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Fate's Hand

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Sun Oct 16, 2022 5:29 am
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Carina says...

The moment Eve woke up, she knew something was wrong.

There was a tingle of anxiety in her chest as she woke up to Mel's nervous questioning, and it snaked her way around her heart as she took in her surroundings, noticing that her sense of normalcy was missing.

For the past week, Eve had been sleeping close to James, her head often resting on his thigh as a convenient pillow. He never minded and seemed to like that she was close, but as James's lack of sleep became more and more apparent to her, she decided to give him space to rest more comfortably.

And now she was wondering if she would come to forever regret that.

Eve stared at the tree next to Elliot where James last sat, but instead of James, she only saw Elliot's morning shadows.

"James, oh James?" Mel sing-songed loudly with her hands cupped around her mouth, but worry was heavily laced in her voice. "Where are you?"

Alistair was neatly and calmly going through his normal morning routine, putting his items away. "He's probably on a walk somewhere. He'll come back." He hesitated, flicking his eyes up at everyone. "Right?"

There was more chatter among the group, but Eve didn't bother listening.

As soon as she noticed that James was missing, Eve immediately sprang up on her feet to investigate. She went to Elliot first, her first clue in all of this.

She knew that James wouldn't leave them or his trusty steed. She was calm, at first - rationalizing the familiar paranoia with sentiments she didn't know until later would be false.

He's sleeping a bit further out, or going on a walk. Maybe trying to surprise us. He'll come back. He wouldn't leave us. He wouldn't leave Elliot.

He wouldn't leave me.

She rifled through his items, looking for any clue - but everything was accounted for.

Except James's bag. That was odd. Why would he go on a walk with his bag? Maybe he decided to sleep further out. But why wouldn't he tell anyone? That was unlike him.

Eve also noticed that his journal was left behind, which only added onto the pile of inconsistencies, but she didn't have much time to process the implication, because the journal was opened.

It was opened on a page with his handwriting, his glasses folded over the top. Eve felt her heartbeat beating faster, reverberating against her chest as she daintily picked it up, her eyes glued on the page. Her head was spinning before she could even read the words. She knew. She knew what this was, what he was trying to do.

The note, the sloppy handwriting, his absence - this was a goodbye letter, wasn't it?

She almost couldn't bring herself to read it, but with shaky hands, she forced herself to focus and read.


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.

I know this isn't good enough.

I'm sorry.

Time seemed to stand still as she read the last two words over and over again. A wave of dread filled her body, paralyzing her. This felt like a dream. She couldn't accept that this was true. This wasn't true. This wasn't true. This wasn't --

"Eve," Mel said, her hand on her shoulder to grab her attention.

Eve nearly jumped, unable to hide her flinch as she whirled around with wide eyes. Her heart was beating faster and faster. It was almost deafening. She almost couldn't hear what Mel said. She had to read her lips, noticing that she asked, "Are you okay?" and something else.

Eve found herself tightly gripping the journal, almost squeezing it to breakage. Before Mel could question her some more, she tore the page out and crinkled it under her fingers, gritting her teeth.

She knew what she had to do.

Eve ignored Mel and quickly moved past her, approaching her bag near the center of camp. She was focused, uncaring of how the others perceived her, and unbothered to know what they said or did. She couldn't observe. A dark sea of emotions flooded her ears, blocking her from doing anything else but proceed on her plan.

She was going to find James. And the others would slow her down.

"Eve!" Mel yelled, pulling in her shoulders when she had crouched down to put away the journal.

Annoyed, Eve snapped her head up to finally face her. "What? she said irritably.

"What is it? You're acting unusual. Did you find something?"

Eve stared at her blankly for a second, stuffing her last item in her bag and then slowly standing up, her eyes cooly watching everyone stare at her, looking for answers.

Fine. If they wanted answers, then they would get it.

"James left us," Eve said harshly, making sure to meet the eyes of each and every one of them. "He left us, and he's not coming back. Don't bother looking for him. He's not here."

At that, she briskly walked back towards Elliot, ignoring Mel's gaping mouth which indicated that she was going to ask more questions.

Alistair happened to be near Elliot as Eve began to load Elliot up.

"What... how would you know that?" he asked, starting to sound defensive.

Eve gave him a fake smile as she packed her bag. "Looks like you're just going to have to trust me," she said sarcastically.

Mel, Elise, and Elias also approached, with Mel being the loudest.

"What do you mean? Why would he leave us?" Mel asked.

Eve bent down to untie Elliot. "People leave sometimes, Mel. It's not hard to understand."

"Maybe it has something to do with Tula," Elias offered instead.

"Eve, are you leaving somewhere?" Elise asked, the concern in her voice sounding too thick.

With Elliot's reigns in her hands, Eve stood back up and sharply turned around, taking a deep breath.

"Like I said, don't bother finding him," she repeated, then paused. "Because I'm going to look for him. And there's --"

"You are not," Mel interrupted, a fire lit in her eyes like she was about to fight her. "Stop it. You're not leaving. Let go of Elliot, Eve."

Eve stared at Mel, silently challenging her.

"Eve. Let go of Elliot's reigns," Mel said with a threatening voice. And when Eve didn't comply, Mel pounced at her, tearing the reigns off her hands. She grinned in triumph as she held it up and pushed Eve back, but she quickly turned serious again. "You're not leaving," Mel huffed.

Eve watched her, unbothered by her actions. Alistair seemed to side on Mel's side, while Elise and Elias were trying to coax her into calming down, even when she was calm.

She knew that the others would try to stop her, but it didn't matter. None of it mattered.

Not when she could change things to make it her way.

"I'm sorry," Eve said, but her heart wasn't in it. "But I have to leave."

Eve hadn't used her time powers in a long time. Not for months. There wasn't a need to use it. She wanted to live more in the moment and be more like herself, but in a situation like this -- she couldn't afford to have things go wrong.

And so she went back. Back in time, feeling her internal clock move backwards, the familiar white numbness consuming her.

Just so she could go back ten minutes ago, redoing her actions to not arouse suspicion.

"James, oh James? Where are you?" Mel sing-songed.

This time, Eve calmly held a few of her items then got up to her feet, leaving her bag behind to not arouse suspicion. She approached Elliot with a normal demeanor and didn't need to rifle through James's items now that she knew what was in it. Instead, she packed her items and bent down to untie his reigns.

"Something might have happened at night, and he may have inadvertently traveled far. I'll ride on Elliot to look around and cover more distance," she said, lying through her teeth.

"That's a good idea. I was about to say that we should walk around, but Elliot would be faster," Elias said. "I hope he's okay."

"Sure, how long will you ride around?" Mel asked.

With a sharp breath, Eve hefted herself up on the saddle, holding the regins in her hands. "Not long. I'll be back soon," she said vaguely as she looked off into the horizon, scanning her surroundings while also forming a path in her head.

"Alrighty. We'll make breakfast. Should be ready for when you come back," Mel said, turning her back on her.

Eve didn't bother saying goodbye, or sticking around to see if Elias, Elise, or Alistair would object. She clicked her tongue and rode Elliot through the trees, not looking back.

Of course, Eve felt remorse for lying and leaving her friends, especially since they would be lost without her or James. But she knew they could figure it out. They were resilient, and they didn't need to be involved in this.

Eve did not accept James leaving. She couldn't accept it. She couldn't accept that he would leave with the intention of abandoning her and the others. She had to believe that there was something else. Something more sinister. It had to be Tula.

James obviously didn't want to involve her, but Eve didn't care.

She was going to find him, and she was going to help him.

And no one was going to get in her way.
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Thu Oct 20, 2022 2:36 am
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Carina says...

They were finally on the move.

It had been a long week in their grisly little hideout. It hadn't been bad - Hendrik was just getting antsy to get moving and find his friends. Although, it appeared he was making friends himself, if he could call it that.

Bo was someone Hendrik really respected. He never did get to see his magic, but Bo could've told him that his magic was his physique, and Hendrik would have believed it. He found himself spending the most time with Bo if either were them were free, doing chores, going over plans, sharing stories, and even working out. After all, Hendrik was more than happy to lift weights with a man who enjoyed hearing what his pet chicken was up to.

Mel was another person Hendrik gravitated towards, and it made sense considering that she and Bo were close as well. She exuded warmth that was stereotypical of a healing mage, but was also strong and independent. She was good at steering conversations, and there were more than one instance of Hendrik finding himself knees-deep with Mel talking about some random existential topic that organically formed.

Hendrik liked this Mel, but he also liked the other Mel, and it got confusing in his head. So to make things easier, he started to call this Mel "Doc" since she was a doctor. No one seemed to question it.

Hendrik got along with these two, but... well, that was it.

Robin was... Robin. He had found him insufferable at the beginning, and that didn't change at all, but there was now something familiar about it. He was always there, being the annoying wolf-man with some smart ass remark or fancy words, that when he wasn't around, Hendrik wondered if something was wrong.

But then he would see Robin pitter-pattering around in werewolf form, and he went about his day.

On a similar vein, Hendrik found Clan a bit annoying as well. Her enthusiasm and optimism was dialed too high for his tastes, and she was a big klutz. Any time Hendrik tried to strike a seemingly normal conversation, she always seemed to awkwardly bounce around, even if he was asking something as simple as, "Are you hungry?" Considering she was a fire mage, Hendrik was convinced that she would inadvertently cause a big fiery accident one day because of her impulses and habits.

Fortunately, she redeemed herself when he caught her playing with his animals one morning. Hendrik found out that she seemed to have an affinity towards the flying boars, who were technically considered monsters, and since she was a monster hunter, she hadn't seen any domesticated before. She seemed to enjoy running around with them and making sure they were entertained enough since they were all by themselves on the above floor.

Raya was someone Hendrik hadn't figured out. He found her to be off-putting and boring since talking to her was like talking to a stone wall. She seemed to always want to play the outside observer, staring and being present, but not necessarily contributing. Considering she was a water mage, Hendrik thought she would have learned to loosen up by now.

Raj was also quiet, but at least he was able to talk. Hendrik learned that he usually wasn't the one to initiate a conversation, but when spoken to, he was easy to talk to. Although, Hendrik didn't really talk to him much aside from the time that he asked Raj questions about the extents of his magic.

But this was all old news. Now they were moving, finally getting out of this hideout and crawling back into the wilderness. Bo ironed out an idea of where to go based out of Dinny and Jordan's descriptions, and then they were off.

The next few days hadn't been so bad. Their group was big and naturally divided into different groups. Hendrik mostly invited himself to whatever clique Bo and/or Mel was in. There were only a select few times when Hendrik would purposefully travel alongside others.

One instead of this was with Dinny. She was a funny-looking green creature, after all. Now that the shock of Mal and Rudy being captured had wore off, how could he not stare and wonder what the hell she was?

So he asked her a lot of questions. Maybe too many, since others have suggested he lay off or be more sensitive. But Dinny didn't seem to mind. She seemed happy to answer all questions, including why she was green, how long were were her teeth, if she could hear better with bigger ears, if she had night vision, and so on. It was odd, but interesting to say the least. At least she wasn't unsettling like Robin was at times.

Jordan was someone Hendrik didn't have too much of an opinion of. He was often talkative and relaxed, but they didn't seem to have much in common. In Hendrik's eyes, he was a goofy and ambitious kid with a good heart. This especially came up whenever Finn was around. Jordan had a knack with working with kids.

Speaking of Finn, that kid would not leave Hendrik alone. He was cute and all, but this situation was serious. Mal and Rudy were in danger. They weren't hanging around in the mines anymore. But something about Hendrik seemed to fascinate Finn. Maybe it was because he was the most familiar. Hendrik didn't know. He just found it annoying when the kid got in his way, namely when he was trying to have conversations with Bo and Mel about what to do next. Whenever he was with his animals, he didn't mind when the kid plopped next to him and asked him a million questions.

One night while Hendrik was sharpening his knife next to Bongo, Finn asked if he could play with it. Hendrik smirked and let him hold it, but Jordan then came out of nowhere and scooped the kid up. After that, Jordan watched Finn more closely, which Hendrik didn't have a problem with.

The animals required a lot of maintenance, but Hendrik was diligent and devoted to their care. Bongo, Higgins, and Sleepy were the most obedient, but these other animals were more on the wild side. Birdbrain was still as dumb as rocks, but Clan came dangerously close to being kicked when she tried to get too close, and that was when Hendrik learned that griffins were very territorial. The boars often squealed and were the most skittish, especially since they were traveling in a pack now. But over the course of the three days, Hendrik became better and better at training them to be more quiet and obedient.

It was the beginning of the third day, now. Hendrik was getting antsy to see someone in his circle (other than the kid, of course). The animals were starting to get weary of fast-paced and heavy traveling, especially since they were carrying more supplies than usual so they could last the whole trip.

Then finally, finally --

"We're close!" Dinny exclaimed, pointing ahead.

Hendrik could hear a waterfall in the distance. He quickened his steps, beckoning for the animals to quickly follow behind as they all walked faster towards the area. Dinny led them to an open clearing, and it was obvious that something went down. Judging from footprints alone, there appeared to be lots of foot traffic coming in and out of the area, including horses. In the clearing, random items were strewn around. A crusty blanket, frayed ends of rope, uneaten food. But what caught Hendrik's attention the most was dried blood pooled in the middle, to which Dinny explained that that was where Mal and Rudy were beat up.

It took everything in Hendrik to not explode and not punch a tree. Oh, he was going to find her. He was going to find Tula and beat the ever living shit out of her.

"Over here!" Jordan called, picking up the blanket. "This was Rudy's. It probably still has his scent."

"Can you sniff them out, Robin?" Bo asked, but Robin already snatched it out of Jordan's hands and got to work.

They were moving on. This was progress. It was hard to believe since they still couldn't find Mal and Rudy, but it was progress nonetheless.

Hendrik was determined to find them.
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Sun Oct 23, 2022 4:47 am
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soundofmind says...

The day was long.

It was the 19th of Sael. Summer was at its peak, and the air was warm and humid. Sweat made his clothes stick to his skin, and even the shade of the trees couldn't provide sufficient respite from the heat. His pack was glued to his back, and the sound of different types of buzzing and singing bugs overlapped, creating a constant hum of white noise.

He didn't let himself stop moving. If he slowed down, he feared that someone would catch up to him. Not only would they try to talk him out of it, but he would have to face them after what he did.

That was the thing about all of his goodbyes. They'd always been final. He couldn't recall a time he'd ever run into anyone again. Not his family. Not Carter. Not anyone in his travels.

When it was over, it was over.

And yet his mind was torn in two, moving backward and forwards all at once.

Seared in the front of his mind was the image of Mal and Rudy suffering at Tula's hand because of him. Yet in the back, there was Eve. Elliot. Everyone he left behind.

He focused on his feet. He looked at his compass. He drank water and slowed just enough to scarf down food to fuel him for the rest of the day. Eventually, the images in his mind reduced themselves to noise, blending in with the hum of the insects as the sun began to set and James finally allowed himself to come to a full stop.

When he permitted himself to lie down, he could feel the aches in his body catch up to him. Pulsing pain radiated up his ankles to his knees, and his lower back felt like it was twisted in knots. Stress had created tension in his neck and shoulders, and it was starting to pull on his head, wrapping it in a headache.

And the moment he let his head hit the ground, anxiety began to stir in his gut.

He still hadn't heard from Tula since the visual ransom note.

He looked off into the forest, watching as the setting sun cast everything in shadow, swallowed up in darkness under the forest's full trees.

"Congratulations," he said emptily, feeling like his heart had sunk like a cavity into his chest. Tula was neither watching nor listening, but he wished she would, just this once when he wanted her to.

"You've won."

He turned to stare up at the sky, and he felt the eyes of everything but Tula on him. Whatever creatures lay in the darkness knew he was there, alone. The grass felt the presence of his body. The trees knew his shadow. Something was always lying in wait for him, wasn't it?

He was tired of feeling defeated. He was tired of trying to spin things to make them sound less tragic.

For once, he decided to accept that his life was a tragedy and just take it. But he'd take it with spite and with poison in his teeth, making it suffer as much as he could before it was finally done with him.

So long as he knew the others were safe.

Gods he wished he could know they were safe. As safe as they could be in the wilds.

He closed his eyes, trying to let the buzzing bugs drown out his thoughts once more. And then he felt it.

Tula was watching him.

He opened his eyes.

"I'm coming," he said lowly, staring up at the sky.

There was a beat of silence. He could still feel her presence.

"Alone," he added. "It will take me about a week to reach you."

He refrained from revealing his specific location for the safety of Eve and the others. That was all Tula needed to know.

"But I come on one condition: that Malkiel and Rudy are released and not followed the moment I get there."

He knew he was in no position to bargain, but he decided to make his intentions known. And he left it at that. Falling into silence, he could sense Tula's curiosity lingering as she peered through his eyes, but when it became clear that he was done and would say no more, she eventually pulled away, and he let out a deep sigh. For a moment, he expected Tula to follow up the silence with a message of some kind, but instead, he was left with silence.

Hopefully, that meant he'd appeased her enough to keep Mal and Rudy alive, but there was nothing he could do until he got there. Whatever Tula decided to do to them in the meantime was out of his control.

But she decided to show him.

Every day.

That morning he was stopped in his tracks when Tula took over his vision with hers.

She was holding Mal's hair in a tight fist above his head. His hair was long and curly - messy and unkempt from all of the beatings - but now it was knotted in Tula's fingers. She yanked on his head, and with his hands and ankles bound and his body tied to a tree, he couldn't do anything but squirm as she brought a knife to his hair and began to chop it off.

Chunk by chunk, she chopped away his hair until it was reduced to a sloppy near-shave. She hadn't bothered to be careful, and there were a few small nicks in his scalp, bleeding down his neck. Mal's mouth was gagged, but he groaned and shot Tula a piercing glare.

Deidra came into view and dumped a bucket of water over his head. The blood and water mixed together, and Mal sputtered at the water splashed into his eyes and made the gag in his mouth soggy.

Tula's view turned to Rudy, who, after witnessing what happened to Mal, stayed still.

His hair was shorter, but Tula gave him the same treatment. With the sharp blade she removed all of his hair until he was left mostly bald, with his eyes downcast. Instead of glaring at Tula, he set his seething anger on the ground.

James saw Tula spin the knife around in her hand.

"There. Now you look much more presentable," she teased.

And then the vision vanished.

James had come to a stop on his knees, waiting for it to pass. He knew that this was only the beginning for them. Tula had begun with humiliation, but he'd seen how she'd treated them two nights before when she was trying to get information.

Guilt anchored in his gut like a weight, and he closed his eyes, pinching his brows together tightly.

Just a little longer, he told himself. I'm so sorry.

With newfound determination, he got back to his feet and picked up his pace.

He had to get there as soon as possible. Before Tula killed them.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Sun Oct 23, 2022 4:48 am
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soundofmind says...

Travel was gruelling, but he didn't care. James didn't give himself any breaks unless he knew he couldn't go on if he didn't. When his body objected to movement, all he had to do was remember Malkiel and Rudy, and it was enough to push him forward. And whether Tula knew it or not, she was fuelling his desire to keep going. To get there before it was too late.

The next day her vision caused his feet to stumble. He tripped but caught himself as he was forced to see through her eyes.

Tula was looking at Malkiel and Rudy, and though they'd already looked roughed up before, they looked even worse off. Malkiel's whole face was black and blue - swollen to the point that it almost didn't look like him at first. Rudy's skin was pasty white, and sweat was formed in beads on his brow. He looked unwell. Sick. Bruises and scraped were visible on their arms, legs, and any exposed skin. They were still tied with their backs to the tree, seemingly unmoved from the day prior.

"I'll ask again, boys," Tula said, twirling the same knife she held yesterday. "Where is James?"

There was a long hesitation, like they were trying to muster the strength to talk.

"Even if I did know," Malkiel growled, glaring at her, "I would never tell you."

Tula let out a long, dramatic sigh, clicking her tongue. "It's a shame. We all know you've been travelling with him. But don't worry, darling. I have days to play along. Days to get it out of you."

She then held the knife still in her hand, but the vision ended before she could proceed with her threat.

James pushed himself to his feet. It occured to him that he was playing right into Tula's hands. She'd been setting up this trap for two weeks. She was being deliberate, fuelling him to hurry up. Neither of them were stupid. James was just desparate.

The thing that James was glad Tula didn't understand was that he'd have come if she'd captured anyone, regardless if they knew him or not.

No one deserved that kind of suffering. No one deserved to be used as bait.

He kept walking, wiping his forehead as sweat accumulated under the beating sun. He was passing through an area with less trees and more overgrown ground-cover. Shade was getting hard to come by, and he could feel the sun burning his skin.

If he'd have taken the longer way around, he'd have gotten to travel by more bodies of water. As it was, he was stretching his supply - but he knew he had to make it long enough to get to Tula - so he wasn't being as reckless as he might've been if there weren't lives on the line.

That said, he couldn't change the fact that he was hardly sleeping.

That night he laid down, but he drifted in and out of consciousness every few minutes. The smallest noise brought him back to full alertness, and he kept questioning if Tula was watching or if that was just paranoia. It was getting harder to tell. Sometimes he'd think he was seeing things, but it turned out not to be a vision from Tula at all. It was just... lack of sleep.

That was all it was.

That morning he saw Eve, but only for a moment. It was in the corner of his eyes, but when he turned, she was gone. Later that day he thought he saw Tula, but it ended up only being a tree, casting an odd shadow. He knew he was getting jumpy. The smallest thing would make him flinch, and he knew that there were moments while walking when he dozed off for a few seconds, even while moving. He'd always come back with a start.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Sun Oct 23, 2022 4:49 am
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soundofmind says...

It was the 22nd of Sael.

Later that evening, a scene played out in front of him.

Tula was watching this time. Watching, just so he could see.

Rita was squatting in front of Rudy, at eye level. His head hung loosely to the side, and though he wasn't moving, it was clear he was awake.

"Look at me," Rita said too sweetly, reaching out to touch Rudy's cheek, forcefully lifting his head to look at her. "All of this will stop if you just tell us where he is. You don't have to go through all of this."

Rudy looked down, brows knit tightly together.

James had a feeling in his gut that if they did know where he was that this would be the moment Rudy would break. But they didn't. They didn't know anything.

"I don't know how--" was all Rudy got through before Rita punched him in the gut, right underneath the ribs. Rudy's breath caught in his throat for a moment before it came out in a high-pitched wheeze.

"That's still not an answer," Rita said lowly. "Want to try that again?"

Rudy shook his head, but all that earned him was another punch in the gut. He groaned.

"You know, if you don't answer," Rita said. "It'll be Malkiel's turn. You wouldn't do that to your friend, would you?"

Rudy's eyes began to water, but James knew he didn't have any answers to offer. Rita punched him again, and as she pulled away, she got to her feet, stalking over to Malkiel. When she stopped in front of him, James could recognize the look in her eyes as she sized Malkiel up, like she was deciding what to do next to make him break.

"This next one's from Rudy," she said.

But James didn't get to see what followed. His stomach ached from watching Rudy's gut get pummeled. He knew exactly how it felt, and he had to pause, rubbing at his eyes to try and push back his own memories tempting to resurface.

This wasn't about him. This was about Malkiel and Rudy.

He just wished he could spare them from more pain. But he couldn't do anything. Nothing but move faster - as fast as his legs would carry him.

The next day he pushed himself even harder. The hours melted together in the heat of the day, and the only thing that reminded him of what time it was was the position of the sun in the sky. It was a little past noonday when Tula decided to show him more.

Malkiel and Rudy were spaced a good distance apart. They sat tied at the foot of a wide tree. The trunk was thick and broad, so the two of them were able to face the same general direction without being in reach of each other. Not that either of them would be able to reach the other with all of their limbs tied down.

This time, James was watching them from a small distance. Tula sat beside Alexander, who had a whole belt full of throwing knives. She looked over at him, and he smirked in a manner far too light and playful for what James had already realized he was about to do.

With a graceful motion of his arm, Alex threw a knife into the tree. Tula's eyes darted to follow, watching as it landed square between Malkiel and Rudy's heads.

"Awh," Alex said in mocking disappointment. "Missed."

"Try again," Tula encouraged him.

She kept her eyes on the tree as Alex threw another, and another. Each one got a little closer to Malkiel or Rudy, and even from the distance, James could see them flinch as the flying knives inched closer.

"Okay, last try," Alexander said.

A knife came hurtling through the air. With a thunk, it hit what looked to be the tree, but also was dangerously close to Rudy's shoulder. Rudy let out a cry of pain.

"Nice shot," Tula congratulated him.

"I hope you're hungry!" Alexander shouted at Rudy. "Because that's all the food you'll get!"

James flinched, shaking his head as his vison cleared once more. So they were starving them too, on top of the torture.

He stared up at the sun, slowly closing his eyes as he tried to ground himself. The air was thick and humid. He'd been drenched in an unavoidable stick for days, now, and he was getting low on rations. He only had enough in his pack for a few days - the rest had been on Elliot, or in others' packs. Soon, he'd be joining Malkiel and Rudy in their starvation.

But he needed to preserve as much strength as he could to make it there.

He pushed through the rest of the day on an empty stomach, but when he came to a stop for the night, he ate what he knew would be his second-to-last meal. When morning came, he savored the bland, dried food as much as he could, and then pressed on.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Sun Oct 23, 2022 4:51 am
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soundofmind says...

It was the 24th of Sael.

It was morning. Tula sent him a message early that day.

She was standing in front of Mal and Rudy. The sun had just begun to rise, and their faces were gaunt, cast in angular shadows. The sun pushed through the trees with a vibrant, warm, light, but it fell on Mal and Rudy's faces with overwhelming strength. Both of them squinted with their eyes cast downward, sunken in from exhaustion and malnourishment.

Tula then crouched down and held out a steamy bowl of hearty soup. "Hungry?" she asked with feigned innocence, reveling in their recognition of food. Before they could even react, she dumped remnants of the bowl on top of their heads, the soup sloshing down their face and clothes. Both Malkiel and Rudy seemed unbothered and more desperate to catch whatever bits of food sliding down into their mouths.

But Tula had another bowl, to which she placed in between them, knowing that neither of them could reach it. Instead of focusing on their reactions, she was staring intently at the bowl.

It was a bowl of dried pork, leftover from the pig feast.

James took in a deep breath. As he opened his eyes, it felt like it took too long for his vision to refocus. Even when it did, it felt like he was looking at two places at once. The clearing where Tula and Rita's crew were camped, and the grassy, overgrown forest floor in front of him. Getting to his feet, he shook his head, trying to ingore the flashes of spotty images dancing across his vision.

Eve, at his side, still asleep on the ground. A fire pit, dug out, but long since burned out. Elliot's shadow. A tent, and the silhouette of someone inside. A puddle of blood. A pig on a stake.

He started forward with quick footsteps, letting momentum carry him forward, hoping to leave the thoughts behind even though they always stayed. They were always somewhere, stuck in the crevices of his mind.

They didn't go away. They came back again but in voices.

"When the going gets tough..."

James whipped his head around, eyes widening at the sound of Elias's voice. It felt loud and clear as if he was behind him. But when he turned around, he saw no one. There was an empty forest, and no one could be seen in the clear light of day.

He shook his head again and kept walking forward. Checked his compass again. And again. Lights and colors danced across his vision.

I'm watching you, in red letters, kept coming back like a recurring vision, only a second long. Tula's laughter always followed.

That night, he would've said he slept restlessly, except that he didn't sleep at all. He tossed, and he turned. The groaning of his stomach and the pain in his body would've been enough to keep him awake, but what he couldn't get to shut up was his mind.

Would Malkiel and Rudy ever forgive him?

They weren't even close. Malkiel never even liked him. Rudy never asked for any of this. James hadn't even meant to bring them to Nye.

It was all his fault. He didn't mean to bring Tula. He didn't mean to bring Deidra.

He'd messed up, and there was no way to undo what had been done.

Someone had to pay.

It was the 25th of Sael.

When he got up that morning, it was to the sound of Eve's voice.

"James! Where are you?"

Her voice was distant, and he couldn't tell if what he heard was real. It was too convincing of a trick of his mind, but he was finding he couldn't trust his mind either. He twitched, trying to clear his head, but nothing followed.

Something inside of him panicked. Adrenaline shot through him, and without thinking, he found himself running. He didn't know if Eve was there, looking for him. How would she even know where to go? He was too careful to cover his tracks. She wasn't that good at tracking - not on Nye. Not out in the wilds, where she'd never been before. There was no logical reason for her to be out here, and yet, if she was - why was he running?

He didn't know. His legs wouldn't stop carrying him away, like mindless extensions of his pounding heart. He knew he wasn't in danger, but this felt like something worse.

If Eve was out there, how could he ever face her again?

He'd done everything he said he wouldn't. Broken every promise. She had no reason to believe in him anymore. He'd proven himself to be what he'd always feared he was: a coward. A deserter. And if she hated him after this, she'd be well within her rights to. And if she fell apart because of him - well, that would be his fault too, wouldn't it?

He'd broken her trust. He'd broken everyone's trust. And it was just like him, too - to leave and not give anyone a chance to say goodbye. To not give anyone else a say in what he did.

Selfish. Cruel. Self-sacrificing only to right a wrong. Only to cover his own mistakes. Nothing like his father.

He had to stop that evening when his ankle gave out on him. Kneeling at the foot of a tree, he painfully forced himself to stretch it out, feeling all of the stress-created tension pull against each movement, like a catapult, winding up.

"Please hurry," he heard Rudy say.

"We're dying," Malkiel's voice followed.

James paused, head darting up to search for the source of the voices.

No. No. They weren't there. He wasn't there yet. He was still too far out. He kept stretching.

Still, he saw the shadow of Butch fall over him. Giant boots stood beside him, lingering in his peripheral vision. He knew it couldn't be real. Nothing he was seeing was ever real. It was just his imagination. His head was playing tricks on him like it always did. It was Tula. It was sleep deprivation. It wasn't real. It was a dream.

He was sitting on the ground, bent over, holding one foot. He switched to the other.

"You wouldn't leave me, would you? Not again."

That voice cut through the air, crisp and clean. Eve.

This time, he was too afraid to turn around.

"I'm sorry," he said, not knowing if he was speaking to a person or a vision. He could feel his throat begin to knot up, but as the silence dragged on, he began to realize she wasn't there. Somehow he was simultaneously relieved and dissapointed. He let go of his foot and looked around, feeling his eyes start to sting.

Again. No one was there. It was just him.

He swallowed down the knot, sniffing roughly as he shook his head again.

He was hearing things. Fine. He was always hearing things. Always--

Malkiel. Butch was holding him down, his giant hand gripping his skull as he covered his face with a towel. Tula had a bucket.

James knew what was happening. He wished he could close his eyes. He wished he could look away.

She began to pour the water. It was painful to hear Malkiel gurgle and gasp for air.

"If you'd only give us information," Tula sing-songed. "You wouldn't have to--"

James held his head in his hands, grinding his fingers into his scalp. He couldn't hear his own voice as he screamed.

"Get out of my head!" He felt his voice fray, even if he couldn't hear it. "Get out!"

The vision got fuzzy, and the noises more muted.

"Stop!" he shouted even louder. Tears sprung to his eyes as he pinched his eyes shut, doing everything he could to get the image out of his brain. "Go away! Leave them alone! Just--"

He could still hear Malkiel's gasps for breath. James began to weep. Curled over on the ground, hands wrung around his head, he let out a guttural scream, and it was then that his own voice cut through, louder than he'd ever heard himself before. It scared him, and he gasped as he opened his eyes and realized... it worked.

The vision ended.

Tears were streaming down his face, but he could see. He could see normally. He was looking through his eyes, not Tula's.

He started to laugh. Relief flooded through him, even though he knew that Malkiel and Rudy were being tortured. He shakily uncurled his fingers and let go of his head, pushing himself back up to a sitting position. Wiping his eyes, he muttered to himself.

"So that was all it took, huh," he said, his voice warbled. "I just had to scream it away. The whole time it was within my power to stop it. Who'd have thought."

Another laugh escaped him as he got to his feet, this one more delirious. His legs felt like loose strings beneath him, barely holding up his own weight. Still, he stood upright and continued onward again, this time with heavy footfalls.

Strangely, no animals seemed to come out to see what was passing. He decided not to think anything of it.

When night came, he knew he was close. If they were still by the lake, he could only have been a few hours away. He was antsy and eager to get there sooner, tired of the delay, but he could feel it in his frame that if he didn't lie down at least for a little bit that he'd collapse if he pushed himself any further.

When he did let himself lie perpendicular to the ground, sleep seemed to come to him quickly for the first time in days. Perhaps it was because of his small victory, finally taking some control back over the situation. But it didn't feel like much of a victory when his sleep was hijacked again, this time by a wakeful dream.

At first, he thought it was Tula. But this felt different.

    He was looking through Eve's eyes. Before anything happened, he knew what he was seeing.

    She'd gone back in time. She had to have gone back. He was seeing a dream of a memory undone, one that should've only belonged to Eve. It was a week ago. The morning after he left.

    She woke up alone. He felt all of her emotions. The building dread, the small spark of hope. Worry that something terrible had happened. The slow and steady rumble of anxiety until it spiked when she read his note.

    Her eyes darted over the note over and over again.

    She couldn't believe it. She didn't want to. She was in shock. Her heart hurt like a knife had been twisted inside of it. There was a rush of anger and sadness mingled together - a cold, empty rage. A quiet, aching grief.

    She was pushing it all down like she used to. She was pulling it all into herself, compounded, and pushed together until she couldn't feel it anymore.

    She was calm. Determined.

    He couldn't quite hear her thoughts. But it was like he understood.

    She didn't accept this. She was in denial. She was going to do everything in her power to fix it.

    Her movements turned erratic, and she began to pack things away. Mel was trying to snap her out of it, but Eve was gone. She had already made her decision.

    The others kept asking questions. She kept giving dismissive, vague answers - none of which were helpful. All it did was add to everyone's collective rising panic. She was packing as if she was preparing to go alone, but everyone was watching.

    Finally, Mel snatched Elliot's reins from Eve's hands, insisting that she wasn't leaving alone.

    "I'm sorry," Eve said, her voice a cool, collected calm. "But I have to leave."

James woke up with a tightness in his chest. He couldn't seem to breathe, and his heart ached with a deep, radiating pain. He rolled onto his side with a groan, hands grasping at his chest as if any kind of pressure or stretching would help - but it didn't go away. All he could feel was the weight of guilt growing heavier along with the intensifying anxiety of what was to come.

He was so close. It should've been good news. Malkiel and Rudy would finally be free from their suffering, but it would be the mere beginning of his.

He was doing this to himself, really. He didn't have a choice. No, he did have a choice. He was choosing this. He wanted this. It was his fault anyway. He was the one who decided to go off alone. He couldn't blame it on anyone else. It was his decision to leave, to cave under the pressure. He should've leaned more on everyone around him. They wanted to be there as a support and he was too prideful to accept the help. He was too ashamed to say he was scared, to look like a fool, or look like he was falling apart. Too ashamed to look incompetent. Too cowardly to tell everyone he loved them before he left, too cowardly to think of any other way out - because it always had to be him.

He couldn't let anyone else bear the weight. But now, it was almost unbearable.

He heaved as he tried to catch his breath, but the air arround him was suffocating. It was like he was underwater, unable to get up for air. He trembled as he grasped at the ground, at the grass, at anything, searching for a way to get it under control.

Eve would never forgive him. She'd never trust him again.

But did it matter? He'd never see her again. He'd never make it out of this alive.

Sorry wasn't enough. Sorry was never enough. It hadn't been enough for Larrel. Hadn't been enough for Carter. Hadn't been enough for Amy, or Leo, or Brett, Adina, Ari, Rosaleen, Bella, Hoss, Elias, Alistair, Elise, Mel, Elliot, Eve.

A hand touched his shoulder. He didn't move. Instead, he froze.

"Didn't think I'd find you like this," Rita said, her voice smooth, but far from comforting. "What happened to the man I once knew? Did the weight of the world finally get to you?"

A hand began to stroke his hair. He skin crawled at the touch.

"You made it," Tula said in a hushed voice, like she was speaking close to his ear. "I'm so delighted you're here."

James's lungs were burning. He crawled out onto the ground, trying to escape their phantom touch, too afraid to consider the thought of it being real. No. None of this was real. Was his dream of Eve even real, or had he just imagined it? He didn't know. He didn't know anymore.

He scrambled to his feet. He didn't know how long he'd been asleep, but it was long enough. Staggering to his feet, he abandoned his pack. He knew he wouldn't need it. It would get confiscated or looted the moment they found him - no, the moment he surrendered himselves to them.

It didn't matter.

He reached into his pockets. There wasn't much there. He wouldn't need anything, would he? No. No, he wouldn't. Nothing but his compass to make sure he got there.

He threw his dagger onto the ground. Every hidden weapon. Knives. Money. Why had he taken it in the first place? Why had he taken anything in the first place? He abandoned his coat. His canteen. Everything. Everything until he was left with only the clothes on his back. His shoes. The compass.

He stared at the compass, watching as the arrow steadied itself, pointing north.

Funny, he thought, that on both worlds, the compass always pointed north. But what if his compass was broken?

He tapped it. Hard. The arrow stayed the same. He squinted at it in the dark, and then he shook it, and shook it more, trying to see if the arrow would change, but it kept pointing back to north.

"If you've been leading me the wrong way this whole time," he threatened, his voice shaking. "I swear if-- if you lied to me--"

Tula was staring at Rita, who was looking at Malkiel and Rudy. They were being unbound. James stared.

"Rope them up," Rita ordered.

In horror, James watched as Rita's men began to tie ropes around Malkiel and Rudy's feet. They were both too weak to resist. Limply, their bodies were hoisted up into the tree. Butch strung the ropes on one of the high branches, pulling until both of them hung upside-down, hands and legs bound. Blood immediately began rushing to their heads.

Rita walked over as Butch tied the ropes taut.

"Does this help jog your memory?" Rita asked, lightly kicking Malkiel's head. He swayed from side to side, grunting in pain. Rita leaned down, steadying him as she pulled his face close to hers.

"If you don't have answers by morning, I'm not sure if you'll be of much use to me," she whispered, and James could sense Tula leaning in, straining to hear.

"Because so far, all you've been is a useless body, not even good for looking at. You better hope your James comes for you soon, or I'm going to do what I wanted to do with you at first, and rid the world of your pointless existence. Which is a shame, because your magic could be put to good use, but I can tell even if I offered you the world, you'd spit in my face, wouldn't you? Because you're just too good for that. Well--"

She pulled out a small syringe. James knew immediately that it was lumshade. They'd been drugging him, likely just enough to keep him from being able to use his magic.

Rita stuck the needle in Malkiel's arm. He whimpered.

"Take a night to think on it," she said. "Let me know if you change your mind about not knowing anything. Or if you miraculously have a counter-offer I just can't refuse."

James swayed, barely catching himself as he adjusted his feet to keep his balance.

I have to hurry. I have to hurry. It wasn't up to Tula anymore. Rita had their lives on a clock, and if James didn't act faster than it, he was going to be too late.

Was he already too late?

James jumped. The sound of a cracking branch made him jolt forward, but he couldn't place where it came from, or if it was even there. He began running in the dark, in the middle of the night. His feet went numb from the pounding, and sweat drenched his back, eventually drenching every inch of him. At some point, he dropped the compass, but he didn't stop to pick it up. He knew what direction he was going.

He knew this forest. He'd been here before. He'd gone this way, years ago, when he was younger, stronger, more sane. Before he'd ever been to another world. Back when life was so simple, and he thought Eve was a passing dream. Back when all he had to worry about were bounty hunters, and not people with magical powers scheming to destroy everything and everyone he ever loved.

He didn't know how long he ran. Eventually his speed slowed, and his run turned to a jog, and his jog turned to a walk. Then a stagger. Then a stumble. His legs were begging for him to stop, but he didn't give them the satisfaction.

The sun was rising.

It was the 27th of Sael.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

His breaths were labored, but he kept dragging his feet through the earth. He leaned on every tree he passed as they started growing thicker. That was how he knew he was getting closer. The trees always got thicker around the lake before they thinned out nearer to the shore. He just need to find what side of the lake they were on. He didn't know if he'd find them or the water first.

But then he heard the distant sound of voices.

He swung his head to the side, trying to decipher - was this real? Was it imagined? The voices were faint. Distant. But if he was hearing them, they had to be close. Closer than he thought.

He took slow, heavy steps in that direction.

He couldn't make out words. Just enough to know it was people, talking. It was the cadence of speech. Maybe it was goblins. Maybe it was other campers out here. Other travelers.

Then he heard dogs.

A bark. Another bark.

He drew closer, his heart pounding.

The barking increased. Three different dogs, their barks overlapping. They got louder. More insistent. But he didn't hear their feet coming towards him.

They were chained up. Had to be.

Then the dogs let out a chilling, familiar chorus of howls.

So he'd found them.

Butch. Tula. Rita. Pitch.

His heart was racing. He could hear Butch's voice - he recognized his voice - shouting at the dogs to shut up. Their barks were eerily silenced, and suddenly, James realized this was it.

His last moment of freedom.

No, it was too late for that. He was too close to be free. Too close to escape. There was no more freedom.

It was over.

Gulping, he stopped and squared his shoulders. Through the trees he could see the area had begun to clear. He could smell the damp earth - lake water on the air, making the humid summer air smell of fish and sulfurous wetlands. The trees were a lush dark green, full, and leafy. The sky was clear and cloudless, and the sun was just as harsh as each day before.

The dogs had announced his arrival. He supposed it didn't matter much. They knew he was here. He had their attention.

The world around him took on a different hue as he stepped forward. Everything seemed too bright and too loud. The trees pulled away from him like soldiers abandoning the fight, leaving him alone on the front lines to fend for himself.

He stepped out into a clearing filled with tents. Even the buzzing crickets went quiet.

There was a dead fire pit. Horses. People populating the area, sitting outside. Eating breakfast. Paused mid-movement.

Butch stood by a tree, next to three dogs. Two trees away, Malkiel and Rudy hung, faces blue and red, and vomit stained the ground beneath them.

Rita stood outside of a tent, staring at him. She locked eyes with him, and he watched as she flicked her eyes over to Tula, who was beside her. They both exchanged wicked smiles, but Rita's was more focused. Sinister.

James's feet were stuck to the ground as Rita began to close the gap between them. She didn't hurry, nor did she waste time. She walked at a normal pace like it was a normal day, and she stopped a mere two feet in front of him, looking him up and down.

He watched as words worked their way to her mouth.

"Let them go," he said lowly, catching her before she could say anything.

With a subtle smirk, she raised her brows, and with a quick wave of her hand, four of her goons left their soup bowls and hurried over to Malkiel and Rudy, where they started to untie their feet.

"I assume you have something to offer me in exchange for their freedom?" Rita asked with a tilt of her head, looking him up and down once more.

He felt faint. He forced himself to stand tall, and he met Rita's eyes. But no matter how much he tried, he couldn't seem to muster up any sort of confidence or mask for the moment.

Painfully transparent and aware of it, he clenched his jaw and took in a deep breath before answering.

"Me," he said.

Smiling, Rita reached out and rested her hand on the side of his face, brushing her thumb over his cheek. He knew she was brushing over a scar. A new one, since she'd seen him.

He wished he could make his body move, but everything was frozen and locked in place.

He looked over to Malkiel and Rudy, watching as they were gently guided to the ground. Both of them let out pained groans as they were laid flat, and the goons loosed them from their bonds, untying their hands and feet.

Rita pulled in closer, and James's eyes shot back to her. A spike of panic finally broke his body from frozen fear and he stumbled back, but instead of getting away, Rita reached forward with her arm, steadying him. She pulled him into a near-embrace.

"You smell like shit," she said, drawing away with a scrunch of her nose. "But we'll clean you up."

She rested a hand on his shoulder and locked eyes with him once more, this time revealing an expression gravely serious. She leaned in without flinching, setting her mouth against his ear.

"I'm the only one holding the others back," she whispered. "And if you resist... I'll loosen their leash."

She squeezed his shoulder, and he tensed.

"Who do you fear most, Tiberius? Is it the butcher? The owl? My men? Or is it Tula, the one who did everything she could to find you?"

She pulled away but left her face a few inches from his so she could meet his eyes again.

"Be good," she whispered. "Or you'll force me to find out."

Rita's men had finished setting Malkiel and Rudy free, but they continued to lay on the ground, unable to find the strength to run away much less move. They were both staring at James, and Malkiel let out a loud pained groan of recognition. It was hard to tell what he wanted to say. Maybe to tell James not to do this, or maybe to spit back in Tula's face, who was standing nearby with her arms crossed, her eyes on James the entire time, a pleased smirk not leaving her face.

Anger sparked inside of him as he watched Malkiel and Rudy, still writhing in pain. His eyes turned back to Rita, this time with a reignited flame. A weary rage, but still a real one.

Rita's mouth upturned into an amused grin, but it didn't reach her eyes.

"Tula," Rita called out. "Do you believe Tiberius's friends are deserving of just retribution?"

Tula tilted her head, her smirk growing. "We could have found Tiberius much faster if they had confessed," she said as an indirect no.

Rita hummed.

"Today I'm in the mood to be merciful," she said, not having torn her eyes away from James the whole time, despite having brought Tula into the conversation. "Tiberius--" she started, but then she narrowed her eyes like she was trying to discern James's thoughts.

"James," she corrected, saying the name carefully as she watched James closely for a reaction.

He didn't know what he'd expected. He'd grown used to his friends calling him by his true name, and in that way, he'd grown used to hearing it. But to hear it coming from Rita's mouth felt surreal. Tula must've told her his name was James, or that it was the name he was going by, but Rita somehow seemed to have caught on that it might not just be an alias based on the subtle smirk on her face.

James didn't respond.

"Don't you think your friends have suffered enough?" Rita asked.

James didn't know what answer she was expecting. He knew no matter his response, she was likely to do whatever she'd already set in her mind to do anyway, but something about how she phrased it made his eyes flick to Tula.

Did Rita know? Magic like Tula's wasn't common - or even before heard of - on Nye. At least, not to James.

"Does that mean we have a deal?" he asked instead. "Me, in exchange for their freedom."

"I do like that arrangement," Rita said, brushing her fingers down James's arm. His lip twitched in contempt and he pulled away.

Malkiel groaned once more, trying to form words, but it was unintelligible. His fingers dug into the earth, shaking as he tried to get up, but failed.

"Your friends need time to recover before they can leave this place," Rita said. "And my men need time to pack before our journey."

Her eyes flitted off to the side like she was searching the crowd for someone in particular.

"Butch," she called out. He walked up silently with heavy footfalls, coming up behind her like an oversized shadow.

"I think Malkiel and Rudy deserve a reward for their endurance," she said, looking up to Butch to meet his eyes. "They would not have suffered so greatly were it not for James. It's only right that they get to witness justice. Balance. Not just a life for a life, but suffering for suffering. It wouldn't be right to let them free thinking that James was going to be left unscathed, don't you think?"

Butch was watching Rita closely with a severe expression, but after a second, it seemed he understood. A sickening smile pulled on the corners of his mouth, making his chin jut out.

"A beating?" he asked with the hopeful excitement of a child. James shivered.

"Just spare his face," Rita said, turning to James with a small wink.

James's fingers curled into tight fists at his sides. Rita walked away and started motioning to the other men, leaving Butch behind, towering over him.

His first instinct was to run. To run like his life depended on it - but he couldn't. This time he had to stay - like Malkiel and Rudy's lives depended on it.

Yet he couldn't help his instinctual step back when Butch approached. This time there were no chains, no cuffs, no ropes holding him here. Rita hadn't even restrained him, and they both knew why: if he fought back, it wouldn't be him who suffered.

At least, not until Malkiel and Rudy were free.

His body threw itself into defense. His arms went up when Butch's came down, but he knew before they even made contact that he had no chance at matching Butch's strength when he could barely stand on two feet.

He hit the ground.

Butch kicked him in the ribs. Somehow, it was a familiar feeling. He didn't know how to feel about it. He wasn't sure he was feeling at all. Every thought in his head merged together in a flood of white noise, and all he could do was curl up, trying to protect his head and his heart.

Blow after blow, James tried to steel himself and take it, but Butch wasn't holding back.

He'd been waiting for this.

"No, don't do this," Malkiel wailed with a quivering voice, slurring his words in one quick breath.

His voice cut through, and James felt his guard fall for a mere second. In that moment, Butch's boot dug into his side, and he let out a cry of pain.

James heard Tula push Malkiel down. He glanced over and saw her effortlessly pressing her foot on his back, forcing him to watch. The entire time, Tula kept her eyes glued on James, still wearing the same smirk from the moment he walked in.

Rudy had been pulled up by his shoulders, his head held in James's direction. He was pinching his eyes shut.

James thought the kicks were going to be the worst of it, but then Butch pulled away. At that moment, James wasn't thinking. His body acted before his brain, and he started to scramble away, but he barely moved before Butch grabbed him, lifting him up off the ground. James flailed for but a second before Butch pushed him face-down into the ground, and then Butch landed on top of him.

With his full weight.

James wasn't sure if he broke a rib, or a few ribs, or every bone in his back. But it didn't matter. Either way, it was blinding, and he couldn't move after Butch got up.

He was entirely winded. He couldn't breathe, and white and black spots started to splatter across his vision while his ears rang loudly. He registered someone pulling him up, but he couldn't hear anything beyond the shrill ring in his ears.

His spotty vision began to come into focus as he was held upright - or, held under Butch's arm. He was staring to the side, half-upside down as a familiar figure came into view.

It was Pitch.

She wasn't wearing her mask. Her dark hair covered half her face, but she looked angry. She pushed Butch with a shove of her arms. Though it didn't move him, it got his attention.

James's head was spinning as the ringing in his ears started to let up.

"He's still wanted alive you imbecile!" Pitch scolded. "I can patch up external wounds but I can't do anything about internal bleeding. I'm not a miracle worker."

She pointed a finger up at Butch's face.

"You will learn restraint," she said lowly, not as a question, not as a request, but like she was demanding it as a reality. "This isn't just your bounty anymore."

"Back off," Butch said in a growl.

"You're done. That's enough," Pitch hissed, lower.

Butch huffed, and then James fell.

He landed on the ground limply with a grunt. He could hear Butch stomp away as Pitch leaned down beside him, looking him over. She grabbed James's shoulders and turned him onto his back.

"Well, he missed your face," she muttered. "Miraculously."

She lifted a hand in front of his eyes, waving it. He knew without her saying so that she was looking for how responsive his eyes were. He tried to track with it as much as he could, but his head was still spinning.

Pitch sighed.

"With the number of concussions you've had in your life it'll be a wonder if you're of any use to the kingdom if it's information they want," she muttered under her breath.

James let out a pained breath, and his ribs ached. Pitch reached down and started patting him down gently, feeling for broken bones.

"Guess you're hardier than you look. Or just damned lucky," Pitch said, still keeping her voice at a quiet volume. He wasn't sure if she was talking more to herself or to him.
"They're bruised. Badly, but not broken," she added, lifting his shirt. Her lips pressed together in a subtle wince, but she commented no further.

James fought to get his breath back.

"So this is only... because I'm worth money, right?" he said thinly.

Pitch didn't look at him. Just reached to her side, pulling something out of her bag.

"Because you wouldn't do it for Mal or Rudy," he said weakly, watching as Pitch screwed off a cap on a bottle and wet a clean rag.

She reached down and brushed the rag over his stomach. Immediately, it stung, and he took in a sharp inhale.

"You think it's personal," Pitch said quietly, looking up.

She seemed distracted as she cleaned his wounds. James couldn't bring himself to turn his head, and he wasn't sure he wanted to look at the others.

"I think you're in over your head," James whispered.

He didn't know Pitch. But he knew that she was not of the same caliber of those she was surrounded by.

Though she'd been relentless in her pursuit to catch him, she'd never gone beyond the necessary means to subdue him, and though the lines were blurred for anyone who hunted bounties, she treated him like more of a person than Butch or Rita or Tula ever did.

Was he bluffing? He didn't know.

He was trying to get in her head.

"You're desperate," she said.

James couldn't deny it.

He hissed again when she started cleaning another wound over his ribs. Clearly, Butch's kicks had broken skin.

"I do pity you, you know," Pitch whispered, hardly moving her mouth as she started drying off the wounds. "If you'd turned yourself in seven years ago, it would've never come to this. You brought this upon yourself, you know. Though I don't know how you managed to."

She pulled down his shirt and then got to her feet, staring down at him.

Her words stung. It was one thing to hear those words in his head, but to hear it out of the mouth of someone else made it hurt all the more.

"Get up," Pitch said, this time speaking loud enough for others to overhear.

James didn't know if he had the strength, but he supposed it didn't matter. She wasn't going to help him.

He couldn't bear to curl his stomach, so he started by rolling onto his side, slowly and carefully getting onto his hands and knees.

Now he was starting to feel it. The week of sleepless nights and endless travel. The last few days of no food, excessive heat, and little water.

His vision went white. Swaying, he caught himself on his elbows and groaned as nausea hit him, threatening to make him throw up nothing.

Above him, Pitch sighed and muttered something he couldn't make out.

She lifted him by the shoulders and pushed him down so he was sitting, legs folded under himself. His vision was still white, but he could hear her shuffle in her bag and he felt when she brought something to his lips.

"Drink," she ordered.

He obeyed and was relieved when it was water. He downed it, and she let him drink until her canteen was emptied. When she pulled it away, he blinked several times, waiting until his vision returned to normal.

Blurred, but normal.

Pitch was kneeling down beside him, watching him closely. He merely sat, trying to collect himself while she studied him intensely, and it felt like they sat in silence for some time.

He noticed that most of the camp was packed up on horses or in wagons by now.

Malkiel and Rudy were sitting, looking worse for wear, but less so than they did before. James only glanced at them for a second because Tula stood behind them, watching him with a piercing stare.

He looked down at the ground.

"How did you find us?" Pitch whispered, careful to hide her mouth behind her hair, making it seem as if no words were spoken.

James kept his eyes on the ground, but he sensed what was happening.

Pitch was intelligent. She knew more was going on than met the eyes. Things weren't adding up.

It didn't mean she'd let him free, but if he could help sow distrust amongst them...

"I had help," James whispered back.

Pitch went silent. Then, she got to her feet and extended him a hand. He took it, and let her pull him to his feet.

"What are you going to do to him? What are you--" Malkiel began as he weakly got to his feet, but was shoved back down by Tula. He groaned.

The rest of the camp stayed busy, tying down supplies and packing things away. But Rita returned, coming up alongside James.

"You're free now, Malkiel," Rita said cooly, setting her hand on James's back as if to hold him in place. "You should be thanking him."

Tula continued to hang around Malkiel and Rudy, even offering him a hand after Rita dismissed him. Malkiel ignored her, gritting his teeth as he again gathered his strength to speak and slowly get up on his feet.

"What are you going to do to him?" Malkiel repeated, ignoring Tula and staring ahead at Rita.

Rita stared at Malkiel, unmoved by his weak show of determination.

"If he's obedient," Rita said. "He will be treated as one of our own until he's turned in."

Malkiel could barely even stand, his legs shaking. He seemed like he wanted to know more, to press on and know the extent of their plan, be he couldn't form the words not because he didn't know how, but because he couldn't.

After the week they both went through, neither of them had the strength or capacity to move much less hold a conversation.

"Mal," James said. "I'll be alright."

Rita nudged him in the back, motioning for James to go to him. He hesitated, looking at Rita with searching eyes to be sure. She pushed his back again, lightly, and tilted her head towards Mal.

James hurried over to him, as fast as he could manage without making his head spin again.

He didn't care that he and Malkiel weren't that close before or that they'd never truly liked each other.

This was the last time he'd see him. This was the last time he'd see anyone who remotely cared about him, and that he cared deeply about.

As he approached Malkiel, he could see Mal's eyes had begun to spring up with tears.

James carefully and gently reached out his arms and pulled Malkiel into an embrace, pulling Mal's head into his shoulder.

He held him close, and turned his mouth to Malkiel's ear, knowing Tula was standing nearby.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered, barely audible. "I'm so sorry I couldn't make it here sooner."

Malkiel weakly grasped for his side, holding on to his shirt as a way to embrace him back. His voice shook when he spoke.

"We'll find you," he whispered back. "We'll find others."

The thought pained him. He fought to keep back tears from his eyes.

"You take care of yourself, now," he said, his voice tight. "Alright? Don't worry about me."

Malkiel didn't respond, his breathing getting simultaneously shallower and heavier. James softly patted his back, not wanting to let go. A part of him wanted to prolong this goodbye as long as he could, but he knew he couldn't prolong the inevitable.

"I'm so sorry," James whispered one last time as he pulled away, holding Mal at arm's length by the shoulders to keep him steady.

"I'm sorry I wasn't nicer," Malkiel said after looking like he had been wrestling with what to say in his head. "We just met again. I don't want to say goodbye."

James pressed his lips together into a sad smile.

"Consider it all forgiven," he said.

"We'll meet again, yeah? We can talk about farms. I don't care. I'll knit you another hat." Desperation grew in his voice as Malkiel tried to come to terms that this may very well be the last time they meet. "Don't forgive me yet, you idiot."

Damnit. James felt his eyes start to sting. He let go of Malkiel.

"Don't do that," he whispered, looking down as he tried to keep the tears at bay, sniffing briefly.

"I dropped my compass to the northeast of here," he whispered. "Not far off. Maybe you'll be able to find it. It could be of use to you."

Malkiel nodded, pressing his lips together into a thin line. "We were with a group before. We lost them, and Finnley. We will try to find them again."

James nodded, and he pulled in closer, whispering as quietly as he could so no one could hear but Mal.

"Go north," he said. "And after you find the compass, go northwest. Hopefully, they're still in that direction."

James didn't need to elaborate who "they" were. Malkiel seemed to understand. He knew there were others. It was just a matter of where they were.

He felt Tula's piercing glare, silently threatening them to cut it off soon, especially since they were talking more privately now. Malkiel seemed to sense it too.

"Goodbye, James," Malkiel whispered, tears stinging his eyes again. He weakly patted his shoulder. "Please take care of yourself as well."

"Goodbye," was all James said, and he forced a weak, sad smile. He turned to look at Rudy, but Rudy was holding his head as he sat on the ground.

He was withdrawing into himself. James knew the feeling. He hoped that with time, Malkiel and Rudy would recover. That they would find the others. That they would heal. It was the only thing he had hope for in the world at the moment because all else seemed to have a certain end for him.

He turned around and walked away. Rita was standing beside Pitch, where he'd left them, merely watching with what he could only understand to be some level of interest - likely assessing the interaction for future use in some kind of manipulation tactic. She was always thinking ten steps ahead, and James knew he'd have to play the same game.

The long game.

He walked up beside Rita with his head hung low and didn't turn around to look back at Malkiel or Rudy.

"That was intimate," Rita said quietly, and James could hear the smirk in her voice.

James didn't reply. Rita reached for his hand and intertwined her fingers with his. James desperately wanted to rip his hand away but didn't.

"Time to go."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

Mel was going to kill them.

How could James and Eve leave them all like that? They had waited so long for either of them to return. Mel could believe Mister I'll-leave-without-saying-goodbye-to-save-you-all, but Eve? She lied to all of them, saying that she would be back with Elliot soon, when in reality she was the first to realize that James wasn't coming back, and she left so she could find him. Without them.

Seriously. The next time Mel saw either of them, she was going to rip them a new one.

"So now what?" Alistair had asked when they had waited far too many hours for either of them to come back.

Mel sighed. Deeply.

Well. If they weren't coming back, then they had no choice but to move forward.

"I guess we keep moving," Mel answered.

And that was what they had been doing for the next week.

Things weren't too bad. In all honestly, they had been faring pretty well, all things considered. They didn't really know what or where their end goal was, but they didn't know even with James and Eve. And surprisingly, their moods haven't sunk from their disappearances.

Of course, everyone was anxious and worried. Alistair had expressed grave concerns that James had been caught, and Elias kept wondering out loud if they were close to either of them. Elise was a steady rock in all of this, being the one to offer logic when even Mel was starting to let her emotions get the best of her.

"We know James has been stressed. I don't think his intention is to worry us, but to alleviate our stressors instead. I'd say the same about Eve," Elise said, but she had said a few different variants of this in the past.

"I just wish they would talk to us," Mel said with a sigh. "You know, like a normal human? Gosh. Why do they have to be so dramatic?"

"Are we going to try to find them?" Elias asked.

"How would we even know where to find them? We don't have any clues," Alistair said.

Mel nodded. "Yeah, Ali's right. We need to try to survive first."

They had been headed east, inching closer to a creek so they could fill their canteens. Mel filled the role of the natural leader, but even with the flimsy map that Eve oh-so-graciously left behind, she didn't really have any answers to give them.

There was a lot of downtime. Now that their group was down to four, they stuck together talking as one big group rather than splitting into smaller groups that they usually did. Mel always liked connecting with others, but now felt she felt almost too close to Alistair and Elias.

Sometimes the both of them shared too many things that should be kept to themselves, especially when they talked about man things. Mel got to talk more with Elise, although Elise still kept their conversations mostly cordial, which made Mel take a mental note - because if she wasn't going to get Elise to crack and talk about more personal things other than saving her brother or healing others, Mel was bound to force it out of her eventually.

They hadn't run into much trouble on their own. The biggest nuance was their annoyingly bland food and the animals that kept wanting to eat their annoyingly bland food. The forests here were thick, and it wasn't until Mel and Elise studied the map that they realized it was because they were in an area called the Wilds, which was as barbarian as it sounded. There were much more bugs and animals as before, and it always felt like something was watching them, waiting for them to sleep so they could attack.

Fortunately, they had magic. Alistair was usually the one they roped in to scare away any predators with fire, but during the day, Mel could just as easily freak out any prey with a trick of the light. So far, no animals had nabbed their food. Yet.

One day at a time. They were traveling one day at a time.

But again, they were doing surprisingly well. Although, Mel didn't really want that to be the default. No, the default should be all of them - James and Eve and Elliot included - doing surprisingly well.

By the seventh day, they reached a small creek and had filled their canteens. Now what? was the natural question that replayed in Mel's mind as she stared down at the trickling water as if it held the answers to all of life's burning questions.

But then her eyes focused to what she was actually seeing right in front of her, next to the creek: a paw print.

But not just any paw print. Bongo's paw prints.

No. No way.

Mel rubbed her eyes once, twice, blinking and staring back down at it. She thought maybe for a second her imagination ran wild, but no - she really was seeing Bongo's footprints. She had spent far too much time behind that animal to not recognize it. That animal had the weirdest print she had ever seen for an animal its size, and it would be too big of a coincidence for a similar animal in Nye to exist.

If Bongo were here, then that would mean...

"Hendrik!" she exclaimed, catching the attention of the others.

Alistair and Elias had been throwing rocks down the creek, their competition of who could throw the farthest rock being halted. "Hendrik?" Alistair repeated.

Elias looked around. "Where?"

"No, I mean--" Mel pointed dramatically at the animal print below. "Look. That's Bongo's print. I know it is. And if Bongo crossed this path, then Hendrik must have been here too. We can't be far. And-- look." She used her magic to emphasize and outline the print. "Look at how deep it is. This looks fresh."

Elise had already begun moving ahead, pointing down at a nearby trail. "There's more up ahead," she exclaimed.

Alright. So new plan: they were now following animal print in hopes that they would find Hendrik. Mel almost wanted to laugh, because of all people, Hendrik probably was the most clueless. He probably thought this was all one big fever dream. He probably even enjoyed it, being out in the wilderness with only the animals.

It didn't matter. Finding more of their friends was a win in her book. If Hendrik was here, who else could be here? Malkiel and Rudy? Maybe even Finn, Elias's son?

Mel was only hoping that the list ended there. If any more villains were out here to ruin their lives, Mel was going to lose it.

"Come on! He has to be close," Elias said, running up ahead as he beckoned for the others to follow, which only made Mel more curious and antsy to see where this could lead them.

The four of them hurried, twisting and turning around trees. Ten minutes passed. Twenty, then thirty, an hour, then two, then three. Mel, Alistair, and Elise had slowed to a normal-paced walk, but Elias seemed to have an infinite amount of energy, constantly encouraging them and telling them that they were close for every big print they passed.

Mel always found Elias's energy endearing, but now she was getting tired of it.

"Okay, Elias, that's what you said last time." She sighed, glancing up at the sky to see that they didn't have too much time until sundown. "I know we want to see Hendrik. Believe me, I'm dying to see that man. But it'll be getting late soon. We should consider finding a..."

Mel trailed off because it was at that moment that they heard a familiar, eerie roar. Like a bear, but more guttural. It made the hair at the back of her neck stand up, because every instinct in her body was telling her to run.

At least, that was what Mel felt like before Hendrik more formally introduced Bongo to her. Because now, she called that sound "Bongo's happy noises while he eats his favorite snack."

"What was that?" Elias asked, a chill in his voice. He must not have heard the sound before.

"It's Bongo," Mel and Alistair said at the same time. The two of them gave a nod of recognition, and then wordlessly, the four of them sped-walked towards the direction of the noise, continuing their path of following Bongo's footsteps.

They were moving faster now, and after a few minutes of practically running, they stopped when they approached their destination.

Mel knew it was their destination because of the lights, sounds, and - of course - Bongo's giant body nearly obstructing their view.

"We made it. We actually made it," Mel said between hot, sticky breaths, not bothering to hide her voice.

She side-stepped away from Bongo to see what laid in front of them. There appeared to be a campsite, not just with Hendrik - but with many people. In the middle of the clearing, there was a fire pit with a big pot of something bubbling. Maybe a soup. Mel was already salivating since it was something new and smelled so fresh and hearty. Besides the food, the people and animals caught her attention.

Or rather, she had caught their attention.

They were the intruders, after all. Several people reached for their weapons or readied their hands like they were readying their magic, but Mel was too busy scanning the crowd. She immediately locked eyes with Hendrik, who was sitting by the fire holding a bowl of soup. His jaw was agape, and they were both about to yell at each other in recognition, but Elias beat them to it.

"Finn!" Elias yelled, already scrambling towards Finnley.

Upon hearing his voice, Finnley bolted from his seat, running into Elias's arms. "Daddy!" he yelled back, burying his head in his chest. "I missed you."

"I missed you too, bub. So much. But I'm here now," Elias said, hugging him close. This seemed to calm the people who pulled out their weapons.

Mel shook her head, trying to wrap her mind around all this. "Hendrik?!" she finally spat out.

An extremely tall, hunky and muscular man stepped forward between Hendrik and Mel. He was tan with scruffy short brown hair, his beard kept clean and trimmed. He was wearing black leather armor, but it seemed lightweight. He didn't wear any sleeves, revealing a pretty orange and blue dragon tattoo, one running down each muscular arm. He seemed to hold a commanding presence, although what Mel found most captivating was his one eye.

"You know each other, I gather," the man said with a small smile, looking between Hendrik and Mel.

"That's a--" Hendrik began, but Mel interrupted him.

"You've been here the whole time?!" she huffed, beginning with an accusation. She wanted to hug the man, but all of his new allies made her wary. "We've been following Bongo's prints. How long have you--"

She stopped, glancing around everyone. She should be more careful with her words.

"Who are you with?" she asked instead, flicking her eyes between Hendrik and the tall man.

Hendrik placed his bowl on the floor, calmly standing up. "Bo, this is the other Mel I was telling you about. Hard to confuse the two of them, though." Hendrik then pointed at Alistair, Elise, and Elias. "And that right there is Alistair, Elise, and Elias. We're all mages."

The tall man - evidently named Bo - smiled softly, but his smile fell a little as his eyes searched her group.

"What about the other two?" Bo asked. "Eve and James, you mentioned?"

Mel faltered, glancing at Alistair. She also glanced at Elise, but she was busy also coaxing Finn with Elias. Still, they all shared an equally dreaded look.

"They're not with us. They were, but they left. It's a long story. Kind of," Mel said.

"This wouldn't have to do with a woman named Tula, would it?" Bo asked.

"What? Was she here?" Alistair asked.

Bo glanced to Hendrik, and then looked back at Alistair, his expression empathic, but sober.

"Come sit with us around the fire," he said with a wave of his hand. "And we'll catch each other up to speed. You four look hungry."

"Mel, do you think this is safe?" Alistair asked quietly under his breath.

Mel nodded. "Yeah. I think they may all be mages." She motioned forward with her head. "Come on. It'll be okay."

The two of them headed towards the fire, but Mel paused as she passed by Elise, Elias, and Finnley. She scruffed up the kid's hair, offering a little smile as he giggled. Wordlessly, she motioned for them to follow as well.

A woman approached the big pot of soup with a few bowls and spoons, and Bo came up alongside her.

"Mel," Bo said, pointing to Mel. "This is also Mel," he said, pointing to the woman beside him. She was a shorter woman - curvy, but looked strong. She had very short, coily hair that looked like it'd been bleached at one point, but the color was starting to fade.

"Also known as Doc," Hendrik added, patting down the spot next to him since Alistair was hovering nearby. "Sorry, Elise. You're a doc too, but not doc-doc."

Alright. Dr. Mel. This was fine. She took a ladle while Bo took a bowl, and they started pouring soup into them. Dr. Mel came around with two bowls and handed them to Elias and Elise, while Bo came around and gave a bowl to Alistair and Mel.

Bo offered Mel a small smile as he pulled away and stood across from the fire, putting his hands in his pockets.

Mel had a lot of questions, but she was exhausted. The second she was given food, she was slurping it down.

"Soooo..." Elias drew out, the only one not eating right away. He made sure Finnley was set first, but the boy already seemed full and only wanted to be held. "You're all mages?"

"That we are," Bo said with a small grin. "We're a part of an underground organization, a part of the effort to save mages in danger and preserve life, along with the traditions of magic use. We have a network that spans across the world that works nonstop to save as many lives as possible. We have eyes and ears in many places and do our best to share information quickly. Your group was brought to our attention about two weeks ago, and we were searching for you. We also stumbled upon others that seemed to formerly be a part of your company - Hendrik and Finnley included."

"Wow. Cool." Elias nodded, glancing over at Hendrik. "That seems like a worthy cause. Glad Hendrik is a part of it."

Hendrik scoffed. "Listen, kid. I'm not a part of anything. I was trying to find you, and they were helping. Looks like you found us instead, though."

"We did, however, find two more of your friends," Bo said, a little more gently. "And that is where Tula comes in."

"Who? Which two friends?" Mel asked, but she suspected she already knew.

Bo let out a small sigh.

"Malkiel and Rudy," he said. "Two of our best found them, but unfortunately, they were ambushed and outnumbered by a woman named Tula, who had evidently enlisted the help of at least two-dozen others to find your group, evidently to get to the man James... who I see is no longer a part of your company."

Mel was already putting the pieces together. Malkiel and Rudy. Captured. James and Eve. Gone.

"When were they captured?" she asked.

"About a week ago," Bo answered. "We set out to find them as soon as we heard."

Alistair was now catching on too. "No... don't tell me," he said, and Mel nodded.

"That must be why James and Eve left," Mel verbalized out loud so the others would be filled-in as well.

Since Bo had been explaining things in detail, it didn't hurt that she over-explain as well. They seemed trustworthy.

"Tula has spying magic. If she's met you, she can send messages - as in, send you visions of what she's seeing. It works the other way around too, which is where the spying comes in. She can take over your vision and see through your eyes unannounced. She first started doing this to us two weeks ago, and then last week, it all just... stopped. And James mysteriously disappeared, and so did Eve. It's possible she sent James a message so threatening that he felt like he had to leave without us. And if Malkiel and Rudy were captured..."

Mel paused, not liking her next thought.

"Maybe they were the threat," she finished.

"That seems the most natural conclusion," Bo said quietly.

"So now what? We're trying to find Malkiel and Rudy now?" Alistair asked.

"That was our initial goal," Bo answered. "And we will continue to search for them until we find them."

"What's this mean for James? He's walking into Tula's trap?" Hendrik asked.

"Sadly so," Bo said. "If you believe Tula would've held Malkiel and Rudy for ransom and used them as leverage against James, it would make sense of why he left without a word. Though you all know them better than I."

Hendrik was holding the bowl with so much tension, the bowl looked like it was on the verge of breaking. "He would. He goddamn would," he growled through his teeth.

"Even if James didn't leave, that wouldn't change Tula capturing Mal and Rudy," Mel reminded him.

"Which is why our plans won't change," Bo said. "In the morning, we will continue to follow their trail until we reach them. You four are welcome to join us."

Mel groaned. "I feel like every week there's a new thing to worry about. I wish we could get a break," she mumbled, then sighed. "But thank you, Bo. It's, uh - not too much of a bother?"

"We do this all the time," Bo said with a smile. "We're used to picking people up and helping them out. It's not a bother at all."

"Hey, thanks for taking care of Finn while I've been gone. He already looks bigger," Elias said with a weak laugh.

"Of course, Elias," Bo said.

"What's everyone else's names?" Elias asked, looking around.

At that, Bo's face lit up a little, and he nodded, happy to introduce the others in his company. They all joined them around the fire, and Bo introduced them one by one.

Dr. Mel reintroduced herself, explaining that she was an experienced healing mage who had been working with the resistance for many years, and that if anyone needed anything, they could come to her or Bo, the leaders of their unit. Soon after, she introduced her brother, Raj, who stood a bit taller than her but bore a great resemblance in his softer facial features. They both had warm, dark brown skin, and Raj's hair was grown out a bit longer than Dr. Mel's, taking the shape of a small afro.

Next introduced was a man between Hendrik and Bo's height by the name of Jordan. He seemed young and strong, generally more high energy. He had skin of a lighter brown tone and straight, black hair kept short. Beside him was a shorter, lean woman with short, choppy brown hair and piercing blue eyes that popped out against her light brown skintone. Though she didn't bear much resemblance to Jordan, they seemed close, like they had a sibling bond. She was, however, much quieter and cold, and Jordan was the one who told everyone her name was Raya while she merely nodded.

Then, there was a woman named Clandestine, or Clanny for short. She had light brown skin, long black hair pulled into a pony-tail, and choppy bangs hovering over bright green eyes. She seemed pretty bubbly and friendly and informed everyone that she had fire magic (which Mel noted for Alistair's sake) and was formerly a monster hunter. She mentioned if anyone wanted to know about the creatures they saw in the Wilds, they could ask her. Mel also noted that for future reference.

Then there was Dinny. She was a small goblin with light green skin, curly dark hair, and big round yellow-green eyes. She stood only a few inches taller than Finnley at full height. It was then that Mel learned that goblins had connections with the underground mage network and often helped one another, which was how Dinny got involved a few years ago. Dinny seemed a bit timid, but by no means closed off, and seemed to be very gentle and kind.

Last, there was a man named Robin. He was a man of very short and small stature, and he had deep, dark brown skin and a shiny, bald head. He seemed a bit more brusque than the rest, but also explained that he was a werewolf, and that if any of them saw him turn into a wolf at some point, that it was normal and they shouldn't worry about it. Though, the way he offered the explanation made it sound like he was being forced to say it out of obligation.

"He says that because it's freakishly unnerving to watch," Hendrik said, and that was all Mel needed to know.

She scoffed. "Gosh, Hendrik. Don't be so rude."

"What? I'm just stating an observation," he said defensively.

"Which form do you like better? Human or wolf?" Elias asked curiously.

Robin shrugged. Mel noticed that at least, facially, he wasn't very emotive. But he seemed to compensate with other gestures.

"Both are me," he said. "Just depends what I feel in the moment. But when I'm around humans who get uncomfortable with my wolf form or would otherwise see it as dangerous I usually stay in human form. For my safety, mostly."

"And the others," Hendrik added.

"I'm not a danger to you," Robin said plainly, looking at Hendrik.

"Well," Bo interrupted with a clap of his hands. "I think that's everyone -- well, Hendrik, do you want to introduce your animals? I see they already know Bongo, but I know you picked up a few of the others in your travels."

Hendrik was more than happy to do so, quickly getting up to briskly walk over to Bongo first. "Here's ole Bongo, of course. And Higgins - he's sleeping under Bongo over here." Hendrik bent down to scoot Higgins closer so he could pop his head out into view. "And this little fighter who likes to sleep on top of Higgins is this guy." He then randomly pulled a chicken out from under Bongo, and it took a few moments for Mel to realize that that was Sleepy, James's chicken.

"Is that Sleepy?" Elias asked with a grin.

"Uh-huh," Hendrik said as he plopped the now-awake chicken back on the ground, letting her roam. He was already moving on to the other side of the clearing, presumably where his other animals were.

"Wow, I'm glad she survived. Hey, Finn, remember Sleepy?" Elias said as he pointed at Sleepy sleepily hopping over towards them. "I bet James misses his chicken."

"I think he misses a lot of things," Alistair said.

Hendrik continued his introductions, talking over them. "See this griffin right here? This beautiful half lion, half hawk creature? That's Birdbrain. He's not very smart, though. But he's smart enough to leave the three little piggies alone." He gestured behind Birdbrain, who didn't seem to like all the attention around him right now. "Behind Birdbrain here are three flying boars named Bacon, Piggy, and Wiggly."

Elias snorted, but when Hendrik glared at him, he flicked his eyes around the group, waiting to see if anyone would laugh. "Wait, is he serious?" he mumbled.

Mel had to stifle her own giggle. "Nice names, Hen."

Hendrik puffed out his chest, sauntering back over. "You got a problem with how I name my animals, soldier boy?"

"Uh... no?" Elias said with a weak laugh.

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Carina says...

"So, Bo," Mel began, changing the subject. "You said your mission is to help other mages, right? Is that why we were on your radar?"

"Yes," Bo answered. "We try to help those in need. A lot of mages get displaced or run out of towns if they're discovered, and some make the journey to leave to avoid discovery and end up in the Wilds or elsewhere alone. It's a dangerous world, so it's nice to have people looking out for you."

He paused, finally sitting down and joining everyone around the fire, sitting across from her.

"We offer refuge to those who want it," Bo said. "And anyone who wants to join in the rescue efforts is welcome as well. We also have resources for mages to learn magic, since most who discover they have it don't have much of a community around them to help them grow."

"So this is like a mage training camp," Elias said, over-simplifying his words.

"That's one of things we do," Bo said. "I suppose camp is a word for it. Obviously, on missions like these, any form of training is less structured and more on-the-go. But if any of you wanted, we could bring you to more secure facilities and offer some stability."

Mel noticed Bo's eyes went to Finnley, even though he was speaking presumably to Elias. She was slowly putting the pieces together herself. Things were going to get more dangerous from here on out. They didn't even realize that Finn also came to Nye until now. It would be irresponsible to bring along a child if their end goal was to hunt down Tula and get James back.

Elias didn't seem to put those pieces together himself, though.

"That's a good idea," he said when it appeared that others were waiting for him to speak. "But we'd first try to find Mal, Rudy, and James, right?"

Bo nodded slightly.

"Yes," he said, and he seemed to leave it at that for the moment.

"Robin's able to sniff out Rudy's scent from an old blanket we found. We should be really close. His scent's in this area somewhere, so we'll try to find them come daylight," Hendrik said. "Not sure where James could be now, though."

"Tula and her group would take them to the Moonlight Kingdom, right? James mentioned that if he were caught, he'd be taken to King's Peak," Mel said. "I have no idea where Eve could be, but she wouldn't abandon everyone."

At least, that was what Mel thought. She knew Eve wouldn't up and leave her friends to go somewhere entirely new, but the way she left everyone with no warning again sure felt like abandonment to her.

"So, she'd probably be there too. That location seems to be our best bet of finding them," she finished.

"Hold on a second," Bo interjected, holding up his hands as if to tell everyone to pause. "What do you mean he'll be taken to King's Peak? Why King's Peak?"

"Oh." Mel glanced at Hendrik. "Hendrik didn't tell you? James is the most wanted person on Nye, apparently."

"Apparently," Bo repeated. "Is James his real name?"

Mel narrowed her eyes, thinking. If James wasn't his real name, he was never going to hear the end of it from her.

"I'm pretty sure, yes. But I think most people know him by a fake name, named..." She trailed off, trying to remember.

"Tiberius," Alistair finished.

"Ah! Yeah, that's the one."

Bo stared at Alistair, his expression frozen in disbelief.

"You're serious?" Bo asked.

Alistair hesitated. "...Yes?"

A laugh erupted across the fire, and Mel could see Robin spontaneously change into a wolf, with no transition, and suddenly he was rolling on the ground, laughing. The transition was jarring, but she was more concerned about why he was howling so much. What was so funny?

Bo didn't seem impressed with Robin's outburst either, and Raj, who was nearby, hit Robin in the back of the head. Robin's laughter stuttered to a stop, and he sat up, appearing chastened.

"Sorry," Bo said, looking back to Alistair and Mel. "You're right that he's the most infamously wanted man in Nye. It's just... well, never thought our paths would cross with him, or that he was secretly a mage of all things. We knew the kingdom hated him, but no one really knows why. The kingdom's kept a tight lid over that secret."

Mel found herself leaning forward, finding this all very interesting now that she had the perspective of another local on Nye. Obviously if he was the most wanted person on Nye, he'd be more than famous. She knew the truth, but what did they know?

"I don't know why James wouldn't spill his secret to groups like yours. I think he'd have made some really fast allies with you guys," she said, then paused. "He told us why the kingdom hated him. Do you want to know?"

"Yes," Robin said quickly, and Mel could see others lean in, but Bo interjected before Mel could answer.

"Is it relevant?" Bo asked.

"I mean... how am I supposed to know? But it's relevant to us," Mel said. "Because we're mages."

Bo took in a deep breath, sitting up straight.

"Alright," he said, though he didn't sound happy about it.

Mel twirled her hand in front of her, happy to share the news. But she could sense that Bo was wary of this information, given that this was personal information and was sensitive enough that it made him the world's most famous criminal - but since they were going to find James and go to King's Peak, they ought to know the context. She was sure James would forgive her later.

"Mel," Bo said, "I mean-- Dr. Mel."

Dr. Mel smiled softly at the slip-up.

"Why don't you go with Jordan and take Elias and Finn for a short walk?" Bo asked.

Dr. Mel got to her feet and waved Jordan along with her. Jordan skipped over to Elias first and smiled down at him and Finn.

"Hey Elias," Jordan said. "Finn and I got to spend some time together when we found him. He's a great kid."

He looked down at Finn.

"Fancy a game of tag?" he asked, looking from Finn to Elias.

Elias seemed hesitant at first, but then he nodded and then stood up, holding Finn's hand.

"Yeah! Let's play tag!" Finn said, already bouncing.

"Well, the kid has spoken," Elias said with a little laugh. "We'll be back."

Dr. Mel gave Bo a small nod, the two of them seeming to quietly communicate something unspoken. Mel ran after Jordan, Elias, and Finn as they ran off into the forest, Finn laughing as he went.

Mel nodded at them leaving as well, understanding that Bo wanted to avoid Finn from hearing a potential heavy subject. Well luckily, she didn't have to hold back anymore.

"Alright, I'll try to start from the beginning. Let me know if you have questions," Mel said, looking up at the sky as she readied her hands to use magic.

The best way to tell stories was by the use of visuals, after all. Using swirls of colors and artistic lines and shapes that resemble fantasy picture books, she started to tell her story.

The image in the sky first resembled a faceless boy dressed in uniform, but she made sure to give the reddish hue to his hair since he represented James. He held a sword and wore armor, and she replicated several others wearing similar uniform as well.

"This first starts with James as a child," she began. "He joined the Moonlight Kingdom military at a young age - specifically at eleven years of age, training until he was ready to fight at fourteen."

The image pictured James fighting with his sword, defeating random foes. Some were other faceless people with swords, but different armor. Some were random smaller predators. He was always with an army of others, though. She made sure to have one stand out in particular, giving him different-colored armor. This was supposed to be Carter, but she had no clue what he looked like.

"He fought with others in the military as well. Some of you might recognize this boy. His name is Carter Haddon. As kids, they were friends."

The pictures then blurred by as James continued to fight foes, but he became bigger and stronger. He was getting older.

"The years go by, and James finally graduates."

The image then shows James wearing a fancier armor, holding a nicer sword. His hair was cleaner, more kept. He was standing next to an older man with fancy robes and a golden, shiny crown, and Carter as well, with the same-colored armor, but this time better quality.

"He graduates to become the king's knight, and with Carter as well. As time goes on, James proves himself to become a trusty knight - one that the king favors more."

Well, Mel didn't actually know this since James refused to tell her, but between the context and hints she heard from Elias, she figured this may be true. Even if it weren't, it at least made an appealing story.

The image showed James literally moving up the ranks, walking up stairs towards the king until he sat by his side.

"All of this to say - James was someone who was well-trusted in the kingdom. They trusted him with the most sensitive, darkest secrets."

Mel turned her visual darker, the outline now grayed and black. She added a soft glow behind the art so they could still see the outline contrasted against the night sky.

"James began to see more dark things happened behind the proverbial curtain."

James was now walking through a stage, but was moving in place as the background showed unsettling images. Mel wasn't sure exactly what he could have saw, but she used her imagination.

Prisoners behind bars. Faceless mages being hanged. Assassins slaying people in the night. People being bribed, blackmailed, pressured into compliance.

"But then -- this was when it all went wrong."

A fire then circled the area, consuming her visuals until it dissipated into ashes. Behind it all, she showed them a visual of James holding paper, reading intently.

"It seemed innocent, at first. James stumbled upon information that he wasn't supposed to know. There in the castle laid a document that listed proof that the king was trying to build a mage army. But not just any mage army..."

A dramatic winged lizard-like dragon appeared, along with a vial with a red liquid. Beside those images was a person injected with the same red liquid, who then grew bigger and bigger until he conjured fire that once again decimated the visuals dramatically. The man then reappeared again, but red stained his clothes, hands, chest. Armies were trying to defeat this giant monster, but he swiped them away with fire, which kept happening over and over again until the entire sky was lit up in flames, and then it all disappeared.

"A mage army that used dragon's blood as a tool to make them stronger," Mel explained, waiting for the firey glow to dissipitate before continuing.

James reappeared again, holding the paper.

"There were documented experiments of this happening. There was evidence that the king was going to start these experiments again, and he was going to use this army to do his bidding. That was... until James destroyed it all."

The paper was lowered, revealing boxes of documents of documents on fire. Vials of the red blood were thrown on the floor, destroyed and burning with the rest of the documents. The image then shows James running away, distancing himself from the castle. Bounty hunters chased him.

"James runs away, but others chase not because of what he did - but because of what he knows. The documents may have been destroyed, but the information still lives in his head."

Mel then abruptly ended her concentration, and all of the visuals faded away.

"And the rest is history," she finished.

Everyone around the campfire sat in silence, and after Mel finished, the silence lingered. The campfire crackled between them.

As Mel scanned everyone for their reactions, she noticed that most of them seemed in various stages of concern. Some looked disturbed.

"Okay, that was slightly dramaticized. But you get the idea," Mel added, hoping she could alleviate the heavy tension in the air.

"You're positive he was telling the truth," Bo said quietly. "When he told you this?"

Mel assumed he was talking about the part of him destroying the documents. She nodded. "Yes, there was no reason for him to lie. He told us what he saw and what he destroyed."

Bo nodded, his expression serious and severe. He closed his eye for a moment and took in a deep breath before he looked up to meet Mel's eyes again.

"I'll need some time to think on this," he said. "But this changes things."

He got to his feet and started pacing back and forth, hands in his pockets.

Mel furrowed her brows, watching Bo move. "I don't understand. Why does this change things?"

"James has time magic, right?" Clandestine asked, speaking up.

Mel nodded, even though it was more nuanced than that. "Yeah."

"When did he discover that?" Clandestine followed up.

Mel faltered. How was she going to explain this one? She narrowed her eyes, deciding to just go with a number.

"About six years ago, I think," she said. "It was after he was wanted."

"So, after he did all of that," Clandestine echoed, sounding more like she was thinking out loud.

"That's right. Why? Is this important?"

"It... well, I don't know that it changes anything about what he did," Clandestine said. "He did a good thing regardless. It would just have a different nuance if he did it knowing he was a mage or not. Arguably, it was... more honorable, since he thought he was doing it for people different from him and all."

"I mean, yes. James has a pure heart. I know that too." Mel flicked her eyes between her and Bo, feeling like she was missing something. "But the both of you are acting like this changes our plans. I'm not sure I understand."

"It doesn't change our plans," Bo said, pausing in his steps. "I only meant that..."

He sighed and turned to Mel.

"Knowing that the king is trying to use mages for his own gain - or rather, having confirmation of it - is important. It's important to what we do. It-- it's important for us to know. That's all I meant."

Mel nodded, then sighed. "Yeah. Yeah, I figured. That's why I'm not really sure why he felt like he had to so closely guard this secret when he could have easily made allies with mages. That's James for you, though."

"And he's gone and turned himself in to... to this Tula. And bounty hunters," Bo said.

Mel hesitated. "Yes, but he's not going to spill, if that's what you're concerned about. He's too loyal."

"If he's willingly turning himself over to the kingdom, that's not my concern," Bo said quietly. "But I am concerned for him. King's Peak is one of the most difficult cities to infiltrate, and even more difficult to escape."

"I know," Mel said more quietly. "But I'm just as stubborn as he is. It'll be difficult, and maybe it would have been impossible if it were just the four of us... but with all of you, and your network - I think we have a chance."

She twirled her hand again in front of her, making sure to give everyone a brief second of eye contact.

"After all, James's selfless action helped save all of us as mages. He didn't ask for recognition. He did this out of the goodwill of his heart. And now he's in trouble. I hope you can all find the heart to help him now when he needs it, even if the mission is dangerous."

"Our first priority is going to be finding Malkiel and Rudy," Bo said. "But if James went after them a week ago like you said, it's possible we'll run into him as well. We have no way of knowing for sure at the moment. And even if he does turn himself in, King's Peak is far south of here. It'd take them at least two months to reach it if they were to go the safe route."

He paused.

"We can discuss this more in the--" Bo started.

"I smell something," Robin interjected suddenly.

He was still in wolf form, and he stood up with a jump, nose pointed southward. Bo was quick to turn, on guard. Mel noticed the others - Raya, Raj, Dinny, and Clandestine, were quick to their feet.

"People," Robin said, then inched closer, sniffing the air.

"Rudy," he said. "I can smell him. Him and another, drawing near."

"Malkiel," Dinny said, hurrying to stand behind Robin.

Dinny glanced back at Bo. Bo gave her a small nod, and she and Robin darted off into the forest in pursuit.

"Hendrik--" Bo started to say, but Hendrik was already moving. He gave the formal nod to Bo as he rushed past them, following after Dinny and Robin. Raj followed behind him.

Mel, Alistair, and Elise all stood as well, but patiently waited as they kept their eyes on the trail they all scattered into.

Could it really be...?
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Mon Oct 24, 2022 5:04 am
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Carina says...

Malkiel was hellbent on surviving.

The day had been grueling. He hated that he watched Tula leave with James and the others, not being able to do anything. He was too weak. He couldn't fight, physically or with his magic. He could do nothing but tightly ball his fists against his side, letting the adrenaline from the rage give him the energy to keep on going.

He wasn't lying to James. He was going to try to make this right. He wasn't going to let his life go to waste like that.

There were so many uncertainties, like how he was going to find him or the others - but it didn't matter. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.

"Mal, you need to rest," Rudy said quietly as they headed north, one grueling step at a time.

"I'm fine," Malkiel growled, on all fours as he desperately tried to find his items. Crawling was easier than walking. Dirt was caked onto his skin and clothes that were already dried with blood and vomit, but he didn't care. He didn't care. "I'm fine," he repeated.

They crawled through the forest. Rudy was behind him, matching his pace. Malkiel knew that he was slowing him down, but there wasn't anything he could do about it.

He was beyond parched, and beyond hungry. The pain of hunger, thirst, and fatigue didn't bother Malkiel anymore. Not when his blood was still pumping with adrenaline and steely determination.

Hours passed. It was already getting dark. But Malkiel wanted to keep going, because the effects of the lumshade were finally starting to wane. He conjured a gust to sweep on the ground, picking up any items that were laying with the dirt. Leaves, grass - or a compass.

But they found nothing, and Malkiel knew it was because they had hardly made any distance. He was moving too slow. Crawling too slow.

"Mal, let's rest," Rudy said.

The two of them had hardly talked. There were no words to say. Malkiel had told him the plan, but that was all there was to say right now. That was all that was important.

"If we don't keep moving, we may never find it," Malkiel said back, pressing forward.

"If we don't rest, we may never make it," Rudy said desperately. "Please, Mal. I don't think I can go any farther."

Malkiel stopped, staring down at the ground. His arms were shaking, holding up his weight. If Rudy couldn't move, then Malkiel couldn't help him. He could barely even help himself.

He heard Rudy collapse behind him, thumping onto the ground.

"Everything hurts," Rudy whimpered, sounding on the verge of crying.

Malkiel grit his teeth, forcing himself to sit properly, but instead choosing to collapse, rolling onto his back.

"I know," he said tiredly, staring up at the moon.

"Do you really think anyone else is out there?" Rudy asked, his voice muffled.

Malkiel didn't even want to think about that. For the entire day, he had convinced himself that that was true. He didn't want to think anything different.

"Yes," he said, leaving it at that.

Silence lingered in the air. It didn't take long for either of them to sleep. They were both exposed and vulnerable in the summer's night, and even through sleep, Malkiel heard whispers. Maybe of a person. Maybe of an animal. Maybe he imagined it all. He swore he could feel Butch holding a rag over his face as Tula poured water on him.

But he was far too tired to give in to the sensory details. Malkiel slept it all away, and he only woke up because he felt something poke him. It only felt like minutes had passed, but sunlight was teasing his eyelids. As he wearily opened his eyes, he noticed that he was facing a giant raccoon head-on, its long tongue licking the vomit off his shirt.

For a second, Malkiel thought he was dead, and he was seeing through his carcass's eyes. He was dead, and the animals have all come to eat him. How poetic.

But then the raccoon started to bite through his clothes, and Malkiel flinched and swatted it away. When the racoon hissed, Malkiel groaned and mustered the strength to fling it away with a gust of wind. The racoon whimpered as it crashed against a nearby tree, and then it scampered away.

"Ugh," Malkiel groaned, collapsing again. The sunlight was hurting his eyes. It must be late morning now. "Rudy?" he rasped dryly, eyes still closed.

Rudy grunted.

They were both alive. Good.

Malkiel took a deep breath, then slowly sat back up, trying not to think about the pain. They had to press on.

"We should keep moving," Malkiel said, now pushing himself to his feet. He had more strength now that he had a restful night, even though it was a miracle that nothing attacked them that night.

Rudy pushed himself up with another grunt, and turned to Malkiel with a weary sigh.

"Look at me," Rudy said.

Malkiel took another deep breath, deciding not to argue. He looked over his shoulder towards Rudy.

Rudy reached out and touched Malkiel's face, specifically over the half that was still tender and bruised. Rudy took in a deep breath, and then Malkiel felt a comforting warmth come from Rudy's hand, and the pain of his swollen eye and all of the bruising started to melt away until it was gone.

"...Why did you do that?" Malkiel asked, tightly closing his eye as he felt around his face. He could actually touch it now without wincing in pain.

"Now you look more like yourself," Rudy said, nudging Malkiel in the arm. "Let's go."

Malkiel stared at Rudy for a second. He knew that healing magic worked similarly on Earth. He wanted to scold him for using his magic to help him at the expense of himself. They both needed the strength to move on, after all. And his face was the last of his worries.

But he decided to not press. He couldn't do anything about it now. He didn't want to use his energy to argue this when it paled in significance to everything else.

"Thanks," he mumbled so quietly, he didn't care if Rudy didn't hear him.

They were moving again. Faster this time, since Malkiel could actually walk. At the same time, Malkiel was using his magic to pull up any objects off the ground. There were several occurrences of a small animal or bigger bug falling prey to his wind trap, but when he noticed, he stopped so they could recover and run away.

This occured for hours until --


Malkiel noticed something glinting in the gist of air, and he stopped his magic to investigate, the glinting metallic object fell on his head.

Malkiel held back an "ow," instead pressing his lips together as he slowly bent down to pick it up.

A compass.

"I found it," he whispered, wiping the dirt away as he stared at the direction it was pointing. North. "I found it. Rudy, I found it."

Rudy came up beside him, looking over his shoulder.

"Well, at least we'll know we're going the right direction," Rudy said quietly. "He said Northwest. Right?"

Malkiel nodded, almost violently. "Northwest. Yes. Northwest. He said northwest." He pointed the direction more west and then started to walk.

"It's a miracle you found it," Rudy said, trudging after him.

But Malkiel was far too preoccupied with the compass and the direction they were headed to reply to Rudy. He was staring at it with wide eyes, holding on to it too tight. He felt desperation claw its way out of him. This had to work. This had to work. Malkiel wouldn't know what to do if this led nowhere.

They walked for hours. So many hours. Malkiel felt the adrenaline wane as his body crawled back into starvation mode, begging for water, or anything of nutritious value. They passed by berries and nuts that they could forage, but Malkiel didn't feel like he was that desperate yet. There was something about the berries and nuts that looked off-putting. Like it was trying to lure him in to eat it - because it was poisonous.

Malkiel considered eating grass, or even leaves. But he knew that if he ate something, he was only going to get even more hungry. His body was craving for more. He had lost so much weight already. Eating a little to stop the pains of hunger was not going to change that.

One more day. Malkiel told Rudy that they would travel for one more day without food or water before they could turn to more desperate measures. Malkiel didn't know if he was rationalizing himself out of this one. Would one more day make a difference? They were in the middle of nowhere.

Maybe he could lure another raccoon with his vomit-crusted clothing. They could trap it, and they could eat it.

Malkiel didn't dwell on that thought, deciding instead to continue pressing on, only focusing on what was ahead of him. He ignored everything else. His hunger, his pain, his intrusive thoughts. He only focused on the direction of the compass, his moving feet, and his breathing.

Nightfall was upon them. Rudy suggested they stop for the night, but Malkiel insisted that they keep going. They had to move forward. They had to.

The moon provided just enough light for him to see where he was going, but he was moving much slower. That was, until Malkiel tripped on a root and fell on his face. He groaned and spit out the dirt in his mouth, rolling to his side. His hands didn't catch him in time because he was clutching the compass, protecting it at all costs.

"Let's stop for the night," Rudy suggested again as Malkiel ignored his hand to help him up, getting up himself.

Before Malkiel could reply, the birds above them suddenly flew away from the direction they were headed, flying across them and then high up into the sky. The hairs stood up on Malkiel's neck. Something - or someone - was nearby.

"Rudy," he whispered, backing out. He felt like he was being watched, like a rabbit about to be eaten by a wolf. There was something there.

"Something's coming," Rudy said.

Mal readied his stance to use his magic if needed. There was no use in running in their state. If something was going to come out now, he at least could get ready to attack.

There was a distant rustling of leaves then became closer and louder. Malkiel braced for an attack, about to send a hurling wave of wind over, but --

"Malkiel!" a familiar voice shouted, and a second later, he popped out from behind trees, breathing heavily from running.

Malkiel stood and stared, realizing his jaw dropped. Out of all the things he thought were going to appear, Hendrik was not one of them.

"Hendrik?" he wheezed, relaxing his stance.

But Hendrik was already walking over, a look of worry and concern washing over his state, likely from the way they looked.

That, and because Rudy had started loudly crying beside him.

"Tula did this to you?" Hendrik said angrily.

Rudy had his arms out for a weak embrace, but Hendrik warmly filled the gap, bringing Malkiel in as well. The two of them were under Hendrik's grasp, but Malkiel still felt the shock even against Hendrik's chest. He didn't know what to think right now.

"Robin. Raj. Dinny," Hendrik said more softly, holding them tight. "They're here. I found them. They're safe. Let's bring them back to camp."

"Dinny..." Malkiel said weakly, his voice thin. "Dinny's here?"

"We got help," Dinny said. "I'm sorry we didn't come sooner."

Malkiel didn't look out from Hendrik's grasp yet, but he recognized Dinny's voice. It was her.

"Our camp's not far," Dinny said gently. "Do you think you can make it a little further?"

"We'll be fine," Malkiel said, speaking for Rudy since he was still sobbing.

"Oh no, you don't," Hendrik huffed. "Raj--"

"I got it," a man said, and then Mal felt someone reach in and pick him up.

Hendrik lightly patted Malkiel's back as he did so, but Malkiel still squirmed, not liking where this is going.

"It's okay, Mal. I know you're a fighter, but please sit this one out. We have you. Rest easy," Hendrik said, then effortlessly picked up Rudy, who was still sobbing uncontrollably in his arms. "You too, Rudy. We have you now. It's alright. Hold on a little longer."

At that, Malkiel didn't fight it. He let himself being carried, wondering if this was all a fever dream. This felt like a dream, or a fantasy he made up because he wished this would happen. Was this real?

"Just a little longer. We're almost there," Hendrik said.

Malkiel felt pathetic being carried like a helpless child or a bride being carried away, but he was far too tired to overthink this. He pinched his eyes shut then opened it again, but they were still moving.

Real. This was real.

The minutes blurred by.

"Incoming!" Hendrik said more loudly as they approached light. "Give them space." Hendrik paused, then started to list off items as if someone was taking notes. "Food. Water. Clothes. Blankets."

"Raya, go grab Mel," someone said. Malkiel didn't know the voice.

"Malkiel!" another voice exclaimed, but it was hushed and laced with worry. Mel.

Malkiel let his eyes focus on what was in front of them. A campsite. There was fire. It smelled... delicious. The lights were almost blinding, now.

He had to blink and squint as he tried to focus on the faces. There were many he didn't recognize, but few he did. Mel, Alistair, and Elise. They were standing and staring at him with worry. He felt so exposed.

Suddenly he was glad that Rudy had healed his face.

"Let me down. I can walk," Malkiel grumbled, squirming under Raj's arms. He didn't like how he picked him up so easily.

Raj waited a moment, and then sat him down on a padded mat on the ground that had been rolled out for him. Hendrik gently placed Rudy beside him on another padded mat nearby.

Mel, Alistair, and Elise hurried to their side, but Hendrik stopped them before they could get too close.

"Easy," he said, but then he allowed Elise to go through, as if they had a mutual understanding of her intents.

"Elise," a man said - the same voice he heard earlier. "Can you see to Rudy? Mel will be here soon to help."

Elise glanced between the two of them, but Malkiel looked down to avoid eye contact.

"Yes. Yes, of course," Elise said, rushing to Rudy's side. "Hi Rudy, it's me. Elise. I'm going to do a few check-ups..."

Malkiel closed his eyes, blocking out her voice. This was almost overwhelming.

"Hey, Mal, we're so glad you're back," Mel said from a safe distance away. She whispered some other things that Malkiel couldn't hear, then he heard her approach.

He opened his eyes again.

"Hey, it's me," Mel said gently, offering a canteen of water. "Drink up. You seem thirsty."

That was an understatement. Malkiel grunted, sitting up with someone supporting his back. He didn't know who. Maybe Hendrik. It didn't really matter.

Mel gently passed him the canteen, and Malkiel was unashamed to drink it in one go. He desperately and quickly swallowed it one big gulps, water trickling down his chin until it was almost empty.

"Jeez, Mal. Save some for the rest of us," Mel teased.

Malkiel gave her a pointed look. It was a sassy statement, but somehow the normalcy of it all relieved him.

Soon, there was a woman who approached, kneeling beside Mel.

"Slow down just a little bit," she said gently. "I looks like your body needs some time to take it in. You wouldn't want to overwhelm your system."

It didn't really feel like it, though. Malkiel drank the rest of the water, slowing down just a bit, but still drinking in heavy gulps.

"I'm Dr. Aradis," the woman introduced. "Would you allow me to check your vitals and heal anything that's hurting?"

Malkiel looked over his side at Rudy. Elise softly making conversation with him, healing the blows he took to his chest.

"...Sure," he said. He didn't know this woman, but he forced himself to trust her because his friends seemed to trust her.

"Alright," she said with a small nod. "Part of how my magic works is I can sense things through touch. Are you alright if I rest my hand over your heart?"

"Just do whatever you need to do," Malkiel said with a defeated sigh.

And she did.

She healed up almost every bruise. Closed every gash. Little by little, all of the lingering pains in his body started to fade away, and all that was left was the pain of a hungry, empty stomach and an aching, exhausted body.

When Dr. Aradis was finished, Mel was quick to hand him a big bowl of soup.

"Hey, what if you drink your food now?" Mel said with a smile. "But you probably can't drink it all at once. You know, burnt tongue and all that."

Malkiel wasn't up for the small talk. He was eager to take the bowl and eat the food, even if it were too hot to eat right away. The warmth of it seemed to give him energy as his body yearned for more.

"Hey, slow down. You heard the doctor. Don't want you to overwhelm your body," Mel said.

"Mmmhmm," Malkiel said between bites, but he found himself eating slower anyways.

Not because he was listening to Mel's advice, but because he was getting full - even when the bowl was only half empty.

He stared down at the bowl, feeling like if he ate one more bite, he would only vomit it all out.

"I'm done," he announced, handing it back to Mel.

She didn't question it. "Okay. I'm going to get you some new clothes. I'll be right back."

Malkiel sat still, watching as everyone was scrambling around the camp. Elise was still consoling Rudy, but everyone else seemed to talk about the next steps. Discussing plans, maybe.

While Mel rummaged through her bag, Malkiel noticed that Elias entered the clearing with Finnley and Jordan. He stopped and stared in shock, and Malkiel couldn't help but stare back.

The boy. He was fine. Good. And Jordan was too.

Mel was walking back towards him, holding folded clothes against her chest. She kneeled back down, gently laying out a shirt and pants.

"These might be big, but... they'll fit you, height-wise. I'll have to ask Hendrik if Rudy can borrow his clothes. They'll also be big, but oh well."

As Mel spoke, Malkiel stared at the clothes. They seemed... familiar.

And then he realized--

"Are these James's?" he asked thinly.

"Yeah," Mel said with a soft, sad smile. "He won't need it, though. So you don't need to worry about that."

Malkiel felt the small flame in his heart ignite again. He almost got too comfortable with the situation he was in. He had to remember what he told James. What he had planned ever since they parted ways.

"Mel. We were with Tula. We saw James, just yesterday. He's gone, Mel. He's gone," Malkiel said, feeling his chest tighten up. It was almost an unusual feeling not being able to feel the pain on his chest anymore.

Mel glanced between him and the group before she laid her full attention back on him.

"The others would want to know the full story, too. Do you want me to relay it back to them, or--"

"No. I can tell them," Malkiel interrupted. "They all need to know."

Mel paused again. "We can wait 'til tomorrow, Mal. It's okay. Really."

Malkiel shook his head. "No. The sooner they know, the better." He was already scrambling to his feet, and he sensed Mel wanting to help him up, but he ignored her. "Dr. Aradis healed me. I'm fine. Let's get this over with."

He looked over at Rudy, who was laying down and still recovering even after being healed. Elise was nearby, her worried eyes meeting Malkiel's.

"Malkiel, please rest," Elise said, but Malkiel shook his head.

"I'm fine," he said, and then walked forwards the center of the camp, feeling all eyes back on him. This didn't need to be a big deal. He just had to tell them the story, and then they could all move on with their lives.

He heard Mel and Elise following behind, but they were giving him space as if he were a wounded animal. Maybe they weren't too far off.

"You have a lot of questions. So let's hear it. I'll tell you everything," Malkiel said as he approached them, getting straight to the point.

"Malkiel," Dinny spoke up, approaching him slowly. "We can wait until morning. We won't be able to head out until then anyway."

"I don't want to wait until morning," Malkiel snapped back. "Do you know how long it took for us to get here and find you? Let's talk now."

There was a tense silence that followed.

Then, a tall, muscular man waved for Malkiel to come over and sit around the fire. The man only had one eye.

"Come," he said. "We'll talk. I'm going to let some of the others go to sleep if they need to."

Everyone that Malkiel recognized started to gather around the fire, but Jordan leaned down to suggest to Elias that they should put Finnley to sleep. Elias seemed hesitant, especially since he had just walked into everything, but then agreed and separated from the group.

Malkiel decided to sit next to Alistair. Somehow, he felt like he was the least overbearing. Maybe it was because he hadn't said a word to him yet.

Before anyone could get too comfortable and begin to ask questions, Malkiel started to speak.

"Tula captured me and Rudy. You all know the story, from Dinny and Jordan. Well, she captured us, and tied us up. She was with many people. Their names are Butch, Pitch, Alexander, and Rita. They're all bounty hunters, except for Rita, who's a gang leader of the Blue Suns. She brought a dozen of her men as well. We were constantly being watched."

Malkiel sighed, deciding to skip over the details. They didn't need to know that.

"They kept asking us for James's location. We didn't know it, but they kept us around anyways. Somehow, they managed to lure James in. I have to assume it's because of Tula's magic, somehow. She would do anything to bring him in, and it worked. They have him now, and released us. They're going to turn him in. I'm sure of it."

Malkiel stopped, gauging their reactions. They were all staring at him with the same worried look, and it made him uncomfortable.

"That about sums it up," he finished.

"You said this was just yesterday?" the one-eyed man asked.

"Yes. They released us yesterday, early in the morning."

"Can you remember anything about where you were when they released you? Any landmarks that could tell us where they were?" the man asked.

Malkiel would really prefer to not go back to that area, especially since they weren't there anymore. But he understood how this could help with their search.

"We were near a lake," he said.

The man nodded slowly.

"My name's Bo," he said. "I want to give everyone, yourself included, a chance to rest - but the short of what you need to know is this: we're here to help. We're going to do what we can to catch up to James and save him before he reaches the Moonlight Kingdom."

Malkiel nodded. He didn't even know Bo or who the others were, but he was too tired to press for details right now. If they were on the same side, that was enough.

"Good," he said, allowing his body to relax just a little.

"Do you need anything else tonight?" Mel asked. "If you do, just ask. It's no trouble."

"I'm fine," Malkiel said again.

Hendrik reached across Alistair to place a hand on his shoulder. Malkiel found himself leaning away, but Hendrik still held on, leaning closer.

"Mal. We're all here for you. If there's anything else you want to share, we'll listen," he said.

Malkiel narrowed his eyes at him, prying his hand away. "I'm good, thanks. Do I sleep over there?" He pointed at the corner where Rudy was.

"Yes," Bo answered. "Hendrik, make sure he gets blankets for the night. Let's all turn in and get some rest."

Malkiel didn't need to be told twice. He readied himself back on his feet.

"Hey, Malkiel," Alistair said before he could turn away. He paused for a second, like he wasn't really sure what exactly he should say. "I just wanted to say that I'm glad you're both okay."

Malkiel huffed through his nose, giving him a nod. "Yeah. Me too."

At that, he walked back towards his corner, too tired to talk to anyone else. Hendrik rushed over with far too many blankets, and Malkiel had to assure him that he did not need this many in the summer's heat. When he scurried away, Malkiel allowed himself to lay down and finally relax his body.

"Hey. Rudy? You awake?" he whispered, staring up into the night sky.

But Rudy only breathed deeply in response. He was asleep.

Malkiel stared at the sky for another minute in silence. He felt the tug of sleep wear on him, but he didn't want to succumb to it. Not yet.

There were many people around him. More allies than he ever thought he'd have on Nye. He felt safe, and he felt like he finally had a moment of silence and peace after the hell he went through this week.

But he didn't like it. He didn't like how loud the silence was.

It tightened his chest, and he felt like he was going to again vomit from the panic swelling behind his head. To push it down and regain his breathing, he violently moved to his side, bunching up the blanket into a ball as he resorted into fetal position. Malkiel tightly closed his eyes, wishing for the silence to not be so deafening.

"Hey, Rudy?" he whispered again, voice weak and shaky.

He paused again, making sure he only heard breathing in response.

"I'm glad we're alive."
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soundofmind says...

Rita did nothing to physically restrain James, but before they set out to leave, she pulled him close and whispered once more in his ear.

If you try to run, she said. The first thing we'll do is drug you. The second thing we'll do is send out some of my men to find your friends and kill them on sight. We know how to kill mages just as easily as the hunters do.

She wasn't bluffing. He'd spent enough time with her in the past to know that she followed through on every threat she made with no exceptions, and he wanted to avoid having any amount of lumshade pumped into his body - not because he was worried about not being able to use his magic, but because he didn't want to be any more vulnerable than he already was. He knew that lumshade screwed with his head, and he didn't need that on top of Rita and Tula's mind games.

Still, riding along with a caravan of bounty hunters went against everything in his nature. To be given a horse felt like a test. Rita was seeing how badly he really wanted to save his friends, and how badly he wanted to avoid making the process any more painful than it already was.

He couldn't deny that he thought about running. He thought about it every few seconds. Every moment it seemed there was a clear opening for a getaway. Every time someone looked away. Every time they stopped to rest.

But he didn't.

Stiffly, he stayed in his saddle. He didn't speak unless spoken to - and even so, didn't dignify many things with a comment. The only one he knew he was obligated to respond to was Rita, but even so, he kept his answers as short as possible.

It all felt so surreal.

Everyone had their eyes trained on him, but there were no knives held to his back, or guns to his head. He couldn't describe how it all felt wrong. Wrong to not fight back. Wrong to not run. Wrong to just take it, but he couldn't see any other way.

So what if I run? he found himself thinking. It's not like I'd get very far with twenty people running after me.

Like Pitch said; he'd brought this upon himself.

They ended the day at the other end of the lake. They'd been travelling close to the shore all day, feeling the faint, cool breeze blow off the lake, pushing against the humid heat in the air. When they stopped, everyone unpacked and set up camp without a word to him.

He tied up his horse, and with no idea what else to do with himself, merely made sure the horse was taken care of. He could see Tula hovering around him - as if everyone else wasn't also hovering, making sure he didn't try anything - but it was Rita who came to him directly.

He was brushing the horse down when she approached.

"Still a horse whisperer, I see," Rita said as she came up alongside him, uncomfortably close.

He bit his tongue, keeping back from saying something that might aggravate her. But she was pushing it. He waited for her to get to her point. She always had a point, but she seemed content at the moment to simply stand beside him while he brushed the horse down.

Not wanting to make conversation, but wanting to move things along, he stiffly looked at her over his shoulder.

"What's this horse's name?" he asked.

"Would you like to name it?" Rita asked.

"Does it not have a name?" James asked instead.

"I don't know its name," she said. "The horse formerly belonged to a merchant, and I never asked."

James didn't believe that she'd come by the horse honestly, but it didn't really matter. He sighed and turned back to the horse, moving away from Rita as he moved to the horse's tail. Another long silence hung between the two of them as he, essentially, ignored her until he was done brushing the horse down, and she merely watched. When he set the brush down on the ground and stood up, she'd inched closer again, practically standing over him as he got up.

He leaned away, saying nothing, but he gave her a pointed look, to which she only raised her eyebrows with what he could only describe as a playful smile. He didn't like that.

"You act as if I'm going to bite you," Rita said.

James was not going to verbally respond to that. He merely narrowed his eyes at her and frowned.

"It's interesting, seeing you like this," she said, following him as he started to walk around the horse. "When I first found you, there was so much hope in your eyes."

"'Found me' is generous," he muttered, making sure the horse's lead was tied securely to the tree. He was running out of things to busy himself with.

"That's right," Rita said, circling around the other side of the tree to lean on it, looking down at him.

She was maybe only an inch or two taller than him, but her presence seemed to take up so much space.

"You found me was how it went," she said smoothly. "And what a gift that was."

James pulled away from the rope, standing stiffly as he stared at her.

He knew he was going to have to put up with this for weeks. Already, he could feel his patience wearing thin, but he knew he'd have to endure if he was going to find a way out of this - not that he had much hope for that happening, but even after turning himself in, he still couldn't let himself give in that easily.

Maybe Rita knew that. It was possible she could see right through him. She could tell he hadn't give up just yet. She was just waiting for him to do something - anything - that would give her a reason to punish him, and then all hell would break loose. Because she wanted him to believe it was his fault. As if he didn't know that already.

There was a tense silence between them as he watched Rita study his face, but then her eyes drifted elsewhere.

"Were you and Tula lovers?" Rita asked.

He knew she'd asked it to catch him off guard, but the very idea of it made James want to gag. His lips turned up in disgust, and before he could say a word, Rita began to laugh.

"Oh, she hurt you that bad?" she said.

"No," James snapped, before Rita could comment more.

"The woman's clearly crazy about you," Rita said, and James didn't know if Rita was self-aware enough to know the irony of what she just said or if she was actually that blind. "But not in a sane way. I think if I hadn't found her when I did she might never have found you."

James stared at her, narrowing his eyes.

"She didn't find me," he said slowly, meeting her eyes as if she was implying something untrue.

But they were both playing each other.

Rita inched closer. This time James stood his ground, but daggers were in his eyes.

"Tula said you're a time mage," Rita said quietly, eyes flicking out to the camp for a moment before she reached in and pushed a stray hair behind James's ear. "Is that true?"

James grabbed her wrist.

"If you want answers-" James started to say cooly.

"Audacious," Rita interrupted, meeting his eyes with a cold challenge. "To think you have any control."

James let go of her wrist with a sneer and lightly pushed it away. She returned her hand to her side, but tilted her head expectantly.

"You hold me in suspense," she said.

"You're turning me in to the Moonlight Kingdom," James said.

"Not what I asked," Rita said.

"If I had magic, it wouldn't change anything," he shot back.

"You're deflecting," she said just as quick.

James set his mouth into a thin line. Rita waited, but when he didn't say anything, she leaned in again, this time being even more overt as she set her hands on his shoulders.

"I let you have such a nice goodbye," she whispered. "And I gave you food. Let you bathe. Brought you new clothes. A horse. Bandaged you up. Made sure you were comfortable."

She ran her hands down his arms and then held his hands together in hers.

"Are you a mage, James?" she asked again, looking down at him, her face inches from his.

He clenched his jaw and looked down, resisting the urge to rip his hands out of hers and fight.

"Yes," he said.

She rubbed her thumbs over the back of his hands and ever so slightly pulled away. As if it was a reward.

"Tell me how these time powers of yours work," she said. "I hear it's one of the rarest magics out there. I guess that makes you exceptionally lucky."

He stared at their hands, his mouth curling in a frown as he avoided her eyes.

In this moment, he knew he had an advantage. He could tell her anything as long as it was believable. No one knew anything about time magic. As far as anyone in the world knew, there was only one lasting bloodline that carried time magic, and that magic lived on in Adina alone.

James, however, seemed to be some mystical exception, but he didn't need to explain why that was so. He didn't even know how to explain it himself.

He was about to open his mouth when he remembered that Rita only knew he was a mage because of Tula.

Pausing, he realized he might not have the advantage he thought. Tula hadn't revealed the truth of her own magic, but that didn't mean she wouldn't have spilled about his. Tula would've known everything Oliver told her, which was pretty all-inclusive, outside of what he was capable of collaboratively when his and Eve's powers collided.

Then again, if she shared in detail how his powers worked, she'd have to explain how she knew, and James knew that was a can of worms Tula wasn't willing to open.

Perhaps foolishly, he decided to bluff.

"I can freeze time," he said.

He could sense Rita's piqued interest.

"But I don't know how to do it at will," he said. That was a truth hidden within a lie.

"Fascinating," Rita said softly. "What's the trigger?"

James thought this through. He knew that whatever his answer was, Rita would likely attempt it in the future. This was where he leaned into a half-truth.

"Happiness," he said, looking up and meeting her eyes with a glare.

She huffed through her nose. From the look on her face, it seemed like she didn't believe him - or she was going to wait it out to see if it was proven with time.

"How sad," she said, finally letting go of one of his hands. "If that's true, I imagine it hardly ever happens."

James looked up to the sky, pleading with somebody, anybody, to end this conversation. The moment he looked up, however, Rita tugged him forward, pulling him behind the tree's thick trunk, out of view of the others.

"What is it with you and--" he started to say, but of course, didn't get to finish as Rita let go of his hands and put her finger up to his lips, backing him up against the tree.

"What kind of magic does Tula have?" Rita asked lowly.

"Is this really necess--" James started in exasperation, but stopped when Rita shoved him and pinned him against the tree.

"Alright!" he hissed, speaking quickly. "Yes. Yes, she has magic. She's a mage. You could've just asked. Her magic allows her to see through the eyes of others she knows and to show others what she sees through her eyes."

Rita pulled away by pushing off of him, and she took a step back.

"That's how you knew where we were," she said.

"Yes, you're brilliant," James said quietly, his sarcasm clear.

"I allowed your quips before you murdered two of my men," Rita cut in, her tone turning sharp.

That made James go quiet.

"You will treat me with the respect I deserve, or I will make sure you suffer for it," Rita said, inching in again, but this time with a dark look in her eyes.

She stopped again a few inches from him, and he wished he could sink back into the tree were it possible.

"But I don't want to. It... hurt me," she said, her voice softening. "To send you away, you know."

James grit his teeth together, stopping the various number of insults that pushed to leave his mouth in return. Stopping himself from spitting on her, even though he should've.

"We'll talk more," she whispered, and he watched as her eyes flicked down to his mouth, and back up to meet his eyes. Though she didn't come closer, he could see her hesitating, as if she was changing her mind in the moment.

He felt his skin crawl as she smiled.

"Happiness," she said quietly - as if to herself - and then she turned to walk away.

He watched as Rita left him alone by the tree and the horse. When she was out of sight, he leaned his head back against the tree with a tense sigh.

He saw the horse's head come around the tree out of the corner of his eye. It poked around curiously, looking at him.

He stared at it, and it stared at him.

"I'm sorry," he said faintly. "But I'm not giving you a name."

If he did, he'd get attatched. That was the last thing he wanted - to get attached to anything here. To feel like any of this was normal, or right, or okay.

The horse huffed through its nose.

"You're a horse," James said. "That's all."

Why was he talking to the horse?

He shook his head and let out another sigh before he forced himself to move. The moment he looked around he could see two of Rita's men had come into view in the distance, watching him.

He ignored them as he walked back around the tree and took a seat beside the horse in plain view. Eventually, he was called to join everyone for a meal.

Sitting around the fire and eating with everyone didn't feel real. It didn't make sense to casually engage with the others in the same way they all did with each other. None of it really made sense at all.

James stared down into his bowl of beans, vegetables, and meat mixed together.

This was one of the heartiest meals he'd had since he'd come back to Nye, and yet, he wasn't able to enjoy it at all. He hardly remembered eating through it, trying to finish as quickly as possible only to realize he didn't know what to do with himself after, and without the safety blanket of food to occupy him, it left him open to interaction with others.

Pitch was the one who seized the opportunity first.

He didn't know how long he'd been staring blankly into his empty bowl, but he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck raise as Pitch took a seat next to him.

Others around the fire were engaged in different conversations. Some were laughing. Some were still eating. Some were talking about the menial duties that came with long-term travel. He couldn't catch everything when everyone's voices overlapped, and his hearing was never keen in the first place.

He stiffened as Pitch scooted in, just a little. Though with her, it seemed she was closing distance for reasons far different than Rita.

She was trying to keep the conversation between them as much as possible.

He took note of that.

"It's good that you have an appetite," she said quietly.

James looked at her out of the corner of his eyes, but sat still.

"I wasn't sure if you were going to go on a hunger strike," she said.

"I don't think Rita would let me," James said, matching her low volume.

Pitch huffed through her nose, but he could feel her eyes on him, like she was searching for something.

Reality was, he was beyond exhausted. He'd been up for almost two days, now, and he knew he wasn't retaining much of what happened in the past few hours. He didn't know how much he'd remember in the morning, either. But he was sure his exhaustion showed plainly on his face.

You brought this upon yourself, you know, he kept hearing in his head.

"When was the last time you slept?" Pitch asked.

James realized he hadn't moved at all since he'd finished eating.

Even so, he didn't bother to. His eyes were still locked on the bowl in his lap.

"Yesterday," he said.

Pitch was quiet for a moment.

"How long were you searching for them?" she asked. "Malkiel. And Rudy."

James knew Tula knew the answer to this question already, but the answer would align logically with when he believed Tula captured Mal and Rudy anyway.

"A week," he said.

The silence that followed might've felt heavy, but he didn't have the energy to feel much of anything anymore.

Pitch seemed to catch on.

"You should get some sleep," Pitch said with the cool detatchment of a doctor who didn't get emotionally involved.

James agreed, but he didn't know where he was supposed to sleep.

Ever since he'd agreed to follow Rita's orders, he'd been waiting for her instruction before doing much of anything.

It it him, then, how that was a prison of its own.

He let out a weak, mirthless laugh. A singular "hah."

Pitch rose to her feet and left. Time seemed to drag on, but he could feel his consciousness start to drift off. Sleep began to tug at his eyelids, but every time they almost closed, they'd snap back open.

The fire was warm. Sickeningly warm, in the heat.

He lost the war against keeping his eyes open once, and when they snapped open again, it was because someone had grabbed him. Two arms had come under his and lifted him up off the ground, and instinct threw his body into high alert, but he was so tired, even the brief rush of adrenaline his body had to offer didn't help him. It didn't give him any strength. All it did was make him very, very aware that he was scared.

He realized it was Deidra, and someone else who had picked him up. Deidra had his upper body, and a man had taken his legs, and they were carrying him away from the fire and into one of the larger tents they'd set up.

James wanted to fight it and insist that he could walk, but he couldn't seem to muster up the strength to.

What was the point?

He let himself be carried, and when they laid him on the ground, it was like every ache and pain from the past week caught up to him all at once.

The bruises and cuts Butch had given him earlier were throbbing, and his whole body hurt from the inside out. His head hurt with a headache he knew was from lack of sleep and stress. It wrapped itself around his skull, pulling on his neck and shoulders. His joints hurt. His back hurt. His legs were beyond sore. His ankle was probably swelling. It didn't make sense to list everything that hurt.

When they let go of him, he didn't move. He laid still on the floor of the tent, and though he tried to fight off sleep, he wasn't strong enough.

The moment he closed his eyes, his body gave in.

He slept like a dead man that night. Unmoving.

Waking up felt like slowly coming to after a nightmare - not the ones that woke you up with a start, but the ones that froze you in place. The ones that played on while you couldn't move or do anything about it. The ones that kept you drifting in and out of sleep while you knew the horrors were hovering over your shoulder, out of your control, and when you finally did wake up, it lingered in your head for hours. Days.

It felt like he had to fight for consciousness. His body wanted him to sleep and stay asleep, as if sleep would allow him to escape it all. All week his nerves had been torn at the edges, and now they were completely worn out. Attempts to logically convince himself not to drift back into a deep sleep lost against his body's insistence for rest, even though the rest was full of torment while he was asleep.

When his eyes finally fluttered open and he was able to register his surroundings, he froze.

He'd been laid down on a large sleeping mat, and someone had taken off his shoes and socks while he was asleep. A thin blanket was draped over him, and he knew that he wasn't alone.

Someone was sleeping next to him. Someone was towering in the corner of the tent as well, watching.

The problem was, it was still dark. The sun hadn't come up yet, and all he could make out were indistinct shadows - only enough to deduce that people were there.

Whoever was beside him was breathing softly, with the steady breaths of someone fast asleep.

In his gut, he felt he knew who it was.


There was an age-old saying: to keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.

He felt that maybe Rita had taken that saying too far, blurring the lines between friend and foe. She was suspicious of everyone. Of course she wouldn't leave his side. With his history, it would be logical to think he'd try to sneak off at some point in the night when others were asleep. But he knew she had people on watch.

Tense, he didn't let himself move. Now awake and aware, his mind no longer wished to sleep, but desperately wanted to get away and be as far from Rita as possible.

Yet, if he moved, he knew he'd wake her.

If he stayed still, maybe he'd have a few moments of peace before the day began. Though peace was relative, because in this small moment to himself, he found his mind wandering to the deepest source of pain. Not the bounty hunters, not Rita. Not his inevitable death.


He wondered where she was.

She'd run off to find him alone, hadn't she? He wished she hadn't. He wished he'd never left. He wished he could've been the partner she deserved - one who stayed, and didn't abandon her.

After all they'd been through: the years of separation, the slow reconciliation, all the hard conversations, the hell they'd been through together, so many near-deaths, and six months of Eve in a coma - he just threw it all away. He'd fought for it for so, so long. Fought for Eve. Fought for them. And then one week of taunting was enough to do him in?

That hurt.

James felt his chest tighten with pain. The guilt crept in even more, its claws wrapping around his heart as the truth of his own betrayal sunk in once again, and the pain he'd caused Eve hurt even more. He couldn't help but remember all of the emotions - her emotions - that he'd felt when he saw her turn back time the morning she'd woken up and he wasn't there.

There weren't enough apologies to cover it. She always told him he apologized too much, but after this? How could he ever be forgiven?

How many second chances did anyone deserve? He'd already had so many, and he'd ruined them all for himself. Things never stayed good for long. There was always something. Always.

James stared up into the darkness, feeling his eyes start to sting.

He was glad Eve wasn't here to see him like this: looking forward to the day it'd all finally be over. Looking forward to the day that he'd die.

It was funny. It never worked when he tried to die on his own terms. It was always destined for his life to be in the hands of somebody else. And it wouldn't be heroic, or honorable, or meaningful.

He was going to die a criminal, forever remembered as a traitor. That was going to be his legacy. And to the friends from other worlds who he left behind... what was he to them?

The person who ruined their lives? Who made everything fall apart, dragged them to another world, and left them to fend for themselves?

His throat grew tight as tears quietly rolled down the sides of his face. He closed his eyes, trying to stay quiet so his tears would go unnoticed.

The sun was starting to rise. He could see the light slowly beginning to peek through the crack in the tent's flaps, and warm light filtered through the cavas tarp.

He blinked hard, trying to blink away the last of his tears so they'd dry before anyone noticed.

That was when he heard the person beside him roll over, and, daring to finally turn his head, he saw that it was, in fact, Rita.

The person in the corner turned out to be one of Rita's gang members. She sat in the corner on a crate, idle but attentive, and keeping an indirect eye on the two of them.

James waited for the woman to look his way, and then made eye contact. She watched him as he slowly sat up, careful not to disturb Rita as much as possible.

Silently, James looked out, and back, asking if he could leave.

The woman nodded.

James carefully got up and stepped out on light feet, standing just outside the tent to see the sun come up over the horizon, behind the treeline.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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soundofmind says...

Just outside the tent's entrance, Deidra was standing guard with her shoulders back and her head held high. It was a posture he knew she'd had ingrained into her being - as he had it too. He recognized the effects of being in the military in the way people carried themselves.

For a moment, he simply stood there, not saying anything. Deidra didn't make any moves to acknowledge his existence, even thought he knew they were both aware of each other's presence. He knew that if he strayed too far from the tent she'd follow, or otherwise bring him back, so he didn't bother moving.

He watched as the sky started to light up slowly. The deep blues growing warming as orange light spilled in.

"So what do you think of Nye?" James asked quietly.

Deidra glanced over to him, seeming surprised that he'd spoken to her at all, nevermind said something that implied she wasn't from the world. Fortunately, no one else seemed to be up yet to care if they overheard.

"It's... different," she said neutrally.

That was one way to put it.

"Yeah," James said softly, letting the silence that followed drag on once more.

He had a feeling he'd have to be the one pushing the conversation forward. Even when they were "allies" of a sort (before Deidra and Tula showed their true colors), Deidra had always been more quiet and reserved, never speaking unless spoken to or otherwise under orders to.

He could sense that she was out of her element, here on Nye. Tula was too, and he could see already how the two of them had gravitated towards Rita's leadership for some sense of stability.

It was unfortunate, he thought, that having been brought to a world with a fresh start, they ended up being used again so quickly, reduced to tools in someone else's hands instead of independent agents of their own.

Though, he supposed, he really only felt that sympathy for Deidra. Tula he could care less about.

"I'm sorry," James said after a long silence passed.

Deidra looked over to him with her eyebrows drawn together in confusion.

"It's my fault you're here," he said vaguely, but he knew that she understood.

Deidra went quiet again for a moment, but this time looked deep in thought.

"How did you bring us here?" she whispered slowly.

James wasn't sure he'd be able to answer that question in any way, shape, or form. If anyone was overhearing and he tried to explain the bizarre magic of the notes, he was positive he'd either be labelled crazy or earn endless scrutiny because of it.

"I don't know if you'd believe me," he said instead, looking down at the ground.

Truth was, it didn't matter so much how it'd happened. Reality was, he couldn't reverse it, and it was what it was. This was their lives now, and they'd all have to deal with the consequences.

He took in a deep breath, deciding to change the direction of the conversation.

"Do you... have family? Back on earth?" he asked.

Deidra seemed stiff. From the awkward and unsure expression on her face, it appeared that either she'd never really had conversations like this or just never expected to have them with him. But if James had picked up on anything from his brief time with her, he wouldn't be surprised if no one had ever expressed interest in her personal life. Thus far, she'd been treated as the quiet background muscle, even by Tula.

"Yes," she said. "But I haven't seen them in years."


"I haven't seen them since I started working for Oliver," she explained.

Right. Oliver had a tight leash on everyone under him.

"I'm sorry I took you away from them," James offered, and his apology was genuine, even if undeserved.

"I wouldn't have gotten to see them anyway," Deidra muttered, barely audible.

He didn't think Deidra was the kind of person to try to gain his sympathies. Tula was committed to playing people in whatever way beneffitted her, but Deidra, as far as he'd seen, was far less skilled in manipulation. She was used to being a soldier and following orders and doing the heavy lifting, not the spying that required a silver tongue.

"That's sad," James said quietly.

Another lull of silence passed, and James waited, observing to see if Deidra would say more, but she seemed lost in her own thoughts.

"Did you... like? Working for Oliver?" he pressed gently.

Deidra blinked, and from the blank, almost surprised look on her face, he realized that it was possible she'd never even thought of it.

"I don't know," she said distantly, like she was only just know considering that she had the option to have an opinion on the matter. "I just... did."

James wondered if this was an open door.

He'd considered the possibility of sewing distrust among those who captured him in regards to Tula being a mage, but he felt that now, he'd stumbled into something he hadn't been aware of before.

Deidra was used to obeying authority without question, but at the end of the day, someone with her powers didn't have to take orders from anyone.

She was invulnerable. She was insanely strong. She could be unstoppable if she wanted to - which was a terrifying thought, but also one that held great potential.

Deidra was susceptible to influence. She was conditioned into obedience. He had no delusions that he could undo years of conditioning, but there was a part of him that thought, just maybe... he had a chance. A chance to plant a seed. One that hopefully, Deidra would feed on her own.

It was possible that Deidra could become an ally. She just needed to be shown some kindness.

"You know," James said softly. "I'm surprised you feel the need to listen to anyone."

That made Deidra turn her head, and she looked at him a bit wide-eyed. The confusion was present, but it seemed like she was confused at what he'd said but also that it'd come from him.

"With your power," James went on. "You could do anything you wanted. And I don't think anyone would be able to stop you."

The thought seemed to make Deidra nervous, like, again, it was something she'd never considered. She looked away, growing fidgety.

"Of course, you get to decide what you do with your life," James added, hoping to alleviate any tension she felt because of the suggestion. "You don't have to listen to me."

He wanted to make sure she didn't feel like she had to listen to him. He wanted her to feel she had the freedom to choose, because the moment she felt she did, he was curious what path she would choose for herself when no one else was pointing the way.

"I know... it's different," he said, subtly calling back to her first reply. "But maybe it can be the start of something new. Something you create for yourself, out from under anyone's thumb."

He shrugged, and even offered a small, tired smile.

"Just a thought."

Deidra looked at him with what he could only describe as bewilderment. And strangely, a lingering fear behind her eyes.

Perhaps it was a terrifying thought, to consider a life where she had to make her own decisions. To consider a life with freedom.

"... and good morning," he said quietly, looking again to the sunrise. The sun was visible now, over the treeline, peeking out halfway.

"Good morning," Deidra said faintly.

And for a moment, the two of them simply stood there, watching the rising sun.

It was oddly peaceful.

"Why did you turn yourself in?" Deidra whispered after some moments passed.

James looked up at her, wondering what line of thought led her to that question - to be thinking about him, and his reasons for coming.

"To save Mal and Rudy" he said. He'd thought it was rather obvious.

"But they were cruel to you," Deidra said. And he could recall to what she was referring. Malkiel had it out for him for the longest time, and Rudy had always been more blunt and brusque about things. She wasn't present for the moments Malkiel and Rudy had with him in the mines, so she only knew them when they'd butted heads.

To be fair, they had continued to butt heads in the mines as well, but it felt so far away, now.

He let out a small sigh and looked out at the sun with a faint, fond smile.

"Yeah," James said quietly. "I know."

Deidra went quiet again, but he let her think.

"What's going to happen to you?" she asked. "When we get to King's Peak?"

She'd been paying attention, at least. Absorbing information about Nye while quietly listening and observing. She was smart, and quick to catch on.

"I don't know," James answered honestly. It was what everyone wanted to know.

"I'll probably die publicly," he said in a manner he knew was too casual. "Maybe a hanging. Or beheading. Though the latter is preferable, since it's faster."

Deidra looked away for a moment, and he waited.

"What about Evaline?" Deidra finally asked.

James stared at her. She looked back, meeting his eyes.

What about Eve?

He hoped Eve would be able to move on. That she'd reunite with the others. That she'd recover. But something in his gut told him that was too much to hope for.

He knew Eve would never let go.

"Who?" he asked, deciding to play dumb.

As far as he knew, Rita and the others didn't know about Eve and everyone who'd been with him, and he wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible. But the moment Deidra's face twisted again in confusion, James heard someone open the tent flap behind him.

Before he could turn around, Rita had grabbed his shoulder. He tried to step back on his own, but she pulled him into the tent, letting it fall shut behind them. Being spun around with no warning, James nearly lost his footing. As he tried to steady himself, Rita steadied him instead, but not for long.

She kicked his bad ankle - the one that he, upon finally looking at it - knew for sure was swollen.

That was more than enough to make his ankle give out, and he stumbled to the floor with a hiss through his teeth.

He hit the mat on the ground on his side, but Rita was quick. She came down to his level and pinned his shoulders to the ground, sitting herself on top of him. He tried not to writhe as pain radiated up his leg.

"Who's Evaline?" she asked, holding him down.

It took James a moment to realize what had happened. He didn't know how long she'd been listening.

"I don't know," he said, again pretending to be clueless.

Rita narrowed her eyes and jabbed her knee into his ribs, pushing her full weight into his stomach.

"You have a hard time answering questions," Rita said lowly. "That's gonna bite you."

Normally, James would try to wrestle his way out from underneath her. But he knew it'd be a losing battle when she could call on reinforcements at any second and make things even worse for him, so he stayed still as her knee gradually winded him.

"You seem to like asking them with violence," James said, short of breath. "I have to say, it's not very motivating."

Of course, Rita didn't enjoy his humor. Not that he was trying to make anyone laugh.

"I will get answers," Rita seethed. "If not from you, Tula and Deidra will tell me everything I need to know about this Evaline of yours, along with every other friend you left behind. I assume that's who this Evaline is."

"You can assume all you want," James pushed out.

Rita kicked her knee up into his ribs again, harder this time, and he grunted. She leaned in closer, bringing her face next to his.

"You will learn obedience," she said, breathing on his neck. "One way or another, I will break you."

How encouraging. James knew that she'd been waiting a year for this, and was probably enjoying every minute of this - getting to watch him squirm, just waiting for him to defy her one too many times so she could really watch him suffer.

But James knew himself. If someone arrogantly declared victory before the fight had been one, he was going to do everything he could to prove them wrong, even if it was futile.

He glared up at her.

"Is that a challenge?" he wheezed, still unable to take a full breath.

That made Rita laugh, and he didn't like the way she cackled, throwing her head back as if this was some kind of show, just for her entertainment. He inhaled sharply as she lifted her leg off his stomach and got to her feet, every show of aggression gone, like she no longer saw him as a threat. Or rather, never really saw him as one in the first place.

She picked up his shoes, which apparently had been placed at the corner of the tent, and she threw them at him. They hit him in the side and fell over.

"Get up, sweetheart," she said loudly, enough for the whole camp to overhear. "We have a long day ahead of us."

James growled in the back of his throat and stared at the back of her head with daggers in his eyes as he sat up, taking his shoes.

Fine. So she wanted to keep the stupid, pointless gossip going. He was going to fight even more, then, if that was how it was going to be.

Glowering down at the ground, he quickly laced up his boots, deciding it was final.

He was going to forget who he was and do everything he could in his last moments to hurt as many of them as possible, and he didn't care how messy it got.

The only one he'd treat with decency was Deidra, and that was because he was hoping to get her on his side.

He could feel the stubborn flame inside of him ignite. Now? He wasn't going to pull any punches.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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Carina says...

A lot happened that night. It was almost too much for Elias to process.

He was glad that they found Hendrik and his new friends. They all seemed like great people and Elias was looking forward to get to know them. But right off the bat, it seemed they were off to a rocky start. There seemed to be a lot of confusion, but Mel did a good job at explaining what they knew and how to best proceed from here.

Although, Elias didn't get to hear too much of what she had to say since he went on a walk with Finnley, Jordan, and Dr. Mel. Elias did enjoy Jordan's laid-back nature and admired how well Finn was already getting along with him, and Elias did appreciate how wise and cool Dr. Mel was - but he did feel like he was missing out on being with his friends. That wasn't an unfamiliar feeling, though. Elias was frequently left out of the loop, but he knew it was usually because he didn't (or couldn't) understand the many nuances of their situation.

So when he came back to camp and saw Malkiel and Rudy... well, that was a shock. A pleasant, but also heartfelt shock because they didn't look so good. They looked thin and sick. And from what he gathered from Elise, they were horribly beat up. He was glad that Elise and Dr. Mel could heal the two of them back to better health.

Elias did feel bad. After he put Finn to bed, he looked back at Rudy and Mal and saw that they were asleep. He wondered what happened to them. Everyone looked so serious and somber. He knew the news couldn't have been good.

He glanced around, noticing that Elise and Dr. Mel were chatting, deep in a conversation. Mel, Alistair, and Hendrik still sat around the fire and appeared to be catching up as well, keeping their voices low. Elias invited himself over, and he caught them at a natural lull in conversation. He sat next to Mel.

"I think I missed a lot," he said with a faint laugh.

"Yeah, it's been a long night for sure," Mel said, then flicked her eyes between Elias and the corner that Malkiel and Rudy were sleeping. "Oh, you missed the latest development. Yes, Malkiel and Rudy have been on Nye the whole time - but Tula caught them and held them hostage for the last week. She probably sent James a vision of them, which made him leave, which made Eve leave."

This took a good while for Elias to process.

"With the state they were in..." Alistair shook his head, keeping his voice low. "Tula is pure evil."

"Next time we see her, I'm going to strangle that bitch," Hendrik said, not bothering to keep his voice hushed as well. He tightly balled his fists together. "She probably didn't even do any of it. She just watched, and ordered the bounty hunters to do it, like the useless sack of shit that she is."

"I don't know... maybe. She's really unpredictable," Mel said with a sigh.

Elias was playing catch-up.

"So you're saying..." he said slowly. "You're saying that a week ago - the night he left - Tula had already captured Mal and Rudy, just to show James that she had them? That was why he left?"

"Maybe. We don't really know for sure unless we ask James or Tula ourselves, but yes. That's what we think happened," Mel said.

Elias mulled this over. He tried to imagine James silently making the decision of leaving to save his friends. It made him sad.

Mel narrowed her eyes at him. "What is it? You look like you know something."

"No, no. I don't, really. I'm just... processing."

"We knew something had to have happened. It was out of character for him to leave like that," Mel said, then paused. "I had a feeling Tula had to be involved someway, somehow. But... I never would have guessed it was because she found Mal and Rudy."

"I don't really blame him," Alistair said. "I mean, what would you have done?"

Mel scoffed. "I would have immediately woke everyone up so we can figure it out together."

"I would go to Tula's location just to kill her," Hendrik said, still seething.

"I really don't think it works like that, Hen."

"Hey, Alistair. What would you have done?" Elias asked.

Alistair looked uncomfortable being asked his own question with everyone's curious eyes on him. He squirmed in his seat.

"I don't really know," he said after a long hesitation, then laughed weakly. "I probably would have panicked and gone insane."

"Hah, as if that wasn't already true. Hey Hen, you should have seen Alistair first use his magic. It was a sight," Mel said with a giggle.

As they talked, Elias pondered over Mel's question himself. Alistair didn't really answer the question too well, but it made him wonder if he also would have done what James did. Because the more Elias pondered this, the more he wondered if he would as well. The idea of his friends being hurt or even dying because of his disobedience made his chest tighten up, almost in agony.

He decided to not think about that too much anymore, and his mind wandered to their discussion the night he left. Elias didn't know that that would be the last they talked in a while, but he wished that he had said something more important - even when James asked him for words of wisdom.

"Hey," he said, interrupting the conversation to make sure he didn't lose his train of thought. "We're going to find him, right?"

Mel paused, then smiled and patted his back. "Of course we are. And then we're going to yell at him for making dumb decisions."

They chatted for a good bit, mostly catching Hendrik up. Hendrik caught them up as well, detailing his adventures with the mages and his thoughts on everyone. But as the minutes went by, more and more people went to sleep, and the camp grew quieter. When Elise came by to say goodnight, Elias decided to call it a night as well, and so did Alistair. Mel and Hendrik decided to stay up though, especially because they wanted to talk to Bo.

Elias's head was buzzing, and his heart was heavy with the empathy he had for James, Malkiel, and Rudy. As he scooted closer to Finn sleeping soundly on a pile of blankets, Elias decided to hold him close, keeping him near.

It had been a long night. Elias drifted in and out of sleep, but he had a decent night's rest.

When he stirred awake, he almost said "good morning" out of habit to Mel since she was frequently the first one awake and singing a good morning song, but then he realized that he didn't wake up to Mel at all. Instead, Elias rolled over and realized that the body he had been hugging all night was not there.

It took him a few moments to register this, but then --


He shot straight up, frantically looking around the quiet campsite. He didn't really know why his heart beat so fast or why he felt so panicked, but it was alleviated when he saw Finn hanging around Bo near the dead fire pit. He was crouching down, talking softly but clearly engaged with Finn.

Elias rubbed his eyes, steeling his nerves as he looked up at the sky. It was hardly dawn yet. Even Mel was asleep.

Still, Elias groggily but quietly stood up, making his way to Finn and Bo. Now that he was awake, he might as well keep them company.

"Morning," Elias quietly said after a yawn, sitting down next to Finn.

"Bo has one eye," Finn said with a giggle, blurting this out like he had been waiting so long to tell Elias.

Elias smirked, flicking his eyes between Finn and Bo. "Yes, I see that. But do you see that, Bo?"

"Only half of it," Bo said straight-facedly, but then a grin leaked out.

"Half an eye?" Finn said with a grossed-out look.

"Can you see your own eyes, Finn?" Bo asked with an amused smile.

At that, Finn pressed down on the skin under his eyes with a cross-eyed look, seemingly trying hard to see if he could truly see his eyes. Elias stifled a laugh.

"I can't see my eyes," Finn said with great disappointment, dropping his hands in defeat.

"Bo, I think you should set an example and show him how to see his eyes," Elias said with a little grin.

"Well, you see, it's only possible with a mirror," he said.

"Where's the mirror?" Finn asked, intrigued.

Bo reached into one of his pockets, pulling out a small foldable mirror, unclasping it so it was open. Then he faced it towards Finn.

"Take a look," he said.

Finn watched the mirror in great wonder, mesmerized that he could see himself. He slipped his hands under the mirror, trying to grab it out Bo's hands, still immersed in the object. Bo let him take it.

Elias did find this a little odd since he knew Finn had seen a mirror before, but he didn't question it too much, figuring it wasn't everyday that he got to hold a mirror and see himself like this.

"Whooooaaaaa," Finn drew out, holding the mirror in different angles.

"Try making the same face you made earlier," Elias teased with a little smile.

But Finn was already distracted, noticing that Jordan had gotten up early as well. He grinned, already losing interest in the mirror.

"Jordan is awake!" Finn exclaimed, already zipping towards him.

He dropped the mirror, but Elias caught it just before it could reach the ground. He watched his son beeline towards Jordan, who welcomed the good morning surprise.

Elias let out a little laugh, offering the mirror back to Bo. "Thanks for showing him this."

"It's always a hit with the kids," Bo said with a small chuckle to himself, pocketing it away.

"I think his new hobby is to run around finding someone to be with. Sadly, the mirror was less interesting to him."

"People are more interesting anyway," Bo said, getting to his feet.

"He didn't wake you, did he?" Elias asked, also getting up.

"No, I was on watch," Bo said. "He's an adventurous kid, Finn. The moment he got up he tried to sneak away."

Elias laughed through his nose in amusement. Finn had started to do that a little in the mines, but quickly realized that the rest of the mines was dark and slimy. Maybe being out in the open in Nye made him think the world was an open playground.

"Yeah. I'll try to keep my eye on him more. I wouldn't want him to get lost out here," Elias said.

"It's good that he has an adventurous spirit," Bo said lightly.

"And lots of adventurous friends," Elias said as he gestured around. "I'm sure that's where he gets it."

"I'm sure," Bo said, looking over and watching Jordan and Finn play for a moment. Finn had started running in circles around the camp, letting Jordan chase him.

"Hey Elias," Bo said after a beat. "Do you have a moment to talk in private while they're busy playing tag?"

Elias was surprised by the request, but more because he wasn't sure what it is that Bo would want to talk to him privately about. "Oh... sure, yes," he said as he glanced around the rest of the camp. "Lead the way."

Bo nodded, turning to step out into the thicker expanse of trees surrounding them. He didn't walk off too far - just enough to be out of earshot, really - before he started talking.

"I just wanted to talk to you a little about Finn," Bo said. "I know as a parent in this kind of situation, things are a bit different. I wanted to let you know what your options are and give you a chance to ask any questions you might not want to ask with Finn around."

This somewhat caught Elias off-guard, but he slowly nodded, deciding not to overthink it. He wondered what Bo meant by options.

"Alright... sure," he said. "What options do you mean?"

Bo's expression softened, and he nodded.

"Right," he said. "Well, I'll just preface this - from what I gather, you and your friends are all pretty close, and you seem to have a strong desire to stay together. I don't want to get in the way of that. At the same time, I acknowledge that constant travel in the wilds, as well as travel towards the Moonlight Kingdom can be dangerous for other reasons, apart from natural predators and the like.

"At the end of the day, it's up to you, but if you wanted, we could split the party and I could send some of my people with you and Finn, and whoever else wanted to join you, to go to a more secure location that we would meet you at in a few months, after the rescue mission is seen through.

"That said, I know that option may not be preferable, especially since you only just were reconciled with most of your friends. Which is why I wanted to talk through options."

He paused, but only for a second to take in a short breath.

"If you wanted to take Finn with us to the Moonlight Kingdom, me and my people would do everything in our power to keep Finn safe," Bo said. "And we'll put his safety over our own. But as we get closer to the kingdom, the risks that come with travel will increase, and I want to offer you as much as peace of mind as possible. If you didn't want to wait several months before reuniting with everyone, we have several safehouses along the route to the Moonlight Kingdom where you could stay that we could circle back to on the way back."

Bo was right. Elias knew he was right, and he couldn't believe that he was just realizing this now.

The road they were taking was going to be a challenging one. With news that Tula had captured Mal and Rudy and likely tortured them to get James to comply, Elias knew that this was no setting for kids - not to mention all the other unknown dangers that were along the way.

To be fair, Elias didn't know that Finn was even on Nye until just yesterday night. He hardly had time to process everything, much less wonder what the future would look like in Finn's point of view.

"If you decide you'd still like to come with us, we'll have to be more careful, and I think you would likely have to have a hard conversation with Finn regardless about the reality of our situation. I don't want to kill his spirit, but I also don't want him running off into danger because he doesn't understand what's going on," Bo continued, but finally came to a stop, giving Elias a chance to respond.

Elias tried his best to follow along, but it was a lot to take in.

"I wouldn't want Finn to be subjected to all the dangers," he said, then paused. "But would it be possible for me to be a part of the rescue mission, while also being able to send Finn to a safer place?"

Bo met Elias's eyes with empathy.

"The truth is, there's always going to be danger present," Bo said. "But our safehouses are the most secure. Unfortunately, there's not much you can do to be a part of the mission with Finn staying with us. Even if we took him with us to the capital, I wouldn't allow him to come with us inside. I would have you and Finn stay behind."

Elias tried to let this sink in again, although he felt like there wasn't a solution that made complete sense in his head. He wanted to be there for Finn, of course. At the same time, it pained him to not be there for his friends when they were doing everything they could to save James. He wanted to be there for them, too. It didn't feel right to sit by the sidelines, especially when they were all navigating a whole new world together.

He felt like he was grasping for straws here, but he tried again, pressing for a solution that could work.

"So there wouldn't be a way to, say, I don't know - take a detour to the nearest secure safehouse? Or if it's out of the way, then I understand having to split to get there sooner. I ask this because I'd like to also be there for James and my friends. Everyone's risking their lives," Elias said.

"I understand," Bo said slowly. He looked down at the ground, looking to be in deep thought for a moment.

"You're wanting to leave Finn behind," Bo said, like he was saying it to clarify. "So that you can go and help your friends."

It took a moment for Elias to process that. Bo was only stating observations, but they felt more like revelations to Elias.

And he was right. He did want to leave Finn to help his friends, although it didn't occur to him now that that was such an awful thought to have. As a father, he should want to be by his son the whole time.

Elias felt conflicted. He should want to do the right thing and be by his son... but wasn't the right thing also helping his friends? He wondered what he should do.

"What do you think I should do?" he decided to ask instead.

Bo was quiet a moment, and he looked down at the ground as he rested his hands in his pockets, looking in deep thought.

"Can I ask how long you and Finn were separated?" Bo asked.

Elias wasn't sure how to exactly answer that without going through a lot of other background information first, so he decided to answer the opposite question instead.

"It might be easier to instead say how long we've been together," he said. "In total, about a year now. And recently we were separated for about a month."

"And before that year," Bo asked. "Do you know whose care he was under? What was his early childhood was like?"

Elias hesitated. These seemed like obvious questions, but this was the first time he had to ever answer them. His friends hadn't asked before, but he figured it was because they were aware of the complexities.

"It's complicated," he said quietly instead, not really sure if he could give more information.

Bo was quiet again, but he looked like he was studying Elias - not in an analytical way, but there seemed to be a kindness behind it.

"Try me," he said softly.

"Is, um - is this needed?" Elias asked with a weak laugh, rubbing the back of his neck. "I usually don't mind sharing. Really. But I'm still working through some stuff. And like you said, a decision should be made about Finn. So it's a lot to think about."

Bo nodded slowly.

"I don't mean to pry," Bo said softly. "It just helps me to know more about the situation when giving advice. Context helps inform my decisions. But I understand if it's too much to talk about, we don't have to get deep into it."

Elias nodded, wondering what - if anything - he could share that could help Bo in shaping his advice. "Well... if it helps, Finn is my biological son, yes. But I haven't been able to be in his life until recently. I'm still figuring this father thing out. Sorry if I came off as being irresponsible. I'm trying to do the right thing here."

"You don't have to apologize to me," Bo said gently. "I'm thinking about the both of you, right now." He stood up a little straighter. "I think at the moment, with your permission, it would be best for me to send Jordan and Dinny ahead with Finn to a secure location while the rest of us make our way to the Moonlight Kingdom. They'll be able to take good care of him in your absence, and that way we can ensure his safety, and you'll be able to help in the rescue effort to save James."

He looked to Elias with raised brows, seeking his approval.

"So, you don't think I should be with Finn, then? It's best if we separate?" Elias asked.

"I think, from what you've shared, it sounds like Finn has grown up through a lot of change," Bo said. "While it's not ideal for children to grow up in constant turbulence, I think he'll be alright for a few months. And though I'm sure he will miss you, it sounds like because of your former absence in his early years, it's going to take a lot of work and time to build relationship again - as all relationships take time. And I'm guessing you'd likely be more present and able to do so if you knew that your friends were alright."

Elias found himself nodding throughout the entire spiel. Bo was right. It also felt like he was reading his mind, able to succinctly put into words thoughts that Elias had but wasn't able to verbalize or chase. He felt relieved that Bo could understand and thought this was the best option for both of them.

"Yeah. Yeah, exactly. I think so too," he said, still nodding. "That's a good idea."

Bo nodded in return and offered Elias a small, warm smile.

"Thank you for being willing to talk through this," Bo said, resting his hand on Elias's shoulder.

"No, thanks for bringing this up. I appreciate it," he replied with a smile of his own.

"Of course," Bo said, pulling his hand away. He paused to look over his shoulder, back at the camp they came from.

"Do you want me to go with you to let Finn know?" Bo asked.

Elias paused to think, but then shook his head. "No, I can tell him. It's fine. Thanks for offering though. I know he won't mind too much, but I'll be sure to emphasize that it's temporary and I'll be back."

"Alright," Bo said simply. He nodded and began to turn back to camp. Elias followed behind.

"So. Elias," Bo sounded out. "How's that spelled?"

Elias had to stop and think for a second, and it was almost laughably sad how it wasn't instinct since it felt like a long time since he even wrote anything, nevertheless his name.

"E-l-yes," he joked. "Or maybe eel-eyes, or..."
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Carina says...

They captured James five days ago, now. And Tula had been silent since then, waiting for the opportune moment to return having her conversations with James. She missed them dearly. And now that he was here in person, she didn't need to play mind games with him any more.

She could play real games with him now.

But someone was always watching him. Most of the time, it was Rita. She kept him close. Really close. They slept in the same tent, and she frequently checked in on him.

In the few other times that Rita wasn't available to keep James close, they all rotated in shifts to keep an eye on him. First, it was Deidra. Then it was Pitch, then Butch, then Alexander. They rotated once a day. Tula was next.

She got up earlier that morning, making sure to diligently go through her normal morning routine before giving James and Rita's tent another glance. Tula was used to staying under the radar and waiting for the right opportunity to strike, although sometimes she felt like she was testing herself.

As Tula checked-in with Deidra and learned that nothing unusual happened in the night, she saw Rita and James leave the tent in the corner of her eye. Right on time. Rita was already giving off orders, telling everyone the plan of the day and who needed to tear down the tents. James was trailing behind, but was forking away to attend Elliot, tied up against the tree with the order horses.

This was her small window to talk to him for the morning, and she had already finished everything that Rita would order her to do. With that, Tula weaved her way around the others and walked towards the horses with a bag so it could appear that she was putting her items away while also keeping an eye on James.

But before she could get five steps in, Rita suddenly stepped in her way, interrupting her plans.

"Tula," Rita said quietly, reaching out to put her hand on Tula's shoulder. "Let's talk."

Tula hesitated for a brief moment, but didn't flick her eyes towards James or show any disinterest. She nodded, curiosity in her eyes.

"Sure, Rita." Tula gestured to the direction away from James and the rest of the group. "Do you want to go over there?"

Rita nodded, and turned to walk, letting Tula follow. When they were out of earshot of the rest of her men - who were either packing up or preparing breakfast - she finally stopped under the shade of a few bushy trees.

"I wanted to talk to you about James," she said. "Specifically about his magic. As expected, he's not been the most forthcoming about its nature. I wanted to hear what you knew of it so we could be aware of what he's capable of."

The first thought that came to Tula's mind was: why are you asking me? But before they captured him, Tula did paint a picture that she had been close to him enough to travel with him, know his friends, and see his magic.

"I don't know all of the details myself, but I know enough to understand the gist of it," she said.

Tula thought back to the time that Oliver briefed her on his magic. Even then, he was vague. She would be speaking from indirect experience - but direct experience on whatever new magic he did have. She didn't know what it was or how he was able to escape, but she had her own theories.

"His magic is mostly connected to other time mages. When a time mage goes back in time, he can dream of the experience they undid. That's the extent of what I know about that ability." She paused for a beat. "I also know he has another unique ability to use time to get out of perilous situations. One second he's there, and in a flash, he disappears, only leaving behind a trail. Since he hasn't done this with us yet, I believe another time mage must be present for this to happen."

Rita studied Tula for a moment, but seemed to be more in thought about what she'd said, humming as she folded her arms and looked off to the side.

"His claim is that he can cause time to stop," she said. "To freeze time, as he put it. But you believe he can only accomplish that with another time mage around. Why?"

Tula tilted her head, taking a second to process this new bit of information.

Freezing time. Of course.

She knew it had to be connected with time somehow, but even Ovrell couldn't accept that something like that could be possible. But if what he said was true, then it explained how James and Evaline could escape when they were seconds away from their fate.

"He has been traveling with his partner, Evaline, who is a time mage. They use their magic to escape together. She's not here with us, and we haven't seen him freeze time - hence why I think they must be together to make that work," Tula said.

"So it would be in our best interests to ensure we keep them apart," Rita said.

Tula kept her eyes on Rita, wondering if she had intel. "Correct. Do you have information suggesting otherwise?"

"No," Rita said. "But James has refused to even acknowledge her existence. Do you believe Evaline could be on our trail?"

Tula didn't hide the growing smirk on her face. "Oh, she exists. You can ask Butch. He saw them together six years ago, right before he retired. I can't be certain where she may be now, but I believe she would be desperate enough to do anything to find him again."

"Which could get troublesome for us," Rita said. "If she were to catch up, and they were able to..." She gestured loosely with her hands. "Freeze time to get away."

Tula paused for a second, wondering what Rita was not saying.

"Correct," she said again, slower this time.

"Correct me if I'm wrong," Rita said. "But I've been led to believe that you might be able to help us, with this impending predicament."

Rita tilted her head.

Tula didn't move or flinch, keeping her eyes on Rita. She had a feeling she knew what she was going to say next.

"With your magic," Rita said.

Tula tried to hide her clenching her jaw. James must have told her. Of course he did. But who would believe a man who would say anything to obtain freedom?

"You think I have... magic," Tula said slowly and simply, stating the fact in an almost accusatory tone.

"I don't think that James found us here on accident," she said. "And I don't think he somehow stumbled his way into our path. How was he to know we even had his friends captive? They could've just as easily gotten lost or killed by some beast in the wilds. But that man came stumbling into our camp with intent, already ready to bargain himself in exchange for their lives."

She paused, a small smirk gracing her lips.

"Of course, if you had any part to play in that, magic or not, I'm impressed," she said. "And I would be remiss to not acknowledge the value and utility of such a skill. You see, Tula, not all of us are monsters. I do not find magic to be an evil that has to be blotted out from the world. I think, in the right hands, its a gift. So if you did have magic... you'd be in no danger with me. And no one else would need to know."

For a moment, Tula considered doubling down on denying she was a mage. She could continue to spin up lies and half-truths like she had been doing before, but Rita was good at detecting lies and bullshit. Perhaps she would see right through her.

But Tula was also good at seeing through others. She studied Rita for a second, looking for the subtlest hint of a tell. Was Rita bluffing, or was she sincere?

Was her being a mage really not a threat to her?

"If I had magic..." Tula started slowly, still carefully watching Rita. "Would you consider it a gift?"

"Of course," Rita said. "Why put something so valuable to waste?"

Tula stayed silent, waiting to see if Rita would elaborate. She wanted to know what else she knew.

"You don't believe me," Rita said slowly, meeting Tula's eyes. "Do you really think I'd turn you in?"

Tula amused the possibility, crossing her arms as she studied her. "You plan on turning in James," she said like it was obvious. "And we are headed towards the Moonlight Kingdom."

"James has done plenty to earn what's coming to him outside of being a mage," Rita said. "Had he not caused me so much trouble last year, we might not be having this conversation right now."

She paused and let out a sigh, resting her hands on her hips.

"Magic is powerful," she said. "And of course it can be dangerous in inexperienced hands. But it's also invaluable, and in a world where mages are few, magic gives mages an advantage. I believe they should be preserved, not turned in for being born with something they didn't get a choice in having in the first place."

Tula had always been wary of everyone, but she had considered Rita an ally early on as they shared many mutual interests. But if she were truly being sincere in thinking that mages should not be turned in just because they have magic, then she she wondered if she could be a closer ally than she thought.

After all, Deidra was the only one that Tula could fully trust. They both shared the same background and line of thinking, after all. But having an ally from Nye could change everything. Tula considered the possibilities before speaking.

"What do you know?" she asked firmly, getting straight to the point.

Rita smiled, but it didn't seem malicious. She just seemed pleased.

"You can see through other people's eyes, and show them what you see," she said.

"You want me to spy for you," Tula stated carefully, arms still crossed.

"I see I don't have to spell it out for you," Rita said, smile growing.

Tula hummed, finally dropping her stare as she looked out into the wilderness.

"I don't mind spying for you, Rita. I believe we have mutual interests. If I have met the person, and they can remember my face - I can spy for you. I am loyal. But..."

Tula faced back towards Rita, her face serious and calculating. She had to bite down the excitement she felt inside, knowing this was still a serious matter.

"If you betray me, know that my abilities affect you too."

"I'm aware," Rita said. "I will trust you not to use them on me unless asked so long as you trust me and take me at my word that I have no desire to throw you to the dogs."

Tula let the briefest smirk slip. Rita seemed sincere. This could be the beginning of something new.

Still, if they were going to embark in this new professional relationship, then Tula needed to take more risks and know more about Rita. This was no longer Earth where it was expected of her to be employed by Oliver. If something were to go wrong, Tula could potentially be caught and killed.

"Let me guess. You want me to spy on Evaline because she's James's other lover," she said, implying that Rita was romantically interested in James.

"I'd like you to make sure she doesn't find us," Rita said. "By whatever means possible."

Tula noted that Rita didn't correct her, but she decided move to past that as well. "Gladly. I can send her a message tonight, but I will need to have some time with James."

Rita raised an eyebrow.

"That was the other thing I wanted to ask you about," she said, leaning in slightly. "Was how exactly you two met."

After that first sentence, Tula expected Rita to press for more details on how she was able to use her magic to reel James in - but this? She did not expect this. She faltered but recovered quickly, going over old lines in her head that she had rehearsed.

"Deidra and I were part of their group of mages," she said with a twirl of her hand in front of her. "But unknownst to them, I was a bounty hunter. Unfortunately when I tried to capture James myself, he got away and left me in the dust. Hence why I am here with you all now."

Rita hummed.

"A mage that's a bounty hunter," she said. "Turning on your own kind. Now that's interesting."

"As you know, my magic is rare, and so I don't have much in common with most mages. But I avoid hunting mages as my bounty anyways," Tula said. "Nonetheless, being a bounty hunter and a mage spy is a strong combination."

"Undoubtedly," Rita said slowly.

There was a short pause as Rita set her hands in her pockets. Tula noted that her posture seemed relaxed and open, as if she didn't view Tula as a threat - or rather, trusted her.

"So why hunt James?" she asked.

"The same reason why any other bounty hunter pursues him: the money," Tula said like it was obvious.

"I thought you said you didn't care about the money," Rita said.

Tula thought back to when they all first met each other. She was self-aware enough now to recognize she was desperate back then and would say anything to get anyone on her side.

"Now I don't, yes. Like I said, I was traveling with him until he caught on to my intentions. Now it's more personal and I'd like to see him turned in," Tula said.

"How personal?" she asked.

"Personal enough that I would like my revenge," Tula said with a hint of stubbornness - not because she didn't want to answer, but because she didn't know how to answer without Rita asking even more questions. She decided to deflect instead. "We were not together, if that was what you were wondering. It's not that kind of revenge."

"What kind is it, then?" Rita continued to pry.

What was she to say? Tula could say she was backstabbed by James since she already implied she was loyal until trust was broken, but that didn't make sense with the context. And with Rita continually asking more questions, Tula would soon run out of answers.

"Why do you want to know?" Tula asked instead.

Rita stared at Tula for a moment, her lips pressed together.

"I suppose I don't need to," she said, resting her hands on her hips again. She glanced back at the camp, where everything was packed up, now.

"You can have your time with him when we stop to camp tonight," she said. "And you can send whatever message to Evaline as necessary. I trust you to try to throw her off our path once you can determine where she is."

Tula was glad that she had established these plans before Rita started to interrogate her. She knew now that she had to talk to James not only to mess with him and Evaline, but to also get their stories straight. It was in both of their interests.

"Yes, Rita. I will do my best."
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soundofmind says...

Five days felt like an eternity.

They had at least two months ahead of them, give or take a week depending on weather, the specific route they took, and if they ran into any other obstacles along the way. Unfortunately (or fortunately, it was too soon for him to decide) travel had been going smoothly, and at the moment, they were on course to arrive in the Moonlight Kingdom by the end of Aurna, the beginning of autumn.

That meant it'd be getting colder, and as they entered the Moonlight Kingdom, it'd only get gradually more miserable.

Autumns in the Moonlight Kingdom were short, and the winters were long. He didn't look forward to traveling in the snow.

Regardless, he didn't have much to look forward to at all.

At the moment, keeping his head above the water looked like keeping his head down. Thankfully, Rita had stopped interrogating him about his friends' whereabouts, but he knew that wasn't the end of it. He was being as agreeable as he could be without letting her overstep, but he didn't know how long that would last. Currently, Rita was barely tolerable. It was inevitable that their agreement of "obedience based comfort" would fall through once the boundaries got too blurred, and when it came to that, James wanted to have allies, or at least people on the way to becoming allies around him.

Problem was, he didn't get a lot of time alone with anyone, which made it hard to build trust. But he felt he at least had the start of something with Deidra.

It was closing in on the end of another day. James was exhausted, but not for lack of sustenance, but lack of sleep. Unsurprisingly, getting captured did nothing to solve his preexisting sleeping problems. Instead, it only made it worse.

He had a headache. A bad one.

After eating he retreated to the tent early. No one paid him any mind apart from the guards watching him, but he wasn't prevented from doing so. He wondered if his need for rest was that transparent, or if they really didn't care. Perhaps it was nothing. Maybe it was something. He never knew, with Rita. It felt like everything was a game. Nothing was on accident.

In the tent, at least, it was darker. The canvas walls kept out most of the firelight, and the sun was going down, which at last was a relief. No one followed him inside the tent as he slowly laid down on the mat laid out on the ground and curled up, trying to cover his ears and block out as much sound as he could manage.

It felt like someone was piercing through his skull.

His perception of time felt skewed. He didn't know how long he'd laid there, or how long Tula had been standing there by the entrance, looking down at him.

"Pathetic," she said when he finally gave her a sliver of attention. She uncrossed her arms, staring down at him with a hint of a smirk.

"What do you want?" James snapped. He had no patience for her at the moment.

Tula ignored his question, instead dragging a nearby stool closer to him. She gingerly sat down, her eyes still glued on him. She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. After another short silence, she finally said, "We need to talk."

Her voice was grating.

He stayed silent, waiting for her to explain for herself.

"Are you going to continue to lay down like a baby? That's no way to hold a conversation," she said instead.

James had to filter out every insult that ran through his mind in that moment to keep from saying something that would only provoke her. He wanted to. He wanted to make her angry - to somehow get under her skin. To get in her head the way she wormed into his. But he had to be objective.

She wanted to talk. She was coming alone. It was possible she had hidden motives to come and speak with him in private.

Were it anyone else, he'd at least try to hear them out.

Gritting his teeth, he forced himself to sit up. To ignore her condescenscion. To ignore her petty insults and her haughty demeanor.

He turned to face her, trying to, with all of his strength, ignore the piercing in his skull and be present.

He waved a hand loosely towards her that said all he needed to say. Go ahead.

"There. That's better, isn't it?" Tula said with a crooked smile. She sat up straight and crossed her leg over her thigh, but paused again. "Migraine?" she said instead.

He sighed through his nose.

"Yes," he said, choosing not to deny the obvious.

Wordlessly, Tula opened her canteen and poured a little water into the cap. With her free hand, she reached into the pack around her waist, dug around for a bit, then pulled out a small, white bead. She placed the bead into the water, gently swirling it with her hand. The bead instantly dissolved.

"Drink this," she said, handing the cap to him.

He was right to be suspicious. The last time he blindly trusted Oliver for medication, it almost led to him killing himself.

But he didn't care. He had nothing else to lose.

James took the cap and with one gulp, threw it back with a tilt of his head. Wordlessly, he handed it back to her.

Tula took back the cap, placing it on the canteen. She seemed to gloss over the details of what it was she gave him, instead diving right into the point.

"I had a conversation with Rita today. She wanted to ask about how we met." Tula slightly tilted her head, studying James. "I didn't reveal the truth and don't have the intention to, but it would be in our best interests to agree on a fake story."

James stared at her for a moment.

Our. We. Us. Tula believed it would be best for them.

But would it? If there were holes in her story, it could benefit him is she fell out of favor with Rita. If her holes pointed to holes in James's story, all it'd mean for him was what he already had coming for him: more suffering. It'd only change how quickly it came, if Rita felt pressed for answers.

Of course, James would never tell Rita that Tula was from another world, because that would implicate Deidra.

Then again, if he didn't help Tula now, any trouble she got in for not having a reliable story to offer Rita would implicate Deidra regardless. All three of them would be under scrutiny, and it was possible that, with Rita's obsessive tendencies, that she wouldn't allow Deidra or Tula to leave.

Point was, if it ever came to light that they were from another world, it'd be a messy can of worms and there was no telling how Rita would react - whether she'd believe them or think they were lying - it would get complicated real fast.

"I don't have to spell this out for you," Tula said with a dismissive lazy wave of her hand. "But Rita also knows of Evaline. You wouldn't want her and your friends to be dragged into this if you tell the truth, would you?"

Rita didn't have any bank in catching mages, but if said mages were his allies, and if she had any reason to believe she could use them for any purpose - like if they were otherworldly, for example - it was possible she'd actually want to get involved.

It was also possible she'd just dump it onto somebody else. Hire mage-hunters to take care of the matter.

But who was to say she didn't plan on doing that anyway? Rita already knew Eve was a mage, didn't she?

There were too many unknowns, but he couldn't argue with her. This was the simplest way to protect all of them.

"So what did you tell Rita?" James asked. "Anything? Any vague parameters we have to work with?"

"She knows about my magic, no thanks to you," Tula said sourly. "I told her that I was a bounty hunter and used my magic to track down bounties. I tracked down your whereabouts and traveled with your group of mages. You turned on me when my intentions became clear, and I've been obsessively hunting you down ever since."

If Rita confirmed Tula had magic and didn't sell her out to the authorities, then clearly, she had no issue with it. If anything, she was probably keeping Tula around to use.

That wasn't comforting. So, what, now Tula using her magic was both approved and protected by Rita?

Great. Just great.

James reached up to rub his temple to will the migraine away, but just as he did so he began to feel the pain subsiding. For a few seconds, it was gradual, and then it was like a rush as the pain left completely, and finally, he felt like he had a clear head again.

Right. So it was painkillers. He would think maybe that meant Tula was capable of empathy, but knowing her, she probably just wanted him to be able to function for this conversation for her benefit. And who knew if there were side-effects.

"Alright," James said slowly, lowering his hand to his lap. "So... what do you need me to fill in for you? That sounds solid enough. Do you think Rita's going to want every detail of your life?"

Tula slightly narrowed her eyes at him, pausing for a moment. "Doesn't she want every detail of your life?"

"I didn't know she was giving you the same treatment," James said plainly.

"Then you underestimate Rita. Clearly, she is obsessed with you," Tula said, appearing to not catch the irony in her own words. "She's territorial over you and wants to know why I wanted to catch you so bad. That's the detail I wasn't able to fill."

"And you can't just tell her you were hired by someone else?" James asked.

Though he knew the answer, a part of him did want to hear Tula express her motives. James understood it to be an issue of loyalty to Oliver until it became about making right a personal failure to follow-through.

"Who? If I said that, then she would press for details," Tula explained.

And she'd probably want to find them, too, just to corroborate the story. She'd probably send one of her hundreds of men just to fact-check, and if they came up with a fictional employer, it could lead to more scrutiny.

But it'd also take a while for her to fact-check everything. Though she was thorough, information couldn't travel in a day. Unlike earth, information couldn't be exchanged remotely and instantaneously.

Well, apart from Tula's powers. But Rita wouldn't trust her with confirming her own story.

"What if I killed your former employer?" James asked. "Make me your alibi."

Tula hummed, thinking this through. "And why would you do that?"

"Maybe they were an old enemy of mine, but a friend of yours," he offered. "That could help contribute to the obsession you have with me being turned in now."

Tula rhythmically tapped her finger on her thigh. "This could work. Let's say it was a family member of mine. Do you have a preference on who? It could be my mother, father, or brother."

"I don't know what any of them are like," James said. "The best lies are based in truths. What would be most believable? If one of them was my enemy, it's more likely we started as friends."

"Any of them would work," Tula said plainly, but then paused to reflect. "But my brother may be more believable for you to be friends with him. If he was your friend, how would he become your enemy?"

"How old is your brother?" James asks.

"He would be forty now. Ten years older than me, and thirteen years older than you."

James thought for a moment. It seemed that Tula wasn't very close to her family, or didn't really care about them that much. Clearly it wasn't tearing her up to be stuck on a different world, away from them with how casually she mentioned them.

"That would make it a bit unlikely for us to become friends, I'd think," James said. "Unless your brother's the mentoring type."

Tula frowned and shook her head. "No. Not unless you also have spy magic. Why mentor, anyways? What age do you imagine killing him?"

"If we're sticking with one of your family members also being your employer, or just the person who sent you after me, then I imagine I'd be an adult by then. The timeline you gave Rita implied all of this happened within the last year, because, before that, I was with her."

He paused, shaking his head.

"I said mentor because I don't imagine many other ways I'd end up close to someone thirteen years older than me, and frankly, Rita knows enough about my early adult years that I don't think I'd be able to say: oops, I forgot to mention meeting Tula's brother while I was on the run. It'd make most sense if I met him while in the army, and having been a teenager then... well, it's what I said before."

Tula let out a long, tired sigh, like she was admitting defeat.

"I also have a younger sister," she said after a brief silence. "She'd be your age. But I don't think it makes sense for her to be my employer."

"Maybe you were doing it as a personal favor, then," James offered. "To get revenge on her behalf, maybe."

"Sure. We can say that, and I can act the part," Tula said plainly, clearly not motivated by the idea.

James raised a brow.

"I take it you and your sister don't actually get along?" he asked.

"No. She was an entitled brat," Tula said with annoyance.

"Okay. I could befriend an entitled brat," James said. "For the sake of the story."

Tula half-rolled her eyes and shook her head. "Sure. So, you befriended her. Why did you kill her?"

James hummed and looked up to the top of the tent, in thought.

"Does your sister have magic?" he asked.

"Yes. Same as mine, but stronger." Tula paused. "On Earth, anyways. But I'm sure it would also be stronger on Nye."

James tapped his fingers on his knee, trying to think of something plausible. Believable.

"If someone with powers like yours were to... perhaps, become permanently disabled in some way, would that inhibit their ability to use their powers?" James asked slowly.

Tula stared at James. "What do you mean, permanently disabled?"
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm gonna lay down and become a tomato for a while.
— RokitaVivi