Twenty-six – 06

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

The murmur of voices reached them before they reached the pool of light that surrounded the cookfire. Matt’s heart grew a little heavier the closer he got, his stomach folding in on itself.

I set us on this path. This was me. It didn’t matter that others had agreed with him, had decided this was a good idea to at least try. It started with him, with his idea, with his assertion.

Win or lose, succeed or fail, this is on me. No one else. Just me.

He took a deep breath before they reached the edge of the firelight, exhaling it slowly and trying to center. It was at the same time easier and harder than he thought it would be.

Eyes turned to them as he and Phelan came into the light. Everyone seemed tired, anxious. Matt couldn’t blame them for that. He felt the same way.

God, I hope we can get a little more rest before we march.

He knew they wouldn’t, though. There just wasn’t going to be that kind of time.

“Well,” he said softly. “Let’s get down to it. Are the scouts here?”

“Anselm’s bringing them,” Marin said quietly. “It won’t be long.”

Matt nodded. “Okay. Are we ready for this?”

“Never,” Cameron said, then smiled crookedly. “But that doesn’t matter. It’s a job and we have to do it. We don’t have a choice. If we don’t send a message then this shit doesn’t end. I want to send a message.”

“Me too,” Matt said, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Hard and fast. One you can’t argue with. This needs to stop and it needs to stop now. It’s been a year and I’m tired of it.”

“We all are,” Jacqueline said. “That’s why we’re all behind this. One way or another.”

“Then let’s get to work.”

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Twenty-six – 05

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

Matt shook his head. “I guess I thought it might be painful to talk about them.”

“Sometimes it is. Doesn’t mean I don’t want to. They were some of the closest friends I ever had, y’know. They were family, too.” Phelan smiled. “And like I said, some of the stunts that Cíar pulled make some of my shit looked like nothing by comparison. Then again, I never got kidnapped and got my brain scrambled, either.”

“That’s one way to put it, isn’t it?” Matt sighed. “I still—there are parts of that I can remember pretty clearly, but there are things that are all tangled up.”

“It was like that for him, too,” Phelan said. Their pace had slowed slightly, even as they drew closer to the edge of the tents and the cookfires beyond, as if neither of them were quite willing to end their conversation just yet—or perhaps they were both reluctant to go and begin the planning that awaited them once they rejoined the others. “Of course, he always kind of wondered out loud if he really wanted to remember or if it would be more than he could stand.” The ghost of a smile curved his lips. “Clearly, he remembered more than he let on, though.”

Matt heaved a sigh. “There were reasons for that.”

“Good ones,” Phelan said. “Damn good ones.” He reached over and grasped Matt’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “Your hearts are your own, Matt. It was the same with Cíar. It is what it is and will be what it will be. Never apologize for any of that.”

He took a breath. “Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.” Phelan smiled crookedly. “Come on. They’re waiting.”

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Twenty-six – 04

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

Phelan studied him for a few seconds, his brow furrowing slightly. They passed form the light of the torches nearer the wall and into the darkness between it and the tents, the cookfires. The Hunt’s camp was stirring, even at the early hour. They knew something was coming, just the same as Matt and Phelan did. They would be making ready for whatever was to come.

Of course, they’re also used to operating on short sleep and being ready for a fight, Matt reflected, then shivered slightly. How would the rest of them fare? Not as well as the Hunt, he suspected.

Though I would love to be wrong about that.

He met Phelan’s gaze, his brow furrowing. “What is it?”

“There’s more of him to you than I think you let on,” Phelan said softly. “Or maybe more than you realize. It’s hard to say either way.”

Matt shivered slightly, then shrugged. “I suppose that’s both good and bad at the same time, isn’t it?”

Phelan nodded slightly. “Aye. It is.”

“Are you hoping for one thing over another?”

Phelan smiled. “I wouldn’t say that. Cíar could be reckless when he wanted to be, when he thought it was warranted. He and his sister were very much alike—just like you and Marin are now.”

“Are we?”

He nodded. “It would be absurd of me to say that the two of you remind me of them, though. I mean—you are them, or you were, long ago. But the little things every so often—they remind me so much it aches.”

“I—I’m sorry,” Matt said, and meant it.

“It’s all right,” Phelan said. “It’s a good kind of pain.” He grinned. “Usually, anyway.”

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Twenty-six – 03

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

They walked a dozen paces in silence before Matt glanced at Phelan. “I don’t think I’m as scared as I should be.”

Phelan blinked, looking at him sidelong. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I should be terrified,” Matt said. “Instead I feel…I don’t know. Numb, almost. It’s weird. This is the first time I’ve headed out on some kind of assault like this and it should be tying me up in knots and I should be flailing around trying to figure out why I came up with this insane idea for a frontal assault but I don’t feel that way. You told me not to do a stupid thing back there, right?”

“Right.”

“You knew what I was thinking about doing.”

“Oh yeah,” Phelan said, then smiled crookedly. “I had no doubts about what you were thinking about doing, Matt. I’m glad you hadn’t done it yet. It would have been a stupid, suicidal move on the same level as the ones I usually pull and that’s not a game you want to be playing. I’m damn lucky to have survived all the shit I’ve pulled over the years.”

“Did he ever do anything like that?”

Phelan paused, his brow furrowing slightly. “Are you sure you want to know the answer to that question?”

“I asked it.”

“You did.” Phelan exhaled, straightening his shoulders slightly before nodding. “He did. A few times, actually. He would usually scare the shit out of his sister and Finn, but he never really let that phase him.”

“So it was all through his life, huh?”

Phelan nodded. “Before, during, after—there were some things becoming the Ridden Druid, having been part of the Hunt and then escaped it—there were some things that didn’t change.” He smiled crookedly. “I guess maybe some of that survived to pop back up in you but with more sense.”

Matt smiled back. “I’m not sure if I should take that as a compliment or be offended.”

Phelan shrugged. “Sometimes both is good.”

Matt laughed at that. “Yeah. Sometimes.”

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Twenty-six – 02

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

“Don’t do it.”

Matt flinched, glancing back toward the sound of Phelan’s voice. “Don’t do what?”

“Whatever it is that you’re thinking about doing.” Phelan shoved his hands deep into his pockets as he came abreast of his friend, watching him with a steady, appraising gaze. “And before you tell me that you weren’t think about doing anything stupidly dangerous, remember that you’re talking to the king of stupidly dangerous and I know that look when I see it. So whatever it is you’re thinking of doing, don’t do it.”

For a split second, he actually considered lying—denying that he’d been thinking about going alone and—

–and what? Negotiating? Trying to sneak past all the pickets and sentries that were sure to be set on Orcus’s camp and try to single-handedly kill something big and ugly?

Idiot.

Phelan clapped him on the shoulder, his fingers flexing to squeeze it gently, but firmly. “It’s usually not worth it.”

“Yeah,” Matt murmured, staring out over the field for a few seconds longer. “Doesn’t make it easier, though. Overcoming the desire to try to handle shit yourself without endangering anyone else.”

“That’s a given,” Phelan said, then smiled wryly. “I feel you there, too, but you know that as well as anyone.” He squeezed Matt’s shoulder again. “We’ll get through. Come on. They’re waiting.”

“Who is?” Matt asked.

“Pretty much everyone,” Phelan said. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”

Matt cast a last lingering glance out over the field, then nodded, turning. “Okay. Has anyone started talking?”

“Not really,” Phelan said. “But they will. Coffee’s hot. Hopefully we’ll have hammered something out by sunrise.”

“If we do, we’ll probably be on horseback by noon.”

Phelan smiled wryly. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if we weren’t picking a fight by nightfall.”

Maybe we will be, Matt thought. Maybe we will be.

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Twenty-six – 01

[This post is from Matt’s point of view.]

Matt stood near the gate, staring out at nothing, trying to calm his racing heart. There was an ache in him that he just couldn’t shake, a raw wound that he couldn’t name the cause of. Behind him, he could hear the sounds of their little village waking, of people moving from their beds to the fire. The Hunt’s encampment was busy, too, with a few more Huntsmen than normal rousing themselves in the early hours of morning, before daylight came to the world again. Everything was in motion now—everything that he had set in motion.

Still, the urge was there, though. Part of him wanted to ride out now, alone, and try to deal with matters without involving the rest of them. He knew that sending scouts had been his plan. He knew that mounting a preemptive strike had been his idea. But there was still something that tugged at the tethers of his very being that said that maybe, just maybe, he should have tried to somehow handle this alone.

How, he wasn’t certain, but something in him might have been, something buried so deep he couldn’t consciously reach it.

It was that feeling that brought him to the gate, that led him to stand between its posts and stare out across the killing fields into the night, his heart lodged in his throat and beating too fast. His warhammer was already in his hands and he couldn’t quite explain even to himself why he’d picked it up when he’d climbed out of bed an hour before, leaving Hecate fast asleep among their shared blankets. He’d been careful not to wake her.

It had been a long day for both of them, sure to get longer still before all was said and done.

He stared out into the night, swallowing hard, reaching for something he wasn’t sure he would find in the deepest recesses of his soul.

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Twenty-five – 08

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

He wouldn’t be that crazy. Thom closed his eyes for a second, wishing he didn’t feel like he was lying to himself. He—no. No, he wouldn’t.

Would he?

“When did they get in?”

His eyes snapped open at the sound of Phelan’s voice. The other man looked as if he hadn’t slept well, eyes sunken and hair standing up in every possible direction. Thom’s brow furrowed for a moment, watching Phelan settle into a spot near the fire. Jacqueline was with him, scrubbing the sleep from her own eyes.

“The scouts?” Thordin crossed his arms, frowning at the fire. “Fifteen minutes. They’re checking in with Anselm and then they’ll be here and we’ll figure out what the hell we’re doing.”

Phelan nodded slowly. “Someone’s getting the others?”

Thordin nodded. “And Matt was helping the Hunt with their horses. Shouldn’t be long.”

Thom swallowed hard. Please don’t let him be foolish. Please.

“Do you want some coffee, Phelan?” Marin asked.

“I don’t know if it’s a matter of want,” he said. “I’m pretty sure I need it at this point.”

She laughed a little. “I’m pretty sure everyone does.”

She started pouring. Thom watched her, his throat oddly tight.

Whatever we come up with has to work. It has to. I will not lose her—I won’t lose any of them.

Not today and not tomorrow. Not soon. Someday, maybe. But not soon.

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Twenty-five – 07

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

Marin glanced between the three men, frowning slightly. Thom tried not to squirm, instead fighting to keep his movements a little easier, less uncomfortable—this despite the fact that he still ached from head to toe and he knew that the fever that had come and gone for weeks was trying to come back again. He was fully aware that Marin knew that piece, too, but she tried to ignore it.

He suspected that there was a lot going on that she was trying to put out of her mind these days. He felt the same way himself—there was just too much going on, too many visions trying to make themselves known, too many futures to consider.

It was unsettling on a lot of levels that he didn’t care to think too much about.

“You think he’s gone off to do something idiotic,” Marin said suddenly, staring at Thom.

He winced. “You know your brother.”

“You’re right,” she said. “I do. I just hope that he’s exercising his better judgement.”

Thom nodded. He hoped the same thing—and hoped that Matt’s better judgement didn’t lead him to what he suspected that it could, even if it shouldn’t.

He hoped that Matt hadn’t decided to ride off alone.

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Twenty-five – 06

[This post is from Thom’s point of view.]

Thom had started to doze again after word came of the scouts’ return. Leaning back against one of the log benches, he’d closed his eyes, Marin and Lin nestled against his chest. His booted feet were almost uncomfortably warm—almost—due to their proximity to the stones bordering the fire pit, but the feeling of warmth bled through the soles and up into the rest of him, lending comfort rather than its alternative. His eyelids had been heavy, almost gritty, and he succumbed to sleep readily despite everything.

Perhaps it had been because of everything.

It was the sound of footsteps that roused him, and he cracked an eye open to see Cameron and Thordin arriving, both of them probably louder than either had intended. He studied each of them for a few seconds, then yawned and shifted slightly. Fresh pains made themselves known and he winced, trying to get comfortable again. Marin—who apparently had similarly fallen asleep—stirred as well, lifting her head from where it rested against his collarbone.

“Are the others coming?” she asked quietly.

Thordin nodded. “I thought you were making coffee.”

“Matt was going to,” she said, sitting up. As she did, Thom carefully straightened himself as well, leaning rather than slumping against the bench. “He said he forgot something, though, and he’d be back. Guess he’s still looking.”

Thom scrubbed a hand over his eyes. “Or he’s distracted.”

“Another strong possibility,” Marin admitted. She carefully handed the still-sleeping Lin over to Thom before rolling to her feet. “I’m sure he won’t be long.”

Cameron dropped down onto one of the benches, watching as Marin started the process of making a pot of coffee—the first of what was likely to be several, Thom thought. “Probably right,” Cameron murmured.

“We can hope,” Thom said quietly, cradling his son. The words tasted sour, but felt right.

He had a bad feeling that he hoped against hope was nothing.

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Twenty-five – 05

[This post is from Cameron’s point of view.]

It was colder in the hall than Cameron had honestly expected and he shivered slightly, chafing his hands over bare arms. Thordin glanced at him again, a frown creasing his forehead.

“What’s the matter with you?”

“You don’t think it’s cold?”

The question was met with a grimace and a shrug. “Colder than it was when we went to bed, sure. It’s a clear night out there.” Thordin shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He was wearing a sweatshirt, though, something Cameron hadn’t quite thought to grab when they’d left.

Too late now. Not going back—I might wake Neve. Cameron just gave a last shiver and reminded himself that soon they’d be near the fire and he wouldn’t need to worry about wanting a sweatshirt.

“You nervous?”

“About what?” Cameron asked, shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants.

“Planning this shit,” Thordin said. “What might be happening in the very near future?”

“Are you?”

Thordin shot him a grin that was half cheeky, half death’s head. “What do you think?”

“I think we’re all scared shitless and trying to pretend that we’re not,” Cameron said, then exhaled, shaking his head. “High stakes and it’s something more ballsy than anything we’ve ever thought about doing before. I think it’ll work, though. We just have to trust ourselves and each other. Whatever we come up with, it’ll work.”

“That’s some serious confidence.”

“Yeah, well.” Cameron shrugged as they stepped out into the night air, chilly enough to make his skin pucker. “That’s what we’re all playing at, right? Maybe if we’re confident enough without tipping into arrogance, we’ll pull through. Either way, we’re going to come up with a good plan. We’re going to put all of our heads together, we’re going to pool all of our collective knowledge, and we’ll figure out how to beat this bad once and for all.”

Thordin stayed silent for a few seconds, then nodded. “Those are the stakes.”

“Yeah. Yeah, they are.”

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