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Fate's Hand

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Sat Jul 02, 2022 2:49 am
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Carina says...

It was strange. They have all adjusted well the past few days, but considering all the events that happened beforehand, it felt like they should still be in shock. But Eve certainly didn't feel like that. James had that allure to him; just being with him made her feel more at home and more like herself, regardless of the time and space.

They had a world of possibility ahead of them. Eve was joking when she said that all they had to do was profess their love in front of each other whenever there was a villain around, but was it really a joke? Was that really how it was going to be? James was right. It wasn't all too bad... cliche, yes, but for once she was glad it was going in this direction.

And there was so much they hadn't discovered yet. What were the limits of their powers? Was it just love, or could it be other emotions? Did they always have to work together? What if only one of them was away or in danger? Were there are consequences to this magic?

Eve wanted to know, but they had time. Ironically, for having a newfound power of pausing time, they had a lot of it. And she was excited for it too.

Eve once thought that time was a curse. It used to be something she could control, but a responsibility she beared alone. She went as far as trying to remove her power, but even when that backfired and it left her comatosed, she found her life greatly improved.

Because time wasn't a curse after all. Not when she was with someone she deeply cared about.

And for now, she would appreciate the time she had with James and live in the present with him. She hadn't always learned to do this, but she had a lot of time to make it her everyday philosophy.

Since the two of them were still fairly wet, they stripped out of their clothes to let it airdry in the sun. They didn't really know the nuances of time-pausing - like would the sun and air allow the clothes to dry, or would that be paused too? But they decided to give it a try anyways, letting nature do its work as they sat by the edge of the water, the peaceful silence of nothing fill the air between them.

It was strange to see everything so still around them. The waterfall was still unmoving, and the air almost felt stale. There were no crickets, no wind, no rushing water, nothing. No ambient noise. Just pure silence, aside from each other.

Eve almost preferred it, since she spent a considerable amount of time observing James and memorizing every detail, but not enough time observing the auditory side of him. As the minutes ticked forward, Eve picked up a pattern to his breathing and even his movement. It was comfortably predictable, in a way.

Although she had been getting better at living more in the present, she would be lying if she said she didn't often think of the future. There was still a lot of uncertainty in the air. What was the long-term plan in Nye? Neither of them knew.

She also couldn't help but wonder about the past. Earth was only a memory to her and the others now, and she didn't have a real desire to go back since everyone she cared about was here with her now, but she still wondered what life was like over there. Did her parents wonder where she was? Were Tula and the others still looking for her? What about Hendrik and all the others? Were they all worried? She wished she could somehow send a message - like a magical note - back to them too, but that was impossible.

All of this coursed through her head while sitting closely to James. They both likely had a lot going through their minds right now. She wondered if they were sharing any of the same thoughts.

"What's running through your head?" Eve decided to ask, breaking the silence.

"A lot at the moment," he said quietly.

They sat shoulder to shoulder, and he tilted his head, resting it against hers.

"I have a lot in my mind too," she said as she rested her head against his as well. "Maybe it would put us both at ease if we think out loud."

"You first?" James asked.

Eve took a silent deep breath. "I was thinking of a lot of things... I think it stems from inevitably wondering about the future, but also wondering about the past. I think there were a lot of unresolved questions back on Earth, like if Hendrik and the others are worried, or if anyone is still looking for us."

"I've been wondering the same," James said. "Though I'm not sure worrying about it will do us much good in the long-run. I'm afraid, as far as I understand it, bringing us to Nye was irreversible. And even if we wanted to see back into what was going on back on Earth... I don't think we can."

"Yeah. You're right," she said as she snuggled a little closer to him. "I'm less worried and more curious, but ultimately, there's still nothing we can do. I still wonder, though... And not just that, but also other factors too, like the last note appearing when we needed it the most. It was awfully convenient and makes me wonder if that's the last we'll ever see of it again."

"It seemed like if was the final note," James said. "In its wording. But... I don't know. If there was another one, it'd be just as much of a surprise to me as it is you. The notes we received in the past all seemed tied to us, and our future together. Though they did prove helpful in some ways, I don't know what more they'd have to say. And honestly, I don't really want them to have anything more to say."

Eve didn't either. She would be perfectly happy living the rest of her life here on Nye. If they saw another note, she would be concerned.

It was inferred that James thought the same thing. She wondered, though...

"It's nice that we don't need notes to dictate our future together. We can decide it ourselves." She paused for a moment. "What do you think that looks like for us? Ignoring our friends and your wanted status, though."

James was quiet for a moment, clearly thinking it over.

"The most realistic course to take," he said. "Long-term, at least, would be to settle down somewhere. The wilds are an option. Though they are in the middle of the continent, there's but one road anyone dares to pass through to go north, and the rest of the land is free for the taking, as long as you don't mind fending off monsters and wild animals when necessary. If we wanted less trouble with predatory animals, we could chance a life in Ewhein, though I don't know how the harpies would feel about humans trying to settle down there. But the chances are better with harpies than goblins... though, perhaps, in light of recent events, that could change."

Eve smiled as he continued on. James was thinking out loud, but he must have put some thought into this beforehand as well. She only wished that she could offer ideas of her own, but she was still fairly limited in her knowledge.

"Wherever we do end up," he said, "I would like if we could stay there. I'm very well accustomed to life on the road, but... it would be refreshing to find a place of rest. We could build a home. A life. We would still be isolated from society, but it would be ours, and our friends would be with us. I hardly see any problems with that. Challenges, sure. But... it would be nice to have a home."

A home. Neither one of them were too familiar with the security of a long-term home, but now, it was entirely possible. There were challenges, yes, but it was still possible. Eve could add this to the growing list of things to be excited for in the future.

"It would be nice to have a home... but I know we're both unfamiliar with that idea. What does it mean to you?" she asked.

"Home?" he clarified.

"Yes. Not just a place to stay. It's more than that, as you know," she said.

"If I had to define home, and you were to allow me to be as cheesy as I wanted, I would tell you that home is wherever I'm with you," James said. "It's with the people you care about. It's not within the confines of a building."

He paused, then went on.

"That said. It is nice to have a roof over your head that you can return to every night," James said. "Soley from a practical point of view. It especially makes winters easier."

"That was pretty cheesy, but at this point, I'm embracing it," Eve said with a smile. "That's a good definition. I'd say the same thing. And from that definition alone, it seems that we do have a home."

She paused, thinking it through. Their situation still didn't feel right. There was too much uncertainty... but not just any uncertainty. Life or death uncertainty. There wasn't room for error, and just that thought alone could derail the idea of a home.

"Of course... we have to consider our situation as well," Eve continued. "So, what if there was always a looming danger ahead? Would you still classify being together as being home?"

"Does home have to be a place without trouble?" James asked.

"I don't think it's a place, per se, but more of a peace of mind. Is it a home if we don't feel at peace?"

"I feel like this isn't just a conversation about what a 'home' is anymore," James said. "You're talking about the lingering threat of my wanted status, aren't you? Or is there something else?"

Eve sighed in a defeated way, but also it was weirdly endearing that James was able to read between her words. She may have once found this annoying, but she didn't mind it so much now.

"You're right. I am worried about that. I'll always worry about you and our lingering threats," she said. "I know there's not a whole lot we can do about it now besides maximize our distance. But I still can't help but worry."

"I'm afraid that as long as I'm alive, and as long as the Moonlight Kingdom is the way it is, that's a threat we'll never be rid of," James said quietly.

She thought the same thing about the threats on Earth too. And then they all came to execute them.

"A year ago, I had come to terms with it," James said quietly. "But my circumstances were much different. I was alone, and... admittedly, didn't have any hopes for the future. I'm... sure it wouldn't surprise you if I told you I was... planning to put an end to the hunt myself."

Eve quietly reached out to take his hand and give it a gentle squeeze. He held her hand tighter in return.

She knew she didn't need to vocalize that she was glad he was alive. She was sure he knew that a thousand times and more. They could only control the present, but still, her heart ached for him, wishing he didn't have to carry all that pain by himself all those years ago.

"It's different now," he said softly. "Though, after a year of being gone, I no longer have a frame of reference for where my pursuers may be. Nor do they - so I'd imagine - have any idea where I'm at in return. It's a peculiar circumstance, but I do think it's fortunate. If we stay under the 'radar,' so to speak, we're at a great advantage. Over a year of no sightings could lead people to believe I'm dead. And for our sakes, it may be best to let them believe so."

Eve felt her stomach twist as her mind jumped to what she knew they had to discuss next. It wouldn't be an easy conversation, but it was a necessary one.

"I think it's safe to assume that, yes... But..." She sighed, sitting up straighter so she could look at him more squarely. "I don't want to dwell on the negatives too much, but I think it's important we talk about it, especially since so many are affected. What do we do if we do come across your pursuers?"

James was quiet again, this time longer than his first pause.

"How we'd react practically would be dependent on the context," James said. "If, for example, I recognized them in a town before they recognized me, we could simply turn around and flee. If they spotted me without any of us noticing and confronted us in public, we'd have to get away without using our magic. At least... as much as can be managed, with everyone re-learning what their magic can do. If I'm spotted and we're followed out into the wild--"

"James," Eve interrupted, feeling a bubble of familiar anxiety return to her chest. He was going through possibility after possibility, but she wanted to know the worst case.

Because it had happened once before, and it could happen again.

"There are a million ways to come across a bounty hunter. But what if the worst case happens? What if they capture you? What would you like us to do?" she asked, trying to keep her voice calm, but not knowing if she was doing a good job of it.

Instead of hearing James respond, there was a sudden rush of water.

The waterfall was flowing again. The wind was blowing. The sounds of nature returned.

Time had returned back to normal. The sound of silence sounded loud before, but time resuming was louder.

Eve wasn't sure if a natural length of time had passed for it to return back to normal, or if it somehow had something to do with their mood. She wasn't exactly keeping track of time, but it felt longer than ten minutes - not to mention that the timing was a bit uncanny too.

After all, she had essentially asked James what they should do if he was caught and forever separated from her and the others. That was the epitome of strong negative emotions, which was unlike the strong positive emotions that caused time to pause.

James had tilted his head away from hers, and was instead looking down into his lap, his eyes distant, and expression deeply sober.

"You know... back on Earth, when you and I were both captured," James said quietly. "But the moment they decided you were no longer useful, they tried to... get rid of you? Just like they did to Arima?"

Eve felt her heart twist up trying to remember that moment. For all of these months, she had actively tried to repress that memory and forget it. A part of her thought she did, as there were serious holes in her memory that she didn't care to remember.

"If I were to be successfully captured, and delivered all the way to King's Peak, the kingdom capital... you would not be brought with me," he said. "If the bounty hunters who captured me saw you and the others had magic, you would be reported, and hunted by mage hunters, if the bounty hunters didn't decided to deal with you themselves. Unlike me, none of you will be shown mercy. And if you were to escape the confrontation alive, even if you made it to King's Peak..."
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Carina says...

With her free hand, Eve reached out and firmly held his shoulder, twisting around so she could look at him square in the face and show that she was entirely serious and sincere. She had words she wanted to say, and she wanted to say them with the utmost sincerity.

"James. You may get captured, but I'll never stop fighting for you," she said as she solemnly met his eyes. "You may think it's hopeless, but I won't stop. You never gave up on me back then when I thought all was hopeless. I'll never give up on you either. It doesn't matter what the situation is, or how futile it sounds. I won't give up on you. I will never give up on you."

James met her eyes, and though his expression softened, it still seemed deeply conflicted.

"Eve," he said in a whisper, sad and solemn. "The only reason I'm wanted alive is so that Carter can kill me personally. If I make it to King's Peak... I can't say how long he'll keep me alive before there's no saving me anymore."

"Then we'll make sure he doesn't capture you, or that your time spent at King's Peak is kept at a minimum. James. We can freeze time, and apparently for longer times than we think." She squeezed his hand again, hoping she could at least instill a little bit of hope in him. "We've gotten out of situations like this time and time again. I believe in us. But most importantly, I believe that you're always worth saving, no matter the situation. I know you think the same for me too."

James's adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, and looked down into his lap again.

"You asked what you should do in the worst case scenario," he said softly. "I was just... telling you."

"I-- I know," Eve said, trying to swallow the fact that she had caused this line of thought. "I know. I'm sorry I asked that. I feel better knowing what could happen so that if it does happen, I know how I could prepare to prevent it. I don't want to ever entertain the worst case scenario from actually happening. I won't allow it. I don't care if it's impossible... We're not going to let that happen. Okay?"

"Okay," James echoed.

Eve felt guilty that she once again caused an unnecessary cycle of despair, but she still felt it was somewhat necessary. She wanted him to know that she was truly going to save him, no matter the cost. She needed him to know that.

James said that she was his home. It went both ways. Losing him would be losing her home, and in a way... her sense of self.

"I know you said you don't want to entertain it," James said after a pause. "But you should know... that King's Peak is one of the most fortified cities in Nye. If for any reason you had to infiltrate it, you would have to go undercover. Any accessible entryway requires documented paperwork that can only be obtained in official cities, be it in the Isles, Leterra, or Goulon. If you wanted to bypass the security around the walls, you'd have to find another way to get in. Some people have been successfully smuggled in - though caught, later. Some mages have burrowed in from underground. I haven't worked in the guard for years, but we were aware that there were probably some earth mages that came in and out, evading us. Though many were still caught with elaborate underground traps, rigged to go off when there's a certain kind of movement. Some air mages managed to scale the walls, but even air mages can't fly. Never mind transport others in the sky without notice."

He paused, but only to take in a breath.

"Paperwork can be arranged if you find a good forger, but for that, you need connections. Trustworthy connections. And though you'd easily find people with the right skills in the Outlands, it's far more difficult to find the latter. And this is all just to get inside the city walls. Not the palace. Or the prisons. Or the facility where people are held before their execution."

Eve silently listened to everything James had to say, making sure to remember every detail. She was unsure these facts would be needed, but on the off chance that they were, she wanted to make sure she remembered every point. Her memory was good, but this was still a lot to remember. She made made a mental note to write all of this down later when they returned to camp.

"The palace has a rotating guard inside and outside at all times," he said. "The shifts run like clockwork. I used to work them. Sneaking in through the gate is practically impossible in the daylight because there's nothing to hide behind or under that isn't being monitored at all times. At night, the gate is always sealed shut. If you wanted to get in, it'd have to be underground, but there are hazards underground left with mages specifically in mind, and even if you made it past the palace walls, you'd have to come up for air eventually, and once you're back to the surface, there are guards to deal with again.

"There's a lot to be considered," James said, and it felt like he was readying to pause on this subject. "It would be an extensive conversation. One I'm not sure we want to have now."

Eve agreed. If they had to prepare for any bad thing that could come their way, they would be preparing all day, every day. She was glad that James gave her an overview on what could happen if the worst were to come, but that was a big if. Together, all of them would try to survive without getting caught. It was a challenge, but it was their reality.

She would still gladly take this reality over their previous one. And Eve was serious, too: if anything bad were to happen, she would do anything and everything to undo it. Maybe it wouldn't be like she was used to with undoing time, but she would still be persistent and stubborn in making sure that James comes first.

"Thank you for telling me," Eve said as she gently squeezed his hand. "We don't have to discuss this further. Just going over it for a brief moment like you did is enough. We'll do everything we can to make sure that won't happen. I think we're on the right path."

James's sober expression softened, but it was clear he was still carrying the weight of their uncertain future. Theirs as a group, as a couple, and his own.

Eve placed her other hand on top of theirs and more squarely faced him, offering a little smile.

"I know you're used to it - from taking care of me, and from all the years prior when you were in Nye - but you don't have to do this alone. We're in this together. We'll figure this out, together."

"I know," James said quietly. "I just can't help but feel like if anything were to happen to any of you... that I'd be responsible. I'm the one who brought everyone here in the first place."

"And we would all rather be brought here than face the consequences of our last moments on Earth," Eve said gently. "I think it's natural to feel that guilt. But that responsibility is not yours to bear. We all look up to you as our guide, yes - but we will all live our own lives. As long as the actions we take are well-intentioned, the future is out of our hands."

James was quiet. Maybe he had more to say, or maybe not. But Eve found herself filling the gap of silence.

"I know, I know, I'm saying all this, and I don't even think I can abide by my own lessons," she said with a little embarrassed laugh, pausing with a lingering smile with her hands still on top of his. "But I learn from the best. And... I'm not perfect - none of us are. But we're all trying. I think that's all that matters."

"I'm a hypocrite myself," James said softly. "Minutes ago I told you it'd be best to not think too long on what we left behind us, but at the moment, it's all I can think about. I can't help but wonder... if I had had any sense of mind... or been even reasonably perceptive... if things would've ended differently..."

Eve had to pause to think for a moment, because she wasn't exactly sure of what he was referring to. But she had a feeling that he was talking about his time in the castle that led to him and this situation.

"Are you unhappy with your present?" she asked.

"There are things about this present that I'm not happy about," James said. "But there's a lot I am happy for."

He looked up to meet her eyes.

"I am happy you are safe. Happy we are together. Happy that Mel, and Elias, and Ali, and Elise are alright. Happy Elliot's okay too. Happy to be here, with you, right now."

He leaned over and gently kissed her cheek, then leaned his head against hers.

"Sometimes I forget... it's helpful for my heart to remember what makes me happy instead of always dwelling on everything I could've done differently," James said. "It sounds obvious, now, saying it out loud."

For once, Eve decided that no words needed to be said. She gladly leaned against his head as well, a loving smile spreading across her lips, because James always had a way to turn a negative conversation into a positive one.

She wanted to say that that wasn't how it worked - they couldn't just list the positive and negative highlights because the present was totally dependent on all the details added up, good or bad.

But she knew that that wasn't what James was saying. He was right. It was good to be mindful and be grateful for what they do have, even if it seemed small or insignificant.

"Did you miss the smell of river water?" James asked quietly by her ear, not moving.

Eve closed her eyes, listening to the water and taking in the smell. It was earthy. Musty. Yet, natural and full of life.

"I think I miss the smell of your soap more," she said with a growing smile, opening her eyes again, her face inches from his. "Do you remember the scent?"

James laughed lightly.

"Oh, it's long-gone now," he said. "What was it... basil and something else. Lemon? Mint?"

"Mint, I believe. We had to mask our forest smells somehow. If only we had another bar of it," Eve said with an airy laugh.

"I think you're just going to have to get used to smelling like the forest," James said with a smile.

"Jaaaaaaames! Eeeeeeeve!" a voice suddenly called nearby.

Eve immediately recognized it to be Mel's voice, and she wasn't yelling loudly, but it was loud enough to be a warning. Because based on her volume and the rustling of the leaves, she was not far at all and would be approaching soon.

James pulled his head away, already moving to get up. Eve was moving even faster, immediately scrambling to her feet and making a beeline to their clothes. She could already feel the embarrassment pooling in her cheeks, because she knew they would not hear the end of it if Mel had seen them this close undressed as they were.

James did the same, and the two of them quickly threw on their clothes.

By the time Mel rounded around a tree and gazed around until her eyes landed on them, Eve had just barely managed to button her shirt. She didn't even have her shoes on, and she realized until late that her hair was probably still a wet mess.

James had his shoes and even his glasses back on, but he was still hurriedly working on buttoning his shirt.

Like Eve predicted, Mel was immediately suspicious. A playful smile spread across her lips as she narrowed her eyes at them, arms crossed.

"Whatcha guys up to?" she asked innocently.

"Did Jadis send you?" James asked instead.

"Should I go? I don't want to interrupt," Mel shot back.

"Too late for that," James said, patting down the front of his shirt before he reached up to push his glasses up his nose and push his damp hair out of his face.

Mel giggled, and Eve had to suppress an embarrassed groan. She could feel her face getting hot, but she was too preoccupied sitting on the ground, aggressively focusing on tying her boots.

"Yeah, I see that. Next time I'll ring a cowbell or something." She giggled again, standing up straight.

"We'll communicate next time when we're leaving so you don't worry," James said. "Sorry if we caused concern, disappearing like that."

"It's okay. Elise did send me since you guys were gone for a while. I tried to tell her that you guys probably wanted privacy, though. Maybe next time we'll give you a little more time before we assume you've been kidnapped?"

James sighed.

"That would be appreciated, but I'll do my best to let someone know we're leaving with an estimated window for how long to expect our absence," James said.

This was killing Eve. She wanted to say nothing even happened, but she didn't want to add more fuel to the fire. So she thought it was best to let James take this one, since he always somehow managed to divert any embarrassing situation to polite graciousness.

"Thank you for making sure we're alright," James said with a nod. "You can return to camp, now. We'll be close behind you. Just give us a minute."

"Yup yup, take your time. Food's ready and we're discussing first watches of the night. Oh, and..." Mel smiled, turning her head to them before she left. "Don't worry, I won't say anything. See ya soon!"

And just like that, she scurried back before they could put in a last word. Typical of Mel, really.

James turned to look down at Eve, who was still sitting on the ground. She wasn't sure if she was able to hide the defeated and embarrassed look on her face.

"I won't be surprised if she alludes to her assumptions despite herself," James said with another sigh. "But at least she didn't come sooner."

Eve let out a deep sigh herself, slowly getting on her feet and brushing off the dirt clinging on her clothes.

"Yeah... but thank you for taking the lead on that one. I just about died on the spot," she said with a hollow voice, holding back her frown.

James let out a small laugh through his nose.

"Well," he said. "Crisis averted."

But if this were the only crisis that they'd have to deal with, then Eve welcomed even more of them.
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Carina says...

Tula almost liked Nye as much as Earth. Almost.

She laughed with the full awareness that she likely had a crazed glint in her eyes, but she didn't care.

Because in this world, she could do anything. Be anyone. Hurt anyone.

Like clockwork routine, Deidra punched the poor man's stomach, sending him crunched over. At that, Tula gladly kicked him in the crotch and pushed him to the ground with the others.

With a devilish smile, she tied up her hair again, deciding to put away the flirty act so she could get down to business.

"Sorry about that, boys. But we will be needing this," she said innocently, bending over and grabbing the pouch of coins off his belt. "What did you say before? A girl like me has to look pretty? Well, not with your money, I won't! How else am I supposed to buy that pwetty little dress that you think we should all wear? You men are all the same. Let me buy you a fucking drink," Tula went on with fake mockery, throwing a copper coin at his face. In reply, he only groaned in pain.

"Tula," Deidra said right before she was going to give him another speech about harassment, ignoring the part that she played into the role as well.

"What?" she snarled, looking back at Tula with obvious annoyance.


Deidra pointed at a nearby bulletin board like it had all the answers. Still, it was unlike her to be this gravely concise during a time like this, so Tula marched towards the board herself to see what she was talking about.

No... no.

Tula felt a deep hatred return in her heart for every step she took. Deidra was pulling back some pages so she could see what paper she was talking about, but Tula didn't need to closely inspect it to know.

She knew that picture. That man. She had memorized his photograph, studying every detail about him. Observing every move. She knew him, even if the picture was older and outdated.


The picture was of James.

Tula felt a maniacal laugh escape her lips as she snatched the paper away from the bulletin board, staring at it with a grin. This was it. She has been waiting for a sign. Something to lead them back to him.

And she finally found it.

"Do you know this man?" she asked, still staring at the paper, the devilish grin never leaving her face.

When she didn't get a reply, the grin faded, and she glared at the man she had stolen from, threatening him with her eyes.

"You," she said lowly through her teeth, marching back over to him to shove the paper in his face, and also slapping him awake. "Tell me what you know about him."

The man stared at the paper, but his eyes flitted to Tula for brief seconds as he tensed, full of apprehension.

"Who--Tiberius Hemming?" The man stuttered. "Everyone knows of him, but the man's practically a ghost. No one's heard anything about him in months. Longer than that, probably. I--I don't know, he's a traitor of the Moonlight Kingdom. Used to be a soldier. Armed and dangerous. But the poster says all that! I swear I don't know anything else! I never saw the man in my life!"

As he was talking, Tula felt the fire ignite back in her heart. They had traveled so much and so far, she had almost forgotten why she was here.

He was the reason. He was the reason for all of this.

Tula endured so much so far. After waking up on the island, they pretended to be stowaways on a boat - but still, she didn't know where he was. Even after hopping from one island to the next and gathering information while always leaving before they could be caught with crime, she was distracted and didn't know where he was. They were always moving, always gathering resources and fitting in. Flying under the radar. Playing the long game.

And now, the first move had been made. She obtained her first clue.

Tula could finally, finally achieve her purpose here.

Her purpose of finding James.

Tula read the poster over and over, finally looking past his picture.

For high treason against King Blackfield and the Moonlight Kingdom REWARD: 100,000 GOLD
Formerly a soldier, he is considered armed and highly dangerous. Approach with caution and alert authorities if spotted.

While the man pleaded for mercy, she bent and and planted a lipstick-stained kiss on his forehead, smiling.

"Thank you for the information. You did good," she said, pulling back. Tula barely gave him a second glance back. She finally had a clue now. Everything else was unimportant.

"Deidra," she called, attention sharp. "How close are we to the nearest city? It's about time we stop being low-life criminals in this forest, don't you think?"

Deidra whipped out a map they'd stolen off a sailor back on the ship they'd stowed away on. It had a pretty broad scope of what looked to be the whole world of Nye, or at least the main continent, since most of the map seemed to be connected into one big land mass.

"We're in Sore Thumb," Deidra said. "It's a small town, as the map says."

"You can't turn him in here," the man piped up, though he shrunk back when Tula whipped her head to look at him.

"He's wanted by the Moonlight Kingdom," the man said. "You won't get the reward unless you turn him in to the-- the kingdom. An outpost. Or a sheriff in a city not out here in the Outlands."

"You hear that, Deidra? Our hostage is full of knowledge. And where is the nearest city in the Moonlight Kingdom from here?" Tula asked in a too-innocent voice.

"Th-the kingdom? Nearest city's probably... three or four months worth of travel away," the man answered. "That'd get you to Yellowwood. But the kingdom has eyes and ears almost everywhere. You could find an outpost as soon as Ruddlan."

"Looks like we're going to Ruddlan," Tula said with another wicked grin. "Tell me: what's the travel time estimate?"

"A month as the least if you stick to the roads," the man said. "But if you cut through the forests you could get there in a week. Forest is more dangerous--but I'm sure that's no problem for you!"

"What do you think, Deidra? Think we'll run into any problems?" Tula said, the grin never leaving her face.

Deidra smirked.

"Nothing we won't be able to handle," Deidra said.

Tula gave one last look at the man, carefully folding the poster to store in her pocket. "Thank you, dearie. You have been a tremendous help. Deidra, let's go."

"W-wait!" the man yelped, frantically eyeing the rope binding his hands and legs. "Aren't you going to let me go?"

In return, Tula simply reached in her bag and dropped a small bottle of rum for his troubles.

"Trust me, you'll need this to get through the day," she said with feigned sorrow, then grinned again, turning around and never giving him another second of her time.

"Deidra! Let's go. We are going to find this Tiberius."
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Carina says...

It was a long ten days.

Alistair had been mentally counting down the days since they arrived at Nye, but the days were starting to blur together, and he was losing track of the days. He could have asked someone, but he didn't bother, because he figured it was around two weeks or so. And what was the point in counting the days if there was no end to it all?

They were all getting into a routine. Day in and day out, they were moving across the land, and there was a lot of silence. Sure, there were far too many times that Mel tried to get him engaged or talked about literally nothing, but for the most part, it was all the same. They got up, moved, rested, repeat.

Everyone also received magic lessons, as promised. Runa was teaching Mel to concentrate and have better control over her light magic, but she didn't really need teaching. She seemed to pick it up fast and easily learned whatever new concept came her way. Meanwhile, Elise and Elias were receiving lessons from Marsha. Elise seemed to look forward to these lessons and asked a lot of questions. She treated these lessons as if this was a class in school. Elias seemed... present, at least. He didn't seem like he was all too interested in learning to fully utilize his magic, but no one blamed him. And no one blamed James or Evaline for not taking in lessons, because there wasn't really anyone they could learn from since time magic was very rare.

Unlike Alistair. He heard from Garrik over and over again that fire magic was one of the most common types, as if that was supposed to help him. Alistair didn't ask for this magic, nor was he blessed with the gift of being fast learners like Mel and Elise.

At first, it was embarrassing how bad he was, but now he stopped caring. The others were cheering him on, claiming that he was making small strides, but he could see the annoyance in Garik's eyes. He was barely keeping up.

"Before you do any flame throwing," Garik said at the beginning of one of their lessons. "You need to learn control. You know how to start a flame. That's good. But that will be useless to you if you don't know how to guide the flame in the way you desire. Fire is a chaotic element. If you don't control its path, it will choose its own. If you don't determine the fuel for the fire, it chooses how much it takes for you. Today, you are going to create a small flame in your hands, and I want you to sustain it. Keeping it at the same size and heat while you do everything else I ask."

Garik made it sound so easy. Even before starting, Alistair knew that he couldn't do it. He tried too many times by himself.

Wordlessly, he placed his palm up and created a small flame in his hand, just like Garik asked. Alistair tried to put some energy into the flame, thinking small. Just small. Not growing. Stifled. Burned out.

But it always did the opposite. The flame always swelled up in size, and in the span of some seconds, he knew if he didn't stop, it would engulf the air around him, so he gave up after a few short seconds.

"I'm trying," he said tiredly.

"You know what? No more exercises. You're going to sit there and focus on the flame," Garik said. "Just that. Put all of your focus on keeping the flame steady."

"I'm trying, but it's not working. How am I supposed to do that?" Alistair asked wearily.

Garik stood in front of him and then gestured for Alistair to sit down, pointing to the ground with a jab of his finger. Alistair didn't have the energy or drive to challenge him some more, so he wordlessly sat on the ground and looked at Garik expectedly.

Garik sat down in front of him and held his hands out in front of him, palms up. He looked to Alistair, wordlessly indicating for him to imitate him. Alistair followed his silent orders, waiting for the next move.

"What do you think of when you think of fire?" Garik asked.

"Hot," Alistair said simply.


Alistair didn't really know if Garik was expecting a specific answer. "... Destructive?" he offered.

Garik sighed, and with one hand still palm up, he moved the other in a simple, graceful flourish, creating a small, steady flame that hovered between his hands.

"Is that all?" he asked.

Alistair took in a silent deep breath, watching the flame as he thought back to his first lessons of his fire powers, back in Earth. He had lessons, sure, but nothing this private or intensive. Garik almost made it seem like this was an artform.

"I suppose fire also brings warmth, which can bring life," he said after a short pause.

"Do you believe that?" Garik asked.

"Not really," Alistair said truthfully. "I think there are more negatives than positives."

"At least you're honest," Garik said.

He then looked at Alistair's hands, then pointed to his chest.

"I want you to focus on your heartbeat," he said. "Create a small flame, but don't think about keeping it small. Close your eyes and focus on matching the flame to your heart."

This really was an artform to Garik. Alistair had never been good at creative things, but he could try to play along to this.

Match the flame to his heart... He didn't exactly know how he was supposed to do that, but he could try, or at least try to get a feel for it.

Alistair pinched his eyes shut, trying to equally concentrate on the growing firey warmth on his hands and the tightness around his chest. It wasn't like he could control his heart, or hear his heart, or do anything with his heart. If this were supposed to be an analogy to what his heart wanted, he was afraid that he would come up blank, because he frankly had no idea what he wanted in this strange world.

The warmth in his hands suddenly turned hot, and Alistair opened his eyes up too late to see the flame rise up in the air above them, once again uncontrollable. He quickly pulled his hands back and scooted back, and in the midst of the confusion, Alistair noticed that he did feel his heart.

It was pounding.

"I'll try again later," he said before Garik could say anything. "Like you said. I just need to practice."

"You won't be able to control your magic as long as you're unable to control your worry," Garik said solemnly. He wasn't quite gentle, but it was probably the kindest Garik had sounded since they'd met.

"I'm not worried. Just..." Alistair sighed. "I don't know."

"You think you're the only fire mage I've met?" Garik said. "You're not the only one whose fear has affected their magic. I see it all the time. Especially with new mages."

Alistair slowly shook his head, trying to put together what Garik was saying. "I wouldn't say I'm afraid of fire magic. I used to be. I know what that was like. I'm not anymore."

"Well you're afraid of something," Garik said, getting to his feet. "And that's what's keeping you from improving. If you won't talk to me about it, go talk to your human friends."

"I just don't really see the point," Alistair said with a sigh, knowing he had already told Garik this before. He had reacted badly before, but since he wanted to know why, he figured he'd tell him again. "Why is it so important for everyone that we all better learn our magic?"

"You have people in this world you care about, right?" Garik asked.

"The people I'm traveling with, yes," Alistair said.

"One of these days, you'll run into trouble," Garik said. "If you're mages, trouble will come to you whether you want it to or not. It's better to be ready than caught unprepared. If you can use your magic to protect your friends, you won't feel as helpless."

"But if we don't use our magic in the first place, trouble won't ever come to us, because people won't know," Alistair said.

"You're naive to assume trouble won't find you just because you don't use your magic," Garik said, unwavering. "Trouble always finds you in the wilds."

"And trouble always finds you when you're involved," Alistair said with another sigh. "I know what you mean. I'm just tired of trying and being in the middle of all this if it always ends with trouble. I'm convinced that the best way to avoid trouble is to prevent it in the first place."

"If life always worked the way we wanted it to, then we'd never have to grow," Garik said.

"Every living thing stops growing eventually. It's unsustainable to never stop," Alistair said back.

"If you gave up now, you'd remain a sapling," Garik said.

"And what's so bad about that?" Alistair said, feeling the exasperation grow in his voice. It was starting to feel like he was talking in circles.

"There's nothing wrong with starting small," Garik said. "It's how everything begins. But your friends need you. And you need them."

Half-strung thoughts formed in Alistair's head. But did they really need him? Didn't it just feel like he was existing right now? Did he really truly need them?

Instead, Alistair settled into a slouch back, giving in. "Yeah. I guess you're right," he said instead.

"You really don't see it, do you?" Garik asked. "It's obvious your friends care about you."

Alistair hesitated, starting to feel a growing wariness towards Garik. "Is this supposed to help me with my fire magic?" he asked.

"I'm trying to help you," Garik said with a huff. "Your magic is just a part of it."

Alistair thought back to the beginning when Garik thought he was a lost cause. He wondered what changed for him to come around and decide he wanted to genuinely help. At the same time, Alistair didn't want to know, because he was tired of people taking pity on him.

"Well... thanks," he said, not completely sure how to respond to that. "But I don't think I need any help. To be honest, I don't have any interest in improving my magic, nor do I have much of an interest of reaching my potential, whatever that is. I'm content where I am right now. I don't think there's anything wrong with that."

"Are you content?" Garik pressed. "Or are you just dis..."

He sighed, muttered under his breath for a moment. Something about "what's that word," before he seemed to find it.

"Dis-cour-aged," he sounded out.

"No," Alistair said slowly, thinking it through. "I don't think so. I'm just tired."

Garik looked off to the side, resting his hands on his hips as he let out another sigh, this one longer than the one before.

"Alright," he said. "We're done for today."

Alistair got up on his feet, brushing himself off. "Thanks, Garik," he said, then hesitated.

Garik hadn't really prodded this much at him before. It was usually "do this, do that, try this, try that" with tips and pointers. It was odd that he chose to open a dialogue with him and seemed to want to help him outside of magic, especially since Alistair was sure he still wasn't fond of him or any human.

Should he thank him for that, or...

"Well... I'm going to go back to camp now. I'll see you later," Alistair said instead.

Garik only waved him off, turning away.

At that, Alistair silently wove through the trees, taking his time to return to their campsite. He braced himself for questions he may receive, and he found himself to be nervous, but didn't know why.

Why was his heart beating fast again?

"Hey Al. How was the lesson?" Elias asked after Alistair came into view and sat against a tree away from everyone else.

"Fine. Making progress as usual," he said simply.

"When are you going to show off your new skills? C'mon, I'm dying to know," Mel said.

"Maybe later."

At that, Alistair laid down further so his head was resting against the root of the tree. He placed his hands underneath them, but it didn't make it that much more comfortable. He couldn't be bothered to move, though.

Thankfully, Mel and Elias took this as a sign to move on, and they returned to their normal chatter. Alistair, meanwhile, gazed up into the sky, thinking about nothing in particular and just letting the time pass by him.

Since he was already laying down, maybe he should sleep. He tightly closed his eyes, shutting off his vision, but not really feeling all that tired.

Alistair wished he had a cigarette. Even a small puff would help.

He didn't know how many minutes went by. It was all a blur. He could hear conversations happening in the background, but none of it was registering. Garik had mentioned in the past that meditation could help with concentration. Maybe this was close enough to it. Maybe this helps.

Suddenly, James's voice came from above.

"Hey, Ali," he said.

Alistair opened his eyes, looking up to see James standing over him. Alistair slowly sat up, moving his gaze over to the camp.

It was late evening now, and it appeared he missed quite a bit. Elias was gone, and James and Eve had returned. Mel and Elise were chatting, still where they were previously.

"Hey," he said back to James after he absorbed his surroundings. "Sorry. Dozed off for a second there."

"I have to make a run to the river for water," James said. "Could you come with me?"

Alistair flicked his eyes towards camp again, noticing that Eve was with Elliot, brushing his mane.

"You don't want to take Eve with you?" he asked.

"I'm asking you," he said, tapping Alistair's foot with the tip of his shoe. "Is that a no?"

Alistair took a silent deep breath. He wished James could have asked him any other day, but he didn't want to let him down.

"Yeah," he said as he slowly got back up on his feet. "Yeah, I can accompany you. I was just curious."

James offered Alistair a small smile.

"I enjoy your company too, you know," he said.

Alistair weakly laughed. "I don't doubt it."
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Carina says...

James nodded in the direction of the river, silently turning as he waved for Alistair to follow. He did so just as wordlessly, following James as he weaved his way through the trees away from camp. Slowly, the noise of chatter were replaced by nature. The river was a short walk ahead.

"How were lessons today?" James asked.

Everyone always asked that, but the answer was always the same.

"Fine. I think I'm making slow progress," Alistair said.

"Slow progress is progress," James said simply.

"I hope so."

A few seconds of quiet passed between as they continued to walk through the trees, the only sound being the brushing of Alistair's feet against the underbrush. James, somehow, had a way of walking silently even if the ground were covered in dry leaves.

"I'm glad we haven't run into any trouble yet," James said. "At least, nothing of great consequence. We have yet to see anyone else out here aside from the wildlife, and I do think the griffins help scare off smaller predators."

Alistair's wariness grew. Garik had talked about trouble with him today. He and James made it sound like it was inevitable. It probably was.

"If we were to run into trouble, who or what would it be?" he asked.

James glanced over at him with a brief, unreadable look, and then looked forward again.

"Well," James said. "I did get a chance to look at Jadis's maps, so I have a much better grasp on where we are. We're close to the wilds, which is a strip of land in the near center of the continent that's overrun with monsters. Few people travel through there unless they have to, and if they do, there's one singular road going through it that's kept decent."

James made a straight line with his hand in the air, like he was drawing the path in front of him.

"Right now we're at the edge of the Outlands. Monsters and dangerous creatures still creep into this area, but because humans and goblins have more presence in the area, it's less common. Right now our most likely threat would be humans. Best case scenario, it's a group of ragtag travelers just looking to pass through safely, not wanting any trouble. Worst case scenario, it's a group of bandits, thieves, criminals... whatever you want to call them. People who want our supplies. It's possible we could run into mage hunters but they wouldn't have been alerted of our presence, so if we did, we'd know there were other mages somewhere in the area. Our existence though, traveling off-road and looking the way we do... could cause suspicion. The only ones likely to do anything about it would be mage hunters or criminals, maybe. If one of them recognized me, though..."

He trailed off for a moment, pursing his lips.

"There's a dozen different kinds of trouble we could encounter," James said with a shrug.

As James went on, Alistair felt the doom and gloom grow within him. He only wanted to lay low and avoid trouble, but the fact that they were traveling with James made that impossible. Just being in Nye when originating from Earth made it impossible. Laying low was impossible.

Apprehension sat heavy in his stomach as they continued to quietly weave through the trees, the river now only a short walk away.

"That sounds... troubling," was all he managed to say after a long pause.

"I'm sorry I don't have better news," James said sincerely. "I know we only just escaped trouble on Earth."

"It's fine," Alistair plainly. "I'm learning now that it's impossible to escape trouble."

"Perhaps," James said. "Though... I believe our lives aren't exactly ordinary. Many people have trouble much less extreme."

Alistair sighed. "I don't know. Having an ordinary life seems appealing to me."

James looked over to Alistair with a small smile.

"It's appealing to me too," he said. "What do you imagine life life for you if it were ordinary?"

Alistair mulled that over for a moment, but decided not to think it through that hard. "I don't know, to be honest. Overall less messy and chaotic. More peaceful."

"Has it felt chaotic... lately?" James asked. "Since we've been traveling with Jadis and her team?"

"It's been chaotic for years, and especially since we landed here and traveled with everyone," Alistair said like it was obvious, but then sighed, recollecting his thoughts. "Sorry. I'm just a little off today. Not trying to get under your skin or anything."

"No need to apologize," James said. "I guess when I think of chaos, it's always relative. In the big picture, most of my life has been chaotic, but I do find moments of peace and respite in between."

A beat of silence.

"Is there a reason you feel off today?" James asked.

At this point, they finally reached the river. While James bent down to fill the bottles, Alistair stuck back a few feet away, hands in pockets as he gazed across the moving water, figuring James would ask if he needed help.

"I think I'm just frustrated over Garik's lesson today. For one, I'm tired of trying and not getting results. And two, it all seems pointless. I don't really see an ending to this. Garik said he was trying to help me, but I don't see how bettering my magic will better me, especially since it's outlawed."

James knelt by the river, letting the flow of the water fill the canteens.

"There are plenty of mages who still practice magic even though it's outlawed," James said. "You just have to be careful, but I don't think that's a problem for you."

"Yeah. Yeah, I guess so," Alistair said as he kicked a pebble into the river, watching it sink.

"Did all of that come up during the lesson today?" James asked.

"Kind of," Alistair answered, then paused to reflect out loud. "Garik asked me to reevaluate what fire means to me. He said I had to listen to my heart. And now that I'm saying this out loud, I guess that doesn't really have anything to do with what you just said."

"Thats's fine," James said, pulling up one canteen and screwing the lid shut before he dipped another to fill it.

"Did you find his instructions difficult?" James asked.

"Hard to find it difficult if it doesn't even make sense to me," Alistair said.

James finished filling the canteen and stood up straight as he sealed it shut.

"I think some of what you're facing is that my people -- well, people on Nye -- view magic very differently than people view powers on earth," James said. "It's more than just an ability. The few mages I've had the privilege of speaking with see it as a part of them. You may be familiar with the line of thought where a weapon is viewed as an extension of yourself. Well, on Nye, it goes a bit deeper than that when it comes to magic. Magic is like... what gives the planet itself life. Life and magic were once considered synonymous in the right context, before the calamity. That same school of thought has carried over for the mages remaining in Nye. I imagine for goblins, it's even more so, since they freely use their magic, and always have."

Alistair appreciated the historical context. He appreciated James trying to help him out. He just wasn't fully convinced it helped.

"I can understand that," he said as he took in every word, piecing it together. "But I'm not even from Nye. Maybe the essence of magic got all lost in translation for me."

"You have to remember that Garik doesn't know you're not from Nye," Jame said, gathering the canteens in his arms. "So he won't be compelled to explain things for you. Frankly, he doesn't seem compelled to explain things at all. It may be helpful to ask more questions."

Alistair knew this. He did. And he was mining away at the core of the issue here.

James took in a deep breath, looking back in the direction of their camp, and his shoulders sagged a little, like he was deciding to wait back a bit.

Alistair took this opportunity to say what was really on his mind.

"To be honest, James," he said slowly, his eyes still fixed on the water, "I don't really want to."

He probably should have said more, but he found that he didn't even want to elaborate. It felt like he was going in circles.

"Do you want to tell me why?" James asked gently.

"There's not a real reason. I just don't want to," Alistair said simply.

James set the canteens on the ground, and slowly stepped over to Alistair, standing beside him, a few feet away. He didn't say anything in response, and merely put his hands in his pockets as he looked down at the water.

"Do you want to go back?" Alistair asked after a few long seconds of silence. He wasn't really sure if either of them had much more to say, and James had already filled up the water.

"No," James said simply. "I was just thinking."

He looked over to Alistair, his expression difficult to read.

"Sometimes, when you're depressed, it's hard to feel motivated to do anything," James said.

This again. Alistair stiffened at the word.

"And you don't really want to do anything at all, never mind work to learn something new. I'm sure learning magic can feel like an unwanted burden. Overwhelming, even. But... you do have friends around you who want to support you in whatever ways we can."

He paused, but not long enough for Alistair to reply.

"I'm not saying your journey is the same as mine, but maybe you can relate," James said. "For many years - and I still do struggle with it sometimes - the only thing keeping me going was an obligation to others. That came in different shapes and forms in various circumstances, but at the end of the day... I could never find a reason to live for myself. There isn't anything necessarily wrong with living for others, and I'm thankful that it brought me to where I'm at now, but... it can be a long journey. To find a reason for yourself to wake up every morning and try again. For me, it's often very simple things. I want to see the sky. Feel the breeze. Hear the voices of people I care about. And if I had something to look forward to, no matter how small it seemed, I found that over time it helped. I've learned that I can't just wait for the day I want to do something. If I wait until I feel it, that day will never come. So I've learned to take the small steps that I can every day. And... it's a slow climb up a very, very steep mountain. But now I feel like I can finally see to the other side."

James looked off into the water with a small, wistful smile, and then looked to Alistair.

"I know it's not enjoyable at first, but maybe just give it a shot," James said. "If there's one thing you can think of that you look forward to for the day, maybe it'll help you push through the lessons."

Alistair knew that James had the best intentions and that he was only trying to help, but his words pricked under his skin. At first he thought it was because he wanted to deny James's claims that he was depressed, but the more he talked, he realized it wasn't that at all.

Alistair had been here before. He had moments where he felt kicked down and discouraged, but by the end of it, he wasn't alone. He always had someone to offer a hand and show him the light. That wasn't the problem. The problem was that the two significant people who played this role were now dead. And James filling this role now didn't sit well with Alistair.

He didn't really know what to think of this. Was he cursed? He almost wanted to laugh from the absurdity of it.

Alistair wasn't a superstitious type, but with the high stakes present in their situation, he was reconsidering.

He uncomfortably shifted his weight to his other foot as the silence between them started to feel long, and Alistair really tried to consider his words, but it was hard when the intrusive thought buzzed around his mind too long.

"I can try," were the only words he was able to say, but he knew his heart wasn't in it. His heart wasn't in much of anything anymore, so he wasn't sure how he could enjoy the little or big things.

James offered him a small smile.

"And that's enough," he said softly. "And... I know 'enjoying the little things' doesn't fix everything, and I'm not saying that will 'solve' everything. I just know it can help. That's all I was trying to say."

Alistair sighed, trying to force himself to ease into the conversation and open up, although he wasn't sure what exactly what there was to open up about. He didn't have any deep dark secrets. He just wanted to lay low and go through the motions of life without trouble.

"I know. I appreciate the perspective, I do." He paused for a moment. "But I'm not... sad, or anything like that. I don't feel hopeless or desperate. If I had to put a word to it, it'd be apathetic. It's hard to enjoy the little things if I don't really enjoy the big things. Does that make sense?"

"That makes sense," James said quietly. "Would you say, in general, you haven't really felt much emotion for a long time? Or is it more recent?"

Alistair pursed his lips, thinking it through. "It's not that I feel little emotions. Of course I have times when I'm happy, or sad, or upset, and so on. But nowadays it takes a lot to give me more positive emotions. I know, I know how that sounds. But this feels different. I don't know, I feel like I've walked my entire life without much purpose or ambition, especially when all my other friends have something to work towards. So I've felt like this for a long, long time too."

"Do you feel like you've always lived in their shadow?" James asked.

"I wouldn't say I'm their shadow," Alistair said slowly. "Following the analogy, I'd just be a shadow, without a body."

James had been been keeping a more than comfortable distance as they talked, facing the river instead of looking at Alistair directly. But after taking in a deep breath, James turned towards him.

"I wish you could see yourself the way we see you," he said, brows drawn together as he met his eyes. "The way I see you."

Alistair almost felt embarrassed. He had to lightly clear his throat to not stay anything stupid and ruin the moment.

"I don't think you realize how special you are," James said. "You're not just a shadow, hidden in the background. I greatly value you as a person and a friend, and I consider you irreplaceable, whether you feel that way about yourself or not."

Alistair looked out over the river in silence, letting the words hang in the air for a bit. It was nice to hear, but like everything else that was supposed to make him feel good, it didn't feel like it had that great of an impact on him.

"I just wish, sometimes, I had a greater purpose," he said after a long pause. "It doesn't have to be anything big, but it could be. Elise, for instance, is a doctor. You are a well of wisdom and Eve's partner. People look up to Mel as a good friend, to Elias for a laugh, and to Eve for next steps. I try not to compare myself to others, but I'm just waiting, you know? Waiting to figure out what I'm supposed to do here. And any time I try to get out of my comfort zone to discover that, nothing good happens from it. So I'm trying to make peace with... this, whatever this is. Being no one special, with no spectacular achievements, but at least it's safe."

James was quiet for a moment, clearly thinking through his next words. Alistair let him have all the time he needed to say whatever he wanted to say.

"You know," James said. "The desire to be successful. To have impact. To achieve something... it's all very normal. I think all people carry it to varying degrees, and I know in different seasons of life, it can be a great hurdle to overcome. Feeling purposeless. I understand that in our current circumstances, there is a lot of uncertainty. I know as little as you as to the assured likelihood of anything - be it trouble or opportunity - falling into our laps. So I can see how it would feel like you have to wait for something to happen, or for something to change. And maybe one day, something will come that makes more sense of things for you. But I do want you to know that even in the midst of great uncertainty, you do have a purpose. You being you - someone I look to as a 'good friend,' and for 'help,' or 'wisdom,' or 'laughs' - can be enough. You can tell me if I'm wrong, but I wonder if the perceived lack of purpose has less to do with you having nothing to offer and more to do with you thinking you have nothing to offer because it doesn't look like others. It looks like you."

Although Alistair had been friends with Eve, Mel, Elias, and Elise for a while, he was hardly considered a 'good friend' to them. Just a friend who was always around.

And hearing James reiterate that Alistair was a good friend... well. That did make him happy.

"Well... if right now my purpose is to be your good friend, that's good enough for me," Alistair said with a small smile.

It wasn't much, but he did mean it. He hoped James knew that he also meant a lot to him too.

James looked back with a warm smile of his own that reached up to his eyes. Reaching over, he gave Alistair's arm a light bump with his fist.

"I'm glad." Pulling away, he bent down to pick up the canteens again, and offered one to Alistair to carry.

Alistair was glad to share the load, as well as anything else that James wanted to throw his way.

That was what good friends do, after all.
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soundofmind says...

Two weeks passed by quickly.

James was finally able to learn what time of year it was. It was, in fact, Summer. Jadis knew the human calendar and confirmed that it was Sol, the first month of summer. He was able to retrace their steps to the 12th of Sol, the day they arrived on Nye, which made it now the 2nd month of summer, Sael, after two weeks passed. (In explaining this to Eve and the others, he had to reiterate that weeks were measured in ten days on Nye, as opposed to seven, which he always thought to be an arbitrary number since ten was an even number and could be pleasantly split into divisions of 5).

In two weeks, things seemed to settle down slowly. It wasn't very long in retrospect, but he was surprised to find that their travels with the goblins were a blessing in disguise. While at first he had been apprehensive by the alliance, by the time their travels were almost over, he did find himself growing fond of their newfound companions. Marsha, in particular, was good company, and he found himself grateful for the opportunity to connect with her years later and serve her and their group. It was a small way of giving back, and though it felt insufficient, he supposed it counted for something.

In their time together, Elias and Mel bonded with Garik in an unexpected way. Mel in particular eventually wriggled her way into friendship after a lot of well-intentioned teasing and some pranking, and Elias and Garik seemed to connect over having similar troubled pasts. Garik and Alistair's relationship seemed to improve as well, especially when Alistair's approach to learning magic seemed to change (which James noted was soon after their conversation about it). All in all, it was nice to see Garik soften up. Just a bit.

Elise and Marsha grew very close very quickly, not only bonding over their shared type of magic, but also compatible personalities. There was a quick friendship formed, and James knew it would be difficult to say goodbye.

He did consider, quietly, in his heart, the possibility of asking Jadis if they could stay. But realistically, he knew that was a much more complicated request than the others fully understood. It would be different, even, if Jadis was merely a human mage.

Goblins still didn't look very kindly upon humans, and regardless of their amiable alliance, he knew he would be asking too much of Jadis to welcome James and all of his friends into Gurak, or even any goblin camp.

So he kept the idea to himself.

Though they didn't run into any danger with humans, they did run into a few wild animals here and there, and a few dangerous plants that James had to warn the others of. Compared to the trouble they came from, James really didn't think too much of it, but he knew it was more shocking for everyone else - namely Mel, Alistair, Elias, and Elise - to run into foreign, natural threats. James just considered them good learning experiences for everyone.

And in the learning from circumstance, everyone was also learning about thier magic. Elise and Mel seemed to more quickly adjust to the new dyanmics of their magic on Nye than the others, but Alistair showed great improvement in confidence and control, and Elias seemed to at least feel more at peace with where his magic was at. There was still some unknowns for him and whether the procedure fully worked to rid him of the berserker gene, but James, for one, didn't really want to test it.

He was just tryin to stay afloat. None of them had had much time to themselves since they joined Jadis and the goblins, and if James was being honest, even if they did, he didn't know that any of them were truly ready to process everything that had happened.

A lot had happened back on earth. It wasn't just getting ambushed by Tula and her soldiers. It was everyting.

Getting separated from Eve. Getting betrayed by the ape men. Arima dying. Getting caught. Tortured. Forced into compliance to keep Eve safe, only to narrowly save her from the death that was planned for her. It was Eve becoming a shell of herself. Going into a coma for six months.

And throughout all of it, James felt so, so stupid.

So much wouldn't have happened it he'd only been as paranoid on earth as he was on Nye. It was a twisted thought. He knew it was good to learn to trust, he'd just trusted the wrong people. Again. And it got people hurt. Again.

Which was why he, despite how well things were going, was still wary.

If this went south, it would be his fault.

He couldn't help but linger on the worry as they drew nearer to the rendezvous point. He wanted to propose to Jadis that they could part ways just before they got there to avoid extra conflict, but he wanted to make sure the deal was seen through to the end. In the event something happened to her companions who were waiting for her and her group to meet them, especially since their arrival was delayed, they could be needed to help negotiate with humans or fight if needed. And that was what the deal was all about.

"We're close," Jadis said, leading the way with him right beside her.

She waved a hand over her shoulder to urge everyone forward as they circled around the bottom of a small plateau. The raised wall of earth meant that anything around the corner couldn't see them, and they couldn't see it either.

Behind him, Eve rode Elliot and Mel walked beside her. Alistair hung close behind James. Elias stuck close to Garik, clumped with Elise, Marsha, and the other goblins who stayed towards the back with the griffins.

Jadis was keenly scanning the area around them, and stopped them when her eyes landed on something. He wasn't sure what.

Her arm shot out in front of him to bring him to a stop, and the others quietly stopped behind her.

Then she spoke loudly in her mother tongue. He couldn't understand what it was she said, but context told him it had to be a warning, or urging others to stand down. She wouldn't be speaking goblin if she didn't believe goblins to be around.

There was silence for a moment, and then a rustling in the trees overhead.

Leaping down out of a tree, a tall, muscled goblin man landed on the ground with a crossbow in hand. He stood up with his shoulders back, proud, looking down at James in particular with wariness, but no hostility.

Jadis and the man exchanged some words with one another from a short distance, and James kept quiet.

One of the things he'd made a point to do in their short two weeks together was to try to learn more of the goblin language. In his times with Marsha, Garik, and Jadis, he asked them to help him learn their language in exchange for teaching them his. Naturally, he didn't make too much progress in two weeks, but he was able to recognize a few words. Not enough to piece much together, though.

He was grateful for being able to practice with native speakers, though. He wrote down all he could so he could practice later on his own. Jadis said he had an slight accent but that it actually wasn't too painfully prominent.

That said, he could only piece together that Jadis was talking about them as humans and trying to explain the situation. It didn't take too long for things to get smoothed out, it seemed.

The goblin man dropped his crossbow to his side and nodded to Jadis.

Jadis nodded in turn and then looked to James. She reached out and set her hand on his shoulder.

"Thank you," she said, speaking Terran. "It was good to get to know you and your friends, and we are grateful for your help."

James knew that she was being generous with her gratitude. They hadn't done much, but he knew that, in the long run, this would hopefully sow into something bigger than himself. He wasn't so naive to think one two week trip would help humans and goblins reconcile, but... it was something. Something small, but something.

He offered Jadis a smile.

"We are beyond grateful to you as well," he said. "You've helped us more than you know."

That made her smile in return, and as she pulled her hand away, she tilted her head as she looked at him.

"I hope I see you again, James," she said. "Mage kind have a difficult lot in life. I'll do what I can to send word to those in the area to leave you and your friends be."

"We'd be in your debt," James answered.

"Not debt," she said. "There's already been an equivalent exchange. You helped us, and we'll help you."

James let out a small sigh.

"I suppose that's fair," he said with a now of his head.

"That it is," Jadis replied, and then stepped away, waving to her companions to follow.

"Say your goodbyes," she said in commonspeak, and then in goblin so that everyone could understand.

At that, she walked off to join the goblin man standing a ways off, joining him in quiet conversation.

James turned around to look at the others.

Marsha and Elise were already hugging their goodbyes. Eve jumped down from Elliot so she could say goodbye to Jadis before she went too far. Mel and Elias were saying goodbye to the other goblins, with Mel expressing the most sentiments. Alistair and Garik were closest to James and appeared to be more cordial and respectful, with Alistair offering his hand to shake and Garik reluctantly taking it.

"Thanks for teaching me everything," Alistair said to Garik with two quick shakes of his hand before dropping it. "I learned a thing or two."

"Just try to remember it when you leave," Garik said gruffly. It was evident he was trying to hide whatever emotions he was feeling about everyone leaving.

"Leaving so soon, 'Rik?" Elias said abruptly from behind, popping into the conversation. "I feel like we were just starting to get to know one another."

Garik jumped and spun around with a sigh.

"Because we were," Garik said plainly.

Meanwhile, Elise was still prolonging the goodbye with Marsha, but Eve had joined in too. They looked like they were in the middle of a deeper conversation, but were interrupted by Jadis prompting all the goblins to follow her. After another quick back-and-forth, Marsha finally parted ways with a final wave.

Eve stood by James's side, watching everyone walk away. Mel was the only one still waving and shouting an occasional, "Bye!"

"Well. We didn't encounter any big problems," she said with a little smile at James. "I'd say we're off to a good start."

A good start. With a whole life ahead of them.

James looked over to Eve with a weak smile, desparately trying not to think too negatively about the future. He couldn't help but keep considering them merely lucky that things hadn't gone catastrophically wrong thus far. After how things panned out back on earth, he couldn't help it. Just when they'd let their guard down and thought they were safe... it all came back around again. He couldn't let that happen again.

"So, now what, our fearless leader?" Mel asked, now standing in his line of sight. "What's next?"

James knew the question would come the moment they parted ways. He'd had two weeks to prepare for it.

With a deep sigh he turned to look at Mel.

"Well, Mel," he said. "Though Jadis has helped equipped us with more supplies, there are a few things I think we'll need that we can only get in a town. Namely, navigational tools, and, perhaps... some less conspicuous clothing. I'd rather we blend in the best we can."

"So... we're going to a town?" Mel said.

James knew already that the trip into town was going to be more than exhausting for him.

"An actual city?" Mel continued.

"Is that safe?" Alistair asked.

"Yes. Sort of. And no," James answered. "It's a small town on the cusp of the Outland borders. It's in lawless territory."

"Would we need to make money?" Eve asked with a look of concern.

"In the Outlands, it's less about money, and more about equivalent exchange," James answered. "I should be able to barter with a few things, but I won't be taking all of us into town. With no intention to offend all of you, I don't want to risk any of you getting swindled or lost because you don't know enough about Nye yet."

"Well, don't keep all this to yourself. Who are you taking with you?" Mel asked, looking antsy to be included.

James looked to Eve.

"Would you mind staying back with the others?" he asked.

Before Eve could even open her mouth, Mel spoke again.

"James, I swear. Who are the others? Who's staying behind?" she asked in a more demanding voice.

With a sigh, James let his eyes land on Elise.

"Elise," he said. "Would you join me?"

The truth was, he could go alone, but he knew everyone would reasonably object to that with all the other risks considered, and he couldn't help but agree in the long run. Going into Sticks alone would be easier and harder for different reasons. It was best not to risk it.

At first, Elise looked like she didn't believe it. Her eyes shifted to the others until she realized that James was talking to her.

"Me?" she asked hesitantly, hand on her chest to gesture to herself. "Are you sure?"

"Yes," James answered.

"Just Elise?" Mel asked, baffled by the decision. "Why not anyone else?"

"Why not Elise?" James asked instead, giving Mel a level look. "I'm not going to parade everyone into town. I just don't want to go alone."

"Well, I'm okay with this decision. So the rest of us are staying here?" Alistair said.

James nodded.

"Just surprise with the decision, that's all," Mel huffed. "What ever happened to having strength in numbers?"

"Mel," James said with a small sigh. "Please just trust me on this. Alright?"

Mel sighed, admitting defeat. "Fine. But you better pick out an outfit I approve."

"I can stay with the others," Eve finally answered, then hesitated. "Are you sure you'll be okay?"

James reached out to hold her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

"I'll be careful," he said sincerely. He could never be sure if they would be okay. He could only hope for the best.

"When are you leaving?" Elias asked.

"We're not far from Sticks," James said. "We should have half a day ahead of us to come within an hour's reach of it, and Elise and I can head out tomorrow morning."

"What preparation do we need to do? Is there anything we can do to help? Maybe make a list of everything we can barter with, and everything we need to buy..." Eve said, trailing off in thought.

"That would be good," James said. "I have a list in my head, but we should make sure we don't miss anything."

"Sis?" Elias asked, poking his head towards Elise. "Are you okay with going?"

Elise still seemed surprised that she was picked, but at Elias's question, she stood straighter and smiled, nodding.

"Yes. I can go. We'll try our best to prepare and gather the items we need," Elise said with the familiar gentle tone.
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Carina says...

Elise was still trying to wrap her head around... well, everything.

As the minutes ticked by, James and Eve came up with a plan. James and Elise would go to Sticks, barter and buy needed supplies, fact check their maps and confirm the dates and times, and be out, hopefully as quickly as they came.

Elise understood it, and of course, she happily obliged.

But through the planning, and through the hours they spent trekking across the land to get to their destination, Elise continued to ask herself the same thought that dwelled in her mind since day one: how safe were they?

And now that they were going to a city, how safe would they be? And the others?

She didn't let the thought consume her, but she did wonder. After all, they had made it this far. Statistically, they were not far from disaster. Everyday was another game of chance. A new roll of the dice.

Elise didn't like that they were battling the sheer force of random chaos and the unknown, but there wasn't much else they could do. And in a new unfamiliar world... well...

Elise knew they have been lucky so far. And she hoped that they'd continue their streak once they reached Sticks.

Elise wasn't completely sure why James seemed set that she come along, but if she had to guess, it may be a combination of her medic skills and adaptability.

Everyone showed some strong emotion when they landed in Nye, and rightfully so. Elise, on the other hand... of course she was distraught, worried, and admittedly scared. But she would much rather focus her energy on making sure she and the others were healthy and okay, one day at a time.

They spent the night a good distance away from Sticks so that it would only take 1-2 hours to hike there in the morning. Mel insisted that Elise sleep the whole night, and she knew it was the smart and reasonable choice, but she found herself periodically waking throughout the night.

After all, if something bad were to happen at Sticks... what would happen to the others?

The morning came out slowly, and it was almost time to leave.

Elise silently listened to Eve listing everything off to James as she packed her items. She carefully wrapped cloth around the more sensitives salves, tools, and other various medical items that Marsha gave her before they parted ways. Even in Nye, she was glad to see that the silent culture of care between doctors was still present.

After Elise packed everything, she stood and waited for the others to finish talking, not wanting to interrupt.

"So that's it then, huh," Elias said during a beat of silence when it was clear that it was time to say goodbye.

"We'll wait four hours for you here," Eve said, reiterating her plans again to James.

"And if you don't come back, then what? Do we look for you?" Mel asked.

"If we don't return in about four hours," James answered. "Come search for us with caution, but until my return, Eve has the final say on any decisions that have to be made."

He turned to Eve and reached over to give her a quick kiss on the cheek.

"We'll see you soon," he said. "Take care in our absence."

With a worried look, Eve leaned in towards James for a tight hug. "Be safe. We'll be waiting for you."

"You sure you'll be okay?" Elias quietly to Elise.

Elise offered him a gentle smile, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"Positive. We'll be back soon. Are you going to be okay?" she asked.

Elias looked over his shoulder in thought, staring at Elliot. "Well... maybe Elliot could entertain me."

Elise glanced between Elias and Elliot. "I think we're taking Elliot with us. But I'm sure Mel will be just as fun."

They all said more of their goodbyes and good lucks, but both Elise and James assured them that they would be back soon. She wondered if he also said that to not cause any worries, or if he was fully confident.

She couldn't possibly know what was running through his mind, but she was confident that the latter was false.
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soundofmind says...

This was a bad idea. James knew from the beginning it was a bad idea, but there weren't any better options. What was he supposed to do? Send Mel, or Elias, or Alistair, or even Eve into Sticks blind? Eve might've been able to make it work, but it had been six years since she'd last stepped foot on Nye and things had changed. She was familiar with the Desert Sands, not the Outlands, and the latter was much less navigatable for someone unfamiliar with it.

It wasn't just that the Outlands had no real law enforcement to uphold any kind of standard or create some semblance of security. Someone walking into Sticks not knowing what they were walking into left them vulnerable, and anyone in Sticks would be able to see right through them.

He didn't have time to explain what would be a reasonable price to pay for food, or what would be reasonable to exchange for an article of clothing. Everyone, including Eve, came from a world without even the simplest concept of money, and that, at its core - aside from the other millions of worries - was why he simply couldn't feel confident sending anyone in but himself, despite knowing the own risks he faced.

He and Elise walked in silence to Sticks. He let Elliot beside them on a lead, with only the essentials they needed in Elliot's packs, having left everything else behind with the others - just in case. James had the little money he miraculously had left (after going from Nye to Earth and back) hidden on his person - inside his shirt, in his socks, in the inner lining of his jacket pocket, and in his sleeve. He'd had enough run-ins with skilled pick-pocketers that he wasn't willing to risk any losses anymore.

When they found the dirt road leading into Sticks, he knew they were close.

After about fifteen minutes of walking, a carriage came rolling towards them, coming from the opposite direction. An old, worn cart-horse pulled it steadily over the bumpy dirt road, and the lone driver didn't look in their direction. Neither did James look to his. On a different road, they might've acknowledged each other, but not in Sticks.

Another ten minutes lent to another two travelers passing by on horseback, neither of which acknowledged them either. They merely passed one another in silence.

Eventually, the road took a small turn, and the trees started to thin out. Distant buildings could be seen through the gaps in the trees, most of them old, and worn down. Overgrown vines grew up the sides of brick buildings. Sun-bleached wooden shacks stood with peeling, faded paint. Wooden fences were broken down between posts, and the dirt paths were getting wet and muddy. The consequences of living near water and what looked like a recent drizzle of rain.

James held Elliot's lead close and glanced over to Elise.

She'd been quiet the whole way over, and he had a feeling it was only because he was quiet as well.

When he looked back out at the road, he could finally spot a sign up ahead. Nailed to two, thick wooden posts was a flat wooden board with letters carved into it.

"Sticks," it read in large, blocky letters. And underneath, a much smaller phrase inscribed read: "The last stop before the Wilds." It seemed fitting that there was no pretending and no "welcome" added. Just a statement of what was.

In his head, he could imagine Mel's commentary, if she'd come.

See, this is why I didn't invite you, he wanted to say, but she wasn't there to appreciate the situational irony.

As they passed the sign, the buildings drew nearer, and closer together. Seeing as it was mid-morning, it looked like the town was just starting to wake up. It was by no means a very large town, but it had a main street and a few minor streets branching out to residents' homes and a few other businesses. It looked like there were a few small farms on the outskirts of the town that took up some of the larger stretches of property, and the distant smell of manure confirmed that farm animals weren't too far off.

There was a small, dusty tailor shop, and that was where James took them first. Though he didn't want to part with too many of their medical supplies, he knew quality medical supplies were difficult to come by out in Sticks. They didn't have to part with much in exchange for a few simple shirts and trousers. James could again hear Mel's voice in the back of his head harping him on picking out something stylish, but unfortunately for all of them, he had to prioritize their budget and practical needs before style. It was one thing to buy new clothes for one person. He had six to worry about.

Thankfully, the clothing purchase went without any trouble. Haggling over medicinal supplies was easy, which told James there was a need. Then again, there almost always was.

With clothes out of the way, that only left food and hygiene items, which brought them to the general store. Since he didn't want to make any more trips to town any time soon, he was trying to get more than they needed so it could last them a while.

He had Elise stay outside with Elliot while he went inside to quickly buy the things they needed. When he stepped inside the store, he noted the store clerk sweeping behind the counter. At one end of the store, there seemed to be another customer, looking at some produce arranged on a shelf.

At the far end of the store's main room, there was a back door with a foggy window, and two people seated on a bench next to it. They looked a little out of place, wearing nicer clothing and seeming a bit healthier and better off. That was when he noticed the tattoo peeking out from one of their sleeves, on their arm.

The Blue Suns.

A man with better judgment would've turned around right then and gone back out the door, but the man and woman on the back bench hadn't looked up at him yet - and they might've if he'd whipped around to leave the moment he stepped in. So instead, he merely lowered his head, kept out of direct view by going into the shelved aisles where he needed to look anyway, and quickly started gathering what he needed.

Soap. Potatoes. Rice. Things that people who didn't eat meat could eat because everyone traveling with him didn't eat meat. Beans. Dried fruit. No, he couldn't afford the fruit. They would be disappointed about that. Maybe he could afford it, but he wasn't sure he wanted to spend that much more time haggling if he didn't have to.

He needed to just buy everything and get it over with.

He turned and brought everything to the front counter.

"Twenty copper," he said, placing the last sack of rice down.

"Twenty-five if you want the soap," the shopkeep said, only glancing up from his sweeping.

He didn't turn, but he noticed the man and woman get up off the bench. They were both a part of the Blue Suns. Of course, the gang's influence had bled into Sticks, too. A lot could happen in a year.

"Twenty-two," James countered.

"Twenty-three," the man shot back.

The man started drifting near the front exit. There were only two exits. A front door, and wherever the back door led to. That, or the front display window. That required breaking glass. He didn't want to do that. No one wanted him to do that.

"Twenty-three, then," James said, pulling out his pouch of copper coins from under his shirt. Quickly, he counted them out, leaving them on the counter.

"That's twenty-two," the shopkeep said.

James blinked, hastily recounting. Twenty-two. He pulled out another coin and tucked the pouch away. It was much lighter, now.

He began to toss everything into his bag, slung across his shoulder. The man was lingering by the front door. The woman had disappeared in the midst of the coin counting, which meant she was somewhere outside of his peripheral vision. To look around would be too obvious.

"Thanks," was all he said as he turned to leave, but just as he did so, he saw the woman pass into view, moving faster than he'd anticipated. Stopping in his tracks to very narrowly avoid a collision, he looked up at her and then took a step back.

She was tall. At least a foot taller than him, and she easily blocked his exit when she leaned across with one hand on the counter. He forced himself not to glance down at the circular sun tattoo peeking out onto her hand and instead met her eyes. Her long, curly hair was pulled back into a sleek bun, and now that she was closer, he could see she had light leather armor on under her jacket, and a gun at her side.

She didn't look familiar, but that didn't mean they'd never met, or that she didn't know of him.

"'S this your first time out here in Sticks?" she asked.

James could see the shopkeep's head poke up in wary curiosity, out of the corner of his eyes.

He glanced over her shoulder and shrugged, looking up at her with confusion that he could only hope was believable.

"Yes..." he said. "Just passing through. What do you want?"

"Not sure yet," she said, tapping her fingers on the counter. "There's just something about you that I can't quite pin down."

"How nice," James said. "I hope you figure that out."

He took the opportunity to attempt to walk around her, but she quickly stood up straight and blocked him.

"No, no," she said. "I've almost got it. It's just the outfit that's throwing me off. But I think I've got it now."

James inched back again, but this time, she inched forward. Uncomfortably close.

"You're being awfully cryptic," he said. "And I'm just trying to--"

"Liam!" she said triumphantly.

Everything inside of James wanted to groan. Of course. Of course, this was happening. The one time he went into town just to get food for his friends. After being off Nye for a year. This had to happen.

"You must be really good at hiding," the woman said.

"Oh, you don't know the half of it," James muttered, but she kept talking over him.

"Rita'll be happy that we finally found you. She was awfully pissed with how you left," she went on, and gestured to someone who must've been behind him.

Well. This wasn't going well.

He lifted up his hands in surrender with a sigh.

"Can we just get this over with?" he asked.

"Giving up so easily, hm?" the woman asked with a tilt of her head. She reached behind her and pulled cuffs off her belt. Of course, she just carried them on her. Of course, things would go this way.

She reached over and snapped them onto one wrist. Just as she pulled it over to join his wrists together, he yanked his arm down and dropped to the floor. Gravity pulled the woman down with him, but he pulled the cuffs out of her hands, now that they were attached to him. Moving fast, he managed to propel himself past her, but she reached out and grabbed his bag, yanking him back.

He twisted to get free, but she was grabbing his shoulders before he could.

With no restraint, as she pulled him close to grapple him, he jabbed his elbow into her ribs full force. He was met with leather armor and stepped on her foot as well as he grabbed her arm that she was grabbing him with and pulled her forward, throwing her off his back.

"Why does this--" he grunted.

She'd grabbed his jacket on the way down. He was tumbling on top of her.


She tried to grab him, but he flipped around.


Sitting on top of her, he punched her straight between the eyes. She stared up at him for a moment, stunned, and then her eyes rolled back into her head, and she was out.

James shook his hand out. He'd broken skin on his knuckles, again, for the thousandth time in his life. Still, it hurt every time. But that wasn't the end of it.

As he sprung to his feet and adjusted his jacket and bag back into place, he found himself staring down the man at the door, who was reaching for something.

Just as the man pulled out a knife, clearly done with weaponless violence, the door behind him opened backward. The man was large enough that he blocked the view of the whole doorway, so James couldn't see who stood behind him, but what he did see was the man took a small step forward and then cringed. Sputtering and apparently bewildered, the man tried to turn to spin around and see who was behind him, but as he turned he stumbled and fell.

His body falling forward with a thump revealed Elise standing in the doorway with a syringe in her hand, the familiar worried expression plastered across her face.

Sedative. She'd used a sedative to knock the man out.

"Good thinking," he said too-cheerily as he gestured to her and hastily trotted towards the door.

"Wait! What do you expect me to do with them?" the shopkeeper called after him, sounding exasperated, but not like something like this hadn't happened before.

Glancing behind him, James flashed an apologetic smile, but at the same time, was pushing Elise out of the door. He gave the man no response and let the door shut behind them.

Elliot was tied up at the post outside of the shop, and thankfully, no one else was gathered outside. This was their window to get away, and he was eager to seize it.

"Are you hurt?" Elise worriedly asked as James quickly untied Elliot's knot.

"No," James said. And this time it was mostly true. His knuckles were inconsequential.

"We should go," Elise said, recognizing they had a limited window of time remaining.

"Agreed," he said, already hoisting himself up into Elliot's saddle. He extended his hand to help her up, which she gladly took.

With no more delay, he turned Elliot and rode them out of town, taking a different route than the one they came in on. Thankfully, the little scuffle didn't take too much time, so they'd be able to get back to the others before their meeting window closed and any worry was caused.

The ride was a little rough for a while, as they were moving as fast as Elliot could through the forest to avoid the roads, but when it became clear that no one was following them, James slowly brought Elliot to a stop and hopped down first.

He again offered Elise a hand, this time to help her down. Instead, she took this opportunity to break the silence.

"Your knuckles. How are they?" Elise asked, eyeing the bloodied hand he offered.

In honesty, he hadn't fully registered that his hand was bleeding. He withdrew it slightly, looking down at it. Maybe the skin had broken a little more than he thought. Hands always bled so much.

"Oh," he said. "It'll be fine. It's just broken skin."

He offered her his other hand instead, which she hesitantly took. Elise carefully stepped down from Elliot, letting go to brush herself off. A brief second of silence passed as she seemed to mull over his words.

"Would you like me to heal you?" she asked.

James, having forgotten that that was an option, blinked.

"It's really no bother, especially since I've spent the last two weeks training with Marsha," she added.

"Well," James said faintly. "I don't see why not, then."

A tad awkwardly, he offered out his hand. Elise smiled, offering her two hands out so his palm would rest on them. She studied his hand, treating the minor wound as if it were something more serious.

"Ready?" she asked.

At his nod, a bright, warm light shined on her fingertip as she gently drew her finger across the blood, sealing the wound until no evidence of a fight remained.

"Better?" she asked with a little smile, lowering and then dropping his hand.

"Good as new," he nodded with a tight smile. He then passed her to grab Elliot's lead, gesturing for her to follow as he started walking.

She stayed by his side as they walked through the woods, but the silence didn't last long.

"About what happened..." she said, trailing off to see if he would offer his own perspective before she finished her question. When he didn't, Elise continued. "Was that a bounty hunter?"

His eyes flicked over to her but quickly looked back in front of them. He slowly opened his mouth, mulling over the answer.

"...Not... exactly, no," he said slowly.

Again, Elise seemed to wait for him to elaborate, trying to catch his eyes. But James stayed silent, looking ahead and focusing on the path in front of him. He wasn't sure where to start. In honesty, he hadn't even told Eve much about his involvement with the Blue Suns, either. Though it was the most recent occurrence in his history on Nye before he was transported to earth, he'd somehow managed to avoid discussing it with anyone but Eve.

"I don't mean to pry, James - and I apologize if it comes across that way," Elise continued with the unwavering calm demeanor, and James could feel her finally pry her eyes off of him. "But since all of us are traveling together, I feel that we should have an honest discussion about our dangers. Your dangers are our dangers, and we're all here to help and stay safe together."

James sighed.

She was right. And he knew she was right, even though he resented the fact he had to tell her - not because he didn't like or trust Elise, but mostly because the truth was uncomfortable, and it felt much closer now than it did on earth.

"In the Outlands, there's a powerful, influential gang that dominates the towns out here," he said. "It's called the Blue Suns. I had the misfortune of angering the kingpin personally because that seems to be my lot in life. Apparently, she still has it out for me. The man and woman in the shop were two of hers."

"Ah... I see," Elise said, absorbing his words and letting a few seconds of silence pass. "Are they as big of a threat to you as bounty hunters are?" she asked.

"Evidently so," James said stiffly. "I'm not sure if Rita's interested in the bounty, but clearly I've become infamous enough that her goons think I'm worth catching to bring to her personally. That's about all I could gather from our brief interaction. I suppose I could've investigated further, but I figured it wasn't worth the risk."

"I think you did all you could've done in the situation," Elise said with a quick nod. "You've given us enough context about the Moonlight Kingdom and your past to have us understand the danger ahead of us. Should we know more about the Blue Suns and your role in it?"

James squinted and his mouth tightened into a small frown as he tilted his head to the side with a hum.

"I don't think it's that necessary," he said.

"You seem uncertain," Elise said.

"They don't like me, and they're a menace to society," James said dismissively. "I think that about covers it."

"May I ask why they don't like you?" Elise persisted.

James pressed his lips together and considered saying 'no.' But he knew that would only be belligerent.

"The details of what happened really aren't that important. The point is that we simply out to avoid them," he said instead.

"Are you sure?" Elise continued. "If we were to encounter them again, I'd think it would be best to be well-informed rather than stay ignorant."

"If you'd like to know more about the Blue Suns," James said. "It's really quite simple. They've essentially become the unofficial governing force in the Outlands while they continue to run the largest drug supply in Nye, steal out of the mouths of the needy, and blackmail surrounding kingdoms into enabling their debased behavior. And they're drowning in money because of it."

Elise listened intently, but James could pick up that she wasn't satisfied with his answer. She wanted to know his role in the gang. Why he was there. What he did. He didn't feel like the information was necessary to divulge to keep them safe, even though Elise clearly thought the opposite.

Still, she offered a sad smile, letting another silence pass between them as they continued to walk.

"After Elias was drafted to the military, it felt like my whole world shattered," Elise suddenly said out-of-the-blue, still focusing on the path ahead of her. "There was grief. There was regret... and a lot of it, too. But I eventually channeled my energy into determination, and that determination turned into a goal. A goal of saving my brother from his fate and doing whatever it takes to do it."

He knew that Elise was sharing this for a purpose. Not just for the sake of being open and vulnerable. Sure, he appreciated her vulnerability, but she was someone who was very intentional with her words. He waited to see how she'd use this to try to get him to open up.

"It took years, but I did it, of course - but not by myself. I wouldn't have been able to do it without my friends, family, and colleagues who helped me with my goal. I trusted them with my life, and they trusted me with theirs. They all risked their lives for me and Elias. And they did so without hesitation because they wanted to help me achieve my goal."

Elise sighed.

"All this to say..." she said, then looked back at James to give eye contact again. "I want to help you achieve your goal too. I believe you deserve a second chance at life, just like I did with Elias. But if you want me to help, you have to be honest with me and everyone else. We have to have clear and transparent communication, especially since we are all unfamiliar with this world... Especially because of that. You're entitled to your privacy, of course - but if you even have the slightest doubt that the information you are withholding may be important for others to know... well, then I think you should be honest with yourself and communicate it with us."

James's brows furrowed as he stared out into the forest ahead of them.

"If you don't mind, I'd like to ask the same question from before: may I ask why the Blue Suns don't like you?" Elise asked gently.


He still didn't think it was relevant for Elise to know, but he understood that this would be important to establish - or rather, reestablish - trust between the two of them.

If they weren't going to be traveling together, James still wouldn't tell her. But seeing as they were going to continue seeing each other every day and likely be put into more than one life-threatening situation, he understood. Reluctantly, he understood.

"This stays between us," he said, not looking at her.

"Of course," Elise said warmly.

Normally, her warmth was appreciated. Now, it felt more grating. He knew she didn't have ill intent in asking, but years of built of paranoia created a filter that was hard to dismantle. The familiar prickle of distrust returned.

"I was blackmailed into joining the Blue Suns," he said. "About a year and a half ago. I met Rita, the leader, by chance about three years prior. She knew my face back then but didn't associate me with the name, and the posters. But when I ran into her a year and a half ago, she'd put two and two together."

He paused, mulling over how to continue.

"When we first met," he went on before Elise could interrupt. "I didn't know about her gang involvement. I don't think she'd climbed the ranks yet. Needless to say the second time we met, she had."

"How did she blackmail you into joining the gang?" Elise asked.

"Joining the gang may be a generous way to put it," James said stiffly. "Perhaps hostage is a better term. Regardless, I was outnumbered and forced to go with them. The only reason Rita didn't surrender me to the authorities was because I offered to tell her everything I knew about the Moonlight Kingdom. Though my knowledge was outdated, she still... indulged me."

"Was her intention to eventually turn you in?"

James wanted to say that some of her intentions may have been to eventually get into his pants, but he felt that was unnecessary information.

"Couldn't say," he said instead.

Elise let another pause pass between them as she cast a glance his way. "Did they hurt you?" she asked.

He looked over to Elise and gave her a level look.

"Only when I was non-compliant," he said vaguely.

Judging from the worried creases on her face, Elise seemed to understand. But she didn't persist on the topic anymore.

"I take it that the dynamics have changed now since they attacked on sight," she said instead.

"I suppose that's the reasonable response when you're responsible for the deaths of two of the men in her inner circle," he said (knowingly) far too casually.

Elise cast him another look of worry as she silently unpacked his words. "Was it related to your escape? Or means of defending yourself?" she asked.

"The first man died protecting me because, at the time, I was considered Rita's property," James said, not caring to put it gracefully. "The second time it was self-defense. And yes, it was how I escaped."

For every line he said, Elise seemed to let the silence grow longer and longer.

"Do you feel guilty?" she asked.

It took every ounce of self-control within James not to say something sharp and lash out. He clenched his jaw for a moment and looked away, trying to steady the anger that rushed up to defend himself.

But trying to get words out became a challenge.

"I try not to think about it," he said stiffly.

"I'm sorry if this brought up unwanted memories or feelings," Elise said with a softer tone. "Thank you for telling me."

James nodded but didn't look over at her.

"Sure," he said in what became more of a mumble.

"Should we tell the others that the members of the Blue Sun are trying to catch you to turn you in, like bounty hunters?" Elise continued.

James let out a long sigh.

"Would it really make much of a difference?" he asked, no longer bothering to hide his wearied exasperation.

"Maybe not to us. But to you, it does. Do you want to answer questions about them from Eve, Mel, Elias, and Alistair?" Elise said.

"We can just tell them a bounty hunter spotted me while we were in town so that we'll all be more careful," he said instead, cutting to the solution so he didn't have to jump through all the hoops of her questions.

"Sure," Elise said softly, then paused. "We can delay the subject, but I'm sure it will come back someday, especially since they are a prevalent threat."

James stopped in his steps, closed his eyes, turned to Elliot, and bonked his forehead on the side of Elliot's face. He stood there in silence, trying desperately to feel less like he was going to lose his mind.

"You handled the situation at the general store very well, by the way," Elise suddenly said, changing the topic. "You acted quick and--"

She was changing the subject. He knew she was just trying to ease the tension, but...

"Elise?" he cut in before she could finish.

It was fine. He was going to be fine. He just needed a moment. His head hurt. A lot. It was stress, and he knew that. He just needed to take a deep breath, and push back the wave of unwanted emotions, because he wasn't going to break down in the middle of a forest, outside of Sticks, with potential gang members getting back up to look for him, when he had to meet up with everyone else on a ticking clock, when there could be other dangers lurking in the forest too.

He just had to pull it together.

"I'm sorry for pushing," Elise said after a lingering silence.

Well, that wasn't helping.

"Take as long as you need," she added.

James hummed distantly, but the buzzing in his head grew louder. He didn't know how long he stood there for, on the verge of being on the verge of tears, stubbornly fighting it all back, over and over. He desperately wanted to cry, but he didn't feel like he could. He was never safe to, anymore. The last time he checked out and fell apart, it brought everyone down with him.

Finally, he slowly lifted up his head, stood up straight, took in a deep breath, and started walking again.

Elise followed close, this time in silence the whole way back.
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Carina says...

Eve was used to the long hikes they would do everyday. Her body was used to it, and she wouldn't get sore unless she pushed herself.

But for the (almost) four hours that passed by, she paced up and down the path so often, her legs almost gave in. Or maybe it was because she was pushing herself, considering she had spent the last two weeks riding Elliot for the majority of the time. After all, her body was still recovering from the coma.

But if it wasn't for that, maybe she could have gone with James instead of Elise. Because if she had gone instead, they had the advantage of using their newfound time-pausing magic together. Or... or maybe that wasn't a good idea since--

"Can you stop pacing, Eve?" Alistair asked bluntly, interrupting her thoughts.

He didn't even bother to ask nicely, but for the last two hours, everyone had asked her to calm down in some way. Even Mel had to do a one-eighty and pretend that it was no big deal that they all stayed behind, even though it was clear that she wanted to go from the beginning.

Eve felt like she was losing her mind. All because James and Elise were coming close to the time limit, and the uncertainty of their return was driving her to the edge.

"Yeah. I'll stop," Eve said quietly, giving in and deciding to succumb to the physical exhaustion. Her legs nearly buckled as she fell to the ground next to Elias.

"Whoa there, you doing okay?" he said as he placed his hands out in case she wobbled, but she steadied herself and ignored his help.

"I'm fine," Eve said with a sigh, staring back out into the path where James should emerge.

She found herself squinting. Was that...?

"I'm sure they're fine. He's probably taking extra long to pick out which soap you'd like," Elias said with a smug grin.

Eve pried her eyes out from the path to give him a suspicious stare. "How do you know that reference?" she asked with a squint.

Elias shifted his eyes, landing on Mel. "Uh..."

Before Eve could muster up the energy to groan and give them both a spiel about personal privacy, a moving object caught Eve's peripheral vision.

It was unmistakable. It was Elliot's shadow, and Jame's, and Elise's.

"They're back!" Mel said, spotting them before Eve could say anything.

Eve tried to quickly get on her feet, but when she struggled to do so, Elias quickly hopped to his and offered a hand. She begrudgingly took it and watched with a relieved smile as they got closer into view.

"See? Nothing to worry about," Elias said as he patted her back.

That was what Eve thought too... until they walked close enough that she could examine their expressions. She picked up right away that they were both tense. James especially tried to hide it behind a his resting frown, but she had studied him enough that something was off.

"Well?" Mel said as she bounced towards them, being the first one to approach. "How was it?"

James slowed to a stop and shrugged his bag off his shoulders.

"Food has been acquired," he said simply as he turned and reached into the saddle bags on Elliot's saddle. "And clothing."

Mel opened her mouth to likely ask about what the clothes looked like, but she was keen enough to also see that something was off. She suspiciously glanced between James and Elise.

"Did you run into any trouble?" she asked, seeming to note how Elise turned to James to answer.

"Briefly," James answered vaguely. There was something tense in his posture as he began rearranging things in the bags, pulling out clothes. "What you need to know is that we made it back, but I might have a tail now. So we'll need to be more careful."

He'd heaped clothing into his arms and held out a blouse and trousers to Mel, shoving them into her arms.

"Hopefully everything fits," James said, changing the subject as he turned and began to distribute clothing to all of them.

James was hoping that she would leave the subject alone and instead focus on the clothes. But it seemed that it wasn't enough.

"Well, that's not really helpful," she huffed, only glancing down at the clothes. "Was it a bounty hunter? Did you know them? Are we in danger?"

"Mel, we are always in danger," James said tiredly.

"Yeah, okay, but are we--"

"Mel, I need a second opinion. Can you help me for a second?" Elise interrupted, waving her over while holding her bundle of clothes.

Mel hesitated, looking surprised. Eve was too, considering it was rare for Elise to interrupt anyone. It was clear that something happened in Sticks, and Elise was helping to cover it up.

"Yeah. Yeah, sure," Mel muttered, casting James another suspicious glance. As she followed Elise, she finally looked at the clothes and mumbled, "Man, we're going to look like hillbillies."

Dread set in, but Eve swallowed it down. James looked overwhelmed. She didn't want him to worry about her. She wanted to help, although she wasn't sure how.

She had to talk to him privately.

"Does Elise seem off to you?" Elias suddenly asked, his head turned toward where Elise and Mel ran off to.

It was strange. For one, Elias's expression creased with worry, and for the first time in a while, Eve was able to see a mirror of Elise in him. Additionally, Eve had asked the same question, but geared towards James instead. It seemed they both had a radar for the person they loved the most.

"Maybe you should talk to her to make sure she's doing alright," Eve said, glancing at James and noticing that he was finishing giving Alistair his clothes and was now walking their way.

"Yeah. Maybe I should," Elias said distractedly, brows furrowed in concern as he started to walk down the same path as them, oblivious that James was approaching him.

That worked out anyways since she wanted to talk to James privately. Fighting through the aches and pains in her legs, Eve took a step forward so she could be more level with James and not have to depend on the tree for support.

"Do you need to sit down?" James asked. Though he clearly held tension in his whole body, worry showed in his eyes as he looked her up and down.

"What's wrong? Did something else happen?" Eve said instead, cutting right to the chase.

James pressed his lips into a line, and she saw his eyes flick over to Alistair, and where the others had disappeared into the trees to change.

"No," he said stiffly, keeping his voice low. "It-- it wasn't a bounty hunter. It was..."

Although Alistair was likely minding his own business and not listening, Eve knew that James would feel more comfortable if they were alone.

"We really should get moving soon," James said instead, and she could hear the anxiety he was trying to hide in his voice. "I don't want to keep us here long."

Eve took his free hand and sandwiched it between her own hands, her eyes still set on his. "After we leave and get settled for the night, I can take the first watch up," she said slowly and deliberately. "You're welcome to join. But you're right. We should get going."

He nodded, but avoided meeting her eyes.

"Alright," he said. "Let's... get changed too, before we go."

In the next minutes that followed, everyone changed into their new outfits. James helped Eve put hers on since she wasn't in the most agile state, and Alistair sneaked away to dress himself as well. When finished, Elise, Elias, and Mel all walked back together - but they made themselves known first since Mel was heard over the trees complaining about how her pants were too long, but she thought that cuffing the end of them looked decent.

Although they all looked a bit plain, they did fit in Nye much better. Fortunately, James took tailored measurements before leaving, so he did his best to make sure he bought clothes that fit everyone. Or at least, were more loose than tight. At the end of the day, what mattered the most was that they could blend in and also be able to continually reuse their clothes with minimal wear.

And then they were off again. James led the way northward into the wilds, but from his anxious and bothered expression, Eve wondered if he was trying to maximize his distance from Sticks, not caring if it was the most efficient destination.

Riding on Elliot, Eve glanced down at Elise and Elias, who were chatting like nothing had happened. Her stomach knotted up nervously because she couldn't help but feel like something bad did happen, but James and Elise were trying to cover it up so they wouldn't worry them.

If it wasn't a bounty hunter who chased them out of town, who would it be?

Was it someone from the Moonlight Kingdom? Maybe someone from his past? His family? Carter? Or maybe it was a criminal he had a run-in from in his past. Or an old friend. Or maybe it was someone in the Blue Suns. Or a citizen who vocally said they recognized him, but was not a bounty hunter.

It could have been anyone and been anything. And if it wasn't bounty hunter, then Eve's mind naturally assumed the worst.

She really wanted to talk to James, but she forced herself to wait until the right time since they couldn't get a moment of privacy.

Hours passed, and finally, night fell. They underwent their usual routine (minus the goblins this time), and nothing was said out of the ordinary. Mel did ask when would be the next time they would pass through another town, to which James informed her that it wouldn't be for a few weeks, at the least.

When they were getting ready to sleep, Eve offered to stay up before the question was even asked. Her eyes flicked to James. He wouldn't be able to sleep right away anyways.

Elias was the last person to sleep, staying up with Eve and James and making casual conversation.

"The night feels a little different without the goblins," he said distractedly, looking up at the stars. "I wonder what they're doing now?"

"I'm sure they're doing fine," Eve said.

"Maybe they're wondering what we're doing too," Elias added.

Eve stared at him for a second, the dim glow of the moon illuminating his face. "And what's that?"

"Not sleeping."

Eve sighed, and as if that was his own cue, he got up to his feet.

"Alright. Time to sleep. See ya in the morning," he said as he carefully walked around everyone to get to his bed roll.

"Good night," Eve said as she watched him get settled, the silence of the night now filling the air along with Mel and Alistair's breathing patterns.

Eve looked across the camp at James. It was dark without a fire, but she could see just enough to know that he was sitting and leaning against the tree with Elliot nearby. She didn't have to look at him to know that he wasn't sleeping.

Eve waited another minute for Elias to settle, but she knew that he didn't take much time to go into a deep sleep. With a deep breath, she slowly and silently stood up so she could walk to James.

"Mind if I join?" she asked, but was already preparing to invite herself next to him.

He looked up at her with a small nod.

"Sure," he said quietly.

As Eve sat there with him, she let the silence pass by them peacefully. She was itching to jump into the conversation, but she wanted to be more patient for James. After a minute of silence (with James predictably not saying anything), she took another deep breath and spoke.

"What's on your mind?" she asked in a soft tone so the others wouldn't wake.

James adjusted his glasses on his nose and leaned his head back heavily onto the tree trunk behind him, staring up into the black, starry sky.

"You know," he said. "After a year, I thought maybe everyone would forget about me. Or rather, hoped they would."

It didn't take long for Eve to put the pieces together. She knew that when James awoke on Earth, he had just narrowly escaped a fight.

That was one year ago.

"You ran into members of the Blue Sun," she deduced out loud. "Didn't you?"

"While I was buying groceries," he said. "And apparently, I'm infamous now, as if I wasn't already. But now I'm infamous among the largest, most influential criminal organization on Nye. So add that to the list of things I've got going for me."

Eve sighed, leaning back on the tree with him so she could also crane her neck to gaze up at the sky.

"This always seems to happen to you," she dead-panned.

James sighed.

"You have any idea what I would give to not be known? To be a nobody, like everybody else?" he asked rhetorically, and then slouched his head forward and rubbed his eyes behind his glasses.

Stressed. He was stressed. And she didn't blame him. Eve placed her hand on his shoulder to comfort him.

"Gods," he muttered. "Never mind. Complaining doesn't change anything. It's just... I'm so tired. We've been here two weeks and I've already put myself back on the map. I don't know how quickly word will spread about where I was last seen, and with everyone else..."

He took off his glasses and held them with one hand, arm propped up on his knee. He looked out at the others, curled up - probably now only looking like bundled shadows to him.

"You'd think they'd give up at some point," he said lowly. "It's been almost seven years."

"You're not alone this time. You have the rest of us to help you through this," Eve said quietly. "You don't have to feel like you have to figure it all out by yourself right now."

He was quiet for a moment.

"I just hate feeling so helpless," he said faintly. "For years, the best solution I could come up with was to run, because in any circumstance, I was always out-manned in a fight. And when I wasn't outnumbered, the only way to end it for good would be to kill my pursuers."

There was a tense, heavy pause after that conclusion.

"And look where that got me," he said. "With a gangleader and her dogs breathing down my neck."

Eve furrowed her brows with concern over the weight of his words. She knew that he was masking what he was truly trying to say, but it didn't matter. She still supported and cared about him.

"Running away doesn't necessarily make you a coward, just like how slaying another man doesn't make you evil," she said quietly with a steady voice, hand still on his shoulder for support. "You did the best you could in the situation you were put in. The details out of your control doesn't change the fact that you're dependable, resourceful, brave, and an overall good person."

James turned his face towards her, but kept his eyes low.

"I know," he said quietly. "I just wish... us coming to Nye wasn't exchanging one life-threatening danger for another. But at least, here... it's only me anyone's after and not all of us. Though I suppose... even on earth..."

She watched as his eyes rolled back into his head and he made a face she knew wasn't directed at her. Shaking his head, he looked away.

"At least here on Nye they don't have the technology they do on earth to communicate as quickly or track people as accurately," he muttered.

"Maybe not. Instead we now have ridiculously overpowered magic," Eve said, then paused. "At least, compared to Earth's standards."

James let out a weak huff of laughter through his nose, but just as he seemed like he was going to say something, he fell silent. His eyes seemed intensely focused on something in front of him, even though there was nothing, and he blinked once. Then again, this time harder, like he was trying to focus his vision without putting on his glasses.

His shoulders tensed again, and his brows drew together tightly.

"What's wrong?" Eve asked in a hushed tone, glancing between him and the camp, not seeing anything out of the ordinary.

He didn't respond at first, and instead blinked hard again. Then rubbed his eyes and put on his glasses, looking both bewildered and deeply disturbed.

"Uh..." he said. "I... I don't know."

This exchange out of character for James, and that only put Eve more on edge.

"Did you see or hear something?" she asked under her breath, her eyes scanning her surroundings, but there was nothing around.

His brows seemed to furrow even more.

"I..." he hesitated. "I saw... Deidra?"

Eve faltered, slowly turning back to James. "Deidra," she said slowly.

"It couldn't have been-- I mean, I wasn't sleeping. At least-- it-- it wasn't a dream," he began to mutter. "Time--she's never been to Nye. Why would I dream of her here--? And it was only a second. One moment she was there and the next she was gone."

Eve didn't really know what to do with this information. The last time he saw strange visions, it was because he was seeing undone memories. But now, on Nye... well, that didn't make any sense.

"It was like-- like I was seeing through someone else's eyes," he went on. "She wasn't even here. It wasn't-- I don't know, it happened so fast."

A terrifying realization creeped up her chest. If he saw Deidra and felt like he was seeing through someone else's eyes... then...

"James," Eve said gravely, sitting up straight and turning squarely towards him as she met his eyes. "Do you think it's possible that Deidra and Tula also woke up in Nye?"

He stared at her. Then seemed to stare through her.

Then he cursed, a little too loudly, and quickly snapped his mouth shut, cringing as he looked back at the others to see if anyone woke up. Fortunately, no one did.

"I thought she had to-- you know-- that she couldn't just do it without someone's consent," James stuttered.

"That's correct on Earth, but it seems that the rules have changed on Nye," Eve said as her mind raced to think of the million implications of Tula being on Nye and being able to see what they see. "I don't know what she knows, or what she's trying to accomplish here. But if she's trying to find you... that can't be good. That can't be good at all."

Dread set in as Eve thought of how this changed their future and their dynamics. Did she know that they knew? Would she try to see from everyone's eyes? Was she still trying to capture James for whatever reason? What about the others?

James looked away and snapped his eyes shut to take slow, deliberate breaths as he sunk his head into his hands. If he seemed stressed before, now he really looked like he was on the verge of unraveling.

And so was Eve. Because if Tula and Deidra truly did wake up on Nye...

Who else did?
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Carina says...

Hendrik didn't know what was happening exactly, but he was having the time of his life.

"Hey hoy! Get back here, Bacon!" he yelled up to the sky at Bacon, his flying pig who was out for a joy ride.

Maybe this was all a fever dream, but it sure as hell didn't feel like it. Everything felt so real, and two full weeks had passed. Two. Weeks. All the time in the world to domesticate flying pigs, griffins, and whatever other random creature came their way.

Bacon gracefully flew down from his flight, squealing with joy as she ran towards Hendrik. Piggly and Wiggly, the other flying boars, followed the trend so that the three of them could stampede towards him.

"Hold your horses!" he commanded in a stern tone, fully aware of the irony. In his hands was Sleepy the sleeping hen, and he petted her feathers as he looked down to scold his pigs. "If you run me over, then you're not going to get any food. How do you like that, huh?"

The pigs squealed again, this time more calm and with apologies. They slowly trotted away, sniffing the area around them.

This may have been the wild wild west in animal taming. Hendrik didn't know what the hell was going on, but he wasn't complaining.

"Life here's not so bad, isn't that right, Bongo?" Hendrik said with low playful voice as he tickled his half-rhino-half-bear pet. "Don't worry, Birdbrain here can't replace you."

Birdbrain the griffin squawked and playfully flapped his wings in response.

"Hey! Higgins! For the millionth time, don't eat the pigs!" Hendrik yelled when he heard Wiggly squeal in terror again. He didn't need to turn around to know that his fox companion Higgins was swatting at Wiggly again.

This was his life now. Just him and his animals, going nowhere in particular. At first, he had no clue where he was and why he was here. He hadn't run into anyone in particular to give him any clues, but...

He petted Sleepy again, who had grown accustomed to him constantly giving him pets. She was his only clue in all this. He always dreamed about his animals, but James's chicken? Why did he have her?

It got him thinking more and more about what James said months ago when they were in the mines. He revealed where he was really from and what it was like.

So it made him think.

Was he in...?

Hendrik sighed and placed Sleepy on Bongo's saddle. His thoughts got interrupted by the rustling of bushes nearby.

"I swear, if that goddamn snake tries to eat my pigs again," he grumbled under his breath as he prepared to face the wilds of the jungle again, but then stopped in his tracks.

There was something in the bushes. It wasn't a snake. It was a... wolf?

A small, brown wolf stepped out into view, staring at him. It stood still, eyes locked onto Hendrick.

Hendrik knelt down so that he could be more at eye-level with the wolf. Somehow, he was able to not only understand animals, but speak to them too. Showing that he was a friend rather than a threat often helped him befriend them easier.

"Hey, little guy. You lost out here?" Hendrik asked.

The wolf narrowed its eyes at him and tilted its head back and to the side, still wary.

"What, you want some food? Hungry, eh?"

At that, the wolf almost looked offended, in an eerily, almost human kind of expression. Hendrik decided to brush past that. For now.

"I got some steaks here if you want it," Hendrik said with a motion behind him, gesturing towards Bongo and their box of fresh meat. "Hunted some crocodiles a little bit ago. Fresh outta the lake over there."

"I can hunt for myself," the wolf said, except it spoke in clear, proper english accent. It was different than when animals spoke with him before. The animals would always speak in their own way, be it chittering, barking, squaking, and he just understood. They never actually spoke like a human.

Hendrik found himself staring incredulously at this wolf.

"Did you just talk?" he spat out.

"You were the one who started talking to me first," the wolf objected. "Did you think I couldn't respond? Were you intending to talk to a brick wall? Do you consider me dull because I'm not standing on two feet, like you?"

"First flying pigs, now talking wolves. What the hell is this world," Hendrik mumbled to himself as he stood up. "You want some food or not?"

"... if you're offering," the wolf shrugged.

A wolf. Shrugging. Talking.

Hendrik shook his head to shake off the thoughts as he turned around and rummaged through his meat box.

"You know," the wolf said, inching closer to follow Hendrik, sniffing the air. "I'm not a wolf."

Hendrik snorted and grabbed a chunk of meat. "Yeah, and I'm not-- WHAT IN THE--" he yelled as he turned around and faced a small man suddenly behind him.

Instinctively, he threw the closest thing he had to him. Which happened to be the chunk of meat.

The man deftly caught it before it hit the ground, and brought it up to his nose to sniff.

"Crocodile. You weren't lying about that," he said as he turned the meat over, inspecting it.

"Of course not," Hendrik spat again, offended that he'd even think that. "Now, who the hell are you?"

But when Hendrik look past the short bald man wearing strangely nice clothes, he realized that the wolf had disappeared. It also dawned on him that the voice was the same.

"Not sure what this hell is you're talking about," the man said. "But my name's Robin, and you'll tell me your name now."

Hendrik didn't know what this tiny man thought he was, ordering him around and poking fun of him. He stood up straight with a frown, looking down at him.

"You're the wolf?" he said gruffly instead.

"Werewolf," the man corrected. "Don't look so shocked. You're the one with a menagerie out in the wilds, talking to animals. I think you're the crazy one in this picture."

Hendrik scoffed. "Invitation to join my 'men-a-ger-ie' is rescinded. Go trot away to your other wolf-man friends."

"What about you?" Robin asked. "Where are your hu-man friends?"

Robin didn't give him any time to respond.

"Oh? You don't have any out here?" Robin asked. "Just Bongo and Wiggly, was it?"

Hendrik narrowed his eyes at him, still towering above him. "You got a problem with how I name my animals?" he said threateningly.

"No, it intrigues me quite a lot, actually," Robin said. "How you managed to get them all to cohabitate when they are natural predators is a quandry. You can imagine how befuddled I was to smell all of their scents along with a human all in the same location. Naturally, I thought you might be in danger or lost, but seeing as that's not the case, I'm content to take this croc meat and be on my way, unless you are, in fact, in need of some assistance."

This man sure spoke a lot of words without saying much.

Hendrik stared at him, blinked, and then shook it off, waving him away. "Yeah, okay, wolf-man. Don't know why you're so confused when I'm only talking to animals. If you got a problem with it, then go run off to another part of the jungle."

"The jungle's further east, actually," Robin said. "You're in a forest at the moment."

"Great, thanks for the tip," Hendrik said sarcastically. "How about you stay in the forest and I go to the jungle, then?"

"Oh, I wouldn't recommend that," Robin said. "The beasts in the jungle are far worse than those here. Perhaps your animal whispering powers would work on them, but I don't imagine you'd want to befriend them."

"The biggest beast I'll probably encounter is the pain in the ass that you're giving me," Hendrik mumbled.

Instantaneously, without any shifting, or any kind of physical transition, Robin went from human to wolf. In the blink of an eye.

Sitting on his haunches, he set the crocodile meat down in front of him.

"Am I the first creature you've encountered that hasn't been charmed by your unusual magic?" he asked.

Hendrik still couldn't get over the weird shape-shifting. "How do you even do that?" he asked.

"I am a werewolf," Robin said. "I simultaneously exist in two forms at all times but you only ever see one interacting with the world around you and yourself."

"Uh... huh," Hendrik said slowly, trying to process what he was trying to say, if anything.

"I am a wolf and a human," Robin said. "I am both."

"Okay, wolf-man. Whatever you say," Hendrik said dismissively.

"You didn't answer my question," Robin said.

"The name's Hendrik, wolf-man," Hendrik said.

"The other question, Hendrik," Robin countered.

Hendrik scoffed. "The last person I'd want to charm is you, so I'm glad it's not working."

"So is this some kind of magic you have, then?" Robin asked with a tilt of his head.

Hendrik narrowed his eyes at him again, trying to take his wolf face seriously.

If he truly was in Nye... in James's world... with his chicken, and his animals... then didn't that mean that magic was illegal?

"What is this, an interrogation? What's it to you?" Hendrik said suspiciously as he stood up straight again.

"I have magic too," Robin said plainly. "What's it to you?"

At that, he reached down and took a bite out of the raw steak in front of him and started chewing.

Hendrik watched him devour the steak with a grimace. He didn't know what this wolf-man was getting at here, and he was just becoming more and more confused.

He sighed. "I just talk to animals, and weird creatures like you apparently. Alright? That what you want to hear?"

Robin paused in the steak tearing and chewing, swallowing before speaking.

"I can tell you're upset," he said. "If I had approached you as a human first, would that have helped? I'm asking for future reference."

Hendrik stared at him blankly for a second before his face scrunched up in annoyance.

"What am I, your therapist?" he said.

"What's a therapist?" Robin asked.

"That answers that," Hendrik grumbled. "Never mind. You done?"

"With what?"

"Being a pain in my ass," Hendrik said, sounding out the words as if he were stupid. Because he was. But he also seemed smart, so that made him even more confused.

"Wow," Robin sounded out in response before he reached down and scarfed the rest of the steak down. After throwing his head back to swallow it whole, he got on all fours and shook his head, ears flopping back and forth as his tail swayed.

"So, are you lost?" Robin asked.

Hendrik gave up. Whatever. Answering this pest's questions wouldn't do him any harm, although he was seriously getting under his skin... mostly in a creepy and uncanny valley way.

"Nope," he answered plainly.

"Tell me where we are, then," Robin said.

"The forest," Hendrik said like it was obvious.

"Which forest?" Robin asked.

"The one west of the jungle."

"It has a name, though," Robin said. "Everyone knows the name. Come on, you must know it."

"Top secret," Hendrik said in a monotone voice.

"So you don't know, then," Robin said flatly.

"I didn't say that. You said that," Hendrik said, taking offense.

"And you're being belligerent," Robin accused him.

"Yeah, and you're being--" Hendrik flourished a hand towards him. "... dumb."

"Good one. Now, if you're done trying to act like you know more than you do, perhaps I can finally get to helping you," Robin said.

"Who said I was acting more than I do? And who said I needed help?" Hendrik said, puffing his chest and towering over him again.

"You reek of stress," Robin said. "It comes out in your sweat. An unfortunate wolven feature that I can smell all of that, really. Though I suppose, fortunate for you."

"Yeah, and you smell like dog shit," Hendrik said, still keeping his stance.

"Do I, though?" Robin said, tilting his head in an oddly endearing dog-like manner.

"What, you want me to come close and sniff you?"

"It wouldn't be weird to me if that's what you mean," Robin said. "I smell people all the time."

Hendrik frowned. "I'm not going to sniff you," he said through his teeth.

"Fine with me," Robin said, prancing a few feet away before suddenly becoming human again. The visual was still equally jarring as the last two times.

"Give a warning next time, will ya? Just thought you should know, since it's for your reference," Hendrik said with a shake of his head and a frown.

Robin looked back at Hendrik, his expression blank, and if anything, looking bored.

This was, hands down, the weirdest man-slash-animal that Hendrik had ever met.

"You're in the wilds," Robin said. "If you're looking for humans, you'd best head southward."

He pointed.

"But don't tell them you have magic or that you're a mage. If you're interested in joining other mages, though, this is your invitation."

"What's that mean? A whole room full of wolf-men?" Hendrik asked incredulously.

"Werewolves," Robin corrected. "And sadly, most of my kind were killed off during the calamity. So no. You'd be surrounded by humans with magical abilities like yourself. Perhaps in a room. Perhaps in a cave. There are several locations of which I won't disclose to you right now for everyone's safety."

Hendrik mulled this over. He had considered the possibility that he was in Nye many times, but now he was certain that he truly was here. Still, that didn't give him much of a plan or mission. Was he the only one here? Maybe that was his first clue. Try to find the others, if they were even here.

It was like finding a needle in a haystack. Life in the jungle with his animals was fun, but Hendrik was also loyal.

And if he had magic, then the others did too. They would be mages.


"Sure, why the hell not," he said with an annoyed sigh. "I'll join your wolf-cave."

"You're being very insensitive," Robin said, though he didn't sound offended, just like he was informing him matter-of-factly. "But I will let this slide. Most people are when they first meet werewolves, but that does not make it right."

"Whatever, wolf-man," Hendrik said dismissiely.

"Robin," he corrected, but Hendrik talked over him.

"This cave have mages like me then?"

"I believe you, sir, are in a category of your own," Robin said.

"Not like-me-like-me. I meant, are there mages over there who have magic too? And are human? That's what you meant?" Hendrik asked tiredly.

"Yes," Robin said. "Humans with magic. Largely elemental types. Fire. Water. Air. You get the idea."

"What about other ones like time, light, and healing? You got any of those in your pack?"

"A few," Robin said. "Not as many."

He gestured to himself, up and down.

"Healing mage," he said.

"I didn't mean you," Hendrik grumbled.

"I know," Robin said. "I wanted to tell you regardless, so that it would not shock you later. Since me being a werewolf seems to confound you so."

Hendrik didn't totally understand that logic since he wouldn't have bat an eye if he started to heal others, but he decided to not comment on that since he was realizing that Robin would address every topic he put out there, no matter how mundane.

Point was: Eve, James, Elias, Mel, Elise, Alistair, Malkiel, Rudy, and Finnley were all possibly out there in this mage hideout.

Robin began walking away.

"You and your menagerie can follow me, now," he said.

Five minutes ago and Hendrik would have not been caught dead following this pain-in-the-ass werewolf somewhere. But a newfound determination lit in him, and he wrestled away the annoyances of having to be around him for a while.

He quickly started to pack his items and beckoned for Higgins and the pigs to come close. He had the catch up and jog after Robin for a bit, but eventually they all moved in unison.

"You know," Robin said. "If you persist in calling me wolf-man, I will just have to call you baby-man. Because you really are being quite a baby about this whole thing. Clueless, babbling, and all."


Hendrik grinned, and then a wild laugh escaped his throat, and then he was howling.

Seemed it was true after all. What goes around, comes around. And it was a damn werewolf who bit him in the ass first.
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Carina says...

Malkiel was over this life.

Not to be dramatic, but... well, yes, he meant to be dramatic. Because out of all the visions he had of his future, being an adoptive father was not one of them.

"Look! Look! A butterfly!" Finnley exclaimed, pointing in the air with his free hand.

Rudy, holding Finnley in his arms as they walked, followed Finnley's finger to look.

"Ah. Yeah. Never seen one like that before," he said.

"Yes, we have. Ten minutes ago, and a million times more before that," Malkiel muttered, focusing on the path ahead of him.

"Maybe you have," Rudy said, setting Finn on the ground to walk beside him, holding his hand. "But it's Finn's first time seeing it."

Malkiel didn't know why he was here with Rudy and Elias's child. But that wasn't the biggest question. The biggest question was: where was here?

He and Rudy figured that out on day one when they walked through a quiet dusty town and stumbled upon a bulletin board. Among the wanted posters, ads for help and hire, and faded town announcements, there was a map. A map of the Outlands.

Nye. They were on Nye. James's world. Somehow, the roles were reversed, and they all ended up on Nye instead of Earth.

If there was even a 'they' to begin with. For all Malkiel knew, it was just him, Rudy, and Finnley. Was this his fate? To be stuck fathering this kid and wandering a foreign world with no other goal?

"I'm hungry," Finnley said, stopping in his tracks and pulling Rudy with him. "And tired."

Malkiel sighed. Deeply. But he stopped with him and took out the map that he took from the bulletin board, studying it closely.

"We still have a long way to go. If we eat now, you'll get even more tired. So we'll eat in an hour," he said plainly.

They didn't really have a plan, but Malkiel insisted that they follow path by the river. They hadn't run into other people since they walked through the town, and he was sure running into other people in the Outlands would not be a good idea... especially since they were traveling with a kid.

"Why don't we play a game?" Rudy suggested to Finnley. "We can play 'I Spy.' You say 'I spy' and then say a short description of the thing you're looking at and then I have to guess what you see. Here. I'll start, and you guess. I spy... something grumpy."

"Malkie!" Finnley said with a big grin, pointing right at his face.

Malkiel looked down at him with a dead-eyed stare, unamused. They didn't have time for this.

"Correct," Rudy said with a low laugh and a smirk. "Okay. Your turn, now."

"I spy, 'we get moving,'" Malkiel interjected. "Finnley, get on Rudy's back if you're tired."

"We can play while we're moving, then, Finn," Rudy said, picking Finnley up again.

"I think we made him mad," Finnley whispered way too loudly in Rudy's ear after he perched on his shoulders.

"Nah, that wasn't you," Rudy said. "That was me. And he's easy to anger, anyway. Don't mind it."

Malkiel sighed, deciding to let this pass. Again. Traveling for two weeks with this dynamic made him lose his care. But not all of it.

"I spyyyyyy," Finnley sing-songed as he looked around and thumped his short legs on Rudy's chest. "Something... blue."

"The sky?" Rudy guessed.

"Yeah!" Finnley said with a giggle.

"Alright," Rudy said. "I spy... something grey."

"Hmmmmm," Finnley hummed loudly as his eyes darted around. He then abruptly pointed at a nearby boulder. "The rock!"

"Correct!" Rudy congratulated him.

"Congratulations," Malkiel muttered in a monotone voice, unimpressed.

It was true that they didn't have a concrete plan, but in Malkiel's mind, it was clear. They had to - somehow - find Elias so that they wouldn't have to be responsible for Finnley anymore. That, and so he'd be reunited with his dad, of course.

But if Elias was also here - and that was a big if - they what did that mean for the others? Hendrik wasn't even here with them, and they were all traveling as one group before they woke up here. Malkiel entertained the possibility that they were all randomly spread out, but he was leaning more towards the possibility that this could be his own personal hell.

But maybe he was also being dramatic. Maybe not. Everyday he was being tested, pushing the level of normalcy farther and farther back.

"I spyyyyy... something tall," Rudy went on.

Finnley hummed and looked around again. "Me!" he said with a triumphant grin. "I'm tall!"

Rudy chuckled.

"Close enough," he said.

So maybe Malkiel was being a little dramatic. He didn't love kids, but he could admit that being in the presence of Rudy and Finnley was better than being by himself. If he had woken up on Nye with no one else to figure out what to do and and no clue or indication of who he was on Earth, he would have grown insane.

That must have been what James felt when he first woke up on Earth, and what Eve felt when she woke up on Nye.

It really wasn't a good feeling.

"I spy..." Finnley said as he paused for a while, clearly trying to find something more creative than blue for the sky. "Something green!"

Because that was so creative with trees, bushes, and grass everywhere.

Rudy was quiet for a moment, probably pretending to mull it over. But then he slowed to a sudden stop.

"Uh..." Rudy said.

"We get it. Just say the trees already," Malkiel said dismissively.

Rudy grabbed the back of Malkiel's jacket and yanked him back.

"Malkiel," he whispered harshly. "To your left."

Rudy joked around, but he didn't joke like this. Malkiel instantly put his guard up, heavy in his stance as he looked to his left.

Standing between two sprawling, overgrown shrubs, there was a person. Or at least, it looked like it was supposed to be a person, but it was the height of a child, with its head reaching up to maybe his waist. The creature had green skin, and long, downward, pointed ears that poked out from the sides of its head. It had a human-like face, but from its mouth protruded two pointed canine teeth, and its eyes were a bright yellow-green, and even the whites of its eyes looked more yellow.

It tilted its head with a wary, curious expression hidden behind dark, curly hair tied back atop its head. The creature was wearing what looked like light leather armor and earthy tones to blend in with their surroundings.

Malkiel didn't waste any time. He used his newfound Nye magic to bring a strong gust of wind to the creature's way so it would be as far away as possible from them, and they would have enough time to run away.

Instead of getting hit, though, the creature leaped up into the air, dodging the blast. It landed gracefully on two large, three-toed feet, and held out its hands as if in surrender.

"Hey," the creature spoke, with a foreign, harsh accent, but what sounded like a feminine voice. "I'm not going to hurt you."

Despite it being a terrible time to say anything, Finnley loudly whispered in Rudy's ear: "That's the green I spy."

"Who are you?" Malkiel said in a commanding voice, readying his hands in case he needed to strike again.

The creature smiled, revealing a mouth full of sharper-than-human teeth.

"My name is Dinny," it - or she - said. "I'm not here to cause trouble. I want to help."

"We don't need help," Malkiel snarled.

"I heard there were mages in the area," she said. "I have magic too."

Hesitantly, she held out her hand, making eye contanct with Malkiel.

"Would you like me to prove it?" she asked.

Malkiel glanced at Rudy. He cared less about her being a mage and more about her first statement of seeing mages in the area. Was she talking about them?

Or... someone else?

"Have you been following us?" he asked, not interested in seeing her magic.

"Not following," she said, putting her hand down. "Tracking. On purpose, yes. I come from a secret group of mages. We try to help other mages who are lost, hurting, or otherwise fleeing for their lives. We know that humans are not kind to people like us, so we have to look out for each other."

Malkiel narrowed his eyes suspiciously at her. This felt like a trap. He couldn't trust her.

But James did say that magic was outlawed, so if she did have magic... well, he wouldn't know why a mage would turn on another mage since they could both be caught.

"Show us your magic, then," Malkiel said.

With a small, dainty nod, Dinny stood up a little straighter and held out her hand. With a small flourish, she created a small flame, and let it dance between her fingers before she distinguished it as quickly as it came.

So she was telling the truth. Still, Malkiel was wary of her. They shouldn't easily trust any random creature or person in the woods, even if they had magic.

"What do you want from us?" he asked suspiciously.

"Nothing, if you do not want assistance," Dinny said. "I only come to offer aid. A day's trip north of here, me and my allies have a camp where you could rest and get any needed supplies. If you wanted to join us, the invitation is open, but you do not have to. But if you do, we offer security, support, and resources. Which I know are a great concern, especially with a child in tow."

Malkiel glanced at Rudy, trying to read where his head was at in all this. He seemed to be quietly assessing, taking in what Dinny was saying with careful consideration.

"What other magic do the mages have in your camp?" Malkiel asked, careful not to give away too much of his intents.

"At our camp, some have earth, healing, fire..." she trailed off, looking at him carefully as well. "Why do you ask?"

Healing and fire. That could be Elise and Alistair... but he had no way of knowing unless he asked.

He wrestled back and forth about saying his next thought, until finally, he gave in since they had nothing to lose.

"I'm looking for my mage colleagues," he said matter-of-factly.

"Colleagues," Dinny sounded out slowly, like she was chewing the word in her mouth, or didn't know what the word meant. Maybe this wasn't her native language.

"... Friends," Malkiel said after another second, trying not to cringe that he called them his friends. They weren't... really.

"What are their names?" Dinny asked, tilting her head.

Malkiel again figured he had nothing to lose by admitting their names.

"Elise and Alistair. Sound familiar?" he asked.

Dinny hummed.

"The last one sounds... like I've heard it somewhere," Dinny said.

Well, that was a start.

"But they are not at our camp. They may be the mages I heard about, then, since no one mentioned and air mage. Which... you are."

Sure. He could be an air mage.

"They're not air mages. Elise is a healer and Alistair controls fire like you," he said in hopes that it would jog her memory better.

Dinny hummed again.

"Garik mentioned... a fire mage. But he was not very good at it," she said. "He said he had poor control. Does that sound like your Alis-- Alisair?"

Honestly, Malkiel had no idea. But when he tested in magic in Nye, he found it to be much easier to control, and much more powerful as well. In fact, he had to learn how to re-calibrate himself so that he didn't accidentally cause a dust storm when he was only trying to make a tree branch rustle.

But Alistair being bad and having poor control sounded more accurate than him getting the hang of it fast. He always striked Malkiel as someone who lacked ambition, drive, and strong work ethic.

This was also his only lead. Even if she wasn't talking about the same Alistair he knew, at least they were going somewhere and could be more safe.

"That sounds like him," Malkiel said with a casual nod, but then paused when a thought occured to him. "Was he traveling with someone named Elias?"

"I... didn't get all of their names," Dinny said, scratching the back of her head with an apologetic smile. "I remember them saying the name James. He was their leader? But they parted ways. I'm not sure where they are now."

Malkiel looked up at Rudy, and for a moment there, they shared a look of understanding.

All doubt disappeared.

The group Dinny mentioned had James, and therefore, also Alistair. Which meant Elias was here too.

And most of all, she relieved the biggest doubt of all: they truly were in Nye, and they weren't alone.

"Are you sure you don't know where they are now?" Malkiel said, finally relaxing his posture, but still keeping an eye on Dinny. "Would anyone in your camp know?"

Dinny looked off to the side with a small sigh.

"Perhaps," she said. "If not, I could find a way to get in contact with Garik and Jadis, again, who were the last ones who saw your friends, as far as I'm aware."

Malkiel sighed. "We're not interested in joining a group. We're just trying to find our friends," he said.

"We can help you with that, then," Dinny said. "I understand wanting to be joined back with friends."

Malkiel glanced at Rudy again, trying to get another reading before he verbally committed to anything.

"We don't really have any better options," Rudy said. "This is the only lead we've had in two weeks."

Rudy was right, and Malkiel knew it. Dinny seemed sincere, and if they accepted her help, then they were one step closer to finding James and the others. And if they declined her help, then they would continue to aimlessly wander.

And Malkiel didn't know how much longer he could aimlessly wander with Rudy and Finnley until he lost his mind.

"Okay," he said with a terse nod over to Dinny. "We accept your help."
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Carina says...

Ruddlan was unlike the tiny towns Tula and Deidra had passed through for the past two weeks. This city was huge.

But it was apparently not big enough to hold James.

Tula slammed her empty glass of beer down on the bar, letting the drunken hatred and anger fuel her veins. She couldn't keep it in. She had to let everyone in this tavern know how much she hated him. She had to let the whole world know.

"If anyone knows anything--" she said loudly through her teeth, first scowling towards Deidra beside her, and then at everyone else as she gestured to the whole room even though no one was talking to her, "-- then you better tell me now."

She had been here for an hour, and some people had entertained her speeches and questions, but it appeared that she had worn them thin.

"Really?" Tula said venomously to the whole room again, feeling herself starting to slur her words. "Nothing? Liars. Every one of you. A liar."

"Tula... maybe you should--" Deidra started to say, but Tula cut her off.

"Shut up, Deidra," Tula hissed, sitting back down on the bar again.

It had been a long day. A long two weeks, really. Because the only clue she had about James was the poster she found a week ago. For the world's most wanted man alive, how could a city as big as Ruddlan not have any up-to-date information about him?

Tula slapped a coin (that she had stolen, of course) on the bar and slid her cup across just in time for the barkeep to catch it.

"Another round," she said with her head turned back towards the other side of the tavern so she could fix her eyes on everyone else, observing them just in case.

"So you really wanna catch this Hemming, guy, huh," the barkeep said casually. He slid the glass back to her, but followed along the bar so he was standing across from her.

Tula turned back, her attention now focused on the man. His expression was curious and inviting, like he had information to spare.

"Not just that," Tula said as she raised her glass up, watching him carefully. "I am going to catch him."

"Well, you wouldn't be the first to try," the man said as he started pouring out another order. "I've heard a few others say the same."

"Is that so?" Tula mused, not taking her eyes off him. "And they're as determined to catch him?"

"Were," he said. "Can't say they are anymore."

"Shame that they quit. Although, good for me, since I'll be catching him."

"I think the way he'd reframe it was that he went into 'retirement,'" the barkeep said casually as he offered the glass to the customer a few seats down and drifted back. He gave Tula a look - one that said he had more information, but like he was waiting for something. Like he wasn't just going to give it for free.

Tula smirked, flicking a coin his way with her thumb.

"A tip for a tip?" she asked with feigned innocence.

He caught the coin with grace, and returned the smirk.

"His name's Butch. Lives two streets down, on the corner in the two story house on the hill. Can't miss it. He used to be a bounty hunter a few years ago, but rumor is he quit after failing to catch Tiberius Hemming."

Pausing, he leaned in a little closer, lowering his voice.

"They said it was his second try," the man said. "Some say he almost died that time around. And the man's got a family n' all, but I guess he was real determined to try one more time. Outside of Tiberius, he's never lost a guy once."

The burning flame inside of Tula's chest was reignited with a new spark. Finally. Finally, a lead. Perhaps Butch wouldn't know where James was now, but he would be an excellent ally.

"I bet you if anyone would want to help you," the barkeep said, pulling away. "That'd be your guy. I guarantee you he's still got a grudge, even if he's trying to go back to a normal life. I've seen him around. He's itching to repair his reputation."

"Well, you know what they say," Tula said with a devlish grin. "Third time's the charm."

It was already late in the night, but Tula insisted to Deidra that they walk the streets and verify that Butch's house was there. She was pleased when she saw it exactly as how the barkeep described it: tall, two stories, and on top of a hill. Judging the messy yard strewn with toys, it appeared that he had kids. He was probably married and truly settled for retirement. Tula smirked as she eyed the pink curtains from a distance, imagining what retirement was like for a bounty hunter.

They slept in the inn for the night, but Tula suddenly awoke in the middle of the night with a revelation.

She had been thinking over what to do if she recruited Butch. He could be her ally, but then what? She still didn't know where James was, and he likely didn't have any more leads than she did since he was retired.

But then it occurred to her: what if she, somehow, could use her powers?

Tula knew that their powers worked differently over here. Deidra had superhuman strength rather than simply being resilient and strong. From their early run-ins at the Isles, they did gather that 'magic' was outlawed here, so they hadn't put any theories to the test.

And Tula hadn't used her powers either - because how could she spy on James if she didn't have his consent? She didn't even know where he was, neverthless be able to spy on him.

But maybe, just maybe, she know where he was by spying on him.

With Tula across the room asleep on the other bed, Tula decided to put her theory to the test. Sitting up straight, she stared fiercely at Deidra, willing her to see what she saw.

A minute went by, but Tula was determined to keep trying, just in case. She closed her eyes, deeply concentrated, and internally screamed at Deidra to accept her sight.

Tula was about to give up, but then she heard Deidra stir.

Deidra suddenly jumped up with a start, whipping around to look at Tula with wide eyes and brows pinched together. At first, she looked angry, but then her expression slowly relaxed into realization.

"...you can make people see now," she said slowly.

Tula grinned, the weight of victory laying heavy in her chest.

This changed everything.

"Apologies, Deidra. But tonight, you are my little guinea pig," Tula said, knowing this was going to be a long night.

And it was. But it was dearly needed.

She experimented with Deidra, trying to figure out what her new powers could do. She quickly learned that it worked the other way around as well; she could see through her recipient's eyes without their consent. Through trial and error, Tula also found out that this could only be accomplished if she was in a deeply meditative state. It could last up to ten minutes, but less if she lost focus. According to Deidra, however, she felt... "seen." Although, that wasn't new or unheard of, even though Deidra insisted that it felt more off.

Tula tried to focus her energy into forcing a recipient on seeing what she was seeing, but the night faded away and morning came. They ran out of time, and Tula was only able to show glimpses to Deidra.

For now.

What was important was that she could potentially see what James was seeing. She was eager to try right away to know his locations, but Tula was more eager to play her cards right. If done correctly, she could have James around her fingertips. She just had to be patient.

It was daytime now, and Tula once again stood in front of Butch's house. It seemed just as ordinary as last time, with toys sprinkled around the yard and the pink curtains pulled back. She could see a guard dog behind the gate, so she kept an eye on it as she and Deidra approached the door.

Tula knocked once, then twice, and waited for a response.

There were a few seconds of delay where she could hear the shuffling of feet, and the faint sound of children's voices overlapping. Eventually the footsteps drew closer, and she could hear what sounded like several locks or bolts unlatching.

Finally, the door opened, revealing a tall, but slim woman whose belly was protruding. Clearly, pregnant. She had long, brown hair pulled back into a messy braid, with a few loose strands hung around her face. In her arms, she carried a toddler - a little boy who couldn't have been older than two, who was clinging to the sleeves of her long, patterned dress.

When the woman's eyes landed on Tula and Diedra, Tula saw the immediate flash of concern that was quickly hidden by a polite smile.

"Good morning," the woman said. "Can I help you with anything?"

"Good morning, ma'am," Tula said, mirroring the polite tone. "Is Butch home?"

"What business do you have with my husband?" the woman asked, bouncing the boy in her arms. Tula realized the boy was staring at her with a blank expression.

"Oh, it's nothing serious," Tula said to reassure her as she gestured to Deidra. "My partner and I have a business proposition to tell him. We think he may be interested. It'll be good money, too."

The woman seemed hesitant.

"What kind of proposition?" she asked.

For a moment, Tula pondered the possibilities. She wagered that Butch held a grudge against James and would jump on any opportunity to find him and turn him in. But from this woman's hesitation, she didn't seem to want her husband to return to bounty hunting.

Tula had to either convinve this woman, or she had to deliver the message without her knowing the true intent. It seemed too much risk to tell her the full truth.

Before Tula could answer, the little boy began to wriggle, trying to scramble out of his mother's arms. A bit flustered, the woman sighed and set him down.

"Go to your father," she said, patting him on the back. The boy sloppily waddled away down the hall behind her.

"I only have a few questions for him. It won't take too long," Tula said with a feigned smile as her eyes flicked to the hallway behind her.

The woman looked at Tula with brows drawn together, but then let out a sigh.

"Wait here a minute," she said, and then closed the door.

Success. Tula stood in silence in front of the door with her arms crossed, rhythmically tapping her fingers on her arm as she waited.

After about a minute, though it felt a tad longer, the door opened again, and instead of seeing Butch's wife, she assumed the man in front of her was Butch himself.

He was massive. His body filled the entire doorway, and the door itself was unusually tall and broad. The man's square head sat on a trunk-like neck, and his jaw jutted out with an underbite that made it look like he was mildly frowning, even though his face seemed at rest. He had long, greying hair pulled back into a low bun, and almost comically large sideburns running down both sides of his face.

Next to Deidra - who was already over six feet tall - Butch still was at least half a head taller.

He looked the two of them up and down.

"Let's do this outside," he said, pushing forward and closing the door behind him. "There's a table out back."

Without waving them along, he turned and began to walk around the house. Tula glanced back at Deidra, wordlessly gesturing with her head to follow.

As they circled around the house they passed the guard dog - which turned out to be three, the latter two of which made themselves known after stumbling out of a doghouse. Thankfully, the three of them were all chained on leashes, because the three of them rushed towards Deidra and Tula with a vigor only befitting of dogs trained to hunt. Butch silenced their barks and growls with a mere wave of his hand, and after pointing down, they all sat on their haunches, but kept their eyes locked on Tula and Deidra.

At the back of the house, there was a small porch, and beyond it, a small, grassy field with a wooden table and benches placed beneath a bushy tree. That was where he led them, and after sitting down at the end of one bench, he looked at them expectantly.

"What brings two bounty hunters to my door?" he asked.

He was a man that went straight to business. Tula and Deidra weren't exactly bounty hunters, but it could be their new alias now.

Tula kept her eyes on him but didn't sit down. It didn't exactly help too much with keeping level eye contact considering he was a giant man.

"I heard you have never lost your bounty on the job. Is that true?" she asked.

Butch's eyes narrowed at her slightly.

"You found my where I live. You came to my door. To my family. And you pretend like you haven't done any research," Butch said. "In my entire career I only ever lost one bounty. I assume you didn't come here to mock my only failure."

"Not to mock," Tula said, unfazed. "But to redeem."

She knew that no one had seemed James for the last year and a half, not because he was "lost," but because he was literally not on this planet. Of course, Butch did not need to know that. All he needed to know was that she had a lead, and he could seek revenge.

"What if I told you that your bounty isn't lost?" she asked with a slight tilt of her head, observing him.

Butch's eyebrows raised ever so slightly, and his eyes locked onto her. She had his full attention.

"Many other bounty hunters have given up because his trail grew cold. No one has seen him for the past year and a half... until now. I have some information about Tiberius that may interest you." Tula said with a slight smile. "That is, if you are willing to help me catch him."

The bench underneath Butch creaked as he leaned forward onto the wooden table, folding his hands together.

"That bastard and his insane girlfriend almost killed me," he said lowly. "And they killed my partner. If your information holds water, I'm in."

Tula couldn't resist the smirk that pulled her lips as she thought of the implication. It wasn't just James he was after as well. It was also Evaline.

"We may not be able to directly make him suffer, since he's wanted alive," Tula said, still smirking. "But his girlfriend isn't. And when we catch him, you are free to avenge yourself as you please."

Tula watched as Butch's mouth turned into a malicious smile.

"I'll make preparations."

And just like that, Butch was now on their side.

Tula did quickly brief him on what she did know. She knew who he was traveling with and what he looked like now, but she left out the more important details, like where he had been, and where was he now. Before she could get too far into what she knew, Butch suggested that he first visit his colleague in town, so they split off for now with plans to reconvene at the tavern.

It was early evening when Butch met up with them. He had his three dogs in tow, and next to him, they were well behaved, but he kept them leashed. Along with the hunting dogs, he brought with him a massive draft horse (likely the only horse that could carry him) packed with supplies on the saddle.

To her surprise, he brought two other horses. One seemed to be another draft horse, a muddy brown next to his pale white one. The other was smaller, and more lean. It was a pale grey with darker grey speckles, and it was the one he offered to Tula. The other he gave to Deidra. He insisted they travel on horseback for the sake of speed - and seemed to be operating on the assumption that Tula and Deidra knew how to ride them.

Of course, Tula did not know how to ride a horse, considering they were extinct on Earth. But she did spend an agonizing amount of days with Hendrik, who frequently mounted animals and taught others how to ride them, including herself. She had also observed James on Elliot and other riders in Nye, so combined with her general animal-riding skills, she could probably learn fast.

Not while Butch was looking, anyways. Tula made a mental note to discuss practicing with Deidra when Butch wouldn't see them.

Trailing alongside Butch was a woman sitting atop a black stallion with a fierce appearance. She looked like she was ready for the journey, and was dressed in padded metal armor atop layers of earthy greens. Strapped across her back, she had a quiver full of arrows and a bow, but most striking was the white, owl-like mask she wore over her face, and the green hood she had pulled over her head.

Butch, who was on foot leading several animals, gestured between her and Tula and Deidra.

"This is Pitch," he introduced. "She's been in the business for a long time, and has built quite the reputation for herself. She specializes in ranged combat and drugs and poisons. She's also a competent medic, if the need arises."

Leaping off the side of the saddle, Pitch extended her hand to Tula.

"It will be a pleasure to work with you," she said. "Tiberius has evaded justice for too long."

Tula shook her hand firmly, her eyes curiously landing on Pitch's mask.

"It's only a matter of time until he gets what he deserves," she said with a sinister smile.

After another round of introductions, Tula, Deidra, Butch, and Pitch tied up their animals and entered the tavern. Tula recognized the same barkeep as yesterday, as well as a few other familiar faces. As soon as Butch and Pitch entered, however, people seemed to turn their heads and move out of the way.

They sat down on an empty table, and Butch ordered a drink when the barkeep came to take their order. Tula denied and only offered a head nod of recognition when the barkeep seemed to recognize that Tula indeed took up his tip of finding Butch.

Almost immediately, Pitch and Butch began asking questions.

"Where did you say he was last seen?" Pitch asked lowly.

Tula had braced for this question. She didn't know the answer yet since she still had to practice looking through her recipient's eyes, but in due time, she could pinpoint James's location. Of course, Pitch and Butch did not know this, and of course, they were operating on the assumption that she had a location-based lead.

Tula hadn't been in Nye, and Oliver didn't directly tell her much about Nye, but based on her experiences, the information she collected, and the habits she knew about James, she could make a general guess of where he would be.

"He was last seen in the Outlands, following the river and heading north to increase distance from the Moonlight Kingdom," Tula said like she had rehearsed this in her head a hundred times. Because she had. "He had been in hiding for some time, but now he is back to increasing distance, this time with a group."

"So he's been gathering allies," Butch concluded. "Do you have any idea how many?"

"Several. At least five, maybe more," Tula said, recalling the group James traveled with before she was transported to Nye. She had to fight back a smile as she readied her next line. "And they're all mages."

"He's been partnering with mages," Pitch whispered. "Doesn't surprise me. He's helped at least one mage before that I know of."

"And why do you think he has a history of helping mages?" Tula asked lowly, watching them for their reaction.

Pitch was difficult to read, as her face was covered by her mask, but Tula noticed she turned her head slightly to look at Butch. Butch was watching Tula closely.

"Spit it out," Butch said.

"You know what I mean. Perhaps no one has spelled it directly to you before, but now I ask you to think about it," Tula said with a slight smirk, leaning back on her chair. "You both are excellent bounty hunters, yet time and time again--"

"You think he's a mage?" Pitch hissed quietly with skepticism clear in her voice.

Butch let out a laugh.

"No," Tula said with a calm voice. "Not think. I know he is."

"And why would you be the first person to know after all these years?" Pitch pressed, still keeping her voice low. "If he was a mage surely he would've used his magic at some point to get away or-- slipped, at some point. He's not that careful."

"I don't know the nuances of his magic, but I have seen it with my own eyes. He's not your typical elemental mage. He's a time mage, which was how he was able to hide it so well," Tula said, and continued on before they could get a word in. "Butch, you said he and his partner almost killed you. Did you know she is a time mage as well? I don't know how it all works, but it appears that they are able to merge their time magic together to escape dire situations."

Butch's expression was severe, and Pitch was quiet as the two of them seemed to be mulling over the information. Slowly, Butch leaned in, looking Tula in the eyes.

"If you're right," he said. "Then I hope your mouthy ass didn't spread that sort of information all over Nye. If the guild heard of this, Tiberius wouldn't just be the most wanted in the Moonlight Kingdom, he'd be the most wanted man in all of Nye. Jurisdiction would turn over to the guilds, and we wouldn't be within our rights to catch him."

"Perhaps you may be stronger and more experienced than me," Tula said carefully, eyes still on Butch. "But I'm no fool. I don't care about the bounty reward - I want to turn him in, and will make it my life's work to see that through. Of course I didn't tell anyone else. As soon as I witnessed his magic myself, I planned to come to Ruddlan and recruit the best bounty hunters. I may be the first bounty hunter to know he is a mage, or I may not. Either way, like you said, Butch, we must act fast."

"If we're going after a group of mages," Butch said. "That's different."

"We should take this conversation somewhere else," Pitch said lowly. "You can't just mention mages like that--"
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Carina says...

Just as Pitch began her warning, a man swiveled around in a chair from the table next to them, and with a seamless, graceful movement, seemed to practically float over to their table, bringing the chair with him. Folding his hands together, he looked around the table with a smile.

At first glance, the man was clean. Polished. His outfit neatly fit, and his dark hair slicked back, with a patch of early greys on his forehead. He had clear, brown skin and a wide, bright smile that looked equal parts charismatically friendly and mischievous.

"Couldn't help but overhear," he said before anyone could speak. "Something about the infamously wanted man Tiberius and the possibility of--" at this point, he lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned in towards the table to be heard, "--magic and mages involved."

With a small pause, he gestured to himself with both hands.

"Well. If you're open to the addition of another partner," he said. "Fortunately for you four, I may be of use to you."

Tula flicked her eyes to Pitch and Butch. She had no opinion of his man, and to be frank, had no opinion of Butch and Pitch either. But the more people on her side to hunt down James, the better.

"This is what I meant," Pitch said sharply, her gaze turning to Tula.

To be fair, Tula did not know coming in that announcing James being a mage would be devastating to the public. But she wasn't going to reveal that.

"Who the hell are you?" Butch asked, looking the new visitor up and down.

"Alexander Kingsman. One of the many hands employed by the kingdom, but a bounty hunter by trade. I share the same interests as you all and have been preparing for the capture of Mr. Hemming for some time now, and have prepared for any and all possibilities. If it's mages we're up against, you'll be wanting Lumshade in your arsenal," he said.

Pitch seemed to narrow her eyes at him from behind her mask.

"I know how to handle mages," she said.

"I'm sure you do," Alexander said with a smile. "I only mean to say-- well, I'd rather not reveal my advantages in such a public setting--"

His eyes flicked around as he lowered his voice even more.

"If he is indeed as powerful of a time mage as you say," he said. "It may be more advantageous to, well... have him more or less incapacitated for the majority of your journey back to the kingdom. I'm assuming you want the assurance of your reward, and, well, I wouldn't trust the outposts to honor that for you with a bounty of this magnitude. So you'll be needing... an excess of resources to assure he doesn't escape."

Alex seemed to look at Butch when he said that last statement.

"Which I'm sure we all want," he said.

Butch narrowed his eyes at Alexander.

"Can we please take this conversation somewhere else?" Pitch insisted.

"That's all you have to offer to us," Tula said as a question to Alexander, but it came out more like a statement.

"Listen," Alexander said, turning to Tula with a charming smile. "I'm the best tracker and marksman you'll find, and I'm oozing with resources. I intend to capture this man with or without your help, but seeing as we all share the same interest, I'd rather we work together. I think it's in all of our best interests if he is, in fact, as dangerous as you say and has amassed that many allies."

Pausing, his smile broadened.

"And as far as the bounty itself goes," Alexander said lowly. "Well, I have personal access to the man in charge of what will happen to Tiberius after his capture."

Butch didn't look like he believed him.

"You know the king?" Butch asked.

Alexander chuckled at that.

"No, no, no," Alexander said. "Not the king. You think the king handles captures of criminals? No, I'm good friends with the king's right-hand man. You know, I'm sure you've all heard of him. Son of the guild masters. Captain of the Moonlight Kingdom armies--"

"Carter Haddon," Pitch interrupted.

Alexander twirled his hand.

"Yes. I could send word to him, even, when we catch him," he said. "Give him something to look forward to."

Tula only knew about the Moonlight Kingdom at a surface level since she was limited to bulletin boards for gathering information. She had read about a Carter Haddon, and judging from what Alexander said, it seemed that he was in a position of power.

For a second, Tula considered the implications. This meant that Alexander could potentially introduce her and the others to people in power, which meant Tula could finally find someone to work under and spy for. Perhaps Oliver was on Nye, or Alina, or Ovrell. Or maybe not. Perhaps finding someone in power on Nye could be the next step for Tula.

It didn't matter. Alexander seemed like he could help with their pursuit after James, and that was all that mattered right now.

"Let's take this conversation outside," Tula said with a nod to Pitch, standing up to initiate the move.

Pitch was quick to follow, and Butch filed soon after her. Alex hopped up to his feet with a small skip in his step but said nothing, content in the back of the group as they made their way for the door.

Tula was the first to step outside, but instead of being met with the open front porch of the tavern, she found herself making direct eye contact with a woman stepping up onto the porch, just off to the side. The woman had dark brown skin and long locks tied back with a bandana around her hairline, but most notably, a tattoo visible on her shoulder. Wearing a sleeveless vest to show it off, the tattoo circled her shoulder in triangular spikes, resembling something like a sun.

There was something akin to recognition in her face when she looked at Tula, and Tula found herself searching her eyes for answers. She was certain she never met this woman. Tula never forgot a face.

Following right behind the woman were a man and a woman, both in casual clothing but Tula could discern that they had weapons hidden under their coats.

"You," the woman in the front said, not tearing her eyes away from Tula. She then wordlessly gestured for Tula to come to her with a point of her finger.

There was something captivating about this woman that Tula couldn't quite place. She appeared to hold the confidence of a person in power, and Tula found herself drawn to that. Of course, Tula didn't trust this woman by any means, but now her curiosity was piqued and she wanted to entertain the idea of following.

Tula briefly flicked her eyes to Butch and Pitch. They didn't outwardly react, but they didn't appear annoyed or irritated by this, which would have been expected if this woman were some random passerby. Pitch, of course, couldn't be directly read since she was wearing a mask, but Butch expressed confusion and bewilderment. When Tula glanced at Alex, he seemed to mischievously smile, like he was curious of what would happen next.

Tula was too. She took a single step forward.

"Yes?" she said with a tilt of her head, observing the woman.

"Word travels fast around here," she said. "You're going after Tiberius Hemming, and apparently, gathering allies."

At that, she looked past Tula, eyeing the others up and down.

"Problem is," she said. "He's my catch."

"Is that so?" Tula mused. "Do you know where he is, then?"

"I know enough," she said, narrowing her eyes at Tula. "Sounds like you're fumbling with your cards, scraping up clues in taverns. But I don't want you and your goons getting in my way."

Tula knew she had been careless from the start. It was only a day ago that she was yelling at the tavern, practically threatening those around her for hints or leads. But now things were different. She had a purpose. A plan. She could see the steps laid out in front of her to accomplish her goals. She now had the necessary personnel, tools, and resources to achieve her goal of catching James. And even past that, Tula knew there were even more opportunities for her. She could continue being a spy - this time, under different leadership.

She just had to be more careful now. Back to being observant, silent, and watching the long-term effects of her actions.

At this moment, there were two paths ahead of her. Tula could push this woman away as well, saying she didn't want her to get in her way instead. But perhaps she could invite her instead. Consider her an ally. After all, based on the indirect reactions of Pitch, Butch, and Alexander, this woman was potentially someone important.

Perhaps they shared common goals.

Tula was careful with her response this time, taking a moment to collect her thoughts.

"If we are in your way, then we are traveling the same path - the path of catching Tiberius. Perhaps you have your own intentions with him. We all do," Tula said, still carefully watching her. "But if you want him turned in and executed, it appears our intentions are the same."

The woman narrowed her eyes slightly, like she was assessing not only Tula's words, but Tula as a person. Tula was used to being assessed since she was always assessing others. She tried to mirror the body language.

"Perhaps," the woman said slowly.

A pause.

"You don't know who I am, do you?"

Of course, Tula didn't. But she was quick to respond. "You could be royalty from the kingdom, but my response would not change."

A small, amused smile turned on the woman's face, but there was a menacing edge in her eyes.

"Rita," she said.

"Tula," she replied back, mirroring the introduction, all while trying to interpret her expressions and goals.

"I know," she said. Her eyes flicked from the group behind Tula back to Tula's eyes. "I take it you're inviting me, then. To join this... band of misfits?"

"It depends," Tula mused. "Is that how you see yourself?"

"Once upon a time," Rita said with a smile. Glancing back at her two companions, she seemed to signal something to them with a wave of her hand. They stepped off the porch to where a few horses were tied to a post.

"I would like to make use of your ambition," she said. "If your hearts are set on catching Tiberius, then I believe your chances would be best with me. I have more manpower at my command to ensure the slimy bastard never gets a chance at escaping ever again."

Tula naturally wanted to consult with Butch and Pitch, but she found that to be a silly thought. She had started this and gathered everyone here. Tula was the one who did all of this. She could call the shots.

But she also didn't want to. Not when someone like Rita had manpower and was the top of a clear heirarchy that Tula didn't know about. Instead of wondering what the alliance would mean if Tula and the others joined her, Tula was more curious on what that meant for the long-term future.

After all, Tula had wanted to catch James because it was the mission Oliver gave her. Oliver was unlikely to be here, so her loyalty changed to the Moonlight Kingdom, especially because they were also after James. But now she found herself wondering if her loyalties truly lied with the Moonlight Kingdom.

But even if it didn't, she was still hellbent on capturing James and turning him in. She had never failed a mission before, and she wasn't going to let being on Nye change that.

"If this is an invitation for us to join your band of misfits," Tula said with a slight smirk, "then I accept."

Rita's smile broadened.

"Lovely," she said, and then looked to the others. "And you?"

"This just got infinitely more interesting," Alexander said. "I'd be happy to join."

Butch seemed oddly wary, but nodded his assent. Pitch did the same. Then Rita's eyes fell on Deidra.

She stood still for a moment, eyes going a little wide as everyone's attention fell on her. As a slightly delayed but hurried movement, she, too, nodded.

"Wonderful," Rita said. "The five of you will join me at my estate for the night, and then we'll head out early in the morning. Gather your things."

There wasn't much to gather. Tula and the others were quick to follow and assimilate, gathering their horses and getting back on the main town path. Tula purposefully didn't get on her horse since she didn't want to reveal that she was still a novice horse rider, but since their group was decently big and they were taking congested roads out of the city, everyone walked and stayed together.

Rita took them to the edge of town, stopping to gesture at her estate from a distance. Even from that distance, Tula was impressed. There was a long two-story building with people coming in and out, appearing busy. There was a nice and manicured garden at the top of the hill, which Tula only passed when they were apporaching the building.

The hours passed by quickly.

Based on the property alone, Tula knew that Rita meant business. There were also many more people working for her, and they all shared the same blue sun tattoo. After hours of listening to background conversation, Tula was able to gather that that was the name of their group: the Blue Suns. And judging from the context of the conversations, the group was not based on a government, or money, or business. If she had to describe her speculations with one word, it would be a gang. It seemed that crime was welcomed, and it was everyone's commonality.

Rita introduced them to others and showed them around the estate, eventually pointing to where they would be sleeping. For dinner, they gathered around and talked some more, but Tula found herself taking a step back and gathering data on others. Suddenly her number of allies went from three to hundreds, if she counted everyone in the Blue Suns. There was a lot to take in, and although she was glad to be here, she was still wary of everyone else.

Tula noticed that Rita pulled everyone one-by-one aside throughout the night at irregular intervals. First it was Pitch, then Butch, then Alexander. Tula kept an eye out, trying to evade her until she was last. When Rita inevitably got to Deidra, Tula shot them a glance every once in a while, trying to read the conversation. It seemed amicable and polite, to say the least.

Tula figured that Rita was simply trying to gather her own data as well. But considering that Tula wasn't from Nye, she had to be careful of what she revealed.

Luckily, Tula and Deidra had discussed this before. They had already reviewed what they would say if they others asked personal information about them.

So when Rita beckoned for Tula, Tula was calm and collected, bracing for the surface-level questions.

They were fairly informal: how her travels panned out, where she grew up, what experiences did she have, and so on. Tula rehearsed this many times until it became natural. What wasn't rehearsed, however, was her connection to James. When asked about her motives, Tula kept it vague.

"I have my reasons to believe that he deserves his punishment, and justice must be served. The moment he is turned in, I will finally rest," Tula replied, to which Rita accepted without prying further.

When the evening turned to night, they were all led back to their rooms. Rita wished them all a good night, especially since the morning tomorrow was going to be long.

But Tula knew that the night was going to be long, too. She still had to practice her newfound powers.

The others may not depend on her to lead the group anymore, but Tula was still useful. She could pinpoint James and send a message. She could be the reason their mission was a success.

She just needed to practice. And tonight, she was determined to try to see out of James's eyes.

With the help of Deidra, Tula was able to practice seeing through her eyes until she found a rhythm in it. It felt more natural. Like a second instinct.

And when Deidra went to sleep, Tula realized it was even easier to manipulate. Not to see through her closed eyes, of course, but to have Deidra see through her eyes.

Tula finally let Deidra have a peaceful sleep when she felt more confident with her skills. After all, this may be the last night that the two of them could have a private night like this. Tula couldn't reveal her powers to the others, so she was very careful to keep this information contained.

But she also had the advantage of being discrete. If others were to see her do this, she could say she was resting or meditating. No one would know.

Except James, of course, because she was going to experiment on him next.

Tula was ready. She readied herself, sitting in a comfortable position with deep concentration while imagining James.

His face. His body. His words. Every hair on his head, every wrinkle on his skin. The familiar glare into her skull. His lips, his muscles, his eyes. The scars that spiraled down his body.

Tula chased the thought of James, running towards it with arms wide open, forcing herself into his eyes.


Her chest felt heavy, and her vision was filled with stars. She was looking up at the night sky outside, the soft sound of crickets chirping in the background.

This must be it. She did it. She did it. She was looking through James's eyes. Tula had to keep her excitement at bay.

Then the view tilted down back at eye-level. It was blurry and hard to see, but Tula saw that he was in the wilderness. It was hard to gauge where exactly, but they looked to be in a dry forest, reminiscent of the area she passed through in the Outlands. There were also shadowy figures on the ground that looked like sleeping bags. One, two, three, four. Four others with him, but she couldn't see who they were.

James appeared to be blinked hard and fast, like he was trying to blink her away. Tula had to fight a smile.

"What's wrong?" she heard a voice say to his side, which Tula recognized immediately.

Evaline. Now it was confirmed: she was traveling with him. And the four sleeping bags - that was likely Mel, Alistair, Elise, and Elias. All of them were with him before they all transported to Nye. It was confirmed. They were all truly together.

Tula found the manic spark in her chest return, and because concentration was lost anyways, she opened her eyes to instead see Deidra sleeping soundlessly on her bed, lightly illuminated by the window above her.

A wry mile formed as a small laugh escaped Tula's throat. She couldn't stop. The laugh was muffled at first, but then she bellowed. She slapped a hand over her mouth to stop herself from waking Deidra and the others, but she didn't stop smiling.



She had James around her finger. This time, under her own terms.
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soundofmind says...

James didn't sleep that night.

Eventually, he laid down. Eve stayed up with him as long as she could, but eventually fell asleep next to him, curled up by his side.

He didn't bother waking anyone for their shifts. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep, not after the revelation that Tula was on Nye, looking for him, and actively trying to see through his eyes. He didn't know where she was, or how close she was, or what she even wanted, but he knew enough about her to know that it couldn't be good. If luck was on his side, which it never was, because he never caught a break, she only wanted to kill him. But if she had been in Nye as long as they had, it was entirely possible that she realized where they were and - knowing of his wanted status - had interests in pursuing him for the purpose of turning him in as well, which meant having to go through the Moonlight Kingdom. And Carter. And who knew what else they had waiting for him there, but intevitably, public execution, unless they wanted him to go away quietly. Being the most wanted and well-known criminal in the world mean that he would undoubtedly be used as a spectacle. An example. Because finally, he would have been caught.

And to most of the world, he was rightfully wanted. For treason. Whatever the hell that meant anymore.

He could feel his nerves fraying at the edges. Paranoia was an old friend, and he was well aquainted with nights of no sleep, but this felt different. This time, the stakes were higher than they'd ever been before. He had a host of friends with him who were depending on him. He had Eve, and Elliot, and everyone he cared about under his care. If he was ripped out of the picture he didn't know what would happen to them. He knew they were smart, capable, and adaptable, but they were in a foreign world and it was his fault they were there in the first place.

And if he was taken out of the picture he could only imagine how it would send Eve spiralling. And Alistair. And the others having to pull them away from the edge and...

He was spiralling. Thinking about the worst possible outcomes was making his head hurt, and every joint and muscle in his body felt the ache of overwhelming anxiety about the future that he could no longer ignore.

He was already starting to feel it in Sticks the moment he put himself on the map. He was already starting to feel it when he knew that the Blue Suns knew where he'd been, and that they'd start looking for him again.

And now there was Tula. She was obsessive, but being brought to Nye could've easily pushed her to the breaking point. He had no idea how extreme she was now.

When Elise woke up in the middle of the night unprompted for her shift, James quietly told her to go to sleep and that he'd cover for her. Though she seemed concerned, she didn't press it. Everyone knew he had troubles sleeping. He didn't consider that a good thing.

Elias woke up a little earlier, and he did the same thing. Elias didn't fight him as much on it. Only thanked him.

When the sun finally began to rose, he could feel the incoming of a second wind push him into heightened alertness. He knew well enough that the paranoia and anxiety was fuelling it, but it was like falling back into an old, familiar rhythm.

When Eve woke up, James merely looked down at her stirring. She'd ended up using his thigh as a pillow, and his leg was definitely asleep, but he hadn't moved.

When her eyes slowly opened to meet his, alertness immediately jolted through her and she frantically sat up.

"Did you even sleep?" she asked in a worried but hushed tone.

"No," he said quietly. "We're fine, though. Nothing happened after you went to sleep."

"But -- you still need to sleep, James. I don't know what her plans are, but we can't risk anything. We have to strategize, be careful, and think this through, because --" Eve started, clearly frazzled and clearly overthinking things herself last night.

She snapped her mouth shut to start again, sitting up straight with her hand on his shoulder, concern painted across her face.

"We have to warn the others," she said gravely.

"I know," he said, eyes turning to everyone as they began to shift and stir, waking to the morning sun.

Mel was usually the first to get up. She had stirred a few times before Eve, but as if she knew that they were talking about her, she stretched on the ground before finally sitting and then standing up. She yawned and was about to poke Elias awake, but stopped when she saw James and Eve staring at her. Her brows furrowed as she stared back, immediately knowing that something was wrong.

"What? Is something wrong?" she asked.

Eve spoke before James could even form his first thought.

"It's Tula. She's on Earth too. And her magic came with it," Eve said, going straight to the point.

At first, Mel smirked, thinking she as joking. But she quickly realized from their solemn expressions that this was no laughing manner.

"Are you serious?" Mel asked, sounding more annoyed than anything.

"Mel," James interjected. "Let's wake the others before we continue to discuss this."

Mel nodded, happily choosing Alistair to be her first waking victim, especially since he was more of a deep sleeper.

"I get it, stop it already," Alistair grumbled, swatting her hand when Mel was aggresively shaking his shoulder.

"Hey. You need to wake up. There's news about Tula," Mel said in return, which sparked Alistair awake. Elias and Elise woke up not too long after, absorbing the headline as well.

"Tula?" Elias asked, sitting up. "She's here too?"

Eve nudged James, gesturing her head towards the group as they bickered. "Like I said: we'll strategize," she said softly. "We'll work it out. We always do."

Heavily, James got to his feet with a small sigh. He looked at everyone to make sure they were coherent enough to hear and understand what he had to say.

"Last night," he said. "She was able to look through my eyes without my consent."

"How do you know it's her?" Alistair asked, washed with worry again.

"Just before the connection severed, I saw Deidra," he said. "Through her eyes."

"Did she send a message? What does she want with you? Us?" Alistair continued.

"I don't think any of us can really answer that," Mel said. "But we all saw how much of a psycho she was just before we came to Nye."

"It's possible she still wants to capture me," James said. "At this moment, it's only conjecture, but I don't believe she'd have reached out to me unless she wanted to send a message and figure out where I am. If that's true, then she's still a threat."

He paused, then quickly added, "She knew enough about my life on Nye to know I'm wanted. I wouldn't be surprised if she's still following the same orders she received on Earth but now with a different name to answer to."

"Different name... you mean the Moonlight Kingdom?" Alistair said incredulously, at a loss of words.

"That's correct," James nodded.

"It's possible she is simply trying to finish the job, like James said," Eve added. "She's following blind orders from a hierarchy, even if she doesn't understand it herself."

"So -- what -- what does this mean?" Alistair asked, anxiety deep in his voice. "She's a bounty hunter spy who can easily track down anyone she wants? How are you supposed to escape her magic?"

James had the same concerns, and the same anxieties, but hearing it out of Alistair's mouth forced James's resolve to harden, like a thick shell encasing all of the stirrying worry in his chest. He had to stay calm.

"That's what we're trying to figure out, Alistair," Eve said, trying to stay calm herself, but she didn't hide the slight irritation in her voice. "If it's inevitable, then we have to work around the possibility that she may look through James's eyes's -- or any one of us -- at any given point of time."

"If... I can identify when she's doing it as soon as possible," James said. "I could always simply close my eyes."

"Unless it's different on Nye, she can also listen. So if you warn us that it's happening, we can all be as quiet as we can until the moment passes," Eve added.

"What are the signs of her spying?" Elise asked. "We can all watch for the same symptoms and follow the same protocol."

"It feels like you're being watched," James said. "It's more of an instinctual feeling than anything more overt."

"You said you saw Deidra. So, you also traded sight?" Mel asked.

"That's what appeared to happen, yes," James answered. "Though it was only for a brief second. She may still be discovering the new limits of her powers on Nye in the same way that we're discovering our own. I'm sure she'll try again."

And again. And again.

Mel pursed her lips in thought. "And knowing her, she'll purposefully want you to see through her eyes at times. But maybe this first time really was an accident. Did you see anything in that brief second that gives away her location?"

James furrowed his brows and closed his eyes, trying to remember. It was so brief and unexpected, he hadn't been prepared to look closely.

"Just... a bed," he said with a sigh. "In a room. It looked... nice. Not your typical inn. Maybe she fell into money, I don't know."

"She probably stole it from some poor family," Mel mumbled.

"James," Elise said, circling back to the conversation topic. "What would you do if she does force her sight on you? You may still see even with your eyes closed."

James stared down at the ground.

"I... I suppose I'll just have to see whatever she's determined to show me, then," James said. "If I'm not able to fight it."

"We'll work through this. But we have to stay communicative. Please tell us if this does happen again. We'll discuss as needed and try to stay as far away as possible from her," Eve said to James.

"Maybe she's lost," Elias said, finally chiming in. "If it's just her and Deidra, it can't be easy to navigate a whole new world without a guide. So, at least we have that advantage."

James, somehow, didn't feel assured by that.

"Yes," he said anyway.

"Even if we do make it north to some safe haven, are we even safe if Tula can always spy despite distance and lack of consent?" Alistair asked. "What's the end game here?"

That, James wished he had an answer to.

"Confrontation with Tula," he said slowly. "May be inevitable. But... I doubt that with increased distance that her magic would be as powerful. It may be something we can work around. But I... imagine she won't give up until she finds us. So it may be best to... prepare. For that inevitability."

"What do you mean... prepare?" Alistair asked slowly and suspiciously.

"Well, the good thing is that she's a bad fighter, but that's why she has Deidra follow her around everywhere," Mel said. "But with all of our magic, I think we can easily take them on and escape if needed."

"But then they'll recover and go after us again. She won't stop," Alistair said.

Mel scoffed. "No need to be so down in the dumps, Alistair. It's six of us against two of them. We can do it."

Eve had been eyeing James, trying to study him and get a feel of his thoughts.

"Under no circumstance would you surrender," she said seriously. "That's not an option."

"I know," James said. But he couldn't deny that he was thinking about it.

If it was only Deidra and Tula, then sure. They could handle them. But Deidra was powerful on Earth. How much more powerful was she on Nye? And what if it wasn't just the two of them?

"We'll just need to be ready for a fight," he said. "At all times. We'll continue to keep watches at night and to the best of our ability, and as much as we can, keep tabs on Tula based on what she shows us."

Though he didn't have strong reason to believe she'd target anyone but himself, he was trying to account for all possibilities.

"Sounds like a plan," Mel said. "C'mon, let's get moving. The less we think of that psycho, the better."
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Carina says...

It took two days to find this wolf cave. Hendrik was glad it only take two days, because this was, by far, the most unpleasant two days of his life. And he was a military man who had seen some shit.

So many he was being a bit over-the-top. But it was hard not to when Robin was Mr. Over-the-Top. He was like an endless supply of annoying. Like a fly that kept flying around your face, but wolf version.

There were many, many times that Robin would go off to hunt, along with Bongo, Bird Brain, and Higgins. While they were hunting, Hendrik would help scavenge food for Piggly, Wiggly, Bacon, and Sleepy. He didn't mind the natural divide, and in fact welcomed it because he could tell that the pigs and chicken felt uneasy about Robin. If only Bongo, Bird Brain, and Higgins felt the same.

"Do you always eat your food like an animal?" Hendrik said with a shake of his head after seeing Robin devour his raw chunk of bloody meat, slurping it up and not holding back.

Robin paused in the devouring and dropped the chunk of meat in his mouth to the ground.

"What about it bothers you?" Robin asked. "If I were an average wolf who couldn't talk and didn't have a human form, would you even blink twice?"

"Unfortuntaely you're not a normal wolf who can't talk. Have some decency," Hendrik scolded.

Robin laughed. It was still uncanny to hear a dog-like human laugh escape from a wolf's mouth. Hendrik grimaced.

"What is decency?" he asked.

"Take whatever the hell you're doing and do the opposite," Hendrik said.

"Perhaps what is decent to a werewolf is offensive to your kind," Robin said. "Because to me, I used to find humans very indecent. It's all a matter of perspective."

Hendrik let out an annoyed sigh, knowing that if he continued on, Robin would pick his argument to death. He instead gestured to Sleepy who was cowering behind the pigs, who were cowering behind Bongo.

"Can you at least not scare the pigs and chicken? Have some respect," he said.

"I cannot control their instinctual reaction to my existence," Robin said. "It is not natural for wolves to lie with pigs, and I do not aim to make it so."

"Yeah, and it's not natural for a human to talk to a wolf-man. But here we are," he grumbled.

The had been traveling for two days now, but it felt longer than that. During moments of sanity, Hendrik would be writing in his journal or taking care of his animals, but he found that his journal was filling up with annoying Robin moments while the main animal he took care of was this wolf-man.

The only highlight of the entire trip was when Hendrik woke up to see Robin curled up around Bongo in wolf form. He could admit when something was cute, especially if it involved animals. And it was pretty damn cute.

"Enjoy cuddling with my stallion?" Hendrik cooed when Robin stirred.

Robin sleepily blinked his eyes open and then stretched out his legs as far as they could go and let out a big yawn, exposing all of his teeth. Rolling onto his side, he closed his mouth and sniffed loudly, looking up at him.

"Is that what you call it?" he asked, sounding half-awake. "I've never seen a creature like it before."

"You should be a model for animal photography. You're more cute when you don't talk," Hendrik said, ignoring the novelty of Bongo since that was a whole other thing to explain.

Robin rolled over and got to his feet, narrowing his eyes at Hendrik. He was quiet for a moment, and merely stared at him. Observing. Hendrik stared back, but he eventually shook his head and continued to pack his things when it felt too weird.

"You're a strange one, indeed," Robin muttered. "Regardless. We're not far, now. We should arrive in a few hours."

"Thank god. I thought this day would never come, yet here we are," Hendrik grumbled.

"Yes," Robin said flatly after a few hours. "Here we are indeed."

Hendrik stared at the dilapidated door in front of them. They had traveled through an abandoned ghost town for the last fifteen or so minutes, not seeing a soul in sight. The buildings everywhere were in various stages of disrepair and decay, and Hendrik swore he saw a tumbleweed cross the path in front of them despite behing in a bushy forest environment.

The building Robin led them to wasn't any special and it didn't stand out. The door was rotting and barely even looked like it could sustain a knock before falling off the hinges.

"What?" he spat out. "I thought you were taking me to..."

Well, Hendrik actually had no idea where he was taking him. They failed to have that conversation communicated clearly since they kept going off into side tangents.

"To, I don't know, but somewhere else," Hendrik finished.

Robin shifted into his human form.

"You have a lot of opinions, Hendrik," Robin said. "But you don't ask many good questions."

Before Hendrik could think of a rebuttal, Robin knocked softly on the door in what sounded like an intentional, distinct pattern. At first, there was no reply, but then, footsteps were heard, faintly approaching.

When the door opened, there was a man, a little taller than Hendrik, who filled up the doorway. He looked strong, and wore all black, but most notably was missing one eye, having a trio of scars in its place. He looked down at Robin and then up at Hendrik with a bearded smile.

"Always a pleasure to see a new face," the man said, extending a hand for a shake. "What's your name, stranger?"

"Hendrik," Hendrik answered, shaking his hand firmly. "This the secret mage group?"

The man chuckled.

"I guess you could call it that," he said. "Back in the old day, though, we'd call it a guild."

The man took a step back and waved for them to come in. Robin was quick to slip inside ahead of him.

"My name's Bo, by the way," the tall man offered. "How were your travels here? Do you need anything?"

Hendrik stepped back and gestured towards his animals. "Got room for all my animals?" he asked.

Bo's eyebrows raised as he leaned to the side and looked through the door.

"Huh," he said, sounding mildly impressed. "That's quite the collection there."

Hendrik pointed at each one, introducing them to Bo. "Bongo. Higgins. Bird Brain. The chicken on top of Bongo is Sleepy. The three winged pigs behind them are named Piggly, Wiggly, and Bacon. Collection, sure, but if I'm going in there, they're going with me too."

"First, those are perfect names," Bo said, pointing to him. "And second, I don't mind you bringing your animals in on the first floor, and no one's living up here, but I'd like to keep the floor where we keep our food and supplies clear of animal contamination, if that's alright with you."

He leaned over to the side a little more, looking at Bongo in particular.

"Not sure if the big guy will fit through the door," he hummed. "But... I guess there's no harm in trying."

"You can always make a new door. Just run through the wall. Not like the building is in the best condition anyways."

"We have better ways to work around that," Bo said with a grin. "But yes. Shouldn't be too hard to expand the door. We've got an earth mage who can do that quick and easy. You'll meet 'im in a second."

That made sense. Although, Hendrik was very unfamiliar with how magic worked around here, so he decided not to comment.

"Sure. And no problem about keeping the animals separate." He craned his neck to peek in. "You going to give a tour?"

"There's not too much to show," Bo said. "But yes. Let the tour begin. After we get your animals situated, that is."

Bo went outside and helped Hendrik lead the smaller animals in. They started with the three flying boars, Sleepy the chicken, and were able to squeeze Higgins in through the door. By that point, Robin had disappeared and it was just Bo and Hendrik outside with Bongo, who was clearly too large to squeeze through the human sized door. At that moment, Hendrik could feel tremors under his feet, somewhere deeper in the earth nearby. Where there once was a door in the stone building, the frame opened up, pulling the door to one side. The rocks seemed to shift and morph to make way for the new open space, and though it looked a little rough, it really didn't look any rougher than it did before, with the building being as outwardly dilapidated as it was.

The door swung backwards on its hinges, now hanging loosely in the too-wide gap that had been created, and in the open space, Hendrik saw a young man standing there. Tall, but not next to Bo and Hendrik, who were taller than the average tall person. He had dark brown skin and a short cropped afro, and was wearing simple, loose clothes. Browns and greens. He looked like he'd blend into the forest if he wasn't in a building.

He stood with his arms extended, but lowered them a moment after the now-wider door settled into place.

The man looked out at Hendrik and Bongo, eyeing Bongo in particular.

"That should be big enough," he said.

Hendrik was impressed and gave the man a nod of approval. Still, he eyed Bird Brain standing behind Bongo.

"Big enough for Bird Brain too?" he asked with a gesture toward his winged lion. He tried to eyeball to see if his wings could fit through the new door.

The man leaned to the side a bit to get a good look.

"More than big enough," he said as he walked up, stepping through the doorway. He extended his hand for a handshake. "I'm Raj."

"Well done, lad," Hendrik said as he took his hand and gave it two firm shakes. "Name's Hendrik."

Raj pulled his hand away and gave a small bow of his head. "Glad that we found you," he said. "Always good to meet other mages."

Hendrik almost snorted. "Glad I found you. If I had to spend another day with that man, I would jump off a cliff."

Raj and Bo exchanged a shared glance.

"Who, Robin?" Raj asked.

"Yeah. Him," Hendrik said, and then took initiative to coax Bongo to step inside.

Bo had started to encourage Bird Brain inside, and Bird Brain seemed interested enough to follow him. Hendrik saw that Bo had something in his hand, probably food. Meanwhile, Raj simply backed up inside to give them space.

"Did something happen?" Raj asked.

"Yeah. He turns into a wolf," Hendrik said like it was obvious, guiding Bongo down the hall and stepping to the side to wait for the others.

"That's part of being a werewolf," Bo said, leading Bird Brain to a corner of the large, mostly empty room. The wood floor was dusty and littered with strips of peeling paint, while some weeds and grass had started to grow in the corners and crevices of the floorboards. In one corner there was some old furniture that seemed to have been shoved to the side.

"So, what is this place? Is everyone here a mage?" Hendrik asked as his eyes darted around the room to scan for any familiar faces.

"Everyone here is a mage," Bo said, patting Bird Brain on the head before giving him the snack in his hand. "Or friendly to them. You won't have to worry about mage hunters out here."

Hendrik didn't really know what that meant exactly, but he was here on a mission: to find his comrades.

"Well? Where is everyone?" he asked.

"Under your feet," Bo said with a small grin. He looked to Raj, and Raj walked to the side of the room, reaching down to the floor.

He slipped his fingers under a gap in the floorboards and pulled upwards, revealing a hidden, trap door. He guided it gently down so it didn't slam, but Hendrik could clearly see what looked like a shaft leading down, with a ladder.

"Do your animals need anything right now, or will they be alright up here for a bit?" Bo asked.

Ah. So that was what Bo meant when he said no one lived on the first floor. Seemed that they all really wanted to stay hidden, even though no one was living in this town anyways.

"They'll be alright, but I'm bringing this one with me," Hendrik said as he scooped Sleepy up from the floor. She was small and used to being around people anyways, plus if James was down here, Hendrik thought it'd be nice to return Sleepy to his rightful owner.

"What's the chicken's name again?" Bo asked, walking over to him.

"Sleepy," Hendrik answered.

"Awh, that's cute," he said, reaching over to pet the chicken in Hendrik's arms. "She seems well adjusted to people and being handled. Does she lay eggs?"

"Not for the past few weeks while she's been with me, but she's not mine. I'm trying to return her to her owner," Hendrik said as he eyed the hatch door below. "I think he may be here."

Bo and Raj seemed to share another look, like they were asking each other silent questions.

"A mage?" Bo asked.

"We haven't run into anyone else out here recently," Raj said. "But we did send out one our own to investigate after we got word of a group of mages spotted by some goblins further south. They're not here, but we're aware of them and looking for them."

"Were you with people before?" Bo asked. "Did you get separated?"

So many questions. Hendrik was only here to return a chick and find his people. He hardly knew anything else.

"Look, I'm just here to find my comrades," Hendrik said firmly, propping up Sleepy. "Robin told me that the mages I'm looking for might be here."

Again, inaudible conversation seemed to be had between Bo and Raj.

Hendrik scowled, then flourished his hand between the two of them. "What's with the whole eye language over here? I can't read eyes."

"Your friends just might not be here," Bo said. "But we'll do what we can to help. That's all."

Raj nodded to the ladder leading down below.

"Ready to head down?" he asked.
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