Bonnie is dead.
Jo can see her body where it had fallen, not far from where Jo themself had been dragged off their horse and laid down in the dust. The grey, weathered wolf is gone, banished by the silver bullet Alice had buried between her eyes, but the dwarf woman with the close-cropped silvery hair remains.
Slowly struggling upright, Jo stares at Bonnie. Though her eyes are empty and glassy, Bonnie’s face is still full of the same savage rage and blind hatred that had twisted her features when she’d first seen Jo.
It’s hard for Jo to meet that baleful gaze. But looking away isn’t an option anymore.
“... Does it make me a bad person,” they ask quietly, “if — if I’m glad I weren’t the one to pull the trigger?”
Charley considers it, his face solemn but sympathetic. “I don’t think you are.”
Alice hums in agreement. “It’s a difficult thing, any which way,” she says. She reaches out and lightly squeezes Jo’s arm: the one Bonnie hadn’t nearly torn out of its socket. “But I’m glad I could do that for you.”
Jo swallows. But you two have already done so much for me, they think. What have I ever done to help you?
When have I ever brought down anythin’ but harm on you?
They’re still staring at Bonnie. Jo blinks furiously, rubbing at the dirt and blood clouding their vision, but when they open their eyes to the unforgiving noonday sun once again, Bonnie is still glaring back.
“The herbs you asked for.” A dwarven woman with close-cropped silvery hair emerges at the edge of Jo’s swimming vision, holding out a basket. Despite the pile of furs Jo is buried in, the woman’s heavily tattooed arms are bared to the cold air. “You’re lucky I was able to find half of these, Moriah.”
“You’re the tracker.” The tiefling woman — Moriah, Jo guesses, although it’s hard to link faces with names in their current haze — comes into view. She takes the basket and sifts through its contents. “A little frost shouldn’t be any great obstacle to finding a few plants.”
“It’s not the findin’ that’s the issue. It’s the harvestin’.” Crossing her arms, the dwarven woman glances down at Jo; her gaze is searching and keen, but not unkind. “In any case, that should be enough to help with the fever.”
Jo wets their cracked lips, trying in vain to form words amid the rush of gratitude dizzying them even further. “Thank — thank you,” they finally manage.
Now Moriah looks down, her haughty expression almost surprised. “Well,” she remarks. “Look who’s finally coherent.”
The dwarven woman throws back her head and howls with laughter. “Anyone ever told you your bedside manner is shit?”
“Not if they want to live,” Moriah says darkly.
Still chuckling, the dwarven woman crouches down next to where Jo is lying. “Don’t mind her,” she says. “An’ you’re welcome.” Up close, she’s younger than Jo had thought, the lines around her mouth more from laughter than from age. “What’s your name?”
“Um —” It hurts to speak with their throat still so dry, but Jo does their best. “Jo.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Jo. I’m Bonnie.” Bonnie smiles down at them, the lines on her face deepening. “Don’t you worry. We’ll take care of you.”
Bonnie’s body is the last to be searched.
Jo had avoided it — her — what was once her — in favor of helping Charley search the cart and squirreling away the bullets Alice salvaged from the other bandits’ rifles. But although neither Alice nor Charley had turned their attention to Bonnie, it was plain that both of them had noticed how Jo was dragging their heels.
Alice looks over at them. “Do you... want me to do it?” she asks carefully.
Jo scrapes back their blood-matted hair before realizing too late they’d just dirtied the bandage Alice had wrapped around their hand earlier. “No,” they say. “I — I should be the one.”
Turning away from the ransacked cart, Jo half-kneels, half-falls to their knees besides Bonnie. Jo turns the body over as best as they can, gritting their teeth against the pain shooting up their mauled arm. Then, jaw still clenched, they peel the dusty, bullet-ridden coat away from Bonnie’s bloody, sweaty shirt and begin their search.
A deck of well-thumbed playing cards. A handful of creased dollars. A dagger with the open maw of a wolf — a far too familiar symbol — carved into the handle. One by one, Jo gingerly retrieves each item and lays them out besides Bonnie’s body.
The last item is a battered, bulging notebook, tucked inside a pocket sewn into the coat’s lining. Two envelopes stick out of the pages.
Chest tightening, Jo flips through the notebook — through pages of flora and fauna diagrammed more practically than prettily, with extensive notes on the properties of each — to the pages where the envelopes are stuck. Both letters fall out, fluttering to the dusty ground.
One is postmarked from Christa Addad at Cornil Factories. The other has no address and a single name: Deborah.
All of Jo’s hard-won breath leaves their lungs in an instant. “Fuck.”
Alice is at their side almost immediately. “What is it?”
Barely hearing her, Jo tears open Christa’s letter. It’s not even a letter: just a map of the stretch of land between Cornil Factories and Silverton, with the shipment’s route highlighted in ink as red as blood.
“Jo?” Charley joins them, his brow furrowed in alarm.
Jo just holds the map up to him. “You were right to suspect her,” they say, unable to keep the harshness out of their voice. But dammit, why couldn’t we have figured this out sooner?
Eyes wide, Charley takes the map. Alice darts over and peers around his shoulder to examine it with him, her eyes narrowing as she realizes what she’s looking at.
The other envelope is still in Jo’s hands. Inhaling shakily, Jo opens it and draws out the letter within. The message is short, but the handwriting, as expected, is horribly familiar.
Jo was spotted in Silverton, along with a few others. Things are looking up. This partnership was a good move for us. Go about your business, then meet up where we said.
Bonnie: do not kill Jo.
Jo reads it again, then a third time, their hands stiff and their head reeling more and more every minute. They were looking for me, they think numbly. This whole time — the whole year since I ran. Whatever they’re doing with De La’Coen… that don’t matter as much as — as —
Findin’ me? Killin’ me? Swallowing, Jo folds the letter and tucks it inside one of the less blood-soaked pockets of their jacket. But does Deb — Deborah still want me dead? Or was the only reason she told Bonnie that is because she wants to kill me herself?
Jo can feel Alice and Charley both looking at them again, their concerned eyes searing their scarred skin. Whatever the semantics of Deborah’s letter, those didn’t matter as much as its consequences. As the lives of her friends, as the lives of those employees of Cornil Factories who would have — who did —
Jo squeezes their suddenly burning eyes shut. Stop that, they try to tell themself. You saved them. You put your body between them an’ Bonnie, an’ you paid a terrible price for it, but you saved them. That has to be worth somethin’.
Still, Jo knows, deep in their churning gut, that none of them — Alice, Charley, Beth, Ron — would have been targets in the first place were it not for them.
“For such a crack shot, you can’t throw a punch to save your life.” Warner grabs Jo’s fist out of the air with ease, holding it inches away from his already-broken nose and wolfish grin. “At least not a second one.”
“Well, now you know why I’m so much better at fightin’ at a distance.” Jo wrenches their fist out of Warner’s grip, shaking out their suddenly aching fingers. “Besides, only idiots or folks with muscle to throw around run into a fight head-on.”
“That right?” Warner shifts back into a fighting stance, grin widening. “Which one am I, then?”
“Ain’t it obvious?” Bonnie’s dry voice floats over from the edge of the clearing the Hunt claimed as its training grounds. “What were you thinkin’, sparrin’ with someone who jus’ got done with bed rest not a week ago?”
Warner holds up his hands. “Hey, don’t blame me for Jo being bored out of their skull. Just wanted to help get them back on their feet.”
“Well, you can do that without beatin’ them black and blue all over again.” Planting both hands on her hips, Bonnie turns her attention to Jo. “Want to take a walk with me? I can promise gatherin’ herbs for Moriah is less painful than tryin’ to beat Warner in a fight.”
Jo looks between them, then shrugs. “Sure.” Grabbing their coat and scarf from where they’d tossed them on the ground earlier, they flash a wry smile at Warner. “Another time.”
“Coward,” Warner accuses, but there’s no bite to his tone. “You’ll never win if you just keep runnin’ away.”
Jo just laughs, pulling their coat on over their thin shirt and wrapping their scarf around their neck. “I prefer to think of it as a tactical retreat.” They hurry to join Bonnie, the frozen ground crunching under their boots. “Jus’ you wait, Warner. One of these days, I’ll get that second punch.”
Warner snorts, still grinning. “That’ll be the day.”
Bonnie rolls her eyes. “If you two are done with all the bullshit, Jo an’ I will be off now.” She loops her arm around Jo’s waist, guiding them away from the clearing. “See you around, Warner.”
“Not if I see you first!” Warner calls back.
Bonnie lets out a chuckle at that, but she quickly sobers as she and Jo get further from the clearing. “Seriously, Jo: if Deb knew, she’d be out of her mind,” she says. “Yeah, Warner should know better, but you shouldn’t encourage him, either.”
Jo swallows. “Probably.” They look down at her, worry suddenly twisting their stomach. “You… you won’t tell her, right?”
“‘Course I won’t,” Bonnie says. “Deb…” She sighs. “She looks out for all of us; it’s what makes her a good leader. But she loves you, an’ that — that makes things different.” She shrugs. “Still. If you’re goin’ to get back on your feet an’ run with the Hunt someday, fightin’ is somethin’ you’re goin’ to have to do.”
Jo nods, throat tightening.
“Although honestly,” Bonnie adds lightly, “I’m less surprised to see you up an’ about an’ more surprised that Warner, of all people, is warmin’ up to you.”
Despite their trepidation, Jo finds themself laughing. “If throwin’ punches at each other counts as ‘warmin’ up.’”
“With him, it does,” Bonnie says with a grin. “I dare say that you, Jo Raab, are gettin’ pretty popular around here.”
“I wouldn’t say that just yet,” Jo demurs, although despite the cold air, they can feel themself flush. “Whenever Moriah can be bothered to acknowledge my existence any time other than when she’s changin’ my bandages, she still looks like she smells somethin’ rotten.”
“Don’t take it personal. She’s always been bitterer than wormwood.” Bonnie glances up at her. “Maybe ask her to teach you a spell or two,” she suggests. “If there’s one thing that makes Moriah happy, it’s tellin’ someone exactly how somethin’ should be done.”
Jo stops dead in their tracks. “You — you know I can use magic?” they ask, dumbfounded.
For a moment, Bonnie almost looks surprised, then she smiles. “Lucky guess.” She tilts her head, considering Jo. “It’s your hands, you know? Thin wrists, long palms, quick fingers: perfect for that magic stuff.” She holds up her hands for comparison, wiggling what fingers she has left. “Most delicate task these nubs of mine can manage is clipping herbs,” she adds jokingly.
Jo just stares at her, something like hope beating against their ribs. “That — that might be nice,” they admit. “I, uh… I’ve never been taught. Never been —” They swallow. “Never had the means to be ‘authorized’ by anyone.”
“Well, why do you think we’re outlaws?” Bonnie laughs, grasping Jo’s hands in hers. “You don’t need the government, or the academies, or the Church to tell you what to do with your magic, your life.” She looks up at Jo, utterly earnest now. “All you need, Jo, is us.”
Even in the chaos of battle, even with how badly Jo had been battered and clawed, the mechanical mouse in their chest pocket is miraculously intact. Seeing it clamber out and into their waiting hand, as nimble as ever, is a winsome enough sight to almost take Jo’s mind off the call they’re about to make.
Biting down on their lip, Jo presses the button on the mouse’s stomach and waits. It takes only a few seconds for the mechanical mouse to sit up on its haunches, its crystal eyes lighting up and its mouth dropping open.
“Hello?” Jo tries; their voice is still so small, so hoarse. “Hello?”
A cool, measured voice speaks through the mouse’s mouth. “To whom am I speaking?”
“Jo. It’s Jo.” Jo cups the mechanical mouse in both of their hands, shifting the weight of it over to the unbandaged one. “Anne, is that — it’s you, right?”
A pause. “Yes,” Anne says. There’s a note in her voice that could be either condescension or concern: not that Jo could tell one from the other if they were meeting face to face — or face to mask. “What’s going on?”
Jo sighs, shaking their head slightly. Maybe being batted around by Bonnie had knocked more things loose than they’d thought. “We’re on our way back to Silverton,” they say. “But — but we ran into some trouble.”
This time, Jo can almost hear Anne’s frown. “What do you mean?”
“That job — the one we told you we’d have to take a detour for — the shipment we were guardin’... the Hunt attacked it.” Jo can feel their throat tightening again just thinking about it. “We killed —” Bonnie; we killed Bonnie “— we killed them, but I — I’m —” They swallow. “I’m infected,” they whisper. “She bit me. Infected me. With — with lycanthropy.”
Silence. All Jo hears is the pounding of their heart as it slowly, inexorably pumps cursed blood through their broken body.
“Anne, please,” Jo begs. “Please help me; you’ve got to help me. I — I don’t know how you an’ Kadsbee an’ Laster handled the High Reverend when Deb — when Deborah attacked him, but —” They’re struggling to breathe now, their vision swimming. “If you could cure him, you can cure me, right? You — you’d do that?”
Still more silence. Then: “That’s what you want?” Anne asks. “To be cured?”
“Yes.” The word comes out as a choked cry. “I — I don’t want to be like this; they wanted this for me, but I never wanted this.” It’s all spilling out of them now, like the hot, stinging tears coursing down Jo’s face. “I’ve been runnin’ from it, from them, for so long, but they still — an’ I don’t want to be like them —”
“Jo.” Anne’s calm voice cuts clean through Jo’s panic.
Jo stops, a sob catching in their throat.
“Once you get back to Silverton, go to Kadsbee’s house and stay there,” Anne says evenly. “They can help you in the short term. We can figure out the situation from there.”
Jo exhales shakily. “Thank you,” they manage. “Oh, thank you, Anne, thank you —” They sniff, wiping at their face with their bandaged hand. “I — I owe you one. Probably more than one.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” Anne says darkly. She pauses. “I… understand you’ve been through a traumatic event today, so you don’t have to answer me now. But I do have questions.”
Jo freezes. “What — about what?” they ask haltingly.
Another pause. “The Wild Hunt,” Anne says. “You seemed forthcoming enough about what you knew of them in your interview with Kadsbee… but in light of recent events, I’m concerned you didn’t tell us everything.” Her even voice has an edge to it now. “Why are they so intent on pursuing you? And do they pose a threat to the Mages of the New Dawn?”
Jo inhales unsteadily. Neither of those answers were going to be ones that Anne would be pleased to hear: especially since they were inextricably linked.
“They want me.” Their voice is quiet and cracked with shame. “I don’t know what else they want, or why they’re workin’ with De La’Coen, but — but I know they want me. Alive, not dead — not anymore.” Jo exhales harshly. “I don’t know why that is, but it — it can’t be good.”
Could that be why Deb — Deborah told Bonnie not to kill me? they wonder suddenly, a chill shooting down their spine. Did she want Bonnie to — to change me?
Or did she not want anyone else to touch me but her?
Anne doesn’t respond, but her unspoken judgment hangs heavy in the silence.
“Jus’ — jus’ let me get back to Silverton, Anne,” Jo pleads. “I’ll tell you everythin’ then, I swear. But I — I really need your help.” Their eyes start to burn again, but they soldier on. “Whatever I tell you, whatever you decide to do, jus’ promise me that. Please.”
The silence stretches on a little longer. Then: “All right.” Though Anne’s voice has lost its earlier edge, it’s still firm. “But I’m holding you to that, Jo.”
Jo nods fervently, before realizing that Anne can’t see them. “Thank you,” they whisper, their voice choked with tears. “You —”
Before they can finish their sentence, the eyes of the mechanical mouse lose their glow. The mouse sits back down in Jo’s palm, wire whiskers twitching.
Jo lets out a long, shaky breath. “You won’t regret it,” they finish. I pray you won’t.
Tucking the mechanical mouse back inside their chest pocket, Jo furiously rubs at their eyes. Then they turn and start walking back across the plain towards the wooden cart and the covered wagon.
Ron and Beth are tying off the horses that had been pulling the bandits’ cart to the back of the wagon, forming a short train. Alice and Charley are hefting the bodies, one by one, and tossing them inside the cart.
As with their search before, Bonnie’s body is the last to be dealt with. Head lolling limply out of the back of the cart, she stares at Jo, dead face still twisted with all her accusations and condemnations that she only voiced through the snarl of a wolf.
Ingrate. Coward. Traitor.
Jo can see Alice noticing their blotchy face and red eyes, but she doesn’t comment. Alice just draws her matchbook out of her jacket pocket, strikes a match, and tosses it into the wooden cart without any ceremony. With the heat of the noonday sun beating down on the desert plain, the cart catches fire almost instantly.
As the flames begin to lick at Bonnie’s hate-filled face, Jo closes their eyes and feels unbidden tears singe their cheeks once again.
“Oh, you’re freezing, sweet thing.” Deborah swoops in from behind to drape a thick fur blanket around Jo. “Wouldn’t do to have you catch cold,” she murmurs, kissing Jo’s temple before she sits on the log next to them. “Not after you’ve already recovered so beautifully.”
Whether from the warmth of the bonfire, or the blanket, or Deborah herself, Jo’s face burns. “Maybe I’m jus’ not meant for mountain livin’,” they manage, wrapping the blanket a little tighter around their shaking shoulders.
“Or maybe you just haven’t gotten used to it yet.” Deborah curls into their side, the heat of her body soaking through the blanket. “Who knows? This time next year, you could be worse than Bonnie.”
“Goin’ without sleeves doesn’t mean I don’t feel the cold,” Bonnie chimes in from her seat on the other side of the bonfire. “It just means some things —” she raises a bare arm and flexes, her tattoos rippling “— are more important than stayin’ comfortable.”
Next to her, Warner laughs. “And here I thought Moriah was the vainest of us all for insistin’ on bathin’ once a week.”
“Well, I prefer not to stink of wet dog and forest muck,” Moriah says archly. “Unlike some others I could name —”
Smiling to themself, Jo gazes into the dancing bonfire, letting the sound of Warner and Moriah’s argument and Bonnie’s laughter fade into the crackling of the burning wood. Despite the deep, silent dark of the pine grove ringing the clearing, the last thing Jo felt right now as they basked in the glow of the Hunt’s bonfires was unsafe.
Deborah’s voice snakes into their thoughts. “Sweet thing… you will be here next year, right?” she asks. “Or have you not made up your mind yet?”
Jo swallows, shifting in their seat. “I haven’t been thinkin’ about it.”
“Well, what is there to think about?” Deborah’s soft, smooth voice is a little tighter now. “Where else would you even go?”
Jo hesitates. Going back east wasn’t an option. They’d already said their goodbyes, and to turn around and say hello like nothing had happened hardly seemed fair — because something had happened, and going home meant more than causing a little confusion. It meant inviting scrutiny and suspicion, and that would be enough to sink their prospects to rock bottom, if they hadn’t already hit.
But pressing on to West Gevance… with Breed gone and the job he’d hired them to do in ruins, it didn’t seem right to Jo for them to make it through the mountains and look upon the land that he’d wanted to see more than anything. Tanner Breed was a decent man, and he deserved better than the death he got.
Jo can’t say the same about themself.
“I… I don’t know,” they finally admit, a lump rising in their throat. “I don’t have anywhere. Or anyone.”
“Oh, sweet thing, that’s not true.” Propping her chin on Jo’s shoulder, Deborah runs her fingers up the back of Jo’s neck and against their scalp. “You’re not alone. You have the Hunt. You have Bonnie, and Warner, and Moriah.” She presses her lips to Jo’s cheek. “And you have me.”
Smiling even as their eyes swim with sudden, thankful tears, Jo turns their head to kiss her back. “An’ you’ll have me, Deb.”
Deborah smiles back. “I’m holding you to that, sweet thing,” she says. Her maroon eyes gleam in the firelight. “So you better hold fast.”