on and on about how the weather there should be similar, but probably even worse as it rests within the Bonedune territory. Even Colder, sandier, and dustier from where we are now, great. The Andreis forest, near where I used to live, is the only forest larger than a thousand acres within two hundred miles.
Elizabeth asks Earl many more questions about where we are headed while we walk and she tries to get Esther to ask him some as well. So, for the next two hours, as we hike through the dusty lands, Earl goes on and on about a bunch of nonsensical herbs, spices, and minerals that are found in these areas.
Eventually, I get tired of the forced learning and move to the side a bit away. Where I can still clearly see them but can just barely hear them. And I begin to practice. I rehearse using my Ether, again and again, trying to speed up the activation of things like Chain Eyes, and the new ability I learned, that Leonard in his infinite wisdom jokingly referred to as Holler. Which of course, much to my chagrin, stuck. The name made Earl, Elizabeth, and even Esther laugh due to its simplicity. So, now that’s what I call it as it's stuck in my mind as that.
The other thing I try is a new idea that came about while I was thinking about the trip into Harmony Town on the moving wagon in the dreary rain. How the Bakwas moved primarily by using their hands and fingers to push them forwards. Now, I’m not as light as them, so, I likely can’t do it to the same degree as them, but if I can enhance my arms, hands, and fingers enough with Ether, maybe it can help me move.
Not just that, but Edmund also moved in a similar way when he was bolstered by my blood. On all fours, he raced after and attacked Alexos. It might not have been enough to kill him, but it certainly was faster and stronger than when Edmund was on fours. I need to be more unpredictable and snappy in my movements like the Bakwas and Edmund.
Taking from an old lesson that my Ma once told me about my father. How when he was in the wild, he would learn from everything he fought. If a creature could hide better than him, he would try and learn how it did it. If something was faster than him, he would try and learn how it moved. If something was stronger than him, then he’d train until he was stronger.
I think I need to do the same. I’m quite limited in the ways I can use Ether. My entire lower body from my ribs down is unable to withstand any amount of Ether without severely affecting my whole nervous system. So, I need to be creative and flexible in my ways. Thankfully, the recent event where I blew Ether out of my palm like a shotgun spitting out pellets helped my case by forcefully acclimating most of my right wrist, palm, and two of my fingers to the Ether I sent through it.
Doing that again and again until I fully recover is something I’d like to do, but the situation demands otherwise. I can’t just let them carry me for hours on end as my entire body goes into shock. Instead, I will have to do it slowly and steadily. Acclimating a bit at a time as I fall asleep.
So, anyway, that’s enough pandering. Time to do. The idea is to move using my hands and fingers. I crouch down into a mailman running start, the kind they use when they have to run from town to town and stretch their legs first. The normal part of their start is one leg behind me stabilizing my body, one leg underneath ready to push me forwards. Then, I switch it up a bit to use my arms as well.
I put my right arm in front of me to use as a spring whenever I push off with my leg. Then for now as my left arm is not treated yet for my Ether saturation, I just let it hang, but in the future, it will do the same as my right.
I start the flow of Ether into my right arm, being careful to only reach the area that is unclogged and capable of supporting more Ether. Once I am confident in the path the Ether flows won’t make my acute Ether saturation act up, I ramp up the flow and volume. Just enough so that I really feel the strength boost.
Then, I shake my legs and arms to get ready as I look at my target to race to. The group of Leonard, Elizabeth, Earl, and Esther is getting pretty far from me. So, I need to catch up and the best way is to test this out.
I take a deep breath and then all in one smooth motion guided by the precision given to me by my Sigil, I burst up and forwards. My legs push me upwards and make me advance while my right arm lands on the ground, similar to a paddle in water, slams the surface of the sandy ground, and sends me forwards even faster.
Rapidly, I reach the group while I feel the wind rushing past me. They turn, probably surprised by the sounds of dust kicking up, and see me approach swiftly. I’m not as fast as when I just used Physical Strengthening, but this can be more versatile. Like the next time I get shot in the ankle or my achilles tendon cut, I can do this and not lose as much speed.
Once I arrive right in front of the group, I see Earl raise his hands as if to tell me to stop. I quickly try to stop and slow down as I never thought about that. I hold my arm out in front of me to stop and all that does is use it as a pole to leverage me up and over my outstretched arm. I go rolling head over heels at the rest of the group who was just walking away burdened by their backpacks.
It’s much harder to stop running that way.
I think I’ll call it the Bloodhound’s Step. After how Edmund moved in the fight against Alexos, was low and unpredictable. I hope I can develop it further, to honor him.
My inner thoughts and deep contemplation are broken by laughter and Elizabeth cursing at me.
I turn to the sound of beating footsteps, but unlike the horses, I’m used to the footsteps repeat in triplets, not quartets. And what surprises me is what is making the dreadful noise. It’s Wyatt. The crazy kid who is, I can only assume, practicing his Hunter’s skills and running towards us at terrifying speeds. Just as he nears us, I begin to worry because he’s not slowing down.
My worries are brought to fruition as Earl raises his arms to shield himself, and Wyatt attempts to stop but just goes flying face-first into our crowd of people. I fall backward and onto Leonard who was in front of me and together we all just fall into one big dust pile.
The hilarity of it all and the contrast with what happened just a few hours ago makes me laugh. And then once I start, everyone else joins. For the first time in a while, we all have fun together, even Wyatt.
Someone, I think it was Earl, to be honest, who pushes Wyatt into the mud in faux anger while we’re all in one big pile. This creates a battle of mud, dust, and dirt as Wyatt retaliates. We throw dust and dirt at each other, sometimes still wet mud, just having fun goofing around. It's a distraction we all sorely need after Lonnie's recent passing. All of us quiet and shrunk it because of it. Earl has even been asking less questions as we walk and talking less. Esther especially needs this as even she joins in and throws some mud at Wyatt, who she tends to focus on instead of anyone else.
But the boy is fast and is rarely hit with balls of mud or splashes of sand. I think he’s even using this as training and practice because of how weird his movement is. He looks like a startled deer when he moves like that, certainly works though. He really tries so hard to help protect us. I feel so bad that he keeps failing to help. First with his teacher and now with us losing Lonnie. I just don’t know how to comfort him. I can’t tell him everything will be alright when he is the one we depend on for that. Especially when I was hurt by Lonnie’s disappearance too. Not quite like the infinite void in Esther’s heart, but still a void. I had been taking care of him and Esther for a while now.
It hurts deep down not seeing Lonnie as we walk. He and Esther are pretty quiet kids, but they do get energetic and love to play around. Some of my favorite moments are playing games with them as we travel. Now a huge gap exists without Lonnie. And it's obvious to me how much the death of him weighs upon Wyatt.
And sure, sometimes we can step up and help reduce his burden like when I drug him to the wagon, but the majority of the time it’s him who acts. It’s him who killed the wolves, it’s him who hunted for us, it’s him who found those foxes, who are extremely cute and help our sanity to play with, and it’s him who woke us up and fought for us in Harmony Town. I could cook him food or take him to a play, but we aren’t in a place where I can cook a great meal or a town where we can enjoy a raucous theater.
I just wish I could do more for him. Because he’s almost always gloomy. Even while we throw mud at each other in the Bonedunes, he’s still got a grumpy look on his face. Only alleviated for a brief moment when he makes a successful dodge. Like that’s the only time he lets himself be happy. When he’s improving in some way.
That, and how he looked at me when I fell off the wagon, there was only confusion, no hate, made my heart flutter. Surely he knew that the Nain Rouge targeted me? No wagon just as part of its seat break out of nowhere. Maybe he wouldn’t judge me if I told him? Of course, he would. Anyone would judge someone who was raped and then killed their rapist. My family sure did.