-Innocent whistling-. Thanks as always to silver for being my beta, and a little bird told me that it might be a good idea to check back this time next week. I dunno why. But anyhow, enjoy!
"Is Nebris always this cryptic with you, too?" Seth asked. He and Guude trudged through the thick jungle, the midday sun barely peeking between small breaks in the thick canopy above. This was their fifth day of walking since Nebris has left them with his vague instructions. While the walk itself wasn't particularly difficult, the tension back at the compound had been weighing on both of their minds and had made the past few days particularly arduous.
"Yup," said Guude. "When I first met him he wouldn't tell me his name for nearly a week. I was sure he was ready to start speaking in outright riddles by the time I managed to get it out of him."
"Really," said Seth, looking down at his compass for what was probably the tenth time that hour.
"Really. Even before the darn guy was trouble, he was a real pain in the arse."
Even with his limited interaction with the purple-eyed man, Seth could imagine that. In all contexts, Nebris was quite the character. It wasn't hard to imagine that Nebris might actually enjoy all the attention his state of being had brought about him. If only his suave façade could dig himself out of the mess he'd managed to get himself into.
"What do you think's gonna happen to him?" Seth asked. The thought had been lingering in his mind since the beginning of the trip. The things he'd overheard Etho say hadn't exactly bolstered his confidence.
Guude’s reluctantly fond nostalgia gave way to a slight frown. This had clearly been bothering him too. "I'm not sure," he said. "It's a process we haven't put much thought into before, but we're set to put him on trial when we get back. I just hope the stupid fucker doesn't try to make a run for it again while we're gone. I've given the others kill on sight orders for if he tries. Honestly, I'm starting to think I may have misplaced my trust in him." He kicked at the dirt and greenery beneath his feet with a grunt of frustration.
"Yeah… Why would he send us out here? It doesn't make sense," said Seth.
"He's up to something. I can feel it."
"Should we have even gone out here, then?' Seth gave Guude a questioning look, a new hesitance in his step.
"No, no. I still trust him—for now. Gut feeling, you know."
"Gut feeling? Is that why you trust me so much?" asked Seth.
"Yup," Guude answered without hesitation. "Since the very first moment I saw you, I felt like trusting you was the right thing to do."
Seth eyed him thoughtfully. "Maybe you trust a little too much," he said mostly to himself.
The two continued on in silence, moving further into the jungle. Under the brief refuge of daylight, they remained undisturbed. Seth was glad for the peace. When they had made camp the previous night, monsters swarmed upon their makeshift hut. The creaks and groans of decayed bodies set both men on edge. Sleep had not come easy that night and Seth could feel threads of tiredness pulling at his limbs. This was a journey he hoped to finish swiftly.
As much as Seth wanted to believe Nebris—wanted to believe that he was leading them to answers—doubt lingered in his mind. The nightman had shown him a portal nothing like obsidian structure the group had ventured to before. The shimmering surface seemed to peer into the dark sky of a world not unlike their own. But the nightman had also shown him an endless void pinpricked with dull static as if the very sky was threatening to tear apart and reveal itself to be façade—a curtain waiting to be lifted. Seth knew not what was on the other side, and that is where the fear set in
Suspicions about Nebris’ trustworthiness not yet put to rest, the jungle finally opened up into a clearing where Seth spotted a lone cobble pillar rising from the earth. Three days north, two days east, exactly as described. The sight did nothing to soothe his doubts and the unpleasant sensation that he felt in his gut left him reluctant to follow Nebris' instructions any further. "You feel that?" he asked Guude, who had come up behind him.
"Feel what?" said Guude.
"That- that nothing, never mind." The sensation was almost magnetic, an insistent tug localized just behind his navel. Guude side-eyed him as he passed but made no comment, shrugging off the question.
Pulling out their tools, the two went to work.
Nearly fifty blocks deep, virgin stone turned to deliberately carved rock and the magnetic pull was only getting stronger. Seth waved Guude over and cracked apart the stone. The air was thick and the darkness smothering. Guude laid down a torch that sputtered and threaten to die, and the darkness opened up to a long corridor. Moss leeched between cracks in the stone brick and bits of floor crumbled at the edges of an exposed cave. Seth coughed into the musty air, dust spiralling away from his exhalations in the flickering torchlight. The place reeked of danger.
"Can we go back now?" he asked, only half-joking.
Guude held a finger to his lips, a hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Something creaked in the darkness behind them.
In a bold collision of instinct and ungainly skill, Seth turned, sword drawn from his hip. With a hard thunk, the arrow bounced against his iron chest plate. Seth grimaced at the dent and the inevitable bruise left behind.
"And that is why I trust you," Guude announced.
Seth turned to see Guude's bare neck positioned exactly where the arrow would have hit home. "Thanks, I guess," said Seth, turning back towards the skeleton. It had already readied another arrow to fire. This time, Seth was prepared. Upon hearing Guude’s scramble for cover, Seth twisted into a dodge as the skeleton let its arrow fly, leaving it defenceless against Seth’s swift retaliation. He watched with pride as the skeleton's remains turned to dust. BTC had taught him well.
The threat taken care of, Seth turned back to the lit end of the corridor. Now undistracted, the pull in his gut was nearly unbearable. He took an unconscious step towards the archway at the end of the room. A small set of steps hid what lay beyond, but he was certain they had found it, whatever it was Nebris had meant for them to find.
He found himself approaching, Guude trailing just behind. One step, two steps. He looked over the edge.
Stars and darkness...
~ ~ ~
"Left, right, duck, then come across the one o'clock," BTC explained, demonstrating each move as he did.
Seth mimicked the moves, his feet kicking up dust as he circled BTC. Each strike was met with a swift but unaggressive block and the movements flowed near-seamlessly. Finishing the set, Seth returned his sword to the scabbard at his hip and gave a mock curtsey. "How about that?" he said with a grin.
"Still a little slow on that duck, but you're getting there. If you keep going like this you might actually be able to spar me without getting your ass kicked."
"I don't know, man. I think you might be the one getting the arse kicking by now," said Seth. He swatted BTC's arm as he passed, heading back towards the training shed.
"You, me, one on one? You up for the challenge?"
Seth turned back, face alight with a playful grin. "Nah. Don't wanna get my hands dirty, you know," he said, holding up two rather dirty hands. "Seriously, though, I'm absolutely beat. Another time, though, definitely."
Wiping the sweat from his brow, BTC followed Seth into the shack and began peeling off his armour. After placing his armour back on its stand, BTC sat down on one of the benches and invited Seth to join him. "I'm serious, you know, about you having potential," he said.
Seth noted his sobered expression and sat up a little straighter. "Yeah?" he probed.
"Yeah," BTC agreed. "Actually, I know I've sort of suggested this before but I really would like you to join us when we leave.
"When," Seth said, with a hint of disappointment.
"What happens tonight is going to be the big decider, but hear me out," BTC began.
Terms of the trial had spread through the compound like wildfire. It came down to two sides: those who believed Nebris was a serious threat to the community's safety and should be put to death in the best interests of the majority, and those who thought Nebris should be punished but didn’t believe in such extreme measures. BTC and his following had made it clear that they were with the former. They had handed Guude their ultimatum the moment he and Seth had returned.
Seth had heard most of this spiel several times before. Still, he listened patiently.
"Guude, he's chasing after a pipe dream. You saw what happened with the obsidian portal. What are the chances that this other portal is just the same—a false hope. And Pyro, we have no idea what's going on with him but ever since the portal, he's been getting worse and worse. You yourself nearly got blown to pieces in there. There's no telling what new dangers we'll find in this new portal. We need to accept that his place is our home now and stop chasing after a 'before' that may have never even been."
"And sitting here and doing nothing is the solution to that?"
“I don't know. Maybe. My point is that we need to focus on these mobs that keep fucking us over every time we leave this fenced-in cage. And Nebris? Do you trust him too?"
"No, I don't trust him," snapped Seth. His expression softened as he considered his declaration. Did he trust Nebris? Not in principle, but he was still chasing after Nebris' portal, wasn't he? They didn't know how or why Nebris knew of it. "Guude trusts him and I trust Guude."
"Guude doesn't trust Nebris. Nebris never came back from his encounter with that nightman. Whoever this is, it's not Nebris. Come with us, Seth, we could use a guy like you."
Even with his doubts, Seth couldn't budge. This idea of home—the portal—called to him. He knew, deep down, that that was what he had to do. Nebris' trickery or not, he needed to find out the truth, one way or another. "I'm sorry, BTC, but I belong here, and I want to make it back."
"Wanting won't make it real, but if that's your decision then I can only wish you well," said BTC. He stood and walked out of the shack, not once looking back.
Seth sighed and rested his head in his hands. He wondered if he really was making the right choice, but there was no turning back now. For better or for worse.
~ ~ ~
That day at sundown, the group gathered among the seats of the town hall. For once during a 'town meeting', silence filled the ranks of seats that circled around the central podium. Shadows cast by flickering torchlight arched up towards the high dome ceiling where darkness gathered at its highest point. It filled the space with an almost tangible sense of foreboding. Seth sat front and centre, ready to stand and testify as a witness during their quasi-trial.
He looked over his shoulder to see the room divided. Most notably, BTC, Millbee, Zisteau, Mhykol, and MC to his right, and Bdubs, Pause, Beef, and a very stricken-looking Pyro to his left. Etho sat with him at the front, ready to testify as witness. At the very front, stood stiffly behind the podium, was Guude: appointed judge, jury, and executioner for the night,
Guude raised a hand—an unneeded gesture to call silence upon the group. At the back of the hall, the large doors banged shut and two sets of footsteps made their way to the centre of the room. Generik, dressed in gleaming iron armour and armed with a menacing diamond sword, led Nebris to the podium. Seth watched as Generik released Nebris with a hard shove and took place among the group to his right.
Nebris rubbed at his wrists, and for the first time that Seth had seen, no longer carried his confident demeanour. The violet-eyed man locked eyes with Seth and flashed him a knowing smirk before returning to his previous state of apparent defeat.
Once Nebris and Generik had settled into place, Guude tapped a carved stick against the podium, signalling the beginning of the proceeding. "Members of the compound," he began, voice booming through the hall, "today we call forth Nebris to stand before the eyes of justice and plead his case against the accusations cast upon him: attempted escape from just imprisonment as instated by the community, assault against his fellow residents, and treason against the community's greater good. Nebris, do you acknowledge these accusations and their possible consequences?”
Nebris swallowed visibly. "I do," he said, voice soft and uncertain.
"Do you swear upon your own life to speak the truth and nothing but?”
"I swear upon my own life to speak the truth and nothing but."
"Then I shall call upon Etho and Seth to attest to the events that took place preceding your indictment."
First Seth, then Etho took their places upon the podium to swear an oath of truth and recount the events of Nebris' escape. As Etho spoke his oath of truth, he glanced at Seth, expression conflicted. Seth gave him a single nod. He understood well enough. No-one would hold the result of the proceedings against either of them.
Next, various people from each side of the room were called forward to argue for and against the severity of his crimes. His guilt was unquestionable. It was punishment that they were deciding upon tonight. Nebris remained silent the entire time, standing still and proud despite his weary expression. Guude watched in quiet consideration, speaking only to direct the proceeding.
Pause took the podium, his usual cheerful humour replaced with stern determination. "No man within and beyond this fence deserves to face death. Everyone deserves a chance to atone for their mistakes and make peace with those they have harmed. Peace cannot be made, and deeds atoned in death. Yes, I believe Nebris should be punished, but not to such an extreme," he began. He spoke clearly and with a sense of authority. No-one dared to interrupt. Pause was many things: a joker, a friend, and a fighter but above all else, he was loyal. There was doubt about where his loyalty stood.
Seth didn't know much about Nebris' relationships with those who stood to defend him, but it was clear that they cared a lot. He admired that. And while he lacked a strong bond with Nebris himself, he believed their cause was right. The logic followed through and for all his doubts, there was no arguing with that.
Those who stood for Nebris' execution spoke just as strongly. Clear-cut points about Nebris' past actions and the safety of the compound sliced through the air. In a sense, they were right too. Given Nebris' actions, they had no reason to believe he wouldn't do it again. Nebris had made no apologies for the harm that he had caused and no promises for the future. His silence was deafening. It was as if he believed the things he'd say would have no effect on those who listened.
When Guude called a recess upon the meeting to discuss with a neutral party, the air was sallow with defeat. As Guude and Kurt began to leave, Nebris voice rang across the hall, breaking his self-imposed silence for the first time during the proceedings. "The worst thing you could do is leave me behind," he said.
Guude turned, expression unreadable. He nodded once and left in silence, the door closing with an audible slam.
~ ~ ~