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In The Wake of A Calamity

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Mon Aug 23, 2021 12:56 pm
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soundofmind says...

Jay Mournsky
cowritten with @ScarlettFire

Jay was curious, to say the least. Vel wouldn't have brought up a forbidden healing practice if it wasn't something Jay could possibly use in, at the most extreme, a life or death situation. With their luck, though, they were likely to run into one of those quite soon.

He glanced back at the campfire. Everyone was still asleep, and they would've been expecting him to be asleep too. It was Vel's watch, but Jay hadn't slept much... at least, not since the raid on Burninghead.

When Vel came to an abrupt stop in the shadows of the trees, Jay watched her carefully, noting how serious she was about the severity of this 'unlawful' way of healing. The level of sobriety she portrayed only made him want to know it more.

Maybe this could help him moving forward.

She seemed to study him for a moment, her arms crossed, before she tilted her head towards the trees. "Healing, as you know," she said lowly, "is meant to heal someone else through the magic that you have... What I am about to teach you is dangerous, it is the antithesis of that." She gave him that stern look again. "Since your magic is weak, you will need to draw on outside sources to bolster yourself... Do you understand what that means? And why it is so dangerous?"

"No," Jay said, watching her closely. "But explain why."

"If you do not focus," she hissed, leaning towards him slightly. "If you lose concentration...anything and anyone around you will be drawn from. You will hurt yourself and everything, everyone around you in the process of trying to help. That is why it is forbidden, Jay."

Jay stared at her. That didn't sound much different than some of the normal risks with most magics. You had to concentrate so you could control it and not hurt anyone. It wasn't too much of a stretch to apply it to healing magic, and it made sense that healing magic was more than giving. He wondered what it felt like to take.

Still, for as serious as she was, it felt like there was more she wasn't saying.

"That's all?" he asked.

Vel winced and glanced away. "There is one...more thing," she said carefully, as if she was trying to find the right way to phrase it. "The few records of those who have done this....are not reassuring. It seems trying to channel this magic, to take and then to give... It can drive one insane." She sighed. "There's a very good reason why it's not generally spoken of."

"So it can drive you crazy," Jay said, trying to make sure he understood her right. "So use it sparingly."

"Preferably not at all," she corrected softly, "but yes, essentially that."

"Alright," Jay said, matching her volume. "It'll be a last resort. Does that mean you're going to teach me or not?"

Vel groaned. "I am telling you all this, am I not?"

"But you've never done it yourself," Jay concluded. "With it being 'forbidden' and all."

"No," she said, "but I have studied it. I know, on a theoretical level, how to do so."

"So you just... focus on taking, and then giving?" Jay said. "Do you have to touch the thing you're taking energy from?"

"Essentially? Yes." She nodded to a tree. "Touching is preferred, but not necessary. Pick a tree, reach out for it with your magic...feel the life in it."

"You already do that when healing, in a way," Jay commented, walking slowly over to one of the trees by them, laying his hand on it. He looked at the bark, trying to sense the life within the tree. He wasn't going to take it. He just wanted to sense the energy. Familiarize himself with the sensation.

He closed his eyes, reaching in with his magic.

Trees didn't have a heart like people did, but in a way, he could feel a pulse.

"Feel the way it pulses?"

"Yeah," Jay said quietly.

"The idea is that you reach for it," she said softly, sounding like she was closer to him. "You let it touch you, and then you take it." She exhaled. "Don't take it now."

"Forcibly," Jay added.


He slowly opened his eyes, turning to look at her. She was right beside him, eyes on his hand and her good wing stretched out behind him.

"I'm not going to try it now," he said. "I'm not an idiot, and I'd like to keep my sanity."


"I'll keep it in mind, though," Jay said quietly, his gaze drifting through the trees to the flicker of distant light that was the fire at their camp. "Just in case."

Vel nodded, gaze darting towards Jay's face. "You can be gentle...but it seems that...force works better." She shrugged. "I have no idea why and I would not completely trust the accounts from the people who used this magic. As I said, it affects your sanity. I do not trust them to be telling the truth."

"If I'm gentle or not... does it make a difference?" Jay asked quietly. "The result is still the same."

"Probably not, you are correct."

Jay went quiet again as he looked back at his hand on the tree. He had the self-control not to foolishly try something so dangerous at this point in their journey, but he did wonder at what point he'd be pressed to use it. That was, if he even stayed with them that long. He knew they didn't really want him there. They only wanted his tracking skills, and he understood that.

He gingerly pulled his hand off the tree, turning to Vel. She seemed to be the only other one who didn't have personal stakes in this war. Or at least, in this part of the war.

"If you could fly," he asked. "Would you have left for home already?"

Vel frowned and looked away. "I am...not sure. Perhaps, perhaps not."

"Were you close to anyone at the guild?" he asked.

She swallowed. "Thea."

Jay hummed.

"I guess that makes you lucky," he said quietly, watching her closely.

She lifted one shoulder in a half-shrug. "Maybe."

Jay tilted his head slightly to the side. It seemed that she carried a lot of guilt about the fate of the North Point Guild too, which was understandable. The guilt was evident in her eyes, and there was an odd scent about her that alluded to it as well. She didn't make eye contact with him, and he could tell she likely felt a little awkward and uncomfortable. Maybe even shy. He was sure the weight of the subject didn't help.

"How has the pain of your wing been?" he decided to ask. "I'm sure it makes the strenuous travel more difficult."

Vel shifted her stance, good wing flaring and then folding back in. She winced. "I will manage."

"That wasn't my question," Jay said, narrowing his eyes at her.

She narrowed her eyes right back. "We should get back to the others."

"Maybe," Jay said. "You've still got, what, another hour or two before you need to wake up Ani for the second watch?"

Vel sighed. "Yes. And my wing is fine, Jay. It will heal and I will manage."

"How long has it been like that, Vel?" Jay asked.

"None of your business," she hissed and turned to head back towards their camp.

"I'm just saying," Jay said, following her. "I know I can't heal that much, but if I healed it a little every day, it'd be more progress than what you're getting now at your 'natural' pace. I don't care how proud you are. If we're going to be up against an army, you need to be functional. You getting better helps all of us. It's not just about you."

She ignored him and kept walking, not glancing towards him. She almost looked like she was in pain--but there was also a hint of annoyance in her expression.

"Vel, you know I'm right," Jay said lowly, still walking beside her.

She stopped abruptly and turned on him. "If I tell you about my wing, will you shut up?"

"Deal," Jay said. Though he knew he may or may not keep up his end of the deal. It depended on how much she shared.

"Fine." She glared at him. "It hurts, alright? It hurts and I hate it. Now, will you shut up and stop asking?"

"I appreciate your honesty," Jay said. "So it hurts. Will you accept my help, or do you want it to hurt forever?"

Vel glared at him a moment longer than she seemed to sag a little, relaxing slightly. "If it gets you to stop bothering me, then yes. I will accept your help."

"Great," Jay said unenthusiastically.

That was all he wanted to hear. Now he'd shut up.

He followed her back to the camp and found his spot by the fire, sitting down before he curled up on the ground. The warmth of the fire was pleasant, at first, but he knew he'd have to roll over to the other side when the heat started burning through his clothes.

At the thought, he couldn't help but be reminded of the fire, and the North Point guild, engulfed in flames.

He knew the others felt guilty for not being there to do something, but the guilt that weighed on him was a different kind. One that bore with it a responsibility and a shame he wasn't used to carrying. For a moment, he'd made peace with turning sides, and helping the ones who took what little he once had at Burninghead. But the taste of his own betrayal only became more bitter in his mouth with each passing day.

He didn't owe anyone anything, and yet, he couldn't help but feel like he should've accepted defeat when it came to his guild's door.

Maybe this was what all survivors felt like. He wondered if the feeling would pass, eventually.

When it did, maybe he wouldn't feel obligated to stick around anymore, and he could find someplace far away... but that was just a child's dream. He knew in his heart there would be no escaping this war. It was only the beginning.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.


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Mon Nov 15, 2021 7:19 am
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soundofmind says...

Thea Forenode
cowritten with @Lael and @Magebird

It had been nine years since Thea had been this far away from the guild.

They were coming down the last stretch of the mountain, just before it melded with the earth, flattening out and then rolling with the hills and valleys below. They could see the distant skyline growing steady, like Nye itself had drawn its mouth into a thin line, uncomfortable with its own growing pains.

Three more days had passed on their journey, and despite Jay seeming confident in his tracking, Thea was starting to have doubts - not that Jay wasn't on the army's trail, but that they would ever catch up in time. She had to believe that they'd captured Idina because it was the only thing giving her hope. A rescue, however, was seeming further and further from reach with each passing day. Their stomachs were always a little too empty, their bodies a little too weary, and their minds all struggling to carry the weight of a war that had rolled up to their doorstep without warning.

Well, not enough warning.

They stopped at a peak in the mountain's terrain, staring down at their last stretch. The crisp, cutting air was thick with the morning mist, and a light fog hovered over their heads, clouding their view. It smelled like pine needles and moss, which would've been comforting were it not for the gaping narrow chasm winding down to the mountain's feet.

"There's got to be another way," Velalis groaned, glancing back at Thea with her eyebrows pinned together.

Thea knew she was easily irritable and prone to complaining, but she knew this was different. Fear danced in the back of Vel's eyes like a flickering flame.

It was her wing. They all knew it was her wing. If only she could fly, the chasm would be nothing for her.

"I ain't likin' the looks of this one," Ani added, inching to the edge of the drop-off, looking down. She nudged a pebble with her feet, and everyone's heads tilted to watch it clatter down the jagged rocks.

"Couldn't we just go around?" Runi suggested. "There must be a long way. It's not like we all came up this way. I know there's another way we could go that's easier. When was this chasm even here? I don't remember a chasm."

"I bet ya it weren't here 'fore the avalanche hit," Ani hummed.

"Avalanches don't make this," Runi emphasized, pointing down into the winding hole.

"I don't care if it was here before," Jay cut in. "It was here when I got here. If I could climb up through it, we can climb down. Come on. It's not as bad as it looks."

Predictably, everyone with the exception of Han and Thea herself shot Jay a pointed glare.

Thea inched forward, staying behind the wall of her friends as she looked down, trying to perceive just how deep the chasm was.

Naturally, she found her eyes catching on potential hand and footholds, wondering if the rocks were as steady as they seemed, or if they'd give way to their weight. The old rush of adrenaline she used to get at the thought of climbing lingered like a hum at the edges of her senses, but the prevailing sensation was the persistent beating of her heart in her own chest. Thumping loudly, knowing that this was far more than a bumpy road through the mountains.

No amount of magic would save her if she fell.

Thea felt the sting of her own breath when she realized she'd been holding it, and she glanced at the others. They were still arguing, while Han stood quietly off to the side, waiting for instruction. She knew none of them wanted to say it, but they were all thinking about her leg. Runi and Ani had been there when it happened, and both Vel and now Han knew the story. Jay was the only one who didn't know how she lost her foot, but if she knew anything about him, he'd already taken her leg into account.

They were just waiting for her to make the decision.

She took in another deep breath and squared her shoulders.

"Runi," she said, cutting through the bickering. Everyone stuttered to a stop.

"We don't have time to find another way around," Thea said steadily. "I believe we can make it through if we take it slow and steady. We will be careful, and look out for each other. Jay, you'll lead us through since you've been through before. Warn us of tricky spots before they come. Vel, stick close to Jay. Ani, you'll follow behind her in case she needs steadying. Runi and Han, you'll hold up the back with me."

Things were quiet for a moment as the air settled between them. Thea caught Runi sliding her narrowed gaze over to Jay, but then she looked to Thea and nodded.

"Sounds like a good plan, Thea," Han voiced softly.

And Thea found herself grateful for his input - not just because of the reassurance, but because Han had an odd effect on the others, especially when they got like this. His calm and quiet presence made his voice all the more powerful when he did choose to speak up, and in the moments he did, it seemed to dispel the tension. Or, at the very least, it eased it.

She offered Han a smile, and she found it easier to exude confidence with his support.

"Thanks, Han," she said. "Now, let's get going. It's going to be a long climb."


A 'long climb' had been a bit of an understatement. Jay had been generous in saying that the climb wasn't as bad as it seemed. Perhaps, in terms of the skill required, it wasn't as treacherous as it seemed at first, but the stamina required to maintain the upright position required for balance was significant, and Thea could tell it was starting to wear on her peers. It was starting to wear on her, too.

The morning fog had rolled into the chasm, creating the illusion of a softened wall behind them, disguising the jagged rocks below. The six of them were inching along the chasm's edge, clinging to the rock wall and the inconsistent ledges that jutted out from it. Thea noticed Vel was struggling the most, and she nervously flicked her eyes to Vel's twitching wings every time Vel would let out a grunt or a whine.

Runi and Han were on either side of her, with Han holding up the back. Between the three of them and Ani, they were each carrying their share of their supplies, and Thea was thankful for it because though they'd packed light, any extra added weight felt ten times as heavy when you were one wrong step away from falling to your demise.

She couldn't wait for it to be over.

For a moment, they all came to a halt, and Thea found herself craning her neck to see Jay up ahead.

"This part will be tricky. There's a big gap," Jay's voice floated back to them, bouncing off the rocks. "I hope you stretched."

"Ha. Ha," Runi fake-laughed, each 'ha' harsh and cutting.

Though Jay was only a misty shadow up ahead, Thea could imagine his blank expression, unfazed. A part of her wished she could be so unmoving, but then again, she knew that kind of unshakable level-headedness normally came with a price.

They were more alike than she liked to think, she thought. But she would never have the courage to ask Jay what it felt like to be so hollow. Or if that feeling could ever go away, after all of this.

After Jay's warning, they moved forward.

Vel strained to reach for Jay's hand, but Ani helped keep her from losing her footing, drawing the rock out further. She could tell, though, that Ani was feeling just as tired as the rest of them. With all the rocky mountain paths they'd been traveling through, Ani had been doing a lot of magic, and Thea could tell she was tired. But they just needed to hold on a little longer. And then after that, they'd hold on again, just on flat ground.

Ani used her magic to help launch herself up to Vel and Jay, pulling some of the earth with her to close some of the distance for Runi, Thea, and Han. Runi flashed Ani a thankful smile as she climbed up the rock and reached for the other side, her legs stretching almost the full length.

If the drop wasn't so steep, maybe they all would be jumping. It almost seemed silly, how precariously they were all going out of their way to be careful, but Thea knew all too well how easily things could go wrong if you were careless.

She stepped up to the edge, choosing not to glance down at the gap she was about to reach over.

Runi waited at the other end, arm extended to grab her hand to steady her, and Han waited patiently behind. Thea leveled the toe of her shoe with the rock, planting it there as she extended her pegged leg to the other side.

But when things go wrong, it happens quickly.

Her peg leg caught on a loose hold and slipped, landing on nothing but air. Thea was falling, and flailing, and in a second, she thought: this is the end. The first of North Point's survivors to fall.

Her hands grasped at nothing, and her heart stopped beating.

That was until one hand firmly gripped her arm, and another pair of hands grabbed her leg.

She grunted as her fall was broken by painful tugs on both limbs, and she was left dangling in the middle, one arm reaching down and half a leg scrambling to find peace. Her heartbeat was pounding in her ears and she grabbed onto Runi's arm with a death-grip, trying not to look up at her, lest her eyes betray her own words.

"Well," she said shakily, trying to keep her voice as neutral as possible. "That was a close call."

"I'd say," Runi echoed, and Thea could hear the buried panic in her voice as well.

"We've got you," Han said, his voice a twinge more honest than the rest.

Thea slowly reached her other hand up to meet Runi's, so that Runi had both her arms. Runi and Han held her steady for a moment, but she could feel in Runi's grip that Runi was struggling to keep her aloft and Han was straining as well.

"Need a hand?" Ani piped up from behind Runi.

"Or a rock," Runi answered with a weak laugh.

"Rocks. Now tha' I can do," Ani answered, and after a beat, a slab of rock came jutting out under Thea.

Just enough to reach with her free leg. Her peg-leg. Once she got it steady, she was standing with her hands still holding Runi's arms tightly. Han wordlessly met her eyes and she gave him a nod, and he let go of her leg. She slowly guided it to the ledge, balancing her stance. From where she was standing, Runi could pull her up.

"You good?" Ani called out.

Thea looked up to Runi, meeting her eyes. Panic was twisting in her chest like a tightened knot, pulling dangerously between fear and her desire to remain unshaken. Something inside her desperately wished she knew what it was that Idina saw in her.

For years, Thea had been avoiding the cliffs for this exact reason. She knew something like this would happen, and now she was living out the fulfillment of her greatest fear.

At least, she'd thought it was her greatest fear. Until they lost everything.

But that didn't change the fact that she was one word away from slipping into a panic.

"She's good," Runi finally answered for her. "Ready for me to pull you up?"

Thea nodded, shakily drawing herself as close to the ledge as possible. Runi waited until she was steady and then with a deep breath, heaved her up. Once Thea's upper body came over the side, she tucked her legs up, quick to get to her knees, but slower to get to her feet. Moving forward, there wouldn't be much room to kneel.

Runi extended a hand again, helping her up, and Thea drew her face flush with the rock wall, immediately finding handholds even though Runi was right there, with one arm behind her back. All of Thea's muscles stiffened as she gripped the rocks around her like they were now her salvation when one moment ago the ones down below were her death. Despite the front of her mind telling her she needed to move on, she couldn't seem to bring herself to move.

She'd lost all confidence in her bad leg, and she couldn't trust herself to not slip again. And next time, she couldn't bank on Runi and Han being quick enough to catch her fall.

She was lucky this time.

She was lucky last time, to only lose a foot.

"Maybe we should take a break," Runi's voice fluttered by her ear.

"It'll only get harder if we wait," Jay countered from up ahead. "And we don't want to be climbing this in the dark. We need to use our daylight."

Jay was always one for logic, but now Thea only felt the cringing of her gut in knowing that he was right, and she had become a liability. Any sense of ownership fleeted from her, and she wondered if maybe she should give up. No one liked Jay, but at least he had a sense of direction.

She felt a light tap on the back of her shoulder, on the opposite side of Runi. She slowly turned her head to look at Han, who must've managed to jump over on his own. She couldn't help but envy him at that moment, even though the look on his face only spoke of concern and genuine empathy like he was trying to offer comfort.

Runi followed suit, setting her hand on Thea's other shoulder.

"Hey," Runi said quietly. "We'll get out of this. The worst of it is over. We're almost out, you know."

"And I'll be right behind you," Han added. "Just in case."

"And also because changing our order would be too hard," Runi added, trying to lighten things. "And awkward, trying to climb over each other. There really is no room to pass."

"Yeah," Han said faintly. "That too."

"Hey Thea," Runi said again. "Did I ever tell you about the time I fell out of a tree?"

Thea turned her head back to Runi, meeting her eyes.

"I think you have," Thea said, mustering a weak smile.

"Oh. Well, want to hear it again?" Runi offered, returning the smile with bright eyes.

Thea took in a deep breath.

"I think--"

"Are you guys coming or not?" Jay shouted up ahead. She could no longer see him through the fog. If she wasn't so busy trying to cling for life, she might've reached out an arm and used her magic to clear away some of the fog.

"How about this," Runi said. "I take a step, you take a step, and we both keep making sure you're steady until you find your rhythm again."

Thea swallowed, refusing to look down as she drew away from the wall of rock a little, releasing tension from her arms. She nodded.

"Sounds good to me," she said, finally finding some foundation of calm to lay her voice upon.

Runi smiled, glancing back to Han for confirmation before presumably exchanging nods with him as well.

"Alright," she said. "Let's go. You got this, Thea. It's still in your blood."

Thea wasn't sure about that, but when Runi took a step, she took one of her own. She wasn't ready to tackle another climb like that one, but for now, she was ready to take it one step at a time until it was over.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.


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Wed Nov 17, 2021 10:57 am
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soundofmind says...

Jay Mournsky

They made it. Finally.

When the ground finally flattened out, Jay was tempted to flop down and roll around in the dirt out of sheer exhaustion and relief. It felt like it took them ages to crawl out of the death trap of a mountain, and it was a miracle all of them made it out alive. The others were eager to catch up with an army, but Jay was just happy to not have to worry about rock-climbing and breathing in smoke.

This time, when the sunset came, the horizon was obscured by trees, and instead of watching the sun tuck away, they simply watched the sky change hues.

The forest was dense, but thankfully, Jay knew his way through the trees, so it wasn't an issue for him. The mist followed them out of the mountains like a thin blanket, but Jay didn't need to rely on his sight. The army's scent led him back out onto one of the main dirt roads - one that was well-traveled, at least before the avalanche blocked off access to the guild. They only ended up walking along the path for a few minutes before Thea suggested calling it a night. Looking at the rest of the survivors, Jay couldn't help but agree. He was tired, and the rest of them looked like they were hanging by threads. Velalis, in particular.

They withdrew into the woods, a little distance from the path. Thea seemed convinced that camping too close to the path could draw unwanted attention, and while Jay wasn't inclined to disagree, he highly doubted that the entire army was waiting at the base of the mountain for six people. Now, could a small team be waiting for them? Possibly. But he didn't intend to stick around long enough to find out.

"Runi, Han," Thea said, starting to delegate jobs. "Can you go find some firewood?"

It was getting cold again, and this time the chill dug a little deeper.

"Consider it done!" Runi chirped, giving Thea a low bow of her head before turning to Han. She flashed Han a smile and they shared a look before turning to go search the nearby woods before they lost the last of their fading daylight.

"Vel--" Thea started.

"I'm going to make tea," Velalis stated plainly, holding her head low and her shoulders high in discomfort.

"We'll be findin' tea leaves, then," Ani said with a weak grin, coming up alongside Vel. She looked to Thea. "And we'll be lookin' out for any food we can gather too."

Thea watched Vel for a moment, and Jay could tell she was trying to hide the worry behind her eyes.

"Alright," Thea said. "Come back soon, though. If you don't find anything before dark, just turn back. We can forage more in the morning."

Ani nodded.

"See ya soon, then," Ani said with a small smile before she turned and waved to Vel, who followed behind with heavy footsteps.

Being flightless was probably going to get her killed, and though Jay had offered to help heal her wing little by little day by day, he didn't think it would make much of a difference in the long run. Her recovery was still going to be long and painful, and there was nothing he could do about that. And even once her wing was completely healed, there was no telling how long it would take for her to be able to use it again because of the muscle atrophy.

He really did feel bad for her, but...

"Jay," Thea said, interrupting his thoughts.

He turned to her, watching her approach slowly, almost as if he were a wild animal. He huffed a small puff of air through his nose. If only she knew.

"Would you mind helping me set up camp?" she asked with what looked like a forced smile.

Jay turned his head to the side, but kept his eyes on Thea, studying her. She seemed intimidated, and likely still a little shaken about her fall earlier. But more than that, it seemed like she still didn't trust him, even though she was the one who wanted him to stick around in the first place. Maybe it was just the near-death experience, but Jay couldn't shake the feeling that Thea might've been a little bitter about his presence. If not for him selling her guild out, for him picking up the slack where she lacked.

She had been prepared for a simple scouting mission, not a survival scenario. But that was the thing: none of the guilds had been prepared for this war, and that was their fault. To be blindsided that badly and left to his own defenses, maybe it was a sign. A sign of something he always knew deep down.

He had to look out for himself because no one else would.

Even Thea was only interested in what he could do to be useful - but that was the thing. He wasn't that useful, and he couldn't be useful if everyone was quietly boring holes into his skull with their resentful glares.

At least Thea wasn't glaring at him for the moment.

"Sure," he finally said after too long of a pause. Thea had been uncomfortably looking to him, eventually averting her eyes. At his response, though, she perked up.

"Great," she said. "We'll start with a fire pit."

The two of them worked together in silence, apart from the occasional instruction to one another. Jay didn't have an issue with the silence, but he could tell Thea was uncomfortable from the way she moved, just a little too tense, and just a little too intentional and self-aware. She kept sending him furtive glances, like she was trying to study him while he was unaware, or like she was contemplating something. It irked him. He wished she'd just come out and say it.

Eventually, they decided to put up a blanket as their only "tarp," since the skies were getting a little dark and it looked like it could rain. The trees would provide some shelter, but they would take forever to dry, and it would be cold.

Jay was helping set stakes in the ground to drape the blanket on, using a long, fallen branch after snapping off all of the leafy twigs.

He dug into the earth with his hands, wanting the stake to go down deep so it wouldn't budge if someone bumped into it.

"So," Thea said suddenly, walking up beside him with a thick branch of her own. She'd taken out a small dagger to start sawing off twigs and things that could snag. "I uh, don't think you ever told me the name of your guild."

Jay glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes, digging a little deeper into the earth.

"Burninghead Guild," he said flatly.

Thea opened her mouth like she had been ready to comment but then hesitated.

"Yeah. Mine went down in flames too," he said plainly, looking back down.

Thea was quiet for a moment as Jay grabbed his wooden pole, standing up to shove it into the earth and kick the dirt into the empty spaces around the hole.

"I'm sorry," Thea said softly. "About your guild."

Jay patted down the earth around the pole, not standing upright on its own. He waited until he was finished until he looked back at her, with one hand on the pole.

"Thanks," he said, with no sincerity at all.

He didn't want her pity.

He walked over to grab the other pole he'd prepared and measured the distance from one pole to where the next should go with his feet. He stopped and crouched down, digging once more. He saw Thea starting to work on her own, but he knew she was still stealing glances at him. Predictably, after a minute of digging and setting the next pole into the earth, she spoke up again.

"I like your necklace," she offered.

He paused, having just crouched down to dig another hole. Glancing down around his neck, he noticed his necklace had slipped out from under his poncho at some point, now revealing the hanging tooth tied around his neck with twine.

He glanced back up at her.

"Yeah?" he asked.

Thea's eyes widened a little bit, and she smiled slightly. "Yeah. Can I ask where--"

Jay didn't let her finish her question. He lifted the necklace over his head and walked over to her, dropping the necklace over her head. Thea blinked, leaning back too late to avoid the necklace falling around her neck. She looked down at the necklace in bewilderment and then up at Jay.

"You can have it," he said.

"What--no!" Thea said, already reaching to take it off. "I was only complimenting--"

"It's a gift. Are you going to refuse it?" Jay asked, picking up the third pole, lowering it into the ground.

Thea was quiet for a moment, and he took that as a no.

"Don't look so torn about it," Jay added, not looking up at her. "It's just a necklace."

He busied himself with measuring to the next spot the post should go to make it a level square. He marked the spot with his foot and then started digging again. Without a word, Thea inched her pole towards him, having finally finished trimming it for use.

"It's a tooth," Thea commented. "What kind is it?"

Jay flicked his eyes towards her, then down at the oversized stick she'd pushed towards him. He grabbed it, drawing it closer.

"It belonged to a wolf," he said.

Thea hummed, looking down at the necklace and holding the tooth between her thumb and forefinger.

"It's pretty small," she said softly.

"That's because it was a young wolf," Jay said, finally setting the last stake in the ground, with no help from Thea. "Now, are you going to help me tie this blanket up?"

Thea nodded, getting to her feet. His eyes flicked to her peg-leg, but only for a moment, and he turned to go grab the blanket. They finished tying it up without much more conversation, and Jay was starting to feel antsy. Finally, Han and Runi emerged out of the woods, both of them with arms full of more wood than they needed for one night.

"Oh! A tent!" Runi commented. "Nice."

"If it's going to rain, we figured the fire might go out. We got more wood so that we can keep dry in case it stops and we need to start another one," Han explained to Thea, and the three of them started talking about how they were going to have to huddle together for the night to stay dry.

Jay, however, was drifting away, until he got just past their tent, and heard Thea call out to him.

"Jay?" she asked.

"I just need to go..." he said, seeing the looks of suspicion and confusion in response. "Relieve myself."

He raised his eyebrows shrugging.

That seemed to give Thea some pause, but then she nodded.

"Don't stray too far alone," she said. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

In the distance, he could see Ani and Velalis coming out of the shadows of the forest, and the sky was turning into a deep dark blue.

"Sure," Jay said. "I'll be careful."

As he turned and started walking away, he heard Ani say something to Vel, but he tuned out the rest of the chatter. As the sky darkened, he dipped into the depths of the forest, getting lost in it, out of sight of the others.

He didn't plan on coming back.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.


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Chaser says...

Elani Ellonhav
cowritten with @soundofmind

As she balanced a bulging waterskin in each hand, Ani ducked a branch and jumped over a bramble thicket, landing on one foot and spinning precariously before planting herself. Once she was standing solid, she flashed a grin to Velalis, who raised an eyebrow and walked the long way around the bushes while glancing nervously at the evergreen trees that shattered the sunset onto their emerald spines, leaving flecks of orange embedded in everything.

"Not too long now, ay?" Elani said, ignoring the dwindling light. "Soon we'll be cozy by the fire, enjoyin' that delicious tea of yours."

"It won't be perfect," Vel said, a little ruefully. "Not much is growing in this forest." There was still a bite to her words, but Ani was noticing the fatigue, like seeing ribs poking through a worn shirt.

"My parents always said, 'unger's the greatest spice!" Ani reminded her as they walked. "Secondly, laughter being the greatest medicine."

"Your parents must have gotten sick often," Velalis said. Ani paused for a second and laughed, deciding to take it as a joke. When Velalis looked at her strangely, Ani turned away and tried not to look awkward as they made the rest of the way back to camp in silence.

Vel was exactly half right in her guess. Ani's mother had gotten sick often, seeming to catch it every winter when the cold flew down her throat and stifled her breath. Her father had always been the hardy one, and it had been a family joke that fools couldn't catch sickness. But laughter could not save her father from a bandit's saber, and after Ani's mother had rebuilt their lives up north, she no longer believed in it. Still, Ani held on to their folk medicine -- a diseased world had no other cures.

"Thank ye fer waitin'!" Ani exclaimed as they returned to the clearing. She passed the waterskins to Han, who was crouched around a pile of grass with a few smoldering embers. "River's not too far, so anyone else needs a refill, just let me know."

"We should limit how often we head out for now," Han said as a fire began to roar between his hands. "Anyone patrolling the river could spot us if we're not careful."

"I agree," Thea said. "Did you happen to see Jay on the way back?"

Runi raised an eyebrow. "Wasn't he going to the bathroom? I don't think they should be looking for that."

Thea blushed. "Well, right. Anyway, he hasn't come back."

There was a brief silence among the group as the dark crept over their campsite. Runi felt a shiver run down her spine, splitting at her legs and running into the earth beneath her.

Thea glanced at them. "The mage hunters are after him too," she said.

Ani felt redness rise in her throat. "'E cut a deal before," she said, a little choked. "No reason 'e couldn't again."

"Except that he betrayed them," Thea reminded her. "They can't trust him now."

Ani met her gaze and pushed, hard. "And that means we can?"

She realized that the camp had gone quiet. Runi was pretending to adjust the tent, while Vel was studying the tea leaves. Han was focused on the fire, which seemed to be cowering from the night sky.

Ani bit her tongue and stared upwards. If she went on, she'd crush everybody's spirits before what looked to be one of the longest nights of their lives. "Lis'n," she began. "I want to trust 'im. But when someone's capable o' trickin' us all, I just want some peace of mind."

She looked at Thea again, pleading with her eyes. "Do you think we can trust 'im?"

Thea looked back, and Ani could see the rising pressure in her chest. When her mouth opened, it was contorted in such a way that Ani almost expected her to scream. "I think," she said quietly, "I think I'll get some rest."

Ani held her gaze for a moment more before nodding, turning to the fire. She could accept that, she supposed. "Alright, let's get that, then. But first, we eat."

She winked. "No one goes 'ungry while I'm 'ere."

They had enough mushrooms left to cook while Han boiled the water for soup. Ani ate hers and chewed deeply, enjoying the simple bloom of taste on her tongue. It was a trick she'd learned to make the little things pleasant.

As the scent of food entered the air, Meanie-mo popped out of Ani's shirt. His ears flicked up at the sight of the mushroom stew, and he scampered down Ani's arm to finish off her food. Ani smiled and petted him while he planted his feet in the soup and lapped it up.

As they continued to eat in silence, she looked around the circle. Food was only a meal if people felt safe while eating, and with every third blink, their eyes flicked to the treeline, to the darkness beyond their firelight, to the mountains above them that loomed like teeth in the mouth of night.

Thea set her bowl down and cleared her throat. "We'll take the watch in shifts tonight. I'll go first."

"I'll be second," Ani said quickly, coughing as a mushroom bit slipped down her throat. Second watch was always the worst position, since you could never quite settle in during the first watch if you were next to be up anyway.

After that, it was decided that Han would be third, Runi fourth, and Vel fifth. "And Jay is sixth," Thea concluded. "If he comes back."

"Yeah," Ani said, smiling weakly. "Let's save a bowl of soup for 'im."

Ani and the others made their way to the tent, which had just enough space for the four of them beneath it. If Jay came back, they would be stacked like felled lumber. Ani laid in the middle, with Meanie-mo curling up on her chest. She felt Runi and Han lie beside her and instinctively willed the warmth from her body into theirs. Of course, she had no magic to do so, but she hoped she could do it anyway.

"Get some sleep," Thea called. "You'll need it."

Ani winced. Sleep was always the hardest to find when you knew you were relying on it. But gradually, one by one, her friends drifted off, letting their breaths fall into unconscious rhythm. Ani lay awake and stared at the firelight dancing between the tent and the ground. Shadows seemed to stalk about within it, and she watched them shrivel as the fire burned them up as quickly as they'd come. Of course, burned things didn't just disappear -- they left behind corpses. Corpses that tumbled through doors when you opened them, corpses had their hands outstretched in desperation, corpses on the ground that, when you lifted them, peeled away from themselves into black and pink flesh.

Ani swallowed the bile that rose in her throat, but it left a harsh burning behind. The Guild was gone. Master Lynn was gone. Igni was gone, and at that, she wished for the space to roll over and cry. But there wasn't enough space for tears, and there wouldn't be for a long time.

The earth felt cold on her back, but solid and sharp too. Ani stared straight up and made a vow if only to have a vow to hold on to, vowing to avenge them, because if she couldn't keep the Guild safe, or her friends safe, then she could still hurt a lot of people in return. She felt herself growing rigid with hatred.

Suddenly, she felt a tongue lick her chin. Ani lifted her head and glanced down at her chest to find Meanie-mo staring back. He nuzzled against her cheek, and Ani held him close, feeling the big world grow a little smaller.

Then the tent blanket was brushed aside, and Thea was standing there, her body gaunt in the half-light. "You're still up," she observed, sounding sympathetic. "You'll get some sleep after your shift."

"Ay, I hope so," Ani whispered, slowly maneuvering to her feet. "No sign o' Jay, then?"

Thea shook her head. Her face was grave. She whispered, "Do you really think he'd betray us again?"

Ani sighed. "I can't say anythin' for sure. A nightmare 'appened nine days ago, and everythin' hurts ta think about. I want to trust 'im, though," she added. "Hurts not to."

Thea nodded. "Yeah." She didn't say anything more, and Ani didn't expect her to. They exchanged places, and Ani sat by the fire, which was burning low by now. Meanie-mo stood at attention on her shoulder, and together they peered into the forest.

Ani was used to watching for wolves, but as she examined the brambles, she could only imagine Jay popping out of them, torch in hand, with the mage-hunters flooding the night behind him. She grabbed her wrist to kept from shaking, and tried to keep from the thoughts of Jay betraying them. Of course it felt wrong not to trust him after they'd spent time together, but it had only been a few days. Then again, she'd only known Vel a year, hadn't she? And Thea, well, for years more, but how long was enough?

Ani shuddered to herself. No, she couldn't go there. Going there would mean facing the possibility of distrusting the people she loved, because she was discovering now that she could do just that. Disgust burrowed itself into her core, and her body felt weak.

She was calmed by the faint chime that carried sweetly on the air. Then, in an instant, she snapped to her feet, her heart pumping. One of her hands went to Meanie-mo on her shoulder, covering him. The other searched for a stone to pull from the ground as she listened again, dead quiet.

Silence. There had been so many unbearable silences on this journey, ones that, like this one, left Ani with the dread of what would soon fill them. Slowly, from what seemed like the vanishing point of the deep, dark woods, the sound called again.

Ding. Ani's blood began roaring in her ears, and she fought to keep calm, and observant. Making her footsteps as quiet as possible, she began to slide past the fire towards the tent. As she crossed in front of the fire, her own shadow rose up in front of her, and she nearly screamed, but kept moving, quiet, quiet.

Ding, ding. It was clearer now, though still quiet, and when the second chime came, Ani could hear it from a different location. It was moving, and moving fast. The tent flap felt like it was a valley away. Ani willed her legs to move.

Ding, ding, ding. The chimes flooded the treetops, metal faintly whispering all about them. Ani stood fast and watched the treetops as it all drew closer, closer, until-

Ding. Right above her.

Ani dove for the tent before a sharp pain pierced her neck. Darkness swept across her eyes, and she fell, the ground slamming up into her like the crest of a wave.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

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ScarlettFire says...


Chapter Three: Thrown to The Wolves

Velalis of Arete
cowritten with @soundofmind and @magebird

Vel groaned, shifting slightly. Something Was it her pounding head? Or her wing? No, the wing was always aching lately. It wasn't that. She frowned a little, not moving. No, it was the fact that there was only one body pressed up against her back... She didn't feel cramped or overly hot--

She pushed up onto an elbow abruptly, eyes flying open--and then groaned again, head spinning. What? She blinked a few times, trying to get everything to stop spinning, and then blinked again when she finally focused on her surroundings.

Stone walls, dirt floor....big, heavy metal bars...

This was a cell. She was in a cell.

And she wasn't alone.

"Vel!" Runi's voice came from beside her, urgent, and laced with anxiety. "You're awake!"

Vel turned, eyes wide. "Runi?"

Runi met her eyes with a weak, strained smile. From the looks of her, she'd been lying on the dirt floor for some time, because she had dirt and dust smeared on the side of her face and her clothes. Her purple hair was loosely falling out of her ponytail around her face. Vel probably didn't look much better.

"Hey," Runi said. "Yeah. It's me. Are you okay? How's your wing?"

She frowned, glancing over Runi before assessing herself, head tilting to one side. "I'm...fine. My wing doesn't hurt anymore than it did before." Vel hesitated and then glanced about the cell. "What happened? Where are we?"

"Hah... yeah, about that," Runi muttered, looking around the cell as well. "I wish I knew. Last thing I remember is Ani jumping on top of me and a few moments later, she went limp, and I lost consciousness soon after."

She stared off through the cell bars, her eyebrows creased together in worry, but it looked like her eyes were locking onto something in particular. Vel tensed. Something was very, very wrong.

"I think we got captured..." Runi said distantly, her volume lowering.

Vel frowned. "Runi?" she asked, turning to try and see whatever her friend was looking at.

There was another cell across from them, separated only by a narrow dirt hall, lit by flickering, distant flames from lanterns out of their eye-line. There was a spot of what seemed like daylight floating in from a thin window behind them, but it was further up the wall, and barred just like their cell.

A shadow hunkered in the neighboring cell shifted, drawing closer to the metal bars that stood rigidly between them and the hall. Once the person drew into the pulsing light, Vel could make out a human hand, and the face of a young teenage girl, pressing her cheek against the metal bar. She looked thin. The kind of thin that looked more underfed and neglected than what might've been her natural build. Her dark, curly hair looked a little matted on one side, and she too, looked covered in a layer of dirt.

"Where are you guys from?" the girl's voice carried in a harsh whisper.

Runi flicked her eyes over to Vel. She shook her head minutely, trying to tell Runi not to say too much.

"Up north," Runi said vaguely. "At least, I think. I don't know where we are in relation."

The girl nodded slowly.

"I was taken from the Burninghead Guild," she said softly. "Several months ago. I don't know exactly how long it's been."

Runi glanced at Vel again, her eyebrows raised. There was no real way to know if the girl was baiting them, but Runi looked like she believed her.

"You're a mage?" Runi asked, voice soft.

The girl nodded.

"Fire mage," she said sadly. "Used to be top of my class, before..." Her voice trailed off, and Runi once again looked at Vel, searching for affirmation, to see if Vel believed this, too. Vel watched the girl for a moment before meeting Runi's eyes and nodding.

"What happened?" Runi asked, before changing the question. "Do you know where we are?"

The girl looked back and forth, up and down the hall before answering.

"The anti-magic people - they attacked our guild," she answered, her voice wavering. "They brought me and a bunch of others here and we thought maybe it was for - I don't know, to make us turn to their side. But we'd already refused. That's why we were brought here, I think. As punishment."

"Are we prisoners of war?" Runi asked. "Is this a prison?"

The girl's mouth turned into a deep frown, and she pinched her eyebrows together as she shook her head, looking down to the floor. Vel swallowed thickly. The poor girl was obviously traumatised--she recognised the signs. But she couldn't help, not with two sets of thick cell bars and a corridor between then. She doubted she could even reach across the corridor... And even then, how could she help? She didn't know how to heal the mind, not like she did the body. The mind entirely different type of place to heal. Physical injuries were easy. Mental ones? Not so much...

"I wish it was," she said, barely audible.

Vel could see Runi swallow out of the corner of her eye, like she was preparing to ask the question the girl didn't seem to want to answer. But before she could put it into words, the girl continued.

"This is... a gladiator ring," the girl said. "We're being pitted against one another. And if we don't cooperate..."

She withdrew a little from the light, her arms wrapping around herself. Vel went very, very still. A gladiator ring? She'd head of those before, and none of the stories were particularly good. They were in trouble... A lot of trouble.

"I'm sorry," she whispered. "You're going to have to fight eventually. It's easier that way. It's better if you don't refuse."

A heavy silence filled the space between the cells as Runi leaned back, and the reality of their situation sunk in. Vel was reeling. As a harpy, she knew how to fight... She just prefered not to. She'd rather heal than hurt....but... But if she had to defend herself...then she would. Vel wasn't going to let this place destroy her.

"We'll escape," Runi whispered, only loud enough for Vel to hear. Vel leaned towards her, swallowing thickly again. "We'll find the others, and we'll figure out a way to--"

But her voice dropped when a heavy creak of metal cut through, and a steady streak of light broke through the hall. Vel tensed, reaching for Runi's hand. A door was opened, and they could hear the clamor of a large group of footfalls echoing off the stone walls. Soon, three soldiers came into view, closely resembling the ones they'd seen camping out by North Point - before it had been razed to the ground. They were dressed in heavy black leather armor, and they wore masks that obscured everything but their eyes. Vel eyed them warily, quickly releasing Runi's hand before they saw them holding hands.

The man leading the group approached their cell, his eyes locked on Velalis.

"Harpy," he barked. "To your feet."

Runi was the one who stood up. Vel refused to move. Not yet, she thought. Not yet. She wanted to see what would happen, what they'd do if they refused.

"Mage, you will stay put," the man said steadily.

"I'm not staying anywhere," Runi snapped, curling her fingers into fists at her sides. "What do you want with--"

"Sedate her," the man said to one of the soldiers behind him.

"Wh--" was all Runi got out as Vel watched the woman slip down her mask and lift a small straw-like object to her lips. She blew, and a dart shot out, hitting Runi in the chest. Runi blubbered for a moment, grabbing for the dart to pull it out, but already, as she yanked at it, her movements started to slow, and she stumbled backward.

"Vel..." she murmured, and then she fell on her back with a thud.

Well, Vel thought darkly, I guess that answers that question...

The man who'd made the order then reached down to the barred door with a key, jangling it into the lock. Vel kept her gaze steady as she watched him as he hesitated before the cell door, key in hand.

"Want to put up a fight like your friend, or do you want to do this the easy way, bird?" the man asked. Though his mouth was masked, Vel could hear the smirk on his lips. She decided not to acknowledge the insulting slur.

Her gaze narrowed. "Depends on what you want."

"Well, lucky for you, we want something you want as well," he explained, his voice sickly sweet. "We want to get you healed. Are you going to fight us on that?"

She raised one eyebrow. "Oh, I see how it is." Slowly, she climbed to her feet, stretching out the unrestained wing and her arms up over her head. "If you insist." She gestured towards the cell door. "Lead the way."

The door unlocked with a clunk, and it scraped across the dirt floor, carving a small arc as he pushed it open. He backed up, gesturing with a wave of his hand for her to follow.

"Come along, harpy," he said.

Vel slowly stepped out into the hall, casting a look back at Runi. "What did you hit her with?"

"Nothing you need to be concerned about as long as you cooperate," the man answered as he came around behind her, and another soldier started to lead the way down the hall.

She flared her wing out a little on purpose, scowling. Vel did not like having him at her back. "Fine. I'll behave," she said. For now.

"Good. Now shut up," the guard said sharply, and at that, she felt a jab of something cold and metal in her wing. Vel snapped it shut, throwing a glare over her shoulder. But she kept her mouth shut. She'd see where they were going eventually. No need to antagonise the bastards.

The walk took them out of the hall, and through a very thick, very heavy metal door. It must've been the one she heard screeching open earlier. Once they passed through, the soldier behind her bolted it shut with a thick bar across the door.

The hall split three ways, and she was led to the right, passing a few closed doors before they came to another heavy metal door. There was a small pause as it was unbolted and pushed open, and instead of being led into another corridor, Vel was led into a large room. Immediately, she knew what it was.

A healer's hall.

Vel glanced about the room, noting the handful of people bustling about, healing other prisoners or preparing the tools and various other objects or salves they'd need. She sent the men behind her an unreadable look, trying not to give too much away--and wasn't sure if she succeeded or not. It didn't matter. They were planning to heal her wing. That was good...but if the healers were all as exhausted as they looked... She was not going to like it.

At their arrival, a healer walked up to them. She had warm brown skin and long, pitch black hair. Her big, tired eyes jumped between the soldiers to Vel, alert and expectant. Vel saw her eyes jump to Vel's wing, quickly doing the math. The woman flashed a smile, but Vel could see that it was forced, and didn't meet her eyes. Vel tried to offer her a reassuring smile back, but it was small and awkward.

"We'll take care of her, Captain Rain," she said. "She'll be safe here with us."

Captain Rain. Now she had a name for their apparent captor.

"I'm counting on it," the captain said. The man who answered was the only one who'd spoken with her. The other soldiers stayed silent.

The woman nodded, reaching out to Vel's shoulder to pull her away as the soldiers receded, turning to leave. Vel went, straining to hear if they spoke about anything as they were leave... But the just door closed behind them heavily, leaving her alone with the woman. Said woman watched the door for a moment, as if to let the air settle. Then she turned to Vel, and her posture seemed to relax a little, some of the tension visibly leaving her shoulders.

"Did you just get here?" she asked softly.

"Yes," Vel said, carefully. "I'm Velalis. You?"

"Anna," she said.

Her eyes flicked back into the hall, like she was calculating something. Then she looked back to Vel, her expression more severe.

"Your wing looks fractured. How long has it been broken?" she asked.

Vel eyed her for a moment and then her gaze darted away. "Six months... I think?" She shrugged. "There was an avalanche... We got trapped...and, well." She gestured to the room. "Now I'm here."

"Avalanche," Anna echoed. "So you were at the North Point, then? In the mountains?"

She tensed, swallowing. Then she nodded. "Yes, I suppose I was."

Anna's head bobbed slowly.

"Well, let's get that wing looked at, hm?" she asked.

"Please," Vel said and moved to sit on the nearest empty bed. "A...friend had been trying to heal it...but, well. They're not very strong and it's just been taking too long..." She hesitated, starting to unbuckle all the straps in the front that were resting against her shoulder. "That, and the leather has been rubbing a little."

Anna came around the front of the bed, reaching over to help. She waved her hand to a healer nearby, and they seemed to gather others, bringing them around. It wasn't long before it turned into a small crowd.

"Are you a healer yourself?" Anna asked, pulling a strap away. "I know most harpies who assist at guilds are healers."

Vel eyed the room before leaning towards Anna slightly and lowering her voice. "I am, but don't tell them that or I'll just end up in here with you," she said quietly, stretching out her other wing so some of the buckles on her back would be easier to get to. "And then I'd be stuck and I'd leave again."

The other healers came around Vel from behind, gently and carefully getting to the buckles to loose them.

Anna, however, paused and looked up, intently meeting Vel's eyes.

"I won't tell them," she said severely. "But I don't know if your fates will be any better outside of the healing hall."

She glanced at some of the beds behind her, where there were a few wounded men and women being tended to, or resting. Now that Vel was taking a closer look, several of their wounds looked very severe.

"It's here, or you're likely to end up like one of them," Anna said quietly. "I don't think either fate is desireable. But at least, in here, you don't have to fight any of your own kind."

She bit her lip, glancing away again. "You're all exhausted," Vel said instead of saying anything else. "Do they make you heal all the time like this? Every day?"

Anna's eyes dropped down, sober, and weary.

"I'd rather be doing this," she said, not quite answering. "At least I'm healing people instead of hurting them."

"Fair point," she muttered, rolling her shoulder as the leather finally fell away. "I don't plan on staying very long."

Anna glanced back up, then looked behind Vel, over her shoulders, presumably at the others.

"I know you're new here," she said slowly. "But I wouldn't get your hopes up. They haven't made it easy to..."

Anna stopped, shaking her head as she looked away. Instead of finishing her thought, she reached under the bed, pulling out a med kit, along with a small bucket of water. She set it on the end of the bed.

"Nevermind," she said, looking to the healers around the bed. "Wash your hands. Velalis, this might take a while."

Vel just watched her, then nodded. "I'm aware. Take your time. If you need to rest, please rest." She smiled weakly. "I'll be fine. So take as many breaks as you need."

Anna flashed an even smaller smile in return, but there was a deep, lingering sadness in her eyes.

"You just worry about yourself, Velalis," she said softly, patting Vel's arm. "We'll do our job."

At that, she reached into the bucket and started to wash her hands, scrubbing them quickly before patting them dry.

"We'll be right behind you," she said to Vel as she went around the bed, gathering with the other healers.

There was a small pause before she felt a hand gingerly touch her wing, right where it met her back, at the heart of the fracture. Vel tensed up, trying not to grimace at the sharp spike of pain that jolted down her wing and into her back. She knew it was going to hurt to be touched and should have been expecting... It just hadn't been moved in way too long. Three more hands joined it, all touching around the base of her wing, and there was another pause, this one filled with anticipation.

Then, the heat. A piercing warmth spread through her back, and down her wing, simultaneously soothing and like needles pricking every nerve. There was a deep ache, like all of her muscles were readjusting, reshaping, and reforming around the bones being mended. And then, the pain subsided, being replaced by a comforting, lingering warmth.

The process took a few minutes, and though it felt like they'd dragged on, once it was over, the relief was instantaneous.

The hands on her back quickly fell away, and it was at that moment she noticed other healers in the room rushing to her side -- or, she thought they were rushing to her, until they hurried past her. Vel stood and turned, wings flaring out, only to find almost all of the healers that had helped her passed out or on their way to it. She frowned, wanting to help but not sure how. You couldn't exactly heal magical exhaustion... Oh. Her wing was fully healed, too.

She focused on Anna, who looked on the verge of passing out. Vel moved to grab her arm, gently guiding her over to sit down on the bed she'd just been sitting on. "Thank you," she said softly, making sure Anna was steady before letting go. She hovered, though. "Are you alright now?"

Anna took in a heavy breath, watching as the other unconscious healers were carried off, taken to lie on nearby beds.

"I'll be fine," she said breathily, leaning to the side, looking like she was about to lose balance. Vel made an abortive little move towards her, wanting to keep her upright.

"Are you sure?"

"We do this every day," Anna said lowly. "I just need to lie down for a little while."

Vel nodded and helped her to lay down, glancing about the room. "And you...just heal everyone? No matter how injured they are?"

Anna let out a faint groan as Vel laid her head down on the bed.

"We heal as much as they order us to," she said. "Sometimes... sometimes more."

"...don't some of you...die," she said softly, glancing at one particular healer at the far end of the room who hadn't moved since she'd entered, "by doing this?"

Vel watched as Anna's exhausted face pinned tighter around her nose, and her eyes narrowed until they closed, like she was pushing back the pain. Whether the pain was physical or emotional or both, she couldn't fully tell.

"Well," Anna said with a weak laugh. "Maybe it's just as bad here than it is in the ring, isn't it?"

Vel gave her tight smile. "Maybe."

"Just be careful out there," Anna said, reaching out her hand and laying it over Vel's. "They're going to want you to perform, because to them... you're a novelty."

Anna's eyes drifted to Vel's wings for a moment. Vel immediately understood. She was a harpy, and harpies were apparently rare here, wherever they were. Right. Yet another thing stacked against them.

"Don't come back here half-dead on me, okay?" Anna asked.

"Can't make any promises," Vel told her, gently brushing hair out of Anna's face. "But I'll try to avoid it...if I can..." She sighed. "Rest, Anna. Hopefully I don't see you anytime soon."

Vel looked up, glancing over the room before straightening up and stretching both wings out to their full width. Gods, it was good to be able to move both her wings again. And she couldn't feel the soreness from the leather straps either. That was good, but she doubted it would stay that way for long.

When she retracted her wings again, she saw a tall, dark skinned man had been standing behind one of them. He was watching her curiously, but he had the same mark of exhaustion that all of the healers in the room seemed to have. Once she met his eyes he gave her a small nod.

"Velalis, right?" he asked. "I'm Kafni. I was ordered to lead you back out once you've fully recovered."

She nodded to him. "Right. Then I guess it's time to go back to my cell, hm?"

Kafni pressed his lips together and nodded.

"It is," he said soberly, his eyes filled with a weary fear and anticipation as the next words left his mouth. "I hope I can tell them that you don't need your wings bound, yes?"

Vel snorted. "I doubt they'd believe you." She shrugged. "Inside, it doesn't matter." She was digging for information and she wasn't afraid to admit that to herself. "But I imagine that they won't want my wings unbound in the ring...especially if it's not enclosed."

Kafni pressed his lips together in a line again.

"I'm afraid that your wings will likely be a part of the show. The ring is enclosed," he said slowly. "But I'll tell them you'll cooperate."

He met her eyes, searching for confirmation. She just sighed.

"It's the colouring, isn't it?" She knew she sounded weary. Couldn't help it, really. Everyone was obsessed with her wings. "I don't know why they find it so... I don't know. Special?" She shrugged. "I'll behave."

Kafni looked relieved. Vel knew she'd probably not behave for long, but she did need information. So she'd play along until she no longer needed to.

"Come with me, then," he said, bowing his head and turning to the door. She followed behind, and Kafni knocked on the metal door five times. Vel noticed that it was bolted from the outside, and she could hear the screech of metal before it open outwards, and then the three guards were there again.

Captain Rain stepped forward.

"She's fully healed?" he asked Kafni.

"Good as new," Kafni replied stiffly.

"Good. Come along, then, harpy," Rain ordered, backing away from the door so she could step out.

Vel was tempted to sass him, to tell him she had a name, but she kept her mouth shut instead. She had a feeling that if she said anything, she'd probably end up right back in the healing hall. And she didn't want to break her unspoken promise to Anna within minutes of leaving.

So she let herself be led back the way they'd come.

When she was locked back up in her cell, Runi looked like she was only just beginning to stir. The entire excursion had taken at least an hour. She hadn't moved from where they'd left her on the cold dirt floor.

"Who... where..." Runi started to mumble as she rolled onto her side, scrunching her shoulders up with a pained expression. Vel knelt beside her, wings flared so anyone in the hall wouldn't see much.

"Runi," she said quietly, helping her friend sit up. "It's just me. I'm back."

"What happened?" Runi muttered, squinting her eyes up at her. "Are you--"

Then her eyes shot open wide.

"Your wings!"

"They took me to see their healers," Vel told her, shifting to sit cross-legged on the floor. "Healed me... This place is barbaric, Runi."

Runi sat up straight, stretching out her back, but her face pinched up in pain. She lifted a hand to her chest where the dart once was.

"We have to get out of here," Runi whispered, meeting Vel's eyes.

Val nodded. "I know....but this is going to be...difficult, Runi..."

Runi drew her eyebrows together.

"Did you see any of the others yet?" she asked softly. "Ani? Or Thea? Han?"

She shook her head. "Sorry, no. I haven't seen anyone yet."

Runi went quiet for a moment, and she looked down, her expression set and focused. Then she let out a low, bitter laugh. It seemed unlike her, and it was a little unsettling.

"I bet you weren't expecting to sign up for any of this when you came to our guild to teach, huh?" Runi asked.

Vel snorted and folded her wings in, then sighed. "Definitely not what I was expecting at all." She laughed, a little humourlessly. "Kind of wish I'd flown off before that damn avalance happened... Might've avoided this entire situation if I had..."

Runi nodded, sighing along with her.

"Yeah," she said quietly. "I guess you could've."
"With friends like you, who needs a medical license?" - Paimon, Aether's Heart

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” - Grace Hopper.

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Chaser says...

Elani Ellonhav
cowritten with @soundofmind

Soil. Elani had grown up relying on the earth, working the ground until it sprouted the harvest, her house, her family. Earth was everywhere and everything they knew, and she'd spend hours growing up debating with Igni about it. "Earth's better," she'd say, tracking mud through the kitchen while she stamped about. "Earth! Is! Better!"

"But the plants need air to breathe," Igni would reply, which he'd learned from a book that Ani couldn't read yet, even though they were the same age. "And so do we." He smiled smugly and folded his arms, though he was standing on top of a chair to avoid Ani's mud trail, with which she slowly encircled his safe haven. She trapped him inside her mud wall and wouldn't let him out until he admitted earth was better. Then of course, their parents would walk in and Ani would get in trouble anyway, so it was a draw. Ani felt the earth solidifying beneath her memory, cradling her head as pain began to ebb at the base of her neck.

Dirt. Her eyes flew open, and she pushed herself immediately up, her hand pressed flat on the dirt floor. Immediately, something felt wrong. She lifted her hand up and examined it, trying to figure out this feeling of absence, like a numbness in the tips of the tips of her fingers.

"Our magic's gone."

Ani's head swiveled, and as her eyes adjusted to her surroundings, she was able to recognize the mortared stone walls of the room. One of the walls was iron bars, though, and looked out into a hallway with an identical room opposite them. A cell, then. Closer to the bars was Thea, sitting with her peg leg stretched out on the floor. She was hugging the other leg to her chest. "They did something to us, and it's gone."

Ani felt like her chest was blowing open. Thea was breathing shakily, as though the air itself was unfamiliar to her now. Ani looked at her hand again and slowly clenched it into a fist. "'They,' as 'n the mage 'unters, yea?"

"Yeah." Thea was silent for a moment. "You should wake Han up now, we can talk about what to do next."

"'An's 'ere?" Ani asked, and scoured the cell once more. He was wrapped up in his cloak so that she'd missed him before, but Han was folded over himself in the corner, made scarce against the enclosing walls.

Ani stood up shakily and walked over to Han. She was unsure what she'd say to him. Her head turned with little jokes like dice rattling, trying to distract herself or Han from the terror of the situation so that they could survive. By the sound of it, Thea had already been up for a while, sitting just like that and watching, thinking.

Han's eyes flew open when she touched his shoulder, and the survival expert quickly scanned the room as he sat up. "Um, mornin'," Ani said, putting on a slight smile. "I...built us a house?"

Han stared at her for a second, and Ani felt a chill run down her neck, so she rubbed it guiltily. "Alright, we've been taken prisoner, and we dunno where the others are. But Thea's 'ere, and between the three of us there's plenty of knowhow to break out! Also, they took our magic."

Han's eyes widened. "Our magic? How's that possible?"

"Jay was talking about it before," Thea said. "Some poison they gave you to keep you from using it."

Ani chuckled nervously. "Would that be permanent, d'ya think?"

Thea shook her head helplessly. "I don't know."

They were silent for a moment, as an emptiness began to settle upon each of them. For Ani, it felt like the fine layer of dirt on her clothes had been shredded like a cobweb, becoming lifeless and inorganic. Even the dirt around the bars of their cell was suddenly insurmountable, inaccessible and cold as steel.

"The guards' rounds are pretty regular here," Thea said eventually. "They passed once or twice while you were out."

Han nodded. "Was Jay one of them?"

Ani said Thea's body harden and freeze. "No."

Han nodded again, this time blowing out a long breath. "Well, you were right about him," he said, glancing at Ani. "Guess we shouldn't have trusted him from the start."

Ani felt her throat clog up. "I didn't--" Tears welled up as she looked back and forth between Han and Thea. I didn't want this. But then again, none of them did.

Ani sat down in the middle of the cell, feeling the earth spread all around her. She was apart from it now, and her whole world felt alien to the touch. Suddenly above her, there was a hissing of air, and then noise and shafts of barred light were flooding down on her.

The roar of a crowd was something that Ani had not heard in a long time, but now it was all around them, as she squinted up into the harsh light. It filtered in through a barred window at the top of their cell, and if she leaned far enough, she could make out some sort of building with people seated beneath it in rows.

"Where are we?" Han asked, mystified.

"Time to find out," Ani said, and coughed, blushing. "Um, please boost me up."

Han blinked. "Sorry?"

"Boost me up!" Ani repeated, pointing towards the ceiling window. "Thea, you too."

"Right." Thea looked a little more amused at this, having done it a few times before. She and Han crouched down and interlocked their fingers to make a cradle for each of Ani's feet. Ani took a second to fight her mortification before she stepped on and was hurled towards the ceiling like a tiny missile. She grabbed tight to the bars and pulled the rest of her body up until she could get an arm around one. She pulled her face as close to the bars as she could and peered out, trying to make sense of the overwhelming world around them.

Heat. The air was so full of heat, of noise, of people. They were enclosed by a cave ceiling that stretched far above, with crystals pouring harsh white light upon them. The people sat in rows upon stone chairs like an amphitheater. They were shouting, smiling and throwing rocks that clattered near the window. She had to squint to make it out, but their clothes -- they were like the mage hunters in the mountains, right?

So it was them. Despair sunk in her heart. And if it was them, it was him. She wondered if Jay had come to see them himself. If she looked to her left, she could barely see the tops of other cages going in an arc. They were forming a circle around something, what was it?

"And now, for our first combat of the day!" the voice seemed to boom from the sky itself, startling Ani so much she nearly lost her grip. As her legs flailed beneath her, she vaguely heard Thea asking if she was okay, but it was impossible to make it out clearly beneath the waves of sound cascading across the amphitheater. When she looked up, she could see the source of the noise; a huge wooden horn that loomed down from a box set in the stands, into which a man was shouting rapidly.

"In the blue corner, our newest up-and-comer and a favorite to sweep the exhibition bracket! The Green Flame of the East, Peridor!"

Across the ring, Ani saw an iron gate shudder as ropes and wheels cranked it into the air. A large, muscled man stepped out, naked from the waist up except for a huge collar around his neck that seemed to muzzle him in steel. He staggered forward, heavy with pain and palpable rage. Ani could feel the temperature rising still.

"And in the red corner, a new face and magic! Well, I certainly hope we get to see their magic before Peridor gets to them! Introducing the Violet Light!"

Ani heard the ropes and wheels again, but from much closer to her. She craned her neck as the gate rose beside her, until she could pick out the top of the combatant's head. It was slick, violet hair.

Suddenly, a spearhead jabbed into her arm, and Ani yelped, slipping from the metal bars. For a brief moment air was all around her, the unfriendly earth waiting below. Then Thea was there, breaking her fall with Han as they all toppled to the floor.

Thea sat up first. "Ani, are you okay?"

"Are you okay, Ani?" Han said too.

Ani shook her head. "It's Runi," she said. "They're making 'er fight."
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

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Mageheart says...

Darunia Vain

There was a fire burning in Runi’s chest.

There was a fire burning in Runi’s chest, and she wasn’t sure what to do with it. The fog that had settled in her brain after being hit with that dart was finally fading. It had been clinging to her even after it should have gone away. Maybe it had gone away, and the reason why everything just felt so distant was because her brain hadn’t fully caught up with everything yet.

Vel’s okay, Runi thought. Vel was okay. If she thought hard enough, she could focus on that instead of the cheers of the arena she was in. If not that, she could focus on knowing that Vel was alive and alright instead of how her stomach wasn’t flipping and flopping like it was supposed to be right now. It should have been. Everyone assumed that those who performed didn’t get butterflies in their stomachs before a big show, but Runi always got them. She was just good at ignoring them at this point. She had been performing for so long that she had more good performing experiences than the bad. And technically this wasn’t a normal kind of performance for her—fighting hadn’t ever really been her thing—but it was still a performance. She hadn’t ever been in front of a crowd this big. She should have been feeling nervous.

But she wasn’t.

She didn’t feel anything except that little ember in her chest right now, and it should have scared her but didn’t.

She didn’t hear her opponent’s name. She didn’t hear what they called her. Part of her wondered how long her opponent had been here, and how long she would be here. The other part of her didn’t really care. The man in front of her looked strong and angry. Runi, who was far from small and far from weak, still was wary.

Or should have been wary.

The man lunged for her. The crowd cheered. She ducked out of the way and took a step back. Some of the crowd cheered, and some of them booed. There’s people watching me, Runi realized, and she had already technically known that. But the sounds of their excitement and disappointment made it click that they were watching this battle for fun. If Runi was here against her will, she was sure her opponent was, too. And these people were enjoying it.

The flame in Runi’s chest burned a little brighter.

She looked at her opponent again. He was big, and muscular, and mostly naked. He seemed angry with every swing of the ax he was holding in his hands. Runi was holding a weapon, too. A sword, its weight unfamiliar and nothing like the comforting, smooth wood of her lute. She had picked it up before the start of the fight, but she didn’t really know what to do with it. She was more concerned with dodging his attacks for now. The crowd kept booing as she did. They didn’t like that she wasn’t putting up a fight.

Runi was far from small. She was far from weak. Her parents’ genes had blessed her with height and strength when she got older, but she didn’t have that years ago. And in a fight like this, where she was completely out of her element and unsure if she could even use her magic element, it was the memories from years ago that guided her actions.

The memories from when she was a lanky-limbed fifteen year old, with just a change of clothes and an old flute on her back. She had snuck out before then, but hadn’t ever truly left. She hadn’t ever truly traveled. She hadn’t fought anyone other than village bullies, and that had always been more about the running away than the actual fight.

But when you spend five years traveling on the road all by yourself, you learn things. You learn how to fight without your magic when you have to, because sometimes you wake up in the middle of the night to people trying to steal from your camp and you’re too groggy to really think about tapping into your magic. Sometimes you get into fights, and even though your magic would be very nice to use at the moment, your magic is more about avoiding the fight than being right inside of it. You learn to trust yourself, and only yourself, and you never let yourself forget it.

Runi had almost forgotten. She had almost forgotten what it was like to not let people in, and had almost forgotten what it was like to trust someone and have them throw that trust away the first chance they got. It had made her sad, all of those years ago, but the thought of it now just kept that flame burning in her chest-

Her opponent lunged at her again.

She sidestepped in preparation of an ax swing, but the swing never came. His hand shot out and grabbed her by the ponytail. He jerked her back. It hurt. He moved his ax in like he was going to swing at her neck. The crowd started to cheer. Was he going to kill her? Was that allowed here? Runi didn’t know, but she finally realized she had been feeling something after all.

She was feeling hot, bright anger.

And she was going to cling to that anger like it was a lifeline.

She raised her sword up before the ax could make contact. With a swift, powerful strike, she cut her ponytail off. Violet hair fell to the ground as she slipped right out from the man’s grasp.

He swung at her with the ax again. This time Runi didn’t dodge. She raised her sword with one hand on the hilt and the other on the flat side of the blade, and pushed back when he tried to somehow force his ax through the sword. She swept a foot out to knock him off balance, but he readjusted his stance before she could make contact. She pushed harder against the ax.

He was stronger. Runi kept holding up her sword, but he was pushing her farther and farther back. There was something warm behind her now. Runi suddenly remembered that her opponent had been called the Green Flame during his introduction.

Oh sh-

The fire lunged for her. Her opponent lunged for her. She was caught between the two, and she wasn't sure which one she'd want to take a hit from. The fire would burn her skin, but if the blade hit her with the amount of force he had been using in his attacks so far...

So Runi did the first thing she could think of.

She tapped into her own magic.

There was a bright, brilliant flash of light. The crowd gasped. Runi's eyes had turned back to their usual gold when she opened them; she wasn't stupid enough to keep them open when doing something so blinding. Her opponent recoiled from the brightness, and so did his flames. He couldn't concentrate on controlling them right now. Runi swung her sword. Her opponent couldn't see the sword swing, but he still tried blindly swinging his axe.

Metal met metal. Runi's sword gave first, breaking right in half.

But Runi didn't let that stop her. She threw her broken weapon to the side. She ducked with another bright flash of light. With a kick to his closest leg, she knocked him right off of his feet onto the hard, dirt floor. She grabbed the axe's handle and tugged. He tried tugging back, but he hadn't expected her to go for the axe. She was able to pull it free.

She threw it away from them.

The crowd booed. Runi didn't care.

They were still too close to the torch for comfort. She curled her fingers into a fist and swung it at him with another burst of light. In the back of her mind, she was vaguely aware that he probably hadn't recovered with the last one. Her punch landed. Her next one did, too. She swung and she swung and she swung, and the crowd cheered with every single hit. And suddenly she wasn't fighting the Green Flame. She was fighting the relatives that had discarded her like an instrument that could no longer play. She was fighting the flames that had consumed her guild, and the ones that had set the flames in the first place.

And she was fighting Jay, who must have betrayed them again.

Why had she ever let herself trust someone so new about something so important? Why had she forgotten what had kept her alive for years before she decided the guild was her home?

...Her opponent wasn't fighting back anymore.

She looked down at the Green Flame, his face all bloodied and beaten, and she realized the battle was already won. She pulled her hand back. She unsteadily got to her feet. The crowd cheered, but Runi's anger was gone now.

She just felt hollow.

[ she/her, but it's a loose relationship at best ]

roleplaying is my platonic love language.

queer and here.

Magebird --> Mageheart

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Chaser says...


Han's eyes went wide. "That person they just announced -- that's Runi?"

Ani nodded. "She's fightin' that Peridor Somethingflame, nasty lookin' fella. We gotta get her out, Thea!"

Thea had pressed her thumbnail between her teeth, brow furrowed. "Wait, they said that they wanted to see what kind of magic Runi had. Does that mean they didn't take it away?"

"Maybe whatever suppressed our magic isn't that strong," Han suggested. "Or the effect decreases over time."

Thea sighed in relief, a sob-like sound. "Alright. Then that means our powers aren't gone."

"Aye, but when they come back, we'll be tossed in that arena with the rest of 'em," Ani said, tossing a hand up in frustration.

Thea began to shift her weight from foot to peg, pondering. "When that happens, we have to be ready."

Just then, the sound of crackling fire blistered the air, and the crowd's roar intensified. Ani looked up through the grate. Runi's light magic was handy for getting the jump on others, but in a one-on-one fight? She just hoped that it wasn't a fight to the death.

Ani looked from Thea to Hans and back again. "Is Runi goin' ta be okay, you think?"

Thea exhaled again, this one a bit more stable. "Runi might not be the most experienced, but her magic is fairly unpredictable. I doubt her opponent has seen anything like it before. Plus, she's tougher than she acts."

"We've all had to be tougher," Hans added. "And we've all survived so far." Even so, Ani could hear the doubt in his voice.

"Right," Ani said. "We're all 'ere--" Her mind froze and went stark white. "Where's Meanie-mo?"

A squeak came from the door of the cell, and Ani's head swiveled to find Meanie-mo poking his body through the bars. She tumbled to her hands and knees and raced towards him, scooping him up against her face and holding him there. "Oh precious," she cooed. "I could nay 'ave borne to lose ye too."

Meanie-mo chirped and nuzzled her cheek. Suddenly, he vanished down her sleeve as a shadow loomed over Ani. "Back from the door," a guard snarled, kicking at her face.

Ani scampered back, keeping the arm with Meanie-mo close at her side. Four guards had come, three of them with crossbows trained on the prisoners. The fourth guard held a key, which seemed extend from an iron ring of them. "You, the short one," they said. "You're to be prepared."

Ani glanced at Thea and Han, silently guessing their height. "Ah, wait, that's me," she realized aloud, climbing to her feet. The guard jangled the key in the door and pushed it open, indicating for Ani to come with her.

Ani swallowed her spit and walked forward, letting the guard guide her out of the cell. "Don't try anything," they murmured, gripping their shoulder with one hand. Once the door was shut again, they nodded to the other guards, who took aim. Ani raised a hand. "Wait--"

The darts loosed from their crossbows, embedding themselves in Han’s leg and Thea's shoulder. Han collapsed right away, falling to his knees in a vain attempt to catch himself from the floor. Thea stumbled back against the wall, eyes connecting with Ani's just before they fluttered shut.

Ani ripped the hand from her shoulder and grabbed the key guard's arms, shoving them against the wall. "Why?" she yelled. "Why did ye shoot them!" Spittle flew from her mouth, white hot from the heat in her skull.

A cudgel connected with the back of her head, causing her to stagger and loosen her grip. Ani watched her vision of the key guard split in two as they sneered, "They'll live, don't you worry. The only way you'll die here is entertaining the rest of us."

Ani felt something wet land below her eye. The guard had spit on her. They were-- they were--

They were leading her somewhere. Her head was drooped down, mouth hanging open. The floor was grey and stone, but the walls were shiny. Metal. Scarlet pounding in her head. Hurt so much. Rustling in her shirt -- Meanie-mo. He was safe with her. No, he wasn't safe with her, because she wasn't safe. Someone who wasn't safe couldn't -- couldn't save--

She was being shoved forward, a door was open, she was falling down. The floor here was metal, she felt it with her face as the room spun around her. It felt like her brain had been pulled out of her head and was floating, like a balloon, six feet above her. She felt the back of her head. It was wet, still in one shape though. That was good.

Meanie-mo wiggled out of her sleeve and tapped her nose with his foot. Ani grasped her head, trying to make full sentences. "Ye've got to get out of 'ere, Meanie. Find Vel, find someone else, just go."

She lifted her head and squinted at the other door in her cell, one that led to a long corridor with sunlight at the end. "I think I know what's about to 'appen to me," Ani told Meanie-mo grimly.

Meanie-mo seemed to understand, scampering to the wall and out the door. Luckily, none of the guards seemed to have noticed him slip away. One of them was still talking. The key guard -- the head guard? Her head hurt, a lot.

She could barely hear what was going on anymore. The crowd's noise swelled in the distance, but it all seemed so far away. Like whistles in the wind, everywhere and nowhere at all.

"See, I've got it!" Igni said proudly, ruffling his Guild robes.

"See?" Ani scoffed. "There's nothin' ta 'see,' it's wind. A light breeze."

Igni folded his arms and stuck out his tongue. "It's more 'n the pebbles ye've been makin'."

"What's that?" Ani said, shaping a tiny stone from the floor. "Take this, ye twerp." She pelted him with a series of pebbles, Igni laughing as they bounced off of his arm.

"Alright, I give, I give," he said, lying back. They were sitting on the floor of their shared room at the Guild; Igni would move out once they finished building his. The earth mages at North Point were in charge of construction, which gave Ani extra incentive to learn as quickly as possible so that Igni would leave her room for once.

"'Ow do ye think Mom's doing without us?" he asked.

"She'll be alright," Ani said, tracing a finger along the pockets she'd made in the floor. "Farm work won't be too tough. The new workers are all good folk, we made sure o' that ourselves."

Igni nodded. "I guess."

"Plus, that Lethus fella wants to make a good impression with ye. Think 'e'll be missing ye just as much."

Igni blushed and turned away. "Shut up."

Ani chuckled. "We'll learn our magic here, and Mom will be alright. Then, once we're magic masters, we'll be twice as alright as alright already was!"

In the end, they had rarely had time to visit their mother, who still wrote often. But once their mother had died too, they had no reasons to visit the farm. They passed it to Lethus and left for the Guild, becoming magic masters. With Mom gone, it wasn't alright, but they could try to make it again as alright as alright was. With Igni gone, Ani wasn't sure alright was anywhere in sight.

Ani's fist tightened against the metal floor, the thoughts shuttling back into her head and jumbling around. The guard was still speaking.

"Now get up, mage," they said. "Your magic's coming back, good for you."

Ani slowly got to her feet, glaring at the key guard, who laughed. "Don't worry, it's only a temporary gift," they said, as the other guards brandished crossbows. "Can't have you magic scum running wild now, can we?"

Suddenly, the announcer's voice boomed from outside, his words distorted by the distance and seeming to echo in the walls. The door facing the dark corridor slowly lowered, revealing the gears in the walls that made it work. Ani could see no stone to work with, no raw material. It was hard to explain, but she felt hungry for the earth now. It was a lifeline, a feeling of invincibility that Igni had never understood. And in that arena, earth awaited.

"That's your cue," said the guard. "Die well, and we might remember you."

Ani grit her teeth and cocked her head. "I'll think I'll live to forget ye instead." Not waiting to see how the guard reacted, she turned and walked down the tunnel.

The crowd's cheering grew until it didn't seem like it was coming from humans anymore, like she was walking into the bright, groaning maw of a beast. Ani emerged into the sunlight as the announcer called out once more.

"And now, the fighter you've all been waiting for! Reigning Champion of the arena, undefeated for all forty-three matches, the Lightning Walker! Ka! Zi! Mir!"

From the other side of the ring, a man emerged, led by a hand that waved toward the crowd. He wore a light, careless smile on a grizzled jaw, and his outfit consisted of leather armor worn tight over regular clothes. When his eyes met Ani's, she could have sworn that they cooled somewhat, as though he were searching her for something.

Now that she was properly inside the arena, she could see the way it was set up for magicians to fight evenly. A small trench of water encompassed the circular arena, the arena itself made of dirt that surged with life when she stepped onto it. Around the edges as well were bronze braziers that let off thin wisps of smoke in the daylight. They burned harsh enough that the heat distorted the air above them, making the audience seem otherworldly.

"Let's hope Kazimir doesn't end this too quickly!" the announcer said in a joking tone. "Now, begin!"

The crowd erupted in cheering as Kazimir began to walk forward, hands forming odd shapes as they swung. Sparks shot up from where his feet hit the ground, and he began to pick up the pace. Ani had never seen lightning magic in use, but she didn't need to understand it to beat it. Stone was solid no matter where it was struck from. So she walked forward as well, pulling a mounded line of dirt behind her. It grew like a wave as she broke into a run, and she and Kazimir were flying at each other, as her earth crashed like the tide upon his lightning.

"Earth is the most generous element," Master Lynn had told Ani once, as she shaped the doorway to Igni's newly built room. "Abundant, nourishing, trustworthy."

"I understand," said Ani, who remembered her years on the farm.

Master Lynn had turned to facing her with a knowing look. "But if we take too much from the earth, it will crumble through our hands like sand. Earth is generous, but we cannot be greedy."

"I understand," said Ani, who did not understand.

She'd become a fine earth mage regardless, and as she stepped into Kazimir's body angle, she drew the earth around her like a cape and spun, lashing at the taller man's jaw.

He thrust his head back, and the edge of stone sawed the air in front of his neck. As Ani completed her spin and looked up, he was lifting a leg into the air, thrusting his body weight back forward as he swung it down.

Ani barely had time to lift her arms before Kazimir's axe kick collapsed onto them, burning at the point of impact with white-hot light. She yelped and ducked into the ground, scooping it away so she could sink in, plunging into darkness.

Ani warped the earth to shuttle her along in the dark. Can't fight 'im close, she thought for a second. Well, 'urlin' rocks is my fav'rite fightin' anyway.

She shot up from the earth at the edge of the arena, immediately looking to see where Kazimir was. He was faced away from her, fist raised to the crowd. When they saw Ani pop up though, a gasp had shot through the audience that made Kazimir turn around. Was that relief in his smile? Or maybe just arrogance. Either way, Ani was going to throw a rock at it.

She grasped at the earth, quickly pulling two boulder-sized chunks of earth from the ring. She lobbed the first one in a giant arc, so that when Kazimir looked up, it blocked out the sun.

The eclipsing earth smashed down as Kazimir jumped out of the way, the debris shattering harmlessly. But now he was in the air. Ani smiled as the second boulder dissolved into fist-sized chunks. They began to whirl in the air around her, and Kazimir's eyes widened as Ani raised her finger and pointed right at him.

The ring of stones shot like crossbow bolts in succession, flying towards Kazimir, who twisted to get away. The first stone grazed past his arm, while the second one drew blood at his left side. He dropped to the ground on all fours as Ani kept firing, and quickly rolled as the next ten stones erupted the ground around him.

Ani cursed and began ripping more of the earth around her, preparing to fire again. Only now Kazimir had crouched down in the dust, partially obscured by the chaos. Then, the dust cloud lit up with lightning, pluming from beneath Kazimir's feet.

He bolted from the dust cloud, flying forward with blistering speed. Ani jumped in fright and hurled the next rock, which sailed wide as Kazimir darted to the left. Desperately, she tried to grab him with the earth as he ran over it; the tendrils barely had a chance to close around his ankles before they were closing on empty, electrified air.

He spun midair and extended a leg, which connected with a wall of stone that Ani raised hastily. Suddenly, he was pushing off of that wall, and ten feet above her. Ani raised the wall further up, drawing it over herself like an awning, blocking her view of Kazimir as he plunged down at her.

There wasn't an impact. Suddenly, Kazimir's face was looming down from her stone roof. "Calm down," he said, flipping down from the roof with momentum in his legs that crashed straight into Ani's chest. She flew backwards three feet and smashed against the metal arena wall, drawing a cheer from the crowd.

Ani slid to the ground and looked to see Kazimir standing casually at bay. He didn't look angry, just curious at what she would do next.

She was breathing hard. She began to clench her fist to form the earth again, but stopped when she saw what had happened to the ground around her. The earth of the ring was a desiccated boneyard, odd spines jutting out and hanging lifeless from the soil. Her attacks had torn it all up, barely giving her enough room to stand on. Kazimir could easily reach her before she had the time to defend herself.

"Defend yourself," Master Lynn would say when Ani trained with her. "Only then can you defend others."

Ani grit her teeth. So far, she'd done none of the above. The dirt started crawling up her leg, hardening as it traveled to her torso.

"You won't," she panted, hands on her knees. "You won't beat me. I'm not losing again."

Stone encapsulated her body, smooth upon her. It sealed up Ani's face, leaving only a single hole that she could see and breathe out of, which she could close if Kazimir attacked. Her eye glared out at him from a fortress of rock.

"He called this one the 'Iron Ani,'" she said, though she knew Kazimir couldn't hear. "You won't get through it."

As she watched, Kazimir shrugged and began to move his arms again, this time in wider arcs. He held each hand in a loosely crooked shape, with the palms facing outwards and towards the ground. Ani didn't need to see more to know that he was charging up another lightning bolt. She inhaled deeply, and the hole around her eye screwed shut, and she waited in dark, silent stone.

She'd forgotten how cold it was inside this technique; the earth may have been strong, but it wasn't always welcoming. Ani had opened a hole in the shell at the back to breathe, which was the armor's only weakness, but with her back facing the wall, there was no way for Kazimir to get close.

She grit her teeth. She had been clinging to this feeling, this earthen assuredness, for days on end. When she'd woken up in that cell, without Meanie-mo and without magic, she'd felt somehow unmoored from the life that she'd built for thirty years. Her earth magic, Master Lynn's earth magic, was the last connection she had to the Guild. And so Ani held it tight to her chest, crushed it into unbreakable diamond. She would defend it to the last breath.

Though, diamonds were only unbreakable against their crystal structure. Along critical points, they broke quite easily. Suddenly, Ani's vision erupted in daylight, as chips of stone battered her face. Her head armor had been pulverized by the lightning strike that came from Kazimir, who was standing right over her.

Her entire body screamed to get out of the way, and she was barely able to pull a sheet of stone over her head before Kazimir's next bolt blew it away. Sparks burned along Ani's cheeks, closer than they would have been if it had been anything like training back at the Guild. Most mages didn't fear magic, but the truth was that they'd never considered a possibility like this: The possibility that you'd be killed by it.

Kazimir reached for her with both arms, lightning arcing between them.

If 'e touches me, I'll die. Ani strained against the suit of mud armor, which suddenly felt like just another prison. Her left arm broke free, jabbing Kazimir's right arm up and away, and Ani was rolling forward, her suit crumbling, scrambling once she hit the ground.

Get away! she screamed inside, though all she could do was pant and stumble on. A bolt of lightning arced over her head, striking down in front of her.

Kazimir was standing with his arm raised like a crossbow, his other arm braced against it. "The next one won't miss," he called. "Could you get back over here?"

The crowd began to laugh. "Finish it, Kazimir!" someone called. Kazimir took a moment to smile at the audience while pacing around the arena. Ani doubled over with her hands on her knees, watching the sweat drop from her forehead into the sand.

"You're not bad at this," Kazimir shouted to her. "Any other mage in this arena, you might have stood a chance."

His words were beginning to echo now, sounding far away. Ani looked at him, and dark spots flecked her vision. Kazimir began to circle his hands in a figure-8.

"You can defend yourself again if you want," he called. "Won't make any difference."

Ani grimaced. He was right. Defending hadn't gotten her anywhere. It made no difference whether it was here, the Guild, or their camp. She couldn't defend any of it. The only earth that she'd moved was to open their graves.

She started walking forward.

Kazimir smiled. "Alright, that makes this easier." The crowd moved to the edge of their seats, chittering excitedly as sparks began to warp the air between Kazimir's hands. Ani started to pick up speed.

Cold, cold earth was all she'd had from the moment Igni died. It stung to admit, but her brother was dead, and she wasn't there to defend him. She couldn't defend her friends from being captured, and now suddenly she was fighting this mage in a hopeless battle. She had nothing left to defend but her life. In that case she would give up on defending that too.

A mound of earth began to follow alongside her, and as Kazimir thrust his hands forward, a boulder popped out of the ground in front of Ani.

If it's just gonna break anyhow, Ani thought, planting her foot and thrusting her fist forward, I'll break it myself!

From the point of impact, the boulder shattered outwards in a cone shape, surrounding Ani with a curtain of shards suspended in the air. As Kazimir's lightning burst across the arena, it met each shard and turned it to dust, crackling along the paths Ani had made for it. As she ran forward through the tunnel of lightning and dust, the stray bolts began to sizzle upon her clothes, but she kept running.

Kazimir kept his hands hoisted until Ani was ten feet away, before dropping them down. He raised his hand like a rifle again, this time using two fingers to point forward. And as lightning shot pinpoint from the tips of his fingers, Ani compressed the earth like a sponge behind her and kicked off of it, vaulting forward as the stones in the air congealed around her fist. Kazimir's blast took her in the chest, and Ani's fist flew forward and collided with Kazimir's face, sending him reeling back.

Ani grabbed his shirt with her other hand, getting ready to hit him again. Suddenly, Kazimir's hand was on her wrist. He was smiling as he latched onto her, blood leaking from his brow where he'd been struck. I was aiming for 'is nose, Ani realized. Did 'e tilt 'is 'ead forward just to absorb the shock in 'is browbone? However he'd done it, he'd remained conscious, and sparks now were flying around both of them. Ani struggled in Kazimir's grip as the charged air erupted into a death cage of lightning.

"Listen to me." Kazimir's voice cut lucidly through the storm. "I'm not going to hurt you. I'm with the Resistance. I'm not on their side, I'm not going to hurt you."

Ani still thrashed in his grip, squirming as the lightning arced dangerously close. Kazimir's eyes were brighter still than the lightning.

"Don't try and respond, just listen." Kazimir's words came in dizzying succession. "There's a resistance formed by the mages that got away, I heard they're in Gurak right now. I was trying to find them before I got captured. The others know about it too. We can break out. Lay low for now. Play their game. Tell your friends."

By now, Ani had stopped struggling. She'd searched Kazimir's expression for any indication of mockery, of cruelty. Instead, she found resolve and a genuine smile. A resistance? There was still a place for them to go. They could still survive.

The lightning cut out. Ani suddenly realized how she must have looked, staggering after being subjected to the full force of Kazimir's lightning. He was holding her by the wrist and arm, leaning close as he whispered.

"I'm their champion, so I have to knock you out now," he said. "Sorry about this. It won't do any lasting harm, I promise."

Ani didn't have time to ask what he meant before a numbing current cut through her mind. Kazimir was holding her at two points, pulsing electricity between them. After less than a second, he let go, and Ani was aware of herself, the world spinning slowly around her. Her eyes were rolling up into the back of her head, into graceful darkness.

Her foot found the earth. It was such a simple thing, standing on solid ground. But all her life, she'd found her strength there. Maybe it was gone now, lost with her Guild and brother. But there was something else left over, something angry.

Ani blinked hard, forcing her vision back to light. She staggered forward, and Kazimir, who was waiting for her to collapse, had no time to dodge as she tackled him to the ground, screaming.

"So ye've got yer big plans!" she yelled. "So ye're biding yer time! That doesn't mean anything when mages are still dying!"

Kazimir pushed her face away with his hand, and made to grab her with his other, but Ani punched him in the side of the head before he could make contact.

"Acting all high 'n mighty!" Ani roared. "Ye couldn't save anyone of them! And now ye're just trying to sponge off of the scraps they throw ye! Champion of the Arena? Ye've become them!"

Kazimir stopped trying to push her away, and as he looked at her again, Ani saw pain reflected in his eyes. It was his, it was hers, it was everyone's, and it made her hesitate before throwing her next punch. But only for a second.

Kazimir didn't move to dodge, and Ani's fist crashed into his nose, bouncing his head against the ground. He stopped moving.

Ani dragged herself towards his mouth and put her ear to it. Kazimir's breath was shallow, but he certainly couldn't get up. Ani shoved against the ground, raising two pillars like crutches to lift her to her feet. She faced the crowd, her mouth hanging open, burns across her face, neck, and arms.

The crowd erupted in cheers, as the mage hunters applauded the victor. Ani felt like the dirt upon her at all times. "Thank you and sorry about this," she told Kazimir, though he probably couldn't hear. "I'll be sure to pass yer message on."

As the medics arrived to carry Kazimir off, Ani limped back toward her corner, back to where the guards were waiting with only slightly less disdain. As the gate of the prison swallowed her once more, she reflected that their situation hadn't changed. They were still captives of the mage hunters. She'd still failed to defend them, and this wasn't going to bring any of them back. This wasn't her passion telling her to defend her friends at any cost.

She smiled at the guards. This was something else.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

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Wed Jun 01, 2022 9:29 am
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ScarlettFire says...

Velalis of Arete
cowritten with @soundofmind

They'd moved her to a room closer to the ring, and then they'd strapped her wings down. Vel paced, scowling as she scanned grey stone wallks and shiny metal doors. The doors into the room were closed and barred and there was a gate on the other side. She couldn't see a way to open them, but there were gears and chains--probably opened from somewhere else. They'd given her her spear back, and though she'd been sorely tempted to attack them with it, she'd held back.

Now she was pacing, spear held at the ready behind her back and she turned away from the gate and went back towards the barred metal doors. A cheer went up outside and she stopped short, glancing towards the gate. The cheer turned into a roaring crowd and someone announced a winner, but Vel didn't catch a name--if they even gave one--over the cheering and hollering and booing.

Vel frowned, grip tightening on her spear. Apparently the fight was over. Did that mean that she was next? She hummed thoughtfully, fingers flexing and then rolled her shoulders back. There was a loud clanking-creaking noise and the sound of cheering grew louder for a brief moment before being abruptly cut off. Vel heard footsteps and the slight sound of scuffling, and then there were guards dragging someone past the metal doors nearby. She turned to watch. It took her a moment to realise who they were dragging along--Runi.

She froze, staring at them as they dragged Runi past. "Runi--"

A guard slapped his weapon against the metal doors with a ringing clang. "Shut yer mouth, harpy. Yer up next!"

Oh... Oh dear. Vel grimaced and backed off a step, sending the guard a glare. Right. No talking. She saw Runi glancing towards her and tried to give her a reassuring look. And oh, Runi's hair was shorter--her ponytail must've been chopped off. It looked....better, maybe. Vel wasn't sure. She wasn't much of an expert on human appearances, to be perfectly honest.

The cheering had finally faded a little, and it was almost like the crowd was holding its breath. Vel turned back towards the gates, squinting to see past it and down the tunnel into the arena. She'd only half-paid attention to Runi's fight, and hadn't been able to see that well, but now she could see a couple of people dragging the other fighter out of sight--and presumably out of the arena. Vel was almost sure she could see who it was, but they were gone before she could come to a conclusion.

There was a beat and then another, and then the announcer cleared their throat and began speaking again.

"For this evening's closing fight," the voice echoed, distorted as it carried down the corridor through the iron gate. "We have two very special sets of fighters. For the first time we have a contender who's a harpy--"

The crowd interrupted with an uproar of excitement, and the announcer had to wait until their cheers died down before he continued. Vel mnade a face at that, and shook her head.

"Get ready for Eagle Eye, as we welcome her for her debut in the arena!" the announcer shouted.

It was at that moment that the gears started to creak and the gate shook, lifting out of the matted earth until it had receded into the ceiling above. The sunlight now poured into the corridor unhindered, bright and blinding. Vel felt something jab her in the wings, pushing her forward. She took a deep breath, ingoring the nudge, held it for a moment before she exhaled and stalked forward as if she had every right in the world to do so--as if she owned the arena. If they wanted a show, then she'd give them one.

"There she is--!" the announcer started, but was quickly drowned out by the crowd, who burst into racous shouts the moment she stepped into the light. Vel held her chin up high as she scanned the crowd, carefully moving towards the centre of the arena and coming to a stop with a flourish of her spear to set the leaf-shaped end firmly into the sand.

When the crowd grew quiet once again, the announcer - who she spotted as a small, dark silhouette atop a lookout among the arena's seating - gestured to the gate across from her.

With the creaking of metal, the gate started to rise.

"And as our humble harpy's opponent, today we have another exotic addition to our ring of fighters. Give a loud cheer for the Werewolf Brothers!"

Instead of seeing two people step out from behind the gate, the two figures that came out of the shadows were on all fours, looking not-quite right to her. As they came out into the light, she saw that they were both wolves. One was rather large, and had sleek, black fur--this one looked and acted angry, snarling and growling at the people herding him out into the arena. He even took a couple swipes at the closest few people, who quickly backed off but kept their spears lowered. The other was small, his brown fur dull and dirty. He walked behind the other, carefully assessing the crowd before his eyes landed on Vel.

They stared at each other for a moment. It was odd. She saw a spark of recognition in his eyes, and then he quickly looked away. Vel's eyes narrowed and she glanced between the two. The larger wolf looked hostile, but the smaller one... He was watchful, wary. He didn't seem as angry about being herded around as the black one. Vel decided to hesitantly be wary of him, but turned her attention on the larger wolf. She fell into a ready stance, spear held loosely behind her back with the sharper, feather-shaped end dipped towards the sandy arena floor.

As soon as the guards receded back behind the gate, instead of hearing the voice of the announcer, she heard the droning of a horn reverberating across the arena.

With a snarl, the larger wolf swung around, saw her and then surged forward. Vel braced herself for an impact, planning to bring her spear up between them right before the black wolf reached her and could attack. Hopefully she'd get the pole between his teeth before he could bite her. As he charged forwards, she caught a glimpse of dull brown off to the side and glanced over, just catching the other, smaller wolf circling around behind her. Oh, so it was going to be a pincer attack, hm? She scowled, turning her attention to the larger one. The smaller wolf still didn't feel entirely hostile towards her, especially since he'd seemed to recognise her.

There was movement off to the side behind her right as the larger wolf got a little bit closer. He was halfway towards her now, and she was prepared to swing the spear up before he got too close. She just had to time it right. With her attention drifting a little as she tried to keep track of both wolves--both werewolves, she only just managed to bring the spear up as the black wolf reached her. Right at that moment, she felt something sweep down her back and then the leather keeping her wings restrained snapped. Vel's eyes went wide and she hesitated just a moment before flaring her wings out wide and using the pattern beneath to distract the larger wolf. His mouth clamped down on wood between her hands with growl and Vel smirked, kicking at one of his front legs, aiming for the joint.

She hit true and the wolf whimpered, grip easing on her spear. Vel ripped it free and used her now-free wings to kick up sand as she skipped backwards, wings flared. As she did, the other wolf went for the black one with a vicious snarl. Vel took her chance to turn and take a running start up into the sky. She didn't go too far, listening to the crowd booing as she put some distance between herself and the two wolves.

Vel scanned the arena and noticed several bows aimed in her direction. Right. Okay. That looked like they'd take her out if she tried to run for it. She was, hopefully, faster than them, but she'd take it as the warning it obviously was and give them a false sense of security. Vel span in the air to watch the two wolves go at each other. She really was starting to get the feeling that she might know the brown one. He moved in an almost familiar way. It was bugging her but she just couldn't place it yet. She hovered there, just taking them both in and assessing the dynamices between them.

The larger wolf was strong, but the smaller was fast. Together, they clashed against one another with gnashing teeth, getting in bites at one another, but the smaller one kept wriggling out of the larger's grasp. They both seemed equally angry with one another, neither of them holding back as their claws ripped at each other's fur. She could hear them growling and snarling, but heard what almost sounded like hushed, human voices muddled in between.

Eventually the smaller one got a jump on the larger wolf's back, clinging to his hide with his jaw locked onto him, and the black wolf started to spin rapidly in circles before he bucked and rolled on top of the other.

Letting out a sharp, high-pitched whimper, the smaller wolf let go.

As he tried to run out of range again, she saw the wolf's form suddenly shift instantaneously before her eyes. One second, it was a brown wolf running across the bloodied arena. The next, it was... Jay.

Scrambling to turn and lift his hands in surrender, Jay's eyes widened in panic as the black wolf charged at him. As realization flashed across his face, Jay's familiar face disappeared, replaced by the form of a small, brown wolf, dashing as fast as he could to the side. She noticed one of his back legs was skipping every other step.

Vel was frozen for a moment, the only movement her wings carefully keeping her up, then she swept into motion, suddenly dropped straight down as Jay ran in her direction. She waited until he was close enough to grab before she did or said anything, spear held at the ready behind her.

"Shift back!" she yelled, gaze darting past to see the black wolf gaining on him. "Jay, shift back!"

Glancing over his shoulder, Jay's form once again took that of a human, and, stumbling on two legs, he nearly tripped. Vel swept him into one arm and swung the spear up to slash at the black wolf's face, now too close for comfort before she backed up a couple steps. The larger wolf howled in pain and scrambled backwards for a moment. It gave her just enough time to turn and, with a running start, spring back up into the air, one hand holding Jay close and the other keeping her spear out of the way of her flapping wings. Jay was, unfortunately, heavier than he looked but she could handle it. For the moment, that was. Now they just needed to get out. Vel wasn't sure if she'd still be fast enough to evade their arrows carrying something, but she was going to try anyway. She she angled higher and towards the edge of the arena.

Below her, the crowd was going absolutely crazy--just as jumbled mess of booing, cheering and hollering as she gained height. Vel chanced a glance at Jay and saw the way his face had paled, felt how tightly he was clinging to her and grinned widely.

"Afraid of heights, Jay?" she asked, then spun to dodge an incoming volley of arrows. "Never would've thought you were."

"Insult me when we're not being attacked," Jay said, his voice as brusque as it normally was. But the fear was evident in his eyes. He sounded a little strained, but she decided not to mention it.

Vel snorted and dodged another volley without answering him. She was determined to put as much distance between them and the arena as possible--even though she was sure she'd get tired very quickly carrying Jay like this. Hells, even his legs were wrapped around her waist, beneath her wings. She decided not to comment on that either, and tried to ignore the strangle-hold he had on her shoulders and throat.

His grip tightened as she felt him start to slip slightly and, distracted, she tried to readjust her hold on him. As she did so, she felt sharp pain hit her hip and then her shoulder, completely missing her wings but digging in deep. Arrows. Vel swore, dropping slightly in the air. She had to take a moment to push past the pain and gain height again.


Jay's hold around her neck shifted, and she felt his hand plant itself on her shoulder where the arrow had lodged itself. There was a surge of warmth as healing magic seeped into her skin, not voiding the pain completely, but making it bearable. She gritted her teeth and kept pushing, gaining height and distance until she was sure the arena was just a spec of darkness beneath and behind them.

"We far enough away yet?" she asked, voice raised to be heard over the rushing wind and steady flapping of her wings.

"How much farther can you go?" Jay asked instead, shouting in return.

She considered the question for a moment and then grimaced. "Not much," she called back, readjusting her hold. "Maybe a few miles. I could go further without the added weight or the damn arrows."

"We just passed beyond the arena walls," Jay said, his voice nearly carrying away. "There's... flashes of light. It looks like some of the other mages might've started fighting back."

There was a small pause, and then he continued. Good.

"What about the others?" he asked.

Shit. Vel hadn't considered that. They'd have to go back, break them out if the others didn't do so themselves. She made a face, and twisted to glance back down. The arena was a fair distance down but they hadn't gone too far away. Maybe a mile. Vel frowned.

"You could stop for a second and I can heal you as much as I can," Jay said. "I'm dead weight. Leave me out here."

Vel scanned the ground for a moment, then glanced at Jay. He looked determined, if a little pale in the face still. "I can get you a little further away, then you heal me."

Jay nodded. "Hurry, then," he said pointedly.

Vel nodded, took a moment to orient herself and then, keeping their altitude, headed away from the arena another couple of miles before angling down. Jay's grip tighened at the change in position. She ignored it and glided down towards a rocky outcrop she'd spotted. That'd do to hide Jay while she went back for Runi and the others.

The moment they were a few feet from the ground, Jay let go and jumped to the ground, tumbling to a stop as he hugged the earth for a moment, like he thought he'd never see it again. But when Vel landed with a slight skip to her skip before she righted herself, he quickly shook himself to attention and hurried over to her.

"Brace yourself," he said as he reached around her shoulder and ripped the arrow out. Vel hissed, but held herself still. The sudden violence was met with his hand resting over the wound, and another surge of warmth soaked into her skin. She could feel her skin stitching itself back together, healing the wound partially, but enough to be functional.

Quick to move on, Jay reached down to her hip. Vel tensed, grimacing as she reached for his shoulder with her free hand and dug her clawed fingertips into his shoulder. "Sorry."

"Again," he said through his teeth before pulling it out, a little more carefully this time, but still painful all the same. Vel sucked in a sharp breath, teeth bared.

Tossing the arrow aside, he rested his palm over the entrance wound, and the pain slowly started to ease. This time, she could feel he was giving more. More than he probably had to give. Pulling away, he left her hip at about the same mid-stage of healing as her shoulder. Shoulders sagging, he stumbled on his feet, wincing as her grip tightened for a second before she abruptly released him and he just dropped down onto his butt with a hiss.


Looking up at her, he weakly held his shoulder as he slouched forward, his face drawn with exhaustion and overexertion.

"Go," he urged. "They need you."

Vel hesitated, glancing him over. She crouched for a moment then laid a hand on his injured shoulder. Jay did not look good. He had bruises and scratches and what looked like a nasty bite to his leg--and he looked exhausted. She frowned, studying him for a moment before tilting her head. She could at least help a little, with the injuries.

"You first," she said, and sent a burst of healing energy into him, aiming for the leg and the shoulder she'd hurt first. "We're going to need to run, so you'll need your leg steady." She focused a little harder, eyes darting down to his injured leg and sending her magic towards that first.

Jay hung his head low, not looking up to meet her eyes. It took a few moments, but when she was satisfied that his leg would hold his weight better, she sealed the marks she'd made in his shoulder and then withdrew her magic and sank back on her heels.

"Better?" she asked, watching him carefully.

Jay rolled his shoulder, and as he looked to the side, his human form shifted, and she was looking at his wolf form. Sitting on his haunches, his head hung low, and his tail curled around him.

Vel studied him a moment, head tilted again. "So," she said slowly, calmly. "Werewolf, huh?"

"Is that a problem?" he asked wearily.

She snorted. "Not to me. Thought you knew me back in the arena, figured you were less of a problem than the other one."

Jay flicked his eyes up to her, but looked back to the ground.

"You really should hurry," he said quietly. "A lot can happen in a minute."

Vel sighed and gave him a pat on the shoulder she hadn't mutilated a little before healing it. "Fine. Stay here," she said, climbing to here feet. "But be ready to run. I'll go bust the others out."

Flicking his tail, Jay watched her.

"Don't die," he said.

"That's the plan," she told him, turning to take a running start up into the skies. She had some friends to break out.
"With friends like you, who needs a medical license?" - Paimon, Aether's Heart

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” - Grace Hopper.

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Sun Jun 05, 2022 11:48 pm
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Lael says...

Han Young
cowritten with @soundofmind

"It's . . . Jay," said Han, staring at the small figure clinging to Vel as the harpy began to rise into the sky. He glanced at Thea, who was standing at the window beside him. She had an unreadable expression. "He's a--"

At that moment, the door opened, the groan on its hinges alerting them to the people coming inside the prison. They both turned, and Han felt his body tense, not knowing what the guards were going to do next. Then, Runi entered through the door, surrounded on both sides by guards.

Thea shifted slightly, and she muttered under her breath so the guards wouldn't hear, "Han, I can feel my magic coming back."

Han met her eyes with surprise. He tried reaching for his powers, to no avail. But Thea was a stronger mage than he was, so he believed her. "Are you thinking that we should try to escape?" he whispered back.

"Hey," snapped one of the guards, "what are you two talking about so secretly? You'd better keep your mouths shut unless you want to get another dart."

The guard came towards their cell, pulling out the blow dart, and he inserted the key into the lock. Han held his breath, his eyes flickering between the cell door and the guards.

The door swung open, and there was a woosh of air that sailed past Thea and Han, bypassing Runi, and blasted the guards. They collided with the wall of the opposite cell with a thump that was sure to briefly knock the wind out of them. Or knock them unconscious, thought Han, noting the guards' unmoving forms on the ground.

But one of them managed to remain on his feet and he straightened up, opening his mouth to alert any others outside, but Runi swept her leg under his. Feet flying out from under him, he fell back to the ground, on top of one of the other guards. As he groaned, Runi brought her heel down to his head, and with a heavy hit, the man was unconscious.

Before even looking up at Han or Thea, Runi bent down and ripped the keyring out of the man's hand.

Standing up straight, she locked eyes with Thea for a moment.

"We have to get out of here," Runi said cooly.

Rushing to the open cell door, Thea took the keys from Runi and turned back, tossing them to Han.

"Let as many people out as you can," Thea instructed urgently. "Runi and I will cover you."

Han's grip tightened on the ring and he rushed out of their cell to the one across from theirs. He tried not to be too hasty with any attempt to insert a key into the keyhole, lest it waste time with any fumbling. He kept his hands steady and focused on trying out each one until the right key clicked into place and he opened the door.

Inside, a woman leapt to her feet. There was already the feeling of magic crackling in the air. Han stepped back from the door and, feeling like he should say something, blurted out, "We're going."

That didn't seem quite the right thing to say, but he stepped out of the cell and hurried on to the next one, trying not to think too much about his own embarrassment when they were fighting for their lives.

He opened the doors all the way down the one side first, then began work on the other side of the hall, back in the direction where Thea and Runi were fighting guards. By now, the mages he had released had joined the battle. There was magic and darts flying through the air, and plenty of people for Han to dodge or get jostled by on his way between doors.

The hall was starting to get crowded on both ends. The mages had split their efforts to keep back the guards, but they kept pouring in. For every guard downed, another two ran in to replace them. It didn't help that several of the mages seemed to be in a similar boat as Han was, still unable to use their magic.

A few mages had fallen, most of them to darts, it seemed, but it was beginning to look like they were about to be suffocated, overwhelmed, and pushed back into their cells.

At one end of the hall, Han could see Thea and Runi giving it their all. Thea was sending blasts of wind down the hall, throwing guards around with force. Runi had obtained a sword off of someone and had started slashing it around in a frenzied fury, flashing light off its metal blade into their enemy's eyes. Several other mages were going at it with their fists, and a few had enough magic back to start throwing earth and fire around.

But they were falling back, and the guards were starting to outnumber them.

Just as Han felt both waves of mages press up againt him on either side, there was a loud crack that reverberated down the hallway. There was a bright blue flash of light, and a dozen guards that had been right in front if Runi and Thea went sizzling to the ground.

With the view down the hall cleared as bodies littered the floor, Han spotted the familiar face of the man who'd fought against Ani in the ring. Kazimir, was it? He stood tall, fingers pointed out with smoke steaming off the ends. His eyes were a bright, illuminated blue for just a moment before they faded, and the man slumped against the doorway, looking about ready to collapse.

Just as the remaining guards whirled around to face him, anti-magic darts ready, a rumble of earth shook the ground underneath them, and they all lost their balance. Roaring into the hall, Ani rolled in past , pulling the earth behind her with her heels, and with a wild laugh shot rocks out into the hall. They whizzed in the air, pelting every guard standing in her way, and after the shower of rocks was over, she lowered herself onto flat ground.

Panting heavily and looking worn, she paused to catch her breath.

"Over 'ere!" Ani shouted. "It's clear!"

Thea was quick to wave everyone along. Having unlocked the last cell door, Han let himself be pushed by the throng of mages following Ani. He wove through them, craning his neck to look past heads for those of his companions, until he neared the front and spotted Thea, Ani, and Runi standing together, staring at a massive, bolted metal door that blocked their path.

"It's a dead end. What are we going to do?" The mages' voices rose in panic.

Pounding her fist into her palm, Ani squared her shoulders.

"Ev'ryone," she said. "Stand back."

"It's metal," Thea warned. "You can't--"

"I've got 'ta try!" Ani shouted as she lifted her hands, and there was a low rumble under everyone's feet. Han could see the sweat on Ani's brow as she pinched her face in deep focus, clearly straining herself.

Just as Ani looked about ready to swing, there was a screech of scraping metal, and they watched as the bolt on the door turned. Changing quickly to a defensive stance, Ani readied herself, taking a hurried step backward as the iron door slowly creaked open.

Instead of seeing a wall of guards, they saw Vel.

Standing with keys, a bloodied spear, and bloodied hands, she stared at the mass of mages filling the hall.

With a flick of her wings and the slightest, almost irritated twitch of her eye, she whirled around.

"Let's hurry!" she said.

As she ran out of the way, they could clearly see the fallen guards she'd left in he wake around the door.

There was hardly a second to take it all in as the wave of mages surged forward once more, this time following Vel's colorful wings.

The hall beyond the metal door was very short, widening into an opening to the outdoors. There was a camp set up on the field, with a variety of housing and small buildings, including tents and huts. However, Han immediately noticed that there were hardly any guards walking around. They probably hadn't thought the prisoners would escape, so there had been no need for many here. Likely, the majority of guards were stationed at the coliseum.

Nevertheless, the guards that were in the camp soon noticed the mage horde charging through and set arrows flying at them. The mages kept running out of the tunnel, and soon, small tents and piles of supplies were being trampled into the ground as they fled toward the forest.

As they reached the trees, the people around Han began to spread out. He could see that many were forming smaller groups and more had stopped, looking through the crowd and screaming the names of their friends. That made Han realize that he had not kept an eye on where his group was. He kept running, since he knew they were somewhere ahead of him and he didn't want to risk being caught by the guards. But the sea of people made his eyes swim, and he couldn't make out anyone familiar among the countless faces.

Where were they? He felt panic shoot through him and his legs felt a little weak. He even wondered if he would ever be able to find them in the chaos. It had been quite a long time, he realized, since he had felt so alone.

Suddenly, there was a swift rush of air above him and he felt a pair of hands grab him. Then he was rising up, well above the crowd. Han looked up and saw Vel's face, looking highly focused as she flew.

Han was silent for a few moments, debating what to say to her, before finally working up enough courage to say, "Thanks for finding me."

Vel's expression seemed a bit pained, but her eyes softened, and she nodded.

"Of course, Han," she said simply.

"Sorry if I'm too heavy. Just put me down when you--whenever you'd like."

A little farther ahead, he could see the front of the mages. There, he spotted the other three. It appeared as if Ani and Thea were trying to keep everyone together, to no avail.

"If you--if you need, you can put me down now and I can just catch up with you guys. It's not that far left," Han offered, studying Vel's face cautiously. He wasn't sure if she would do what he said or simply give him an offended retort.

"I'll get you there," Vel said, sounding strained, but determined. "Just hang on."

"All right," he replied softly. He tried to remain as still as possible so he didn't make her work any harder.

Soon enough, they reached the others, and Vel set Han down and then she landed herself, gingerly flexing her inevitably tired and aching muscles.

"Oh, good," said Thea, "you found him!"

Han glanced at the weary but relieved faces around him and he was even more surprised when Ani wrapped him in a fierce hug. But he soon softened and returned the hug, grateful for the warm gesture.

"Sorry to worry you all," he said. "So, what do we do now?"
"And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:7

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soundofmind says...

Jay Mournsky

He'd pushed himself too hard. The moment Velalis had flown out of sight, he let himself collapse onto the ground, face up.

Velalis had healed his leg and shoulder, but that didn't account for everything he gave to her in return. His chest rose and fell with labored breaths, and each breath reverberated through his ribs to his back, meeting the cool, rocky earth beneath him. Every ounce of motivation he had to move and every bit of adrenaline in his system was gone. Vel told him they'd have to run, but he didn't think he'd be able to force himself to move much further, if at all.

Healing Vel had taken it out of him. She knew he wasn't a strong healer, and he'd given more than he had since he could remember. All to save a harpy who saved him, because that was how the world worked. You had to pay back your debts, or else they'd bite you back one day.

And he'd settled this one. He helped Vel escape. She'd helped him escape. He healed her. She healed him. They were even. She could leave him with a clean conscience.

Except... Velalis was going to come back for him, wasn't she?

With the others too.

But his body was spent. He was telling the truth when he told Velalis he was dead weight. He'd been useful for one thing, and that was helping Velalis escape the ring. That was the only good deed he could add to his larger list of wrongdoings, even before the war on the guilds began.

If only they knew.

And yet, somehow, before learning anything about him and his past, they'd been exposed to his longest enduring secret. The reveal was bitter, and it made his chest burn with anger at the thought.

Just a few days ago he'd left Velalis and all of the others behind, with no intentions of coming back. With no intentions of even following through on his promise to help heal Vel's wings. With no intentions to help them any further. He'd left them to go be on his own.

But the moment he'd isolated himself and felt safe to shift, something hit him. Seconds after taking his wolven form, a dart pierced his neck. What distressed him the most wasn't the dart, but that he hadn't sensed it coming. He wanted to blame it on his exhaustion, but he knew...

    "You have no excuse. None at all. You're getting lazy," his father rebuked him. "And you're going to get yourself caught. You're going to get us all caught. We can't afford close calls like this."

    The dusty cart jingled faintly with jewelry as his father leaned his elbow on the edge of the customer window. Metals, fabrics, and precious stones swayed on various strings and hooks, each one pinned to display boards that folded out of the cart like layers peeling back.

    His father had been a short, heavy-set man with broad, square shoulders. His mother always said the only thing he shared with his father was his temper and his height.

    In wolf form, his father was formidable, but he'd only ever seen his father shift once, and it was a blurry memory. He'd been a child.

    "You know how humans respond to our kind," his father continued, speaking through bared teeth in a harsh whisper. "Why have the gods cursed me with your stupidity? You know better than to shift while on the road. You know better than to shift at all!"

The words echoed in his head like a haunting warning. One he felt now, more than ever, that he should've heeded.

The first time he shifted in fifteen years, and as consequence, he was paraded around as a werewolf for everyone to see. Werewolves had been feared and hunted down for centuries, and their numbers dwindled every decade. The only reason his parents survived was because they'd gone out of their way to reject every wolven instinct in their body.

When Jay joined Burninghead Guild, he'd vowed never to shift again. He'd been a human for so long that he forgot what it felt like to be a wolf. He became what everyone believed him to be. He kept to himself. He took low-profile commissions from the guild. He had aquaintances, not friends. He'd followed in his parent's footsteps.

    "Look out for yourself, because nobody else will. And if they know what you really are, They'll never look at you the same way. You can count on them to turn on you."

So he learned to turn on them first.

At every turn in his life, he always expected betrayal. It was inevitable. It was supposed to be inevitable.

And then he was pitted against Velalis in the ring, partnered with a man - a wolf - who was determined to prove his worth for the sake of survival. He didn't know what had happened. Something overcame him and flooded his senses. Something in him couldn't imagine tearing Velalis apart - tearing apart the wings that had just been mended when he saw how broken they were before.

It had all happened so fast. He'd only meant to free her wings so she could fly away from everything. But the other werewolf - whose name he'd never had the chance to learn, as they were both brought onto the field to meet for the first time - had other ideas. Before he knew it, he was fighting for his life.

And... Velalis's life.

A familiar feeling crept up, strangling his heart with a heavy anchor.


It was his fault any of this had happened in the first place... wasn't it?

No. He couldn't take on the responsibility for the actions of an entire army. But he couldn't seem to avoid the fateful decision he'd made to play both sides, proving to be successful at neither.

So much for self-preservation.

Feeling his consciousness starting to fade, he stared blankly up at the sky through half-lidded eyes. If Velalis came back with the others - Ani, Han, Thea, Runi - he had no notions that they would be convinced to carry him along while the army hunted them down, likely close on their tail.

Shifting, he laid on the rock in his wolf form. He flopped to his side, letting all four legs rest limply on the ground. It went against every instinct in his body to give up and give in, but maybe this was it. Maybe this was how it all ended. He'd just be another branch broken off the family tree. Another werewolf added to the heaps hunted over generations.

They would kill him, right? If not the army killing mages, then Thea, or Ani, or Runi. Likely the latter. Werewolves were dangerous. Vermin. Monsters. Class A Monsters in the guild's monster hunting guide.

But... Velalis hadn't looked at him like that. If anything, she seemed... underwhelmed.


He didn't know harpies well enough to know if they had different views of werewolves. Harpies always kept to themselves outside of guild associations. What would Velalis know of werewolves? Why wouldn't she see him as a threat?

Was he that pathetic?

He didn't have any answers anymore. Finally, he let himself slip, succumbing to exhaustion. Though, the rest didn't seem to last long.

With a start, he woke to a hand shaking his shoulder.

Drained but instinctually on edge, he skittered to his feet, whipping around with a growl and bared teeth. Expecting to see a wild animal, his face fell when he looked up at Velalis, who stood with Thea, Han, Runi, and Ani behind her.

Velalis looked worse off than when he last saw her, and he didn't have any energy to heal her this time.

His eyes widened as they flicked between the others, assessing them. Thea seemed to be keeping her face hollow and unreadable - whether that was intentional or unintentional numbness, it was noted.

They had that in common.

She stood tall, and it looked like she'd acquired a staff at some point, but it wasn't the one she had before. Her glider was nowhere to be seen, and the few belongings they'd all traveled with were gone. Velalis had her spear, but everyone else was empty-handed.

Well, he thought too soon.

He saw Runi, eyes cold, burning with the embers of a distant fire that seemed to be reignited the moment they made eye contact. His eyes flicked to the bloodied sword in her hands that she must've acquired at some point in the escape, and quickly darted away.

Han stood quietly, looking tired and frazzled like the rest of them, but more transparent. His eyes kept shifting towards Jay when he thought he wasn't looking but he didn't seem apprehensive. At least, not how Jay expected.

Looking over to Ani, she seemed confused, looking to Thea and Velalis as if awaiting an explanation. It occurred to him that she was likely still in transport to her cell during his short-lived fight.

She didn't know.

Did Runi see, either? Her fight was just before Ani's. Probably not.

So to them, they were only looking at a wolf.

He wondered how much Velalis had explained to them.

Fear itched at the ends of his nerves, and anxiety gnawed at his chest. He was ready to run if he had to. He had to be. He didn't want to die like this. He'd rather die alone, with at least some dignity.

Eyes finally landing on Velalis, he stared up at her, hairs still standing on end as he backed away on all fours, tail and ears lowered, on guard.

"Relax," Vel said calmly, glancing at the others with a scowl. "It's just Jay." She turned back to him and offered a tired smile. An actual smile that reached her eyes. "Turn back, please?"

He looked at the others warily. Taking a few more tentative steps back, he shifted.

Standing on two feet felt familiar, but it felt vulnerable.

Runi and Ani share a look of surprise and suspicion, along with a mix of other emotions he couldn't read.

"We're not going to hurt you," Thea assured him, though he wasn't assured. "The forest is crawling with soldiers. We need to get moving. Vel said she dropped you off a ways off. We came back for you."

For a moment, he and Thea stared at one another, neither breaking their expressionless faces, set in stone. Thea cracked first, though, and her eyes softened with weariness, but there was a sense of urgency.

"Are you coming?" Thea asked directly.

Jay's gaze traveled back to Velalis.

"You want me to come with you?" he asked instead.

He saw Runi turn her face away in the corner of his eyes, and Ani dropped her eyes to the ground, still looking confused and conflicted like she was awaiting answers.

Vel snorted. "Of course," she said, gesturing with her spear vaguely. "Why wouldn't we?"

"We want you to join us," Thea emphasized. "You don't have to go out on your own."

She shot a look over her shoulder like she heard something. But Jay knew his hearing was keener than hers, and there wasn't anything close enough to be worried about. Yet.

Jay let out a low growl in the back of his throat. Everything he'd been taught for survival was being flipped on its head. These were the first people - at least, Velalis, and seemingly Thea - who didn't even seem to care that he was a werewolf.

"Fine," he snapped.

Thea blinked.

"That's all?" she asked with a raised brow.

"You said we're in a hurry, right?" he snapped again.

"Is anyone gon' 'xplain when he became a wolf man?" Ani blurted.

Vel huffed out a laugh, glancing back towards Ani. "I think he might've always been like this, Ani."

"Did something 'appen when I was taken out the fight?" Ani asked.

"Velalis and Jay were pitted against each other," Thea answered clearly like she was trying to diffuse the confusion quickly. "Werewolf against harpy, as they put it."

She took in a short breath and stood up straighter, turning to walk out of the rocky landing.

"We can talk more later," she said firmly. "We need to keep moving. Come on."

Leading the way, Thea hastened in her steps, not quite jogging, but close to it. Runi followed right behind her, with Ani and Han following alongside. Jay hung back for a moment and cast a calculating look at Velalis. She stared right back, eyebrows raised.

"Am I the first werewolf you've met?" he asked plainly.

"Probably," she said, clearly amused. "At least, that I've been aware of anyway."

Right. Because werewolves could hide in plain sight. Harpies couldn't.

Jay looked away with a huff. Rolling his shoulders, he took in a deep breath. He was still exhausted, but he tried to bring himself back to reality. Wallowing was pointless. Their lives were in danger. They had to get moving.

Shifting, he hurried forward with a leap. Swinging his tail back and forth, he looked at Velalis over his shoulder.

"I won't let that make me feel too special," he said dryly.

She snorted. "I'll try not to let it get to your head, then."

With a puff through his nose, he turned back around. Thea and the others were already making a good distance. Breaking into a run, he hurried to catch up. With one last glance behind him, he saw Velalis lift off, taking flight to follow.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.


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Chaser says...

Elani Ellonhav

Ani hadn’t noticed it until now, but it was a beautiful day.

The sunlight dappled the forest floor through the leaves, flickering across her eyes as the five of them ran. A large shadow solidified above her: Vel was flying as close to the canopy as possible, to avoid being seen by the soldiers flooding from the camp.

Looking back, Ani wasn’t sure Kazimir was wrong to wait. They hadn’t all made it. Some mages fell to the darts, but still more fell upon swords as the guards realized it was better to kill their gladiators than risk them running free. When the mages had reached the trees, Ani had searched the crowd quickly for any sign of Kazimir. She hadn’t seen him.

It’s my fault, she thought. Not only had she forced his plans ahead of schedule, she’d beaten him unconscious in the process. All she could do now was hope the arena wouldn’t get rid of its champion.

Hope, anyway, was better than blame. Jay, the wolf, was catching up to them, sprinting with an arcane flexibility. Loping. Ani wondered if he preferred running on four legs or two.

Meanie-mo had been nestled in Ani's collar since their escape, and was now peeking his head over her shoulder. He squeaked when he saw Jay, and burrowed deep in Ani's clothes. She'd have to find some way to explain that to him later.
Her head wound had dried shut, and the runner’s high and lightheadedness put her into a giddy state. She wanted something to eat. She wondered if she might be dying. She’d have to get checked before then.

A yell came from far behind, somewhere to the left. A mage being captured, or a guard they’d injured. Either way, their pursuers were catching up. There were probably more stationed in the forest as well, like the group that had captured them to begin with. The silver jingling of the guards’ shackles seemed to echo in the trees like laughter. Vel’s shadow passed overhead once more, and Ani wanted to jump out of her skin.

As they pounded past a copse of aspen trees, Ani noticed three shapes crouched behind them, robes stark against the wood and earth. When she swiveled her head, she locked eyes with another mage.

It took less than an instant to understand. An ambush was always the first thing to try when you were outnumbered. Still, their odds were bleak, and even guerrilla tactics could be weeded out with enough force. Through their mutual stare, Ani could not tell if the other mage was pleading with her to make her stand there, but either way she would not stop.

Thea was dashing full-pelt beside her, pushing air beneath her legs to even out her strides. It had been long enough that their magic was returning, but they'd lost too many people before then. And it still wasn't enough. When Ani had bent the metal door, she'd felt the metal door bending her in return, threatening to snap her in two. Master Lynn had forbade the control of metals for this exact reason, and even rock-shaping was a heavily guarded technique. "If the earth itself rejects you, then you have no place in this world," Master Lynn had told her. "And its magic will make sure you leave it." Ani had broken her arms many times learning rock formation, and now every bone in her body felt like it was on the verge of splintering.

"Shouldn't we help them?" Han called, glancing over his shoulder and subconsciously slowing down. "They can't win alone."

"They can't win with us either," Thea shouted, huffing between words. "We need to regroup before we get ourselves killed."

Just then, the treetops burst open, and Vel swooped to the forest floor, skidding to a halt in front of them. "One of you, with me now," she said, panting. "Chasm ahead."

Fifty meters ahead where the treeline opened up, a rift in the soil gaped down into a stream. The gap seemed to span twenty, no thirty meters, and the two sides of the rift jutted out towards each other. They were closest together here; the rims of the cliffs curved outwards, leaving the mages at the edge of a forest mesa. Ani had heard of these artificial river projects that cut through the foothills, slowly eroding them to collapse. It had been both mages and non-mages who had worked together to create these aqueducts, so they shared the blame for the scar on nature. The water thrashed in the rapids below.

An uproar of flame burst from behind them, the twang of the guards' dartbows punctuating the score of unleashed magic. It occurred to Ani that maybe the guards had corralled them in this direction, to where they would be forced to make a stand.

Vel was halfway across the gap now, Han dangling from her talons. Thea whipped the leather-bound rod off of her back and snapped it open, flicking her hand over the wooden ribs of the wings to make sure they extended. "Come on," she said to no one in particular.

Jay shifted back to human form -- Ani marveled at the amorphous in-between stages -- but he didn't step forward, glancing at the others. Runi looked troubled for a second as well. The sounds of conflict were only getting closer, and it would be a bit longer before Vel was back. Ani realized with a start what they were deciding.

"Ah," she said, scuffing the ground with her feet. "'M not really a weight to be carried across. One of ye get going, I'll catch up." She gave her voice enough confidence and warmth to be believable.

Still, that left Jay and Runi. For a tense couple of seconds, Thea's gaze was flickering between them, before Runi shook her head. "We can handle ourselves on this side for a little bit. You go, Jay."

"I can't," Jay said, face strained. "It shouldn't be me."

"Jay," Thea said sternly, holding out her arm. "We're all in danger here. Whether or not you think you should, we need to go."

Jay's face overwrought with guilt, and for a moment Ani saw Kazimir's eyes, the way his face had looked right before she'd punched it. "Look, ye did what ye thought ye 'ad to do to survive," she told Jay. "Regardless of 'ow it went, we're all together now."

Meanie-mo popped out of Ani's shirt, startling Jay. "'Ere, take the boy," Ani said, draping Meanie-mo across Jay's neck while he was too stunned to resist.

A startled cry behind them turned to gurgling, blood-choked voice. Thea gripped Jay's forearms tight and in an instant, they shot off of the ground. Vel had only just reached the other side of the cliff. Ani looked at the ground beneath her. The soil was loose from the collapse, only held together at the edges by deep tree roots. There was just barely enough. She planted her feet firmly, spreading her arms wide.

Runi was pulling in daylight, having it patch over her like campfire sparks. "You're making a bridge?"

Ani nodded. "For everyone else. Can't let 'em get trapped like this."

"Okay." Light splayed radially from the palms of Runi's hands. "I hope we survive this."

"Yep," Ani said. It had been the mantra of their entire journey. "By the way, did ye do that 'air yourself?"

Runi glanced back at her. "Sort of."

"Looks good," Ani said, before hauling the soil beneath them into the air like a rising tide.

"Try it one more time," Master Lynn had told her, walking around and leaving sandalprints in the rocky soil. "To constitute structures of soil will take time, but it must start with the shaping. Imagine yourself not just shaping the earth, but infusing it. Holding it together."

"Alright," Ani would reply, and she dug furrows in the earth, splitting herself among the innumerable clumps of soil and pulling them together, containing them within her domain of magic. Pressure built up inside her head, as though clay was packed around her blood vessels. The earth fled the grip of the trees and rushed, gale-like, into the empty air between the two halves of the chasm. With every grit of Ani's teeth, the soil crunched together, sending showers of dust into the abyss. Ani trudged ankle-deep through the earth and waded into the bridge, which felt as though she was stretching her legs to span the gap. For a second, she looked down, and nearly lost her balance as the bridge began to shake. She couldn't lose focus here. Weak knees were the shame of an earth mage, after all.

"They're here!" Runi called, and a flash of light seared the edge of Ani's vision. When Ani turned her head, she saw ten or so mages sprinting -- some of them limping, some collapsing in blood -- towards them. The chime of the guard's cuffs was omnipresent now, the sting of dartbow strings even more so.

Runi surged forward, putting herself between the mages and their pursuers. Ani barely got a hand up over her eyes before light raged through the forest, splitting into rainbow colors at the fringes like solar flares. It was light that flew like a scream into the eyes of the guards and mages, and they shaded their faces and ducked behind the trees. It was something that Ani had never seen before, and still couldn't see clearly. Runi was faced away from her, and Ani was secretly grateful for that. She didn't know what kind of face her friend was making, but from the fear in the voices of both mage and mage hunter, it was not a face she recognized.

Suddenly, Runi staggered, the light spiralling out and dissipating into colors. She stumbled backwards, her legs buckling under her, and as she went down, Ani saw the javelin sticking from her chest.

"Runi!" Ani screamed, and doubled over as four more javelins flew from the treeline. They stabbed into the bridge and the backs of the mages at the cliff, sending up gouts of soil and blood. One of them sailed over Ani's head, aimed at Vel. The harpy cursed and rolled to the side, fluttering in place to stay aloft.

"We've got to take them out!" Thea shouted, hovering with her glider at a medium distance. "I can't get-" She jerked to the side as a javelin meant for her torso sheared through the left wing of her glider, and she plummeted into the canyon.

"Thea!" Vel was already folding her wings in, diving down towards her. Ani didn't have time to check on them, as Runi coughed, a line of blood appearing at the side of her mouth. She clawed weakly at her chest as dark blotches spread across it.

Ani wrenched her feet up from the bridge, packing it together as much as she could. It would hold long enough.

The mages were beginning to fire back into the woods, but the mage hunters knew the mountain forests far too well. Javelins flew out of the woods and found their mark, pinning them to the ground and making fountains of them. With the prisoners on the verge of escaping, the guards had decided that free mages were of no more use to them. A spear sailed through the air and struck the ground close to Runi's neck.

Ani sprinted forward and punched the ground, letting the force ripple out in a wave. She didn't have to move the earth much, just enough that gravity would do the rest. The mage hunters shouted in alarm as the trees uprooted from below, crashing like a phalanx of blades into their ranks.

Runi was still trying to speak. The wound was in her upper chest, right across from her heart. That would be her lung, then. Ani had no idea how long she would last without treatment.

"Don't move," Ani said, placing her arms under her shoulders. "Ye're gonna be fine. Fine!"

Runi gave her a smile full of blood, and without a word, Ani knew she didn't believe it.

With the onslaught halted for a brief moment, Vel rose up from the ravine, carrying Thea in her talons. Ani began to drag Runi onto the soil bridge. The other mages were beginning to get up -- she realized that they were young -- and form a perimeter, two earth mages making crude ramparts around them as they headed for the bridge.

A red-clad fire mage was grimacing in pain as a far younger disciple healed her leg. The disciple was cut up from running through the woods, but he was glancing around at the other mages, checking that they would all make it over the bridge. As their circle shrank, the earth mages closed ranks, and the disciple's eyes fell on a fallen mage outside of the barrier.

"Don't," Ani wheezed, but the disciple was already outside of the perimeter, crouching down near the mage and emanating green light from his hands. It flashed off of the blade that emerged from the underbrush, that swung with the strength of the mage hunter wielding it and pierced his neck.

"Tor!" the fire mage screamed, rushing forward with a tornado of flame whirling through the air around her. The mage hunter held up the disciple's body as a shield, and the flames scorched over his body. The fire mage stopped, agonized, and a javelin flew from the woods and caught her through the neck.

The battlefield erupted as the mages kept losing ground. Ani forced earth through the bridge from below, trying to extend it like a stream as she dragged Runi along. They were about halfway across now. Spears embedded themselves in the structure and made it shake, and the mage hunters were charging out of the woods now, climbing over the barrier and slashing with short swords before the mages could react. By now there seemed to be scores of them converging at the chokepoint, the mage hunters' trap.

Vel swooped down, narrowly avoiding a spear through the wing. "Let me see her," she said quickly.

Ani stood back and focused on the bridge as Vel crouched down to Runi. Her hands moved quickly for a second to patch her up before she dragged Runi into the air, fallen unconscious with the javelin still hanging from her chest.

She's safer now. Focus. Ani felt as though the dirt was inside her body, threatening to burst through her bones, her muscles, her skin. She extended the bridge, compacted it, as the other mages followed her onto it. Her spirit sank when she realized that there were only three of them left.

The mage hunters had broken through the barrier, firing a quick volley from their crossbows before charging forward again. The mages who were still standing were barely doing so, with crossbow bolts and darts sticking out of them. They looked at Ani with a familiar expression: trust fueled by fear, dependency, desperation. They were only a little more than halfway across when the mage hunters caught up to them, and Ani watched as the youngest of them toppled from the bridge, clutching his throat as blood spilled behind him in the air, a scarlet contrail.

"Pig'ead Ani, always getting stuck," taunted Igni in the back of her mind. "Just a stick in the mud, ye."

"I love ye," Ani replied. "I miss ye so much."

"Gross," Igni retorted. "Ye would make a terrible air mage. Too attached."

Ani had no response. Igni wasn't here anymore. Behind her, the chasm opened wide, and above her, bolts and spears flying all around, and in front of her, a mage hunter was grabbing her shoulder and planting a knife into her gut.

She staggered, gripping the handle as her own blood flowed across it. Beneath her, the soil was beginning to churn.

She didn't stop the mage hunter when he pulled the knife out. Soil climbed her leg like blood through an artery, congealing over the wound and sealing it with mud.

A javelin found Ani's shoulder, and she braced from the shock, but the earth was flowing towards her and covering her arm as she reached up and ripped the spear out, her wounds closing from the earth. She was the only mage left on the bridge now.

The knife flashed out again, finding her leg, her chest, her neck. Ani raised a hand to stop the blade as it flashed by, only to see her fingers sliced apart at the knuckles. Dirt and blood pasted over Ani's entire body, and she would not die. With the javelin, she lashed out, and it caught the chest of the mage hunter, who gasped in shock. Ani lifted him over her head and tossed him down into the canyon.

She felt her neck as soil seeped through the wound, reforming her windpipe. She looked at the others and spoke with the voice of earth. "Come on, then."

Blood for blood, flesh for earth. Ani exchanged blows with the mage hunters in rapid succession, and their blades slashed her torso, her cheek, her left eye. But she swayed the javelin from side to side and, mountainlike, flung the hunters into the abyss.

Another cut, a deeper one. Ani's arm stopped moving from the shoulder down. Soil coursed over her back and congealed, compacting into musculature, flexing as one with her body and swinging her spear. How much of her was flesh now? How much was earth? Her blood flowed freely through both.

The mage hunters faltered, and began to retreat. But suddenly the bridge had sucked them in at the ankles, dragging them into its flow, toward Ani. Ten, twenty. Their broken bodies would float down the river, towards the settlement where the water had been first directed. Who would wake up tomorrow to see their loved ones floating in their reservoir? Not nearly enough. No one was trying to attack her anymore. Ani dragged the soil from the forest, pulling everything in. She was towering over the chasm now, swiping down and spraying blood with each thunderous pull. A hunter flew into the air, torn in two, dead before he hit the ground.

Her head was entirely encased now, a stone coffin filled with her blood. She could sense the fear of the hunters not by their horrified expressions, but by the pounding of their feet as they ran.

Suddenly, Ani felt herself shoot into unconsciousness and back again, a dizzying acceleration of the mind. She'd collapsed from exhaustion in the past, but that was different. This was colder.

The bridge was nearly complete now. Ani stood in the center, its sole inhabitant and guardian. Different parts of her body seemed to unhinge from each other, blood loss eating away sensations from her chest down. It felt like moldering blotchily from the inside out, her flesh and mind dying and turning ash-white. Ani stopped moving. Her blood soaked through the bridge, solidifying it around her.

It's so cold in here, she thought. Igni, did you notice that? The corpses of the Northern Guild were so badly burned that she had no idea where her brother was buried.

Sensation leached away from her body, returning to the earth. Ani's thoughts dispersed everywhere at once.

Thea, take care now. Ye trust people so much ye forget te trust yerself.

Han, be proud of yerself. Ye've done amazing.

Runi, I hope ye'll be okay. Ye deserve to be okay.

She sank into the dark like a coin dropped into a well, clattering past the last dregs of consciousness.

Vel, Jay, ye'll find peace. Ye've walked the 'ardest roads already.

Ma, I'm sorry. I never should 'ave left ye.

Pa, I understand now. Dying for the people ye love is still lonely.

Light. Light, on her skin, breaking away the earth, from her head down to her shoulders, and something clawing at her arms, grasping them, pulling her free. Voices she recognized and green light, panic on Vel's face.

Ani saw herself lifted away from the bridge, held aloft by Vel's talons, and saw the bridge crumbling, her friends scrambling away from the center where they'd pulled her from the earth. Crimson-streaked mud dripped off of her body, falling down into the abyss with the rest of her. Ani felt her arm twitch, and looked down to find it cut off at the elbow.

Vel set Ani down on the cliff just as the bridge collapsed behind them, splashing into the river and halting it. On the other side of the ravine were their pursuers, hesitantly emerging from the treeline and looking across. Runi was lying here too, unconscious, with the spear pulled out of her. Alive. Faintly, Ani could see Vel and Jay circling above her. Their brows were heavily set, and Jay looked as though he was torn in five directions at once. Green light showered down on her, but none of the dead parts returned, leaving necrotic gaps in her flesh, places that just seemed so tired, tired and cold. Ani's eyes closed while her friends shouted around her. Meanie-mo was licking her face. They sounded scared.

Not yet, she thought. Sorry, Igni. I won't be long.

In the darkness, her fingers curled around the soil, willed it to her broken places, her pierced brain and crushed ribs. It molded to them, set as bone and flowed as blood. The soil trickled down to fill the missing parts of her slashed face, filling her with the essence of her own earth magic. Dirt compacted around her heart and pumped.

Ani opened her eyes, one flesh and one stone. "Sorry to make ye worry," she said.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

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ScarlettFire says...



Velalis of Arete

Ani was a mess, parts missing, gaping wounds in her flesh filled in with earth and stone and magic. Vel couldn't help here, couldn't heal what Ani had already lost. She cast Jay a frantic look, even as Ani was only half-concious and muttering something she could barely make out.

"I can't fix this," she said lowly, meeting Jay's gaze. "There's...too much damage...and I don't know how to help when Ani's pieced herself together with earth and magic like this..."

Jay slowly stood up from next to Runi, looking like he could fall over from exhaustion at any moment. But horror still managed to flash over his face as he stared down at her.

"...Take care of Runi," Jay said stiffly. He looked to Han, who was hovering closeby, looking on helplessly. Wordlessly, he nodded for Han to help him with Ani.

Vel glanced towards Runi, then back to Ani. She felt torn, that little girl faced with the tiny mouse she couldn't save. Vel swallowed, then stood and went to Runi, crouching to brush the back of her hand across Runi's forehead. Runi was looking better, but not by much. There was still a sluggishly bleeding wound in her chest. She swallowed, and laid tremblnig hands on her friend, pushing what little strength she had into her. Vel frowned, trying to concentrate as she worked to close Runi's wound a little more. Her magic trembled at the effort, and she yanked herself back before she was done healing Runi completely.

"Shit!" she swore, falling back onto her ass. "I can't--"

Thea hobbled to her side, putting a hand on her shoulder.

"What do you need?" she asked urgently. "Let me help."

Vel glanced up at her and swallowed, then looked over at Jay. She remembered what she'd told him, about healing...about what he shouldn't do, if he could help it. She was tempted, very tempted...but no, she couldn't. Vel shook her head, exhaling carefully.

"Nothing," she said, pushing up into a crouch again. "Nothing. I need to regain my strength, so for now...we wait and we watch. There's nothing more I can do until after I've rested."

Thea nodded slowly, looking out across the chasm with her brows and lips drawn into a severe line. The gap between them and the bloody, fallen bodies on the other side was wide, but she could tell Thea was trying to weigh the cost of waiting, especially in plain sight. Though many of the soldiers had fallen many, many feet below into the rushing water below, there were still many more in the forest who would still be searching for survivors.

Thea's eyes traced the edge of the cliffs, somber and calculating.

"Can we move her?" she asked.

Vel followed Thea's gaze and nodded. "We have to," Vel murmured, eyeing the mage hunters on the other side of the rift. "We can't stay. They'll find a way across eventually."

"Or a way around," Thea murmered in return. "We don't know if there's a bridge further down."

She looked down at Runi, then over at Jan and Han, who were still hovering over Ani. Vel could hear Ani's near-incoherent babbling, which at least meant she was alive, but how alive she was in her state was impossible to tell.

"Do you have the strength to help carry her?" Thea asked, glancing down at Runi once more.

Vel looked at Runi, and nodded. "I can try."

Thea nodded in return, and came around to Runi's shoulders, carefully scooping under her arms. Vel moved to help her, glancing towards the others.

"Jay! Han! Get Ani!" Thea shouted over to them. "We need to move!"

Hastily, the men helped Ani to her feet. Apparently, she insisted on walking, and ended up leaning on the two of them as they hurried over. Vel glanced back across the rift again and swallowed thickly.

"I'm about to do something very ill-advised," she warned, and pushed out with her magic, seeking each and every mage hunter she could reach--and then she yanked on their energies hard. She didn't take anything, she just yanked until they all collapsed, one by one by one. It left her shaky, vision darkened at the edges as she pulled her magic back into herself. She looked at Thea, expression grim, panting slightly. "That should buy us some time..."

A second later, she swayed, which cause Thea and Runi to sway, too. It took her a moment to regain her footing, wings flared out to help with balance. Once she wasn't so wobbly, she nodded to Thea.

"Let's get out of here."
"With friends like you, who needs a medical license?" - Paimon, Aether's Heart

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” - Grace Hopper.

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Lael says...

Han Young

Time seemed to go on forever as the group fled--more like limped--further away from their pursuers. Han watched the sun sinking lower and lower in the sky as he and Jay struggled to support Ani between them while Thea and Vel were holding onto Runi ahead. Although it had been a very long time since he had last heard any sign of the mage hunters, he couldn't help but listen for every fluttering of bird wings and any cracking twigs. Every so often, he would cast a glance behind, painfully aware of how obvious their trail would be for expert trackers.

Hardly anyone spoke, just a couple of necessary words exchanged here and there. Perhaps it was because they all were absorbed in their own thoughts of the events that had transpired in the last couple of days. Or they were consumed with exhaustion, fighting to keep putting one twinging, aching foot in front of the other. Or maybe it was worry that the mage hunters would find them after all this effort to escape and that they wouldn't live to see another day.

Han felt like it was just about all of those possibilities for him. He could hardly comprehend all of the things that had happened (including finding out that Jay was a werewolf), but he did not like focusing so acutely on his pain, either. He didn't think he was afraid of dying, either, but when he glanced around him at his companions, there was just so much life left for them to live. He didn't want to let anyone down, including himself.

At last, it was growing dark, with only a hint of sunlight left. Above the branches of the towering trees, sliver of moon was beginning to peek out from behind the clouds as well. Just as Han was thinking that the mage hunters would probably cease their chase till tomorrow since evening was upon them, Thea stopped and called over her shoulder, "Let's stop for the night."

Han and Jay helped Ani to sit propped against a large, sturdy pine tree, then Han let out a sigh. He wanted nothing more than to sink to the ground along with some of the others and rest his aching feet and take a long, uninterrupted rest, but he remained standing and walked over to Thea.

"Do you need help with anything right now?" he asked. He had seen how the others had been struggling with their injuries, wincing at aches and pains, so he knew that he had to step up and do something more to help.

Thea's face was drawn in sober weariness as her eyes scanned their group, the rest of which were already laid out on the ground, drifting out if consciousness, if not already asleep.

Thea took in a slow breath, then turned to Han.

"We need to keep watch," she said quietly. "In case any of them catch up to us. I'll take the first watch for now. I'll wake you later. For now... get some rest."

Han let his shoulders droop, thankful that he could take a rest for a while before he had to do anything else. But before he went to sleep, he scanned their surroundings. The trees and wildlife were still the same as all of the forest they had gone through before. Han was not familiar with this area, but from all the signs he had gathered during their journey through the day and from what he could detect now, he didn't think they were completely lost.

"I think we're west of our guild," he said. "The mountains are probably that way, so west and farther south. I'm not sure by how much, but I think we must have been knocked out longer than we thought before we woke up. It's too far for us to have just walked all this way."

Thea's brows furrowed.

"I see," she said quietly, and there was a pause where she opened her mouth to say more, didn't, and then spoke again. "Well... you should get to sleep, Han. We'll have a lot to discuss in the morning."

Han nodded. He found an empty space on the ground nearby and lay down. On typical nights before all of this had happened, Han would lie awake for a while in his bed at the guild, kept up by all of the thoughts crowding and swirling in his mind, but he must have immediately fallen asleep. The next thing he knew, he was being shaken gently awake by Thea to take the next watch.

Han forced his heavy eyelids open, taking in Thea's weary expression as he reluctantly pushed himself up from the ground. He let her take his sleeping spot and he took the position where she had taken watch just before.

His body ached even worse than before, but this time, he tried to keep the feeling within his awareness so he would stay awake. He paced back and forth for a while, then he inspected the loose, fraying threads on the hem of his shirt. By now, the moon was shining fully down through the trees, bathing the ground in a soft, white glow.

The light reminded him once again of his old days alone, when he would stare up at the moon, thinking too many thoughts even then. It felt like such a long time ago, but it wasn't hard to recall how he had been then. Unsure of every day and insecure if he would lose the only things he had.

It wasn't so different now. He wondered if they would make it out of this alive. Even if they did, where would they go when the world wouldn't stop hunting mages until they were dead?

By the time the sun started to peek out from the horizon, Han felt just as exhausted and a little more depressed, but he shook his head and began to wake the others.

Slowly, they all started to stand or gather what little they had. Though they were keeping their faces as expressionless or calm as possible, none of them could conceal a hint of pain every now and then. Han felt that they were holding up outwardly much better than they must be feeling.

Vel stood, stretching her wings gingerly before she went over to Runi and knelt down beside her. Runi had been the slowest to move that morning, merely propping herself up at the elbows, but it was clear she was still in pain. She had been impaled by a spear.

Vel helped Runi lie back down so she was flat and gingerly laid her hands over the still-healing wound. Han saw the familiar glow of warm, healing light radiate from Vel's hands and seep into Runi's skin. Vel remained like that in a deep focus for some time, but Han was able to see the tension visibly beginning to leave Runi's body.

Finally, Vel pulled away, looking wearier than before. As she got to her feet, she offered a hand to help Runi up, which Runi absently took.

Pulled to her feet, Runi stared down at her stomach, where the wound itself was almost entirely gone. Runi brushed her fingers over her healed stomach for a moment before she pulled what remained of her torn shirt down, even though the gaping whole by the spear was still there.

Quietly, Runi and Vel murmured what sounded like words of thanks and reassurance to one another.

Then, Vel glanced at Ani, but she shook her head slightly after seeing how there was not much left she could do for her, with all of her torn body parts filled with earth. So she turned away to take care of other things.

After everyone was awake and had begun to gain more alertness, Thea called them all together for a meeting.

"According to Han," she said, "we're west and south of the guild. We're pretty far away now, but since we're not familiar with this area, we need to come up with a plan of what to do or where to go next. The mage hunters may not be too far behind, so it would be best to find a way to avoid them as much as possible, rather than having to confront them again. I know our original plan was to confront them and find Idina, or any other surviors. But right now, we need to focus on surviving ourselves. We were sorely outnumbered." She glanced at all of the group. "Does anyone have any ideas?"

There was a painful silence for a moment as the reality of their situation sunk in all the more. Runi's gaze had dropped to the ground, practically glowering. Vel and Jay likewise avoided Thea's eyes. But Ani - whose face was part skin, part earth, looked up.

"When I was back in the 'rena, fightin' tha' big 'ol lighnin mage, Kazimir," she said slowly. "'E mentioned a... a resitance. Mages, hidin' out in Gurak. Must be buildin' forces or somethin'."

She scratched the back of her head.

"I guess 'e was tryin' t' make it there 'fore he got captured like us."

Han straightened at this news. "So maybe the next thing to do is find the resistance?"

"It could be a trap," said Vel, crossing her arms. "What is the likelihood that we would hear about a mage resistance when we've been surrounded by mage hunters and are still being chased by them?"

"And why risk conflict with goblins in Gurak?" Jay added.

"Maybe because these mage-killers won't," Thea posed, though she looked to be deep in thought. "Ani, do you believe Kazimir was telling the truth?"

Ani nodded. "Aye."

"Even so, it could only be a rumor he heard," Vel said. "Who's to say it's even real?"

Han listened to the others arguing before he took a deep breath and gathered his courage. "I--I think we don't have a lot of options at this point," he said as assertively as possible. "We've never been here before and there are mage hunters everywhere, so I think we should try to find the other mages. It's the only good thing we've heard in a while." His voice trailed off and he felt a blush spread over his cheeks as everyone stared at him. "I want to trust in another mage's words." He ducked his head down slightly and shut his mouth.

"Let's put it to a vote," said Thea. "All in favor of looking for the mage resistance, raise your hands."

Runi and Ani were quick to raise their hands, and Thea confidently raised her own. Han followed suit.

Jay glanced up at them in hesitation, but didn't move. Vel, however, however, sighed, seeing as they were outvoted anyway.

"It's settled, then," Thea said. "We'll head up to Gurak in search of the resistance."

At that moment, there was a loud growl of a stomach. Some of the members of the group looked away or cleared their throats awkwardly.

A tiny, rueful grin came over Thea's face. "But first, food and rest," she added.

Han opened his mouth, but before he could say a single word, both Runi and Jay stood as if to take on the task of finding food.

"You can both go," Thea said, before there was any argument. "We shouldn't be going off alone, anyway."

The awkward tension as Jay and Runi looked to one another was palpable.

Han chose to ignore them and proceeded to gather some twigs and branches around the clearing to start a small fire. When they came back with some food, they would need to cook it.

But before that, he was just looking forward to going back to sleep for a bit.
"And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
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Mageheart says...

Darunia Vain
cowritten with @soundofmind

If Runi had a bronze piece for every time she found herself looking for food with Jay, she would have had two bronze pieces. Which wouldn't have been enough money to get much, but Runi's chest still burned anyways. Two times was two times too many. Her heart didn't seem to care that she had new, healed wounds, and the fresh air of freedom filling her lungs. Even when Runi thought it was a miracle they had all survived, she just kept feeling so angry. If she focused too hard on the anger, she found herself back in the arena, unable to restrain herself from throwing punch after punch at her opponent in the arena.

...From throwing punch after punch at Jay.

It hadn't been him then, but it was him now, and Runi just couldn't get how everyone could trust him so easily again. Didn't they realize that following Jay around was just tempting fate? When Thea said they should search for food together, didn't she see that Runi was a wildfire in the making-

Standing just a few feet in front of her, Jay shifted instantaneously from a human to a wolf. With no announcement, he started to sniff at the air and began to move away from the group, nose to the ground.

Runi blinked.

So that was how they were doing things, then.

Without giving the group a second look, she followed after Jay. If she hadn't been so mad at him, she would have thought the turning-into-a-wolf thing was really neat. Instead, due to said anger, she was just frustrated he hadn't done it sooner.

She was content to follow in silence for now, so she settled for just watching where Jay went instead of venturing out ahead of him.

His ears flicked from side to side while he sniffed through the underbrush of the forest. There were some clear deer paths that Jay seemed to be avoiding, instead following his nose.

They continued to walk with silence between them, but the early morning chirping of waking birds filled the space, along with a light breeze rustling tree leaves overhead. The forest looked unusually still, and Runi realized that the human presence from the nearby army and their fighting arena might've kept larger prey away.

Eventually, Jay snorted to a stop and started digging.

Runi was torn between joining Jay in digging for...something and striking it out on her own. She wouldn't technically be leaving him behind. She would just be looking for things on her own.

But she also didn't know this area all that well, and reluctantly had to admit to herself that it made more sense to look for food in a place she knew it would be in. She scowled for a moment, then forced her expression into something a little more unreadable and cold. Still, a glower snuck through as she crouched down next to Jay and stuck her hands into the ground.

"So," she said, finally finding her voice again, "you can turn into a wolf."

She didn't look at him as she spoke. She just kept digging. Part of it was because she didn't know what she would do if she did look at him. The other part of it was because it was weird seeing a wolf next to her and knowing it was Jay. Everything about the sight would have screamed danger, even though Jay wasn't going to lunge at her.

"Yep," Jay said, a human voice coming from his wolven mouth.

The regular voice coming out of a wolf mouth somehow made things even worse. Runi was grateful she hadn't actually looked over at him.

"And you didn't bring it up earlier," Runi added.

"Because most normal people who see a werewolf," Jay said. "Attack it."

Runi stuck her right hand farther into the ground. "We wouldn't have."

"Sorry for assuming you were normal," Jay said dryly, and then picked up something with his mouth. When he plopped it next to her, she saw it was a wild onion.

A second later, Runi's hand touched up against an onion of her own. So that was what Jay had smelled. She grabbed her onion and tugged it free. When it was fully out, she placed it on the ground right next to Jay's. She wasn't going to be petty enough to keep them separated.

She was going to be petty enough to give him a glare in response to his last comment, though.

"There's more," was all Jay said as he dug some more.

"That's a surprise," Runi said, and it was very clear from her tone that it wasn't.

Jay didn't even acknowledge her sarcasm. He just dug up another onion.

Runi dug up a few more onions, letting her anger and frustration stew a bit longer. They were far enough away from the others that she knew they couldn't hear any conversation that happened here, but the thought of Thea finding out Runi snapped at Jay was enough to prevent her from doing exactly that right now.

"That's all of them," Jay said, pushing the last onion in her direction with his nose. "You've got hands. You carry them."

Runi blinked again.

"You can carry them too," she pointed out. "You can turn back into a human."

"It's easier for me to find things like this," he said with a tilt of his head. For a moment, it seemed like he intentionally widened his eyes to try to make himself look cuter.

Runi just glared at him in response.

"Is there anything else here, then?" she asked. If there was, there was no point in carrying the onions right now. Jay could find whatever else was here, and then turn back into a human to help her carry everything.

Jay looked around, sniffing the air. He spun around for a moment and then stuck his nose into the dirt, weaving his way towards the base of a large tree. As he pushed a large weed to the side with his nose, Runi could see several mushrooms growing.

"Some of these are edible," Jay muttered. "Only the white and brown ones."

"I know," Runi said, her anger finally breaking through her voice. "I'm not stupid. I've foraged before."

Now that she had been directed to a new area, Runi quickly realized just how familiar the herbs and plants in said area were. Determined to show Jay that she could handle herself, she went to a patch of dandelions and started picking their leaves.

Huffing lightly through his nose, Jay turned to the mushrooms and shifted into his human form to pluck them.

When Runi saw that Jay had shifted back into his human form, she stared at him.

"Oh," she said, "so now you can turn into a human."

"I can shift whenever I want," Jay said plainly.

She quickly turned back to her dandelions.

"I didn't think that you couldn't," Runi shot back. She meant to just pull off a leaf, but tugged so hard that she pulled the entire plant out.

"Good," was all Jay said as he quickly plucked mushrooms, adding them to a growing pile.

They foraged for awhile longer. Runi honestly wasn't sure how much time passed. Jay kept searching for whatever he sniffed, and Runi kept searching around for the plants that she recognized. She collected more dandelion leaves to add to their onion pile, and found some blackberries as well. When she knew both of their arms would be full of food, she finally decided that it was time to return to the camp. Jay, apparently, had decided it was time to return as well.

He had most of the onions and mushrooms piled into his poncho, which he bunched up like a pouch. It looked like there was some clover in there as well.

As a human, he paused and looked at her for a moment with a calculating gaze, going up and down. Tilting his head slightly to the side, he watched her out of the corner of his eye.

"I never meant for things to end up like this, you know," he said lowly.

Runi held her breath at that. It felt like all of the air had rushed out of her lungs, leaving only that flame nestled deep within her chest. "You don't get to say that," she said, and her voice was low like his but in a different, more dangerous way. "That doesn't make things better. What did you think would happen?"

"I thought maybe I'd be able to get away and escape all of this. The army. The death. The war. I was just trying to survive," he said firmly.

"At the cost of other people?" Runi asked. She might not have been through all of that, but she had been through dark times of her own. Even when she was at her worst, she never let herself hurt others to survive. Without giving Jay a chance to reply, she added, "I've had a lot of homes. A lot of families. You took away the first real ones I had of both in years, and now I'm..."

She clenched her fists as she held the food she had gathered.

"I hate you," she impulsively admitted, but saying the words she had been thinking all along out loud didn't make it any better. It didn't make her healed wound stop hurting any less, and didn't make the flames go away, either.

"I know," Jay said simply.

"Do you really, though?" she asked. "Because I didn't even know I could hate someone like this before now. I was frustrated with you before the arena, but after that fight, I-"

She shook her head.

"I don't even know why I'm telling you this," she said. "It's not like you actually care."

Jay's gaze fell to the forest floor, and his expression was sober. Solemn.

Runi wanted him to say something. To say anything. She should have been happy that he wasn't trying to dismiss her anger or confirm it. But the silence was suffocating, and, the longer it went on, the more Runi regretted admitting that horrible truth. She wouldn't have ever told any of the others that she genuinely hated someone. That someone made her so angry. It just wasn't like her.

...Maybe that was why saying it to Jay was easier. She hated him because he had come in out of the blue and ruined everything, but him being so new and separate made it easier to express the part of her she always did her best to lock away.

"I know it doesn't change anything," Jay said quietly. "But I'm sorry."

He turned away. Without another word, he began to walk off, back to the others.

And Runi just stood there, watching him go.

[ she/her, but it's a loose relationship at best ]

roleplaying is my platonic love language.

queer and here.

Magebird --> Mageheart

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.
— Henry David Thoreau