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Fate's Hand

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Wed Sep 21, 2022 4:01 am
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Carina says...

Hendrik eagerly nodded, stepping in to be the first one to go down even though he had no idea what awaited below, but he was tired of the mumbo jumbo conversation and was antsy to possibly meet his friends. Bo followed in after, and Raj after a few seconds hopped in too, closing the door above them and therefore blocking out the light from above, leaving only a warm light from below.

The ladder wasn't too long, and when he reached the bottom, he stepped out into an open room. On one wall was a long set of wooden shelves, stocked with various boxes and crates of foodstuffs, linens, and other various supplies. On the other walls there were a few doors - five in total - that looked to lead to other rooms. Aside from the shelving in the main room, there wasn't a whole lot. Firelit lamps hanging from the ceiling, and a big wooden table in the center with eight wooden chairs around it, some of them not matching.

Sitting at the table, there was a woman who resembled Raj a little - with a similar face structure and deep brown skin. Her coily black hair was even shorter, and she wore a long red dress, with a woven shawl over her shoulders. Her attention was on them the moment everyone started coming down, and she pulled away from the table and got to her feet.

She offered a warm smile, walking over to the three of them, and Raj stepped forward to give her a quick hug. When she pulled away, she turned to Hendrik.

"Hello," she said. "My name's Mel. What's yours?"

"Hendrik," he answered, lightly smiling in amusement since he was half-expecting a Mel - just not this one.

"I see you've already met my brother and Bo," she said. "Do you need anything? We can get some food ready, or water--"

"A bath. If you want a bath," Bo suggested. "Not saying you smell. Haven't sniffed you. But baths are always nice."

"If you need to sleep," Raj added. "We can prepare a bed for you."

Again, so much was said. Hendrik only said his name and he was getting bombarded with hospitality. Eating food out of a plate and spoon seemed pretty damn great, considering he had been eating like a cave man (and traveling with a literal animal) the past few weeks. And Bo was right, he probably did smell awful. He had to resist the urge to take up their option of sleep as well. Even a couple of thick blankets would be nice to sleep on.

But before he could do any of these things, he had to first take care of business.

"And all of that is greatly appreciated," he said sincerely, then paused as he eyed the other doors in the room. "But I'd like to meet everyone here first."

"Sure," Mel said softly. "There aren't too many more of us, but let me go see what they're up to."

She knocked on one of the walls on the furthest wall, and pushed it open, quietly announcing they had a new visitor, but not all of it was audible. Footsteps hurried to the door and the first person to step out was a shorter woman with light brown skin and straight black hair, pulled back in a long ponytail. She had choppy bangs and stray hairs around her face and big, green eyes. She wore a big, oversized leather jacket, and dressed like some kind of adventurer. It reminded Hendrik of the kind of clothes James wore when they first found him.

She spotted Hendrik quickly and very cheerfully walked over with a bright smile.

"Oh, hello!" she greeted. "My name's Clandestine, but you can call me Clanny for short. And don't worry if you forget my name in a few minutes, I don't mind if you ask again, since you're meeting a bunch of new people. What's your name?"

Hendrik had to force himself to pay attention to her and not anyone else who may be coming out of the room, so he only caught half of what she said.

"Hendrik," he said plainly this time, starting to get tired of introducing himself. He looked up right when another door opened. "Nice to meet you, Clan," he said distractedly.

Someone stepped out of the room Clandestine came out of, trailing behind much slower. Hendrik was disappointed when he quickly realized it wasn't someone he recognized. It was another woman, leaner, with short brown hair and light brown skin, and that was about all he saw before he stopped paying attention.

Clandestine spun around and gestured between the two of them.

"Hendrik, this is Raya," she said. "Raya, this is Hendrik."

Raya, the woman who wasn't any of the people Hendrik was hoping to see, merely nodded in his direction.

"That's pretty much it," Clandestine said, looking around the room, but then hesitated. "Except for Robin. Where'd he go?"

"Off to take a nap, I think," Mel said.

"That's it? That's everyone?" Hendrik said, not hiding back the surprise. "For such a large secretive base, I thought there would be a room full of people."

"Well, it's not our main base," Bo said. "We have dozens of bases across Nye, and various secret safehouses. This is just a touchpoint where we host mages on the way before reaching our final destination."

Hendrik nodded as if he was following along, but honestly, he had no clue what any of the context was. He had no idea what the hell they were really doing out here or where they were going. Frankly, he was surprised he could make it this far without anyone really noticing that he had no idea what the hell was even happening.

"Okay. If my comrades aren't here, then they may be over there," he said with a final quick nod to Bo. "Where can I find the main base?"

"Well, the information of its whereabouts are kept secret within a small group of people," Bo said. "We harbor a lot of mages escaping various dangers, and it's all to keep them safe and avoid being discovered. If you want to join us at the main base we can take you there, but for security reasons we wouldn't be able to send you off on your own."

Hendrik sighed. "Do you know of everyone's names? We could be saving a lot of time if you did."

"We keep thorough records of everyone who passes through our care," Bo said. "And records of those who choose to stay and join us. If you're willing to share the names of your friends you're looking for, we can check with our sources to see if they're with any other contacts of ours. Or maybe we've already encountered them."

It didn't hurt. Hendrik had been respecting everyone's privacy so far, but if he truly wanted to find them, it seemed he'd have to cooperate with others.

"Sure," he said, then flicked his eyes towards Mel. "Do you have another Mel on your team?"

Mel was already moving across the room and reaching into one of the boxes on the shelf. She pulled out a leatherbound book and a pencil, and sat down at the table, beginning to flip through it. It looked like several notes had been written. Dates, names, etc.

"Not on this one," Bo answered, while Mel started flipping through pages.

"Can I ask if you know where your friends were last?" Mel asked. "Or where or when you last saw them? That might help me narrow down where to look."

Hendrik suppressed a laugh. "Oh, you don't want to know. But that information's not going to help. I have no clue where they could be now."

He paused for a second, thinking.

"But I last saw them a little over two weeks ago, if that helps," he added.

He had no clue if the others were even on Nye, but he knew how long he had been here. If they all transported together, then they could have only been spotted for the last two weeks.

Mel hummed and nodded, continuing to flip around, seeming to flip to a certain section.

"And other names?" Bo asked.

Hendrik hummed. Since he was on Nye and James was from here, naturally his next thought went to him.

"James. That ring a bell?" he asked.

Mel lifted up a finger and nodded, flipping to a page closer to the middle of the book.

"Yes," she said. "He's not here, but we did get word of a James and an Eve, traveling with a group of mages, near the bor-"

"Yes. Yes, that's them," Hendrik interrupted, immediately perking up. "Where are they? Who else is with them?"

"Our source didn't name all of the people with them," Mel said. "But she said they numbered to a group of six, including James and Eve. It was mentioned a healing mage and a fire mage were among them." She paused, scanning something on the page. "Two healing mages, and a light mage," she corrected.

Hendrik quickly went through the names in his head. He left the caves with Malkiel, Rudy, and Finn with the premise that the others would follow. And based on other-Mel's description, it sounded like she was describing Mel, Elias, Elise, and Alistair.

Finally, Hendrik found something that felt real again. He was determined to find them.

"Where are they?" he asked again.

"They were last seen near Sticks," Mel said. "Just south of the Wilds. So, southwest of us, now."

Well that wasn't entirely helpful. She could have said they were near Mars and Hendrik would have believed her.

"So, they're close," he said as a shot in the dark.

"It's hard to say since we don't have exact locations, and we don't know where they're heading, but our information says they were going north," Mel said. "If they stayed on that trajectory, that could put them anywhere from a few days of travel away to a week, maybe a week and a half, depending on how fast they're moving. A group that size, if they're on foot, though, probably on the lower end of that estimate."

Hendrik nodded again, more vigorously this time. He was putting all the pieces together, trying to connect the dots.

"Yes. Okay. Good. When are we leaving?" he asked.

There was a beat of silence.

"We've already sent out one of our own to go find them, since they were reported to us," Bo said. "We may not have to leave to find them. The plan was to lead them here."

Hendrik was not pleased with this answer. He was just handed this fantastic piece of news, and now he was expected to sit tight and wait? Wasn't that what he practically did the past two weeks? He felt like he had to do something about this. Take action. Anything. Not just wait around.

"Wouldn't it be faster if we try to flag them down and expedite the whole thing?" Hendrik asked.

"Considering we've sent out our friend to search for a small group of people in a pretty wide stretch of land, if we went out there to try to find her and your friends as well, it may end up only slowing down the process for when you see them again," Bo said. "There are a lot of unknowns."

"So, what, I'm just supposed to sit back and relax when I just found out that my friends have been found?" Hendrik asked sharply, his voice rising.

"I understand it makes most sense to run out and find them," Bo said calmly. "If they were my own friends I'd be tempted to do the same. But I promise you we never give up on following through with leads. We always pursue it until we find them, and by any means possible, we bring them to safety."

"If you're willing to wait here, we do intend to bring them to this base if they agree to come with us," Mel added. "We can send out a messenger bird to relay to them that you're here. That may help with incentive, if, for any reason, they're not interested in our assistance."

Hendrik gritted his teeth, but then sighed and relaxed.

Fine. He could wait.

"We won't force you to stay," Bo added. "If you want to go find them, you can. But we have a way of doing things here. We'll offer you resources and a place to stay if you'll take it, but I have to look out for the people under me."

"I trust your word. I'll stay a week and wait. But if they don't arrive then, I'll find them on my own," Hendrik said.

"I completely understand," Bo said with a small smile. "Sounds like a plan, then."

Mel nodded and closed the book of records and names, and got up to put it away.

"In the mean time, do you want to take us up on anything?" Bo asked. "Food? Water?"

"Don't put that book away yet. I have other names to check up on," Hendrik said.

Mel paused, and sat back down, setting the book back on the table. "Of course," she said. "You last saw them two weeks ago as well?"

Hendrik nodded. "Yes. Two men and a child. Rudy and Malkiel."

Mel flipped back to where she'd been reading before, and started skimming, flipping a few pages back and forth. With a small sigh, she shook her head and gave Hendrik and apologetic look.

"I'm sorry, I don't see anything," she said.

Considering that Hendrik was just with Malkiel, Rudy, and Finn before he transported to Nye, he wasn't sure what to do with that information. He only hoped that they were all doing okay.

"Well," he said with a sigh. "You mentioned food?"

Mel smiled softly.

"Yes, we did mention food," she said. "Are you hungry?"

"I could eat," Hendrik said as he glanced at Bo. "But first, I should probably take that bath. I don't want Bo to lose his sense of smell over here."

Bo laughed at that.

"I think I'll survive. I've smelled Robin's farts," he said. "That's way worse."

"Yeah, I know. I smelled that too," Hendrik grumbled.

"That explains a lot," Bo said with a little amused smile. "But sure. Let's get you that bath, then."
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soundofmind says...

At first, James had thought that the magic of the note sending them all back to Nye was a miracle. It was an impossible way out of an impossible situation, but as it turned out, it really was too good to be true. No matter where he went, his problems always followed him, in one form another. Even when he'd escaped everything on Nye, he couldn't get away from trouble on Earth. He had a feeling he might never know what it was like to settle down, and somewhere deep down, he was worried he didn't want to.

Ever since he was a child, it was crisis after crisis, and that was all he knew. That only amplified ever since he'd thrown his life away and became a wanted man.

In some cruel way, this all felt right. Expected, even, because nothing could ever be too good for too long - and that was the cynic in him, formed over years of denial to the truth, now finally screaming to have a voice.

He couldn't help but feel selfish in all of this, that he would somehow end up with a company of friends, again who were dragged into the dangers he carried with him wherever he went. It didn't matter how many times everyone kept trying to assure him that it wasn't his fault. He knew it wasn't his fault. And yet, he couldn't find anyone else to blame. Someone had to be responsible, and no matter how many times he tore it apart in his head, everything pointed back to his stupid, impulsive decisions. And he hated it. He knew it wasn't all about him, but he found himself desparately wishing to fall off the face of the world.

Someone was always looking for him, and damn it, if all of his friends were hurt because of it-- he couldn't justify that loss.

Part of him fantasized about pushing everyone away. Maybe if he proved to them that he wasn't worth fighting for, they'd abandon him, so he wouldn't have to do it himself. But he knew that would never happen.

So it was fine.

He was going to pretend like everything was fine, as much as he could, within reason. He was going to be functional, because he had to be. Someone had to wake up and be a resource for all of his friends. Someone had to be confident, and responsible, and keep it together.

So he was fine. Because he had to be.

That morning, not long after he told the others about Tula's existence on Nye, the same odd feeling returned. They'd only just packed up all of their things, ready to move again. Instead, James came to an abrupt halt, holding Elliot's reins. He let out a loud "shh" as he snapped his eyes shut, waiting for the feeling to pass.

"Shhh!" Mel shushed loudly to the others like it was needed, even though it was already quiet to begin with.

There was some shuffling as the others seemed to huddle together, exchanging hushed whispers, but then going quiet again, waiting for the moment to pass.

Tula was persistent, and James found they were both trying each other's patience. She had to be pushing herself to her limits - or perhaps, discovering what they even were, because James swore he stood there in silence with his eyes closed for over ten minutes.

When the feeling finally lifted, he opened his eyes, and his eyes had to adjust back to the light again for a moment.

He let out a long sigh.

"It's over," he said tiredly. "Let's go."

"Finally!" Mel said as she got to her feet, as did the others. They had all been waiting patiently, sitting or laying down, but relieved when the moment passed. Mel leaned back down to shake Alistair who had a blanket over his face. "Wake up, Alistair. We're actually moving now."

Even after Tula's attempt to see through his eyes ended, he felt like he was being watched. Not just because of Tula and her powers, but because he knew everyone would be observing him, trying to help. He didn't want to despise them for it, because he knew there wasn't much any of them could do, but he hated that it felt like everyone was waiting for him to stumble.

And when he did, it was an accident.

They'd stuck to his vague, weakly strung-up plan to head north in hopes that it would put them out of the way of Tula's path. It meant they were travelling slow, but they were moving nonetheless, mostly on foot.

Of course Tula took over his vision when they were walking through a rocky patch. One moment, James was looking down at the dry grass, smattered over the deep red earth and red rocks, and the next, he was falling, seeing through Tula's eyes.

The first thing he saw was Tula herself. She was looking down at a small foldable mirror, her face reflecting back as if she wanted James to see her sinister smirk. A second later, she snapped the mirror shut and took a few deliberate steps forward towards trees, looking straight ahead like she was deliberately trying to narrow his field of view. James could hear general chatter in the background and the sounds of horses walking around, but he couldn't see much else besides general trees and shrubbery.

Until she turned a corner and faced a man who stood near a pond. He was tall. Black hair, smoothed back. Light brown skin. Dressed like he was from the city. James didn't recognize him.

James hit the ground. He couldn't hear or see anything outside of Tula's vision, but he felt it when someone grabbed his arm, and he hit the rocky dirt beneath him. Everything was spinning, but it wasn't.

"Hey, Alexander," Tula called out to grab his attention. "I wanted to ask you a question."

The man turned to her with a curious, amused grin.

"Oh, is that so?" he asked, walking over with a swagger in his step. "Ask away."

Tula leaned against the tree with her arms crossed, waiting for him to get closer before she could ask her question. "I want to know - what's in it for you?" she asked carefully and deliberately.

Someone grabbed him. He didn't know who it was at first, and his first instinct was to throw them off, violently brushing them away. Nothing was making sense. He couldn't hear. He couldn't see. It was like his mind was one place, and his body another.

There seemed to be an unspoken understanding as to the context. Alexander leaned back on his heels and looked off to the side for a moment before he set his eyes on Tula, observing her closely.

"I'm doing this as a personal favor for a very close friend," he said.

"Carter Haddon, was it? That's a big favor to ask," Tula mused.

"Well, Carter's done a lot of big favors for me," Alexander said with a small shrug. "So I'm happy to do one in return. Tiberius had been a thorn in his side even before he stabbed Carter in the back, so I feel priveliged to be trusted with finally bringing him in."

"It must not be a coincidence that Tiberius backstabbed Carter and is also charged with treason," Tula said, waiting to see if Alexander would elaborate.

Alexander smirked.

"Everyone wants the juicy details," he chuckled. "All I'll say is that they used to be friends, and then one day, Tiberius shoved that friendship into a coffin. Carter says Tiberius is usually smart, but when he's stupid, he's stupid big-time."

"And he'll pay for what he's done," Tula said with a flourish of her hand. "What would you say or do to him when we catch him?"

There was a glint in his eyes - like Alexander knew something no one else did.

"Oh," Alexander said with a malicious smirk. "I won't do anything, really. I think I'll leave that to Carter."

So it was true. Tula was trying to hunt him down and deliver him over to the Moonlight Kingdom. To Carter. Somehow she'd found a personal contact, and was working with him.

"Is it over?" Elias's hushed voice said, sounding far away as James blinked rapidly to regain his blurry vision.

The earth beneath him felt too close, and yet too far away. He found himself gripping the grass under his fingers tightly, as if mere contact would bring him back.

"Shhh, Elias, not yet," Mel said, just as quiet.

James didn't know just how long his mind, eyes, and ears took to catch up from the radical disorientation of having half of his senses hijacked, but it felt too long. Finally, James was able to focus on what was directly in front of him, but it was difficult no matter how many times he blinked. Suddenly a shadow towered over him, and that was when he realized he must have been staring straight up into the sun.

"James? James?" a familiar voice called above him, her face coming into view. Eve. She looked so worried. "Can you hear me?"

He stared up at her. At some point in the fall, he'd lost his glasses. Her face was slightly out of focus, and stars danced across his vision. Probably from looking into the sun.

James nodded, barely.

"Yeah," he said absently, realizing he was lying on his back. He'd thought the whole world was face down. He was wrong.

"Can you sit up?" Eve asked, but there was something about her tone that was unusual. She sounded... scared.

James swallowed, and blinked hard again. He slowly pushed himself upright, sitting. He reached up to rub his eyes, but faltered, finding that his hands were mildly stinging and covered in deep red dirt. Looking down at himself, about half of him was splashed with it.

"You fell. Elias was able to catch you before you could hit your head, but you still went down. How are you feeling?" Eve asked, offering a handkerchief to clean the dirt off his skin.

James took it hesitantly, knowing the dirt was likely to stain it, but knowing she'd insist anyway. He wiped off one hand, discovering small scratches that were mildly bleeding.

"I..." he started, glancing up at the others around him.

Elias crouched down beside him. "Are you hurt? You fell pretty hard," he said.

"I think I just got a little scraped up," James said. "Maybe bruised is all."

"Did you see anything?" Mel asked, inviting herself in as well. "Did Tula show you something?"

James looked down at his hands as he wiped them off, knowing he was probably going to need water to do so thoroughly. Eve seemed to sense this and wordlessly offered the open canteen bottle. He took it and poured some over his hand.

"Yes," he said. "It... it was her. She... showed me a conversation. She was talking with a man I've never seen before."

"What were they talking about?" Mel asked.

James was silent for a beat.

"...Me," he said. "Indirectly. It appears she's working with him to find me."

"What? Is he a bounty hunter?" Mel continued, now crouching beside him.

"Something of the sort," James said. "It... wasn't a long conversation. I only know that he knows Carter personally. So..."

He let out a sigh and shook his head. "I don't know who he is. I don't know if it changes anything," he said. "She has help. That's probably what she wanted to tell me."

"Why would Tula send you a message just to tell you that?" Alistair muttered, arms crossed with his brows furrowed as he tried to piece this together.

For a moment, James wanted to tell Alistair to simply look at him. To look at all of them. They were all flustered, confused, and frustrated. Was that not enough of a reason?

"Because it's Tula. She wants to scare James," Mel spat out, annoyed. "But that's not going to affect him. Right, James? It's just a stupid meaningless threat."

James nodded, but said nothing. He found himself lingering on the last few words Tula and Alexander exchanged.

Alexander seemed... almost excited for James to see Carter again. Or rather, excited for Carter to see James again. And that didn't give him any consolation.

It wasn't a meaningless threat, as much as Mel was quick to dismiss it. But he decided it better to let her believe that. At least, for now.

He got to his feet and brushed himself off, ignoring the inconsequential stinging of his scraped up hands until Elise weaved her way through Mel and Elias, offering her hands to heal him. Though he'd expected her to reach for his hands first, instead, she gestured towards his face.

Blinking, he reached up and touched the side of his face.

Blood. Great.

He decided not to resist Elise's offer to heal him, and chose not to think about it once it was over.

The rest of the day went on without interruption, and by the time they stopped to set up camp and sleep for the night, it almost felt as if nothing had happened. It was normal. It was mundane. They laid out their sleeping bags. They cleared away excess foliage. They had a meal, and enjoyed mild small-talk about unimportant things. Travel, weariness, food, the way Alistair sometimes sleeptalked in his sleep--

"I do not," Alistair said stubbornly. "You're making that up."

Mel laughed. "I'm not, I swear! Elias, back me up."

"The other day I heard you say 'no fire,'" Elias said with a shrug. "Like... in a really whiny, almost nasaly voice."

Alistair stared blankly at him, unamused.

"When we were in the mines, I heard you say my name once," Mel teased, poking his side. "Were you dreaming of me?"

Embarrassment pooled in Alistair's face as he lightly pushed Mel back. "Now you're just being mean," he mumbled, but there was a hint of a smile on his face.

"Come on, Mel," James lightly chided. "He can't control what he does in his sleep."

"Pffft, like you're one to talk. You can't even control your sleep, period," Mel teased back, but she narrowed her eyes at him to see how he'd react.

James stared back, forcing an unbothered, amused grin.

"If I don't sleep, no one will catch me sleep-talking," he said lightly with a shrug.

"Hey, what do you think James would say if he was sleep talking?" Elias asked.

Mel laughed. "Probably a combination of Eve, Elliot, and--"

"Elias," Elias interrupted.

"Yeah. Totally. James would say Elias," Mel dead-panned.

"You can be included in my hypothetical sleep-talk," James said with a weak laugh through his nose.

"Wow, don't include your best friend Mel. I see how--" Mel started.

James sharply threw up his hand and made a "shh" sound through his teeth. He could feel Tula's presence. Immediately, he snapped his eyes shut, and furrowed his brows together, trying to resist, if he even could. But he could feel Tula still trying, and it was almost like he could sense her frustration. The insistence to see, though he did not want her to see.

Stubbornly, he kept his eyes shut.

The others seemed to heed his warning. A minute passed without even any hushed whispering, but eventually it sounded like someone began moving, and there was a faint whisper, hardly audible. It was like someone was trying to have a quick and quiet conversation.

Another minute of silence passed. And then:

"Psst. Open your eyes," Mel said confidently.

James wanted to aruge. Wanted to tell her to stop, but he also wanted to trust her. Apprehensively, he adjusted his glasses and then slowly opened his eyes.

In front of him, Mel had used her light illusion magic to paint a bright display of bright red words in front of him, obscuring everything else from immediate view.

All it said was: "Fuck u Tula."

James didn't know whether to laugh or to tell Mel to cut it out. On some child-like impulse, he threw up his hand into view, putting up his middle finger.

It was as if James could feel Tula's frustration again - this time, stemming out of anger and annoyance. The feeling of being watched melted away.

James leaned forward and let out a sigh, rubbing his eyes under his glasses.

"You can stop, now, Mel," he muttered. "That made her stop."

Mel giggled in victory, dropping the illusion as she leaned back on her arms, grinning. "At least now we know how to make her stop."

"There's no guarantee that will work twice," James said. "But... you annoyed her. I don't know if that's an accomplishment or not."

"It is in my book!" Mel said triumphantly.

"It did look pretty funny when you gave her the finger though," Elias commented. "It looked like you were flipping yourself off."

James gave Elias a flat look, sighing through his nose.

"I'm sure if anyone else was watching it'd have appeared to be so," he resigned.

Eve, who had been quiet up until now, placed her hand on his knee. "Do you think she saw anything?" she asked.

"It's dark," he said. "And we don't even have a fire going. I'm pretty sure all she saw was Mel's message and indistinct shadows in the background, if anything. Not enough to tell where we are by any means."

"This is the second time she's tried to spy on you at night. She also tried this morning. Since she is traveling with someone, maybe night and morning is the best time to spy. This could be a repeating pattern," Eve said.

"Hmm... that could make sense, especially since morning and night would mean more privacy," Mel said.

Since Tula began spying on James that night, Alistair had been laying down with his hands behind his head, but he was still awake and listening to the conversation. "Do you think it'd be obvious to others if she used her magic?" he asked.

"I don't know... You can't really tell when Tula used her magic on Earth. Right, Eve?"

Eve nodded. "That's right, but the circumstances likely changed since she no longer needs consent. It's hard to say if it comes easily to her now, but if she's trying to look through other's eyes during limited hours... it could be because privacy. It could also mean that she could only do it when she's laying down, asleep, or concentrating with no distractions."

"So... even if she was caught, it's unlikely people would think she's using magic," Mel said.

"Maybe," Eve said with a sigh. "We'd only really know if we saw Tula in action. But I hope for all our sakes that that will never happen."

James hoped so too. But he wasn't nearly as optimistic as the others - at least, not with himself.
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soundofmind says...

Eventually, they were all able to rest for the night. Even though Tula didn't try to see through his eyes again, James felt like he chased after sleep for hours until it finally came, and when the sun rose again, it felt like no time had passed at all. It was a misery he was well acquainted with, but it still took work to push himself to get up and start the day.

Even though he was surrounded by friends he was starting to feel like he wasn't really there at all. His mind was always somewhere else. Trying, in whatever weak ways he could, to consider any and all possibilities to prepare for them. But the problem was he didn't know what to do to prepare.

He had no resources. No safe place to take them. Not even allies he knew he could run to with five friends in tow to ask for refuge. Of the few friends he did have, he had no way of knowing where they were.

It was growing increasingly difficult to not feel helpless. James's only comfort at the moment was that though Tula could try to spy on them, as long as they stayed vigilant, she had no way of finding them.

At least, not by using her powers.

That morning, Tula tried to see through James's eyes again. It was earlier. He'd only just sat up, and he hadn't even put his glasses on yet. He blearily stared down at his hands for a moment before he shut his eyes.

He was the first one up. He was always the first one up. None of the others were even awake yet. Eve was still fast asleep beside him.

"I know it must be scary," James said lowly. "Being on a foreign world, left to your own devices. I can't imagine how it must be for you."

His sarcasm was by no means subtle.

"If it's any consolation, I didn't bring you with us on purpose. Though I imagine you may see that as divine providence, seeing as your sole goal now seems to be finding me. I do wonder what you will do with yourself afterward. How long will it be, you think, before they realize you're a mage?"

He was going to say more, but already, he felt the feeling subside. He'd successfully talked Tula into boredom or annoyance. Perhaps both. It didn't matter much either way. It accomplished what he desired: she stopped trying to spy on him.

He opened his eyes again and turned to find his glasses and slid them onto his nose. Now with his vision clear, he looked down at Eve, who was now awake and sitting up, clearly woken up by his words.

"Did it happen again?" she asked.

"Yes," James answered softly. "Though she didn't try for very long this time. Evidently, she has no patience to listen to my voice or anything I have to say. I can't imagine why."

Although James was trying to twist the news into a lighthearted direction, Eve didn't seem to hear it that way. They both knew it was only a matter of time before Tula's patience wouldn't stop her from trying even more.

"I'm glad it only lasted a short while," she said, but her brows were furrowed as she was likely thinking of different scenarios in her head. "And it seems that trying morning and nights are a pattern. Maybe..." She paused, then angled her head back toward him. "Maybe it'd help if you slept more during those hours. That way, she couldn't see anything. Maybe part of the reason she's only looking through your eyes is because she knows you have trouble sleeping."

"Does it make much of a difference, though? Whether I sleep or not, I won't let her see anything," James said.

"Not that I'm against sleeping," he quickly added.

Eve placed a hand on his thigh, her face somber and serious. "You need to sleep, James."

He found himself caught off guard. He flicked his eyes down to avoid her pleading gaze, but he could still feel it.

"I-- I know," he said quietly. "I'll try. It's just--"

"Gooooood morning!" Mel said to wake everyone up as she sat up straight. She always seemed to wake up mere minutes after James stirred.

Eve took his hand and gave him a gentle squeeze, smiling as she tried to meet his eyes. "We can talk more about this later. I just want you to be well-rested. You deserve that as much as everyone else."

James nodded but was distracted as he turned to watch the others start to stir. Mel was waking up Alistair - she was always the one waking up Alistair - and Elias and Elise predictably woke up from her words.

"Hey, James?" Mel said a few minutes later as everyone started to gather their items to get moving again. "Anything happen this morning?"

"Tula tried to spy on me again," he said plainly. "But didn't see anything. Nothing else."

But the rest of the day wasn't as uneventful.

It was midday when James's senses were overturned. They'd stopped to rest, and James was sitting against a tree when the conversation between him and Eve was cut short.

It was happening again. Tula was sending him a message.

The first thing he saw was two hands flushed together, palms up. He knew from the context that it must have been Tula's hands, but the inked message on her palms also gave it away.

I'M WATCHING YOU, it read in big capital letters.

Tula made sure James could read it again and again as she held her palms in front of her eyes for far too many seconds. Then, finally, she walked forward and wiped her hands together, smearing the ink. She again seemed to be deliberate with the direction she was taking, only looking straight ahead where there were indistinguishable trees and vegetation. But she again walked with purpose, as if she was trying to show him something again.

Or someone.

James saw the horse first. A massive, white draft horse, towering over her, with a fully packed saddle on its back. And then he saw the man. Tall, wide, and built like a tree.


He hadn't changed much in six years, aside from his hair being longer, sprouting more grays on his temples and into his massive sideburns. If anything, he looked stronger than before, which was something James didn't formerly think possible. The last time he'd seen Butch, he was wounded and fell into the river. He should've died, but he was alive.

How had Tula found him?

"Butch," Tula called, stopping a respectable distance away and delving straight into conversation. "I have been meaning to ask you: if you had it your way, what would you do to Tiberius when we catch him?"

Butch turned to Tula with mild curiosity, but seemed ambivalent towards her. As he seemed to consider the question, however, there was a familiar expression on his face. One James only saw the last time he'd been in Butch's grasp.

He was remembering.

"Last time," Butch said. "I was too easy on him. Careful, because he was wanted alive, and I didn't want to lose money for too-damaged goods."

He paused, looking off to the side in deep thought, with the hint of a scheming smile.

"Let's just say I'm not worried about losing money this time," he said.

"Entertain, or perhaps enlighten me with this question: what exactly would you want to do differently this time?" Tula asked with a too-calm demeanor, watching Butch carefully and being intentional with her words like she has practiced this beforehand. "After all, he deserves to receive even better treatment this time."

Butch seemed to search Tula's eyes for a moment. It seemed that they both understood each other.

"Are you familiar with how to butcher a pig?" Butch asked.

"Not the specifics of it," Tula answered.

"Well, it's a long process," Butch began to explain. "Preparation starts up to two days beforehand. First, you deprive them of food a day or two before. But you give them water, for the quality of the meat. When you take them to slaughter, you want them to be calm, so the meat isn't soured. If they're calm, the meat will bleed out properly."

"The most common method for killing pigs is with a .22 caliber," he went on. "You shoot straight down into the brain, in the direction of the spinal cord, where it connects to the skull. If the pig doesn't go down with one shot, you prepare another, until it does. Once the pig is unconscious, you can immediately stick the pig, which you can do on the ground or by hoisting it up by its legs."

He began to make hand gestures as he described.

"Sticking a pig takes all of the strength you have. You have to push through all of the fat, and you have to be sure to sever the artery without severing the surrounding meat. Then you go in with a long, double-sided blade, inserting the knife into the center of the throat, just above the breastbone. Point the knife to the pig's rear end and keep pushing until you hit the backbone. Then move the blade back up to the chin. When you pull the knife out, blood should come gushing out, without hitting the heart. This helps the pig bleed out faster. After its bled out, you move on to skinning, which is easiest to do by hoisting the pig up and stripping the skin down. Gravity makes it easier on your back."

He made a horrible, rapid movement, imitating the gesture of ripping off a pig's skin.

"When skinning a pig, first, you cut off the feet at the knee joints, then you cut into the skin, but not too deep, cutting from the rear all the way to the jaw. It's best to note, though, that pig hide is thick. It doesn't come off like a deer, or a rabbit's hide. It's best to pull it off in strips, starting the cuts up by the rear and pulling down to the head. And lastly, you cut off the head."

"After that, you're left with the meat, and you dunk it into boiling water, remove the hair follicles, and slice it into sections. And then, it's ready to be cooked and eaten."

A small pause.

"Tedious," he said. "But worthwhile."

"I see," Tula said after a beat of silence. "That is quite a lengthy process, but once it is done..."

Although James couldn't see her, he could see the vision warp just enough at the edges as if she was smiling.

"We will feast."

James stared out blankly, unblinking, even as the vision began to fade. His ears were ringing. Whatever was in front of him didn't register. He could see again, but it was as if the messages being sent from his eyes to his brain were broken. He could feel his chest starting to grow tight, piercing with pain as anxiety wound up tighter, and tighter, and tighter. His eyes felt dry, and they stung.

Somewhere behind them, he could feel tears pushing up slowly - or rather, threatening to.

It took too long for Eve's touch to register. She was sitting beside him. They were leaning against the base of a tree. Her hand was in his. Holding it. Tightly. Her thumb rubbed the back of his hand slowly, but he could feel the anxiety in her movements.

Her hands were sweaty, and so were his.

He let out a shaky breath and stiffly shook his hand out of hers to wipe the sweat off onto his pants.

"It happened again, didn't it?" Eve said lowly after he moved just slightly like she was waiting to ask. She turned more squarely towards him now, giving him her full attention and worry.

His head was starting to hurt. There was a pressure continually building, and trying to manage it felt like it was only making it worse - but to let it go completely would mean drawing attention.

In the background, he could hear the others talking over food. Something about meals. Food they missed. He didn't really listen.

Before speaking, he tried testing out various responses in his head, trying to parse out which one would be easiest to say without making him more unstable than he already felt.

"Nearly five minutes passed without you responding," Eve continued when he didn't immediately respond. She was now sitting directly across from him, trying to meet his eyes. "I know you have no control over this, and the only thing we can do is wait it out and then discuss it afterward. But first - how are you feeling? Are you okay?"

James couldn't figure out how to put words into sentences at first. He could feel his breaths start to shorten, and speed up. He swallowed hard, trying to reset and take in a deep breath, but he found his eyes stinging more, and before he could stop it, they started to glaze over. With tears.

Eve then leaned forward and grabbed him for a hug, resting his head over her shoulder. James wished she hadn't. He was trying to keep it in, not let it out, and that made it harder.

"It's okay. I'm here. You're safe now," she whispered in his ear.

Tears began to stream down his face even though he tried so hard not to blink. He turned to hide his face in her hair, doing everything he could in his power to keep from breaking down and crying further. Eve responded by hugging tightly, and he found himself tensing up. His brain tore into two different directions. One that knew it was fine, and it was just Eve. The other that felt like he was trapped, and couldn't get away.

Eve seemed sensitive to his tensing, and she eased her grip, but still wrapped her arms around him, letting the time pass between them until James was ready. Though James was less concerned about being ready in his own time and more about being composed as quickly as possible.

He finally found the resolve within himself to bury the panic enough to dry his eyes. Every muscle in his body felt the residual worry boiling in his blood and twisting around his bones, but he forced himself to pull away and - as subtly as he could manage - he pushed his glasses up and wiped his eyes.

"Yes," he finally said, taking his glasses off to rub them clear with his shirt. "It was Tula again."

Eve took this moment to wipe a stray tear off his upper lip, using the edge of her sleeve to pat down any other tears that fell into his beard.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked softly. "We can go somewhere more private."

He quickly finished cleaning his glasses and slipped them back on, glancing at the others. They were sitting only a few feet away, still eating. He caught their brief glances towards him, but they just as quickly looked away.

There was no way to be discrete.

"Um," he said, feeling his lower lip involuntarily tremble.

"Let's go somewhere else," Eve said with a nod, quickly getting up on her feet. She offered him a hand. "Come on."

He took her hand and got to his feet, letting her lead. His head was pounding, now, and though he'd pushed back the tears for a moment, he could feel them soon returning.

Eve was quiet as they zig-zagged through the forest. She seemed focused as she still held on to James's hand, leading him to a small clearing a minute's walk away. Upon arrival, she let go and faced him, the focused expression replaced with genuine concern again.

"Is this spot good?" she asked, searching for answers in his eyes.

James didn't meet her eyes. Instead, he leaned forward and buried his face into her shoulder. Loosely, he put his hands around her waist in a weak embrace. Eve was quick to return the hug, gently wrapping her arms around his back.

"Butch is alive," he whispered tearfully into her jacket, his voice hoarse.

Eve didn't answer right away. Her jaw clenched, and she was likely sifting through an explosion of thoughts but wanted to be more deliberate with what she said.

"Is he also traveling with Tula?" she whispered.

He nodded.

Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

Eve let the silence fill the embrace between them as she silently processed through the implications. Tula was traveling with two bounty hunters - and all of them were hellbent on finding James.

She wanted to think out loud - to voice all of the concerns, anxieties, and worries they both shared. She wanted to be transparent, to establish a new plan, to have a clear path forward... but it took all of her willpower to keep this all to herself.

She couldn't have this conversation with James right now. Not after he broke down. Not when there was no plan. The only thing they could do was process.

Butch was with Tula, as with another bounty hunter. And there wasn't anything they could do about it. They could only try to keep Tula away and not feed her any information.

But Eve hated when Tula used her magic to send messages to James. She felt so powerless. James was forced to see whatever message she was trying to send. Her mind went to possibility after possibility, wondering what her weak point was, if she even had any.

Tula was persistent. If she didn't get what she wanted now, she would be willing to play the long game and wait weeks. Months. Years. She would dedicate her whole life to this if she needed to.

There had to be something they could do. Anything.

But Eve couldn't think of anything, and she felt her heart sink.

She gave James a weak squeeze, knowing that the emotions he was feeling was beyond any word she could describe. She knew what Butch did to him, and she couldn't imagine what old emotions resurfaced from seeing his face. Eve couldn't bring herself to press for details.

"I'm sorry you're subjected to all this. You don't deserve any of this," Eve said softly after a long pause, still holding on to him. "But you're allowed to have feelings. I know Tula is trying to get under your skin, but you don't have to feel like you have to hold back around me or the others. You've been so strong so far for me and for all of us, but..."

She loosened her grip and pulled away just slightly so she could tilt her head enough to see his face, but he didn't budge, so she didn't push it.

"You don't have to be the strong all the time," she finished quietly.

James sniffled loudly, and she could feel his shoulders slacken, releasing tension. Tired. Exhausted.

"I wish," he said, pushing through what sounded like a knot in his throat, "I wish I could guarantee that everyone will be alright. I just want everyone to be alright."

Eve gently rubbed his back with her hand, recalling what James had told her over and over again in the past.

"That isn't your responsibility to bear," she said sincerely. "We depend on you to guide us on Nye, but we don't and shouldn't depend on you for our lives. We are all trying our best here. That's all that matters. Everything else is outside of our control, including yours."

James pulled away, but not to look her in the eyes. Instead it was merely to take off his glasses, which were wet with tears. He folded them and tucked them into his jacket's chest pocket with shaky hands. She could see that his nose and eyes were red and puffy, and it looked like he was still desperately trying to keep his mouth in a neutral line. But in front of her, he was failing, and he bit his lip in what seemed to be an attempt to hide their trembling.

Eve couldn't hide how much seeing him like this pained her. She cupped his face with her hand, her thumb grazing his cheek as she watched him with a deep sadness she couldn't contain.

"I hate feeling so helpless," he whispered, closing his eyes, causing more tears to stream down. She was quick to wipe away each one before they could roll down his face. "I'm not--I don't have any answers to offer. I feel like I'm just aimlessly leading us in the wilderness while we wait for the inevitable. And we all know how it went last time. And this time she--she has--"

His voice broke with a crack, and his shoulders caved in as his head fell forward again, and this time, he began to sob. Eve pulled him into another embrace, holding on to him tightly.

This time, he hugged back, just as firm. She could feel his tears and snot pooling into her shirt, leaving it wet. But she didn't care. She didn't care if the shirt was ruined, or if she had to stay like this for hours, or if they had to talk all night. She wanted to be there for him, fully present, and with her full attention. James deserved that. He deserved so much more.

"I don't even know if our powers can save us this time," he cried, his voice wavering in pitch, muffled by her shoulder and warbled by his sobs. "We don't know how they've changed. I'm sorry. I'm-- I know I shouldn't be sorry. I don't want to-- I'm--"

He didn't finish his sentence, and instead leaned on her more, still weeping.

There were so many unknowns. They both knew that, and they both carried the burden of knowing the extreme consequences that may happen in the future.

But none of that mattered. None of that mattered right now. A small fire reignited in her heart. She knew that perhaps she could heed her own advice and note that making sure James was happy wasn't her responsibility to bear, but she didn't care.

Eve agreed that there really was no easy solution here, and the situation seemed hopeless. But she was willing to change her perspective. For James.

She let the silence fill the air between them until James's breathing became less ragged, but she didn't let go.

"James," she said, breaking the silence. "Do you remember when I was in a coma in the mines? You waited six months for me to wake up, even when others warned I may never will." She paused. "Why?"

James didn't respond. He took in a few shaky deep breaths, like he was trying to collect himself first.

"I--" he started, pulling away a little to finally look up and meet her eyes. They were even more red than before, but focused on hers.

"I still had hope for you," he said quietly, the look in his eyes gentle and sincere.

"Did you ever lose that hope?" she asked just as quietly, holding his gaze.

"No," he whispered without hesitation.

"Then I hope you can understand when I say that I have hope for you too. And even now, even with everything going on - I have not lost that hope, nor do I plan on ever letting it go," Eve said sincerely and wholly, reaching for his hand.

James's expression softened, and slowly - with his hand still trembling just enough for her to feel - intertwined his fingers with hers.

"I love you, James. I know it's not easy, but together, we can get through this. I know we will," Eve said as she squeezed his hand and mustered up all the affection into her words and gaze.

"I love you too," James said, mustering up a small, tearful smile.

The fire in her heart grew bigger, his smile and love fueling the flames.

She wanted him to know that she truly meant her words. That she would do anything for him, and that she would do everything in her power to make sure he was safe.

Even if the situation was hopeless.
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soundofmind says...

James was far from steady, but after having a moment away with Eve, he felt steady enough to return to the others. He waited until his face looked less like a puffy, blotchy mess, put his glasses back on, and they made it back with no interruptions. Though the others knew he had to have seen something from Tula, no one mentioned it upon his return, and he couldn't bring himself to bring it up. He didn't want to think about Butch any more than he had to, and he didn't think any of the information changed anything they already knew.

Tula was after them and was going to do anything she could to find them. Until then, they had to play it safe and do what they could to survive and be careful in the meantime. No one knew how long it would take for her to find them or for them to lose her. It was something only time would tell.

They made it through the rest of the day just fine, and at this point, it was expected. Tula was following a pattern of striking in the morning and night, and only showing James things she saw in the middle. He wondered if sharing her sight required something less than seeing through someone else's eyes. It seemed that there was some sort of limitation keeping her from seeing through their eyes during the day, and while they could only guess at it, James was glad for it. Nye had altered the limitations and stipulations to all of their powers in one way or another. At least Tula's had limits.

By the time they settled down for the night, James found himself struggling to rest, never mind sleep. His nerves were still fried, and if he could have his way, he'd be pacing all night. But he knew he needed to at least try.

He took the first watch. Everyone else seemed tired or sleepy enough not to argue, and they all bunched together on the ground, bundled in their own blankets. The moon was thin in the sky, leaving little light for them to see.

James sat next to Eve. She had resorted to using him as a pillow most nights, one way or another. At the moment, she had her head on his thigh, and she'd partially thrown her blanket over his legs as well as herself. He leaned against a tree, keeping his eye out on the forest, watching for anything unusual. Though lately, he'd come to expect less than something in the near distance, and instead Tula trying to reach him.

It didn't surprise him this time when his vision darkened to black.

He was seeing through Tula's eyes, but they appeared to be closed. He saw nothing. Instead, he heard her voice.

"You must think you're so smart. So in control, so wise. This is your world, after all," she began in a low mocking voice. "Wrong. This isn't your world anymore. It's mine."

So she was monologuing him. He'd tried the same with her, but she'd cut him off. With the roles reversed, he didn't have the option. The sound of her voice filled his ears.

"But - let's entertain that possibility, shall we? We are in James's world, where everything leads back to him. He's a wanted man, wanted by so many men - because this is his world, after all. And he had to smear this stain of a world across time and space, until I find myself living in it too.

"But that's just it, lover boy. That is where you went wrong. You failed my mission and took me here, and now I'm here to tell you that this is no longer your world. You are no longer in control. You can resist, close your eyes, and hide while I try to see through your eyes, but you know you can't do that forever. Because as long as I'm here, I will always be watching."

A pause. A rustling sound was heard.

And then Tula opened her eyes, revealing an open tent flap in an otherwise dark room.

But she was intentional with her timing. Because past the tent opening was a clearing with a lowly-lit firepit and a pig roasting on top. Spinning slowly over the fire as someone out of view turned it.

"First, I'm coming for you," she continued in a low voice. "Then I'm coming for your friends. And there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop me.

The vision dissapeared, and James found himself staring out into the forest with an intense stare. His heart rate had spiked again, and he held his hands in tight fists at his sides. Instead of finding everyone asleep like expected, when his hearing returned, his ears were filled with noise.

Several voices overlapping. He saw the shadows of his friends stumbling around and over each other in the darkness.

"I don't think so," Alistair said, shushing the rest of the voices. "I don't think she saw anything. I was only looking ahead. She probably only saw Elliot, but that's not anything to give away. Right?"

His eyes darted around as he jumped to his feet, but realized Eve was still beside him, just awake.

"Are you sure it was Tula?" Elias asked.

"No, I'm not sure. But it's that feeling, and it's gone now, so I'm sure that was it," Alistair continued.

James looked down at Eve, searching her eyes for an explanation, even though he felt he was already starting to piece it together. Eve seemed more concerned for James than the entire topic of the conversation, sensing that he received another vision.

"Tula?" he whispered.

She solemnly nodded. "And you?"

He nodded, eyes flicking back to Alistair.

"It was just..." he started, taking in a deep breath. "She just talked. Threats. Nothing new."

"And it appears you're no longer her spying target, either."

James nodded stiffly, eyes locking onto Alistair.

"James?" Alistair called, who had been looking his way anyways, hoping to get his attention. "What do you think?"

James strode over to him, feeling the worries of Tula's vision fall away as he turned his focus onto his friends and managing their panic. He came up beside Alistair and gently rested his hand on his shoulder, meeting his eyes.

"You said she only saw Elliot, right?" he asked quietly.

"I was keeping watch and wasn't looking at anything in particular. Elliot was in my view, so that's what she saw," Alistair said. He paused to add, "It took me a few seconds to realize what was happening, but I did close my eyes after. I don't think she saw anything else, and there wasn't any noise."

"I think we should be fine," James said. "We have the darkness to our advantage. She shouldn't know anything more than she already does. It's alright, Ali."

"I'm not sure what Tula is hoping to find out here. It's not like there's anything distuinguishable out here, nevertheless at night," Mel said.

"I think more than anything," James said. "She wants to ruffle our feathers. I'm sure she's still hoping for information, but I'm sure she'll happily settle for causing a stir."

He turned to Alistair again, offering him a look of understanding.

"Will you be alright?" he asked softly, just between them.

Alistair nodded, although he did flick his eyes towards everyone that was nearby. "I'll be alright. I was just spooked. We talked about the possibility of her looking through others' eyes, but I didn't think it would happen so soon."

Eve was next to James, speaking up before he could. "We should all heed her warning. James may be her prime target, but she could use any one of us to seek information. We should all be vigilant and make sure she doesn't see anything, day or night."

And on that, they all agreed. If Tula was determined to target everyone she could, he knew she would. She'd try anyone until she found him.

The next morning, it was Mel. They were all just beginning to rise when she suddenly slapped her hands over her eyes and before she even said anything, everyone understood and fell silent.

But James wasn't allowed to witness the aftermath. The moment Tula's connection to Mel broke, she moved to him.

Instantaneously, he was staring through her eyes.

She was staring at a pig. Flaps of skin hung loose around its head, still attached to the otherwise fully exposed, skinless body from the head down. The pig's feet had been hacked off, and the scene in front of her was bloody.

The pig had been laid out on a wooden slab. James's eyes were forced to follow Tula's, landing on a shimmering, silver blade, as Butch stood beside the pig with a large axe.

There was a second of quiet, and then Butch lifted the axe and swung it down with all of his strength.

He cleaved the head off, and James could hear the thunk as the metal hit wood.

Tula only sent a short message to him. It couldn't have been more than thirty seconds, and since everyone was still waking, no one seemed to notice that he was not present.

"She'll probably try to reach all of us. I'm thinking Elias or Elise would be next, but we should all prepare just in case," Mel said distractedly as she was rolling up her sleeping bag. Spying was becoming normalized and everyone was moving on quickly after it happened.

James felt nauseas.

He'd seen animals butchered before. He'd even skinned rabbit and deer and animals of prey himself, and the image didn't normally bother him.

But this was different. Because when he saw the axe run through the pig's neck, all he could see was himself on the other side of the blade, and Tula knew that.

He could feel bile burning at the back of his throat.

Suddenly there was a pressure on his shoulder.

"Are you feeling okay?" Eve asked softly beside him, her hand on his shoulder.

The world around him was starting to spin, and chills ran down his spine in a sickly malaise.

He couldn't push it down.

Formerly sitting beside Eve, he threw his head to the side and grabbed his hair, trying to pull it out of the way as he vomited in the grass beside him.

He hadn't eaten anything yet that morning, and the only thing that came up was mostly liquid, but it burned.

"Hey, it's okay, let it out," Eve said, quick to console him as she took the opportunity to hold his head back instead. With her free hand, she made some other gesture that James could not see, but she was likely motioning for something to the others.

He retched, and tears sprung to his eyes as what little was in his system all came flooding out. He ended up on his hands and knees, shaking and heaving until it all finally seemed to be over. There was nothing left to throw up.

Eve had her back on his shoulder, patting him gently. When his retching ended, she offered a rag to him. He shakily wiped his mouth dry, and glanced himself over.

"Hey, you know, Tula also makes me sick to my stomach," Elias said nearby. A muffled "ow" then came out as there was a small scuffle, like someone had shoved or slapped him. Probably Mel.

Eve then offered the canteen. "Maybe you're dehydrated," she said, but James knew she was only saying that to throw off the others.

James took a long drink of water. It only partially helped to soothe his burning throat. When he was done, he handed it to Eve and looked down at himself again. He'd at least managed not to get any vomit on himself. At least, aside from a few faint light spatters that looked like they would dry.

Though pained, he cleared his throat and let out a long sigh as he rubbed his face.

It was just a metaphor.

"Here," Mel said as she came over with the bag of food and offered him a loaf of stale bread. "Eat this to fill your bottomless stomach."

Elise chimed in before James could answer. "James, if your stomach is upset, I do have medicine from Earth that could help. Would you want a pill?"

James didn't have much of an appetite at the moment, but he didn't want to try to even begin to explain what he just saw.

"Maybe... in a bit," James said hoarsely. "If it doesn't go away on its own."

He ended up taking the bread to appease Mel, but only nibbled on it for some time until he finally forced himself to finish it, later, as they were on the road.

Everyone had been regarding him with more attentive care ever since the visions and spying had begun, but it felt like everyone was beginning to cope differently.

Mel seemed to be getting used to it, like it was a routine, but was visibly showing and voicing her growing anger at Tula. Elias, who never really knew Tula, seemed indifferent and was just doing what he was told and staying out of the way as much as possible.

Elise seemed concerned but quiet. Conversely, Alistair was concerned, but very vocal about it, as his anxieties over Tula's meddling seemed to increase and boil over day after day. But usually, Mel or James was able to calm him down.

And then there was Eve. She seemed far less concerned about Tula and far more concerned about James. So he knew she was the first to notice when Tula seized his senses again that afternoon, while they were walking again. This time, he managed to stop before losing his balance.

He was first looking down at a piece of paper. On it, scribbled in big capital letters with heavy ink, were the words: I'M GETTING CLOSER.

Tula stared at the page for a good ten seconds, making sure James had ample time to read and digest the message. She then tore the paper into shreds and then pocketed the scraps, making sure he didn't see anything else in her tent. After this quick motion, she beelined outside, taking a very deliberate path around a few trees, making sure he didn't see the rest of her camp.

That was, until she took a sharp turn and was standing in front of a different tent.

"It's Tula. May I come in?" she asked out loud.

There was a second of silence. Shuffling.

"Sure," a familiar feminine voice answered.

Tula carefully walked through the tent flap, looking backwards and down at her feet first before she slowly panned to the woman for James to see.

It was Pitch.

She was working with Pitch, too.

James had never seen her without a mask, but he knew it was her. She wore the same earthy colors, the well-worn plate armor, and the black archer's gloves. Her heavy black hair fell into her face, half obscuring her softer features, making her look deceptively fawn-like.

She regarded Tula with the rigidity of a professional only there to do business, and sat up straight on the floor of her simple tent, surrounded by only the barest of basic belongings.

"What do you want?" Pitch asked.

"I apologize if I am intruding. I wanted to ask you a question as I respect you and value your opinions," Tula said, then paused. "You are a smart woman who considers all aspects to a problem, consequences and all. I am playing different scenarios in my head on what will happen when we catch Tiberius, but I want to know what you think the ideal scenario would be. What actions would you take to ensure we make it to the Kingdom?"

Pitch seemed to mull this over.

"Alexander and I have discussed a way to combine our resources," she said. "It would be advantageous for us to ensure Tiberius is never fully lucid. If he remains vulnerable he'll have even more trouble escaping. Though the possibility is unlikely, he's found ways to wriggle out of impossible situations before. Even if allies came to attempt to save him, we can ensure that Tiberius will be dead weight, making any kind of escape attempt even harder."

"Remember, he is a mage," Tula said as a reminder. "I suspect that if he is not drugged enough, he could use his magic to escape the situation. You will need to use a generous amount of lumshade to make sure he cannot use his magic."

"I'm aware of what is needed," Pitch said. "He won't be able to use his magic. We'll make sure of that."

Tula briefly glanced back, then sat down across from Pitch, talking in a low voice. "Between you and me, I may have a way to lure him to us. It involves baiting a friend of his to use as collateral. I only have a vague plan now, and I will talk to the others about this too, but I wanted to hear from you first. What do you think of this approach?"

Pitch hummed softly.

"He'll do anything to flee if he's on his own," she said. "But when I've seen him with others, it's the reverse. He'll do anything to ensure their safety. If you know where some of his friends may be, they could be a powerful bargaining chip. My only concern would be that he might bring his current group of allies to save them. If they are all mages as you suspect, though they are out-numbered, that could change things."

Tula hummed as well.

"So if there was a way to send him a message saying he must come alone or else, do you think he would fall for it?" she asked with feigned ignorance.

Pitch tilted her head to the side.

"If you convinced him there was no other way, or threatened to kill his friends otherwise with true intent to follow through," she said. "I could see him falling for it."

"Interesting. Thank you, Pitch," Tula said with a devilish smile in her voice. "I'd like to think we are getting closer to him, but perhaps he is getting closer to us."
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soundofmind says...

Despite having come to a full stop, James found his balance wavering as the disorientation threw his senses around. He was back in the forest again, though he'd never left, but now he could see it and hear it again.

Everyone around him had come to a stop. Eve stood in front of him, and when he looked up he met her pleading eyes, full of worry. He couldn't help but feel deflated. Empty. Exhausted. He didn't have the energy to react anymore.

She brushed a strand of hair off his face, picking up that he was coming back into consciousness.

"I know," she whispered. "I know. It's hard. You don't have to say anything."

James closed his eyes. Part of it was he wanted to feel it; the ability to shut out everything around him, without being forced to see.

"I think she's bluffing," he whispered, but he didn't know if he believed it. "She's just... trying to get in my head."

"Is it working?" Eve whispered back.

James wasn't sure how to respond. He sighed and shook his head, taking off his glasses briefly as he reached up to rub his eyes. Instead of answering, he merely put his glasses back on and looked around at the others.

The others had stopped a ways behind them and were sitting on the ground, huddled together. James made brief, accidental eye contact with Alistair, but quickly looked away.

"It's okay. They know what happened. They're giving you space if you need extra time to recoup," Eve said.

James found himself looking at the ground, feeling the weight of exhaustion pull on him.

He'd been trying to sleep, but it had been fitful, and never deep. He kept waking up with a shot of adrenaline pulsing through him, only to wake to nothing but the constant mundane of travel. And yet, his senses were always on edge. He was alert, always, and it was draining him.

His body hurt. The stress and sleep deprivation made his muscles and joints ache more than they usually did, and ever since his fall a few days prior, his ankle had been pained and sore, flaring up old injuries again.

If he really wanted to recover, he'd need more than a moment. To recoup was merely to collect himself, and he hadn't felt collected for days. Whatever appeared as confident calm was a well practiced show that he was sure Eve of all people saw straight through by now.

He took in a deep breath and straightened.

"We can get moving," he said.

What was the use of talking through the details? Why should he relay Pitch and Tula's plans to torture him? What good would it do? So Tula had another ally. Pitch seemed to insinuate they had more help as well - enough to outnumber the six they had in their party.

And they knew he had magic, too. She'd told them.

Fine. That was fine.

He looked back where Elliot stood nearby, nibbling at the grass at their feet.

The more distance they could get from Tula and her mass of allies, the better. It just meant that now they were travelling deeper into dangerous territory. They were beyond the Outlands, now. They were trekking into the Wilds.

They started to feel it more. Plant life was getting thicker, sometimes hostile. James was not only on alert for Tula but for natural threats as well. He managed to spot a bed of griffins nests far off soon enough to avoid, but going the long way around took longer, and by the time they were a comfortable enough distance away, the sun was starting to go down.

They settled in. Their evening meals were meager, but enough. Tired from a long day of travel, everyone was quick to lie down to rest, keeping up light chatter in their last half hour of daylight. James, however, was not feeling very chatty.

He laid on the ground on a blanket, and Eve sat beside him as he stared up at the sky, watching it fade from blue to pink, then orange and red.

If his head wasn't so full, he might've been able to enjoy it. The gradient of colors was vibrant, brilliantly back-lighting an array of fluffy clouds dotting the sky.

Eve gently reached out and brushed some of his hair to the side, as he'd taken it out of its usual ponytail for the moment.

"You know," she said. "You still have to teach me how to braid."

That was right. He's told her he'd do that, hadn't he? That was before she had regained the strength to do so. She'd been getting stronger every day, especially with their constant exercise on Nye, and braiding hair was likely not to cause her any trouble now.

He'd been braiding her hair in their travels, like an old habit, now.

"You know how to do a basic, three-stranded braid, right?" he asked.

But he didn't get to hear the reply.

He was looking through Tula's eyes again.

Pork. He was looking at pork, on a plate. Tula had a fork, and with slow, deliberate movements, she started to play with her food. And then she brought a bite to her mouth to eat it.

He was aware that there was a flickering light nearby, likely from a fire, casting shadows on her plate. There was distant, indistinguishable soft chatter around her, but not enough to deduce anything from it.

Tula kept her eyes locked on her food, refusing to look up at those around her. James couldn't help but wonder if that was to conceal the number of people she'd added to her group.

Or maybe it was to avoid revealing who she'd added. She'd intentionally taunted him with Alexander, and then Butch, and then Pitch.

Now she was taunting him with this.

The minutes dragged on as she slowly as she methodically poked at her food, nibbling away at it.

James knew it was the meat from the pig he'd seen earlier.

Even though he could only hear and see what she heard and saw, he swore he could smell it.

When it ended James found himself nauseous again. It took him a second to become aware of his own racing heartbeat and his fast, shallow breaths.

It's just a metaphor.
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soundofmind says...

"James?" Eve's faraway voice said, but after his vision came to view, he realized she was peeking down directly above him, her brows furrowed in worry.

James slowly started to sit up, feeling the waves of nausea build, one after another. As he turned upright, his head started to spin, and he had to grit his mouth shut as he sprang to his feet and ran into the trees. He only made it a few feet away before he was lurching, leaning on a tree trunk as he threw up everything he'd eaten that day.

James felt Eve's hand on his back again, silently comforting him, and making wordless gestures to the others to give them space.

It came in waves. The moment he thought it subsided, more came up, and his throat was burning even more than it had that morning. Involuntarily, tears welled up in his eyes until finally, there was nothing more to puke.

"Don't hold back. It's okay, I have you," Eve whispered as she combed his hair back, her voice laced with shared pain.

Shakily, James tried to push off the tree, leaning into Eve's arms. He was heaving, his head hurt, and the ground beneath him still felt unsteady.

Eve pulled him in for a hug and had a handkerchief ready to wipe his face. She didn't seem to care if tears or vomit got on her clothes, skin, or hair - she closely embraced him and pulled him closer to her. He let himself be held, too drained to do anything else.

"I'll always be here for you," she whispered in his ear after a lingering pause, still hugging him. "You know that, right?"

He nodded into her shoulder, swallowing as a test for his own voice, finding that his throat still hurt just as much as he thought.

Even when Eve let the silence linger a little longer, James knew she was holding back. She expressed her thoughts through movements, first giving him a gentle squeeze, then rubbing his back, then slowly combing her hand through his hair until she cupped the edges of his jaw. She leaned into him as well, her head digging into his other shoulder.

"So if something happened... if you saw or heard something disturbing..." she began slowly, still whispering in his ear, "then I want you to let me know. I want to figure this out with you. Together."

James took in slow, deep breaths. He started to pull away, wiping at his eyes to make sure they were clear.

"I... I need water," he said hoarsely.

Eve was one step ahead of him, prepared for him for to say this since the canteen was nearby. She didn't hesitate to grab it and hand it to him after opening the top. He was quick to receive it, and took several gulps of water, trying to wash away the acidic, putrid taste in his mouth. Eve watched him with concern painted across her eyes, but she didn't add on anything else, instead patiently waiting for him to talk when ready.

Finally, he handed the canteen back to her with a sigh, letting his eyes flick back to the others. They'd drawn back, clustered around Elliot. Not quite out of view, but not within range of overhearing. Though he was sure they heard his retching regardless.

"James?" Eve said, reeling his attention again. She really wanted to get an answer.

He tried to meet her eyes, but couldn't force himself to for more than a second. He stared vacantly down at the ground.

"It..." he attempted, trying to condense it in the least amount of words possible. "She made it into a metaphor."

He realized that was not an answer, and a cryptic one at that.

"What is 'it'?" Eve pressed gently.

James swallowed.

"Butchering," he said quietly. "A... pig."

He realized belatedly that he'd reached up to rub his neck. Mid-action, he caught himself and stiffly pulled his hand away, shoving it into his pocket.

Eve hesitated. "You watched Tula butcher a pig?"

He swallowed again.

"No," he said, staring down at his feet, one leg starting to bounce faintly as anxiety still coursed through him.

Eve placed a hand firmly on his upper arm, trying to meet his eyes again. She was persistent. "I'm just trying to understand," she said softly.

James nodded, but didn't look up.

"It was Butch," he said, his lips tugging down into a frown to push down any rise in emotion.

As the silence dragged on, Eve's hand slid up from his arm until she was gently cradling his face, her thumb lightly rubbing the edge of his cheek.

"I know you don't want to talk about it. I know. I understand," she said, then paused. "But it pains me to see you like this. You're holding all of this in. You don't need to keep this to yourself. We're a team. I know it's painful, and I know you want to be strong, but we can be strong together. You just have to let me in, James."

James closed his eyes and took in a shaky breath.

"What am I supposed to say?" he rasped, his voice cracking as tears flooded to his eyes again. "It's--it--under any other circumstance, it wouldn't--" his voice caught, and he had to swallow down the knot, "--she's just taunting me. Over and over with--with images of--"

He threw his hands up in the air loosely, knowing it didn't provide any more clarity for Eve.

"And I know it's supposed to me," he said, shrugging as he smiled joylessly, shaking his head. "She wants it to be me."

Eve then pulled him in for another hug and squeezed him tight for a brief second, as if she was silently saying, "I'm sorry."

She waited another few seconds before she spoke again, not pulling away yet. "Did she show you anything else?"

James sniffed louder than he would've wanted.

"Just... Pitch," he said, barely audible. "Another bounty hunter."

Eve didn't react right away, but James found her grip getting tighter and tighter until she finally pulled away, searching for his eyes again.

"I'm sorry you're forced to see all of that. That's horrifying and you don't deserve to sit through this. Tula's actions are dispicable and intentional. She's taunting you and trying to discourage you. But also remember that she's not here. She doesn't know where we are. She thinks she can break you down, but James--"

Eve paused, wiping his tears on his cheek.

"We are stronger than she realizes, especially when we openly communicate." Eve paused again, wiping away the last of the stray tears and then reached to hold his hand. "Thank you for telling me. I know it's not easy," she finished.

James nodded, staring down at their hands.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly. "For keeping you out. It's just that... I'm... glad you don't have to see."

"I wish I could see, though," she said just as quietly. "So that you don't have to see all of it."

"I don't think anyone's winning," James said with another sniffle. "In either circumstance."

"No... but it's not a competition," Eve replied with a slight smile. "We want each other to be healthy emotionally and physically. That's all."

"I know," James said softly.

"If Tula shows you anything else in the future, can you tell me?" Eve asked.

James nodded.

"Promise?" Eve asked.

"I promise," James said.
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soundofmind says...

Though he promised for transparency, that didn't change the fact that he barely slept that night, even after Elise gave him a pill for being nauseous and the side-effect was drowsiness. He was up when Elise, on first watch, alerted them of Tula trying to see through her eyes, but she caught it right away. Tula didn't see anything.

Eventually, everyone fell asleep except for those on their watches and James. He laid down, closed his eyes, and tried to will himself to sleep but it never came, despite how exhausted he felt. By the time he fell asleep, morning came, and it felt like he hadn't slept at all. For all he knew, he likely had only been asleep for a few minutes. Maybe an hour.

He stirred with a low groan, trying to convince himself to get up while Mel began her morning routine of waking everyone up.

And then Eve shot up beside him.

"It's Tula," she warned, and everyone fell silent as she covered her eyes.

Only a few seconds later, Elise was the one exclaiming. "I feel it too," she said.

Then a few esconds later, Mel chimed in with similar sentiments, then Alistair some seconds later as well. This happened all in rapid fire motion, each person closing their eyes then peeking in confusion when the next person claimed they felt the same familiar feeling.

And then Tula moved on to James. But instead of attempting to look through his eyes, she forced him to see through hers instead.

He was staring at nothing. Her eyes were closed.

"It's only a matter of time, Tiberius. If I don't find you, then I will find your friends. One. By. One," Tula said in a low voice, then opened her eyes.

In front of her were four dead rabbit, with their extremeties broken and bloodied from traps. The kills looked fresh, within the last few hours.

Rabbits. Traps. They were camped out long enough to set traps. Rabbits told him they were likely around the Outlands. Not too far behind. But that also told him that Tula was not merely out to get him.

She wanted to ruin his life, and if not his, then everyone else's.

Again, she was taunting him, but this threat settled in his gut like a tight knot, adding to an already tangled web of anxiety, worry, and guilt.

When his vision and hearing returned it was to voices overlapping. Everyone was up.

"Why did she try all of us?" Alistair lamented, beyond exasperated.

"She's just messing with us," Mel spoke over him. "She's trying to get in our heads now, just because she thinks she can."

"I don't think it's anything to worry about," Elise cut in. "It's not like she actually saw anything."

"She was probably trying to throw us off and catch us by surprise," Alistair continued, rambling more to himself.

Mel groaned, throwing her head back.

"She's so annoying!" she whined.

James felt a hand on his shoulder.


The others were on their feet. He was still sitting down, wearily trying to get his bearings. Eve's touch grounded him.

He looked up to her, seeing the question in her eyes before she even spoke.

"It was Tula," he confirmed quietly. "It was short this time. She said I can't run forever. And then threatened all of you as well... with another visual dead animal analogy."

His words came out empty. Part of it was he had to detach himself from it to say it, but it was largely due to the thick fog over his mind.

He desparately longed for a good night's sleep, but the fatigue overpowered the anxiety for once.

His ankles and knees ached to the bone as he pushed himself to his feet.

Knowing Butch and Tula were working together with two skilled, professional bounty hunters had awoken an old, primal fear. It was bringing bad habits bad to life, along with old thought patterns he didn't want to return to. With everything that had happened in the last few months, James found it all becoming overwhelming.

But Tula threatening his friends awakened something different. An old, long-lasting stubbornness to protect the ones he cared about at all costs.

Even at the cost of himself.

He pinched his eyes shut for a mere second, brushing the thought away with a twitch of his head to the side.

"She's not going to get us," Eve said with fierce stubbornness, like she knew this bothered him the most. She grabbed both of his shoulders and held them stiffly, forcing him to face her. "James. She's not going to get us," she repeated, her eyes on his. "I don't want you to hang up on that."

"I know," he said, trying to sound firm. "I know."

"I know it's scary, and it's overwhelming, but I want to keep reminding you that she's not here. I'm here instead. We all are. They're empty threats," she said just as firmly.

James offered a small, weary smile as he reached up and gently cupped her cheek in his hand.

"I will not let Tula steal this," he said. "You. Enjoying you here."

Eve's brows drew together in an arch. She either found his words endearing or worrisome. Perhaps both.

She lifted her hand up to her face so she could place her palm over his, softly smiling. "I know the day just started, but can you try to rest tonight? I want you to take care of yourself. Please."

James's smile faded, and he nodded slowly.

"I'll try," he said, and he hoped she heard in his voice how much he wanted to sleep too.

It wasn't that he wasn't trying. His mind just wouldn't stop.

"You both are very cute, and I'm not trying to interrupt the mood here--" Mel suddenly said, who only stood a few feet away with her hands behind her back, flicking her eyes between the two of them, "-- but we wanted to know if we should switch things up since Tula is being extra dramatic now. Maybe we should send her another message."

"I think right now," James said slowly, and deliberately. "The best thing we can do is to keep moving. I think I have at least a vague idea of where she is now. I think we're moving in the right direction. So grab your things."
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soundofmind says...

They were moving again, and this time everyone seemed to have a little more haste in their step. It was unusual, mostly because normally James was the one in a hurry, but this time, it felt like it was the other way around.

James was having trouble keeping up. He did his best not to let it show, but his ankles were killing him - especially his bad ankle. He hadn't resorted to skipping and limping for a long time - usually stubbornly pushing through it - but he couldn't even muster the energy to do that.

It was easier to hide, though, as he was leading Elliot, and was able to hide from other's direct view behind his horse. If anyone saw, it would've only been Eve, perhaps, atop the saddle. Her stamina was greatly improved, but still not able to keep up with walking almost all day. Still, she insisted a few times throughout the morning that they switch places, to which James assured her he was fine and she needed Elliot more.

It did make for a long morning, though. And by the time the sun hit its peak and began to drag into the early afternoon, James could feel his body begging him to lie down.

When Tula seized his vision mid-step, he could feel his whole frame immediately surrender to the vertigo. His ankle twinged as it hit the ground, and that was enough.

He could feel his shoulder and the side of his face hit the dirt, but everything else was Tula.

He was looking through Tula's eyes again, but instead of Tula being alone at the beginning like all of the other visions, he immediately saw who Tula wanted to show.


They were sitting on an old, fallen log. Rita looked almost the same as the last time he saw her. Her long locks were pulled back neatly behind a sleek bandana, and she sat with the same simultaneously casual and commanding posture.

She was observing Tula with a small, relaxed smile. One that he knew meant she was up to more than she was letting on.

"Oh, we'll catch him," Tula said with fierce determination. They seemed to be in the middle of a conversation. "I will devote my whole life if I have to. But with all of you here - I am certain we will catch him."

There was a slight pause, but Tula hastily continued before Rita could reply to her remarks.

"If I could send him any message right now, it would be that." Tula tilted her head slightly, her eyes glued to Rita. "What would yours be?"

Rita hummed.

"A curious question," she said as the edges of her mouth curled up just a little more. She took in a deep breath, thoughtfully considering the question for a moment before she looked to meet Tula's eyes.

"I would say to him: don't worry about the future, Tiberius. The fight is finally over. You don't have to keep running anymore."

She broke into a full smile, but he could see the malice in her eyes.

"And: I look forward to seeing you again. I miss that pretty face."

"He fell hard. He could have fainted, but if not, do we wait it out?" Alistair's faraway voice said as the vision blurred out of view.

He was back. He could hear again.

James felt a cloth rub his face clean.

"Elise, do you have something for the blood?" Eve said.

"I'm on it," Elias said instead.

He let out a groan and forced his eyes open. He'd lost his glasses again. It felt like too much to hope they didn't break in the fall.

The light of the sun was disorienting. What direction was he facing? Tula had been sitting up. But him? He was lying down, facing upwards. He knew someone had moved him, but he couldn't remember registering touch.

How hard had he fallen?

"He's awake! Are you in pain?" Mel asked, now crouching down, her face in full view.

Everyone's heads were crowded around, like they were competing for a place to look down at him.

"You fell about a minute ago," Eve said, filling in the dots for him. "You were unconscious for that minute."

"Unconscious?" James echoed in an incoherent murmur.

Did that mean Tula's powers bypassed consciousness?

There was a pressure on his cheek, and it took some moments for James to realize that Elias was holding down gauze for him.

"Were you actually unconscious? Or did Tula send you another vision?" Mel pressed.

James blinked hard. Everything was still a little blurry, but Elias's face was the closest, next to Mel's.

"It was Tula," he said, trying to push himself up, only to be firmly pushed back down. It felt like his head was resting on someone's leg.

Eve. It had to be Eve.

"You hit your head," Elise said from somewhere. "You should lie down for a moment. Your head is bleeding profusely, but Elias is placing pressure on the wounds. I can heal you after the bleeding has begun to subside."

"What did she show you?" Mel asked.

James hadn't registered the pain in his head until attention had been brought to it. It felt like the full weight of his skull sunk back into Eve's legs as his head began to throb.

"It was just a conversation," he said, trying to speak normally, but his voice sounded... stuffy.

He tried breathing through his nose. No luck. It appeared to be plugged by cotton, and in his peripheral, he could see something vaguely cotton-like taped over the bridge of his nose as well.

So he'd really hit the ground hard.

"What did she say?" Mel pressed.

"Mel," Eve said as a warning.

"What?" Mel snapped back. "Yeah, I know. It's hard for him to talk. And I know you're trying to gives James his space. But this affects us too, you know. When are you going to keep us in the loop?"

"... I agree with Mel," Alistair said reluctantly. "I think we deserve to know the details of the visions she's sending James."

"Especially since this is Tula," Mel said with a nod, standing back up. "None of this is impulsive. It's intentional."

This felt like something they'd all been sitting on for a while. How long had they held their tongues? Likely since the beginning. And now they were surrounding him. Literally.

"It might be another few minutes until your bleeding has stopped," Elias said quietly to James while Mel and Alistair continued.

"So can we know? I feel like this is a very reasonable request," Mel said.

"If we'd like to hear from James, we should wait until he's physically ready," Elise said, which was her discreet way of saying she also agreed.

"We know that he's telling you, Eve. So I'm okay with hearing what's going on from you too. We just want to know."

All eyes were on Eve now, like she held the final say.

Eve deeply sighed, her hands combing through his hair. But James spoke before she could.

"I know this affects all of us," James said. "But if it gives you any comfort, nearly all of Tula's communication with me has been personal. Otherwise I'd think she'd torment all of you, which I'm glad she hasn't." He took in a deep breath. "But if you want to know... I will do my best to share. Though I won't promise to go in great detail."

Mel crouched back down, challenging his last statement.

"Great detail, sure. But we'd still like to know the details, even if it's personal, and even if it's threatening," she said.

James was quiet for a moment. He'd rather wait until his head wasn't throbbing.

"Okay," he said faintly.

"How's the bleeding?" Elise asked quietly to Elias, crouching down next to him.

Elias briefly lifted the gauze up. "Maybe another minute," he said.

"Then I can heal you in another minute, James," Elise said with a nod. "Hang in there."

It was the longest minute James could remember.

By the time he was back on his feet again, he could feel the antsy anticipation of everyone around him.

Mel was standing with her hands on her hips, her finger tapping against her body. "Feel better?" she said.

Before James could respond, Alistair awkwardly and wordlessly handed him his glasses. He seemed to be holding on to them for a while, waiting until the right moment to hand it back. Alistair cleaned the dirt and smudges away, but there was a crack down the middle of his right lens. Other than that, it was still intact, but a crack of that size already rendered them less than helpful. He nodded and tucked them away into his chest pocket.

"Tula has been amassing allies," he said, not wanting to delay any longer. "The predominant pool she's been pulling from are bounty hunters who pursued me in the past, or people who otherwise wish me harm. That constitutes for a little over half of what she's shown me through her eyes. The other portion has been a combination of threats and taunting; neither of which carry much weight, since she still knows nothing about our wherabouts, but have been disturbing nonetheless."

"Tula... is with bounty hunters?" Alistair asked with a higher pitched voice, anxiety present.

"What did she say, though? Has she seen anything?" Mel asked instead.

"Most of what she's said has been indirect. She's shown me portions of conversations she's in, but I'm under the impression she's still keeping her magic a secret, so she's only spoken directly to me once or twice. Most of it's about the same. 'I'm going to find you. You can't run forever.' Cue maniacal laughter," James said tiredly. "You get the picture."

"I don't know how she managed to find these bounty hunters that personally know you, but if she's only threatening you, she must be really grasping for straws here. She'd skip the threats and be here by now if she had that information." Mel said.

"Should we be worried that she's with bounty hunters? Doesn't that put her at an advantage?" Alistair said.

"She doesn't know where we are," Mel reminded him.

"But if she did, then it isn't just Tula and Deidra anymore. It's--"

"We would be outnumbered," James interrupted solemnly. "Yes. But like Mel said. They don't know where we are."

"How many people is she with, exactly?" Alistair asked.

"More than six," James said. "I can't say the exact number. But one of the allies she made I know never travels alone. If I had to guess, I'd say somewhere between ten and fifteen at least. Not including hunting dogs and pack animals."

Mel took a deep breath as everyone silently processed this. "Okay. So you know some of them. Maybe it would help if you describe them to us. 'Know your enemy' and whatnot."

James stiffened, ever so slightly. His eyes flicked to Eve, but darted away just as fast.

"If we run into anyone out here," he said. "I think we can reasonably assume it's not for good reason, or it's the same as us. Trying to get away from the rest of the world."

"That didn't really answer my question," Mel said with another sigh. "But if you think it's unimportant - whatever. I just want to let you know that we deserve to be in the loop too. If someone's out to get you, they're out to get us. Don't we deserve to know that? You shouldn't shield that information from us."

James pressed his lips into a thin line.

He knew she was right. Right to be upset. Right to be worried. Right to want any information she could to be prepared.

"James," Alistair said, grabbing his attention. "Does this change anything?"

James didn't look over to him, or to Mel, or anyone. His eyes were locked vacantly on the ground.

"About what?" he asked.

"About Tula being with professional bounty hunters. Does that change our plan of moving forward and staying vigilant?"

James swallowed.

"No," he said.

Alistair nodded, turning his attention back to Mel and the others. "Then I guess the details don't matter too much. We'd still like to be kept out of the dark, but..."

"Maybe to you," Mel said when he trailed off. "But personally, I would like to know who exactly wants us dead, even if--

"If you see a seven foot tall man the breadth of three average men: run. His name is Butch. He has no magic, but he will overpower you if he gets close," he said lowly. "Look out for a white mask resembling an owl. It belongs to a woman who goes by the name of Pitch. If she has you in her sights, she'll shoot. Don't get hit by her darts or arrows. It's better to rush her than run away, unles you are confident you can make good distance. If you see anyone with a tattoo resembling a blue sun, keep an eye out. Where there's one there's more. And if you see a tall man with dark, slicked-back hair and too many weapons strapped on his person-- slap him for me, and tell him to tell Haddon to let it go. Then run."

He snapped his attention to Mel.

"Got all that?" he asked.

"Thank you," Mel said, copying the sass in his voice. "That's all what I wanted to know."

She paused for a second, looking at Alistair in particular since he was second-in-line for questions, but he only nodded and let out a quiet, "Yeah."

Mel turned her attention back to James, her stubborness not quite melting away yet. "Okay. Butch, Pitch, blue sun tatoos, and some man you want us to slap. So who's Haddon?"

"He's the reason I'm wanted in the first place," James said cooly. "And that's the only thing about him that's relevant to you."

Mel narrowed her eyes at him, a knowing sign that she was about to hyperfocus on this topic. "I thought you were wanted because you destroyed some documents."

"Well someone had to rat me out, didn't they?" James asked, narrowing his eyes back at her.

"So you're telling me... all of this, and I mean all of this..." Mel said slowly, gesturing around them for extra effect. "... It's personal?"

"Mel," James said. "I believe you to be an intelligent woman. Figure it out. This conversation is done now. If you have any more questions related to Tula and her messages they can wait."

"Wooooooow," Mel drew out, hostility slightly rising in her voice. She put her hand up to silence anyone who would stop the conversation. "Resorting to insults now, huh? James, I'm only trying to understand. I've waited days for you to reveal anything that could be helpful. We're traveling with you because we want to, but also because we have to. Don't you think we should know the details? Maybe it doesn't matter to you if we know much about the bounty hunters, but it's not up to you to decide if it matters to us. We're on your side here, and we're all running from the same people. I deserve to know who we're running from. I deserve to know why we're running. This conversation is not over," she said with steely determination and confidence that James hadn't seen since their beginning encounters on Earth.

James closed his eyes and let out a sigh.

He was exhausted. He hadn't even begun to process Tula's conversation with Rita. He didn't want to. He resented the fact that his past was getting unavoidably entangled with his present in every conceivable way. He knew better than any of then the risks at hand. He fully understood their situation. It wasn't like he was trying to keep them in the dark.

There just wasn't a lot of light to share.

"Maybe we should take a step back here and do things slowly," Elias suggested after a tense second of silence, but Mel quick pushed the suggestion down.

"Elias, you're not even a victim of Tula's spying!" Mel huffed. "I know this is uncomfortable for James, and I know you're trying to help him, but just for once can we all have a proper conversation and not worry about stepping on each other's toes here? This is literally life-threatening."

"I know!" James snapped, and regretted how it came out. He winced at his own voice and turned away, holding the bridge of his nose as his brows knit together. He let out a steady, controlled breath and straightened up again.

"Mel," he said again, this time managing his tone carefully. "I know that you're all stuck with me, and because of that, you're stuck with the consequences of my past. But I've--"

He had to pause, burying the emotions. He didn't even let it spring up enough to identify it.

"The details surrounding my criminal status really are largely irrelevant. Yes, it's personal. Yes, it's political. Yes, it's many other things in-between. No, I'd rather not get into it because the why doesn't matter so much as the what. I'm wanted, and we have to deal with what's in front of us. And right now that's at least six people I know want me dead, and all of my friends dead, and who knows how many more. And all of them have put me through hell. Personally. So I'd really rather not relive it by having to explain it all over again."

Eve's hand was on his shoulder again, trying to silently comfort him in the heat of the moment, but Mel continued.

"I understand that, and I don't want you to relive traumatic moments either. But -- now we know that there are at least ten or fifteen people trailing after us. I'm trying to be optimistic here and will continue to repeat that none of them are here and Tula's only giving empty threats -- but if something did happen, we wouldn't know what to do," Mel said, her tone no longer hostile, and instead empathetic. "We wouldn't even know where to begin to help you. I can't help but wonder if this is intentional on your end. We want to help you, James, and knowing these details will help us prepare in the event that something does happen. I don't accept 'we don't need to know' and 'the past is coming back to haunt me but it's not relevant to us now' as an answer. If the past is coming back for you, we deserve to know what the past is so that we won't be so helpless."

In his mind, James found himself returning to about two weeks ago, before any of this had happened. Before Tula. Before Sticks. Before any of the troubles of Nye had borne upon them, and it was just goblins.

He longed for the days when he only had to worry about goblins.

Eve had expressed the same thing, only in different words. As someone who knew his past, she still shared the concern: if something happened to him, what would they do?

James felt the full exhaustion of the day hit him like a brick. His legs and spine were practically screaming. Begging him to be perpendicular to the ground.

His eyes felt like they were sinking into their sockets.

"Mel--" Eve said after a deep breath, but was immediately interrupted.

"No, I'm sorry, Eve. I want to hear it directly from James," Mel said. "If not now, then soon. But I don't want to push this conversation off for so long that we forget about it or decide not to bring it up again."

James was too tired to rub his eyes, even though they were starting to sting. Too tired to wipe his nose as it started to leak. He tasted blood as it hit his lip, but was too tired to try to sniff it away.

"Mel," he said again, weary of saying her name like it would make a difference. "I'm exhausted. I couldn't sleep last night, and I'm not in the right state of mind for this conversation. I know this is important to you, and that you won't budge. But could we please wait until the morning, when hopefully I can get some sleep?"

Mel took a sharp breath. "Okay," she said. "I understand. This can wait, as long as we truly do talk about it." She paused again, then sighed, looking apologetic as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other. "I'm sorry if I rubbed off as mean or hostile. I just really want us to communicate, and you can be stubborn too, you know."

"I know," he said faintly.

With slow steps, he turned to Elliot, who had been patiently waiting beside them all. He took Elliot's lead and looked back at the others.

"Let's get moving," he said, though this time he was lacking his usual sense of perceived authority.

He took a moment to settle his footing, feeling the ache of his ankles exacerbated by lack of rest. Before he took a step, Eve urged him to ride Elliot, saying she'd walk for a while. He didn't argue. Riding took energy, but at least it'd put less pressure on his ankles.

The rest of the day was quiet. Normal. Elias and Mel took it upon themselves to keep up chatter, joking and talking about anything and everything as usual. They spotted a herd of wild, flying boars from afar and took a turn, traveling around them, even though some of them were curious, enamored by the existence of pigs with wings. James understood but frankly didn't care, and no one resisted his direction to stay away from them. They were another danger they couldn't afford, interesting as they were.

When they finally stopped for the night, James could hardly think. Eve took over Elliot's care after laying out his blanket for him, and he managed a "thank you" before he finally laid down.

When he hit the ground, it was like everything hit him all at once.

He was terrified. Seeing Rita again made him want to crawl out of his skin, and the thought of having to tell everyone about his past made the feeling ten times more potent.

He wished he had more courage, but under the shade of the thick trees above, shadowed by the moonlight, wrapped in a blanket on the forest floor, all he wanted to do was cry. Tears started to well up under his closed eyes, but he couldn't remember any of them falling as he fell asleep within seconds.

Tula did not wake him that night, and he didn't wake until morning.
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Carina says...

Tula was annoyed.

Her plan was to reveal details of James's whereabouts to the others, but with James and his annoying posse of friends refusing to show her anything, she was unable to deliver that information. Of course, Rita and the other bounty hunters didn't know that she could find that information; they were basing their current hunt on Tula's last-known sights of him, which were entirely fictional. But she at least had an educated guess, especially since she could see the scenic background whenever she tried to spy on James or his friends.

They were at least on the same terrain. It was a start, but if she didn't find another lead soon, they may split up or not see her function anymore.

But Tula was here for the long game. If she couldn't come to James, then she would find a way for James to come to her. She had been planting seeds of paranoia and fear by purposefully sending him messages of what she was seeing and hearing. Tula wondered how much more he could take before he cracked. Her only regret was not being able to see the delicious moment of when he does.

She had already sent him most of his fears now. Tula wanted James to know that she was with several bounty hunters and a gang leader, and she wanted his past to catch up to him. Most of all, Tula wanted him to wonder if she would truly go after his friends. The paranoia and fear factor had to be dialed to the max right now, and Tula wanted to take advantage of that.

So tonight, she sent him nothing. She did not spy on him. She did not send any messages. She wanted him to stew in all of that. Alone, and in silence - lost in the chasm of his mind.

Instead, Tula had other plans.

She had been thinking a lot of what she could do these last few days. Tula and Deidra were on Nye, of course - as well as James and his friends who followed.

But what about the others? It was entirely possible that his other friends were here. For all Tula knew, there could be others here as well. Perhaps the army who followed her to capture James on the mountain. Perhaps Oliver, or Ovrell.

Or perhaps Hendrik, Malkiel, and Rudy.

And that begged the question: did James know that they could be on Nye as well? It was likely that he had no way of knowing.

Fortunately, Tula did not have that problem. She could spy on anyone as long as she had met and talked to them before.

A devilish smile tugged her lips as Tula sat in the privacy of her tent, her legs crossed over one another as she prepared to relax and concentrate. The night was cool and quiet, the only sounds being crickets chirping and Deidra's soft breathing across from her.

Tula was getting the hang of her powers now, but she did not want to risk messing up like the first time she experimented. She wanted a pure one-way communication set-up so that Malkiel, Hendrik, and Rudy would have no way of knowing it was her - especially since they were unfamiliar with the feeling, and wouldn't know she was on Nye as well.

She closed her eyes and thought of Malkiel and their days of false trust. She didn't hold animosity towards him, but the thought of hunting him down to use as collateral for James brought her excitement.

The vision was blurry at first as she was adjusting to what it felt like to spy on Malkiel, but the quality quickly became higher definition, a tell-tale sign that he was closer than anticipated. Tula hardly had much time to dwell on that thought because she was face-to-face with a waterfall.

It was a marvelous waterfall - one that deserved to be photographed and remembered. But that wasn't what brought a smile to Tula's face. No.

She was smiling because she had seen this waterfall, too.

She knew exactly where Malkiel was.

The vision only lasted a couple seconds so far, and she was about to end it, but then Malkiel turned to face the person beside him.

Rudy. He was holding a child's hand that Tula didn't recognize.

"I have a strange feeling about this place. I think we should keep on moving," Malkiel said.

"Nonsense, Mal. It's perfectly safe. Jordan and Dinny even said so," Rudy said.

Malkiel glanced behind him, revealing Jordan and Dinny. Tula didn't recognize them, but in the mere second she had to see them, she noted their features.

There was a tall, built young man, likely in his mid-twenties with warm, light brown skin and short, dark hair. Maybe Jordan. The other person was in fact, not a person at all - but instead a small green creature with sharp ears and curly hair. Tula had never seen anyone like her before, but from her minimal readings and contexts she gathered around towns, she assumed she must be what others call a 'goblin.'

Tula didn't need any more information. She ended the spying before Malkiel could get more suspicious.

Tula almost sprang up in excitement, eager to tell anyone who was awake the good news. They ought to change course and find Malkiel, bring him in, and continue their plan to bait James to going to them.

But instead she took a deep, heavy breath - and she evaluated. She must not be impulsive. If she told someone now, there would be questions she could not answer - like how she found this information. So instead Tula let the time go by as she devised her next plan, carefully calculating her options and playing out possible conversations in her head.

And when she was ready, she sent a message to James. Whether he was asleep or not didn't matter. She only wanted to send a short and sweet message.

With her eyes closed, she said in a low voice: "You can rest easy now, lover boy. I don't need to spy on you anymore."
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soundofmind says...

These men were strange.

In fairness, Sticky had met a lot of strange people. She wanted to give these two the benefit of the doubt. Trauma and complicated pasts made people act in all sorts of ways, and she couldn't be the judge of that result. Mages, especially, went through a unique set of challenges that made life exceptionally difficult, and many mages she'd met starting out were mistrustful, paranoid, hurt, and confused.

She just didn't know what to do with this level of... cluelessness.

To be this far out in the wilds meant they had to have had some kind of competence, especially if they were caring for a child, but she was beginning to think that they'd survived this long solely by the skin of their teeth. There were so many things that Mal said especially that were just... ignorant, and it wasn't even always because she was a goblin and he was a human. Either he had a very odd, even sick sense of humor, or he really was that sheltered from the rest of the world.

Again. How had they made it this far?

She supposed it wasn't her business to press for answers, and instead tried to focus on the task at hand. There was still another group of mages wandering these forests and she was tasked with finding them as well. Mal, Rudy, and the little boy Finnley weren't originally a part of the plan.

She'd been sent out with Jordan, a skilled water mage recruited into the guild a few years back. He'd shown a lot of promise back then, and after a few more years of focused training, made leaps in bounds in skill. He was eager to help in the rescue effort and had joined Bo's team two years prior. With him controlling the element of water, and her the element of fire, they made a good duo.

Jordan was good with Finnley, and that was a blessing. Largely because, though neither Rudy nor Mal admitted it, they didn't seem to know what they were doing in caring for a child. Rudy seemed the more fatherly of the two, but even so, he was often at a loss when Finnley was in a mood or acted out. Dinny never asked, but based on physical resemblance alone, she had a feeling the child wasn't biologically either of theirs. And it didn't seem like Mal and Rudy were very close. It was hard to call them friends, even. They interacted with the same emotional distance of people who worked together but didn't go any deeper than that.

That said, they were all at least agreeable, and willing to tough it out as they camped out under the canopies of trees in the wilds.

At least, most of the time. In their few days of travel, Finnley had developed a habit of growing restless and darting off. Dinny had a feeling the behavior was developed less out of curiosity and more because the boy was in a very turbulent situation and didn't have much stable support. Regardless, they had to keep an eye on him, and more than once had to run off to find him when he ran and hid. Finnley seemed to think it was funny, like a game, never fully understanding the risks of running off alone in a dangerous forest.

Dinny was glad nothing had happened to him so far, but she was still worried all the same.

One morning, as Dinny and Jordan stirred, Mal - who was on the last watch - greeted them with the news. Finnley had darted off again.

"So soon?" Jordan said, half awake but growing more alert at the urgency.

"Just go grab him, please," Mal said with a sigh as he instead focused his efforts on other morning chores.

Rudy was still fast asleep. Dinny supposed he could sleep until they came back.

Quick to her feet, she nodded.

"We'll be back soon," she said, patting Jordan's shoulder before he too, rose to his full height, which was at least twice hers.

"Which way?" Jordan asked.

Mal simply pointed towards the thick of the woods, away from the waterfall nearby.

Nodding, Dinny and Jordan hurried down, past the slow, gurgling water and into the brush.

The nice thing about Finnley was that for anyone well seasoned in tracking (like she and Jordan were) he wasn't very difficult to track down. Yes, he was small, but he was also not very coordinated, and he never bothered to cover his tracks.

They found footprints quickly and followed quietly until Dinny spotted Finnely. When he first started this habit, he ran around in zig-zags, not particularly covering a longer distance. His habits didn't change, but instead of his sole goal being to run away, he also hid, knowing that someone would go after him.

Jordan stepped out first, holding his hands behind his back and taking on a more silly, dawdling gait. He whistled lightly and looked around with an exaggerated motion of his hands to his eyes, imitating binoculars.

"Hmm, I sure wonder where Finnley could have gone," he said loudly. "I have no idea where he is. He really got us this time."

Diny knew Jordan was just being silly, of course. Finnley was in plain view, hiding in the thick of the bushes, but not doing a great job camouflaging since the top of his head was sticking out, exposing his wispy blond hairs.

After hearing Jordan's remarks, the bush rustled, and Finnley quietly snickered.

Dinny grinned, walking out on the opposite side of the bush.

"He's a very clever little boy," Dinny said. "And very fun to play with. I hope we find him soon so we can play a game of tag. That would be fun, don't you think?"

The bush rustled again, and from Dinny's peripherals, she could see Finnley peek at them, but he didn't come out of his hiding spot yet.

"Oh, but if he came out now, he'd have a leg up on us, though," Jordan said. "Because we wouldn't see him coming. I don't know about that."

At that, Finnley then sprang out of the bush with his arms flailing, a big grin across his face. "Boo!" he yelled with a giggle.

Jordan clearly saw it coming, but completely overreacted. He jumped several feet up in the air and controlled his fall as he landed on his butt and scampered away, letting out a yelp in the process. Dinny just laughed.

"Oh gosh!" Jordan said, putting a hand over his heart. "You got me good!"

Finnley continued to giggle and then pounced on the opportunity to jump on Jordan while he was down. He stood on top of his chest with his hands up in the air like he had won a triumphant battle.

"I win!" Finnley said, arms stretched high as he began to bounce on top of Jordan. "You lose!"

Jordan groaned a little, as Finnley seemed unaware of his feet sinking into Jordan's ribs. With a slightly strained laugh, Jordan gently picked up Finnley under the arms and lifted him up. He got to his feet and placed the boy on his shoulders.

"Hurrah!" he said, holding the boy steady until Finnley could grab on. "As a reward, you get to be tall, like me."

"No, now I'm taller," Finnley said, trying to reach for a branch above them.

"You're right!" Jordan laughed, pushing up to his tip-toes. "Even taller. The tallest."

"Can we play tag like this?"

"You think you can reach Dinny from up there?" Jordan asked with a smirk.

Dinny gave Jordan a flat look.

Finnley giggled. "Yeah! She'll never catch me! I'll win every time!"

Jordan hummed, nodding. "You know, that's brilliant. I think we'll have to try it."

Dinny huffed through her nose, shaking her head as she watched the playful spark in Jordan ignite. With a little laugh, she darted off, giving herself a small head start before Jordan and his long legs were dashing after her, with Finnley laughing all the way as they sped through the trees. It wasn't a very long game of cat and mouse, but when Jordan and Finnley inevitably caught up, Dinny was glad for it. She didn't want to expend too much energy with a full day of travel ahead of them.

"Gotcha!" Finnley said as Jordan dove down for him to reach, and he tapped the top of Dinny's head.

The three of them tumbled to a stop and rolled onto the grass with giggles, out of breath.

"Okay, after all that running, I think I'm hungry," Jordan said. "How about we head back for some breakfast."

"I did save away some bread rolls for this morning," Dinny added, knowing bread was more enticing for Finnley.

"Mmmm bread," Finnley said, her plan working since he seemed eager to go back as well now.

"Do you wanna walk, or do you want the winner's treatment?" Jordan asked, patting his shoulders as he sat up.

Finnley took action before he said words, instead jumping back on Jordan's shoulders and tapping his head like he was a horse about to run.

Jordan mimicked a horse's neigh as he held Finnley's legs and got to his feet, slow and steady. Dinny just grinned as she led the way back to Rudy and Mal, tracing back their tracks towards the river. She knew they were getting close when she could hear the rushing of the distant waterfall, but something made her stop in her tracks.

Voices. Several voices, overlapping, and a few feminine voices among them. Not at all resembling Mal or Rudy.

Quick to duck away, Dinny waved for Jordan to follow. He gently took Finnley off his shoulders.

"Hey, we need to be quiet," Jordan said softly. "There might be danger up ahead, but we're going to keep you safe, okay? We just need to be super sneaky and stay together. You think you can do that, bud?"

Finnley nodded, seemingly able to understand the sudden gravity of the situation. "Okay," he whispered.

"Alright, hold my hand and stay close," Jordan said, and they both got low to the ground, following Dinny's lead.

Dinny turned back to them and motioned for them to stay back, hidden in the thicker brush where Finnley would be safer, and Jordan could look out for him. Jordan nodded and led Finnley away while Dinny expertly drew closer on silent feet, inching in like a ghost.

It wasn't long before Dinny could see what was happening.

Mal and Rudy looked bruised and beaten, and they were kneeling with their wrists tied behind their back. The group of people around them was sizeable. Dinny averaged about fifteen at first glance, but that was only what she could see. They had horses with saddles full of supplies, and more than enough gunpower to overpower ten people, never mind two.

With a sinking feeling in her gut, Dinny knew already that she wouldn't be able to save them. Not at the moment. Not today. She and Jordan were not equipped for a rescue of such measures, nor had they been sent out prepared to face a group of heavily armed foes. Originally, they were looking for a group of mages, presumably poorly armed, and lost.

Now things had changed.

Dinny stared with worry as a giant, red-headed man stepped forward and pulled Mal to his feet by his collar, staring him in the eyes. Mal had clearly been punched in the face, and it was starting to puff up.

"Where are the others?" a curly-haired woman asked behind him. She was eyeing Mal and Rudy with an accusatory glare.

"We already told you," Rudy pleaded, his face still on the ground. "We don't know! We haven't seen anyone else!"

Mal spat on the ground, blood dripping down from his spit as he glared up at the woman. "I told you," he hissed through his teeth. "You are all delusional. There isn't anyone else."

The giant man tossed Mal to the ground, and he landed on his knees.

Another woman, this one a tad taller, with deep brown skin and a tattoo on her shoulder, walked up beside the other.

"Tula, you're positive these two are friends of Tiberius?" she asked lowly, looking from Tula, the curly-haired woman, to Mal.

Tula kept her steely gaze on Mal, slowly kneeling down to be on his eye level as a devilish smile tugged her lips.

"Tiberius? No. Not Tiberius," she cooed, not letting go of her gaze on Mal, eyeing him carefully. "He knows him as James."

For a brief second, a look of recognition flashed across Mal's face. He tightened his lips and narrowed his eyes some more at Tula, looking like he wanted to say something, but suppressing whatever he intended to say.

The tattooed woman huffed a laugh through her nose.

"Well, he didn't have to say a word. I see his friends are as bad at lying as he is," Rita said. "Good. We can make use of them, then, even if they don't spill. Gather them up, boys."

At that, Tula seemed to drop her interest in Mal. She stood back up, looking pleased as she crossed her arms and stared in amusement as men around and yanked them back up.

"We're going to be great friends, boys," Tula said, the smile growing.

"Rot in hell, Tula. You fucking traitor. You--" Mal started to yell, but was quickly muffled by the giant man who proceeded to effortlessly cover Mal's mouth and picked him up, carrying him over his shoulder to one of the horses. Mal wriggled fruitlessly in his grasp.

Dinny gulped.

She was going to need backup. And fast.
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Carina says...

A whole day passed since the little fight with James and Mel.

Well, Elias didn't think it was a fight. Not really. It was more of an argument, or a disagreement. Something was bound to come up, especially as they were wandering unknown territory together. Elias wouldn't have thought much of it, except Mel didn't exactly let it go.

"Gooooood morning, you big hunk. You're awake. You're totally awake. Did you sleep okay?" Mel asked the following morning after the argument, peering over James like she had waited for this day to come.

Because knowing Mel, she probably was counting down the hours and maybe even minutes for this moment. After all, James said he would answer all of Mel's questions after he got a good night's rest.

James didn't respond right away. His eyes were barely open, and he sadly didn't look much better than he had the day before.

"Good morning, Mel," James said lowly, not answering the question.

"Soooo. Is that a yes?" Mel pressed.

James sighed.

"I slept. That's better than usual," he said.

"Great." Mel then kneeled down to set an apple on his blanket. "I'll give you some time to wake up, but I think getting some answers is a great way to start the day."

James didn't say anything, but merely assented with a nod as he sat up. It was hard to tell if he was just still tired from the sleepless day before, but it didn't look like he was looking forward to the conversation.

Mel was in a chipper mood that morning, getting everything prepared so that they could spend a good chunk of that morning talking. She gathered everyone around James so that they could hold a proper discussion.

"So let's just dive into what happened that day you became a wanted man," she said. "We know the gist of it, but what happened exactly?"

After taking in a deep breath, James proceeded to go through the day's events as well as he could. He added the caveat that it had been nearly seven years, and that it was a very traumatic day, so he couldn't remember everything in exact detail, but the gist of it was that over the course of a few days, James had slowly discovered and unraveled the truth about King Blackfield's plan to kidnap mage children and raise them up as a secret, elite force while experimenting on them with dragon's blood to enhance their power. He also uncovered other dirty secrets that were going on behind the scenes, and in the middle of the night, he infiltrated the king's personal archives and stole essential documents that made several of the dirty goings' on possible. After that he managed to destroy all research the king had prepared for their magic experiments and all records they'd collected of mage's bloodlines, so the king would have to start searching for mages from scratch again. On top of all of that, he destroyed all remaining collections of dragons' blood that had been gathered for the experiments.

All in all, he'd done a lot in one night, but it wasn't without notice. He managed to sneak out to the barn before everything quickly caught up to him, and apparently Carter - who was one of James's friends from the army - was sent to catch him and kill him if necessary.

Long story short, James obviously lived and got away. He mentioned getting help from someone but refused to tell Mel who it was even after relentless pressing, insisting it was for the safety of the person who assisted him that their name not get passed around. Eventually she let up, seeming to understand that James wasn't going to budge.

He did, however, share a bit about Carter. They'd become friends when they went to the same military school and served alongside one another. The friendship went sour when Carter proved he cared more about his loyalty to the kindgom than James, but James emphasized that Carter had always been a manipulative person and couldn't be trusted. He said that at present, Carter was the king's right hand man, Captain over the whole of the Moonlight Kingdom's armies, and also in line to inherit leadership over the mage-hunter's guilds. The guilds were a powerful, world-wide network that enforced the anti-magic laws across all the kingdoms. He explained that Carter's affluence and influence stemmed back to his parents, who were the head of all of the guilds - making them some of the most influential leaders in the world.

Mel and James went back and forth a lot, but Alistair asked a question here and there. Elias didn't have much to add, and neither did Elise - although Elise seemed to be a better listener since Elias found himself wondering whether the small details were truly that important for the rest of them. Eve didn't have too many questions either, but Elias figured that she knew all this stuff already, or she would ask him questions when they had private time together... which nowadays, was becoming more rare.

They had talked for a good bit of time now, but Mel still seemed to have questions.

"Okay, so let's switch topics now. I want to talk about the bounty hunters that are after us," she said. "You mentioned their names and descriptions - which are super helpful, by the way - but you didn't mention how they relate back to you. Did you have a past history with everyone Tula is with?"

"They're bounty hunters," James said. "They've all hunted me at some point, and clearly failed. That's the extent to which I know them. I do not know them personally."

That seemed to give Mel pause, and Elias could visibly see the wheels turn in her brain to change the subject again, like she was trying to cover all the bases.

"Bear with me here," she said slowly, changing topics again. "But what if - a big if - they succeeded? Where would they take you specifically?"

James took in another deep breath.

"To King's Peak," he said. "The capital of the Moonlight Kingdom. From here, that's very far south. At least a three month's journey on foot. Roughly two on horseback."

Mel began to ask more questions. Some of it was about geography. The practical needs and nuances of long-distance travel on Nye. It even dipped into questions about survival, and what dangers to look out for, plants not to eat, animals to avoid, signs to look out for when they met people on the road of whether people were trustworthy or not.

"Speaking of survival, don't you think we should move soon?" Alistair asked. "So, you know, none of that actually happens?"

"I do think we should get moving soon," James agreed. "Like you said. Tula doesn't know where we are, but that doesn't mean we should stay idle. We can talk more about King's Peak and the Moonlight Kingdom tomorrow. I think we've discussed a lot of information today. More than enough to dwell on for the night."

With that, they were all back on the move again. Mel seemed satisfied and more than pleased with the answers she got, and Elias was overall glad that the mood was more positive, even when they talked about not-so-happy things.

The day stretched on, and now it was night, and as Mel finished her nightly chores, she made sure to say good night to James twice as her passive-aggressive way to tell him to go to sleep and get a good night's rest again. Elias thought it was funny and even a little cute, but he kept that thought to himself, especially since everyone was feeling more burned out and exhausted more than usual these days.

It was weird. Tula didn't spy on anyone this morning, and as Elias watched everyone settle into sleep, he had to assume that Tula didn't try to spy on anyone else. She was radio silent all day today, which was strange considering that she bombarded everyone yesterday morning.

Elias felt lucky that Tula didn't choose him to be his target. He wasn't really sure why she didn't pick him since they did meet moments before they were all transported to Nye...

But if Elias had to guess, he had to assume it was because Tula thought he was dead.

That, or maybe because they didn't really know each other outside of the bullet wound she gave him. Either way, Elias was glad that he could be spared. So, he was happy to take on as many beginning night shifts as he could, even if Tula seemed to be putting her devioius plans on hold for now.

As Elias scanned their little camp site, he noticed that Eve was asleep before James was, and wasn't as close to him as she was before - as in, not sleeping on his thigh this time. She probably wanted to make sure that he could sleep well. It would be ironic if his leg could fall asleep, but not the rest of him.

Instead, James was still awake and sitting next to Elliot, looking to be deep in thought. Elias was never able to read his mind like Eve was, but he never bothered, because if he wanted to know, he would just ask him.

So that was what he planned to do next. Elias walked over to James and invited himself next to him, keeping him company.

"What a night," he said as a greeting as he got comfortable, leaning back and stretching his legs in front of him.

"...how so?" he said slowly, keeping his voice low.

"Oh, you know," Elias said with a small shrug. "It's just so busy. Since you're thinking deep and hard about it."

James stared at Elias for a moment, and then his expression softened and he smiled. Just a little smile.

"I guess so," he said. "Is my thinking that loud?"

Elias didn't hesitate to nod. "Yeah. I came here to tell you to simmer down. The neighbors might file a complaint."

"Wouldn't want to anger our neighbors," James said.

"There's an Elliot joke in there somewhere," Elias said as he nodded towards Elliot nearby. "But I think our neigh-bor doesn't want to hear that, either."

James glanced over to Elliot, looking up at him with a small smile. Elliot, eager to have attention, lowered his head down to James, resting his nose on James's shoulder. James began to pet Elliot's snout gently.

"I think he liked that one," James said.

"I think he likes this one more," Elias said with his own smile as he continued the petting cycle and gave James two pats on the head.

James blinked very slowly, opening his mouth as if to speak but he seemed at a loss for words. Instead he breathed out a quiet, bewildered, amused laugh.

And it was this moment that Elias realized that it had been a while since James laughed. He'd been under a lot of stress lately, so Elias was glad that he could make James laugh, even if it was unintentional.

"So. What's up?" he decided to say instead, smiling himself. "What's new, I mean? I feel like we used to talk everyday, but we haven't talked as much ever since we came to Nye."

James's small smile faded, and he looked over to Elias, pausing in the petting of Elliot, despite the horse still resting its head over James's shoulder.

"That's true," he said quietly. "I'm... I'm sorry, Elias."

Elias was more confused than anything. "Why?" he asked.

"I'm sorry we haven't talked as much," he said. "Or much at all since coming to Nye. I'm sorry I've been neglecting our friendship these past weeks."

Elias raised a brow at him, now sitting up straighter. "You think you've been neglecting our friendship?" he repeated, like this was news to him. Because it was. "I don't see it that way. I thought we were just, you know - busy with everything that's going on. That's not really anyone's fault."

James sighed, looking down into his lap.

"Right," he said quietly, and it seemed like he was going to say more, but then he didn't. Instead he just seemed deeply focused, like he was getting stuck in his head again.

"Well, if you're sorry, then I'm sorry too," Elias decided to say. "But hey, it doesn't really matter - we're here now, right?"

"Right," James said again with a small nod. "And... I'm glad you're alright. After everything."

"Me too. Glad that you're alright, I mean. Everything sounds really stressful right now... I don't know how you handle it so well."

"I'm not sure that I do," James said. "I don't know what that means, really. To handle it 'well.' I'm just trying to... keep everything together. As much as I can."

Elias nodded, empathizing with James. "Is that working out for you?"

James flicked his eyes over to Elias, but only for a second. James was normally hard to read, but it felt like, in that moment, that he finally let some of his guard down. He looked sad. Deeply sad. He looked down again.

"Um," James said weakly. "I don't know."

"That's okay. It's a lot. Like, a lot. Almost too much, really," Elias said.

"I guess... I'm just used to it," James said quietly. "That's been the whole of my life, really. Ever since my father died. It's just... always been a lot."

"Has it always felt like it's all out of your control?" Elias asked, and when he glanced at James, he noticed that his eyes looked a little misty.

"Sometimes," James said. "But I think a lot of it has been the result of my own actions. Especially everything after... after I became wanted."

He paused, sniffing and shaking his head a little, like he was trying to brush it off.

"I knew I was ruining my life in the moment," he said. "I just didn't know how far it all would go. For it to lead to... this. With Tula on Nye, of all things. To have met any of you at all. To end up on another world, there and back again."

"Yeah. It sounds crazy when you say it like that. It's like the universe is plotting against you." Elias paused. "Or maybe you're just really unlucky. But hey." He gently but playfully elbowed his side. "I'm feeling lucky that you're here and alive."

James nodded, looking away for a moment. He briskly rubbed his eyes and looked back down into his lap, shrugging.

"Yeah," he said quietly. "I guess to have survived all of this, I must be pretty lucky."

"I think it's just a matter of perspective," Elias said with a small shrug. "I don't know. The current situation does suck, but I think life in general can suck."

"That seems to be the resounding agreement of most people," James said. "Regardless of everyone's unique circumstances, life can suck. Sometimes. But not all the time."

"Wise words. What else you got?" Elias asked with a curious smile.

James huffed through his nose.

"I'm afraid that's it at the moment," James said. "Now it's your turn."

Elias hummed, thinking this over. Maybe a little too long. "Hmmmm," he drew out, thinking through all the bits of wisdom in his head until he settled on one in particular. "When the going gets tough, the toughing gets going." He looked at James for his reaction.

James looked like he was suppressing a smile, but it clearly showed in his eyes.

"Profound," he said.

"To be honest, I'm not really sure what it means. I think I read that somewhere once. It sounds kind of wise to me," Elias said with a chuckle.

"It sure is something," James agreed.

"What do you think it means?"

"Probably that things get tough," James said. "Seems to be the general take-away."

Elias nodded, pursing his lips as he applied James's words to his own interpretation. "I see, I see. You're a master of all things words."

James nodded, but his expression grew weary, and he let out a sigh as he pulled his legs up and rested his arms on his knees.

"Right," was all he said, seeming distracted.
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Fri Oct 14, 2022 4:06 am
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Carina says...

Elias glanced between him and everyone else sleeping around them. "Are you tired?" he asked.

"A little," James said, but his answer felt incomplete. He avoided looking at Elias.

Elias lifted a brow as he tried to study James, but he never was able to figure him out. "Did I say something that upset you?" he asked.

James straightened up a little, shaking his head.

"What? No. No," he said quickly. "It's... it's not you."

"Oh. Phew." Elias breathed out a sigh of relief. "You had me worried for a second there. You seemed upset. Is something bothering you?"

James seemed to hesitate for a moment.

"It's just odd that Tula hasn't tried anything, is all," James said. "It's been over 24 hours."

"She hasn't seen anything so far, so maybe she's taking a break," Elias suggested.

"Yeah," James said. "That must be it."

A beat of silence.

"How have you been?" James asked. "I feel like it's been a while since I've heard how things are going with you. At least, not in passing."

Elias hesitated. He felt like maybe there was more that James wasn't letting on, but he didn't want to push it out of him - especially since it may all relay back to Tula, and there wasn't anything either of them could do about that. So he decided to roll with the new conversation, leaning back into his relaxed position.

"I've been good - nothing really out of the ordinary, I don't think. Let's see... well, recently I realized I'm getting skinnier, but that makes sense since we're not really lifting much these days. I guess it was nice to be strong, but I don't see a reason to be as strong as I used to be."

Elias paused.

"Although, what I would like to do is strengthen my magic. Did I ever tell you how the goblins trained me and Elise on our magic?" he asked.

"I don't think you have," James said.

"Well, we were told that apparently healing magic here works both ways. As in, healing others while also taking from others. And since Elise and I do the opposite and are related, Marsha told us that we would be able to learn how to do the other way a lot faster compared to other healing mages. So, I've been trying to learn how to do more than absorb life force and energy, but I haven't made too much progress on it yet." He paused. "I mean, I found out I could absorb energy from not just people but also plants and animals, which could maybe be useful, but I don't really want to do that either. But I guess if I had to..."

Elias trailed off, lost in thought. Marsha had warned him against the dangers of using energy-sapping magic regardless of who or what he used it on since, over time, he would accumulate negative psychological effects. It occurred to Elias that he hadn't asked what exactly she meant by that. He made a mental note to ask Elise about this later to see if she got that information from Marsha.

"Hopefully you don't," James said gently. "Have you successfully healed anything yet?"

Elias shook his head. "Not yet, mostly because I haven't really been given an opportunity to do so yet. Any time someone needs healing, it's been pretty serious. I wouldn't want to mess anything up."

James hummed. He then started to reach into his pockets, searching for something. Before Elias could fully realize what was happening, James pulled out a flip-knife, flipped out the blade, and nicked his finger. On purpose.

Since fingers lended themselves to a lot of bleeding, it bubbled up pretty fast, but it didn't look all that deep.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Elias asked with alarm, staring at his finger with concern.

"It's just a small cut," James said. "You said you hadn't had any opportunities to practice. Here's one that's inconsequential. It'll heal just fine on its own even if you can't."

Elias stared at him for a second, blinked, but then laughed through his nose and shook his head, sitting up straighter. "Aw, I'm touched. I'd say that this is a symbol of good friendship, but I don't think I want my friends to prove their friendship by cutting themselves."

"Don't overthink it," James said, offering his thumb out to Elias.

"Alright, let's see..." Elias angled himself to sit directly across from James, and as if his hand was fragile, he carefully wrapped his palms around his thumb. "Okay, focus," he said out loud, but then looked up at James. "Are you focusing?"

"Do I need to be focusing?" James asked.

Elias paused to think it through, then remembered that, yes, he had switched the subjects around.

"I mean, uh, are you... calm?" Elias asked instead as an attempt to redirect the question.

"I'm calm," James said simply.

"Okay, so you might feel maybe a sharp pain... or two. Feel anything?" Elias asked, flicking his eyes between his hand and James. He wasn't even sure if he felt anything.

"Not yet," James said patiently.

Elias leaned in closer to their hands, narrowing his eyes. "What about now?"


Elias thought he could feel more heat around his palm, but he couldn't tell if it was because his palms were getting sweaty. "What about now? Maybe you do need to focus."

"Nothing," James answered again.

Elias took this moment to stare in silence, concentrating and remembering the tips that Marsha told him. Think of it like I'm giving a gift. Like I'm giving a big, warm hug.

Marsha had explained that healing was a transfer of energy. It wasn't too different from what he had gathered on Earth, but it was still all new to Elias. And he was grateful that James was giving him an opportunity to test this out.

Then - faintly - a warmth and soft glow emanated under his fingertips. It was subtle enough that he wouldn't have noticed if it was daylight, but it was as plain as day during the night.

With a big smile, Elias waited for the light to disappear before he let go of James's hand, wiping his sweaty palm against his shirt.

"What about now?" he said with a grin.

James lifted his thumb, looked at it, then turned it to Elias. In place of where the small cut had been, it was completely healed, and if any mark was left behind, it was too faint to see. He smiled.

"I think this means you're a healer," James said.

"Wow," Elias said with a weak laugh. "It's funny. I've always wished I was a healer like Elise. Now it feels like my dreams are coming true. Thanks for bringing me to the land of magic."

James's smile grew a bit more, and he gently patted Elias's shoulder.

"I'm glad something good came out of it for you," he said.

"Although... I do wonder if our magic would be a little different since we're on Nye," Elias wondered out loud. "Healing seems to work about the same, I think. If anything I think there are less limitations here. But Marsha did mention that the energy-sapping magic I mostly do comes with some negative side-effects. I don't know, something to think about, I guess. I don't think Elise and I would need to worry too much about that."

"It might be best to focus your energy on practicing healing," James suggested. "I know it can sap your energy, but it seems to be the better investment."

"Yeah. Yeah, I completely agree."

Elias scooted back to his original position and leaned back on his arms again, but then sat up straight again as he smiled at James.

"Thanks, James."

"No problem," James said, leaning forward on his knees again.

"But no more random knife cuts. Even if Elias the Healer would come to your rescue"

James huffed a weak laugh.

"Alright," he said, sounding tired. "No more random knife cuts."

Elias let the silence fill the air between them for a couple of seconds until he asked, "Are you sure nothing else is bothering you?"

James sighed.

"Just wish I could get some sleep is all," James said quietly. "I'm tired."

Elias was already getting on his feet. "Well, nothing's better than the present. I'll stay up and keep watch. You should get some shut eye."

"Alright," James said with no fight. He laid down and turned onto his side, away from Elias, tucking his arms under his head.

Elias knew that James was likely still bothered by a lot of stuff, but they didn't have to figure it all out at once. He understood that sometimes getting some good rest could reset his thoughts. James probably needed something similar.

To be honest, Elias didn't like to have the first shift on watch. He always got so bored when everyone was asleep, and he knew he had to keep quiet.

But he always found ways to entertain himself. Plus, he was still riding high on the thought of being a healer.

Elias wondered what else he was capable of.
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Sun Oct 16, 2022 3:24 am
soundofmind says...

James hadn't laid down for long. And then it finally came, the moment he let his guard down.


Unlike her other night messages, Tula went straight to the point. James knew what her intention was the second he saw Malkiel and Rudy tied up, battered, and beaten. Thick rope was wrapped around their chests, binding them together. Their hands and feet were also separately tied up. It appeared that they had been beaten for some time, their faces puffy and bruised - especially Malkiel, who had a sunken black eye, bleeding nose, and busted lip.

They were dangerously close by a fire, perhaps by intention. They were surrounded by a canopy of trees, and for the first time, Tula revealed some details of their campsite. Tents were perched behind them, and there were a handful of men and women James didn't recognize, but he could easily spot Butch and Pitch among them, gathered outside of the tents, talking and eating idly.

Tula wanted James to see this. She wanted him to see what she was doing to Malkiel and Rudy.

"I'm going to ask you one more time," Tula said sternly, now keeping her eyes strictly on the two of them. "Where. Is. James?"

A growl crawled out of the back of Malkiel's throat as he glared at Tula, clenching his teeth. He spit out blood so he could speak, but appeared to be too weak to resist against the rope, and it instead dribbled onto his shirt.

"We. Don't. Know," he spat out with the same vicious tone. "I'm telling you the truth."

"Oh, are you? Are you, Malkiel?" Tula said with feined innocence as she leaned forward, cupping her hand around his face. Malkiel looked like he was about to bite her, but she then moved her hand to tuck a strand of his loose curls behind his ear. "Tsk, tsk. It's a shame that you have an eye for liars, but not one for yourself."

Tula's hand then sharply descended down to Malkiel's groin, which she forcefully grabbed by the fistful and twisted around, pulling him towards her. Malkiel shrieked in pain as he doubled over, forming a sentence about how much of a psycho she was, but stopping midway through as he writhed under her grasp. His face went pale and he looked to be seconds away from puking.

"Now, now, Malkiel. Why don't you be a good boy and beg?" Tula playfully teased, her eyes still set on studying Mal's reaction as her hand continued to twist his groin. "Beg for your life. Beg for James to come save you. Because if you don't..."

Tula then let go and stepped back just in time for Malkiel to vomit all over himself.

"Well. I would have to kill you, wouldn't I?" she finished with a sinister smile.

Tula stood back and watched as Malkiel rolled his head back, appearing to be unconscious. Rudy started to plea for their innocence, but Tula ignored him, instead pulling out a folded paper from her pocket. She carefully unfolded it, putting it to her full view so that James could see it. After unfolding it four times, the paper revealed to be a weathered map of Nye.

But there was a part that was circled. Coordinates were listed to dictate the exact spot. Just north of twin lakes, where the Outlands met the Wilds.

On the top of the map, Tula wrote in big black letters:


When the vision faded, James's eyes were wide open. His heart pounded at the rhythm of a thousand horses stampeding over rocky ground. Panic coursed through him, seizing every muscle and drawing it tighter, tenser, and taut.

The first thing James did was force himself not to move.

If he did anything to cause alarm, others would notice. So he stayed perfectly still, letting his body wind up like a knot of string, and then he took in a very slow, deliberate, deep breath.

In that moment, finally, after days of painfully pushing back his anxiety, he won. As he held his breath he thought of all of the faces of everyone he loved.

Eve. Elias. Alistair. Mel. Elise. Every friend. Every loss. Every moment of joy found in the midst of pain, in the midst of friends. He thougt of Elliot. All the years spent building trust.

He thought of his family.

Closing his eyes, he began to count as he held his breath.


For so long he'd been running from his past, and for so long, everyone he cared about paid the price.


There was a part of him that knew better than to go alone. There was a part of him that couldn't bear to think of the pain he'd cause by leaving.


Maybe this was his fate. Maybe the note meant for this to happen. Maybe this was all a divine setup for him to redeem himself. To stop running.


He wasn't going off to play soldier. He wasn't running off to be the hero. He wasn't running away from his problems. This time, he was running to them.


If he didn't go, he knew Tula would follow through on her word, and he couldn't let Malkiel and Rudy's deaths weigh on his conscience.


Malkiel and Rudy were on Nye.

He let his breath out, little by little.

He couldn't possibly know who else was brought to Nye, but there was no way for Tula to fake their existence. They were here. They were in danger. They needed help. James knew what he had to do.

He could feel his heart growing numb. This time, he let it happen. He let the wave of emptiness wash over him and was grateful for it. With his emotions quieted, he was able to focus on what was in front of him.

Naturally, he'd have to leave on his watch. He was the second to last watch, which meant he'd have to wait four hours before he could do anything. Eve was last.

Until then, he knew he'd have to pretend to be asleep while his mind ran over every detail.

They'd all been living out of their packs. James would merely take his. He'd have to leave Elliot behind. He'd move faster if he took him, but it lent itself to too much disturbance if he took the horse. Someone would wake up, and even if he did take Elliot, he could never justify taking Elliot on what he knew was going to be a suicide mission.

One life for two.

Already, he could hear everyone's objections. Logical arguments came out of everyone's mouths in the courtroom of his mind. Everyone was trying to talk him out of it. Everyone was concerned. Everyone wanted to tell him not to go at it alone. Tula was crazy. Who was to say she'd keep her word?

But it was precisely because of Tula that he didn't want to risk Malkiel and Rudy's lives on the off chance she was bluffing or had already killed them.

He was the only one who knew the wilds well enough to weave his way back to where Tula was. They were behind them, but to the west of Sticks. With the allies Tula obtained it wouldn't have surprised him if she'd found them in Ruddlan and gone north-east from there.

If he pushed himself, he could make it to Tula in a week. He hoped she'd wait that long.

The hours dragged on like molasses. When Alistair finally came over to wake him, James pretended to stir, as if he'd been somewhere between asleep and awake, and he was quick to dismiss Alistair back to sleep. Buying his bluff, and likely legitimately sleepy himself, Alistair quickly returned to his blanket and went back to sleep.

James waited a few minutes before he moved to his bag.

It wasn't unusual for him to get things out of his bag to occupy himself during a watch, and as expected, no one stirred at the faint noise of him pulling his and Eve's journal out of his pack.

He flipped to the last page, still empty, and pulled out a pencil.

It was dark, and even when he put on his glasses with its one functioning lens, he couldn't make out much in the shade of the trees. Near-blindly, he focused and wrote as clearly as he could manage.


    You've always seemed to envy me for my ability to say the right thing. I wish that now was not the exception, as I cannot bear to be lengthy, and I'm sure no amount of apologizing or explaining will relieve the worry and pain I have caused in the wake of my absence.

    I love you. Please take care of the others for me. Please take care of yourself.

His hand paused over the paper.

Now he wished his head was still connected to his heart.

    I know this isn't good enough.

He pressed his lips into a line, hastily scribbling out the last two words.

    I'm sorry.

He left the journal by Elliot's feet, with the last page open. With painfully slow movements, he managed to close his bag and silently pull the straps over his shoulders. When it was secure, he turned, and gave the others one last look.

His broken glasses still rested on his nose. He supposed he wouldn't have much use for them anymore. He never really did since they'd broke.

He took them off and folded them, setting them on the book. When he straightened once more, it was for his final goodbye.

He imagined, in his heart, that he was able to kiss Eve on the head without waking her. He imagined an embrace, and pulling all of his friends close. He imagined their bewildered but pleasant surprise, and their eagerness to return the unwarranted hug. He pictured their teary eyes, and their lingering touch, not wanting to let him go just yet. Begging him to stay a little longer.

He felt empty, and yet there was a deep ache in his stomach. It felt like he was looking out at an ocean. He could see the wave in the distance growing. Rising. Ready to swallow him up. Beckoning him to come. And here he stood on the beach, too afraid to go into the water.

It hit him then; the reality of what he was about to walk into. He was a sheep willingly walking into a wolves' den.

Clenching his jaw, he turned. As he began to walk, he stopped when he felt something bump him from behind. Without even looking, he knew it was Elliot.

Elliot was following. He was assuming he was supposed to come too. Because that's what he always did. He always followed.

James took in a slow, measured breath and turned around, resting his palm on Elliot's nose.

"Stay," he whispered, and leaned in to hug Elliot's face loosely, resting his forehead against Elliot's.

In the back of his mind, he could see it again. Him sitting atop that horse in the stable, looking down at Larrel, telling her he'd be back soon. And then he never was. From that day forward he always told himself he'd never make promises he didn't intend to keep. Never to say something he didn't mean, unless he was lying to protect someone, or in some cases, himself. But never to the people he loved. Never again.

He bit his lip, knowing it wouldn't matter what words he said. Elliot understood, but he didn't need words to understand.

As James pulled away, he knew they both knew.

He was going to leave. Without him.

Something almost felt poetic in all of this. Leaving everyone behind. It was a pattern in his life. Every few years, he said goodbye. Only this was the final time.

With a deep breath, he walked away, deep into the darkness, careful to leave no trace behind him.

And no one noticed except Elliot. It was so easy he almost couldn't believe it took a bribe and raising the stakes for him to go.

But with each step away, he felt like he was losing more of himself.

He was throwing it all away, and he knew it. But this time, there was no running. There was no turning back. There was no way of escape. He wasn't going to let anyone else suffer as a consequence of his actions.

He was going home.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

They finally made it. Finn was passed out, fast asleep in Jordan's arms, and between her and Jordan, they were exhausted, but they made it. It took them all day, but they made it.

Dinny practically collapsed against the front door.

"Since when was the door this big?" Jordan huffed behind her.

"It's the right door," Dinny said breathlessly.

She'd hardly begun to push it open before footsteps were heard, hurrying to meet them. Bo pulled the door open and Dinny fell into his legs, beyond exhausted. He leaned down and caught her, balancing her by the shoulders.

"What happened?" Bo asked, cutting straight to the point. He understood the urgency without a word of explanation.

"We found mages," Dinny said, letting Bo lead her by the hand inside. Jordan closed the door behind them, and Bo sat down on the floor. She noticed the room was filled with animals, but didn't bother asking about it. Stranger things had happened.

She plopped down beside him, slouching forward. Jordan sat down more slowly, guiding little Finnley into his lap so as not to disturb him.

"Three of them. Two were captured, but we were only able to save the boy," she said. "We never found the group we were originally looking for, led by James and Eve, but we found two men and a boy who knew them. Apparently they were separated. But--"

She let out a long, deep sigh.

"The group that came and captured them - their names are Malkiel and Rudy, an air mage and a healing mage - they were bounty hunters, and criminals. Working together. They were capturing Malkiel and Rudy to get to James."

She shook her head, not having had much time to make sense of it herself.

"I don't know what kind of mess we stumbled into," she said lowly. "But whoever this James is, he's got about two dozen people after him. And I don't know what they plan on doing to his friends. The only thing that was odd was that none among the captors were mage hunters, which would make sense, since they're mages. So I don't know if this is a personal matter or if they're just... well, I suppose mage hunters don't have to wear their typical guise."

She rubbed her eyes, trying to force her mind to stay at least somewhat functional.

"I don't know, Bo," she said quietly. "But I couldn't save them. We were so outnumbered. If we're going to save any of them we're going to need all of us. Even though they don't look like mage hunters, it looks like they could still have lumshade on them. Especially if they're going after James and the mages with him."

Looking up at Bo, she ran her hands down the sides of her face, aware she was being a little dramatic, but everything that had just happened was dramatic. Bo met her eyes with deep concern, and he gently rested his hand on Dinny's shoulder.

"You need to rest," he said quietly. "Is there anything else I should know before we begin to make plans?"

Dinny scratched the back of her mind, trying to remember anything important.

"Tula," she said. "That was the name of one of the women who captured them."

The name didn't seem to ring any bells with Bo, but he nodded, clearly taking note of it.

"And the boy's name is Finnley," she said. "We don't know where his parents are. I assume with James's group."

"Alright," Bo said. "You'll get to rest soon, but if you can hang on just a little longer, I think the others need to hear this."

Dinny nodded, steeling herself for another, likely more chaotic conversation to follow.

Bo helped her back to her feet, and Jordan carefully lifted Finnley again. The three of them quietly descended down into the base beneath the building, and Bo quickly lit a few more lamps with a spark of his fingers to each wick. Silently, he gestured to the table, motioning for Dinny to sit down.

It looked like Finnley had started to wake up, and sleepily stirred in Jordan's arms. "Are we there yet?" he sleepily mumbled, still fighting sleep.

"We made it safely to the base," Jordan answered. "We'll get to sleep soon."

At the same time, Bo started knocking on doors, and people behind them started to come out.

First there was Mel, who was quick to come out with Raya close behind. Mel hurried to Dinny and welcomed her quietly with a gentle hug. When she pulled away, Dinny saw that Robin and Raj had come out, and so had a man she didn't recognize. He was very tall. Bearded. Between Jordan and Bo's height, it seemed.

The man was quick to get to the point. "What? What happened? Did you find them?" he asked as he scanned the room, but then his eyes widened when his eyes landed on Finnley. "Holy shit. You found the kid. Where's everyone else?"

"Let's sit down," Bo said, gesturing to the chairs around the table. "They've had a very long journey."

The man quickly took a seat down next to Jordan, who still had Finnley in his lap. Finnley seemed to recognize the man and gave him a sleepy wave.

"Hi, Hendrik," Finnley said through a yawn.

"Hey, kid," Hendrik said gruffly, more preoccupied with knowing the story than talking with Finnley who was too young to understand.

Bo took a seat next to Dinny, and Mel joined her on the opposite side. The table filled up with Raj and Raya, and Robin stood off to the side, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Everyone's attention turned to her and Bo.

"Malkiel and Rudy," Bo said, looking to the man apparently named Hendrik. "Those were some of your friends, right?"

Apparently, this was a big group of mages.

Hendrik nodded. "That's correct. Why, did you find them?"

"They did," Bo said. "But unfortunately, they were captured. Dinny and Jordan--" he gestured to them. "--were outnumbered, twenty to four. Dinny caught the name of one of the women leading the people who captured them. Said her name was Tula--"

At that, Hendrik loudly and ferociously pounded his fists on the table, fuming. "That conniving, backstabbing bitch," he said through his teeth.

Jordan covered Finnley's ears.

"She caught them? Of course she did. That traitor," Hendrik continued, hostility still thick in his voice.

"She was working with a woman who looked to be a part of the Blue Suns," Dinny added. "Though I couldn't tell if she was one of them."

Bo turned to her with a concerned look on confusion on his face, and they seemed to share the same thought. What did the Blue Suns want with mages? They normally left that to mage hunters.

"What does she plan on doing to them?" Hendrik asked.

"It sounded like she was going to use them as collateral," Dinny said. "Likely holding them for ransom in exchange for James, since they didn't know where he was. That seems the only reason they captured them, was to get to James."

"Who you said was leading the group of mages you were with previously," Bo added, clueing Dinny in to some of the nuance of what was going on.

Then tension was building in Hendrik again, and when Dinny finished, he seemed to explode, pounding his fist on the table again and then standing up, looking like he was seconds away from breaking something.

"Fuck!" Hendrik yelled, kicking his chair back. "She's going to torture them to get her way. She won't stop. This woman is psycho. We have to find them, now. Someone will die if we don't take action."

"We'll leave as soon as we can, but we'll need all of our people," Bo said. "And we'll need to gather our supplies. I'm going to give Jordan, Dinny, and Finnley a few hours to sleep while we all stay up and make preparations and come up with a plan. Any information you can give us on Tula, her motivations, and what's going on with her and James will help us make more informed decisions and come up with a strategy."

Hendrik nodded, seemingly trying to control his anger while Bo spoke. He took a sharp breath and, with intense focus, sat back down while he listened intently.

"Yes. Anything you want to know, I have it. I've known Tula for years. She has betrayed me and the group in the past. She is not to be messed with." Hendrik scoffed and shook his head. "I don't know why she is hellbent on finding James. I think she's obsessed. She's probably following orders from the king since he's a wanted man. I don't know who else she's with, but she has probably gained a false pretense of trust with them to get them on her side. That's what she does. Lie, watch, and betray because someone else tells her so."

"Dinny mentioned that those in her company are criminals and bounty hunters. If she was after James because of his magic, it would make more sense to make allies with mage hunters. Do you have any idea why that might be? She's obsessed, but there must be a reason for it," Bo continued.

"I don't know what the hell Tula's thinking most of the time. I don't think it's because she's after James's magic, though. That doesn't make sense to me. I think she's after some kind of revenge. It's personal," Hendrik said.

"And you and all of your friends have been roped in by association," Bo concluded.

Hendrik seemed to mull this over. "Right. Yes."

Bo hesitated.

"Is there more to that?" he asked.

Hendrik sighed. "Look. The intimate details of our personal affairs don't matter much here. All you need to know is that Tula is a trained spy, who has spied on all of us in the past, and now seems to wants to bring us all down. But with James, it's more personal."

"Is Tula a mage hunter?" Bo asked.

Hendrik scoffed. "Mage hunter? No, she's a mage herself. That would be too hypocritical, even for her."

This gave everyone in the room pause. A mage working with non-mages (likely in secret) to take down another mage. It wasn't common in a world where mages tended to band together when the rest of the world was out to get them, but if the offense was indeed personal, then this was a whole different can of worms.

"What kind of magic?" Bo asked.

"I don't know what kind of terminology you all use around here for classifying different mages, so I'll just describe it," Hendrik said. "She had spying powers. She can let other people see and hear what she sees, and vice versa. It would be easy to hide. Hell, that's probably how she's going to broadcast to James that she has Mal and Rudy, even though--" Hendrik fiercely shook his head. "Doesn't matter. She's a spy, and apparently, now using her magic in unpredictable ways."

Bo looked to be deep in thought. Dinny, on the other hand was far too tired to overthink it. There were a few rare magics out there. This seemed to be one of them. The idea of it sounded intriguing, but potentially very dangerous in the wrong hands. But that was true of all magic.

"Our information said that James is a time mage," Bo said slowly. "Is that correct?"

Another rare magic.

"That's right. And so is Eve," Hendrik said.

Bo let out a slow sigh, leaning forward on the table. He looked over to Dinny, and she could see the compassion in his expression. He reached out and patted her shoulder.

"Go get some sleep, Dinny," he said. "We'll figure this out. You too, Jordan. And the boy."

Dinny didn't have to be told twice. She got up and lazily dragged her feet over to one of the bedrooms, where she usually shared it with Mel and Raya. Jordan started moving behind her, but she stopped paying attention after she stepped inside and closed the door.

When the door clicked, she noticed Clandestine was in the room, curled up in her bed, but she jumped awake, looking around until her eyes landed on Dinny.

"Dinny!" she said, clearly sounding half-awake, but then looked around the room, noticing the others' absence.

"It's been a long day," Dinny said. "Everyone else is up. They'll fill you in. I need to get some sleep."

Nodding in understanding, Clanny threw off her covers and got up quickly, pulling Dinny's covers aside so she could slide right in. After kicking off her shoes, Dinny fell into her bed, and Clanny pulled the covers over her.

If Clanny said anything after, she didn't hear it. The moment her head hit the pillow, she was out.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

You wanna be a writer? You don't know how or when? Find a quiet place, use a humble pen.
— Paul Simon