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LMS VI: The Lost Dragon



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Tue Nov 08, 2022 10:44 am
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
Gregor had pulled out his whip, and so had the other men as they began to whistle and shout at the cows to move faster. It looked like the cows were spilling down the hill as they began to moo and push closer together.

She hung back, riding Billy slowly down the hill from the top. Billy's ears were flicking around, alert and ready. Clandestine's eyes drifted across the hills before they found Matt at the back of the herd. Giving Billy a push forward, she hurried to catch up with him.

"Is everything alright?" Matt asked as she rode up beside him.

Clandestine sat tall on her horse, scanning the area around them as if her head was on a constant rotation.

"I'm not sure," she said, trying to be honest and realistic. "I'm just trying to be careful."

Matt was quiet for a beat.

"Did you see anything?" he asked.

"Sand worm tunnels," Clandestine. "Or that's what it looks like."

Another beat, and the sound of panicked hoof-beats and disgruntled cows filled the brief silence.

"Sand worms," Matt said slowly. "All the way out here?"

"They're called sand worms," Clandestine said. "But they don't just live in sand."

That was the thing about monsters. You drove them out of one place, they just went to another. That was why the world needed monster hunters. Ideally, they'd take the monsters out so they would never return, so long as it was possible.

Matt only hummed in reply, and then he went quiet. One quick glance his way revealed that he too was on high alert and seemed to be trying to push the cows to go even faster.

Maybe a minute passed.

The hill was long, and it felt even longer while she watched the cows clamber down it at a painfully slow pace. Even with the ranchers pushing them on all sides with every sense of hurry they could muster, the cows didn't seem to understand the severity of the situation.

Then again, how were you supposed to explain something like that to a cow?

Clandestine looked behind them again for the dozenth time, and she stared when she saw a small flock of flying boar flutter into the air with the same nervous, skittish energy of a flock of birds that had been spooked.

Thing was, flying boars weren't that skittish. It something scared them, it was something big.

That was not good news.

The boars started heading northwest, up and away from the area Gregor had led them around. Faintly, she could hear their high-pitched squeals as they fled.

"Can't we get these cows moving any faster?" Clandestine asked, shooting a tense look to Matt.

He glanced back, pressing his lips into a line.

"We can try," he said. "But cows aren't that fast."

Clandestine knew that, but she was hoping for a different answer. Cows couldn't keep up with horses at full speed, and in passing, she wondered if that was where the word cowpoke came from. Because cows were slowpokes.

She sighed to herself, noting that the herd was getting more antsy. Some of the cows were starting to speed up this time, but seemingly on their own, and without prompt. But their increase in speed was accompanied by others slowing down, both looking nervous and seconds away from trying to scatter.

It reminded her of how they looked that morning, actually.

Uneasy.

"We really should--" she began to urge.

There were tremors in the ground beneath them. At first, they felt distant, and deep. But they were getting closer.

"Go!" Clandestine shouted. "Gregor! Blaze on ahead!"

Unquestioning, Gregor let out a loud yell and cracked his whip.

Now very alarmed, the cows really started to make a run for it. If it weren't for the cowboys on each side of the herd, it would easily have turned into a stampede.

Clandestine rode behind them, trying to find the source of the tremors. When the wormlets came closer to the surface, she'd see the earth begin to crack and warp, either sinking in or jutting out. But it seemed they were still too deep for it to show up above.

The cows were spilling into the valley between the hills. In the crook where the two hills met, there was a small, spindly little tree, likely having grown there because the water flowed down to it. Before the cows could reach it to trample it over, she watched as it started to shift.

First, it shook. Then, it fell over, completely uprooted. Dust came up as the earth moved around it like a low wave, rippling out and coming forward to meet the herd. The rumbling, once low, and deep in the earth, was now loud and unnerving.

The horses began to neigh in alarm, and Percy's horse looked like it was about rear up and kick him off.

Elliot, however, seemed to keep his calm. Aside from anxious flicking of his ears, he didn't flinch.

Odd. She'd only ever seen Billy be that calm when there were literal giant worms about to attack.

With no time to waste wondering what kind of horrors Elliot might've seen, she reached into her oversized jacket with one hand and pulled out the shotgun she had hidden on her back. She held Billy's reins steadily in her other hand as she hurried ahead, riding past the herd as Gregor pulled it once again to the side in a too-late attempt to avoid confrontation with the sand worms.

Holding onto the saddle firmly with her thighs, she freed her hands and cocked the gun, tracing the dusty trail with the tip of its barrel.

"Leave this to me!" she shouted.

She came around the front of the herd, running just ahead of the worm's plume of dust.

It seemed that the worm was following the herd, but its path wasn't direct.

"And let the cows panic! We can use the noise!"

[..need to put more here lol..]

Not sure if Matt was just stupid, reckless, or more competent at monster hunting than he appeared, Clandestine didn't feel like wasting time having to explain to him why that was a bad idea.


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Thu Nov 17, 2022 7:39 am
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
"Focus on the cows!" she shouted. "Cow boy!"

She might've congratulated herself on the little quip when Matt listened and veered to the side, but the plume of dust also changed course. Towards him.

Of course. He was the furthest thing from the herd now. The easiest thing to see.

Cursing under her breath, she wheeled Billy around, heart pounding.

Just as she aimed her gun, the earth behind Matt began to cave in and push out. Finally, the worm showed itself.

It was juvenile, but regardless, it was still the width of at least five or six men standing side-by-side. Its skin was a pinkish-brown, and there was a muddy slime that coated it, coagulating in its folds.

It unearthed with its mouth flayed open like four petals of a flower, peeling away to reveal rows and rows of dirt-brown, needle-like teeth. Spit or slime (she didn't know which) sputtered from its mouth onto the ground. Without hesitation, she fired right into its open maw. 

Bam! Shk. Bam!

The worm let out an eerie, airy hiss as it rapidly withdrew back undergroud, gone as quickly as it came. As it retreated, the rumbling returned, and the tremors felt deep, and it was impossible to tell how far underground the worm had gone, or how long it was. Still, the rumbling persisted.

Either it was very, very long, or there was more than one worm.


Finally, the cows had started making some distance, but the rumbling was still following in their direction. Ahead, she could see Matt had caught up to the back of the herd.

She rode to follow, gun trained on the earth the moment she saw it begin to crack and give way. A portion of the worm broke the surface, arching up like a snake, weaving in and out of the earth. 

Bam!

It connected.

Bam!

The worm wriggled underground again, and the shot merely hit the dust. The prairie grass was torn apart, and piles and sink-holes of dirt followed in the worm's wake. Clandestine rode parallel to its path.

It surfaced once more, this time poking out its head again.

The second it was fully visible, she shot it again, this time in the back of the head (though where its head started and ended was indeterminable). She only got one shot at it before it slid back down into the earth with a screech and the rumbling began to recede.

It was going deeper this time.

If it wasn't travelling parallely to the surface, she wouldn't be able to predict where it'd surface again based on its path.

Smart, for a worm. She hated smart worms.

Scanning the area around them constantly, she followed just a little behind the herd, ready to shoot. Billy kept the pace behind the herd, just a few horse-lengths behind Matt and Elliot, who stayed at the back of the herd of noisy, nervous cows.

It was contained chaos. The only thing keeping the cows from scattering were the cowboys riding on either end whipping, yipping, and keeping them in line. 

They'd run sideways up the next hill. The path of broken earth the worm left behind made it obvious, along with the well-trampled prairie grass from the herd. She had a feeling the worm wasn't going to stick to its pre-formed tunnels and would happily follow them further, from one hill to the next.

That was the annoying thing about sandworms. There was nowhere to hide from them. Even when you were still, they could sense through the earth where things were.

Part of Clandestine was convinced that sandworms must have had some kind of earth magic to accomplish that.

Then, the rumbling came suddenly.

It was ahead of her, and it felt like it was centered again towards the herd this time.

"Hyah!" she shouted, urging Billy forward.

But she couldn't move fast enough. The worm erupted from the earth like the world's largest groundhog near the back of the herd. The ground around the cows gave way and caused some of them to stumble until the earth was pushed out with the worm's head, and they fell and rolled to the sides, scrambling to their feet in terror.

Elliot and Matt nearly ran into it, and Matt pulled on the reins last second, causing Elliot to rear back with a sharp neigh.

She watched as Matt tried to hang onto the saddle but slipped when the worm whipped its head in their direction. As Elliot jolted away, Matt flew to the ground, rolling into the dirt.

Billy was running on course, straight for them. Clandestine's gun was aimed dead center.

She waited a split second as the worm flayed its mouth open.

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Three shots in succession, right into its throat. She knew that this was the same worm she'd been shooting before, because this time, she saw blood sputter out of its mouth, dripping and sputtering over its needle teeth with an oozing red.

Matt, on the ground, was on his feet, running.

Instead of screaming and retreating again, the worm screamed and turned its attention to the nearest moving thing.

Matt.

Billy and Clandestine closed the distance. Clandestine whipped her gun back onto her back and unsheathed her sword at her side.

With a fire in her eyes, she lifted it over her head, speeding towards it.

It reached out after Matt, but simultaneously came within reach of her blade.

She connected, catching on its "neck." She pushed it as deep as she could, thrusting it past its thick layers of fleshy skin, and with Billy's momentum, carried the blade up and through to its head.

Blood sputtered out in big, gushing splashes, getting on her, her sword, and Billy in turn. But when she ripped the sword out, it was through the side of its mouth.

This time, the worm finally seemed weakened. And angry.

It slumped its head to the ground and faltered, and she took the opportunity of hesitation to ride Billy around the other side.

She noticed Matt wasn't far, on the ground somewhere, but she knew she wouldn't be able to help him until this worm was finished.

Just as the worm began to slowly sink backward with a sputtering noise, she caught her sword on the corner of its mouth, where two of its flappy mouth parts connected, and she dug in again. Billy's momentum once again helped her drag the blade through its side, but she had to fight to hold onto the blade and keep it steady. 

The skin was thick, and even though she always kept her blade razor sharp, it resisted. She grit her teeth, growling as she fought to hold onto the hilt and keep the sword ripping through as long as she could.

Her heart was pounding in her chest. She could feel her sweat melding her shirt with her skin, and her muscles straining against the pull.

Then, she noticed the worm stopped moving.

Where the worm met the earth, there was no more worm to stab, so she ripped the sword out, flinging blood onto the ground. 

Breathing heavily, she rode Billy back around to the head, staring at the worm's still, prone body lying heavily against the torn-up, grassy plains.

It laid just at the top of the hill.

How poetic.

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Tue Nov 22, 2022 7:52 am
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
Billy slowed to a canter, then to a trot as she rode him back and forth around the worm, admiring her work. She'd managed to slice through its skin on both sides, and though it wasn't perfectly cut in half, it was, essentially, leaking blood and guts out both sides, and that was enough to tell her that it was, effectively, dead.

When Billy finally slowed to a walk, she hopped off by the worm's head, inspecting it just to be doubly sure.

There wasn't exactly a pulse to check for with a sandworm, but she could feel for breath. With its mouth partially collapsed, all that was leaving the worm's mouth was a trickle of blood, dripping down onto the tousled grass.

Well, this was going to smell like the world's biggest dung pile in a few days. She hoped all of the scavenging beasts would take care of it, though. At least there were plenty of those out in the plains. This would be like a holiday for them - endless worm to consume.

At least, that's what she hoped. The alternative was a giant, rotting worm corpse decomposing in the plains for a long, long time.

Then again, there wasn't much she could do about that. She was hired to kill the beasts, not dispose of them - and it was unrealistic to expect her to know what to do with this one alone.

"Bah," she huffed, turning away from the dead worm.

Billy stood behind her and his ears turned to her attentively at the noise. She smiled softly and reached up to pet the side of his face, brushing away some of the splattered blood around his eye.

"Sorry about that, buddy," she said. "I bet we both look horrifying right now. But not as bad as worm dude."

Wait.

She looked past Billy, frantically searching for Matt. Fortunately, he hadn't gotten that far. He was sitting on the ground a few yards off, and Elliot had circled back around to him (after formerly fleeing). It seemed Elliot was indeed, braver than he looked to even think of returning. Kind of like... a dog.

She'd ask him about his odd horse later. It looked like blood was pouring down Matt's back.

"Come on," she said to Billy, grabbing his reins and leading him on foot with hurried footsteps.

Looking down the hill, she could see the herd of cattle had pooled together at the bottom of the hill. Some of them were still trying to run away, but others looked like they were hobbling along. Gregor, Percy, and Kenneth were circling around them, but it looked like they had their hands full until the cows calmed down a bit.

Gregor's hat turned upward in her direction, and though he was too far to see his expression, she knew he was staring up at the worm. He faltered a little in his hold on his reins.

There was a beat of silence before he shouted.

"Is it dead?"

Ah, yes. The most important question.

"Yeah!" she shouted back. "Super dead!"

She waved her sword as a small show of victory and then sheathed it at her side, turning her attention to the potentially dying man just a few feet from her.

"Is Matt okay?" Gregor shouted uphill.

Clandestine couldn't quite answer that without doubt yet, but she reached.

"He's hurt but I think he's alright!" she yelled in return.

It wasn't confident, but it seemed like it was enough to put Gregor to peace so he could focus on the herd, which was fine. She'd take care of the mess at the top of the hill while he took care of the mess at the bottom.

She let go of Billy's reins to let him hover closeby and walked up to Matt, finally getting a better look at him. He didn't look to be fully aware of her presence. Slightly turned away, he sat stiffly with one hand on his shoulder, tightly gripping a piece of fabric, holding it against the wound - but it looke like it was just outside of his reach. At least, to put pressure on it.

All the fabric was doing was soaking up blood and obscuring her view of the wound.

Kneeling beside Matt, she gently put her hand over his, knowing he was probably in shock. She didn't expect him to jolt so tensely, but he ripped his hand from hers and leaned away rather violently. His expression, formerly a bit blank and wide-eyed, twisted in pain.

"Sorry," she said, looking at his shoulder as the fabric fell away.

It looked like the worm had nicked him with its teeth.

Of course, a nick from a giant sandworm on a human-sized creature was still a lot. There were dozens of tiny gashes streaking from the top of his shoulder through to the back of his shoulder blade, and knowing the festering cespool sandworms mouths could be, she knew sterilizing it would hurt terribly.

But that would have to come later. At the moment, he was still bleeding uncontrollably.

She got to her feet and quickly ran up to Billy, ripping one of her own shirts out of her saddle bag to sacrifice for the job. Considering this was technically her fault for not killing the worm soon enough, she couldn't help but feel a little guilty he'd gotten hurt in the first place. Of course, she couldn't linger on that.

She hurried back to Matt's side, and he stared at her.

At some point in the chaos, he'd lost his hat. Now, without his face half-covered in shadow, she could see his messy, slightly-greasy hat hair. He had a sort of... mullet-ish thing going on.

She shook her head and kneeled beside him.

"You're covered in blood," Matt said distantly.

"Yeah," Clandestine said. "But it's not mine."

"...Alright."

Matt had taken off his jacket already - bunched up on the ground beside him. His shirt had been shredded to pieces around the bite, and she took the liberty of tearing it a little more to get the fraying pieces of fabric out of the way. Matt didn't object, at least.

"You're bleeding pretty bad," Clandestine said.

"Yeah," Matt said, clearly responding emptily to the obvious. "I'll be fine."

Clandestine huffed through her nose.

"I'm sure you will, tough guy," she teased lightly. "I've got to put pressure on this first, though, to make sure of that. Alright?"

There was a second of hesitation before Matt merely nodded. That was good enough.

Clandestine bunched up her old shirt, knowing it was at least clean, and pressed it down against the oozing wound. Matt's mouth pressed into a line, but he otherwise remained quiet.

And then it was just the two of them. Sitting on the top of the hill while she held his shoulder.

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Tue Nov 29, 2022 8:30 am
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
She found her eyes lingering on the scars on his neck, though. They were smeared with his own blood, but she could still make them out because of the slightly raised texture, and they weren't thin. Once, they had to have been pretty deep to leave a scar like that.

Pursing her lips together, she wondered if this was a habit of his, or just back luck. It was a leap to just assume, but she couldn't help but wonder. He might not've ended up in this mess if he hadn't tried to join her in fighting the worm in the first place. In doing so, he separated himself enough from the herd for the worm to place him as easy bait, since he wasn't the one the bullets were coming from.

It wouldn't be very nice to tell the wounded man it was his fault he was wounded, but she figured she could bring it up later. Now wasn't the time to berate him.

It was, however, the only time she'd had alone with him without the others within earshot.

Joining Matt in staring down at the cows, she considered it.

Currently, she had the upper hand, in a sense. She was fine, Matt was wounded, and if she brought up the question that had been hanging in the air since she encountered him she was in a good position to get away if needed. The others would be too far and too preoccupied to follow, and if Matt tried to convince them she was a danger, they'd probably just think he was delusional. He'd lost a lot of blood. And even if they believed him, she'd saved their lives, and Greogr seemed too noble a sort to rat out someone who slayed a giant sandworm to save his cows.

Yeah, it was a business agreement, but heroic still. Not that she'd ever say that out loud. She just knew how people talked.

Glancing between the herd and Matt a few times, Clandestine tried to think of a good way to start the conversation.

Hey, so, I'm a mage. You know that, right?

No, that felt too casual for something so life-or-death.

So about magic...

No, too cryptic. Or obvious, depending on what he knew.

Clandestine sighed softly. There was no good way to do this. Maybe she could start with that, though - figuring out what he knew, so she didn't have to keep guessing.

"So," she said, finally breaking the silence. "Yesterday."

It was only yesterday right? Stress made the day feel so long.

"When you ran into me and the windwolves," she continued, looking over to him for a reaction.

He didn't say anything. He just looked at her blankly, waiting for her to finish.

"What exactly did you see?" she asked, trying to not sound as desperate as she felt for an answer.

Matt's response was delayed. For three agonizingly long seconds he stared out past her with eyes unfocused, and she had to clamp her mouth shut to keep herself quiet while she let him think, trying to remember that he had, already, lost quite a bit of blood, and she couldn't blame him for being a bit slow at the moment.

He squinted slightly, almost looking confused. Or just... deep in thought.

"Not much," he said. "Just you leading them with light and seeing them off."

A beat.

"Why?"

That was a valid question, but Clandstine found herself the one lagging behind this time.

So he did see her use magic. He didn't stumble in after. He saw her manipulating the flame. She couldn't pretend he didn't know anymore.

She was right. She was right to be suspicious from the start, and she almost felt relieved that all of that overthinking wasn't done in vain.

Her brows knit together tightly as she looked down at the ground.

"... is everything alright?" Matt asked quietly.

Clandestine blinked.

Wow. She'd forgotten to reply.

Clandestine cleared her throat.

"Oh. Yeah," she said quickly.

Awkwardly, they just stared at each other blankly for a second before Clandestine broke eye contact first. No need to be dramatic about this.

"So," she said again, a little too abrupt. "What are your thoughts on magic, then?"

Matt's confusion, once again delayed, only seemed to increase. His eyebrows drew together and his mouth opened slightly, like he was searching for words. Was he just playing dumb to appease her?

"Magic?" he asked slowly.

Seriously?

"Because I'm a fire mage," Clandestine said with annoyance, because clearly it was obvious.

She didn't know whether to feel bad for him or more annoyed when he stared off to the side, looking deeply confused at first before his eyes widened, like pieces of a puzzle were finally fitting together.

Except, that kind of reaction didn't really match up with what she knew. He said he saw.

"You were--" he started.

"Come on," she interjected. "Don't act like you didn't see--"

Unless...

"You did see me use fire magic, right?" Clandestine said, fiercely meeting his eyes. "Right?"

She didn't just expose herself for no reason?

Matt seemed take off guard.

"I-- well, I saw the fire, but--"

"So you did see?" Clandestine pressed.

"I--"

"You saw me use magic and never thought to mention it? You were just going to leave me in suspense? Do you have any idea how much stress I've been under? How--"

This time, Matt cut in.

"My eyes aren't that great!" he said hastily. "I couldn't tell... that it was magic. All I could make out was a light. I assumed it was just a torch."

Clandestine stared at him.

"You're serious?" she asked flatly.

"Well--"

Clandestine waved her hand in front of his face, trying to gauge a reaction from his eyes. He leaned his face away, scrunching up his face.

"Stop that," he snapped. "It's not that bad. I just need glasses to see far away."

"How do you even manage?" Clandestine asked. "Your whole job is looking at things from a distance."

"I said it's not that bad," Matt emphasized. "Listen, that's not-- about your magic. You were worried about your magic."

"Oh. Right. You're not going to..."

"No," Matt said, letting out a long sigh as he looked away, back down the hill. "I'm not going to turn you in. If you'd have let me finish my sentence, you would know that I have no problem with mages, or magic. Go on and live your life. I won't tell anyone your secret."

Clandestine wasn't really familiar with people's responses to discovering she had magic. She'd heard stories from other people, sure, but only from the surviving side, and that was never the mages.

The only person who knew she had magic was the man who found her all those years ago who helped her get back on her feet, but gods knew where he was now.

He'd been surprised by her magic, but never brought it up besides telling her not to use it anytime they were around others. That told her what she needed to know at the time: it wasn't safe to be seen as a mage, and you had to keep it secret.

Ever since, she hadn't told a soul. Not even Lynette knew.

At least, until now.

Was she lucky? Or was this too good to be true?

She pressed a little harder down on the wound, realizing she'd let up the pressure a bit. Matt tensed.

"How am I supposed to know that you're not some kind of mage hunter in disguise and this is some elaborate trick? Or that you're not just lying so you can gain my trust but you'll rat me out later?" she asked cooly.

"You really think mage hunters would take on the guise of a cowboy hoping they'd just run into a mage out in the middle of nowhere one day while surrounded by cows?" Matt asked.

Clandestine narrowed her eyes.

"When you say it that way, it sounds silly," she admitted. "But you could still be a rat the moment we get to Bone."

Matt sat up a little straighter as he turned to meet her eyes, his expression serious and focused.

"Your worry is warranted," he said, much more gently than before. "And I don't mean to minimize the threats you always have to account for. But you won't have to worry about me."

He took in a deep breath.

"I promise," he said, and he sounded like he meant it. "I won't tell a soul."

Clandestine opened her mouth to object one last time, but he beat her to it.

"I have nothing to gain from turning you in," he said. "And it would be dishonorable to turn in someone who just saved my life."

Well. That... made sense, at least.

Clandestine took a moment to let his words sink in. To decide if she really believed him and was willing to trust him like that.

She surmised, in a way, he'd already trusted her with his life. Granted, he still got hurt, but she took out the worm before it was too late. This was his way of returning the favor, then? Unless if he really meant it when he said he had no problems with mages. 

Maybe she really did get lucky.

"Wow..." she said, not quite sure what to say. "Thanks, Matt."

"Sure," he said. "It's nothing."

"Well, it's not really nothing when some people literally turn on their family members if they find out they have magic. And that's family. You don't even know me," she said.

"And what, needlessly make an enemy?" James asked. "It's what decent people should do. They just don't."

Turns out a lot of people weren't too decent, then. It did, however, cause Clandestine to wonder...

"So... do you have magic, then?" she asked.

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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :

She watched him, hopeful.

"No," he said without hesitation.

Clandestine pouted.

"Sad," she said with a sigh. "You don't have any magic to compensate for your blindness."

"I'm not bl--" 

Clandestine smirked and threw her free hand up in front of his face, holding up three fingers.

"Quick!" she said. "How many fingers am I holding up?"

"Four," Matt said, squinting and swatting her hand away.

Clandestine sputtered, trying to hold back a laugh before it burst out of her in a loud "hah."

"Three!" Clandestine said through the wheeze-filled laughed that followed. "It's three!"

Matt, looking entirely unamused, stared at her dead-eyed.

"If you hadn't moved them so fast..." he started to say, but cleary gave up mid-defense and sighed.

Clandestine stifled her laughter and once again had to remind herself to add pressure to the wound again, as laughing had made her loosen up a little too much. Seeing how Matt's blood had seeped through her shirt, practically dying it red, she really needed to hurry up the clotting process.

She pushed down a little harder, and Matt let out a tense, slow breath through his nose. She could feel him tense up again in slight resistance, but he didn't pull away.

"Sorry," Clandestine said softly. "It's just for a little while longer."

There was no reply, and she pressed her lips together in a small frown, nodding to herself as a brief silence followed.

Right. He was in pain. She'd been so caught up with the anxiety of him knowing about her magic that she'd almost forgotten.

"So..." she said, more quiet as she spotted Gregor at the bottom of the hill, starting to ride up. "You really mean it?"

A pause.

She had to be sure.

"Yes," Matt said quietly in response.

She let out a small sigh.

"Thank you," she said.

Thinking that was the end of it, she stared at Gregor, and then scanned the herd below. Mid-cow-counting, Matt interrupted.

"Thanks," he said.

"For what?" she tilted her head towards him.

"Killing the worm."

"Oh," she said with a weak laugh. "No problem. That's what Gregor's paying me--"

"And saving my life."

Clandestine blinked.

Oh. Yeah. That.

She offered him a small, warm smile.

"You're welcome."

Her eyes flicked between Matt and Gregor. From the looks of it, Gregor was unharmed, and so was his horse. They rode uphill at a steady pace, and his ruddy mare finally seemed to have calmed down after all the stress of nearly being eaten by a worm. She just hoped it wouldn't mind the giant dead worm nearby too much.

Noticing Gregor was almost within earshot, she leaned in and whispered.

"So why haven't you gotten glasses?" she asked.

Matt shot her a look out of the corner of his eyes that said: "Really?" without saying it. Instead, he answered: "Money."

"Ah."

She, too, understood what it was like to be poor. Surprisingly, though monster hunters were highly appreciated, freelancers didn't get a whole lot of money. That's what you got in exchange for more freedom. You didn't have to work with the guilds that hunted down mages (which she wouldn't ever consider) but you got financed by the people who hired you, not the guilds. And truth be told, most people out in these parts were poor too.

"Maybe if we all pitched in...?" Clandestine suggested.

"I'll be fine. Don't mention it. Ever again."

Clandestine raised her eyebrows and drew them together, but decided to drop it.

If this was the hill he wanted to die on, it was a very silly one, but she'd let him. He was keeping a secret for her, after all. It really wasn't much to keep a very petty one in return, however weird it seemed.

Maybe tomorrow, after they reached Bone, she'd see about bartering a pair of glasses for him just as a final thank you. Then he wouldn't have to so stubbornly get progressively more blind as time went on. Because odds were, it'd only get worse as he aged.

"Sure," she said lightly, letting her expression relax as Gregor and his mare stopped a few feet in front of them.

"Matt ain't falling apart, now, is he?" Gregor asked, hopping down from his saddle.

"No, sir," Matt answered.

"I think the bleeding's finally under control," Clandestine offered. "He got nicked by the worm's teeth."

Gregor, who'd only take a few steps, faltered, and his face paled.

"Worms have teeth?" he said, like this was a brand new revelation.

Clandestine smiled and laughed faintly.

"Well, uh. Yeah. It's uh. Well, they're omnivores, you know. They eat anything, really," she said, not sure how to make the truth any less terrifying for the average cowboy.

Gregor stood still for a moment, staring out at the felled worm, but then shook his head and hurried up beside her and Matt.

"Thank gods it didn't eat Matt," he muttered, sitting opposite her, putting Matt between them. He was looking Matt over, like he was scanning for any other wounds.

"Well, it tried to," Clandestine found herself blurting. "But I killed it before... it..."

She cleared her throat. Now really wasn't the time to sound like she was boasting.

"Anyways," she said quickly, carefully pulling the bloodied shirt away from Matt's shoulder. "I can, uh, help clean it and all--"

"I've got some medical supplies," Gregor said steadily. "I can take care of it. It looks like you, uh..."

He stared at her, up and down, like he was searching for words. Clandestine looked down at herself as well.

She hadn't really gotten a great look at herself yet. Right after the worm was out of the picture, she was worried about making sure Matt didn't die.

She really was drenched in now-drying worm blood.

"Right," she said quietly. The smell really should've tipped her off, but now that her attention was brought to it, the strong scent of iron was almost overwhelming.

"I should clean up," she said distantly. "Before I start to stink too bad."

"That would be wise," Gregor said, gently placing his hands over hers to take the bloodied shirt from her. She muttered under her breath as she brushed her hands away and let him take her place as she got to her feet.

"I'll catch you in a bit, then," she said with a nod, snapping her fingers and pointing at Matt with both hands.

Matt didn't look like he was quite all there, but he didn't look like he really knew how to respond, either.

"...Okay," he finally said.

"I'll just be over the other side of the hill," she informed them. "Holler if you need me."

"Will do," Gregor said.

Clandestine clicked her tongue and spun around on her feet, skipping over to Billy on light feet. He bobbed his head, happy to see her, and she took his reins as she started leading him down the hill.

Billy smelled terrible too, so at least it was the two of them stinking up the plains and not just her. Thankfully, if they stayed on course, they would cross a creek before daybreak. They'd both get a better, more thorough bath then.

Waiting until she was more than sure Gregor and Matt couldn't hear her, she leaned close to Billy.

"Well, that went better than I thought," she whispered.

Billy huffed through his nose.

"I was talking about the magic thing, not the worm thing," she corrected.

Billy whinnied.

"Yeah, I know," she said, petting the side of Billy's neck, scraping off some crusted blood. 

"You're right," she said softly. "I was just being paranoid. Turns out not everyone out there's that bad after all."

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wc: 1022
Spoiler! :

James woke with a start.

He shot up in the dark as stabbing pain shot down his back, radiating from his shoulder. 

Sweat made his shirt cling to his skin, and he could feel the all-too familiar sensation of bandages layered underneath his clothes - taut around his shoulder. Taut around the pain.

Staring emptily into the night, he slowly reached up to touch his wounded shoulder. He unbuttoned a top button of his shirt so he could reach in and feel the bandaging, flush with his skin and now melded to the wound with salve and sweat. Carefully, he tried to massage away some of the tension that had coalesced around the tender skin.

He could hear his fractured breathing shudder with a rumble in his ears. It sounded so loud. It was as if the whole earth had paused from speaking just to hear him, and he couldn't help but to worry if any of the others had heard him too, or if he'd made too much noise in his sleep and waking them.

Much to his disadvantage, he couldn't make out the shadows of anyone around him yet. His eyes had yet to adjust, and at this point, it didn't matter. If someone had woken up, it was irreversible.

He just hoped that they'd leave him alone if they did.

Tucking up his legs as he sat on the ground, he leaned forward, feeling the ache of his whole frame.

It was enough to feel constant pain every day. His body already hurt all the time. And then, of course, there was this.

He closed his eyes as he rested one forearm on his knees and rested his head against it.

Another near death experience. He could hear the voices of friends he imagined to still be around echoing the sentiment, and for some the nuance carried sadness and empathy, but for most, it was shame.

The former day was returning to him in pieces.

It had started with the monster hunter. No, that was the day before. She'd followed him back and gotten roped into working for Gregor because he was nervous. The next day his worries had been proven true, and Clandestine had to step in.

Sandworms.

Gods, if he had a goldpiece for every giant, freakish creature he'd encountered, he'd have at least three goldpieces. If he was a monster hunter, maybe that would've made sense - but he wasn't.

It came back to him in full clarity, crisp in the front of his mind.

He'd been at the back of the herd. Clandestine was tracking with the sandworms movements, pulling away to do so.

At that moment, he'd hesitated.

He'd pulled away from the herd to go help her. Some insane part of his mind thought he was equipped to help her face off against a monster of gigantuan size and ridiculous strength. It had felt wrong to leave her to take on that kind of beast alone, regardless of her profession.

But she told him to go back. So he did.

The arm attatched to his injured shoulder hung limply at his side. He wondered how many more times his body could be ripped apart before it'd stop working entirely. He wondered how long it'd take for him to recover from this one. He wondered why he'd wanted to get caught by the sandworm.

He lifted his head and shook away the thought.

The conversation that followed that was spotty, but he remembered the gist of it.

Clandestine was a mage, and he'd sworn to keep it a secret. Somehow his poor eyesight had come up, but she agreed not to bring it up again. The contrast between the two would've been comical, but he knew the weight of Clandestine's secret was far from a laughing matter.

He knew he was putting his life on the line by protecting her. Mages were killed for their magic, but if anyone was found out to be an accomplice - or to even associate with them knowingly - they were put to death as well. He'd seen it with his own eyes. Over, and over...

It wasn't like he had anyone to tell. And the last thing he was going to do was walk into a guild or a sheriff's office to collect a reward.

And Clandestine deserved to live. That was a given.

James sat back up with a slow, controlled sigh. Careful not to be heard, he let his chest fill with air and then held his breath, counting down the seconds until he finally let it all back out in a thin, steady stream.

The deep, black sky was starting to brighten in hue. Instinctively, he knew that the sun was only a few minutes from peeking over the horizon, and before he knew it, everyone would be waking and asking him how he was. He determined to take care of himself before then.

Yesterday, Gregor had helped bandage him up. He was the only one out of them all that he would've let see him that exposed, but even so, he knew Gregor was only withholding questions out of respect. But he could see the worry in Gregor's eyes. He could hear the hidden nuance in his words in their conversations. He could see it in the way Gregor was so much more careful. Like he thought James was fragile.

James forced himself to his feet, and for a moment, his head began to spin. He paused to let it run its course, and when the sensation alleviated, he picked up the blanket that had been laid out beneath him and finally found Elliot's silhouette in the earliest morning light.

Elliot was still resting, so James came up alongside him from the front, making sure Elliot could hear his footsteps so he wasn't spooked. Softly, he muttered half-words as Elliot's ears flicked towards him, and it was enough for Elliot to calm down, knowing it was James.

Quickly, James found his medical kit in his bag and worked to change the dressing on his shoulder.

He was lucky that no one woke up before he was done.
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
His colleagues remained asleep while the sun still peered over the horizon. But Clandestine, the monster hunter, stirred first. 

He near Elliot, watching as Clandestine stretched out like a cat under the sun. She rolled over, face buried in her blanket that she had laid beneath her, and for a moment, he thought that it was a false arousal. She stilled again, and he swore he could hear a muffled snore. 

But then she flopped back over with a sigh and sat up, rubbing her eyes.

James turned his attention to the sunrise, but remained aware as Clandestine got to her feet and stretched again, and eventually looked around to see that the others were still asleep. Except for him.

For a split second, he considered not looking at her. He knew it would be a voiceless invitation that she could take to start conversation, but he knew he couldn't avoid her, either. At least, not until they reached Bone.

Then he'd leave everything behind. 

They made eye contact for a split second, and Clandestine offered him a nod and a sleepy smile. He nodded in return. When she made her way over to her horse, he stopped paying as close attention to her and found himself staring down at the grass.

The grass was a mix of yellow-brown and yellow-green. He followed the lazy, swirling path of a summer fly until it landed on the tip of a feathered blade of grass, letting itself sway with the blade in the breeze.

The fly darted off when Clandestine started to walk over.

James looked up as she approached casually, welcoming herself to take a seat beside him two paces away. Her eyes landed on his shoulder, and she crossed her legs.

"How're you feeling?" she leaned in.

The ever-vague question.

"About how I imagine I'd feel were I bit by a worm," he said.

Clandestine nodded slowly.

"I see," she said - but the way she said it seemed carefully enunciated. As if she were calling back to something.

It took him a moment to recall, but the memory returned, and he laughed with a puff of air through his nose.

"I also see," he said, quoting her own words back to her. He did, however, reconsider the friendliness and vulnerability of creating a joke between them when he knew their time together would be so short-lived.

It was too late, though. Clandestine's lips upturned into an amused, self-satisfied grin, and she laughed lightly too.

"Well," she said, before any silence could follow. "Glad you're not dead."

"Me too," he said compulsively.

"I'm glad this guy made it too," she said, looking up at Elliot, who grazed peacefully behind them. "I'm surprised he kept a cool head about him the whole time. Horses usually aren't that good under pressure."

James glanced back at Elliot.

"He did rear," James reminded her. "And I fell off."

That was why he got bit in the first place.

"Yeah, yeah, but that was only because the worm erupted from the ground in front of you two and Elliot would've run into it if he didn't stop," Clandestine said, raising her brows as she waggled a finger at him. "And even so he had the sense - or lack thereof - to come back for you after."

James didn't know why Clandestine was harping on Elliot's behavior, but he didn't want to let it lead to wherever she intended it to.

"He's always been like that," James said. The moment it left his mouth he knew it was a lazy response, but he hoped it at least moved things on.

"Yeah," Clandestine laughed. "And I've always been able to slay giant worms."

"I don't doubt it," James said lightly. 

Clandestine's brief laughter, however, quickly subsided, and she stared at him with narrowed eyes, a smirk growing on her face.

"Uh-huh," she said, still staring.

Not really caring to discover what the smirk was about, James picked up the conversation.

"So--" was all he got out.

"You sure your shoulder's okay?" Clandestine ran him over.

"What? I said it's fine," James answered quickly. "Not much can be done about it now."

"It doesn't hurt too terribly does it?" Clandestine pressed.

"I can still function well enough," James said, gesturing to his arm.

To keep himself from overexerting that shoulder, he'd put his arm in a makeshift sling. It made him one-handed, but he was an experienced enough rider that it didn't hinder him. That, and it was far from the first time he'd had to ride one-handed anyway.

"You know," Clandestine went on. "One time I got bit by a giant fox-hound. This was before I was a fully realized monster hunter. I was only a kid, and I tried to bite off more than I could chew going after it. I still have this nasty old scar on my leg. Big 'ol tooth marks. My mentor at the time said that it'd at least be a reminder to think before I act next time."

James didn't know if that was meant to be a dig at him disguised as a personal anecdote, but it sure sounded like it.

"It sounds like she taught you well," he said instead.

"She did..." Clandestine said with a small, wistful smile. 

He noticed she trailed off as she stared out over the plains, and he waited for her to end the lull between them. It was only a few seconds before she did.

"You've never been a monster hunter, have you?" she asked.

For a moment, James wondered what prompted the question.

Was it his reckless eagerness to jump in and help her that got him hurt in the first place? Was it his scars? Was it his fearless horse?

Either she already knew the answer, or she really didn't know who he was.

Still careful, he took the lighter route.

"What, did my lack of forethought give it away?" he joked.

Clandestine turned to him with a look of mock offense.

"I think ahead!" she defended.

James lifted his good hand.

"I didn't accuse you," he retorted.

wc: 1,016
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soundofmind says...



wc: 1092
Spoiler! :
Clandestine pressed her lips together into an indignant pout and he huffed through her nose. Shaking her head, she blew a stray hair out of her face.

"Listen," she said, looking at him squarely. "I'm just trying to say -- well, what I mean is--"

She took in another sharp breath and shook her head, like she was going to start over again.

"Did you run out to grab the attention of the sandworm on purpose?" she asked.

James had to carefully consider his answer.

First, he didn't want her to ask any pressing questions about his past. If he alluded to having encountered any kinds of monsters in the past, that would only build the case she was already forming against him that he might've been a monster hunter before, or something like it. It wouldn't bother him if she thought that was true - in fact, it would be convenient if she did - but it wouldn't explain everything. There would be too many holes in that story, and he didn't know how persistent she would be to find answers before they reached the ranch. 

He didn't want to have to endure another day with this kind of scrutiny, but he didn't have a choice in that. So he had to come up with a reasonable answer that would shut her up and buy him 24 hours.

But he'd already taken too long to think of an answer.

He looked down to the ground with a sigh, ready to admit something that was only partially true to explain the hesitation.

And then he heard the others. Head shooting up, he saw Percy and Kenneth had gotten up. Or rather, Percy had just woken Kenneth up by clapping loudly right next to his ear. Kenneth jolted up and immediately punched Percy in the gut.

"Hey!" Percy wheezed.

"How many times do I have to tell you not to do that?" Kenneth growled. "Seriously..."

Kenneth got up with a grumble, and Percy stood up holding his side, looking chastened. The commotion had been enough to wake Gregor, and once he got to his feet, James saw it as a natural escape from an unwanted conversation.

Getting to his feet, he glanced over at Clandestine.

"Looks like we ought to pack up," he said. "We'll be at the ranch soon."

The unspoken implication was that they'd be parting ways soon, and it didn't make sense to talk about things deeper than the surface. There was something on her face he couldn't quite read. Looking away, she seemed conflicted, but ultimately bit her tongue. She nodded.

He could see the tense hesitation in her frame as she got up and walked off, reuniting with her horse, Billy.

Whatever it was, James was going to let her resolve it on her own. He had other things in mind. Like getting on the road again, and getting far, far away from everything and everyone.

Turning to Elliot, he began to prepare his things, and soon, they were moving again.

---<>---

At the top of the final hill, James finally saw it. Fences lined the field where it became flat, and the pens led one into another over patchy earth, sparsely grown in the cattle's abscence. Beyond the pens, there was a long barn where the horses were kept, and beyond that, a log cabin.

And beside it, a horse.

Behind the rest of the herd, James found himself frozen at the top of the hill as the cattle followed Gregor, hedged in between Percy and Kenneth. Without thinking, he'd pulled Elliot to a halt, and his eyes were fixed on the distant figure. His eyes were bad, but he knew the only thing that made sense to be found by the cabin was a horse, and wild horses didn't just wander into ranches.

He broke his stare to hastily reach into his saddle-bag. He nearly dropped the binoculars as he pulled them out and brought them to his eyes.

Peering through them, he landed his sights back on the figure beside the cabin, and it was, indeed, a horse. With a saddle. Tied off at the post.

His heart began to race.

"Huh," Clandestine voiced, stopping beside him. "Who's that?"

That was the thing.

James didn't know, but something in his gut knew.

"I don't know," he said with a practiced casual disinterest. "We're not expecting anyone."

"Maybe its a delivery," Clandestine asked. "Do mail boys come out this way?"

James didn't bother to say that Gregor hadn't ordered for any delivery, and that Gregor always went into town for any mail. If anyone came out this way it was to deliver urgent news, or it was someone Gregor knew. But if it was the latter, Gregor wouldn't look as confused as he did at the head of the herd, squinting off at the cabin with the same curiosity.

"Maybe," James said simply, finally urging Elliot forward, hastily catching back up to the tail of the herd.

Clandestine did the same, riding up alongside him.

James didn't look at her. He kept his eyes on the herd, trying not to draw any kind of suspicion his way. They had no reason to think anything of him. He was just a rancher, doing his job, focusing on the cows while Gregor took the lead and figured out who had come to his farm. For Gregor's sake, James hoped that it wasn't what he feared it was, but he couldn't afford to have that kind of hope.

He was already racing to prepare for the worst.

A number of other possibilities ran through his head. Someone was lost and stumbled upon the ranch, and, seeing it was unoccupied, took shelter. Alternatively, someone stumbled upon the ranch seeking help. Perhaps it was a break-in. Thieves. Squatters. Orphans, with no recourse. Another lost soul looking for a job from the kind-hearted rancher who took people under his wing.

Gregor had gone ahead and pulled the first gate open, and the cattle we beginning to spill in. Kenneth and Percy remained on either side to keep the cattle in line while James followed the flow of the cows like a leaf in a stream.

When he made it to the gate, he paused. As everyone clustered around the gate on horseback, Gregor stood by the gate looking out at the cabin, and then he looked back at them.

"I s'pose I should see what that's all about," Gregor said.

Now closer, James could make out the shadow of someone on the cabin's front porch.

Waiting.
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
James had learned enough from his past to know that it wasn't worth taking chances. If he was wrong, he was running away from a peaceful situation he planned on leaving soon anyway. If he was right... if it was a bounty hunter...

He had to leave.

He didn't think he could stand it if anyone else got hurt again because of him.

"You think he's lost, boss?" Kenneth asked.

"Could be," Gregor hummed.

"I can go see what he wants," Kenneth volunteered.

"We can stay back and take care of things while you go ahead," James offered, quick to volunteer to stay back.

Gregor nodded.

"Kenneth, come along with me," he said.

Nodding, Kenneth waited for Gregor to hop on his horse, and James watched as the two of them made the trek around the wide cow pen, circling around toward the cabin.

In their absence, James could sense Percy waiting just a moment to see who would take the lead in Gregor's absence.

"I'll take the horses to the barn," James said.

Clandestine was already hopping off her horse, and James did the same, walking over to take Billy's reins.

"You're leaving me with her?" Percy asked, needlessly ornery. He hopped out of his saddle and landed with a heavy thud.

"She has a name," James said flatly, reaching out to take his horse as well. "Maybe if you take a minute to speak with her you'll remember it."

Turning away with three horses in tow, James kept moving. Percy muttered something unintelligible, but if James was meant to hear it, it wasn't repeated.

On the walk over, James was careful to keep the horses between him and the cabin, obscuring a full view of him. It meant he couldn't get a good look at what was happening at the cabin even as he got closer, but he did see that by the time he made it to the barn, Kenneth and Gregor had walked up to the porch, leaving their horses by the post.

The moment he entered through the barn doors, he abandoned the horses' leads and hurried across the barn to the nearest window facing the cabin. With partial cover, he pulled out his binoculars again and peered out from the corner of the window. It took him a moment to adjust them before everything came back into focus and he was able to find the porch.

Now, he could make out things in more detail.

It was a man. He was tall, standing about eye level with Kenneth. He wore a long, dark coat, and there was something about his strict, upright posture that convinced James he had a military background. The man was turned away from him, so he couldn't make out his face, but that was a mercy. If the man was looking in his direction, there was a chance he'd be spotted.

Pulling away, James returned his attention to the horses, mind racing.

So they were sending people from the Moonlight Kingdom now? Was this man hired out, or was he a soldier-turned-bounty-hunter?

If he was from the Kingdom, this could end differently. He didn't know what kind of resources this man had to make sure things went his way.

His heart was beginning to pound so loud he could feel each beat in his ears. He barely remembered having put Percy's horse away in a pen by the time he was already locking up Billy, Clandestine's horse.

He turned to look at Elliot.

With his saddle still on, Elliot was ready to ride back out of the barn, and Elliot knew this well. Over the years, Elliot had become acquainted with the need for sudden departures. As James walked up to him, for just a second he rested his hand on Elliot's snout.

And then he moved on.

Hastily climbing up into the saddle, he turned Elliot around towards the already open barn doors.

The moment he rode out, everyone would see him. Every exit route was out in the open. The only thing between him and the cabin and on every other side was a field of grass.

He just had to get over the hill.

Taking in a deep breath, he steadied himself, steeling his nerves, and prepared for the worst.

He clicked his tongue, and Elliot moved forward.

wc: 721
Spoiler! :

That was odd. Clandestine wasn't sure of how concerned she should be, but if she had to guess, people didn't come out all this way and wait for the homeowner to return unless it was important. She squinted, watching as Matt walked away for a moment before she traced Kenneth and Gregor's trail as they rode up to the cabin.

"Why does he always do that?" Percy muttered as he shut the gate.

Clandestine looked over to him with her brows drawn together.

"Do what?" she asked.

Percy leaned on the fence, looking out at the cows.

"He always says something to make me sound stupid and just..." Percy threw his hands up in Matt's direction. "Leaves."

Clandestine looked over to Matt, who was getting smaller as he quickly made his way over to the stables. Maybe he was anxious to find out who was at the cabin, too? But something didn't feel right. She couldn't quite put her finger on it.

"I'm sorry," Clandestine said absently. "That's not, uh... very nice."

"He does it all the time," Percy sighed. "Acts like I'm an idiot. I can't wait for Gregor to fire him."

Clandestine wasn't sure what to say in response. This felt like some kind of inter-personal drama she wasn't really a part of and didn't need to be, and she didn't really want to take sides. It also wasn't her main concern at the moment. Honestly, she was more worried about the man at the cabin. If there was trouble, she wanted to be there to help, especially since Gregor has been so kind as to hire her.

"So... what are we supposed to do with the cows?" Clandestine asked.

"I already did the headcount," Percy said.

"Ah," Clandestine nodded. "And uh--"

"You don't have to do anything," Percy said. "You did your job already."

Right. 

Clandestine nodded again, feeling a bit awkward and oddly naked without Billy there. She could've kept Billy around, now that she thought of it. She supposed she hadn't been thinking at all. She'd been too caught up in the mystery of who was there.

Turning away, Clandestine cleared her throat.

"Well, uh... I'll see you at the cabin, then," she said.

Looking out at the cabin, Gregor and Kenneth were already there. 

Breaking into a run, she skirted around the fence and let the momentum down the hill carry her quickly towards the cabin. She was aware that it probably looked a little dramatic, but she didn't want to miss out on whatever conversation was being had and make people have to repeat themselves.

wc: 432

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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :

That, and there was something that just didn't feel right. 

She couldn't shake it away. Even though there were no monstrous creatures around, she couldn't help but feel like the hairs on the back of her neck were sticking up. Some forgotten instinct inside of her didn't just worry that danger was coming. She knew it was.

Her feet pounded against the grass until she reached the bottom of the hill and hit dirt. The cabin was only a few yards away, and she started to slow down, still letting momentum carry her forward until she was walking the last few feet, now well within earshot to pick up the conversation.

"I've been tracking him for a few weeks," the man on the porch said.

Clandestine found herself staring at him. He was tall. Young. He had brown skin and dark hair like her, but cropped short and slicked back. He couldn't have been older than his early 20's, and yet he had a shock of white hair by his temple. He looked strong, but lean, and he seemed oddly relaxed despite having the posture of someone alert. Maybe it was his expression, or the way he talked, but he seemed confident. Inherently trustworthy, despite the circumstances.

"He was among your recent hires, yes?" the man continued, looking to Gregor. He didn't even give Clandestine a glance.

"...Yes," Gregor said, and Clandestine could tell he sounded conflicted. Stiffly, he looked up at the man and stuck his hands in his pockets. 

"Are you sure it's him? Matt doesn't seem that dangerous. He's a bit quiet, but he'd never hurt anyone," Gregor defended, though Clandestine didn't understand to what.

But she soon got her answer.

The man reached into his coat. At that moment Clandestine noticed two things.

One: this man was armed. Not just with a gun at his side, but with a whole belt of knives strapped across his chest. Another gun sat on his other hip, and he had a sling around his back. She could see the tip of the rifle sticking out from behind his shoulder, and who knew how many other weapons this man had hidden on his person.

Second: the poster.

The man pulled out a piece of paper folded in half. He opened it with a flick, and the poster faced all three of them with the face of a man drawn on it that bore an eerie resemblance to someone they all knew.

Matt.

Except the name written on the poster said: "Tiberius James. Wanted Alive for committing High Treason against the Moonlight Kingdom."

And when her eyes landed on how many zeros sat next to the "5" and the "gold pieces" as a reward, she wasn't sure if the world stopped moving or if it was just her that froze in place.

Silence sat between the four of them for a few long, painful seconds, and then Kenneth broke the silence.

"I don't see much of a resemblance," Kenneth said, but Clandestine knew it was a lie.

Sure, the drawing wasn't perfect. It looked like it had been drawn when Matt was younger, his face was clean shaven, and he had fewer scars on his face, but the eyes and nose were almost eerily the same. And his thick eyebrows were pretty easy to pick out as a defining feature.

That, and they nailed Matt's resting angry expression.

"He's been wanted for several years. I wouldn't be surprised if he's learned how to blend in and be unassuming," the man said.

There was a beat of tense silence, and Clandestine watched as Kenneth and Gregor shared a look while the man continued.

"Where is he now?"

It was at that moment that the reality of the situation began to sink in.

This man - whoever he was - was a bounty hunter. Matt was a wanted man, and this man was here to retrieve the bounty. He wasn't going to wait for an answer if Kenneth and Gregor were uncooperative. She knew that bounty hunters didn't have problems taking matters into their own hands. That's why they went into that profession in the first place.

Swallowing, Clandestine finally broke free from her frozen panic.

She ran. This time, it was to the barn. That was the last place she'd seen him. That was the last place anyone would've seen him go. Everyone knew he was there. The man didn't even have to ask.

He knew.

Clandestine sped to get there first.

But just as she closed in on the barn, she saw Elliot burst out of the already open barn doors.

Skidding to a stop, heart pounding, she just missed colliding with Matt and Elliot as they rode out, veering around the other side of the barn, out of view.

But that cover would only last them a few seconds.

Spinning around, she looked back at the cabin, in horror, watching as the bounty hunter leaped atop his horse and cracked the reins. Gregor and Kenneth's confused sputtering overlapped in an incomprehensible panic.

No. No. No.

She didn't know what Matt did to earn the title of traitor, but what little she knew of him told her enough: he didn't deserve this.

Her mind moved faster than her body, and she scrambled to whirl back around. She tripped on her own feet, but pushed herself back up and launched herself into the barn with a leap. She saw Billy sitting in a stall, saddle and reins still on. Of course Matt hadn't taken time to take off any tack.

That's why he went to the barn. He was already preparing to run.

Clandestine opened the stall and hastily led Billy out of the barn with anxiety bubbling in her gut. She jumped up into the saddle and as she rode Billy out into the open field, she had a brief moment of doubt.

What was she doing?

But then she looked out and saw Matt and Elliot making their way up the next hill, and the man speeding after them, and she didn't need to think anymore.

"Hyah!" she shouted, and Billy started forward, rounding the barn and quickly gaining speed.


wc: 1029
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

  





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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
Billy gained speed as they tore up the hill, trying to catch up to the bounty hunter who was still trying to gain on Matt.

Matt dissapeared over the hill first. Her heart skipped a beat when the hunter dissapeared a few seconds after him, but as she rounded over the hill behind him, Matt had actually gained distance instead of losing it.

Apparently Elliot was the faster horse, or Matt was the better rider.

If only Billy had that kind of speed. Not to say that Billy wasn't fast, but he wasn't fast enough to close the distance between the hunter and Matt. She was starting to gain on the hunter as the three of them careened down the hill, gravity pulling all of them faster and faster into the level bed of grass between each arch of land. 

Dirt was flying behind them. The long blades of grass started to sway as a breeze came up over the hill, and it almost looked like waves as each gust came in with another push.

If her heart hadn't been racing she might've thought it was peaceful.

The pounding of hooves kept her mind sharp. With another "Hyah!" she tried to push Billy forward, and she could feel him straining to go faster. She hoped he knew he'd get to many pets and snacks after this was over, but she couldn't think that far ahead. She had no idea how this would end, and she couldn't even let her mind entertain the worst case scenarios.

If only it was night. Then maybe she could try to summon the wind wolves back as a distraction. She doubted they were that far off, being the fleeting images that they were.

They kept at it for minutes.

Each minute dragged on, and she knew that none of their horses could keep such a pace forever. They'd have to slow down eventually unless they were all going to run their horses into the ground.

Eventually, the hunter started to gain some distance from her, getting just a little closer to Matt, but Matt and Elliot didn't relent.

They were still too far ahead to catch, and they were too fast of a moving target.

At least, that's what she assumed.

But then the hunter began to slow down. 

They were looking down the slopes of two descending hills. She was still making her way down the first while the hunter stopped at the top of the second. Matt had just crossed a thin creek stretching around the bottom of the second hill, passing between two groups of spindly trees. 

The space between them was narrow, and it almost seemed like the branches were reaching out to him as he shot through them, riding Elliot up the next hill. Though she could see Elliot was slowing a little at the incline.

Moving slower, Matt and Elliot couldn't have been more than 200 yards away from the hunter who sat atop his horse at the top of the hill, now holding a long rifle aimed at Matt.

Clandestine stared, eyes locked on the man as he steadied his aim.

He was peering through a scope. The barrel of his gun slowly followed Matt's movement up the hill.

No way he could make that shot. Could he?

Clandestine didn't feel like she had a choice. She couldn't wait to see.

Billy had them barreling straight for the hunter. Veering him ever so slightly to the side, Clandesinte found herself acting before she had a fully formed plan in her head.

Normally, with fighting monsters, she knew what to expect. With every monster she faced she had years of study to fall back on. She knew what behaviors to expect, how to best diffuse the situation if it was possible, how to kill the creature when necessary. She knew their strengths, and their weaknesses. Where they came from, what they ate. What they would do if you caught them by surprise or came at them head on.

But people?

She wasn't a soldier or a fighter. Every person was different.

It wasn't the same as fighting a beast.

And what was she going to do if she overpowered him? Murder him?

By the time she had that horrifying thought, she'd drawn her sword. The man was so deeply focused on staring through his scope that it was like he didn't even see her coming right up behind him. But just as she reached out to swing and knock the gun from his hands, he ducked. 

Her blade sliced through the air instead of hitting the rifle, and the man practically slid off his saddle, rolling onto the ground. 

She pulled her sword up, eyes going wide as she very nearly sliced through the neck of the man's horse.

Billy whizzed by it all. Clandestine felt her heart pounding in her ears, and she stared at the empty space beside her for a second before pulling on Billy's reins, panickedly turning him around.

Billy skidded at first, having to slow as he made the sudden turn back around. 

They began a wide circle as they clambered back around, climbing around the peak of the hill.

I'm over my head. 

But it was too late to back out now.

Just as she focused her sights back on the man, now standing up, she saw him reach into his jacket. Instinct told her he was reaching for one of his many knives, and she knew that Billy was the biggest target. Panic coursed through her and she turned Billy to the side and whipped her sword around.

Clang!

The knife spun into the grass. Clandestine leaped out of Billy's saddle, running up to the hunter.

She'd spent her lifetime hunting monsters. This man had spent a lifetime hunting men.

She swiped at him, but he dodged. As she spun around to swing overhead, he spun with her, like it was a dance. His hand moved quicker than she had time to react.

Instead of catching him with the blade, he caught her.

Like it was nothing.

His hands clamped around her forearms, freezing her mid-motion. Her eyes widened, and she stepped back quickly, trying to yank him off-balance. But he followed her yank with a hard push of his own, and she bounced off of him with a grunt.

He ripped her sword of out her hands as he knee'd her in the gut, sending her to the ground.

The world fell out from under her feet, and she saw her sword flying down the hill, far out of view and hidden in the three-foot-tall grass.

Her breath came to a halt as she hit the ground. The man looked down at her with a smirk, like he'd already won.

Clandestine furrowed her brows.

Oh, so that's how it was going to be?

She threw herself to her feet with a push of her arms and launched herself at his gut.

wc: 1,164
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soundofmind says...



Spoiler! :
But before she could even get a hold of him, he grabbed her by the shoulders and she was flying again in seconds. She couldn't even register what happened.

One moment, she was upright. The next, her face hit a patch of earth.

Tiny, tiny pebbles of dirt and gravel planted themselves in her face.

Groaning, she pried her face off the ground and squinted out, seeing his feet next to her. This time, she barely got to move her legs to kick at him before she saw a flash of metal in his hands, descending down on her. Her heart stopped as, for a moment, everything seemed to move in slow motion.

His dagger was curved. Shiny. The kind of blade that was well-loved and well polished.

Clandestine was barely on her side, caught by surprise.

Eyes like saucers, Clandestine threw herself onto her back.

The blade lodged in her jacket, just missing her abdomen. It pinned her to the ground.

This is my favorite jacket, she thought, just as she struggled to abandon it. But again, her escape attempt was cut short as the man followed the movement of his arm and landed on top of her.


He clamped his hands over her wrists and held them down with an iron grip. His bones ground against hers, and she writhed to no avail.

It wasn't fair. He was so much bigger and stronger than her.

Then again, the same could've been said for the sandworm. But that was different. This was different. This was--

"Why defend him?" the man huffed, still unrelenting in his grip. "What did he do to deserve this kind of loyalty?"

Clandestine was still short of breath, and frankly, hadn't expected him to start talking. She didn't respond. At least he wasn't trying to kill her yet.

She wriggled more, still struggling to break free.

He lifted her with one swift pull and then slammed her back into the ground. Clandestine could feel her head spinning.

His face was out of focus as he leaned in uncomfortably close. So much so she could feel his breath on her face. He let out an eerie laugh, like he thought all of this was funny.

"You don't know, do you?" the man asked with a smile.

Clandestine knew what he was asking. She knew what he was implying. But she wasn't having it.

Growling, she pushed against him as hard as she could manage, mustering all of her strength.

"Get off me!" she shouted.

Just as she thrusted her head up to try to hit his, he pulled away, laughing again.

"By all means!" he said, effortlessly getting back to his feet.

Clandestine's face throbbed as she pushed herself back to her feet. Just as she felt like her vision came back into focus, she saw Alexander swing his leg.

Are you serio--

Her attempt to jump was too slow. She slammed right back down to the ground with a groan, and she caught herself only enough to spare her face this time.

"Stay out of this," the man said coldly, his words swimming in her ears.

"If you knew who you were defending," he went on, "you wouldn't take this risk. I promise you."

Clandestine pushed her upper body up, looking up at the source of the man's voice.

She wasn't going to win this one and she knew it.

"The name's Alexander Kingsman," the man announced, sitting atop his horse. He'd slung his gun back over his shoulders.

For a second, they met each others eyes.

His eyes were smiling. Smug, like he was proud to know something she didn't.

And then he turned his horse around. With a click of its reins, he was riding off again, kicking dirt up in his wake.


For a moment, she sat there in the grass staring after him. Watching, as he got smaller and smaller, feeling the pain of a hundred tiny grains of hard dirt on the side of her face and the pain of her shattered ego - but mostly, the pain of worry.

Something told her that Alexander Kingsman, whoever he was, had let her off easy.

If he'd let her off easy, what did Matt have coming for him?

Her eyes drifted over to Billy. Thankfully, he hadn't run far. Just out of range of the fight, but close enough to reach again.


Clandestine gingerly touched her face and wiped it off, feeling the ache as she dislodged a tiny rock from her cheek. She didn't know if she'd catch up to them at this rate, but something in her gut told her she had to try.

All she knew about Matt now was that he was wanted, a traitor to the Moonlight Kingdom - allegedly - and his name was Tiberius something - allegedly. And Alexander thought he wasn't worth defending - allegedly.

She wouldn't know until she asked Matt herself. And she hoped to gods that she made it there in time to do so.

Still, Alexander's words floated back into her head.

"What did he do to deserve your loyalty?"

She hated to admit that it was a worthwhile question when it came out of the mouth of her attacker, but it was something she needed to consider.

She was putting her life on the line for him again with this, but this time, it wasn't a business transaction. Helping out an outlaw... well, that could ruin her business just as much as her magic being exposed could. Of course, she still didn't know exactly what Matt was caught up in. It made sense of his reserved, guarded nature though. If he had bounty hunters coming after him of course he was being careful. She could understand that. Being careful.

Course, she'd really put her foot in her mouth by exposing her magic to Matt, but that was a first for her. Not putting her foot in her mouth. Telling someone she had magic.

Regardless.

Matt had made a promise. If he really was a traitor like the poster said, there was no telling whether or not he really was of the character to keep her promise, or if he'd just throw her to the wolves to save himself. But what was most important about all of this was that Matt wasn't just a traitor in general. He was a traitor to the Moonlight Kingdom - the kingdom most responsible for the killing of mages and enforcement of all laws against magic.

In her book, that made him a good person. Besides, she'd rather take Matt's word that he supported mages than the word of some random bounty hunter who just wanted her out of the way so he could get thousands in gold.

Taking in a deep breath, Clandestine pushed herself to her feet and shambled over to Billy. He seemed a little scattered, but not spooked.

"At least Alexander didn't stab me or something," she commented quietly to her horse, still feeling bruised from being thrown around. "That'd make things more complicated."

Gently, she petted the side of his face. She knew how disorienting it was when she abandoned him to take on a monster.

But this was just another type of monster.

Clandestine hopped up on Billy's saddle and scanned the field around her, looking downhill.

She was determined, now.

"Alright," she said with a sigh. "Now... to find my sword."


wc: 1232
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

  








You know how hard it is to feel like an extreme falcon-headed combat machine when somebody calls you "chicken man"?
— Rick Riordan, The Red Pyramid