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Fate's Hand



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Tue Nov 29, 2022 5:08 am
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soundofmind says...



"Consider... perhaps, in a childhood incident - because accidents often happen - I did something that caused your sister to never be the same. A child, once with a promising future - with powerful magic - then becomes bitter, blames me, and there's a dramatic, painful rift in the friendship. Unforgiveness festers, produces resentment. Hatred. Years later, she can't use her magic anymore. But you can. Maybe you never liked the person she became, and you didn't get along, but you could both agree on one thing: I deserve to die. So you go and do what your sister isn't able to, and you find me. When you find me and my group of friends I'm wary at first, but you dress it up as an opportunity to reconcile with your sister and finally put those things in the past. That gets you in. But then I catch on that it's not all that it seems. We get close to the rendezvous point you originally planned where we'd meet with your sister. The plan was that when we got there, you'd kill me in front of her, finally giving both of you the satisfaction you desired. But what you didn't plan for was Evaline and I causing time to stop... and I took the opportunity to take out your sister for good."

He paused, then added.

"So now you have more personal motive to explain your desire to capture me. It's a revenge-based story, but it also conveniently leaves the person tying it all together dead. So only you and I can truly confirm it."

Tula seemed to mull this over, keeping her steely gaze on him. "Blindness. Let's say the accident you caused made her blind. She wouldn't be able to use her magic if she was blind."

"Perfect," James said.

He took note of it, though, that Tula likely had the same weakness.

Tula nodded, sitting up straight with her feet flat on the floor again. "Okay. This works."

"We should probably establish some kind of... basic background for you and your family. Where you're from, originally. So that we'd be able to explain how I became friends with your sister," James added.

"Sure. What do you suggest?" Tula asked.

"Would it make sense to say your family was a military family?" James asked.

Tula tilted her head again, this time in thought. "I can certainly act the part. I'm not familiar with how the military works around here, but I imagine it's still fairly strict."

James hummed.

"That might be too nuanced to explain," he muttered. "What social class would you place your family in?"

Tula hesitated, likely trying to think of an appropriate response considering that the society she grew up in was currency-less. "My family had the best spying magic, if that's what you mean. We served the highest government officials."

"Upper class, then," James said. "The only stipulation is that you have to remember we're in a world where magic is outlawed, but that doesn't mean mages don't exist inside kingdom walls. Most of the world believes all mages are killed with no exceptions, but there have been exceptions in history for mages with rare or exceptionally useful abilities. We can say that your family served the king as spies quietly, in secret, but still benefited from the wealth and security of the position. So you were well off, and probably some of the most privileged mages out there. Some of your and your siblings' schooling probably overlapped with the military, so let's say that's how I met your sister. And there, our troubles began."

Tula nodded again. "That checks out. My family and I grew up in the Moonlight Kingdom, then? Would my employer still be with the king?"

"...Yes," he said.

That could cause complications when they made it to King's Peak, but James was hoping it wouldn't come to that. And he knew no one in this band of bounty hunters was going to get an audience with the king.

"Since we're going to release you to the king, let's say he wasn't my employer. I was cast out of the little family business since others know when I used my magic on them. I fill my days being with my sister, who was also cast out for being blind. And so I turned to bounty hunting."

"That fills in that hole," James said.

"Are there any other holes?" Tula asked.

James tried to think a moment, running the details over in his head.

"What's your sister's name?" he asked. "I would know it."

"...Nyah," Tula answered.

James blinked.

"Huh," he said. "Okay."

"I'm aware of the irony," Tula said plainly. "Anything else?"

"The rest of your family's names," James said. "Though, if Rita tries digging for them, she wouldn't find them. But she'll have trouble finding anything behind King's Peak's wall."

"Are you asking so we can get our story with Rita straight, or are you asking because you are curious?" Tula asked, her eyes glued on him again.

"I just don't want to be asked by Rita and not know the answer," James said. "I'll be the only person she'll be able to fact-check with. We need to be on the same page."

Tula seemed to find this as acceptable-enough reasoning, nodding at his answer. "My brother's name is Fidel. My mother name is Azara, and my father's is Leoncio."

"You'll need a surname," James said. "I know you don't have one..."

He paused, wanting to let her come up with one unless she, for whatever reason, couldn't think of anything.

"Anything works, really," Tula said, but then paused for a brief moment when James allowed her time to put in a suggestion. "You can use Nazar if you can't think of anything." She didn't elaborate on where the name came from.

"That's fine," James said. "I think we've covered the most important things. For the sake of having a specific timing indicator, let's say that I accidentally blinded Nyah when we were sixteen, and we became friends at twelve. As for the accident, let's say it was during training. We were sparring, and I accidentally hit a lamp on a downward swing. Oil got on the blade, taking flames with it, and the fire burned her face."

"Tragic. Nyah lost her sight and her pretty face," Tula said with a slight smirk.

"What, were you jealous?" James asked.

Tula huffed through her nose. "Now you're asking questions that don't concern Rita."

So, yes, then.

"Then I think we've covered what we need to," James said. "Anything else would just be embellishment. If you add any details of relevance to the story - if or when it comes up - just let me know."

Tula nodded, standing up. "That's done, then. Thank you for your cooperation."

She peeked through the tent flap to see what was outside, but didn't yet move. Whatever possessed Tula to be neutral for their conversation was gone, and James sensed that things were quickly going to return as they were.

Unlike Deidra, James wasn't sure if there was any hope for Tula ever changing.

With a sinister grin, Tula whirled back around with the familiar crazy glint in her eye that appeared before she did something evil. She gracefully pulled a knife out of her side sheath, twirling it in her hands.

"Rita knows of your dear Evaline," she said in a mocking voice as she drew nearer, one slow step at a time. "And she wants me to send a message. Why don't you be good and stay still for me?"

At that, Deidra came barging in the tent, ready to wrangle James.

Did Rita know about this? No, Tula said she knew already. James was stiff as Deidra came around and twisted his arms behind his back, locking his wrists together with cuffs. She lifted him briefly to make him kneel, and then pushed him to the ground again so he was sitting while she held him in place at the shoulders.

"James, James, James," Tula cooed as she drew near, the edge of the knife drawing dangerously close to his face. "What should we do with you?"

Memories started leaking in, unwanted.

The Gaia's vines, tightening around his throat. Butch's knee in his back. Reed, digging his knife through layers of skin, peeling it back.

"Do you remember when we trapped you in the mountains? You, separated from Evaline with a glass wall. How you helplessly watched as we slowly killed her," Tula said as she used the knife to trim his beard. The cut hairs drifted down into the ground and his thighs. "Now the roles are reversed. She will helplessly watch as I slowly kill you, one day at a time."

For the first time since he capture, he found himself wondering if all of this was in Rita's approval, and if Rita would actually be the one to protect him from Tula, too.

Tula watched the knife with great interest as she carefully trimmed his beard, using her hands to delicately move his face around and get under his chin.

"The medicine you took is an instant pain killer. But as you know, something can't come from nothing. Your migraine may be gone, but now your blood is thinner."

At that, there was a prick of pain above his lips. Tula had nicked his face with the knife.

"Oops," she said with an innocent smile. "I'm sorry. My fingers slipped. But you look so handsome now, don't you, romance boy?"

Even though the nick was minor, James felt the blood oozing out and dribbling into the ground as if she had nicked a vein instead. This must have been an side-effect of the drug.

Tula ignored the blood, instead moving his chin around to examine him at different angles, continuing to trim off any spots she deemed needed it.

"I think Evaline would very much like to see you hurt," Tula said with a final nod, now threatening the knife up to his neck.

James had a feeling that she had started to broadcast to Eve.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.





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Carina says...



Fourteen days had passed since Eve left.

Traveling by herself had been... difficult, but not impossible. Alone in her still-weak state, it was like she was a moving target. There were frequent run-ins with animals and nature, but luckily she was able to avoid it all by going back in time avoiding the scenario to begin with. She always did that. She always avoided her problems.

Elliot was loyal and good to her. He held less weight now and could travel longer distances with just her, but she made sure to not tire him too much. Eve gave him ample time to rest and eat.

Whenever they did have breaks, Eve looked at the map. They had been strictly going south east so they could go to Ruddlan. She was about halfway there now, and she was already in need of supplies - namely, food. But she could ration all she had and make it without problems.

Eve had to constantly remind herself of her purpose. It felt like she was aimlessly wandering, but she was also driven to make change. She knew James was in the hand of bounty hunters, and Eve stood no chance going against them. She had to make it to King's Peak before they did. It was her only chance of saving him.

She did often wonder if her friends were okay. She felt immense guilt for abandoning them, but she felt even more guilty in knowing she would do it a thousand more times if it meant she could save James.

This was always her fate, wasn't it? Loving someone so much that she couldn't let go, even if it ruined her life?

Eve tried not to overthink it, but she was always overthinking it - especially during the long nights by herself. She often curled up near Elliot, drifting in and out of sleep with no one on watch. There were a few times she felt pain, and a few times she felt ambushed, but there wasn't anything she couldn't undo.

It seemed she was always the most powerful and in control when she was driven by these intense emotions. She wondered if she could last until reaching King's Peak.

Halfway there to Ruddlan. She could stock up there and get everything she needed to make the even longer trip to King's Peak. She just had to last for another fifteen days.

The sun was going down, and Eve prepared for another night. She found herself against sitting upright with Elliot nearby, alone in her thoughts.

Her mind was buzzing with so many questions that didn't have answers, but she was tired. She had been thinking the same thoughts for the last two weeks, and she was growing weary and tired. Eve felt familiar hatred growing at the back of her heart, but she took in deep breaths to dispel of it. She wanted to keep her focus on James, not Tula. Not the others. No one else.

One question that Eve wondered was when Tula would reach out to her. She knew how she operated. She knew she wanted to get under her skin and boast about her bounty. But so far, Tula hadn't reached out to her. Eve figured she wasn't able to get the time or space to mock and torture James while directing threatening messages towards her, but she couldn't be sure. And not knowing drove her to madness.

Because, after all - what if none of this was true? What if James wasn't caught by Tula? What if she had created this whole mess out of nothing, or even worse, unintentionally caused him to be caught somehow?

Eve reread the note he left behind at least a hundred times now. As sad as it was, she had to reread it to keep herself sane.

Some time passed, and Eve found herself meditating again. She often did before sundown so she could keep her cool.

But in the middle of her session, it finally happened.

Tula was sending her a message.

She was looking through Tula's eyes, and in front of her was James, held back by Deidra - although Eve couldn't see her face because Tula was busy angling his face in different directions. His beard had grown quite long since she last saw him, but it appeared to be recently trimmed - likely by Tula, judging from the cut hairs on his clothes. But what caught Eve's attention the most was the blood that was quickly pooling down his lips and chin, onto the ground.

It looked like it could have been from trimming his facial hair, although the stream was running exceptionally fast.

"I think Evaline would very much like to see you hurt," Tula said with a nod, drawing the blade of her knife across his neck, but not yet piercing through it.

Even though this was a vision, Eve had reached out and tried to stop her, knowing she was only reaching for air. She tried to say something, anything - but she couldn't hear her own voice.

"See, Evaline, I know your type. It's pathetically desperate," Tula mocked as the blade ran along his blue veins across the neck. "You'll do anything to keep your lover alive. You'll do anything to keep yourself alive. But in a game of chess, only one piece remains. You can't keep yourself and your lover alive."

Tula let the knife travel from his neck down to his shoulder and arm, continuing to speak without pause.

"At least, that's what happens when you try. And you are trying, aren't you? To find him? Let me show you what happens when you try."

At that, Tula let the knife sink into his skin, running the blade down his upper arm. The cut was quick and didn't look to be that deep, but blood quickly gushed down like she had ripped open a ripe fruit.

James winced and grit his teeth, but he didn't cry out or make any noise. Though he had been avoiding meeting Tula's eyes at first, he finally did look up, but only for a second.

It was clear he wasn't looking at Tula. He was looking at her. Eve felt her heart skip a beat, and the fire in her chest was reignited.

His eyes were watery, and though his expression was pained, this was a look she knew. She could hear the words behind the expression: I'm sorry. It was an unrelenting apology.

Tula didn't hesitate to repeat the process on his other arm, this time digging the tip of the blade a little deeper into his skin. Blood spurted out, staining his clothes and pooling on the floor.

"Have you ever heard of the expression 'death by a thousand papercuts'?" Tula continued to mock.

"Papercuts? Really? You can do better than that," James interjected, his voice cutting, and angry in a way she'd never really heard before.

Tula clicked her tongue. "Then perhaps death by a thousand cuts would suffice." At that, she slashed his upper arm one more time, doubling the blood loss from the arm. She sat back and watched her work. "Hm. I wonder how long you can go while losing this much blood."

"Rita wants me alive," James said with labored breaths. "Pitch wants me alive. Carter wants me alive. You're not going to let me die like this if you value your own safety."

But already, she could see he was starting to grow weak, and his eyes began to lose focus.

"Of course not. I'm not going to kill you," Tula said with a twirl of her hand, like it was obvious. "I'm only watching you."

Although she wasn't explicit, Tula's threat was clear: this was only the surface of what she and the others could to to James. If Tula knew that Eve was pursuing James and making progress, then she would send worse messages than these 'papercuts.'

She wanted her to watch him bleed. And helplessly, too. Eve could feel Tula grinning at the thought.

In the split second that Tula blinked and opened her eyes, a glob of spit and blood splattered on her face.

James had spit on her. When Tula looked down at him, he looked smug. With bloodied teeth, he smiled.

Tula didn't react at first, still keeping her steely stare at James. After a few moments, she wiped her face, swished the spit back at him, and then abruptly turned around to grab the canteen on the floor. Without wasting a beat, she returned to James and positioned it upside-down over his head, dumping the water down his face and body.

"Let me help you clean. You're bloodied and dirty," Tula said as she continued to dump the water. It wasn't a big bottle, so the remaining water came out slower until it fully emptied. As she tossed the bottle to the side, she eyed his arms, now smeared with blood and water. She clicked her tongue. "You should stop the bleeding. Why don't you take off your shirt so you can bandage it up? I'm sure your girlfriend would enjoy the show."

"You're making quite the mess," James said instead, eyes flicking to the pool of blood and water at his feet.

"Not listening to my advice, are we? No problem. I'd be happy to do it for you," Tula said as she grabbed the cuff of his shirt and then ripped it with her knife.

"That was a perfectly good shirt you just ruined--" James said with

Tula tanked the remnant of the shirt off him, revealing his chest. Eve was well acquainted with the scars that already traced his body, but even with blood and water pouring down, she could make out the deep black and blue bruising that patterned his chest and stomach.

"My, my. What a shame. Look at all the new bruises on you. Such a shame," Tula said while clicking her tongue. "I'm sure they're not the only new bruises on you. Why don't you shed the rest of your clothes and show us?"

"I don't think... you actually want that," James said with a wry laugh that turned into a cough. His head hung forward as he spat up blood. Deidra lifted his head back again.

"Oh, yes. I do want that. A lot, James," Tula said with a scarily sultry voice, still watching.

Eve knew this was all an act. Tula said the things she said and did the things she did because she knew she was watching. But between this and the blood, Eve was starting to get more and more desperate.

"Yeah, well. You and Rita can compete for that," James said weakly, not moving from where Deidra still held him still.

Tula watched him some more, letting a few seconds of silence pass as she uncomfortably stared at James. And then she reached out again, this time to cup his face. But her hand was then traveling down his body as she traced his shoulder and chest, down to his hip.

What happened next was a bit blurred.

James retaliated. She saw his fist connect with Tula, and somehow, James seemed to have slipped out of Deidra's grasp. For a moment, everything was spinning, and then Tula was on the ground, with James on top of her. It looked like he'd pinned her to the ground, and he was leaning in close, with his elbow pressed down onto Tula's neck.

He was choking her.

Deidra was immediately on the ready and was a moment away from tearing James away from her, but Tula quickly put her hand up, facing out and away as a signal for Deidra to stop.

"N-No. Not yet," Tula rasped, struggling to breathe but still keeping her unnerving stare on James.

Eve had never seen James like this.

There was a cold, focused rage burning in his eyes, but his gaze seemed to stare through her. Through Tula. His brows were knit together tightly and his eyes were wide, dark, and shadowed by his long hair that now draped over the sides of his face. The rest of his face seemed devoid of emotion.

"You going to kill me? Is that what you are? A killer?" Tula continued to rasp between each breath, nearly slurring her words. "

"One day. I will," James whispered cooly, unblinking.

As he spoke, blood dribbled down his chin and dripped from his mouth onto Tula's face.

Despite the blood and despite being choked, Tula was grinning with a crazed look in her eye that reflected back through James's eyes. She tried to laugh, but only rasped air.

James must not be wringing her neck as hard, because she was still able to choke out some words.

"Kill me, and your life will be over. You... and all your friends." Another raspy laugh. "But... it feels good? Doesn't it?"

James's upper lip twitched.

"My life's already over," he said through his teeth, tightening his hold around her neck.

"Are you watching, Ev- Evaline?" she choked, the grin still reaching her eyes. "Watch him take... my life away."

James pressed down even harder, cutting off any more words Tula might've wanted to get out.

With each passing action, Eve felt her anxiety spike higher and higher. Of course she hated Tula too, but she also loved James. She didn't know if what Tula said was true, but she didn't dare want to take the risk. She didn't dare to find out. She couldn't bear it.

Eve knew she was yelling. She was yelling at the air, yelling for James to stop, to let him know that she was with him and she didn't want him to be this way. She didn't want him to think this way.

His life wasn't over yet. Eve was stubbornly and fiercely determined to prove it to him. No matter the cost.

Eve knew she was screaming now, and she felt Tula's surroundings fading, but she was unsure if it was because of what she did or if Tula was fading herself. She didn't have time to ponder it much more, because after a beat of dead silence, Tula's vision snapped back and everything stood eerily still.

Everything except James.

This felt different, but Eve knew this feeling.

They had frozen time.

James's eyes widened slowy with realization, and in that moment, his entire expression softened. Where there was once a cold rage, his eyes were suddenly filled with tenderness. He loosed his grip on Tula.

"I won't waste time," James said in a hurried whisper, but the shift in his tone was as if life was returning to him. There was a flood of relief.

"We're a day's journey outside of Ruddlan. We're approaching from the East, and we'll be entering through the East Gate. We might be in Ruddlan a day or two to restock on supplies, but then we'll be off again. They'll be sticking to the main road from there on out. There are shorter ways if you cut through."

There was a small pause, and Eve could see the pained mess of emotions behind his eyes. There was worry, regret, sadness. But the most prominent was guilt.

"I can't escape now," he said even softer, and without him saying it, she could hear the apology underneath.

"Not like this," he said, and it was then that his eyes started to lose focus. He was no longer looking at her. He wasn't looking at anything.

"This is the first time they've been allowed to torture me," he said, sounding more distant with each passing word. "To mess with you."

He swallowed, but pressed on.

"I'm working on a plan to escape--" he started to say, but he got caught on his words and swallowed again. Eve could see the tears beginning to well up in his eyes.

"This wasn't how I imagined seeing you again," he said, his voice wavering with emotion, but also sounding weaker.

"I guess freezing time doesn't... freeze..." he trailed off, and it looked like he was trying desperately to focus. But he was bleeding.

He was still bleeding. Profusely.

"Mal and Rudy. They were holding them for ransom."

Finally, he blinked and let the tears stream down his face.

"They were killing them. They were going to kill them. I'm sorry. I couldn't... let..."

Eve watched as he exhaled weakly, but no words came out. She could feel their connection weakening. He couldn't hold it any longer. His magic was waning with him.

His eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed on top of Tula.

The flow of time rushed onward, like a breaking dam.

No. No, no, no. Everything was happening too fast. Eve barely even had time to do anything. She was scared that if she reacted, said anything, did anything, or tried to feel anything else, that she would lose her connection with James. This was the only time since they separated that they were able to talk to one another, even if it was one-sided.

Tula was regaining consciousness, blinking back blurry images as she stood up and coughed profusely. Eve knew James was going to be punished. He was being held back by Deidra now, and Eve saw Tula pick up her knife again before the vision dropped and faded to black.


Silence had never been so violent. There was a defeaning shrill, high-pitched tone that pierced her head down to her heart. It overtook her vision and made her feel dizzy and nauseous. The world was spinning. Her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest. Eve had to take short, quick breaths. She was hyperventilating. Losing her sense of control.

Control. What was control?

In a daze, Eve tried to lift herself up from the ground, but immediately got knocked back down when she couldn't tell the ground from the sky. She wanted to scream, but it felt like she didn't even have enough air to breathe.

She couldn't do anything. She had no control. She couldn't speak to James. She couldn't stop Tula from hurting him. She couldn't even stop him from leaving.

No, no, no.

She tried to remember everything James said. His path. His plan. His story. But her mind kept going back to the same old tendencies, same old habits. She had to fix this. She had to be better.

She had to try again. There was a way. There was always a way.

"I'm sorry," she cried, unable to control her mess of emotions as tears sprung her eyes. She began to wail. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

And then she felt the familiar reversal of time flow by her again, undoing everything she had seen and everything she had caused.

She went back in time again. This time, it'll be different. It'll be different this time... right?

Eve was eerily still for the next minute, unmoving as she took deep breaths, her head still buried in her hands. She had to regain her composure and think.

Tula would take over her vision any minute now. What could she do?

The minutes ticked on by. Eve didn't pay careful attention to how many minutes passed, because she was deep in thought of the possible actions she could take - but it all led to nothing.

What could she do?

Tula wasn't trying to look into her vision. Instead, she was trying to broadcast her own vision to her, and she had no control. Maybe Eve could try freezing time sooner, but James would have to try as well, and there was no way she could communicate that. Plus, there was no guarantee freezing time on purpose would even work. It seemed that the few times they managed to do it, it was caused by mutual strong emotions. And if it were negative emotions, then it was mostly caused by impending doom or some other equally strong emotion.

Eve tried to think of other possibilities. Maybe if she screamed loud enough, James could hear her. Maybe he wasn't far. Maybe there was a way for her to break Tula's concentration. After all, this was shared between her and Tula, right? Maybe Tula could hear Eve. Maybe even see her. Maybe she had more control than she thought.

Eve was able to find her semblance of calm, but she hadn't quite ironed out a plan of action before the vision started again.

Everything was the same as last time. Tula was with James, threatening him with the knife and letting him know that Eve was watching.

Right away, Eve tried to speak, but it didn't affect the vision.

"I know what you're doing, Tula. You're trying to get under my skin. You're trying to feel in control. You're not in control. Not even a little bit. You'll always be someone else's pawn. But that's what you've always wanted, wasn't it?"

Despite this words, there was no effect. Not a pause, not an eye twitch. There was no acknowledgement, even as they escalated so that James was choking Tula again.

Eve continued to yell, getting back down on her knees and bunching up her hair in her palms, vigorously shaking her head.

"Stop! I know you hear these words! I know you can hear me! Stop playing this game!"

But she was still looking up at James's empty, violent eyes.

This was just a vision. It wasn't real. She couldn't even feel anything. But the wave of anxiety and paranoia was already setting in, and for a moment there, it really did feel like he was choking her, not Tula.

Eve screamed, even louder this time.

And then everything stood still.

They had frozen time again. James's eyes softened as he began the same spiel, but Eve didn't accept this.

No, no, no. Not again. She had changed nothing. Why did she think she could do anything? There wasn't anything she could do, was there? This was a futile situation, wasn't it?

James continued to speak, telling her his plans and his regrets. But Eve didn't want to see this. Not again.

She screamed again, louder than before. Louder than she should have. She didn't care. She had to do something, even if her scream would fall to deaf ears. She screamed and screamed, closing her eyes shut hoping it would all go away.

And then... it did.


Eve kept her eyes shut, her chest tightening up again as her breaths remain short and staggered, trying to keep the panic at bay. The ringing in her ears melted away into the night sounds of the woods. She focused on her heartbeat, thumping loudly against her chest, which she held on to dearly as she hunched over, hair draping down into the floor. She didn't know how long she stayed like this. She only focused on her heart, trying to revert back to a state of calm before she could jump to any more conclusions.

And when it was all over, she knew it was time to move on.

It was so easy to spiral into a state of desperation, wanting to make a change even when fate was already sealed. But this was different. Although she had cut James's message short, she had already heard him the first time. And she hadn't lost hope.

She really meant it when she said she'd be there for him. She couldn't give up. How could she? Even when she felt truly powerless, she had to at least try.

"I'm sorry," she whispered to the empty night as she slowly got up, her heavy heart almost weighing her down.

She had to continue to get up and try.

Especially now that she knew that he was traveling to Ruddlan.
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soundofmind says...



The 5th of Sil, 3rd Month of Summer


James didn't realize it until the dream was halfway through, but Eve had undone time when Tula had sent her the message. That was what he was seeing. That was what he was reliving, but now he was viewing himself through Tula's eyes. No, through Eve's eyes.

He didn't know how to describe the disconnect in his mind, seeing himself being tortured. Feeling all of Eve's terror and desperation. Feeling helpless as he stared into his own face, watching the blood drip down like a fountain over the floor of the tent.

He didn't know how to feel when he saw him own face over him, inches from Tula's - from Eve's - from his own - slowly choking the life out of him. Out of her. He couldn't feel the pain, and yet he knew what it felt like. He could feel the panic rising in Eve's gut as she watched, and all the attempts to make it stop.

And then it did. Time froze, and he heard his own voice through his own bloodied teeth, whispering out the last few words he could manage.

But the moment it was over, everything went white.

He could hear the echo of Eve's scream pierce through, and suddenly he was no longer looking through Tula's eyes, but Eve's. She was staring down at her hands, and her breathing was erractic. Out of control.

For what felt like forever, but was only a few seconds, all he could hear in his head was her saying sorry. Over and over and over, until her voice faded away, and he found himself longing to hold onto it, if only a voice could be grasped.

It felt like it was all he had of her. It was all they both had.

Ten thousand apologies, and nothing to show for it.

James woke with a start, and all of the pain hit him at once.

His migraine was back, piercing through his skull. His slashed arms stung and ached like dead weights connected at the shoulder, and he felt so, so, miserably drained. It felt like any energy he'd had on reserve was completely sapped. It took everything he had just to open his eyes and let them readjust to what was around him.

The tent. He was in the tent, but it felt different. He'd been moved, and so had the things around him.

It felt like he was lying on a bedroll, or a mat. He knew the feeling of bandaging well, and it felt like it was flush with his skin. A blanket had been laid on top of him, but his shirt was still missing - or gone, rather. He hoped he got one back. It was going to get colder soon.

Something felt different, and it took him a moment to narrow down that he felt... clean. It was then that he remembered his former state before he passed out: covered in blood and water.

Evidently, someone washed him off. He didn't want to think about who.

He turned his head, trying to piece together what happened between Tula's message and the present, but there was nothing. It was possible he'd been unconscious the whole time, but he wouldn't know.

"You're alive," Pitch's voice whispered out. James placed her voice behind him. He couldn't turn to see, and he didn't have the strength to try.

"Though I can't say I'm surprised," Pitch said. "Gods know you've survived much worse."

James didn't respond. He looked out into the empty side of the tent, noting that the sunlight was coming through the bottom, where the tarps parted away from the ground.

It was day.

"How did you manage to attract so many crazies anyway?" Pitch asked, always keeping her voice low.

It must've just been the two of them.

"Bad luck," James said emptily, but his voice as quiet, and of even lower pitch than usual. He barely heard himself.

Pitch huffed, but was quiet. A long silence passed between them as James stared out into the tent with half-open eyes.

"You know..." Pitch began again. "If we hadn't run into Rita... you would probably be dead by now."

How comforting. He'd be sure to take that into consideration the next time they tortured him to the point of almost-but-not-quite death.

"I know Rita's..." Pitch started, but trailed off. She abandoned that thought.

She hummed softly, and then he heard shifting and footsteps as she got up and came around him, into his view. She always walked on light feet, but there was something about her movements that seemed cautious. Careful. He noticed that she looked over her shoulder, either wary or watchful of who could be listening or outside.

The large shadow blocking the light seeping through the tarp seemed familiar.

Deidra.

Either this was profoundly different luck than he'd had in years past, or it was just as shaky of a situation as before. Pitch sat down beside him, looking curious, and James could see the opportunity playing out before him.

It was too soon to say Pitch was having a change of heart. But something was certainly changing.

Pitch sat closer than James would've normally thought either of them found comfortable, but when she leaned in, he realized she was going out of her way to make sure their following conversation was private.

"You've been running for years," she whispered carefully. "Why turn yourself in now?"

James knew his face was expressionless, as he hardly had the energy to look over at her.

So she was looking for motive. She wanted to dig deeper than what the posters said. Than what the others said.

He took a slow, deep breath, in and out.

"They were hurting my friends," he whisperd in reply.

"And no one ever held allies hostage before? No one used them as leverage?" Pitch pressed.

"Any friends I had... I was careful not to keep," he said.

Pitch proceeded to sit in silence, and James could feel the curiosity brewing, like she was trying to piece together what she knew of him and thought she knew of him in her head.

For a moment, James thought that would be the end of it. He thought that was the end of her questions, and that she was about to get up and leave.

"What did you do?" she finally asked.

James felt he knew what she was referring to, but then she clarified herself.

"What did you do to be labeled a traitor?"

So he was right.

For once, he felt like he had an advantage. Yes, he'd nearly bled to death. But he hadn't, and now Pitch seemed to be on the edge of showing mercy, or at the very least, acting human. Unlike everyone else in her party.

"How long do we have?" James asked.

Pitch glanced over her shoulder once more.

When she looked back, he saw he had her full attention.

"Tell me all you can in five minutes."
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Carina says...



The 5th of Sil, 3rd Month of Summer


It wasn't easy breaking the news to Finn.

Elias had been putting it off all day. He just couldn't bring himself to tell his son that he was going to leave him alone for two months, and would come back to get him with this all blew over. He had just reunited with Finn again. They still had to build their relationship with one another, and even though Finn called him his father and saw him as his fatherly figure, Elias knew that he still had to make up for the lost time. A name didn't prove anything.

While they traveled for the day, Bo told Elias that he told Jordan and Dinny the plans to divert from the group so they could escort Finn to safety. Bo said that Jordan seemed hesitant about the plans, but also noticed that Rudy was more eager to leave from danger as well. What ended up being a "bring the child to safety" plan ended up being "bring the child and Rudy to safety" instead, with Dinny leading the way.

Elias knew there wasn't any use in delaying the inevitable any longer. Shortly after that conversation, he made sure to have a proper talk with Finn and lay out the truth.

"I promise I'll come back. You'll be with other kids your age, and it'll be more fun than hiking all day," Elias told him after telling him the plans.

"Hiking is fun too," Finn exclaimed, even though he was presently being carried on Elias's shoulders. As in, not hiking.

"You'll have an even more fun summer. Full of toys, and kids, and your favorite smoothies," Elias said.

Finn hummed, kicking his feet along his chest as Elias continued to trail behind the others. "Will I know anyone there? Will Jordan be there?"

"No, but Dinny will. And Rudy too."

Finn groaned, so Elias emphasized that there would be other kids there his age as well, and they could all run around and play.

In reality, Elias wasn't exactly sure if there would be kids there, so he made sure to ask Bo later. But he figured it was a somewhat safe assumption to make if it meant Finn would tag along.

"But Finn, it's really important that you don't run away. You have to stay with them until we return. Do you understand?" Elias asked, more serious this time. He didn't want to take this lightly.

Finn nodded. "Okay. I understand."

He was only six and still had a lot of growing up to do, but Elias was glad that Finn understood when the situation was severe.

The night went on as usual. He wondered how he was going to tell the others, and how he was going to tell his sister. Maybe they already knew. Elias really didn't like to be the bearer of sad news, so he waited to see if anyone other than Bo, Dinny, or Rudy would bring up the conversation.

No one did, until the morning of Finn's departure. They were all still waking up, and food was beginning to be distributed.

"Elias, do you mind if I talk to you for a moment?" Elise asked as he began to stand up from his bed roll.

She was already dressed and ready to go. She probably took the most recent night shift, and she looked even more worried than usual, which was saying something.

"Good morning, sis," Elias said with a weak smile, yawning. "Yeah, that's fine. Over here, or...?"

Elise glanced over her shoulder, then lifted up her canteen she had in her hands. "I was thinking we can fill up our canteens at the stream nearby. Can you meet me by those trees when you're ready?"

Elias nodded. "Yeah, no probs," he said, and Elise was quick to flash him a smile before scurrying off.

Well, he either messed something up, she was worried about Finn, or worried about... something. He quickly and messily shoved his stuff in his bag, did a quick lap to figure out where his own canteen was (he left it by the fire place last night), glanced around to make sure that Finn was still sleeping, then hurried on over to where she said she'd be. As expected, she was already there, waiting.

"Hey, Elias," she said with a little smile, nodding her head towards the stream, so they could walk towards it.

"What's up, sis? Is something wrong?" Elias asked as he followed.

"No, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to talk to you." Elise paused for a second, pondering. "Did you think I was about to share bad news?"

"Oh... no. Well, maybe," Elias admitted. "I'm just saying - you've been pretty serious these days, so naturally I thought you'd be telling me something serious."

Elise smiled sadly. "I suppose you're not wrong."

Elias drew his brows together. "Hey, sorry. I didn't mean to offend you."

Elise laughed lightly, shaking her head. "No, no. I'm not offended, Elias. It's okay."

"Oh, good." Elias let out a sigh of relief.

He bent down to fill up his canteen, watching as the water rushed in to take the shape of the bottle.

"It's not that I don't like serious Elise," he continued. "All sides of Elises are great. But do you like to be serious? I feel like you used to only be serious when you were stressed out."

Elias paused, taking a second to soak in his own words. And that was when he realized--

"Wait, are you stressed out?" he asked, surprised by his own conclusion as he slowly stood back up.

Elise blinked, more surprised about how this conversation was turning out. She furrowed her brows and squirmed.

"Well... yes, I'd say so." She opened her mouth to speak, but hesitated.

Elias narrowed his eyes at her. "What is it?" he pressed.

"Given the situation, of course I'm stressed. But..." She sighed, offering the same sad smile as she met his eyes. "Elias, I've been stressed ever since you left. You're here now, but personalities mold over time. I suppose you can say acting 'stressed' is part of my personality now."

"Oh," Elias said, not knowing what to say right away. A little pool of guilt swirled around his chest. "I'm sorry. That sounds... stressful."

Elise patted his shoulder, trying to capture his attention with her smile again. "Maybe to you. But it's not to me. Really, it's fine. You don't have to worry about me worrying about you."

Suddenly Elias started to feel a little embarrassed. It almost felt like he was a kid again, his older sister always coming to the rescue at embarrassing times like an overburdening mother.

"So, uh - did you have something you wanted to tell me?" he asked, changing the subject.

Elise laughed through her nose, dropping her hand from his shoulder. "Well, our conversation seems to be a perfect segue into that. We haven't really gotten true privacy to talk in Nye until now. So, I thought we could talk and catch up. Are you stressed?"

Elias thought he knew what this was about, but they were skirting around the issue. If this was about Finn, Elise would ask him more direct questions. Instead, she seemed to be more wondering how he felt about... well, his life.

Elise knew all about his history. His trauma. His expereinces, and his feelings. When they were travelling together, before reaching the mines and before Elias met any of his friends - they talked. A lot. It had been a long time since Elias felt safe enough to share any of his previous experiences and thoughts, so he spilled everything to Elise. They had always been close, but that week brought them closer than ever. They talked everyday, scheduling blocks of hours to each other. But it lessened once they met their friends in the mines because Elias had others to talk to and others to be with. Their meetings lasted hours everyday to only an hour a week, and then once a month. Nowadays they didn't talk about heavy things as often as they used to, instead resorting to typical small talk and whatever other conversation topic that came to mind.

Elias did miss it, but... well, he was doing a lot better than he was eight months ago, now. He appreciated Elise checking in, though. More than he ever could.

He smiled. "Normal levels of stress, sure. Maybe a little more. I don't know if you heard about the plans with Finn..."

"I heard Bo and Mel talk about that. I think it's a good idea, and you're brave for doing this," Elise finished with a small smile.

Elias mirrored her smile, but it felt forced. "Right... yeah." A pause. "But still. I'm not as stressed as I used to be."

"No intrusive thoughts?"

"No intrusive thoughts," he repeated. "Hey. Sis. Thanks. I really appreciate you asking. Truly."

Elise smiled, but it looked sad. She always looked kind of sad. It made Elias sad.

"Of course. I'll always look out for you," she said.

She always said that. For as long as Elias could remember, she always said that.

"But is anyone looking out for you?" he asked, and he didn't like that he had to ask because he wished the answer was himself. Elise was always the one taking care of him, not the other way around. But he knew that she wanted it to be that way.

Elise furrowed her brows again. "What do you mean?"

Elias kicked a pebble, watching as it rolled across the dirt. He took a second to gather his thoughts.

"Well... I'm not a kid anymore, Elise. I really can take care of myself. You don't have to feel like you have to raise me again," he said. "I'm only saying this because I want you to live your life too, you know. I'm doing fine. Really. And now that you don't have to look after me anymore... well, what do you want to do with your life?"
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Carina says...



Elise was surprised with the direction this conversation was heading, but she welcomed it. She admitted it made her a little uncomfortable because Elias was bringing to attention tough topics for her to think through. But considering how many tough questions she had asked him in the past, and how easily he welcomed it - well, she wanted to think through this and give him an honest answer as well.

Elise had to stop and think. This wasn't the first time Elias had brought this up. She recalled him asking her a similar question when they were still living in the sectors, but she had always wondered if that was his way to deflect accepting his own path.

"...I must say that I am excited that you have a son. I've always wanted to be an aunt," she said.

Elias chuckled, shaking his head. "Yeah, okay. Yes. Finn loves you and you should absolutely spend more time with him when this all blows over. But what about something other than me or my son? You know, outside of taking care of family?"

Elise had to pause and think again. She knew what Elias was trying to say, but the thought of her not taking care of family being a central part of who she was, was a foreign and even scary thought to have.

She thought back to the days when she first became an adult, and Elias was more independent. She was still looking after him, but as the years went by, she allowed herself to think past her caretaking role. It had been years since then. What dreams did she used to have?

"Well... I am a doctor," she answered, recalling how studious she was to earn her title.

"But is that you? You're more than your magic," Elias said.

With a raised brow, Elise smiled and watched Elias for a second. He seemed hopeful. He was growing from the chains he was born with, and becoming a person of his own.

Their family would have been so proud of him.

"Remember how I used to bake you cakes?" she asked, her smile growing.

Elias smiled as well. "Yeah. Not just cakes, either. Breads, pastries, and all sorts of other goodies."

Elise laughed. "That's right. I do miss baking. It was fun to experiment with new flavors. Maybe someday I can do it again."

"Not just do it again. You'll have your own shop, and it'll be the best in town. Who says you can't start now?"

Elise raised a brow again, holding in a laugh. "With what oven?"

"Doesn't matter," he continued with too much confidence, beaming. "Hey, that would be cool, don't you think? You owning your own little shop. But it doesn't need to be a shop. It could just be for your friends and family. Everyone would know you as the best baker in the world."

Elias suddenly stopped, his smile and starry-eyed look quickly fading as he more squarely faced her again with concern washed over him.

"Why did you stop, anyways?" he asked.

Elise felt herself sadly smiling again. It was her natural reaction. She could hear Elias's question in her head saying, "You haven't always been this serious. Are you stressed?"

She wasn't stressed, and she wasn't sad - because that implied she felt these states temporarily. Instead, she felt a state of contentment mixed in with complicated bittersweet feelings. She was happy, but would always regret not being there for Elias when he needed her the most.

Maybe this showed in the way she smiled.

"Oh," he said instead, looking down.

Elise followed his gaze, letting her mind wander for a moment as she prepared what to say next. There were many different potential subjects she could talk about now. Many nuggets of wisdom to share as his older sister.

But Elias was right. He didn't need her always assuming to take over the role of looking after him. She could be there as a sister and as a friend - not a caretaker.

As that thought crossed her mind, she remembered their parents' goodbye. They were kneeling down beside them, making sure they were packed and dressed appropriately before they left. The way they looked at her with a sad, hopeful longing was forever imprinted in her mind.

"Please take care of your brother, her mother said, wiping away her tears as she looked up at them with wide, fearful eyes, knowing she was going alone. "Can you do that for us?"

Elias was only five years old, holding her hand and hiding behind her, but peering up with curious eyes.

He was too young to understand.

Yet, at the same time, he was going to do the same thing to Finn. Send him off so he could have a better life for the next two months.

The difference here was that this was temporary.

Elise took a deep breath. "You know, Elias... Growing up, I never really understood why mom and dad chose to send us away. For a long time, a little part of me resented them for doing that."

She paused.

"But after you left, I suddenly understood."

Elise turned to face Elias again, smiling again. This time, with actual sadness.

"They wanted a better life for us," she continued as Elias watched her with his own worried expression. "It was all they wanted, even if it meant they were no longer a part of our lives. I didn't understand the sentiments back then, but I understand, now." She paused again, deciding to better summarize her thoughts for him. "I thought it was selfish, but I later realized it was the most selfless act of love."

Elias hesitantly looked down again, kicking another pebble with his hands in his pockets. He seemed to mull over her words, and Elise gave him the time to think it through.

"They seemed nice," he said quietly after a few moments. "I wish I could remember them more."

Elise smiled. "Yes. They were nice. I do miss them, but I'm more glad we have each other."

Elias narrowed his eyes as he stared off into the distance, thinking.

"I remember holding a crying baby," he said slowly, then turned back to Elise. "Was that our little brother?"

Elise stared at him for a second, laughing through her nose before shaking her head. "No, Elias. You were the little brother. You were probably holding someone else's child."

Elias hummed, still in thought. "I wonder why that's what I remember the most."

"Memory does have a funny way of working sometimes. Especially when you were young."

"Hey, Elise," Elias said as he suddenly brought his attention back to her. "Do you think I'm a good father?"

Elise faltered, surprised with this change of subject. Elias usually brought in random subjects at random times in a conversation, and she usually played along with him, but this topic felt heavy. She wanted to be more careful with her words.

"I think being a good father is synonymous to being a good person," she said after a few quick moments to think. "Often times, your actions and intentions come from a good place. So yes, I think you're a good father - because you are a good person."

Elise tried to study him. Since they reconnected, he hadn't held back anything from her. He was always open and eager to talk, even if the topic wasn't easy. But now that he had time to transition into his new safe environment, she wondered if he would keep secrets again. The way he lightly clenched his jaw and furrowed his brows made her worried that he would keep her in the dark again.

Elise pushed down this intrusive thought, especially when he began to speak and open up to her.

"I ask because mom and dad seem like good parents. You know, with the selfless love thing you said." He paused, voice sounding more sheepish now. "I mean... I can see it in you, too."

There were implications behind the words he wasn't saying. Elise had to hold back her own emotions of feeling like she failed.

Failed to teach Elias that he was capable of giving the same love, too.

"It must have been tough to start over," Elias said during the brief second of silence. "I mean, you were a kid too, and you still took care of me, even though I was a handful. But you never resented me, you know? You were always so caring and present, putting me before yourself."

Elias kicked a stick out of the way. He was running out of items to kick and watch roll away.

"I just admire you, is all," he said with a smile himself - but it held a sadness she hadn't seen from him in a while.

Elise took a deep breath. There was a lot to unpack here, but she was patient enough to unpeel one layer at a time.

"Elias," she said gently. "Do you think you're a good father?"

Elias was preoccupied with the ground again, kicking away some dirt as his thinking expression washed over him.

"I'm not sure," he admitted after a long hesitation. "I guess I don't really have a reference." He paused again, glancing back up at her. "I mean. You're my reference. But... you know. This feels different."

Elise nodded. "That's because it is. We both walked a similar but still very different path. It's hardly comparable."

"Yeah... yeah," Elias said in agreement, but didn't elaborate.

"What do you feel, though? You don't need a reference to know how you feel. Do you feel like a good father to Finnley?" Elise prodded gently.

"I thought so, yeah," Elias said, again not elaborating.

Out of all the talks they had, this was the first time he was less receptive to being open. He was withdrawing within himself, not wanting to worry her. Elise suddenly regret openly vocalizing that she was excited to be an aunt to Finnley. She didn't want Elias to feel any less of a father and caretaker.

"What changed?" she asked.

Elias shook his head, looking like he was wrestling between many thoughts in his head. He idly kicked the ground again, sending puffs of dust and dirt into the air.

"Nothing changed. I'm just..." He sighed. "I don't know, it's not like I witnessed his birth, or even knew..." He trailed off, starting again. "I want to be a good father. I just wish it's easier," he finished.

"Do you find it hard?"

"No, not hard, I don't think. But it doesn't come naturally."

Elise nodded. She knew the circumstances of how he fell into being a father, but they hadn't extensively talked about it yet. Until now, Elias seemed to envision this to be a chance at redemption and a new life. She wondered if he was having second thoughts.

"It's fine. I know parenting isn't supposed to be easy. I'm probably overthinking it," Elias said.

Elise placed a hand on his shoulder. "What's important is that your actions and intentions are good and for the benefit of Finnley. As long as your heart is set on being a good father, the rest will follow." She paused. "Elias, do you want to be Finnley's father figure?"

Elias opened his mouth to speak, but stopped as he reconsidered his thought. "Did you want to be my parental figure?" he shot back.

That did sting a little, but Elise chose to think nothing of it. Elias was deflecting, which meant he was too afraid to admit the truth.

She smiled gently, searching his eyes so he could see that she was sincere. "It may have seemed that I didn't have a choice at the time... but I did. I did have a choice."

Elise dropped her hand from his shoulder when he gave her his full attention. She continued.

"It was my choice to take care of your needs. My choice to always be there for you, even if it cost me my childhood. I did all of this not because of an obligation, but because I loved you. I wanted to give you a life you deserved. I still do. And I'd do it again. I'd be happy to do it again."

Elise watched him for a moment, noticing how he was again mulling over her words, taking it to heart. But he wasn't smiling or seemed happy to hear this.

She didn't want to feel like an overburdening mother to him again. That wasn't her intention. She merely wanted to listen and let him know that she would always be there for him.

"Like you said, I don't have to take care of you anymore. I know you can take care of yourself," Elise said with a small smile. "But even so... I will always be here to listen, Elias. You can tell me anything. I'll always listen."

Elias slowly nodded, his focus wavering again. "I know. Thanks, Elise. I really appreciate you."

"Is there anything specific you wanted to talk about?" Elise pressed.

He shook his head. "No, I don't think so." He paused, glancing back towards camp. "We should probably head back. But..."

He offered a warm smile, but her gut told her it wasn't sincere.

"If I think of anything, I'll let you know," he said.

Elise couldn't help but feel a little defeated. She felt like Elias was too shy to admit whatever he was really feeling and thinking, but she didn't want to pry it out of him. She didn't need to before. He had trusted her and felt safe enough to tell her anything.

She wondered what changed.

"Hey, stop giving me that look," he teased, playfully elbowing her side. "You look like I just told you Sleepy had died or something."

Elise tried to force herself to relax and even huffed a puff of air through her nose, but she didn't have it in her to let this go. Not yet.

"Hey, sis, really. I'm fine," Elias continued with a more sincere smile this time, now also patting her shoulder. "Don't worry about me, okay?"

"I'm always going to worry about you," she said softly.

Elias laughed, letting out a "hah."

"Yeah... Yeah, I know." His smile faded, turning around to face the camp now. He paused, looking over his shoulder with another smile. "But can you not worry about me, for just this second? Please?"

"Alright. But only for a second," Elise said with a little smile, turning around with him.

With Elise taking the cue, Elias began to walk back to camp, making sure she followed.

"Ah. I can already smell the fresh bread. Smells like relaxation," he teased.

Elise pushed down her constant worrisome line of thought, deciding to play along instead.

"When I do start baking again, what should I bake first?" she asked.

"Well, what's your favorite bakery item?"

She hummed. "It's unconventional, but I do like a freshly-baked ginger cake."

Elias grinned, a glint in his eye as he glanced back at her. "That's funny. I also love your ginger cakes."

Elise smiled back, this time, feeling as warm as his presence.

"Then that will be the first thing I bake."
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soundofmind says...



The 6th of Sil, Third Month of Summer


He told her enough, and he told her the truth.

Pitch had overestimated the time they'd get in private to speak, and James had accounted for that. He went straight to the point and explained why he was wanted as succinctly as possible, and this time, he had no problems unflinchingly painting the Moonlight Kingdom as it truly was. Though Pitch didn't have much of an outward reaction, he had a feeling none of it was a surprise to her - rather, it was likely a confirmation of the darkness she already believed to be stewing under the surface.

All that Pitch said when he was done was the following:

"You were royally screwed over," she said, and under different circumstances, James might've begrudged the pun. But Pitch was so transparently serious he didn't think she even meant to make one.

"Is there anyone else you would trust to help you get out of this?" she asked, barely audible.

James knew their time was short, and he didn't know for sure, but he had to bluff.

"Try Deidra," he whispered back.

Perhaps things would turn in his favor sooner than later.

Their conversation ended quickly when Rita interrupted, and, seeing he was awake, dismissed Pitch from her watch. She left without a glance in his direction, but he knew that there was a mutual understanding and that Pitch was going to have to work fast.

An escape would be more difficult while they were traveling in the wilderness. There weren't many places to hide or to flee to, and there was nothing to get lost in but trees. Butch's dogs were expert trackers and would be able to follow any scent left behind, and they couldn't bet on the weather turning to their favor, on the off-chance it would rain soon.

When the tent was empty, and it was just him and Rita, he felt like he actually had some hope that he wouldn't have to endure this much longer. At least there was a chance.

Rita sat down next to him.

"I think this is the worst I've seen you," Rita said too affectionately.

If James hadn't felt like he was literally lying at death's doorstep, he would've gotten up and left the tent. He was already over this conversation.

"Oh, so this wasn't your idea?" he asked.

Rita actually looked offended at the accusation, but he didn't know how much of it was genuine or for show.

"Believe it or not," Rita said. "I don't actually want you dead."

James did find that hard to believe. Impossible, really.

"So," James went on. "Having me nearly bleed to death was just, what, an accident?"

"I feel like nearly is the keyword there," Rita said, tilting her head as she looked down at him. "Though I didn't expect things to get so out of hand."

James didn't even have a response for that. He just looked at her, unimpressed.

She reached out, and before she even made contact, James intensified his glare.

"Don't--"

Except she did. She brushed her hands over the spot above his lip where Tula had cut before.

"I keep telling them not to touch your face," she said.

James turned his face away, and for a moment Rita was silent.

"We'll be leaving soon," she said flatly.

Hatred sparked in his chest like a roaring flame. Though he was exhausted, it was almost like it was fuelling him - giving strength where he thought he had none.

Forcing his body to move, he sat up and turned to face her.

"Then I guess you better get ready," he said cooly.

Rita narrowed her eyes ever so slightly.

"So should you," she said, and then looked him up and down. "You might want to put on a shirt first."

Had James any energy to show it, Rita would see him seething. As it was, the rage was only burning in his eyes.

"I guess I'll just have to find one," James said. "Maybe they grow on trees."

Rita leveled her eyes with him, and James could sense that she was determined not to let him get under his skin - and he knew that he was failing to do the same. Though neither of them had raised their voices, James knew it was apparent that he was angry.

Rita smirked.

"Wait here," she said and got to her feet. "And don't move anymore. You're barely holding together as is."

Unable to argue with the truth but still resenting the fact it came from Rita's mouth, James remained still. His whole body protested to the mere idea of being even partially upright, but he knew he'd have to get up sooner or later. If they were traveling he was going to have to be moved somehow, and it wasn't going to be a fun ride.

Several times James considered lying back down, but didn't, even as the seconds dragged on like minutes and years.

He let his eyes close for just a moment, but before he knew it, felt himself falling.

He jerked, but his muscles seemed to spasm and strain at the movement, and he fell back onto his pillow with a groan. Tears tempted to prick his eyes as the pain flooded his body again, sharp and piercing like he was being sliced again.

He clenched his jaw as he forced back the tears, and he tried to muster up the strength to get up again.

But he didn't have any.

He laid on his pillow heavily, breathing controlled breaths as only some of the pain subsided, but most of it remained.

He could hardly think.

Then, light flooded back into the tent, and he could feel it piercing his skull. He snapped his eyes shut and winced, unable to bring himself to dare open them until he felt the light diminish. When he looked up, Rita was standing over him, holding up a plain pale shirt (presumedly) in her hands.

"Here," she said softly, kneeling down beside him. "Let me help you."

James was going to protest, but he knew he didn't have the physical strength to do anything in retaliation. He was barely keeping his eyes open. He hated feeling so helpless and weak. And he hated that even at the thought he was hearing Tula's voice in his head again, as she'd been taunting Eve.

He's just your type. Utterly helpless.

Rita slid her hand behind his shoulders, down his back. With one hand, she pushed him upright from behind while she pulled upwards with her other hand behind his shoulder. James groaned, feeling shooting pain up and down his arms once more, and the deep throbbing ache in his gut.

Rita sat behind him, leaning him against her chest to prop him up as she unfolded the shirt.

"I got one that buttons up," she said. "To make this as painless as possible."

Painless. It was already full of pain. Pain that Rita had allowed. She didn't care about 'painless.'

She lifted one of his arms by the wrist, and then ever so gently slid the sleeve partially up his arm. She pushed him forward to bring the shirt around his back, and brought the sleeve around to his other hand, sliding it in as well.

Though she did manage to move him minimally, he would never thank her.

Carefully, she leaned him forward a little as she pulled the shirt around his shoulders and adjusted the sleeves, and then she laid him back down on his back, with the front of the shirt open.

Almost greedily, she reached for his chest, but paused, hovering her hand over him for a moment.

"You know," she said in a whisper. "If you asked, I would call this whole thing off."

James was boring holes through her hand with his eyes.

"You'd just have to ask me," she said, her voice turning sultry as she danced her fingertips across his collarbone. "And you could stay with me, if you wanted. We wouldn't have to do any of this."

James grit his teeth.

"What would you tell Butch?" he asked. "Or Tula? Or Pitch?"

"They can be persuaded," Rita said smoothly, dancing her fingers down his chest.

"You think I'd rather be your prisoner? That I'd choose you over the kingdom?" James asked.

"You would really choose death over me?" Rita asked, resting her hand over his stomach.

"If I was given the option between staying with you and dying a thousand times in a thousand lifetimes," James said. "I would choose death every time."

Rita stared at him for a moment, and her expression hardened. She raised her brows.

"Have fun being tied on the back of my horse, then," she said. "Maybe a day of hanging upside-down will do you good."

Getting up, she turned and left without another word.

And within the hour, James was tied up like a felled deer, wrists and ankles bound, slung over the back of Rita's horse and tied to the saddle.

Though he wasn't being hung completely upside-down, it didn't take long for the blood to rush to his head, and he didn't have the strength to attempt to hold his head upright for long.

Everything hurt, and as it was, there no comforts afforded to him at all.

For a few minutes, maybe, he felt somewhat aware of his surroundings. But before he knew it, it all blended together. The bounce of the horse's steps. The swaying of his own arms. The clops of hooves against the earth, and the heat of the beating sun. The air was thick again, and all of his fresh wounds stung more than he could describe as sweat accumulated throughout the day, dripping down. When they stopped, it almost felt worse, but when he had the temporary reprieve of being taken off the horse, it was like it took him ages to feel grounded again. And then by the time his blood has returned to the rest of his body in normal proportion, he was hoisted up onto the horse again.

This was a different kind of torture.

James didn't know when it would end, but it felt like an eternity had passed before things shifted.

Completely depleted of strength, he was limp when they stopped and took him off the horse. At that stage they tranfered him to the back of a wagon. They left him bound, and then covered him up, under a blanket. This was when James knew they must've been entering Ruddlan. That was the only reason to hide a wanted man.

Someone was sitting in the wagon with him, but he couldn't see who it was. He merely felt their presence beside him, bouncing with the wagon as it transitioned from dirt paths to paved roads.

But he could feel himself fading. His mind was slipping, and before he knew it, he found himself in a bed, not remembering how he'd gotten there.

His eyes shot open. They felt raw and bloodshot.

The first person he laid eyes on was Deidra.

"Keep quiet," she whispered.

He kept his mouth shut. Whatever plan Pitch had arranged it had been without his knowledge, but it was probably best that he didn't know - it's not that they had any opportunities to tell him in private without others overhearing. James was always being watched, and Rita had hardly left him alone desipte him clearly being immobilized.

There was no way he could escape on his own. There was no way he'd even be able to move on his own. His body was in so much pain he'd only be a hindrance and slow them down.

Without Deidra saying a word James already knew he was going to be carried out of this.

For Deidra, at least, that wasn't much of an issue. No one knew that she had the power of inhuman strength. No one except him and Tula.

Staying still, James waited. The room he was in was small, but he found it vaguely familiar. It was still strange to think that only a year ago he had been with the Blue Suns, and it didn't quite feel real that it had only been that long. In some ways, it felt like he'd only just left, but when he even began to recall everything that happened in the past year while he'd been on Earth instead of Nye, it felt like he'd lived a decade in the span of a year. Not only had he undergone so much change, but everything about his circumstances had changed.

Even with his escape imminent, he couldn't help but wonder how things could've been different on Earth if he'd only known how to blend in better. Maybe he never would've been discovered as other-worldly. Maybe he really could've stayed on the farm forever.

But he knew that trouble had been inevitable. Even if not for him, it would've been for Eve. And if things hadn't gone the way they did, they may never have reconciled and gotten together again.

It didn't really help to think on the what-ifs, but as he stared out into the dark bedroom, watching Deidra pace back and forth between the window and the door, he found himself fearing the worst.

This was too soon. It didn't feel right. They were trying to escape too soon.

There was a faint tap on the door. Deidra turned to James, wordlessly telling him with one glance that that was their cue. James tried to sit up, but he only made it halfway before Deidra was there, effortlessly hoisting him into her arms as if he weighed nothing.

His heart started pounding as she went to the door and it opened, revealing Pitch as the only person in the hall.

She and Deidra exchanged a quick, brief look and Pitch nodded before turning, dissapearing down the dark hallway.

It was then that James cognitively processed that it was the middle of the night and that Pitch didn't plan on joining them, but Deidra did.

James held his breath as Deidra hurried down the hall on light feet, checking corners as she snuck out the backway through the house, going down to the cellar and out the back exit.

She climbed up the creaking steps quickly, but James could sense they were both fearing someone might've heard them. Regardless, Deidra didn't waste time and she one-handedly pushed the doors overhead open, gently guiding them so they didn't slam.

She hoisted over her head, lifting him out first. He had to stifle a groan as she briefly laid him down so she could climb out herself.

He tried to push himself upright, but again, he'd barely managed to lift his head by the time Deidra was picking him up again.

Outside, the weather was cool. The Blue Sun's Ruddlan base sat at the top of a hill, and James could see the downward slope into darkness leading out to the gate.

That was all that was between them. A garden. A hill. And a fence.

And then freedom, or something close to it.

How would they keep their distance once his disappearance was discovered? How far could Deidra take him on her own? How would Tula react to her betrayal?

How was this going to work?

Anxiety bubbled in his chest as Deidra began to hurry down the hill in the darkness. Whatever was left of James's spark of hope was dwindling.

And then it shattered.

Deidra stepped on something that clattered. Not a second later, a howl followed.

He couldn't see Deidra's face but he didn't have to.

They weren't going to get out of this. He wasn't going to get out this.

"Run," he said urgently. "Go. Leave me."

"But they--" Deidra started.

"You won't make it with me. But you can get out. Maybe you can find the others. You can come back for me," he said, his words running together as he tried to push himself out of her arms.

"Put me down! You need to leave! Now!"

She set him down roughly, questioning him no more.

Her shadow disappeared with a blur, and he was left on the grass staring up at the open night sky. He rolled onto to his side, trying to at least feign the act of an escape attempt without Deidra, but everyone was going to notice she was gone.

His back was turned to the sound of shouting. Rumbling footsteps. Overlapping voices.

The swaying lights of lanterns quickly lit up the space around him, and all at once, he was surrounded.

Someone reached in and grabbed the back of his shirt collar, lifting him up to his knees.

It was one of the faces of Rita's men. He never learned their names.

"Who helped you get out here?" he asked, already poised to strike with the blunt end of his dagger.

"Does it matter?" James asked. "You're going to search for them anyway."

That apparently was deserving of a violent response. As if he was wrong. The pain hardly even registered. He was already in so much pain. It wasn't like it made a difference.

"Search the grounds," the man ordered.

"Like I said," James muttered, earning another hit to the gut.

Gods, he felt sick.

"Might want to... not hit there again," he warned, but the man didn't listen.

Puke bubbled up and he sputtered, sending vomit spraying onto the man's shoes.

The man dropped him, naturally, and shook off his feet with a few curses, but James didn't pay attention. There was more punishment to come, and he would have to bear that. And then what came the next day. And the next. What was the price for a man's shoes? A broken bone? A busted knee?

James anticipated another blow as he laid on his side, but none came.

Instead, the crowd around him opened to welcome the one person he most despised. Yes, even above Tula. Because Tula was just a pawn, but Rita was the player, and her men parted for her like she was royalty, all so she could approach him: a man barely conscious, now reeking of vomit, who couldn't even pick himself up anymore.

He found himself heaving. His mouth was dry, and he tasted blood and acid together, like a sewer's cocktail.

"Where's Deidra?" Rita asked, squatting down beside him. He saw her feet, and her shadow fall over him.

"What makes you think I know any more than you do?" he asked hoarsely, unmoving.

"Is that how rushed your escape was?" Rita asked with a laugh in the back of her throat. "She just left you to fend for yourself, hm? Couldn't have been that close of an ally if she thought you were dead weight."

"Can we skip to the part where you torture me for being 'disobedient'?" James asked.

"Didn't know you had that kind of kink but it doesn't shock me knowing your history," Rita said, much to James's immediate dismay.

Gods if only he could move within reason. He'd rather stab her, but he had to settle for this.

"Nice to see you're being more open about how godsdamned horny you are all the time," James hissed, gritting his teeth.

"You thought I was trying to hide it?" Rita asked with a chuckle. She grabbed his shoulder and flipped him, back against the ground again.

Rita was insane. The smell of vomit was putrid on his breath and she was leaning in. James felt like he was watching everything from a third person's perspective. Rita, the leader of the Blue Suns, sitting on top of the world's most wounded, tracing her fingers across his vomit-splattered chest.

"You're going to wash your hands after this, right?" James asked flatly. "This is disgusting."

"You underestimate how much I like to see you squirm," Rita said.

"Do the people you hire know this is what they're signing up for when you pitch gang membership to them?" he asked.

"Oh, baby," Rita hummed, leaning in so her face was inches from his. "You forget that... even when things are bad, they can always get worse."

"Profound," James wheezed.

Rita danced her hand across James's shoulder, up his neck, until she was cupping his face all too gently.

"I'll miss this," she said. "The witty remarks."

James pressed his lips into a thin line.

"But you remember our deal, don't you?" Rita whispered, brushing her thumb across James's lips. But it moved too quickly for him to try to bite her.

James stared up at Rita with a burning fury in his eyes.

Yes. He did remember the deal.

"I look forward to seeing what you'll put up with when you're no longer lucid," she said, briefly letting her hand linger on the side of his face before she lifted herself off of him.

"Comb the city for Deidra," Rita ordered once she was on her feet. "And get me some lumshade. And Tula. I want to send a message to someone."

She looked down at James.

"Take him downstairs. The cellar will do."

Two men hoisted him up by his feet and his shoulders. James's eyes went wide as the swinging of his own body processed far too late for him to mentally prepared himself.

They tossed him back down into the cellar.

Flying like a ragdoll, James landed on the hard, stony earth with such a thud he was surprised tears didn't spring to his eyes at the sheer shock of pain that radiated through his body.

He was glad he missed the stairs, but he still rolled a few feet, and when he finally stopped he felt his consciousness wavering.

Lumshade. They were going to give him lumshade. As if he needed it to be subdued. His body was giving up on him. Could nobody see it?

Even if he made it out of this - and he really didn't think he would at this rate - what would be left of him?

What would remain?

Would he even be a person at all? Or just an empty husk?

The floor was cold. He laid there, not moving a muscle as he merely waited. Waited as footsteps traveled with distant footfalls overhead. Waited as distant voices held conversations he couldn't overhear, and made decisions he had no say in. Waited as his future began to waste away before him, and fear and guilt crept in around his heart.

It's your fault. You chose this. You chose to be helpless. You chose not to reach out. You gave in to the pressure because you refused to share it. Now you're everyone's burden. Their burden to save. Their burden to bear. Their burden to care for until they carry you into King's Peak and it can finally be over.

And you convinced so many people to like you. To love you. You loved too many people, and now they'll all miss you when you're gone.

You should've stayed alone. You never should've let anyone in.

Look at how much you've hurt them. Look at how much you're going to hurt them -- because this isn't over.


Eve.

He was too drained to even cry. But had he any enegy to spare, it would've all been spent in tears.

Eve.

She was coming to find him. Would she make it in time? Would she make it at all? She was being taunted. They were going to taunt her more. And what could he even do to stop it?

Footsteps hurried down the steps, one after another. There was no more adrenaline for his body to draw from. His heart didn't even race - it just ached. There was a pain in his chest that wasn't caused by any of the blows or any of his captors.

Someone picked him up. He couldn't even hold his head up.

They began to wash his face. Tidy his hair. They took off his shirt, and forced his arms into a new one. The pain shot through him like a sword through each arm, and he couldn't bite back the cry of pain that burst out of him.

Finally they brought in a cot, and laid him on it. Someone came in and set up a few lamps around him, leaving them alight.

For a few minutes, there was silence.

Then a shadow fell over him, and he felt and arm slide behind his shoulders, helping him sit upright.

Pitch.

She held a canteen to his lips.

"Drink," she said, and he could hear the layers of unspoken sympathies packed into that one word.

He did so. She gave it to him slowly, little by little so he didn't choke. When he couldn't drink anymore, she seemed to know, and she pulled the canteen away.

The shadows of guards hovered at the edges of the room.

They weren't alone.

Pitch laid him back down, and quickly checked his vitals. After giving a nod to someone out of sight, she withdrew.

Then a familiar face came into view.

Tula. Followed closely by Rita.

"Deidra left," James said quickly, before Rita could take control. "She's long gone."

"Gag him," Rita ordered flatly, standing at the foot of the bed. "Don't be gentle."

Tula was hesitant. It seemed that she processed what James said, but doubt filled her face.

She gave him a long look but then held a brown, bloodied bandana above his face, already at work to tie it around his mouth, albeit more slowly.

"What's he talking about? Is he telling the truth?" Tula asked Rita.

"Deidra betrayed us," Rita said. "All of us. Not only did she help James in an escape attempt, but she abandoned him to save herself."

Tula gave a last aggressive tug of the bandana, tying the knot fast and then dunking it into James's mouth. Her eyes were lit with anger.

"What did you do to her?" she hissed at him as if this were all his fault. "What did you do?"

James, unable to respond by any means, could only look at her. So instead, he looked away.

"He somehow manipulated her to be his getaway vehicle, as he was unable to move on his own," Rita explained. "I'm sorry, Tula. My men are out looking for her. I'm sure she's just confused."

"Deidra is the most loyal person I have ever met. She wouldn't betray me. This is all his fault," Tula said in agreement.

He had gone through so much with Tula, but James had never seen her seething with as much hate as he did now. She was staring daggers at him, balling her fists and gritting her teeth in anger. After a lingering glare, she finally looked back at Rita, waiting for her command. Waiting for her to allow her to hurt him.

"I'll need him bound to the cot as well," Rita said. "Wrists and ankles. I doubt he has any fight left in him but let's not leave that to chance."

Without hesitation, Tula pulled out more bloodied bandanas, moving to thr back corners of the cot to tie his feet around the post. She tugged at him aggressively, then pulled the bandana around so tight, it felt like he was on the verge of losing circulation. She treated his wrists the same way, snatching them off the cot and dragging them to the upper posts, the bandana tied around so tight that they dug into his skin. When finished, Tula waited to see what Rita would say next.

"Perfect," Rita said. "I'll have you stand at the base of the bed for the message. Draw closer for focus as you see fit. I'll nod once to begin, and once to end. This message is for Evaline, you understand?"

Tula nodded, obeying Rita's commands as she marched back to stand by her. "Yes, Rita. I await your command."

James felt his stomach drop as Rita stole a glance his way. Her eyes glinted with a look that made him want to crawl out of his skin.

The bandana smelled like meat. Foul, but distinct.

It smelled like pork.

James felt faint as he watched Rita give Tula the nod. Tula was staring and focused on James, and he knew the message had begun.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.





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Carina says...



Eve was more determined than ever. She had been traveling nonstop, only taking breaks when Elliot needed it. She had to make it to Ruddlan. She had to. She must. It was her only hint. Her only hint in knowing where James was, or will be, or is.

It was a shot in the dark, but it was the only shot she had. And she wasn't going to give up.

Traveling by herself was starting to catch up to her. She had already run out of food, but she was only one day out from Ruddlan and could fast. Going hungry did not help her energy levels as she was constantly pushing herself, telling herself to just go a little longer. James counted on it.

She longed for a good night's rest. Without anyone guarding the nights, she learned to be a light sleeper. The smallest noise woke her up with a jolt of adrenaline. Most of the time, they end up being small harmless animals chittering in curiosity, but other times, the adrenaline and a gut feeling had saved her. If she was ever unsure of the safety of the night, she left. It was happening more often now.

She was glad that she had time magic to use as her backup if needed, and perhaps she depended on it too much at times, especially when she allowed herself to sleep for a few hours.

It had only been a day since Tula sent her the message. Now, Eve was a day out to Ruddlan. She needed to be well-rested before entering Ruddlan, so she pushed through the bad dreams and allowed herself to rest longer than usual.

She was used to the nightmares. But sometimes it could be hard to tell them apart from reality.

She was staring at James gagged and tied up on a cot, messy and disheveled. She didn't have much time to note the details since a voice started to speak.

"Good morning. I presume you're asleep, Evaline. Or should I call you Eve?" a woman met her eyes, piercing through.

This was Eve's first time seeing Rita with her own eyes. Or was it Rita? This matched James's description of her.

Was this a dream? This felt too real to be a dream. She felt like she was watching something unfold. Like they wanted her to see this.

Tula was broadcasting to her again. Eve felt her stomach sink as she helplessly watched on.

A wicked smile curled on Rita's lips.

"You think I wouldn't know? I've been sleeping beside him every night. You know he whimpers for you in his sleep, like a baby? It would be adorable, if he wasn't so pitiful and helpless."

Rita's smile turned into a taunting smirk as she took a step closer to James, her hand hovering over him.

"Though I know what you must see in him," Rita said, slipping her hand under James's shirt at his waist, sliding it up. She ended up pushing the shirt up to his chest, revealing his stomach, which was almost entirely black, red, and blue. Eve could see James's skin involuntarily twitch at Rita's touch - it was that tender.

"I see it too," Rita said, turning her eyes down to James with lust pooling in her eyes.

James looked like he was desparately trying not to show any emotion, but she could see it all leaking out. His brows were drawn taut in a straight line. His face was tense, and his breaths sounded thin behind the gag in his mouth.

"You see," Rita said, dancing her fingers slowly across James's chest. "He's been a bad boy, lately, Eve."

Eve felt herself on the verge of waking up, but she kept herself present, forcing herself to endure this torturous vision. She had to be less reckless. She had to listen for hints and not lash out helplessly, even when her heart ached and she wanted to reach out and save him.

"I think that the last time you saw him all beaten and bloody - somehow, you managed to give him hope, even though he couldn't see you. And hope - well, that's a dangerous thing. It makes people do things they shouldn't."

Rita looked back to Eve, her eyes twinkling with amusement.

"It makes people act stupid. And reckless."

Rita traced her hand down to James's hip and let it linger there.

"And we both know James has a tendency to join the two at the most inopportune moments. It seems to be a recurring theme in his tragic life story."

She reached down and began to roll up one of James's sleeves. At this, James finally showed some resistance, and he weakly jerked at his bonds. But Eve could see after only two tugs that he didn't have it in him, and he stopped.

She knew he already had to be in so much pain.

"Don't worry," Rita said in a manner that might've been meant to be soothing. "I'll be showing mercy today, not judgement."

Rita reached into a pouch belted to her side, and she watched as Rita pulled out a syringe, gently unwrapping it from its package of cloth.

Eve already knew where this was going. Her heart skipped a beat.

"You know what lumshade is, right?" Rita asked. "You're a mage."

Tula focused on the sight of the syringe as Rita flicked it, showing off its luminous, purple contents, but all Eve could focus on was the blurred face of James in the background.

His eyes had gone wide with fear.

"A sedative will do him good," Rita said. "Then he won't be able to make any more rash decisions. It's the safest option for him, don't you think?"

She pulled out a swab and wiped the crook of James's arm clean.

"This will only hurt for a moment," she said softly.

No. No, no, no.

Eve watched as Rita carefully inserted the needle into a vein. She leaned in, holding the syringe with steady hands as she slowly emptied its contents.

"It acts fast when directly injected into the bloodstream," she said, pulling the needle out. As she tied off a swab of cotton over the insertion point, Tula's eyes jumped to James's face.

His eyes were already vacant. Within seconds, they closed.

Rita stood up, pocketing the syringe away.

"He looks so peaceful when he sleeps," she said, nearing his head with one small step.

"I know he thought he was being a hero by running away," Rita said. "But wouldn't the heroic thing have been staying with the ones who truly loved him? And don't you think if he really wanted to stay with you... he would've?"

Rita reached around James's face and gently untied the gag from his mouth. Laying it to the side on the cot, she reached down and held James's face in her hand.

"That's one of those hard truths in life," Rita said. "Is that if someone really wanted to do something, they would. And what did he do?"

Rita looked up to meet Eve's eyes.

"He shut you out, lied to you, and left you, didn't he?" she asked. "And you were surprised? You thought you were different? How many promises did he make that he didn't keep? How many times did he swear to you he'd never leave you?"

Rita grinned, malice in her eyes.

"He does that with everyone, Eve," she said. "He's never going to change."

Rita's words repeated in Eve's head like a ghostly echo. But still she waited. She listened. She grew numb to it.

Her eyes turned back down to James.

"Lucky for me, I never fell for his personality," she said, staring down at James longingly for a moment.

And then, with one hand holding James's head, and the other resting on his chest, Rita leaned down and kissed him on the lips.

She let it linger, despite James being wholly unresponsive.

When she pulled away, she looked back up and met Eve's eyes.

"My advice?" Rita said. "Let him go. Move on. Even if you find us by some miracle, he'll never be the same."

There was a pause, and then Rita grinned again, this time with a knowing look.

"And if you wake up thinking this is all just a very bad dream... it's my pleasure to tell you it's not. All of this is real. As real as each panicked breath you breathe."

Then, Rita nodded, and it all came to a sudden stop.

It was over.


Eve was already awake. She had been awake for a while, just emptily staring up at the sky as the vision came to an end. Her eyes were dry, perhaps from not blinking the whole time. She felt like she was frozen in place and in time, not even allowed to be lost in her own thoughts.

It felt too heavy to think. Too hard to remember. Too difficult to move, react, cry.

All she could do was stare up emptily into the sky, trying to controlled her panicked breaths, just as Rita predicted.

Eve didn't know how much time had passed, but she waited. She waited until she was ready. It took a long time because the echos of Rita's words replayed in her mind over and over along with the ghostly image of her kissing James, moments after he grew unconscious from the lumshade.

Finally, Eve wiped her tired, hardened eyes and slowly sat up. It was the beginnings of dawn. The sun hadn't begun rising yet, but the moon was on its way out. It was too early to leave, but too late to sleep.

What was she to do?

In a daze, Eve limped towards Elliot, her legs nearly buckling under her before she was able to grab on to the saddle. She gently brushed back his mane, watching as Elliot woke up from the touch, curiously watching her, but otherwise not reacting.

The seconds ticked by, slowly, in silence.

"What should I do, Elliot?" Eve asked quietly, still brushing his mane with her fingers.

Elliot huffed through his nose.

Eve felt the pent-up heavy emotions from the night return to sink her stomach and prick her eyes.

"What should I do? James? What should I do?" she whimpered, holding back a cry as she buried her head in his mane.

Elliot wrapped his head around her, bringing it over her shoulder. She knew she was talking and reacting with a horse, but for a moment, she let herself imagine that she was with James, who pulled her close and let her cry on his shoulder.

It's alright. I'm here, now, is what he would have said.

Eve sobbed, holding on to Elliot tight and not letting go. She had to just let it out. Not all at once, but a little at a time. She had to hold on to her sanity, even during hard circumstances.

Tula had sent her a message with Rita saying that hope caused them to be reckless, but Eve disagreed. Rita alluded that Eve had instilled hope in James. And now it was all either of them had left. Even when his situation seemed hopeless, Eve had to continue to hold on to her own hope and pass it on to James. She had to remind him to keep living and fighting, even when it was hard. Even when it felt pointless.

She had to send James her own message.

Truth be told, Eve had no idea if James had been dreaming about all the times she had undone time. Some instances were necessary and violent, others were mild inconveniences, and some were based on paranoia.

But this time, she would go back deliberately and intentionally hope that James could hear her words while he was sedated and dreaming.

Eve sniffed, patting Elliot once as a thank you, then relaxed her posture as she leaned on the tree where he was tied up. She took a few deep breaths, readying herself as she stared at Elliot in front of her.

"James," she whispered into the night. "I don't know if you'll hear this, but I had to try."

She paused, wrapping her arms around her as a chill went by.

"I'd ask 'how are you,' but you know I don't like small talk. Especially when it's one-way. And especially when I already know the answer."

Eve faltered, feeling her fingers clench on to her sides a little too tight. Maybe James could feel all this too. No, she knew he could. He could feel the masked anxiety, the heartache, the numbness. She didn't want him to feel that. She had to be stronger.

Eve took a deep breath.

"I have a lot of time by myself nowadays," she continued. "Traveling just with Elliot has given me ample space to think and reflect. And I've been thinking a lot on what we'd do later, in the future, when time is in our hands. I don't think the setting would be too different from Terra. A cottage and farm, away from noise and people. Our friends would be near, I'm sure. And we'd be far from danger. Far from anyone who would ever want to hurt us."

It was supposed to be a happy thought, but it pained her to think about it. It felt like a faraway future. An impossible, unattainable future. But she didn't want to accept that.

"I also think back on our past a lot," Eve went on, wanting to change the trajectory of this thought to a happier note. "I hold on to our memories together, knowing that we can make new ones again soon. The more I think about it, the more I think that our lives together have been shattered into three chapters: the first part being when I first met you in Nye, the second part being when we reconciled on Earth, and the third being now. Each chapter tells a new story about our lives with its own dangers and grievances, but it only makes us stronger."

She paused, trying to fully believe every word she was saying. She had to. For James.

"And this chapter isn't over yet, you know. It had only just begun. That future I talked about - that's the ending. We haven't gotten there yet. You have to understand that. You have to understand that I won't ever give up on you."

Eve felt the tears threaten to return again, and her voice cracked and grew shaky. She pulled her knees towards her chest, tightly wrapping her arms around them as she blinked away the heavy tears, trying to regain focus on Elliot.

"Rita's right about me. She's right about me," Eve continued between heavy, sobbing breaths. "She wants me to let you go, but she knows I can't. She tried to convince me with that message, but it's - it's impossible. I won't and can't let you go." She paused to take another ragged breath. "I'll always be there for you, James. I'll always fight for you. I'll always love you."

Eve knew she sounded desperate, but she didn't care. She didn't care.

Still, the seconds ticked on as she waited for her sobs to subside before sniffing and speaking again.

"I know it's my flaw to always run back to the people I love, even if it destroys me. And in the past, this did destroy me. But James, you're different. You're different because you are the same, too: you would keep your loved ones safe, even if it destroyed you. I understand. I understand why you left, and I forgive you. I'll forgive you even if you have to leave me a thousand more times."

She had to close her eyes as more tears streamed from her eyes, and she had to bite back the painful thought that this would happen a thousand more times. The only reason she didn't succumb to that idea was because of her hope and trust in James. She fully trusted her life to him. She trusted that he would not leave her with malicious intent.

"Rita's right about another thing. If someone really wanted to do something, they would." Eve took a deep breath, the sobs now having devolved into sniffles. "And I want to love you. I choose to love you, and that means I will do my best to find you and take you to safety, even if it destroys me. I know you left to protect us, and I'm sorry that I'm undoing your actions and putting myself in danger. But... of all people, I expect you to understand the most."

Eve wiped away the last of her tears, freeing her mind of Rita and her words. Even though James wasn't here with her, it still felt cathartic to say those words out loud for him to hear. She felt the ashes of her heart reignite into a small flame, fueled by the same hope that Rita tried to take away.

"I am traveling east and am currently a day out from Ruddlan. When there, I'll restock my supplies and gather intelligence on the whereabouts of the bounty hunters. If I am ahead of you, then I will quickly travel to King's Peak to retain the advantage. If I am behind you, then I will travel nonstop to King's Peak to catch up. Now that we can place each other on the map, I will update you everyday on my whereabouts."

She wanted to say that that was to keep herself sane, but it was more for James. If he were to be induced by lumshade the majority of the time, then she hoped that these messages would help ground him and keep him fighting.

The seconds continued to tick by silently as Eve used this time to collect her breath and thoughts. She still had plenty of time to talk to James this way, but she still felt like she was running out of words. Each day that passed, it was always harder.

"It's ironic, isn't it?" she said after some time, now staring up at the sky. The brink of dawn cast a haze over the waking sky. "I can only communicate with you by your dreams, and you can only communicate with me by Tula."

She paused, wondering if James already dreamed of her undoing the first message Tula broadcasted to her. She felt her stomach sink, knowing that it would sicken James to see that vision from her own eyes.

"I'm sorry if this is too much. All of this. I wish this were easier..."

Eve sniffed again, her gaze landing back on Elliot. She knew that James likely wanted to experience as many of these innocent moments as possible, but the selfish side of her decided against maximizing this time. She just couldn't bring herself to tell him about her days traveling alone when he was being tortured.

"I miss you," she whispered instead. "And I love you. I know you'll be sedated for the coming weeks, but I'll talk to you every day."

Just like he did for her when she was in a coma for six months.

She paused again, then closed her eyes.

"Goodbye, James."

And then she went back in time, undoing everything she just said.
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soundofmind says...



The 7th of Sil, Third Month of Summer


Agony.

James didn't know how much heartache he could bear. His body had been already given over to ruin. At this point, he'd made peace with the fact that his physical frame would never fully recover. He was never going to be normal. He was never going to get "back" to "normal." Things were never going to be like they were before, and there was nothing he could do to change that.

No time could be undone. No moments could be taken back. Everything was hurtling forward, culminating in one final confrontation that landed him in the Moonlight Kingdom, passed from the hands of one captor to another. Except the other was Carter, whom he hadn't seen in almost seven years.

Until then, he had to bear this. Not only his own personal torture, but knowing that everything done to him was to be shared with Eve, adding on to her own personal torment.

He didn't know what happened after Rita injected the Lumshade straight into his bloodstream. He had no way of knowing what words were said, or even what his body was subjected to while he was out.

All he knew was the darkness that followed. And then, Eve.

He was seeing through her eyes. Hearing her own voice. But everything in him wished to see her face and to embrace her and escape from the hell he wished to break free from more and more with each passing day. With every word she spoke he could feel his own heart shattering into pieces.

How could he have ever left her? What had he done to be loved so deeply, received with such mercy, to be forgiven over and over? But it didn't matter anymore what he even deserved.

She still loved him. She was going to find him. She was still determined. She wasn't giving up.

All he wanted was to see her.

He could never say sorry enough, but if he ever got to see her again, he didn't know if he'd even want to waste his words on apologies. Everything within him just desperately wanted to tell her: I love you. I love you. I love you too. If only so she could hear it one last time.

Consciousness came suddenly, like a heavy blanket was ripped off of him. He could feel the rocking of his own body swaying slightly in the back of a wagon, and the discomfort of hard wood against his back.

He could tell it was daytime he even opened his eyes, and he could feel the sting of tears streaming down his cheeks even though he couldn't remember ever having cried. But the emotions remained like a balloon in his chest, ready to pop if prodded once more.

He had to remember where he was. Who he was, for a moment.

Right.

He was still a prisoner, and he was still in pain. It was one of the blessings and curses of wakeful awareness.

He cracked his eyes open.

Above him was a the tarp of a covered wagon. The light of the sun was leaking through it, but they were shaded from the brunt of its heat. The air was still thick and humid.

The wagon hit a bump, and he grunted as his body was tossed to the side, and he landed back on his back. Then, he finally registered that his hands and ankles were bound.

At this rate, it seemed counterintuitive, but he knew Rita as the kind of person who didn't like taking chances. Especially once her rules establishing "trust" were violated.

"Good morning, my prisoner. Did you sleep well?" a mocking voice that he knew too well said to his left. Tula.

Ugh.

James knew he didn't have a choice in the matter, but he really didn't have the energy to deal with Tula. He supposed he'd have to.

He slowly turned his head to look up at her. She was sitting criss-cross on top of a crate, back straight as she glared daggers at him, her frown not matching the feigned sweetness in her voice. She must have been watching him the whole time.

"You're my babysitter," he said dryly. "Oh, joy."

Tula didn't waste a beat with her next demand. "Tell me what happened last night. How did you convince Deidra to leave?"

So she wasn't wasting time with meaningless taunting and small-talk. How refreshing.

"I hardly said anything," James started.

"Liar," Tula cut in before James could elaborate. "You manipulated her."

"All I told her," James said. "Was that she should make her own decisions. And be her own person. Is that a crime? She thought for herself and decided to help me. I didn't even ask her to."

"It's a crime to plant corrupt and deceitful ideas into people's mind," she said.

James scoffed, but it pained him to do so.

"Corrupt," he echoed. "As if Deidra isn't capable of making her own choices. You're just upset she chose to leave you. Don't pin that on me."

Tula grit her teeth, and it occurred to James that perhaps Deidra was a vulnerability that she hadn't yet shared.

It occured to him: Deidra was probably more like family than Tula's biological family ever was. Deidra was probably the longest, constant loyal companion Tula ever had.

"No," she said harshly, visibly fuming. "I never said Deidra isn't capable of making her own choices. She chooses her own path. But you encouraged her to be disloyal. To betray. Of course the most wanted man in the world for treason would teach her that."

Never in his life had James thought he had a real true opportunity to reach Tula in an area that was even the slightest bit sincere. Even when they'd discussed their fake cover story, he knew that she was only using him for her own benefit. He hadn't had to help her then, and he certainly wasn't obligated to help her now, but for the first time, Tula seemed to be showing even the slightest bit of genuine human loyalty.

She felt betrayed. And she was hurting, but she would never admit to it.

Which meant it would never get acknowledged unless someone else did it for her.

James closed his eyes for a moment and let out a deep sigh.

"You miss her," James said, looking up at Tula with as much genuine empathy as he could muster, even though she didn't deserve it.

"Answer my question," Tula demanded again, unfazed by his statement and more hostile this time. "What. Did. You. Say?"

"I told her," James said, unflinching. "That she didn't have to live a life forever under someone else's thumb, following someone else's orders. I told her that here, on Nye, she actually has a chance at a fresh start. She could carve her own path. She didn't have to submit to the leadership of Rita if she didn't want to. She was free to make her own choices, be her own person, make her own life. Even in a world where magic is villified daily, there's a place for mages to have a life fully lived. I wanted her to feel free to grab a hold of that, with both hands, instead of forever feeling tied to the fates of leaders who only ever wanted to use her as a tool because of her power. I wanted her to be free."

He paused.

"And yes. I did ask her if she would be willing to help me find my freedom too. But when we made it outside and it became clear that both of us wouldn't make it out, I told her to go. She has a chance at freedom that I will never have, and I didn't want to selfishly steal that away from her."

For a moment, it seemed that Tula actually heard him.

She was quiet - still glaring at him, but she didn't interrupt, and she wasn't quick to say any invalidating quips. That was, until, she slowly got up and loudly faked a yawn.

"Are you done yet? I almost fell asleep. You can really sell any story, can't you? Is that how you win all your friends? And betray your kingdom?"

She paced back and forth across the wagon, which wasn't big to begin with, but it appeared to help with her thinking.

Tula stopped nearby him, looking down at him in disgust. "You're pathetic. You deserve everything that is to come."

"Okay," James sighed. "Good talk."

He turned to look away.

"Let me know when you want to have a real conversation."

"I would like to have a conversation without any of your pathetic lies," Tula spat out.

James rolled his eyes before turning to look back at her.

"My lies? Or until I tell you what you want to hear?" he asked. "Is that it? Will I finally be able to rest if I tell you I manipulated your closest friend into leaving you in the dust? That's what you already believe, anyway."

Tula scoffed. "You did manipulate her. You sowed false truths into her head."

"Tell me, then," James said. "What false truths did I tell her?"

"She can't possibly live a normal life on Nye. She's a mage. Mages don't live normal lives."

"I never told her she could live a normal life. But I did tell her she could live her life on her own terms. There are mages out there who manage to have perfectly satisfying lives."

"And, what? For people like you one day to send them to their deaths?" Tula shot back.

"Tula, I think you fail to realize this, but you and Deidra are anomolies here on Nye. Not only are your powers rare on this side of the universe, but they are arguably some of the easiest kinds of magic to hide. The only thing you have to do is simply not tell anyone or not use them on people you can't trust," James said.

"Rita knows. I left no hints. It's not as easy as you think."

"Tula," James said with a wry laugh, even though his ribs ached. "The only way you could've been more obvious was if you'd screamed you're a mage from the rooftops. Even the other bounty hunters have their suspicions about you. You want to know why?"

Tula hesitated, clenching her jaw.

"I shouldn't have known where you all were," James answered. "There was no way for me to know. How would I have known how to find all of you? There were no messengers sent. No letters. No directions. Who was going to tell me? Did you really think they'd just believe I happened to stumble into your camp, haggard, hurried, already knowing my friends were being held ransom when no ransom note was sent?"

"I covered my tracks. I gave reasons for all of that," Tula said much too defensively.

"What was the reason? That I just knew?" he asked.

"I told them that Malkiel and Rudy were near, and so were you, so obviously you would come looking for them. And you'd know where we were because of, you know, smoke, and tents, and other stupid nature signs that you look into. But it worked, didn't it? No one doubted me," Tula said stubbornly.

"You literally said Rita found out," James said. "There's one person who doubted you."

"She probably found out another way!" Tula said, annoyed.

"Tula," James said. "Rita was interrogating me about you. She was suspicous from the start."

Tula groaned, sitting back down at the crate she was on. She furrowed her brows and crossed her arms. "Rita is smart. She would have found out another way. Even if I hid my magic, she'll know. She just does."

"She already knows. There's no point in arguing that," James said with a sigh. "My point was, Rita's suspicions aside, if you had been more careful, no one would have found out. Or would ever find out, for that matter. The same goes for Deidra."

Tula rolled her eyes. "Right. Be more careful. Great idea, I'll just hide who I am. That sounds so fun. What a way to live life."

James merely slow-blinked, knowing that was meant to be a personal dig at his own story. He didn't care at this point.

"Tula," James said. "I know you and Deidra shared a lot of history. I'm sorry she's gone."

"You don't know a thing about Deidra," Tula cut in sourly. "How dare you make these assumptions about her. I'm disappointed, but I know you don't care. To you, she's just a vessel used for your escape."

"Alright," James said. "I'll admit I don't know Deidra very well, or much at all. But let me ask this: In your whole time you've been here on Nye, have you ever asked Deidra what she wanted? Did you ever ask her if she wanted to do something besides catch me, or even if she wanted to, now that Oliver is out of the picture? Did you ever ask her what she'd want to do after? Once the task of catching me was finally over?"

"But it's not over. You're still here, aren't you? She's no longer here to turn you in," she said.

James felt like he was fully realizing how oblivious Tula was.

"Tula. That's not the point of my questions in the slightest," James said. "I'm asking if you ever took a moment to ask Deidra what she wanted for the long-term future, or if you've even considered that for yourself. Turning me in aside, your life doesn't end once I'm behind bars. It keeps going, even after mine ends."

Gods. He felt insane talking about this so plainly.

"And it still remains that Deidra is gone, and there's nothing either of us can do about it. Myself most of all."

"James," Tula began with exaggerated condenscension, trying to mimic how he begins his spiels. She took a second to stare at him with a hateful glare, then she angrily chucked a pebble towards his head.

"Of course I have, stupid!" she yelled in a hushed whisper. "Of course I've asked my closest friend what she wants. Gods, you are so patronizing. Just because I torture you, you think I don't talk to my friends? Gods. She told me what she wanted. She told me she wanted to be with me. But you didn't know that, did you? No, you are a self-entitled brat who makes assumptions and only thinks of yourself to get what you want."

The pebble pelted his forehead and bounced off, clattering somewhere on the wagon's floor.

James let out another deep sigh.

He was tired. Not only had he been beaten to a pulp and his arms filleted, but the Lumshade had hardly been fully cleared from his system.

He was consicous, sure. But the fact that he felt like the only self-aware person in this conversation was saying something. His head still felt like it was somewhere else.

"Sorry I underestimated you," James said dryly. "It appears you're not as selfish as you seem. The gleeful torturing of others must be a symptom of some other moral failure."

He didn't care if he sounded patronizing. Tula was acting like a child. A self-entitled, presumptuous, bratty child who only thought about herself.

"Now that we've both told each other what we truly think of one another," James went on. "And I have already apologized for my part in Deidra's dissapearance. Perhaps we could both benefit from some self reflection."

"You think I enjoy torturing you?" Tula said with a click of her tongue, sounding annoyed that he would come to this decision. "No. You don't deserve my enjoyment. But keep it up, lover boy. I may change my mind the next time we talk to your girlfriend."

Alright. James was done.

He'd made mamy efforts to help Tula begin to think critically about her own situation as well as Deidra's, and she was determined to remain fruitlessly defensive of herself.

"If you truly care about me so little," James said. "I'm amazed you make the effort to defend yourself at all."

He looked away again, wearied.

"Unless you have any other burning questions of consequence," he said. "I'm done speaking with you."

Tula scoffed, getting up again and angrily walking towards him. "You seem to forget who holds the real power here," she taunted. This time she was holding a glass container of lumshade. She must have hidden it until now.

Really? She thought that was a threat?

"Where is Deidra?" she asked, standing over him.

"I. Don't. Know," James emphasized. "Please. Put me to sleep. It's better than talking to you, anyway."

"Fuck you," she snarled, getting the syringe ready.

"We never came up with a plan beyond escaping," James said. "Trust me. If I knew where she was, I'd probably tell you! If you really care about her so much I'd be happy to reunite two friends! Because yeah, fuck me. You two should get to live a happy life together. You at least deserve that. And me? Oh, I'm pitiful when I stoop to your standards, and I'm pitiful when I show empathy. I'm pitiful when I do anything. Pitiful, pitiful, pitiful."

Tula groaned. "You are so annoying," she grumbled.

"It's mutual," James said.

"Do you want to be put under or not?"

"Do you want to critically evaluate who you are as a person and consider you could actually choose to change?" James asked straight-facedly, looking up to meet her eyes.

Tula glared at him, not moving.

"Thought so," he muttered.

She merely shook her head, clicking her tongue as she bent down to administer the drug. Without hestiation, she stabbed his thigh with the syringe and forcefully inserted the drug into him all at once. James hissed, and his leg involuntarily bounced up and down against the sudden piercing pain.

"Go to sleep and think about what you've done," she said sternly, violently pulling out the needle and already retreating back to her corner without giving him another glance.

James could feel his body starting to go into shock as two things happened at once: he could feel his leg starting to bleed where the needle had been stabbed into him, and the lumshade quickly started to kick in. Though this time, it seemed to be a slightly different concoction.

Previously, he'd been hit with what he knew had to only have been the sedative. He'd experienced it a few times before and knew it to knock people out within seconds if they struck the right vein.

But this felt... weird.

He could feel the pull of something like sleep on his eyes, but simultaneously, it felt like the world was melting around him, and he was melting into it. He found himself grasping for solid ground in his last moments of consciousness, and the last thing he saw was Tula, in the corner, watching him smugly.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.





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Carina says...



It had been a while since Tula hated someone like this.

She really, really hated him. Despised him. Before her talk, she thought he was irritating that he kept one-upping her tactics, but now? Now he was despicable.

He thought he knew everything, didn't he? That he could read people, figure people out, and tell him how to live their lives? Oh, he was just so perfect, wasn't he? With all his stupid friends, and all his stupid attention.

She hated him. And she couldn't wait to see him go down. He deserved every punishment that will come his way. Tula wanted to see him go down to his knees and beg her for his life, just so she can spit on his face and tell him, "If you self-reflect, maybe you can make a change."

Tula sat still, watching James breathe as she controlled the fiery rage inside of her. She was tasked to keep him sedated, and she did her job. But the day was still long, and she had other tasks in mind.

But not when he could still potentially hear. No one could know.

The minutes ticked on, and still she stared. She had administered a strong dose of whatever Pitch gave her. She couldn't remember if Pitch said she was only supposed to do half of it, or the whole thing. But she didn't care.

Tule knew that Rita would care, though. And she didn't have another explanation other than, "He made me angry," which wasn't going to fly with her.

But this time, Tula didn't care what Rita thought. If James died from an overdose, to hell with it. He deserved it. She could say it was an accident. Whatever.

She continued to stare at him, wondering if he was faking it. He was staying so still, she wondered if he was dead.

... Did she kill him?

Tula groaned, decided to check on him. She briskly walked over, jabbing her fingers on the pulse on his neck. Alive. And beating very, very fast. She hummed, deciding to forcefully pinch open his eyes. His pupils were huge, and he seemed unresponsive. Still humming, she decided to slap his face. Hard.

No response, but boy did that feel great.

With a satisfied "humph," she decided to kick him on the groin to see if he'll react. Again, no response.

So he was really out, then. And alive. Great. She hoped he could feel the pain in his sleep.

"Asshole," she muttered, then went back to her corner, slumping down on her crate.

Tula let the minutes go by again. She wasn't waiting for a reaction from James, but rather was wondering how she would go about doing this.

As in, spying on Deidra. She had to do it. She had to know where she was.

Tula had experimented with her magic on Deidra many times, so she knew that she would recognize that it was her. But what if she reacted badly? No, she wouldn't do that... right?

She didn't like that the thought of helping her best friend made her apprehensive. Deidra had never showed an ounce of disloyalty. And after all this time, she finally did. And Tula wasn't sure she wanted to know why.

She took a deep breath, readying herself. Counting down to five, Tula closed her eyes and focused on Deidra's face, trying to see through her eyes.

She saw a wooden floor, and on it, Deidra's feet. Deidra was looking down into her lap, and her gaze drifted to her hands. It looked like Deidra was sitting on a bed, but the edges of her vision were out of focus.

All Tula could see were her hands, clenched together.

Nervous.

"Hi, Tula," Deidra said quietly.

She sounded hesitant. Like maybe she was scared of what Tula would say too. And if Tula could talk to her, she would use this moment to angrily lash out and ask her why she left. But she was forced to silently listen.

There was a moment of prolonged silence as she watched Deidra wring her hands.

"I know you want to know where I am," she said quietly. "And I know you have questions. I hope you'll stick around long enough to listen."

There was a pause, as if Deidra was waiting for a reply. Get on with it. Of course I'm going to listen to you.

"It wasn't supposed to go this way," Deidra said. "I didn't mean to run off by myself, alone. But we would've both gotten caught. James didn't say it at the time, but... I think we both knew if I got caught too, that I'd never have the freedom that I had before. Rita would never be able to trust me again. My best chances were if I got away. I don't know what Rita would've done if I'd stayed, but... I've seen what she's willing to do to keep people in control."

A pause.

"To keep you in control, too. I think she's using your magic against you, right? As a bargaining chip. I wish there was something I could've done to help. But I... I'm not used to having to think that way, you know? I don't know. I'm... I've been a solider my whole life."

Another pause, this one longer.

"My whole life I've just... done what everyone's told me to do."

She could hear Deidra swallow softly.

"Now that I'm by myself, it's like I don't know what to do with myself. I don't think I've ever had to make a decision by myself my whole life. Even as a soldier there was always someone over me. I never did the talking. I was always just... the muscle. Someone told me to move, I'd move. Someone told me to fight, I'd fight. If those things weren't needed, I'd just be... there."

Tula could see a tear fall onto the back of Deidra's hand.

"I don't know. It just feels... stupid that I've lived this long, and I feel like I don't even know who I am. Or what I am. Or who I want to be. And I know this is weird and I've never said any of this before. But I've had some time now to really think to myself, with no one else around. And I think I'm realizing - well, I - I mean, I hardly even feel like a real person. I don't even know what I want. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn't want... whatever we had with Rita."

She sniffed, and her vision went black after Deidra lifted her hand, presumably to wipe her eyes.

"It didn't feel like living. And I don't know, Tula. I think I'm just -- I don't want to work for people who lie and cheat and kill their way through everything, you know? I just don't think I can do it anymore. I'm tired of feeling like a tool more than a person. I'm tired of feeling like the only reason anyone keeps me around or wants to talk to me is so I can do stuff for them. Like protect them, or fight, or I don't know. You know... everything. You were there."

She sniffed again, and Tula could hear Deidra's voice growing softer, and tighter with tears. Her eyes opened once more, but now her vision was blurred with tears.

"I'm sorry. I didn't want to leave you. But I didn't want to stay. And I knew-- I--"

Her voice cracked.

"Would there have been anything I could've said to make you change your mind?" she asked. "To make you come with me, too? I was so afraid you wouldn't understand. I know you care so much about making sure James gets justice -- or, I don't know. Whatever that even means. I just -- I don't know. That's-- that's what you wanted, you know? But I-- I don't-- like -- now that Oliver's out of the picture? I don't think I really care that much. I don't think I even really care at all."

At that, Deidra broke down into a full sob, and all Tula could see was darkness as she listened to Deidra weep.

"I'm sorry," Deidra rasped through sobs. "I didn't know what else to do. I'm sorry."

Tula couldn't bear to hear her friend sob some more. At that, she stopped listening to give her privacy.


Tula slowly opened her eyes, unmoving. She stared at the other end of the wagon for far too long, feeling heavy, bloated, and tired. The spark of rage and hate she had for James just moments ago was gone, now.

Because Tula was loyal, too. And she felt like she was the one who betrayed Deidra, not the other way around.

She took a long, deep breath, letting the wave of calm roll in.

And then she decided to let Deidra see what she was seeing, so she could send her a message too.

"Hey. Stop crying. You're out in the world now. You need to buck up and figure out what you need to do next. Crying isn't going to solve anything," she grumbled, still staring at the other end of the wagon, making sure to not show James in her view.

Tula hesitated, wondering how to go about her next thought. This all felt so... complicated. She sighed.

"Deidra. I wish... I wish you told me anyways. Yes, I like working with Rita. But if you'd have told me that you were literally going to run away because you hate her so much, I would have considered leaving too. But now it's just all..." She sighed again. "Such a mess."

For a moment, Tula thought about the memories she had with Deidra. How they became friends in childhood because Deidra was getting bullied, and how Tula watched with glee when she convinced Deidra to bully them back with her muscles. As she thought back to how they first came to Nye, and how she treated Deidra - it occured to her that maybe she was the bully all along.

Tula had to repress a groan. She wanted to shoot a glare at James, but still dutifully kept her vision on the wagon.

"I'm sorry I didn't treat you better, or made you feel like I wouldn't listen. You know you're my closest friend... right? Maybe that's pathetic, I don't know, but I think it's worth something. And if you want to leave... I suppose... I can't stop you."

Tula paused again. She didn't like this, but knew it was necessary.

"Go ahead, live your life, I guess. Make it a good one, even if I'm not there. I hope you find what you're looking for."

Another pause, longer this time. She felt stiff.

"Maybe, when this all blows over, I'll find you again. No, I will. But not until then. So. If you hate me, then don't show me anything next time. I'll know to leave you alone. But until then..."

Tula took another big breath, bracing herself.

"Good luck."

And then she dropped her concentration, groaned, and melted into the ground, rolling to her side.

This was really the worst day ever.
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soundofmind says...



James felt his body shake again as the wagon hit a rock. This time, his shoulder thumped into the crate beside him, jolting him awake. Anxiety buzzed in every nerve, and he could feel it buzzing in his chest, alerting him to a danger he wasn't sure was even there.

At this point, he'd thought his mind was beyond sending warning signals. Everything had been a warning signal. But this felt like he was one surprise away from every canon of adrenaline being released in his body.

His heart was racing. Weakly, he found the strength to sit up, one arm pressing up against the floor to prop himself up and the other reaching around the crate.

Draped against the crate, he breathed thin, laborous breaths.

His body felt heavy, yet light. His joints were stiff, his muscles felt like they were peeling away from his bones, and yet somehow, his hands were holding himself steady as the wagon continued to rock with each inconsistency of the dirt road. For a moment, all he could do was sit there, staring out into the now empty wagon, not sure if Tula was truly gone or if she was just behind him somewhere, waiting to torture him, or belabor him with more questions as a sounding board for her anger.

The wagon rocked and rocked, like a boat on the water, rolling with each wave. He could hear the sound of horses riding outside, and the rolling of wagon wheels. It sounded like there might've been another wagon. He couldn't be sure. He didn't know what kind of travelling party Rita had put together now that they'd left Ruddlan, and he didn't know if he'd ever know, now that his sobriety was being toyed with. And his sanity.

He didn't know how long he sat there, waiting for someone. Something, to intervene.

Finally, he took in a deep breath and slowly pushed himself so he was wholly upright, back against the crate, and he shifted his legs to the side, pained as he felt a sharp pain shoot up his leg.

Looking down, he remembered how Tula had stabbed him mercilessly with the syringe.

There was a small hole the needle left behind, and a spot of now-dried blood on his pants. Presumably, someone had stopped the bleeding, or the bleeding stopped on its own.

Wincing, he gently brushing his hand over the wound. With just a touch, he could already feel how deep the bruising went.

Gods, he was never going to feel normal again, was he?

Exasperated and exhausted, he stared down at his hands, only then realizing that they'd been untied.

Had he woken up... too early? Had they unbound him for a reason? What time was it?

He looked again at his ankles, seeing that they were free as well.

He looked out at the back of the wagon.

Everything within him told him: this is your chance. But knew without a doubt that he wouldn't make it as far as the edge of the wagon before everything ended poorly. He didn't know if he even had the strength to stand, nevermind walk.

Staring at the exit, he felt his stomach sink.

"So this is your life, now, huh?" he heard a voice say beside him.

Nearly jumping out of his skin, James whipped around and found himself staring, wide-eyed at the apparition sitting across from him, legs crossed as she sat atop one of the crates.

No. This... no. This didn't make sense.

He couldn't help but stare, dumbfounded as he found himself face to face with his younger sister, Larrel.

Everything in his mind was screaming - telling him this couldn't be real. It wasn't real. There was no logical way.

And yet, she seemed just as real as his own flesh and blood.

There was something haunting about her appearance. His mother had always said she seemed to carry both their mother's and father's traits equally, and now that he was seeing her fully grown, it was like he was seeing both of his parents in one, but instead, it was his sister. An adult, bearing too much resemblance to himself but just enough of his mother's features to be othered.

His mouth was agape as Larrel, formerly looking out at the exit with him, slowly turned to meet his eyes.

The look in her eyes was one of utmost apathy.

It was like she was bored, or would rather be elsewhere, but was stuck with him.

Somehow, in all his fantasized imaginings of their reunion, he'd always been expecting some kind of show of emotion. Sadness, anger, betrayal - something. But this seemed to hurt more than them all.

She didn't care, did she?

She'd moved on.

"I guess I was expecting something different," she said. "You never seemed like the kind of person to seek out adventure."

She tilted her head, looking down.

"Not that this is very adventurous. But it's definitely not a normal life by any means."

James still hadn't found his voice.

"It's just sad to think that this is what you left home for," Larrel said. "That it'd all end like this."

James took in a deep breath and looked around the wagon, wondering if this vision was going to fade with time, or if he could will it away.

"What, are you not happy to see me?" Larrel asked. And the question tore at his heart.

All these years, and he's accepted it. He'd never see his family again.

"How did you get here?" he asked, deciding to test things. To see if this facade would hold up under questioning.

"You wouldn't know, but we moved again since you left," Larrel said matter-of-factly. "We're not in King's Peak anymore."

That didn't answer the question.

"Here," he repeated. "In the wagon."

"Rita invited me," she answered.

"How do you know Rita?" James pressed.

"James," Larrel said. "I went out of my way to see you just to see if it was really you, and you're giving me a hard time because - what? I'm not what you expected? Sorry to dissapoint you, but I'm the only one out of our family who even bothered to see if Rita had actually found our 'long lost son.' Mom didn't want to get her hopes up, and, well. I guess Petrus and Dad were never family enough to you to stay around. Why should they be? You hardly ever knew each other."

James stared at her, unable to reconcile the fact that despite all logic, she was there.

"What does Rita know of my family?" he asked in a harsh whisper.

"As if she didn't do her research," Larrel said. "Listen, I don't know all that happened between you two, but clearly, you pissed her off. She's so weirdly obsessed with you it's creepy. Are you really surprised she tracked down your real family?"

James shook his head.

No. No. This... this wasn't happening.

"You're not real," he whispered under his breath.

"I'm sorry?" Larrel asked, but her tone grew sharp. She stared at him, her expression pointed. Offended. And then she got to her feet.

James shook his head more.

This wasn't happening. This wasn't happening.

"I came here to say goodbye and you won't even treat me like a real person?" Larrel snapped. "Rita hasn't even given you the hallucinogens yet. Gods, you're such a baby. You really just can't handle the idea of us having moved on, can you? You hate that I'm here and I'm fine without you. You've spent all this time stuck in the past, haven't you? Well I have news for you."

She paused, and then slowly, deliberately kneeled down in front of him. She leaned in close, locking eyes with him as she reached out, her hands as real to the touch as any as she grabbed the collar of his shirt and lifted him up so they were face to face.

Her long, red-brown hair fell around her shoulders. Her deep blue eyes were cold and void of emotion.

"We don't need you," she said coldly. "And we never will. I lost my brother seventeen years ago. As far as I see it, you're already dead."

Letting go of him, she stood up and looked down at him.

"Turns out, this was a waste of my time," she said, and then called out to the front of the wagon. It came to a jarring halt, but she kept her balance while James fell to the side, catching himself on his elbow.

"I hope you know that even if you had come back, we'd never have received you," Larrel said, taking one long stride towards the exit.

"Have fun with your new family," she said, her tone as cutting and dry as it ever could have been. "Rita seems nice. You were made for each other."

And then she left, stepping out of the stopped wagon, closing the tarp behind her. Beyond it, he could hear distant conversation, but none that he could understand.

Before he knew it, the wagon got rolling again.

He surrendered to gravity and let his upper body lie uncomfortably against the floor as his legs stuck out at a near 90 degree angle. Nothing within him could motivate him to move, and nothing within him cared to try.

Was that... real?

Was that really his sister? Was that really who she'd become? A cynical, bitter, unforgiving person who only came to see him to rub salt into his wounds? To kick him while he was already down?

Was she really so unloving? And how much of that was his fault?

His head began to swim with hundreds of questions and doubts, but no answers came as he laid limply on the wagon floor, feeling heavier and heavier with each passing second.

He didn't know how much of it was grief and how much of it was exhaustion, but eventually sleep won over. If it could be called that.

He drifted, stuck in the painful in-between. Not quite awake, not quite asleep, but just aware enough to be in every form of pain imaginable.

That was, until sleep finally overtook him at some point, but he couldn't say when.

Only problem was he had no idea how long it lasted.

One moment, he was lying on the wagon floor. The next, he was lying on a bed. Although this one was padded, and soft, and the pillow under his head was like a heavenly cradle, relieving some of the tension he hadn't even realized he had in his neck and shoulders.

He was on his back, looking up at a tarp ceiling, and some dark fabrics hung up as if they were walls.

Hanging from one of the main wagon rungs that curved overhead was a small lamp that dimly lit the wagon like it were a room.

The darkenss around it and the distant screeching crickets told him it was night.

Then a hand rested on his bare chest. Where had his shirt gone? Wouldn't he like to know.

"Have you returned to us?" Rita asked softly, reaching up to gently caress his face as she looked down on him.

He realized he was once again sharing a bed with her, and she was sitting next to him. Watching.

Who knew for how long.

James considered pretending to drift back to sleep. He didn't know if she'd buy it but he was tired.

He let his eyelids grow heavy as he looked past her.

"Tula gave you too much Lumshade," Rita said, tracing her thumb across his lips. "I feared you'd never come back to us. It looks like you're awake now. In some capacity."

Drowsiness still gripped every part of his frame, but now the pain of the day started to register again - even more.

His thigh was throbbing. The stab wound had its own heartbeat.

"Next time," James said, feeling even weaker than when he last spoke with Tula. "Just let her kill me."

Rita grinned fondly - a response that only came across as unsettling.

"Glad to see you're feeling like yourself again," she said, brushing some of his hair with her hand. He raised his hand to interfere with all of her touching, but she grabbed his wrist instead.

"Oh," Rita said playfully, holding his wrist with an iron grip. "You want to do this again?"

James wished he was sedated again. Anything to avoid this horrific interaction. He knew if he tried to fight he'd lose.

"No. But neither of us are getting what we want, are we?" he asked tensely.

"And what makes you think that?" Rita asked, meeting his eyes with a challenge.

He found himself frozen under her stare.

Rita hummed with a victorious grin.

"Relax, James," she said. But it wasn't her voice anymore.

Somehow, it was Eve's instead.

"It's not going to hurt," she said. Rita was moving her mouth, but Eve's voice kept coming out of her.

As Rita leaned over him, James tried to move and roll to the side, but his body was stuck. He couldn't move. He wasn't even bound, and he couldn't move. He was paralyzed.

Despite it all, he still strained against his own inability, trying to will himself to scramble off the bed, but Rita already leaned in close, her face over his, and her hands on his chest.

"Take a deep breath," Eve said through Rita's mouth. "It will all be over soon."

Rita's fingers dug into his skin like daggers. It felt like his own skin had turned to mud - that was how easily she peeled it away, ripping into his chest cavity with her bare hands. Somehow, he was still conscious as he watched her peel the skin and the muscle away. He didn't feel a thing as she wrapped her fingers around his lungs, breaking away each ring of his rib cage until they stuck out of him like extended, broken wings.

Finally she let out an eerie laugh, and as Rita's mouth stretched into a smile, her own skin seemed to sag, like it was starting to melt off of her skull.

She shoved her hand past his broken ribs straight to his exposed, beating heart.

Sensory stimulants finally kicked in.

Unbearable pain ripped through him as every vital organ was exposed to the air, and Rita's hands squeezed his heart tighter and tighter.

A breathless scream ripped through his throat as his heart burst, and for a moment, everything stopped.

He was staring up at Eve. His own blood was splattered across her face.

"I told you I would always come for you," she said, her voice shaking like a leaf as tears welled up in her wide, crazed eyes.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.





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soundofmind says...



James jolted awake.

He stared, feeling like he was reliving the start of the same moment he'd had minutes ago.

He was on the same bed. Looking up at the same lamp.

Rita was still beside him, but his body was fully intact. His eyes flicked down to his chest, and he jerked his hand up, not having expected it to move as quickly as it did.

His hand shook as he rested it on his chest, feeling the thin shirt present where it wasn't before. Relief flooded through him until Rita spoke.

"You've returned to us," she said. Just like before, except this time, it wasn't a question. "I was getting worried you'd never come to."

James's head was still spinning as he looked up at her.

That wasn't real. How much of any of it was real?

Was this real?

He turned away from Rita, trying to get up. He pushed himself up but just as quickly was pushed back down, and the moment his head hit the pillow, something in his nervous system snapped. Every lingering wound and pain was aggravated at once, and he wheezed as he grit his teeth together and his body started to tense.

"Are you insane?" Rita asked, holding down his shoulder. "You were given enough drugs to knock out a horse. Give it a rest."

His body was trembling uncontrollably. He could hardly argue with the assertion.

"Your heart's been racing for hours," Rita said lowly, resting her palm over his heart for a moment. The movement made James freeze in panic, but she merely felt for his heartbeat and pulled her hand away again.

"So what did you say to my spy?" she asked. "She's been distraught ever since she decided to nearly kill you with Lumshade. It's pitiful, is what it is. She won't stop moping around."

James looked to the side, finally taking in his surroundings.

He was in a different wagon. This one looked like Rita's personal quarters. Or, it was made to be, in a travel-friendly form.

"She's just upset about Deidra," James said. "And blames me that she's gone."

Rita let out a long sigh.

"Well, I can hardly blame her," she said. "You are the one to blame."

James slowly turned to look back up at her.

"So, what?" he asked. "Are you going to drug me again?"

"Spoken like a true addict," Rita chuckled, reaching for something behind her. "Gods, you're predictable. I'm surprised you didn't try to get on my bad side sooner after I promised lumshade would be involved."

Something inside of him cringed away at the accusation, even though he knew some of it was based in truth. But he wasn't the same person he was two years ago, and he didn't want to be.

"It's only for the hope of not having to talk to you any more than necessary," James muttered, but his brief rise in confidence wavered as he saw what Rita had reached for.

It was... an eyeball.

She grinned as she lifted it up, turning it to him so the pupil met his.

No. That... it couldn't...

"Turns out," Rita said. "Your girlfriend did catch up to us while you were sleeping."

The pale blue iris was unmistakable.

"I've never been a fan of gruesome deaths," Rita said. "But Butch on the other hand - well, he had a few ideas I thought were just... sublime."

She tossed the eyeball up into the air and caught it, squeezing it between her fingers. It squelched.

"There's this concept of keeping souveneirs that's growing on me," Rita said. She put the eyeball down somewhere behind her and then turned to face James more squarely. "I think it's about time I get one from you as well."

Pulling out a dagger, she raised it above James's face.

"How's that saying go?" she asked. "An eye for an eye?"

As the dagger came for his face in what felt like slow-motion, the last thing James could remember was blinding pain. And blindness.

Eyes shooting open, he woke up with a start.

Again.

This time he as upright. It was daytime. Someone behind him - Butch, he knew, intuitively - held him up by his collar, and his hands were cuffed in front of him. His ankles were tied as well.

They were somewhere in the forest, surrounded by trees. The air was sticky, and the sun beat down with a haze that made James feel sick as he looked at Tula who stood in front of him.

How long had he been out?

Unable to reach up to touch his eye, the only confirmation he had that it was still intact was that he could see through it. It was a stupid thought to consider, but there was a phantom pain that lingered still.

So... that wasn't real. Was it?

"Thanks, Butch. Please. Follow us on our journey," she said with a twisted grin, looking him up and down. He couldn't help but notice that her gaze seemed to focus on the eye that Rita ripped out.

Butch rested James's feet on the ground, and he wavered, struggling to keep balance with his ankles tied together tightly. Butch kept his hand on James's shoulder.

"Is he drugged? We wouldn't want him over-reacting, would we?" Tula asked.

"Should be," Butch said. "Rita did it an hour ago."

Tula hummed, taking a step forward as she closely inspected James. Too close to be comfortable.

"Is someone sleepy?" she cooed in a condescending voice. "Too bad. We need your full attention. We have exhibits to show you."

With that, she turned around and started to walk through the thicket of trees, lifting her hand for Butch to follow.

Butch lifted James up again by the shirt collar. It bunched up around his neck, nearly choking him as he was hauled away after Tula, practically hovering behind her.

With a too-cheery voice, Tula started to give him the tour of the giant camp. She first pointed at the tent groups, listing off the status of the people who resided there even though there was no one around. She also gave a spiel on food and supplies, going on a short rant about how things work around here. Then they walked past the stables, and she pointed at all the horses resting in a row.

Except for the last one.

It was... it was Elliot. Except he... he...

James stared in horror at Elliot's corpse, lying limp and ignored on the ground. A single arrow pierced between Elliot's eyes, and another clean through his eyeball. His hide looked like it'd been burned and the body had long since been abandoned.

Butch ripped James's eyes away by turning him around.

Tula continued on.

They walked silently for a short moment, but then Tula continued the tour, mentioning that the camp was big enough to be a prison. But lately, their prison populations were too high to handle, so they had to seek alternatives.

She didn't explain what that meant, but soon he understood.

Butch manually turned James's head.

To the right was a large cage with the charred remains of burned bodies. Though most of them were burnt beyond recognition, one of them still had its long, distinctly goblin ears.

James felt sick.

Tula continued before he could fully process the sight.

"Oh, you're going to love this," she said as she looked back with a sinister grin. "We're going to see your dear friends. The friends you threw your life away for. Wouldn't a reunion be nice?"

No. No.

They walked through another thicket of trees, and everything that followed was like a nightmare he could hardly comprehend.

Malkiel. Rudy. Elise. Alistair. Mel. Elias.

None of them was spared. They were drowned. Shot. Burned. Beaten beyond recognition. And James couldn't even look when Tula proudly showed off what remained of Eve.

But that wasn't the last of it.

Finally, Tula stretched out her arms proudly, pointing to four bodies hanging from a tree.

Butch let go of him.

James fell to his knees as he stared up at his family hovering over him, lifeless eyes staring out at him.

He couldn't breathe.

Collapsing with his face buried in the ground, he felt everything inside of him start to wither away.

Everything he'd ever tried to protect - in one moment - all of it was gone. Everyone was gone.

What was there left to live for?

His eyes shot open again, and he found himself back on Rita's bed again - but he couldn't count how many times it'd been.

His breaths were shaky and ragged.

"Oh, hey, you're awake. I would've made your oats, but kind of hard to do that when you're dead," Elias's voice cut through.

James's eyes widened as he looked to the side of the bed and saw Elias, not much unlike how he last saw him, but instead of being a solid, corporeal form, he seemed partially transparent. Around Elias's neck was a chain attatched to a large, heavy rock that sat on the bottom of the wagon.

"What's wrong? It looks like you've just seen a ghost," he said with a grin. "Oh. Right. Yeah, this is probably disorienting. But at least we can talk."

Elias. He... he was dead. And now James was seeing his ghost.

"I've gone insane," James whispered, reaching up to touch his forehead.

"I mean, aren't we all? I still think it's insane we're even in Nye," Elias said with a shrug.

James shook his head.

"No, Elias," he said firmly. Adamant. "You're not. You're not alive anymore. You're not here. I'm not here. None of this is real. This can't -- ghosts don't exist. You're not here."

"We've come all this way, and he's dismissing we exist. Of course he does," another voice said, floating in towards Elias.

It was Malkiel. James looked over and saw the ghosts of Malkiel and Rudy, still a bit emaciated, with nooses around their necks.

James sat up abruptly. His head was spinning.

"We didn't die because of you," Malkiel continued. "We died because of the choices we made."

"I want to wake up," James whispered under his breath, lifting his hands up to his head.

"Fine, whatever, don't listen to our ghostly wisdom," Malkiel muttered.

"Malkiel! Be nice!" Mel's voice said. And she was only a floating head, but she still bonked her head on Mal's. "James needs some support."

"I feel like this might be kind of overwhelming for him," Elias said quietly for just Mel to hear, but he did a bad job of covering his volume.

James pinched his eyes shut.

Please. Please let me wake up.

"I guess, at the end of the day - we just want to tell you that we're still here for you," Mel said.

"And definitely not going to haunt you. We're nice ghosts," Elias said.

Wake up.

And then there was only black. There was silence. There was nothing.

It felt like James was swimming in an ocean of emptiness. He was floating and drifting around, unbothered with no other thought. The silence was loud but peaceful. He embraced it.

But then there was a voice.

"I have faith that you'll wake up," Eve's voice said, sounding warbled and distorted like he was underwater. "You taught me patience. I can wait. Even if I have to wait my whole life, I'll still be here. But you already know that."

He remained with his eyes shut for a moment, feeling like he was drifting through water, deeper and deeper.

And then James opened his eyes.

The air around him was cool. It was dark. He could hear the steady breaths of someone lying next to him.

Rita.

Eyes wide open, he took in slow, deep breaths, waiting for the dark space around him to come into focus.

He reached out to feel the mat underneath him, running his fingers over it as if the repitition would or wouldn't confirm if its texture was reality.

For too long he studied the softness of the fabric under his fingers, wondering how long the lingering silence of the night would last before the next horror began.

But then it never did.

He stared out into the darkness, eventually able to make out the shadows and shapes above him.

Some of it resembled Rita's wagon in the dream. Some of it was different. It was too dark to be sure. He felt like he was still waiting for something to happen, but with each passing minute, the only thing to occur was Rita's steady breathing and the passing of time.

He remained like that, unmoving until light started to peek through the tarp overhead.

Eventually, Rita rolled over, stirring awake. He didn't move even as he was aware of her opening her eyes in his peripheral vision, watching him.

Reaching over, she placed her fingers over his eyes and drew his eyelids shut.

"Stop staring," she said. "You're creeping me out."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.





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Carina says...



The 8th of Sil, 3rd Month of Summer


The day was long, but Eve trudged on.

She felt every muscle in her body ache. Hunger gnawed on her, but it came in waves. Just like her sleep deprivation. She jolted awake with a spark of adrenaline every time she was reminded of why she was here. Why she was doing this in the first place.

James. It was always about James.

Eve felt like she was losing her mind, but this was nothing new. She found solace in the silence that followed her, day and night. It was strange. It was like she was on the brink of insanity, but at the same time, she felt eerily calm.

She had to be, didn't she? If she messed up - if she let her magic control her again, or worse, get consumed by her own emotions to the point that she lost sight of who she was or what she wanted to do - then how could she ever make it to King's Peak in time? How could she ever find James? How could she ever face her friends again?

She had to force herself to do better. To be her best self. Whatever that even meant.

It was the 8th of Sil, now. It had been eighteen days since she had been traveling by herself. Eve was dangerously low on supplies, but she was now only a short journey away from Ruddlan.

And if she was lucky... maybe, just maybe, James would still be there too.

It was late evening, now. Eve made camp for the night, knowing she had to get a better night's rest to prepare herself for tomorrow. But her stomach curled up into knots because she honestly had no real plan, and she really hated that.

This was all one big, rash, impulsive decision. But she had to keep her cool and keep moving on.

Eve sat with Elliot by herself thinking, sitting still until the sun went down. When she was ready, she took a deep breath and began to voice her thoughts out loud. Because James needed to listen, too.

"Hey. It's me again," she said softly into the night. She still had no clue if he was receiving these messages, but she still ought to try. "I'm half a day's journey out from Ruddlan. I'm so close, now. There's a lot I need to do... like gather supplies, and... well... find you."

She tightened her grip around her knees, bringing it closer to her chest. Eve had been thinking nonstop about the timeline of it all. Between James telling her when he would get to Ruddlan, and Rita taunting her through Tula's vision and punishing him for something he did... she couldn't help but let her mind come up with a thousand different conclusions.

"I don't know if you're still there. It probably is wishful thinking that you still are. Wouldn't it be perfect? Wouldn't it be ideal if I could enter Ruddlan's gates, miraculously find you, and then we'd be on our way?"

A strained laugh escaped from her throat, but it ended up being more of a cough. She shook her head and sighed.

"I know, I know. I know I'm sounding crazy, and desperate, and - I don't know. I don't really know what I'm doing, James, but I do know that I want to try. I want to try and do something, even if it makes no sense, and even if it makes me insane." She paused. "I don't know if that makes much sense."

Eve paused again.

"I think I'm in my head too much. Traveling alone, aimlessly wandering - it gives you a lot of time to think. I'm sure you understand. But the thought that keeps coming back to me is... what happened, James? Are you still there? I can't even imagine... the lumshade, and Rita, and Tula. I can't begin to fathom what you've been through."

Eve perched her chin on top of her knees, solemnly staring at the trees being pushed by the summer night's breeze. She felt her grip around herself tighten so much, it began to hurt.

"I wish I can just... somehow... take it all away. If I had the power to, I don't know, reverse time that far back, or maybe - if we could switch bodies - or..." She sighed again. "I don't know. I just want to say that you don't deserve any of this, and I wish I can take it all away. But I know that's not how life works."

Eve let the silence pass, maybe for far too long. She wanted to sit there at peace with James. At least, that was what she wanted in her mind.

"I have faith that we'll see each other again," she continued softly. "You taught me patience. I can wait. Even if I have to wait my whole life to see you again, I'd do do it. But you already know that."

There was another long pause, but Eve closed her eyes, took deep breaths, and decided to end it there, undoing the whole interaction to send off the message in his dreams. She stood still the entire time, replaying the conversation in her head, wondering if she should have said something more meaningful. Something more impactful. She should have said "I love you" or something to that nature. She should have said a lot of things.

But frankly, she was tired. She had forgotten how tiring it could be to be wrapped up in her mind for this long.

At that, Eve closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, knowing that her magic was a blanket of security for her in case anything happened.

Thankfully, nothing did. The night was uneventful, and although she put in a decent amount of sleep, she still felt restless. But it didn't matter. She had to keep going. She had to get to Ruddlan as soon as possible.

As Eve readied Elliot and hurried down the trail, she went through the vague plans in her head over and over. She'd check in with the sheriff first, not only to get money from drawing so she could replenish her supplies, but also to inquire about any notable people passing through. She didn't actually care if there were any celebrities nearby; she wanted to know if famous bounty hunters like Butch or Pitch passed through, or if the sheriff knew of any gang activity in the area, specifically of the Blue Suns. Eve was hoping - maybe too much - that that information could help dictate her next plans, because she otherwise had nothing else to go off of.

Still, she replayed the scenario in her head again and again, figuring out what else she could go, and what could go wrong. She was so absorbed in her thoughts that she nearly missed the main trail that other travelers were riding on. For a moment she watched the merchants ride in their carriages, and then she took a deep breath and followed, riding Elliot at the same pace.

Eve had never been to Ruddlan, and it was unlike the small towns she visited in Nye so long ago.

Ruddlan was huge.

Up ahead, there was a large, fortified stone wall around the city. She was riding up to one of the gates, but just from squinting into the distance, it looked like there were three other gates she could have entered. That was good to know in case she needed a fast escape.

As Eve entered the gate, she made sure to not make any eye contact or otherwise show that she really had no idea where she was or what she was doing. She noted the many knights donning the Moonlight Kingdom symbol, but she kept her head low and moved fast, trying her best to blend in.

She ignored the temptation to gawk at the liveliness of the city and instead darted her eyes around to find a map. Something to tell her where she was and how she could navigate through this city. She had to ride through a few blocks, but eventually she found a map next to the bulletin board.

She made sure to study it extensively. She had entered from the east gate. The city looked like they were divided into different areas. There was a residential, business, coliseum, and market district. Eve glossed over many details, trying to find any indication of a sheriff or law enforcement building. She found its associate symbol right in the center of the map in the heart of the city. She memorized the road names and turns she'd have to make to get there, then started to move.

Saying Ruddlan was huge was an understatement. It was colossal. She could easily spend weeks here getting lost in the city, but there was no time to lose. Eve kept her attention on the maps and getting out of anyone's way, hardly paying attention to outside vendors, shops, and other business owners trying to get her attention. It was all noise to her.

She made one final turn, and then she found herself standing in front of a tall, glossy building with well-manicured bushes and flowers blooming in front of it. The windows were gleaming so bright, it nearly blinded her. There was a large bulletin board in front of this building, but Eve didn't need to look at the map to know that this was the sheriff's station. The words "RUDDLAN CITY LAW ENFORCEMENT" were plastered across the top of the building in golden trim.

Okay. This is it.

With one final deep breath, she mounted off of Elliot and led him to the stables where the other horses were nearby. After tying him up, she gently placed her forehead on his head, petting his snout.

"I won't be long. I'll be right back. Okay?" she said softly.

Elliot huffed in reply, and she gave him one final pat and a goodbye kiss before stepping away... to instead be face-to-face with a teenage boy wearing dirtied overalls and a pouch tied around his waist.

"That'll be four copper, miss," the boy said.

Eve hesitated. Maybe for far too long. She was tired, and for a second there, she didn't know if she was being scammed, or if she really had to give this random boy money for what she assumed to be for the use of the stables.

The boy looked around awkwardly, but appeared impatient.

"Or you can find another stable," the boy said. "How long are you wanting to keep him here for? Four copper is our standard charge for a day's worth. Six if it's overnight."

"...Right," Eve agreed, deciding to just go with it. She turned around and fished through Elliot's bag, praying that there would be some kind of change in here. She remembered there being a coin or two. It took far too long for her to find, and she gave a nervous sideways glance at the boy, but when she was ready, she turned back around and gave him...

Two copper coins. That was all James had.

Well, it was better than nothing.

"It will be fast," she promised as she held out the coins, although she really didn't know.

The boy seemed peeved and gave her a distasteful look as the coins fell onto his palm.

"I can get you the rest when I come back," she said, worried that he would do something to Elliot as retaliation.

"Sure," the boy said. "Just be back in a few hours."

Eve nodded, wasting no time as she made her way back towards the building. She did look over her shoulder a few times to make sure that Elliot would really be okay, but he seemed fine. Right? This was fine?

She made a mental note to tell James about this later.

As she climbed the stairs to the sheriff's office, Eve quickly combed her hair through her fingers and dusted off her clothes. She probably looked like a mess, and she would probably leave a bad first impression, but it didn't matter. She would go in and leave as soon as she got what she wanted.

The door to the office was guarded by two guards, although they looked bored and unbothered especially since one of them was sitting on the bench, smoking from a pipe. As she climbed up towards the porch, she passed a wide wall with many wanted posters. Eve slowed down, deciding to study them before going in. It would be good to know what the latest James posters looked like, anyways.

It was hard to miss, considering his was the biggest. She silently hummed, reading the fine print and noting how old this poster was. Her eyes darted to the other posters of him, noting the time and age of all of them. But what caught her eye was one that said her name.

No. Wait. No.

Eve had to remove some of James's posters to see the whole thing, but it was unmistakable. Her face was sketched on yellowing paper with information beneath it.

Wanted: Time Mage
Known to go by Eve, or Evaline
Use Extreme Caution: violent and highly dangerous
Last seen in the company of the traitor and criminal Tiberius James


Eve found herself staring at herself, wide-eyed. The portrait wasn't entirely accurate, but when comparing it to herself, she admitted the similarties were uncanny. She didn't know how this got here, but she had to assume that this happened six years ago when she was last on Nye.

But that was six years ago, and no new information had been brought in since then. Clearly she would be under the radar now... right?

"Need any help, miss?" the standing guard asked nearby.

Evaline flinched, and with a nervous laugh, stepped back from the bulletin board, letting the other papers fall into place so it would cover her face again. But because she had been trifling with the old paper so much, the weight of James's papers caused the pile-up of other papers to fall down, instead revealing her poster for all to see.

Oh, great. That was just fantastic. Of course it did that.

The guard looked at the poster. Then at her.

"Huh," he said. "Interesting."

Eve opened her mouth to speak, but her eyes flicked from the guards to the papers. Yeah. She wasn't going to get out of this one, was she? She hadn't even gone into the sheriff's office, and she already messed up.

A pained laugh bubbled out of her throat as she shook her head and facepalmed.

"Hey, James. Don't laugh. This is more stressful than comedic," she mumbled, then decided to cut her losses and start over, going back in time minutes ago to when she was tying Elliot at the stables.

"That'll be four copper, miss," the boy said again, extending his palm.

Eve sighed. There was no point in going inside anymore. She wasn't going to risk the sheriff potentially recognizing her to be a wanted criminal.

"Sorry. I have no money," she said flatly, untying Elliot to get a move on again.

She had two copper. Two copper. What could she buy with two copper? It wasn't even enough to tie Elliot for a few hours in the stable.

Eve was starting to feel desperate. She rode Elliot around aimlessly, hearing the prices being advertised. One silver. Fifteen copper. Five copper. That was the lowest she heard, and it was for a bag of potatoes. She couldn't even buy a bag of potatoes, and she wasn't sure if she was desperate enough to barter or go down to half a bag.

As Eve continued to take Elliot down the street by the market, she felt something... odd. Something she hadn't felt in years.

Deja vu. But not just ordinary deja vu. This felt like... like she was in the presence of another time mage. Someone who went back in time.

For a moment, Eve wondered if she really was going crazy. Maybe she was feeling things that shouldn't happen. There couldn't possibly be another time mage here, could there?

A brief second of paranoia filled her head. What if this wasn't a time mage? What if it was Oliver, or worse?

A few seconds of apprehension passed, and someone hurriedly past by her, telling her to get out of the way. Eve paid no mind, instead deciding to follow her gut instinct.

After all, she had lost the only plan she had. She was taking a leap of faith, and she may regret it, but she couldn't help but shake the feeling that this wasn't a trap.

This felt like an invitation. Like someone else had detected deja vu from her when she went back, and was trying to tell her that they were here too.

It took some guessing on where she should be going, but Eve followed the path that seemed to give her the strongest deja vu feeling. With other time travelers, this deja vu felt so strong, it almost hurt. It tightened her chest and and made her mind a blank state. Although the minutes passed by, Eve tried to hone in on that feeling, first wandering towards the west side of the city, but then finding herself drifting towards the southwest where the feeling was stronger.

She was in the market, now. Too many minutes had passed, and Eve was doubting if this person was even nearby. She watched people go about their busy lives, and Eve stood near the sidelines, wondering what she was doing. It felt like she was playing a game of hide and seek, but she had no clue who was playing against.

Eve took a deep breath. It takes two people to play a game, after all.

"I think there's another time mage here," she said out loud, softly to herself. Well, for James, really. "I may regret this. But I'm undoing this so I can find them."

Eve let unwound those few seconds, watching as the same people traded items nearby.

And immediately after, she felt it again. The same deja vu. Stronger this time.

Eve hurried back on to Elliot, quickly riding down the street. The feeling was stronger with each passing step. They must be on this street somewhere. And it's clear that this was a message: they wanted Eve to find them.

But why? She tried to rationalize this as best as she could. Time magic was rare on Nye, after all. It made sense for other time mages to want to find each other.

Eve kept riding, frantically darting her eyes around as she tried to find who she was looking over. She thought she would never find this person since she didn't even know who she was supposed to look for, but then a young lady stepped out from the shadows of a fruit cart's shade and pulled down her cloaked hood. She smiled softly, but stood tall, with confidence.

Eve stood still, staring at her. It was unmistakable. The deja vu felt suffocating. She was the other time mage.

She had thick, curly golden-brown hair that spilled over her shoulders in bouncing ringlets. Her dark green cloak concealed most of her frame, down to her feet, but she seemed petite, and stood a few inches shorter than Eve herself. Aside from her gentle countenance and some light rosacea on her cheeks, there wasn't much else about her that appeared remarkable. If Eve had to guess, she was probably in her early 20's.

With a strange, knowing look in her eyes, the woman tilted her head, inviting Eve to approach her.

Eve hesitated. Although she was another time mage, she wasn't quick to trust right away. Still, she was curious.

"What's your name?" she asked instead, staying in place.

"It might be better if I start with our mutual friend," she said. "Or at least, I believe you know him, though I don't know how well. To those he trusts, he goes by James."

If there was anything she could have said to quickly garner Eve's trust, it would be that. She sighed, then nodded.

"I think we have some catching up to do," Eve said, silently accepting her invitation.

"Sounds like it," the woman said with an excited twinkle in her eyes. "Why don't you walk with me to my home, and we can talk more there."

Eve nodded, dismounting Elliot so she could better follow her pace. "Lead the way."

The woman nodded, flipped her hood back up, and confidently strode ahead of her, leading Eve into an alleyway to escape some of the marketplace's hustle and bustle. She began to take them eastward, back the way Eve came - though she was taking different streets and shortcuts that Eve didn't recognize.

They weaved in and out of the streets for thirty minutes or so, no words exchanged between them, until finally, the woman stopped in front of a small town-house, wedged between two others. There was a narrow alley on either side, and the woman stepped into the alley on the left. It was just wide enough for a horse to walk through comfortably.

"I have a lean-to in the back where my horse stays," she said. "There's room enough for Elliot, and there's some fresh hay, which should make him happy."

Eve nodded, leading Elliot down the same direction. She noted that the woman knew Elliot's name as well. It certainly made Eve feel more easy considering she was about to enter her house. "Thanks."

"He looks well. It looks like you've been taking good care of him," the woman commented, stopping as they entered her back yard. In the corner was a small shelter with a shaggy brown horse. It was smaller than Elliot, and looked more like a work pony.

"Here," the woman said, reaching for Elliot's reins. "I'll get them acquainted."

Eve hesitated again, but decided to let her have Elliot's reins. It seemed that she could trust her.

She led Elliot over to the pony and whispered softly to them both. Both of the horses seemed to only idly acknowledge one another, and then the woman tied off Elliot's reins on the shelter's post, next to the manger of hay. Elliot began to dip his head down to nibble at it.

"What is your name?" Eve asked again.

The woman turned around, her eyes widening a little before she smiled and brought her hood down again.

"Right, right," she said quietly. "Sorry. I'm just so used to being careful. Can I tell you when we get inside?"

"Sure. Yes, of course," Eve said quietly. She tried her best to not let her anxiety show.

"Alright," the woman said with a nod. "Let's go."

She hurried up the worn back patio steps and pulled out a pair of keys, unlocking the back door. She pulled the door open and gestured for Eve to go inside first.

"We'll have more privacy in here," she said.

Eve gave one last glance at Elliot, and then nodded to the woman, stepping into her home.

She hoped she didn't regret this.
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Carina says...



When she stepped in, she was immediately met with close walls in a narrow hallway, and things felt cramped. There was faded striped wallpaper that made the hall seem even more narrow as they reached up to the ceiling in varying strips of yellow-green.

There was a rug at Eve's feet that was worn down in the middle from foot traffic. It looked like it might've been a warm shade of yellow and orange at one point in its life, but now was faded and stained from being the first thing anyone stepped on.

Eve was wary, but it didn't feel like she was entering a trap. This home felt inviting, even.

The woman motioned for Eve to continue forward, and the short hall opened up into a small sitting room. The same green-striped wallpaper traced each wall and served as the backdrop for a room mostly full of browns, yellows, and greens. Natural colors.

There was one large painting of a sunset over a lake. It was placed above a long brown couch that was decorated with an array of many dull yellow and orange pillows. Across from the couch were two cushioned sitting chairs that looked well-worn. Or rather, frequently used, as their seat cushions sank down a bit in the middle.

Between the seats was a long, oval coffee table with a glass window in the center, and a small vase of wildflowers in the middle. The wall to the right seemed to face the front of the tiny town-house, and there was a large bay window covered in thick, light-green curtains. Some light leaked in, but it looked like the woman went out of her way to ensure privacy.

"Sorry about all this secrecy," the woman finally said, no longer speaking in hushed tones. "I don't even trust my neighbors, these days. But we should be free to speak in here."

She finally faced Eve squarely and extended her hand for a handshake, offering a small, warm smile.

"I'm Adina," she said.

Adina.

The same sounded familiar...

Of course. James knew a time mage. He told her this before. Once, back when they were in Terra. Before they had reconciled things.

It happened less than a year ago, but it still felt like a lifetime ago.

"I don't know if James ever mentioned me, but we knew each other a few years back. I owe him my life, actually," she said. "I never got a chance to repay him."

Eve finally shook Adina's hand, giving her one quick shake.

"Eve," she said, introducing herself. "James did tell me about you. I should have realized sooner."

"I don't blame you for being wary," Adina said, gesturing to the seats in the room as she took a seat in one of the single chairs. "It's how we survive out there."

Eve quietly sat on the worn couch, but only at the edge of the cushions so she didn't sink in too much. "I wish I had more time to talk, but I am in a bit of a rush," she said, cutting straight to the chase. "James is in trouble. I know he passed by Ruddlan recently. Maybe he's still here, I don't know. Do you happen to know if the Blue Suns or other notable bounty hunters passed through recently?"

Adina stared at Eve blankly for a moment before her mouth parted slightly, like she was taking all of this information in for the first time. Maybe she should have better explained.

So Eve decided to just go for it, talking before Adina could ask more questions.

"I know this is a lot to take in, but I know I can trust you," she began.

And honestly, she felt almost desperate at this point. She had no idea what else to do, and it was like the universe brought her to Adina as if she had all the answers.

"It's a long story, but in short, James has been caught by several bounty hunters and the Blue Suns. They formed an alliance so they could bring him to the Moonlight Kingdom. I've been trying to find him for the past two weeks now. We both know what could happen if he were brought to the Kingdom. I'm trying to get ahead. Catch up, if that's even possible. It's been easier with time magic, but I just don't have the information to do that. Get ahead. And - with each passing day, I'm worried it'll be too late."

By the end of her spiel, Eve realized she was out of breath, talking so fast and frantically that she probably looked crazy. She didn't really care. She looked at Adina sincerely, almost pleading her for something. Anything.

"I know you're trying to lay low. I'm not trying to drag you into anything. I don't expect anything from you. But I am asking - if, by chance, you know anything... anything that could help..." She took a deep breath, wringing her hands together. "It could help."

"Hey," Adina said gently, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. "I'm really glad we found each other, Eve. I think we can help each other. I've actually gotten word from some friends of mine who are aware of James's dissapearance and my relation to him. They're another group of mages and have already been in pursuit of finding him. I plan on joining them. Would you like to come with me? Perhaps we can tell each other what we know and figure out the best way forward together."

Eve found herself staring at Adina, mouth slightly open from the shock of it all.

Was she hearing this right?

"You... know," she said slowly. "And you're saying that there's a group of mages who are already looking for him?"

"Yes. I just got word this morning," she said. "And I've been making preparations to leave. It's unsettling to hear that he slipped right under my nose in Ruddlan, but at the very least, it means we're not too far behind."

Eve was not expecting this. She had to pry one question out of her head at a time.

"Where are they? How far are they?" she asked.

"As of this morning, they were just a few miles out from Ruddlan, coming from the north. They said they'd be going around the west side of the city. They're going to be staying on course while I catch up with them and bring some needed supplies for our journey," Adina said. "It's safer for them to go around Ruddlan, and faster, too."

Eve was quickly routing the directions in her head. Her mage group was north of Ruddlan, traveling around the city. But James had likely already left Ruddlan, traveling south. It would set her back a day... two days, maybe.

"It would be faster if we continued south rather than backtrack to meet them," Eve said, then paused. "Time is of the essence. I'm worried that each day lost could be fatal. Could they instead meet us further down the route?"

"I actually intended to travel southward," Adina said softly. "That way our paths can intersect and we don't have to play 'catch-up' and lose time. Sorry, I wasn't as clear before. But I completely understand. We can't afford to waste time."

Eve was trying to find a flaw in this plan. There were many she could think of, but they didn't hold against the biggest flaw of all: she didn't have much of an alternative.

She could continue traveling by herself. But she was already dangerously low on supplies, and she just found out that her one reliable source of income proved to be impossible. Finding our jobs to gain money to replenish supplies would set her back even more. On the other hand, Adina was someone she could trust. She had supplies, and a resources, and apparently a whole other group who had the same mission as Eve.

Eve also couldn't help but wonder who these mages were. She couldn't shake the feeling that, maybe, against all odds, somehow, her friends were part of the group as well.

It would be nice to see them again, if they were there. If not, it would still be good to have allies.

"When do you leave?" she asked.

"I plan to leave promptly in the morning," Adina said. "I would leave sooner if I didn't have to gather supplies for the journey, but the supplies will help us go further for longer in the long-term."

Eve nodded. "Unfortunately, I've run out of supplies myself. But I can help in any way I can." She paused, meeting Adina's eyes so she can see that she was trying to be sincere in her next words. "Thank you, Adina. Truly."

"Of course," Adina said with a small, sincere smile. "I think it might be best for you to stay here and keep your head down. It's been years since your posters were issued, but if I remember them - though that's only because you're another time mage who also happens to know James - I'm sure someone else might recognize you. I've gone out of my way to keep my post here in Ruddlan undetected. If you're alright with staying here by yourself, I'll only be gone a few hours."

So Adina recognized Eve from her poster. Suddenly Eve was glad that she came to the realization that she had a poster before she met Adina, otherwise that would have opened up a whole other slew of questions.

She wanted to help, but Adina was right. Considering Eve didn't know her way around Ruddlan and had an active (albeit old) wanted poster, she shouldn't be wandering around the city. Frankly, Eve was surprised but glad that she managed to previously get around without any trouble, but she wasn't going to continue playing that risk if she didn't need to.

She nodded. "I can stay here. But please let me know if there's anything I can do to help you prepare."

"Well," Adina said, looking over her shoulder. "I do have some food in the kitchen that you could pack away. I can show you real quick."

Getting to her feet, she nodded her head for Eve to follow her back down the hall into another connecting room. Eve listened along as Adina gave her a general list of tasks she could help with. Packing foods, cooking supplies, clothes, blankets, and so on. She nodded along, only asking questions if anything was unclear.

Eventually Adina left, leaving Eve by herself in her house. For a few moments, Eve stared at the door that Adina left out of, and she silently stood there, really taking it all it.

There was a lot to process. She didn't know if she should be nervous, or laugh, or... well, really anything.

Eve did feel one thing for sure, though. She felt the hope in her heart increase in intensity knowing that there were others who wanted to help James. She had allies. She didn't need to do this alone.

Especially since she knew she couldn't do this alone. But that didn't stop her from trying.

Eve finally forced herself to move, following the list of instructions that Adina left her. She did wonder if Adina saw the state she was in and this was her silent way of telling her to rest, eat, and take it easy. If so, it worked, because Eve helped herself to one of the rations early, forcing herself to stomach it down.

She needed the strength. They still had more than a month of travel.

Eve finished her tasks quickly. She realized that being on the move by herself had brought her a habit of moving fast and minimizing wasted time. After she finished putting all the items away, she went through everything again and again, before finally slumping onto the couch.

Now she just had to wait.

Honestly. Eve hated waiting. And she was much too preoccupied to be resting.

Eve stared at the sunset painting for far too long, noting the color scheme and the brush strokes. The painting looked chipped. Withered, even. Perhaps it was withered by the sun. Or maybe it was intentional by the artist.

Eve remembered when she thought she'd pick up painting one day. She couldn't even remember the last time she picked up a paintbrush.

Her eyes wandered around the room instead. The wall paper, the dusty curtains, the glass table in front of her. There appeared to be a stack of books under the table. Curious, she bent down and shuffled through the pile.

There was a weathered cookbook titled "Simple Recipes for You and Your Home." A romance novel titled "Love Waits." A cute children's picture book called "Neena the Rabbit." There were also a deck of cards and a set of dominoes.

Humming, Eve took out the picture book, flipping through the pages. The pictures were yellowing and starting to fade, but she could still appreciate the illustrations of the little forests animals drawn across the pages. She paid less attention to the story and more attention to the detail behind the drawings, tracing the rabbit's outline with her finger.

It was a nice distraction.

She spent far too long on this thin children's book, so when Eve felt like she ran out of drawings to look at, she switched to the recipe book, slowly reading every page to take in the details. She was engrossed in learning about different assortments of pastas when she heard the door being unlocked. She quickly closed the book and put it back under the table before standing back up.

Adina seemed to have caught a glance of her hastily putting the book away and she chuckled. Eve had nothing to be embarrassed about, but she still felt her cheeks grow warm.

"I've got a wagon all set for the morning," she said. "We'll just have to pack the rest of our things in. But we can do that when we wake. It's getting late and we should rest."

She paused, and leaned her shoulder against the wall.

"I can draw you a bath, if you'd like," she said.

"That would be nice. Thank you," Eve said, deciding not to turn down the suggestion. She couldn't remember the last time she had a proper bath, and she was spending the night here. She'd rather not further dirty Adina's place.

"Alright," she said. "It'll be thirty minutes or so, but I'll grab you when it's ready. I have a spare nightgown if you'd like to sleep in something fresh for the night. There are two spare rooms upstairs. They're a bit crowded with bunk beds in each, but that's only because this acts as an emergency safehouse that a lot of people pass through now and again. I'm just the current appointed host."

Nodding to herself, she stood up straight again.

"Ah. Anyways. I should get that bath started before it gets too dark. Do you need anything before I go again?" Adina asked.

"No... I think I'm fine," Eve answered.

"Alright," Adina said, starting to turn around. "Feel free to help yourself to anything in the kitchen. Make yourself at home."

"Hey... Adina?" she said hurriedly as she was half-way up the stairs.

Adina paused and walked down, peering out.

"Yeah?"

"Thank you," Eve said.

Adina smiled warmly.

"Hey," she said. "Anyone who's a friend of James is a friend of mine. I'm happy to help."

"The feeling's mutual," Eve said with a small smile.

With another small nod, Adina was off again, leaving Eve alone in the sitting room. This time, with her thoughts. She slowly sat back down on the couch, only sitting at the edge. She stared back up at the sunset painting. It looked different in the dark. Maybe that was intentional. Maybe not.

Maybe it was just a sunset painting. She was overthinking things. She always was.

Eventually, Adina called for Eve to the wash room, which jolted her out of her thoughts. It hardly felt like any time had passed at all. And it felt like that too when she sat on the tub by herself, washing away her filth and grime from the past few weeks.

There was so many things that Eve should have been thinking about, like wondering more about Adina and her history with James, or who this mysterious mage group could be, and general logistics for the next month. But only one invasive thought preoccupied her mind the entire time: it had been months since she had a proper bath, hadn't it? Before coming to Nye. Before the coma. Before everything went downhill.

Eve stayed in the water until she felt her skin prune. She was disgusted by how dark the water was by the time she finished, but was more in awe on how clean all of this felt. The clean, soft gown she wore. The bedsheets on the bed. The blanket that covered her.

This almost felt... surreal.

"You won't believe where I am," Eve said softly, her eyes falling across the room. It was efficiently spaced with bunk beds, dressers, and other storage. "I'm in Ruddlan now, but I'm at Adina's place. Yes, that Adina. What are the chances?"

Eve laughed through her nose, feeling herself smile.

"We met because she felt me use my time magic after the sheriff station incident. I also felt her use hers. It was like a game of hide and seek, but we didn't know who we were looking for. It was a little bizarre, and for a moment I was paranoid that I was going to find Oliver, but... I'm glad things ended the way they did."

She paused.

"I'm going to travel with her. We'll be traveling south of Ruddlan tomorrow. Going off the main trail so we can meet with another group. A mage group that Adina's a part of. You're not going to believe it, but Adina and the mage group know about you. They're trying to help you. We're all trying to help you, James. I couldn't believe it. You have allies. We're going to get you."

Eve paused again, clutching the blankets tighter as her eyes wandered to the sole window of the room. Sheer curtains were blocking the glass, but she could still see the moonlight peering through.

"I know I'll see you soon. We both have to be patient. But you've always been better at that than I have, haven't you?"

Eve found herself sadly smiling, but it slowly faded as she stared at the moon.

"I miss you," she whispered now. "I hope you are doing well."

There was another pause, and then Eve decided to undo the whole spiel, sending the message to James in his sleep.

With a deep breath, Eve curled up in the blankets, closing her eyes as she allowed herself to comfortably rest. For the first time in a while, she felt safe. Not because of her location or new ally, but because she felt like the uncertain future felt a little more certain.

And then she heard hurried footsteps running up to her door. A frantic knock.

"Eve?" Adina asked. "Is everything alright?"

Eve shot up straight (as straight as she could on the bottom bunk, anyways), ready to get on her feet to face whatever troubles laid ahead. But then it dawned on her: Adina was coming over because of her, wasn't she? She felt her go back in time.

"I'm fine, it's nothing to worry about," Eve quickly said. "Sorry. I'm so used to -- sorry. It's nothing."

She could feel Adina's presence lingering outside the door.

"Are you sure?" Adina asked. "It's just-- I felt you go back, and I wasn't sure if something happened."

Eve sighed. This wasn't a conversation to be having behind closed doors. She quickly rolled out of bed to open the door, trying to ease Adina's worries with a forced smile.

"I'm fine. Really," she assured her, facing her head-on. "It's a long story, but I was only sending a message. It involves going back. I try to do it before I sleep every night. I should have told you beforehand. I'm sorry if I caused worry."

Adina smiled softly, though there was still worry in her eyes.

"I know this is... odd," she said. "But I've never met another time mage before. I don't know how, uh, a message, could be sent... but we don't have to talk about this now. I know it's late. But if you're open to it, I'd like to hear more later. Perhaps once we're out of the city."

Eve gave her one nod and a slight smile. "Of course. I wouldn't mind at all. There's a lot both of us could share."

Adina nodded in return.

"Well," she said. "I'll let you get back to resting. I'll see you in the morning, Eve."

"Good night, Adina," she said as she gave her one final wave and then closed the door again.

Eve took a deep breath and smiled. "Well. I guess I can't keep secretly having conversation with you, can I?" she said quietly under her breath.

Her smile faded as she realized she was really talking to herself, not James.

Deciding to not let her last thought be her overthinking herself, Eve slipped back into bed and tossed around, letting the blankets consume her despite it being a bit too warm.

It didn't take long for sleep to overtake her.
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Carina says...



The 9th of Sil, 3rd Month of Summer


It seemed that both Eve and Adina were naturally early risers. They already got ready and were walking around the house without needing to wake each other up.

"Good morning. I made breakfast," Adina said with a cheery smile as she handed Eve a plate of toast and fruit. The toast was latered with homemade blueberry jam and peaches. Saying it was delicious was an understatement, but perhaps that was because Eve had grown accustomed to eating simple grains everyday with hardly any flavor enhancers.

Eve helped her set up her wagon and loaded her supplies. With the both of them loading, it didn't take long at all. Adina readied her pony to pull the wagon as Eve tied down the tarp to keep the supplies in place. Since Elliot wasn't a carriage horse, it was best if Eve rode alongside her with Elliot instead.

The plan was simple. They both wore hooded cloaks to stay low, but not many would notice them anyways since they were leaving at an early hour. Still, they were to follow the natural flow of traffic and keep to themselves as they left through the southern gate.

The sun was barely in the sky when they were ready to go. As they locked up her place and pulled their horses out of the alley, Eve noted how the sun shined against the walls around the city, casting long golden shadows on the ground.

The sun rise looked different here, too. But maybe that was also intentional.

Adina's home was in the east side of Ruddlan - the residential district, as Adina called it - so they made their way westward before turning south. They passed by a few different shops, and Eve noted that all of the taverns, restaurants, and inns were just waking up. Shopkeeps were setting up displays. Servants were sweeping front porches and tidying up around storefronts.

With a clear plan in mind and Adina leading the way, Eve finally allowed herself to admire the city, amazed at the massive, densely populated city that was Ruddlan. It was so massive in comparison to all of the small towns she'd passed through before with James. It felt to foreign next to all of the months she'd spent traveling in the isolated wilderness.

There were artisan shops. Signs with advertisements for items on sale. One store boasted of having the finest spools of thread in all the Desert Sands. She noticed no one seemed to give her and Adina more than a quick glance, as they weren't the only early risers to make their way through the streets, travelling to and fro within the city.

There was a large inn at the corner of one street, and it stretched up three floors. It was a simple building lacking ornamentation, but the bright red curtains in each set of windows seemed to be a signature piece, as she saw there was an equally vibrant sign over the archway that read: "Red's Inn." It was a bit on the nose.

As they turned around the corner, Eve found herself scanning the light flow of people coming in and out of the inn. And that was when she spotted someone who stood at least a head taller than almost everyone around her.

Standing beside a bench just outside of Red's Inn was Deidra.

Eve found herself staring, and she didn't realized she had motioned for Elliot to stop until she saw that Adina had looked back at her, wondering why she stopped. Eve quickly caught back up, her heart racing against her chest.

She she ignore her? Pretend she didn't see her?

What was she doing here?

Deidra was closely tied to James. She had to know something. But she could also be a trap. She could foil Adina's plans to escape.

Eve kept her peripheral vision on Deidra, wondering if she would notice them, and wondering what she would do.

Deidra's hands were in her pockets and she seemed lost in thought. But then she looked up. First, she saw Elliot, and then, her eyes locked with Eve's. Deidra's eyes widened and her eyebrows shot up.

At first she looked shocked to see them. But then she broke from her frozen stare and started to hurry after them.

"We're being followed," Eve said quietly to Adina, quickening her pace. "Let's hurry."

"Wait!" Deidra called out, though her voice was only loud enough to be heard. "Wait, please!"

Eve glanced back, but then locked eyes on Adina, trying to gauge her expression. She didn't know Deidra, but she if she was unsafe, she would rather hear what she had to say first.

"Do you know her?" Adina asked quietly, looking like she was practiced at keeping her calm.

"She was one of his bounty hunters," Eve said quietly as well. "This could be a trap."

Eve was tempted to make a run for it, but she couldn't just leave Adina here, and she didn't want to cause any extra attention on her by disrupting the city's natural traffic flow.

At this point, Deidra has already quickly caught up to them with her long strides. She kept pace, walking beside Elliot.

"Eve," Deidra whispered. "Please. I promise I'm not here to hurt you. I'm alone. It's just me. I'm not with them anymore."

If they weren't in the middle of a city where she and Adina had to stay low, Eve would have been tempted to have Elliot kick her. Hearing her say her name made her skin crawl.

She couldn't trust her. Not after everything they went through.

"He told me to find you," Deidra whispered, even more urgent.

"Meet us at the south gate," Adina interjected. "We can't do this now."

"In thirty minutes," Eve said harshly through her teeth, trying to keep it all in. "Meet us there in thirty minutes."

It would only take her and Adina another ten, maybe fifteen minutes to get to the south gate. They had plenty of time to discuss Deidra. Plenty of time to convince Adina that Deidra was not to be trusted. Plenty of time to lose her.

But also plenty of time for Deidra to prove that she was using them as bait.

They had to be careful.

Deidra began to slow, but she nodded, looking after Eve with a look of resignation. But it was almost as if there was pleading in her eyes.

Eve didn't give her another glance, hurrying along now. Her mind was racing with possibilities. Where were the others? Tula had to be nearby if Deidra was. But why was she by herself? Why did she seem so eager to get her attention? And was so earnest and sincere in her words?

But also so very desperate?

And what did she mean by "he told me to find you"?

Eve had to force herself to slow down, silently trying to keep with Adina's pace as the next minutes passed by. She kept her face down, glad that no one else could hear how loud her heart was pounding against her chest.

Adina didn't speak as they made their way past the market and eventually into an open field that led up to a tall, fortified gate. The heavy city gates were open, letting the fullness of the sunrise spill in.

A few travelers were camped around the gate. Some in larger wagons, others in humble tents, some with nothing much at all. It looked to be an area that was a catch-all for people who'd just arrived in the city or had no other place to go.

Adina kept riding, through the gates until they were just outside of them. She pulled off to the edge of the wide road, out of the way of traffic - not that there was much at this hour.

Pulling the pony to a stop, the cart settled in the grooves on the side of the road.

"You said she's a bounty hunter?" Adina asked, her voice low. She beckoned Eve to come close.

Eve pulled Elliot as close to the cart as possible, nodding as she kept her eyes on the gate just in case. "Yes, she helped capture James. She worked with the other bounty hunters. I don't know why she's separated from them - but I can't help but feel like this may be a trap. I don't trust her. We can't trust her."

Adina glanced back at the gate, then out ahead of them, deep in thought.

"True," she said. "But she is up against two time mages."

Eve puffed out an amused puff of air, slowly releasing some tension in her body. Well, that was true. But that didn't mean she trusted her.

"If you think we could get any information out of her," Adina went on. "It might be worth going back to meet her, even if it's only a few minutes. If things go south or seem unsafe from the start you could always go back to a safer moment to escape and we can get away. But it might be worth it. If she's still here, maybe James is too."

That was a great idea. Eve had been so preoccipied being angry at Deidra and trying to lose her, she had lost sight of taking advantage of the situation.

"You're right. And that's a great idea." She paused, staring at the gate. "Yeah. That's a good idea. I'm going to do it. Can you wait here?"

"Yes," Adina said.

But of course, if things did go south, then Adina would have done no waiting at all. If Eve wasn't so lost in her head, she may spun that into a joke, but she instead hurried Elliot back into the gate, following the same direction she came in.

It only took a few minutes until she found Deidra again. She was easy to spot in the crowd, standing much taller than everyone else. She seemed to be hurrying towards the gate much earlier than anticipated. Her eyes went wide when Eve made eye contact with her, riding Elliot closer to her.

Now that Eve had an established safe spot in time to return to, there was no point in holding back as much anymore.

"Deidra," Eve said as she approached, hostily thick in her voice. She slowed Elliot to a stop in front of her. "Who are you with? What do you want?"

Deidra seemed nervous. Normally, Eve was used to seeing her as a stoic guard, always in Tula's shadow, hardly ever speaking a word. Now, she seemed almost as if she didn't know what to do with herself.

Deidra held her hands in front of her, wringing them.

"I'm not with anyone," she said quietly. "I escaped."

She swallowed.

"I was... I was supposed to help him escape too," she said, looking to the ground in shame. "But we got caught. He told me to go find help. To find... to find you. Or your friends."

It took far too long for Eve to process these words and implications. These words contrasted heavily against the image of Deidra obediently holding James back as Tula sliced his arms with her knife, taunting him.

What was she to believe?

"I don't believe you," she said, glaring at her. "After all these years, now you want my sympathy? You really expect me to believe you want to help us now?" She shook her head. "I don't believe you."

Deidra bit her lip. She seemed desperate.

"Please," she said. "I don't have anywhere else to go. And I-- I have... I have to make this right."

"If you want to make this right, then you can tell me information. Where James is, the route he's going. Where Tula is, and Rita, and the other bounty hunters. But you don't know anything, do you?"

Eve was growing wary. She didn't know what this was about, but she could only assume that this was - somehow - Tula's desperate way to sabotage her mission. But maybe that was a stretch. Just like it was a stretch that Deidra escaped so she could help her.

"I'll tell you whatever you want," Deidra said. "Everything I know."

"Then tell me. Where is he now?" Eve demanded, maybe a little too loudly.

Deidra hesitated. That was telling enough for Eve.

Eve scoffed, already motioning for Elliot to turn around.

"Tell Tula that this show was pathetic. I don't want to see you again," she said crossly before quickly riding away.

Many things didn't line up. Deidra didn't attack, or otherwise give any indication that there may be malicious intent. She seemed like she wanted to join forces with her, even if she didn't have spy magic.

But if Eve had to guess, she figured Tula gave Deidra away as a pawn so she could infiltrate her journey. After all, Tula knew that she wasn't going to let her look through her eyes. Deidra, on the other hand, was incredibly loyal to Tula.

It was a pathetic plea, though. Deidra did an awful job of trying to win her over.

Escaping? With James? Please. It sounded too convenient.

Eve was clearly fuming as she rode back to the gate to Adina, but she again kept her head low. She didn't need to go back in time and undo that conversation, but she could have still been more careful.

"Let's go," she said, motioning for Adina to follow back on the trail. "She won't be joining us."

Adina nodded, and wordlessly drew her pony and the cart back onto the road. They rode in silence for some minutes, passing the travelers that had parked their horse and wagon by the gate. At the ten minute mark, Eve glanced back and saw Ruddlan in the distance. The road was open and empty of other travelers now.

"So what did she say?" Adina finally asked.

Eve sighed. "Her name is Deidra. She is close friends with a mage named Tula, who was the person that started the group to track down James. Deidra told me that she escaped from the group and isn't traveling with anyone. She said she tried to help James escape, and that she had been looking for me and my friends since that was what he told her to do." She scoffed. "I don't believe a bit of it. It has to be a set-up."

Adina hummed.

"That is an elaborate set-up," she agreed.

"I wouldn't put it past Tula. She would do something like this, but I admit, the execution was rather terrible. Deidra seemed too desperate," Eve said.

"What would they gain from sending Deidra your way?" Adina asked.

Eve paused for a moment, wondering how much Adina knew. Probably not much. There was a lot of material they had to cover together.

"It might be easier to ask what you know of first," she said. "You know that James has been caught. What else do you know of his situation?"

Adina admitted that she didn't know much outside to what Eve alluded to yesterday, so Eve used this time to get her in the loop on everything. It unsurprisingly took a long time, especially as she went through the detail of Tula's magic. She made sure to include the chronological events of what happened with Tula, but she made sure to not include what happened before this all happened.

She couldn't really explain being from another world. That was really not the pressing matter here, anyways.

Nearly an hour had passed as they exchanged conversation and continued to ride down the path together.

"So tying this back together, I think Tula does have something to gain by having Deidra infiltrate our group," Eve continued on. "She trusts Deidra, and Deidra trusts her. They could exchange information discreetly. I just can't figure out why Tula would even think this plan would work. I can't think of anything that Deidra could say that would allow me to trust her in a moment's notice."

"After everything you've been through," Adina said. "I don't blame you. Even if she did have a sudden change of heart, it sounds like she still probably has a weakness in her connection with Tula. Who, from everything you've told me, does not sound like someone I'd remotely want to meet."

Eve nodded. "Exactly. She's obsessed with us. And especially James."

There was a small pause as Adina seemed to look at Eve with a small grin.

"So... you and James," she said, grin widening. "You're together, then. Right?"
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Carina says...



Eve felt her face grow warm as she instead focused her attention at the road in front of them. She hadn't... really explicitly said that, did she? She wondered what gave it away. Maybe it was the many times she said 'we' or 'us,' or the fact that she had been talking nonstop about James.

Yeah. It was probably that.

"That's right," she said, not knowing why she felt a little shy. It suddenly dawned on her that this was the first time she was truly getting to know one of his friends. "We are."

Adina's grin spread into a full, giddy smile.

"Oh! I love that!" she squealed, an excitement spilling out of her as if she'd been sitting on it for the whole conversation. Possibly even the whole night. "Oh, please, please tell me how you met! I must know! I never thought James would ever let anybody close, nevermind have a partner! This is so exciting!"

Eve found herself drawing out an "uh," squinting into the distance. Her mind had been so preoccupied with the current dangerous situation, it took a long time to unlayer everything and think of an appropriate answer.

"Sorry, sorry," Adina started saying before Eve could say anything. "I know with things being as they are and all -- it's -- I don't know if it's too painful to talk about. I just got caught up in the... excitement."

"No, no, it's fine," Eve said with a weak laugh. "I just had to... think. I guess it's been a while since I thought about it. I don't mind sharing."

Eve offered her a little smile as Adina seemed to patiently wait to hear what she had to say, but she needed another brief moment to collect her thoughts.

It used to be painful to talk about this, though, didn't it? Once upon a time.

Eve hummed. She didn't really need to totally lie to tell her how they met.

"We first met six years ago. We were both 21 at the time. I don't know, I suppose it was being at the right place and the right time. He was helping me navigate to the nearest town, but we ended up becoming traveling companions, and eventually we became partners. We ended up parting ways due to unforeseen circumstances after a few months, but we reconnected about a year ago and became partners again."

She glossed over many details, but the explanation was concise and good enough for an answer.

"Oh, I'm so glad you two found each other again," Adina said, clearly deeply invested in the story. "It must have been painful to be separated for so long."

Eve sadly smiled, feeling a strange bittersweet feeling tighten her chest. If only she knew.

"It was," she said softly. "It really was."

She cleared her throat and decided to change ths subject, deciding to not dwell on their past.

"So, tell me about you and James. You mentioned he saved your life?"

"Oh, right," Adina said. "Well, it was years ago, now. But it feels like it was only yesterday. I was only sixteen at the time. It's a bit of a long story, but -- well, it started when I was caught by a bounty hunter. I was brought to this large holding cell at this remote location and thrown in with a bunch of other prisoners who also had bounties on their heads. James was among them. The others - maybe James told you about them! But oh, how I miss them. There was this very, very tall young man - oh, he must be about seven feet or something, but maybe it only feels that way because I'm so short - his name is Ari. Well, Ardeshir, but we all called him Ari for short. He's probably one of the sweetest guys I've ever met. Not the brightest, but has a heart of gold and fiercely protects the people he cares about.

"Then there was Brett. Brett and Ari were both from the Western Isles - they actually ended up returning there together when we all went separate ways, and last I heard from them, they're both serving on Brett's brother's ship! And Ari's basically been grafted into Brett's family. But oh - Brett, he was a character. He had a very sarcastic sense of humor but was such an older brother. Always teasing and doing pranks and making light of things. He kept everyone laughing, though.

"Then there was Rosaleen. I'm not sure what James was like when you knew him, but he was quite a brooding fellow, so when I say Rosaleen was even more of the brooding type, I hope you understand. She had quite the chip on her shoulder and everyone knew about it. Things were pretty rocky with her at first, but she really came around. She and I ended up bonding, though she did break things off at the end rather abruptly... so did James, though. It was a surprise at first, but I think we all understood they had their own journeys set out for them.

"There was also a woman who - well, I guess I should backtrack a bit. So there was Ari, Brett, Rosaleen, James and I. The five of us ended up working together to escape, and we ended up being on the run together. It kind of just happened that way, I guess. We ended up sticking together, and looking back, I think I might've been the glue. It's funny, because I think they all wanted to stick around to protect me, but I'm really, truly grateful for it. I was so young, and I had just been discovered as a mage. I was so, so far away from home and everything I'd ever known. I didn't know what life was going to look like for me, and though it was certainly an unconventional family, the four of them really did become like family to me.

"Later, another woman joined us. Initially, she actually came after James as a bounty hunter, but after the two of them talked some stuff out, she switched loyalties. I still don't really know what all that was about, honestly. James just said it was personal stuff. I guess Kaia had helped him escape from King's Peak all those years ago and he felt he owed her something. Anyways, she joined us and eventually became the fiercest protector of all of us. She actually helped me connect with the underground guild - that's how I got placed where I'm at, and how I'm connected to so many mages now. I kind of wish she'd stuck around, but sadly, she left to go her own way. I'm not sure she knew what to do with herself after she turned her back on the Moonlight Kingdom, but I hope she found her way.

"Oh!" Adina said, breaking her seemingly endless flood of thought with a small smack of her palm on her forehead. "Right! James helped save my life! So, what happened was, during our travels with the six of us, I ended up getting caught by mage hunters. The other five valiantly tracked me down and saved me just before I could be hung for my crimes! Not that magic is a real crime, but you understand what I mean. Anyway. James was so heroic! He led the charge in swooping in and getting me out of there, leading five people against a whole troop! They were so outnumbered, but they managed to get out of there on horseback, and eventually we lost them. But oh, everyone was so hurt after that, it was a shame none of us had healing magic. It was such a mess... but we all made it out alive, and that's what matters."

Finally, Adina looked over to Eve expectantly.

"So that's how I know James!" she concluded.

Eve blinked, wondering if Adina always gave this much detail in her stories. Somehow the series of events were so disjointed, but it also made sense. She suddenly felt like maybe she should have given her more details when she told her how she met James.

Still, it was kind of nice to just listen and hear her perspective. It was especially nice to hear her talk about her other friends, who were also James's friends. Eve seared those names into her memory in the off-chance that she would meet any more of his friends in the future.

She offered a smile, hoping it was enough to convey that she appreciated her sharing.

"Thank you for sharing, Adina. He mentioned his friends to me before, so it's nice to hear more stories about them, especially from your own perspective. Your story with James is an exciting one. And a little stressful, but at least you were all okay in the end."

"Yeah," Adina said. "Well... I guess things were okay in the end for most of us. I still keep in touch with Ari and Brett, though it is sparingly, mostly for my own safety. I wish I knew what happened to Rosaleen, but I have a feeling she might've followed the path of vengeance..."

She paused, looking off into the distance with a sad, forlorn expression.

"I know that sounds so dramatic, but she really did want revenge for the people who pinned the death of her parents on her," she said. "And that in and of itself is dramatic. So I think she's valid. I just... I don't know. I've always had a bad feeling. Like I don't know if she's around anymore, you know?"

She looked down at her hands, playing with the reins, looping the end in her hands.

"And I haven't heard from Kaia in a while," she said. "But last I heard she'd basically become a vigilante. Trying to do some good in the Outlands and all that. I wouldn't be surprised if the Blue Suns hate her too."

She looked up, a sudden look of confusion crossing her face.

"Though I... don't really know why they don't like James, now that I think about it. You know, aside from him being wanted and all," she said. She looked over to Eve. "Is it just about the bounty? Or did he make someone angry?"

Adina had packed many different conversations into one bundle. Eve decided to simply address her latest questions and thoughts.

"I think many people are after him for the bounty, sure. But I think many other people are also after him due to personal reasons. I don't think the Blue Suns are much different," she answered.

Adina nodded, humming in thought.

"He does seem to have a knack for getting people mad at him for personal reasons," Adina agreed. "Not me, of course. But other people."

"Oh, I know," Eve said with a bit of a playful smile. "He does have that gift."

"But he can be very convincing when he wants to be," Adina added. "He's a very capable leader. Even if he's a bit grumpy sometimes."

Eve smiled, finding it nice to hear Adina talk about James in a positive light. She was used to her own friends or even her enemies talk about James, but hearing his friend's perspective was different. It was nice.

"When was the last time you've seen James?" she asked.

"Oh," Adina said softly, looking off to the side. "I think it's been a little over two years. Feels like forever, though. So much has changed since then."

Eve paused, noting the timeline in her head. "Maybe so. But you're still a good friend. Even after all this time, you're endangering yourself to help him. I think he will be touched to see you again."

"I'll be happy to see him again too," Adina agreed, though there was a lingering sadness in her expression. She hesitated. "I do hope... he's hanging in there. Until we find him."

Eve nodded, and for a moment, she let a brief silence fill the air between them. She decided to talk before Adina could go on another tangent, though.

"So about last night. Do you remember how I said I can send messages by going back in time?" Eve asked, peering over at her.

"Yeah," Adina said. "I do. How does that work? What does that mean?"

"Well. I first have to preface all that by saying that James is a time mage as well. He--"

Adina sputtered loudly before a real word came out.

"He's a--he's a time mage?!" Adina exclaimed. "What? How? Since when?"

Eve smiled, holding in an amused laugh. She hadn't meant to keep this from Adina, but she probably should have told her earlier.

"Well... he's kind of an odd time mage. He didn't really know about it until he met me. He can't go back in time like you and I can, nor can he control any time aspect. But what he can do is dream of all the undone memories and timelines that we made. The world may not experience what we did, but he sees it all. Or rather, dreams it."

Adina stared at Eve, wide-eyed, completely enraptured with every word she was saying.

"Whaaaaaaaat..." Adina whispered in awe.

"So, um," Eve continued awkwardly. "By sending a message, I really meant I was going back in time so that James could dream of it later. That's it." She paused. "At least, that's my understanding of it. It's possible he can dream of your undone timelines. I think it's based on proximity, but I'm not entirely sure."

Adina continued to stare.

"So... he was a mage the whole time?!" Adina burst, looking completely beside herself.

Eve had to hold back a laugh. To be fair, when she was first in Nye, he didn't know if it was magic or some weird effect of her coming to Nye.

"I think when we first met each other, he didn't really know what it was. But I'd like to think that he identifies with being more of a time mage this past year," she said with a smile.

If James were here, he'd definitely be giving her an unamused stare.

"I just... this... wow," Adina said, shaking her head as she looked back out at the road. "I can't believe he never told me. Unbelievable. And he was trying to help me as I was learning my time magic too."

It was ironic. But considering what actually happened, she didn't blame James. He didn't have much of an explanation.

Although, Eve did wonder if these thoughts ever crossed his mind at the time.

"I mean, it is a really niche magic. He might have never have known if we didn't cross paths. Or maybe he would have. I don't know."

Eve laughed. Nervously. She didn't want to get into the nuances of being from other planets.

"I'm curious about your magic, though. You said you can go back, like me. Do you have specific limitations?" she asked instead.

"Well, I've never been able to go back for more than a few minutes," Adina said. "Maybe five at most. For a while though it really was a stretch for me to go back even a minute. It was like... I really had to work at it, you know? I don't know. I just really lacked the confidence, and I didn't want to push it."

Eve nodded. "I understand. Are there any other constraints?"

She vaguely remembered James mentioning her magic and how it differed from her own, although she was curious to know how much her abilities have improved since then.

"Well, I'm not sure how things get messy with timelines and what not, but most of the time, especially if I'm only reversing time for a few seconds, I'm able to, like... reverse time in a bubble, if that makes sense. Like, I reverse time in a small space while things still happen in normal time around me," Adina explained. "Not like freezing time, though. Just undoing it."

Eve hummed. "You mentioned that you struggled to go back in time for a while. Did you improve since the last time you saw James? I only mention this because maybe he didn't dream of your memories since you were still strengthening your magic at the time."

"I don't know," Adina said. "I mean, if he didn't tell me he had magic I'm not surprised he didn't tell me if he dreamed time I undid."

She paused, bringing her hand up over her mouth as her brows pinched together.

"Gods, if he did I hope it wasn't too traumatic," she said. "A lot of the stuff I undid were small, silly moments, really. But the longer ones were usually... you know. Because something bad happened. Or almost happened."

"I understand," Eve said quietly but sincerely. She really meant it. "There's some use in his magic, I think. Like in these instances, where I can send him messages. But for the most part, I think it's a curse. Time is usually undone for a reason, after all. It's awful that he has to relive it."

The implications of the topic was heavy, but there was something... nice about it. It felt freeing to openly talking about this with someone who truly understood.

Eve never had anyone like that before. Someone who she could openly and freely talk about her magic without fear of repercussion.

"Yeah," Adina echoed. "I guess... if you can send him messages, though. That's good."

A beat.

"You think I could send him a message?" she asked.

"Uh." Eve smiled. "I suppose so, yes. I don't see why not. I don't know for sure that he receives them... but I don't think it hurts to try."

Adina smiled in return.

"I think I want to try," she said. "Maybe it'll be encouraging to hear from me again. To know he has other friends who haven't forgotten him and still care."

Eve nodded, smile deepening. "I think that's a great idea. I already told him that I'm with you. I think it would be nice for him to see from both of our perspectives."

She paused.

"I do think we should signal to one another if we give a deliberate message, though. I also wouldn't want to think that you're in trouble since you went back in time, even if your intentions were to send him a deliberate message."

"Oh, that's a good idea! Should we come up with a secret word or something?" Adina asked with a grin.

Eve considered the possibilities. They had to be relatively close to one another to feel the sensation of the other going back in time, but they didn't necessarily need to have an immediate safe word.

"We can keep it generic. If either of us feel the other going back in time, simply ask or talk about the weather. So saying something like, 'How's the weather tomorrow?' or 'Looks like rain,' is enough to suffice."

"I like 'it looks like rain,'" Adina said. "Sounds natural enough, even if it might not always make sense. I feel like people say that even when the sky is clear. We'll just sound like superstitious old ladies at worst."

Eve chuckled. "Yeah. Yeah, we might. But it's a time mage thing." She nodded. "Sure. So anytime either of us deliberately go back without being in danger, we'll say: 'Looks like rain.' I don't imagine we send messages very often, so I think it would be safe to assume that either one of us don't pass the message, something went wrong."

"But while it's just us together," Adina said. "You know... I think you should be in the first message I send. Because he must dream them through our eyes, right? Which means he hasn't actually seen you, yet. And I think he should get to see you."

Eve faltered, staring at Adina as the embarrassment pooled in her cheeks. Again.

"Um, well. You're right that he sees him in my perspective," she said distractedly, realizing after she said that that she was patting down her hair with her other hand.

Eve knew she wasn't going to start the message now. Right? Or was she? She didn't want to know what she looked like now.

Suddenly she was extra grateful that Adina offered a bath yesterday.

"Maybe I could do your hair!" Adina said with a smile. "Especially since it's so freshly clean! I mean, you're already so pretty, but it's just an idea. I don't know if you care that much."

Eve nervously laughed, not sure how to react to that. She decided to keep her hands on the reins, trying not to touch her hair or her face or overthink it.

"I wouldn't mind that," she said with a smile, though still looking ahead. "James used to braid my hair. I think it's practical, especially while being on the move so often."

"He braids hair?!" Adina blurted. "Awwh! That's so sweet!"

Eve couldn't help but laugh. It seemed that Adina was learning a lot about James today.

"It is," she said with a nod. "I hope that when this all blows over, you can spend proper time together. I'm sure he'd love to hear your perspectives on your new discoveries about him."

"Yeah," Adina said with another soft smile. "I'd love that."
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