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Island Magic

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Sat Mar 30, 2024 11:54 pm
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urbanhart says...

The network of corridors felt like a labyrinth: convoluted, and never-ending. The cave they first awoke in, Lyall still didn't fully understand the purpose of. But it eventually fed into what he could only describe as some sort of sunken castle. Hauntingly empty, and sporting the occasional armored corpse in some random nooks. They were stuck wandering the lowermost levels for some time until they stumbled upon their newest companion, Leilan.

Then, once the tilting platform was cleared, things thankfully only went up from there. Gradually, but surely.

They had to walk two-by-two, essentially, given how narrow the halls were. But Alexander, turned out, actually made for fairly friendly company. As they rounded staircases spiraling upward, and walked slowly-brightening halls the higher they went, Lyall happily took the long-lasting distraction that their conversations provided.

It was in some sort of grand dining hall that they finally spread out again, and Lyall fell back into step beside Leilan.

"How are you faring, my friend?" he asked, warmly patting the man's shoulder with a slight smile. "I hope this venture hasn't caught you too off-guard."

Leilan returned the easy smile. "Well, I'm faring pretty well, though I can't say I was expecting any of this when I got here this morning. If you had asked me then how much of my day I'd expect to spend underwater, I would have told you 'zero.'"

Well, this was completely atrocious. He'd only just arrived, and no one warned him? In the slightest?

Lyall scanned the room, just remembering that they were supposed to be looking for his dog too. Though, he was thankful there weren't any land creatures to be found in here. Since. Underwater.

"I feel compelled to apologize again," he offered with a sympathetic glance. "They've completely blindsided you with all this."

"No, you don't need to apologize," Leilan assured him, with a wave of his hand. "You didn't trap me in a time prison and stick me underwater." He then narrowed his eyes playfully at Lyall. "Unless you did, in which case, we'd have a slight problem."

Huffing a laugh through his nose, Lyall raised his hands in mock surrender. "Ah, no. No problems from me."

"Good. That's what I like to hear," Leilan teased. "What about you, though? How are you faring?"

Lyall tucked his hands into his pockets, angling his shoulders slightly as they filed back out into the next series of hallways. "I'm alright," he answered with an appreciative grin. "None of us have perished yet, so. Steps in the right direction, I suppose." He lightly nudged Leilan with his elbow. "I believe I heard you mention Aphirah a little earlier?"

Leilan nodded eagerly. "Oh, yes, I'm from the West there."

Lyall grinned. "What were you doing before this?"

"The last month, I've been at the DMV's regular training," Leilan said. "It's much less glamorous. No sunny tropics, or shopping centers, or upscale beach cabins. But then I got transferred to here-- because I'm replacing a different 'contestant', I think."

Lyall quirked both brows. He'd been wondering what warranted a new contestant in the very middle of their stay here.

"I don't know who I'm replacing," Leilan added, as if seeing his curiosity. "I haven't been told all that much."

"Well, let's see..." Lyall began to mentally run down the full list of contestants.

It felt too optimistic to presume Tula or Hendrik would get booted off...

"Do you feel like there's a likely candidate?" Leilan asked curiously.

"I actually can't say for sure," Lyall said, determining to perhaps consult the internet sometime about which contestants seemed to fall out of the spotlight most with a slight wave of his hand.

Leilan chuckled. "You sure appeared to be thinking about it."

"Too many variables," Lyall said honestly with a dry laugh. "I'm resigned to put off the theorizing for now."

Leilan smiled at that. "True, we've got better fish to fry at the moment." He paused. "Speaking of which, a lunch would be great right about now, but they're making us adventure on an empty stomach."

Lyall groaned with exaggerated despair. "The cruelties never cease!" he cried. Then nudged Leilan with an elbow. "Got a hankering for anything in particular?"

Leilan hummed thoughtfully. "Admittedly, I cannot stop thinking about fish and chips right now."

That did sound good. "Battered or crumbed?" Lyall asked. "With true wedged chips, or the dainty States style?"

Leilan groaned a little, pressing a hand to his stomach. "You're making this harder, but the answer is of course battered and wedged chips."

"Oh, gods, yes," Lyall agreed emphatically. "A man of impeccable taste! I shall relent now that you've humored me so, and we may distract you from your current misery."

"It's too late," Leilan said with exaggerated mournfulness. "There are no distractions great enough for this."

Lyall hummed a laugh. "Well, let's try this, then," he said, tone turning genuinely curious again. "Are you a seasoned archeological adventurer of some kind already? Because I have to say, you're handling all of this unexpected 'adventuring' remarkably well."

"Oh, no," Leilan said with a laugh and a shake of his head. "The opposite, if anything. Bureaucrats don't get out all that much."

"'Bureaucrat'?" Lyall echoed, both brows raising in mild surprise. "May I inquire after your age?"

"I'm twenty-five," Leilan said. "I know, I look closer to twenty. I'm also relatively new to the job."

"As... an intern?" Lyall furthered, still amazed.

Leilan tilted his head to the side thoughtfully. "Somewhat, actually. I do a lot of other people's work for them. It's a bit like being an over-glorified secretary, honestly," he added with a laugh.


"What would you call yourself actually then?" Lyall pressed, grinning with deepened curiosity.

Leilan shrugged. "A diplomat. I travel places to meet with people, trying to represent Aphirah, addressing concerns, discussing with people how to resolve them, putting in my opinions on legislation. It's a combination of being an ambassador for other people's interests and a catch-all member of the executive who's very easy to pass off work to."

Lyall nodded slowly with an impressed low whistle. "So... You're an interning diplomat?" He pursed his lips. "Well-compensated, I hope? That sounds like quite the workload."

"Fairly compensated," Leilan agreed. "But I'm not exactly swimming in vacation days."

"Ah. Overworked, then," Lyall concluded, "but at least not underpaid." His grin softened. "I also hope to hear that you find your work fulfilling in some form or other. It's certainly one of the more interesting answers I've received to the occupation question."

"I definitely do," Leilan assured him. "Although I'm surprised to hear that, considering our company on the island and all the jobs we've got here. You yourself are pretty unique as a young doctor, no?"

Lyall blew a dismissive raspberry. "You might be pleasantly surprised to find us in the similar boat of 'over-glorified intern/secretary'. I really shouldn't have lead with 'doctor'."

"No?" Leilan asked, tilting his head curiously. "If not that, what are you instead?"

Hm. Yes, medical professions left less wiggle room in general, as far as definitions went.

Unless you were basically camped out in the wintry rural north. Where legitimately, fully licensed doctors were a scarcity, and the village folk had to take what they could get.

"More like a nurse for the most part," Lyall answered. "And lab assistant. Filing documentation such as financials and patient records. Tech support and receptionist, when my younger brother isn't around." He shrugged. "Juggling a variety of responsibilities. But I am fully capable in the way that, say, a surgeon was on the western frontier. Perhaps a little short on the studies, but my field experience more than makes up for it."

"That's quite a bit," Leilan said, surprised and impressed. "You're practically a hospital in one person."

"I certainly try," Lyall said with a faint, appreciative grin. "Though, it's worth noting that my brother is the far better lab assistant and tech support. I'm serviceable at best."

"Do you get paid for being humble too or something?" Leilan teased gently.

"I couldn't make even a side gig out of that," Lyall said with a small laugh. "Mister 'over-glorified secretary'. You ought to lead with ambassador next time. Don't sell yourself short."

"Excuse you, I am a glorious height of five feet and six and three-quarters inches," Leilan said, pressing a hand to his chest with mock indignation.

"I." Blinking, Lyall mentally blanked momentarily before it hit him. He barked a laugh with a tinge of embarrassment. "Forgive my blunders, gallant intern of herculean strength. Allow me to amend by pointing out how you tower over mine self by a solid..." He took an imaginary measuring rod between them to count. "...two and a quarter inches. Practically a giant in comparison."

Leilan laughed. "That must be the first time I've ever been called a giant," he said with a grin. "But point taken. Perhaps we could both get better at knowing how impressive we are."

Despite his endeared smile, Lyall merely shook his head. "No, my good sir, I have to decline your sentiments. My ego is quite fine, I assure you."

"Fine as in not hurt, or fine enough already without inflating?" Leilan teased.

"The latter option," Lyall said with another laugh. "Narrow doorways are a hazard as is."

Leilan barked a laugh, rubbing his face with his hand. "Noted. No ego-stroking for you it is, then."

"Your ego, on the other hand," Lyall asked amicably, "is fair game?"

"Uh oh," Leilan said. "I have the sneaking feeling that whatever I say won't make a difference here."

Lyall grinned victoriously. "You'd be correct. Your powers of observation are as sharp as your blade."

"I am resigned," Leilan sighed, "to a situation out of my control."

Bumping his elbow to Leilan's arm, Lyall chuckled. "You have chosen wisely, mister ambassador."

"No choice at all," Leilan lamented.

"Au contraire," Lyall rebutted playfully. "There's always a choice."

"As I recall, those choices were say 'Yes, that's fair game' or say 'No, it's not' and not be heeded," Leilan said with a light grin.

"Nay," Lyall countered. "Well. Sure, you weren't winning this one. But." With one hand behind his back, he gestured with the other to the sword at Leilan's hip. "You ought to go down fighting, right?"

"Challenging you to a duel seems a little extreme, don't you think?" Leilan joked. "Especially if duels are born out of an ego."

Lyall tutted with feigned disappointment. "Spoken like someone afraid to face an inevitable defeat."

"Now, now," Leilan said pacifyingly. "You haven't even got a sword."

"Perhaps I don't need one," Lyall posed, grin turning challenging in a bout of... something rebellious-feeling. Bordering cockiness, despite the unlikelihood of an actual duel taking place. Because that was ridiculous, no one did those anymore.

"Why would that be?" Leilan asked with a curious grin.

With a snap of his fingers, Lyall summoned a small flame and some sparks. "Ranged attacks, my good friend. Never bring a sword to a fire fight."

Leilan's eyes lit up in amazement at the underwater flame. "My mistake for forgetting your gift," he said with a laugh.

'Forgetting'... Lyall wondered what else he knew. How much of his personal life had been aired recently? Maybe he should skim the internet, just to get a pulse on what had become of his reputation.

With another little flourish of his hand, Lyall waved the flame out of existence just as quickly as he willed it. "Would you be confident in having to draw your blade, anyhow?"

Leilan hummed. "Against a target less fearsome than yourself? I think so. I took fencing, which I realize is not the most useful form of combat for anything that isn't a duel, but at the very least I know how to use a sword."

"I'm not quite so fearsome," Lyall relented with a chuckle. He was tempted to reach over to tap the hilt of Leilan's weapon. Obviously, he didn't. "My sister took up fencing once, I believe. Day-to-day use for this skillset? Nay. But you could practice, keep your skills keen, with her. She'd delight in having a proper sparring partner."

"Did she? I agree, I think that'd be fun," Leilan said with a smile. "I might be a little rusty, though."

"Only way to shake that," Lyall countered encouragingly, jabbing the air with an invisible sword, "is to dive headlong back into it."

"Well, if my swordsmanship lets me see another day at the end of this event, perhaps I will," Leilan said, parrying the invisible jab with an invisible swipe of his own.

As he played along by making a show of his "sword" bouncing off Leilan's, Lyall barked a mildly surprised laugh at the thought of... not surviving the DMV. Was that a real possibility? As in, had someone before legitimately perished at the hands of a magic testing facility?

Well. Given some case studies he'd found in the computer room... It wasn't something he could entirely rule out. So it truly was for the better he signed the contract when he did.

"Now, Mister Leilan," Lyall lightly admonished, centering his unseen sabre once more and taking proper position, "you must lead with more confidence. Gusto! Not 'if'--" With a swift lunging step, he jabbed at Leilan's chest again. "--'when'!"

Leilan stepped aside to dodge, greaves clanking as he countered with another jab. "But you already have me fighting for my life," he protested playfully. "My demise might be at hand."

Responding with a parry riposte, Lyall then pointedly broke from a proper fencing position. He whirled out of Leilan's lunging range and stopped a mere foot away to hold his "blade" to the man's throat. "Then really fight like it," he said, leveling him with a challenging gaze, and a hint of true warning in his voice.

Now looking intrigued, and a little surprised, Leilan tilted his head at him.

"If you insist," he said, and then before either of them could speak again, he ducked under Lyall's outstretched arm at super speed to dart to the side and lightly poke Lyall in the ribs with the tip of his index finger, as if it were the point of a fencing epée. "Touché."

Both brows quirked, Lyall faintly grinned in pleasant surprise. "Touché," he echoed, now intensely curious as he tried calculating where else to take this 'fight'.

Glancing him over, Lyall quickly determined that physically overpowering Leilan was never an option. Neither was out-maneuvering speed-wise, which was the upper hand Lyall typically had on a bulkier opponent...

Well. Why the hell not.

With the hand still neatly held behind his own back, Lyall twisted just enough to reach Leilan's hand. Grip firm, he then spun an exact 180 degrees to yank Leilan forward, off his center off balance. For a moment, Leilan lurched with him, seeming surprised by the change in tactics. But then-- it happened in a time so fast Lyall couldn't define it-- his hand was empty, and he'd been spun by the shoulders, twirled to face the opposite way. He heard a lighthearted laugh from Leilan.

Lyall held out his hands to steady himself as his disoriented mind, delayed, registered what had happened.

So, Leilan was a sturdy individual, and quick to adjust with a fast-changing environment. Lyall could see why he made for a good diplomat.

He twisted around, far slower this time, to cast Leilan an impressed grin over his shoulder. "Touché," he repeated pleasantly.

Leilan returned the grin. "You know, I might just survive this, if I may be so bold."

Grin broadening, Lyall folded his hands behind his back as he straightened and inclined his head in yielding. "You could still use a little more vigor in your declarations of confidence," he said with a hummed laugh, "but that's more like it."

"You say this," Leilan said, pointing at him, "but I believe you've gotten distracted from your goal of ego-stroking. Which is how this whole duel business started." He grinned. "I count this as a double-win."

"Ah! Yes." Lyall's smile brightened at the reminder. "You've the mind of an elephant. Which is, a vault of a memory."

So... 'intern' diplomat. Might explain why Lyall might not have heard of him yet. Eyeing a coin pouch hanging by the sword on the man's hip, Lyall wondered if this strange fantasy adventure-themed event left Leilan with any credentials to confirm.

Backtracking to stand by Leilan's side, Lyall offered an arm to link with as he amicably went on, "Physically and mentally, nothing can get by you, hm?"

"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Leilan said with a chuckle, taking his arm.

Nodding, Lyall lead the way, turning his focus ahead to see how he might be able to leverage such an empty environment. "How far would you go, then?" he asked, trying to quell a prickle of concern at the sight of Alan and Alexander a small distance ahead.

"I know plenty of people who could run circles around me, mentally," Leilan said. "Which is actually quite nice. There's a lot to learn by surrounding yourself with people who are smarter than you, and a lot of them are my friends."

"A fount of wisdom, as well, I see," Lyall responded lightly with some humor. Then more sincerely asked, "Fellow, ahm, interning diplomats, then?"

Leilan nodded. "Those run in my social circles."

So, not all of them. A varied group of friends, then. Well-rounded. Good.

As they drew closer to their waiting companions, Lyall nodded to Alan for them to take the hallway first. "Who else do you find in your inner circles?"

He slipped his arm from Leilan's to fall behind just enough for them to fit through the doorway simultaneously, tacitly giving Leilan the go-ahead with a hand lightly pressing on his shoulder.

The cord by which the leather pouch hung seemed like it could be unlooped easily enough.

"Family, and the family of my friends," Leilan said. "It's rather intergenerational."

Lyall felt himself grin with genuine warmth at the answer. "A well-rounded so-- Oop!"

Truly-half distracted, he let his toe snag on an uneven floor tile and adjusted his light grip on Leilan's shoulder to keep from stumbling against his back fully. In the split second distraction, while Leilan caught his arm, he unlooped the leather pouch from Leilan's belt.

"You good?" Leilan asked, apparently oblivious.

"Yes, sorry," Lyall said, hastily straightening. With a small twist at the waist, he made a show of finding the culprit while he slipped the pouch into his own bag, then faced forward again with a slight cough. "A full, well-rounded social life," he started again warmly, gesturing for Leilan to walk ahead in the narrow corridor now.

Leilan did walk ahead, though he glanced over his shoulder at Lyall. "And you? Who's in your circles?"

"Family," Lyall answered with a fond smile. "And, more recently, the contestants here I've had the good fortune of meeting, and the honor to call my newest close friends."

Leilan smiled warmly. "That's wonderful. Who are those people here?"

Glancing past Leilan, Lyall smiled softer as he pointed with his chin. "Alvaro is definitely one of them. Cyrin Bridger, I trust quite deeply as well." With his life, even. "James Hawke, I'll admit I haven't spoken with nearly half as much as I'd like, but I sense in him rather a kindred spirit in a way I can't fully explain."

Leilan's own smile softened. "All wonderful people, from everything I've seen myself."

Flicking his gaze back to Leilan, Lyall tilted his head slightly. "I have to admit, I'm quite curious what you've seen. How this all has been framed for the outsider looking in on this insane rat race."

Leilan chuckled faintly, shaking his head as he looked ahead again. "Well. Speaking of rats, the show has the energy of a livestream of mice in a lab cage, except it's a highly sensational reality TV livestream."

Quickly peeking through the coin pouch hidden within his own satchel, Lyall indeed found a modern Aphiran passport, a regular wallet, something of an electronic key? a necklace with a conch-shaped shell, and a protein bar. He had to huff a laugh at the random protein bar.

The passport opened naturally to Leilan's page of identifying information, like it was frequently opened there. There was a seal not typically present in regular citizen passports, found in the right corner. A golden crest featuring a fierce raptor. A lightning bolt was clutched in its talons as it glanced sideways at the portrait of Leilan on the opposite side of the small page. And, quickly letting the rest of the pages flip for a split second, he found the booklet was stamped from cover to cover, confirming he was indeed well-traveled.

Lyall wasn't familiar with the symbol yet, but something about it just really screamed "government agent". So, safe to assume there was some truth in Leilan's claims. That, or he was a very convincing liar.

"'Highly sensational'," he repeated, sounding amused.

"Oh, yes," Leilan said amusedly, with a wave of his hand. "It's got the drama of a soap opera and the depth of an inflatable kids' pool. There's so much happening, it's been four weeks, and I still have no idea what they're putting all of you through it for."

Lyall laughed aloud at that. "Amazingly succinct," he agreed wholeheartedly, patting a hand on Leilan's sturdy shoulder and letting his arm loosely hang to brush the man's back. And, in the same moment, deftly looping the pouch back to his belt with his other hand.

"But that's just what it's looked like," Leilan said. "What does it feel like?"

"On a good day," Lyall answered honestly, mentally trying to parse through his findings on the pouch contents, "it feels like a mandated tropical getaway with a strange college dorm aspect to the experience. As per the pamphlets we were given upon arrival. On a bad day..." He pursed his lips, glancing off in thought before tentatively asking, "Where exactly did you last leave off on our soapy saga?"

"Not yesterday, but the day before that," Leilan said.

"Oh, shit," Lyall murmured. "So you witnessed the... wayward wendigo venture?"

They stepped out of the narrow passageway, back into the open air where they could finally see sky and sunlight again, and Lyall saw the slight wince on Leilan's face. "Yes."

"Ah," Lyall said ruefully, scanning the expanse of city built at the foot of a cliff, below sea-level. "...Shit. Well." Tilting his head sideways, he shrugged. "There you have it."

"That was a bad day, to make an understatement," Leilan said.

"A severe understatement," Lyall agreed, trying to calculate the most efficient route from here back to ground level. Then glanced back to Leilan with another brief flash of seriousness. "I trust you can infer from that debacle just what exactly they may have in store for us moving forward?"

Leilan pursed his lips, thinking. "You think they'd place us in actual hazards? Everything they've done so far, they seem to be certain we'll make it out of."

The question, simple as it was on its own, was a good way to lose themselves down a litany of rabbit holes. Debating the ethics, the matter of fellow human beings being granted through a rigged game of genetics-- and then proceeding to abuse-- the abilities of a higher power, the concept of timelines and potential pathways, how free will played into everything, if such a thing truly existed--

"Earth to Lyall," Leilan said, waving a hand in front of Lyall's face. He smiled apologetically. "Sorry. Forget I asked."

Blinking, Lyall grinned back with a hint of embarrassment. "No, it's fine. I'm simply multitasking..."

Up ahead, already a level higher than them, Alexander waved an arm and pointed upward at a shaft built into a hollowed out in the cliffside. That was probably their ride.

"...though our skillful navigator," Lyall said, casting the young diplomat a more encouraged smile, "has already successfully charted our route." With a slight bow at the waist, he swept an arm outward, politely beckoning Leilan onward. "Shall we?"

"We shall," Leilan said with a chuckle, stepping ahead and following Alexander.

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Mon Apr 01, 2024 5:04 am
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urbanhart says...

Their most recent and shockingly gory puzzle involving a fight with a treasure chest-shaped monster with enough eyes to instill in the fainter of heart tropophobia and at least 6 rows of shark-like teeth-- Lyall could not make this stuff up if he tried-- only confirmed what he had mildly, fleetingly feared about Alexander: the man found a dark sense of enjoyment in killing things. A philosophy that went entirely against the grain of Lyall's own.

But. They were allied now, and Lyall couldn't deny that man did possess a unique and highly advantageous skillset for such a wild setting as this one.

Leilan swiftly dealt the death blow with his sword, and Alexander wasted no time in digging into the bowels of the slain beast. Lyall had to look away while the hunter carved into its flesh for...

Yes, suffice to say, Lyall was skipping supper.

Anyhow. Within the beast, which evidently served as an actual storage unit as well, Alexander discovered a small hoard of weapons, a parchment envelope sealed off with red wax, rolls of similarly yellowed paper, and a lute, of all things. All completely dry (aside from blood splatters from Alexander's butchering of the thing) and entirely in-tact. Despite the... creature's teeth, and Leilan running a sword through it--

None of this made any sense.

Alex was quick to claim anything metallic with a sharp edge. Leilan evenly distributed the papers once they determined these were in fact sources of one-time-use magic. Lyall had taken the envelope out of curiosity. Thus leaving Alan with the lute.

Which he only stared at with confusion.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" Alan asked, holding the lute between both hands, processing.

"Play it," Alex answered plainly with his head inside the mimic's "mouth" as he dug around.

Waving dismissively, Lyall had to turn away from the hunter and closely studied the lute for any irregularities. "Is it..." He pursed his lips. "...a magical lute?"

"It must be here for a reason, and you are a good player," Leilan mused. "It could be worth a strum."

Hesitantly, Alan adjusted the lute to play, uncertainly strumming a pleasant chord to ring. He flicked his eyes to the three of them before pressing his hand against the neck, stopping the chord from ringing out further.

"I think it's a normal instrument, but..." He carefully slung the strap across his chest. "I can keep it around."

"Only if you want." Lyall mustered a slight grin. "It sounds quite nice, anyhow."

With spoils in tow, they took their leave and ventured into the cover of the dense forest.

Alexander and Leilan parted ways to find a fresh water source. Alan and Lyall, meanwhile, set up camp.

After shedding his blood-stained jacket and tossing it aside, Lyall dropped down heavily by the campfire with the envelope in hand. He turned it over curiously, and traced the edges of the wax seal. The insignia stamped into the seal was that of an ash tree bough.

So, it was for him specifically. Fantastic.

Breaking the seal, he unfolded the envelope to reveal a map of what he could only assume was this new location. The parchment of the map was yellowed. Lyall was inclined to believe it artificially aged. The edges and creases weren't worn in the way truly old and well-used documents should be, the pulp of the paper was too homogenous in texture, and the ink outlining the territories of... wherever the hell they were, was too bold to not be freshly etched onto the page.

But the micro imperfections in the lettering and mountain peaks suggested it was indeed hand-written. Lyall wondered who on staff was tasked with doing that.

Ah, new note: for whenever they returned to island hell, network more with the staff. Probably start with Dante.

Or... Hm. Lyall had to figure out who exactly he'd be working with. If there were clearance levels among them as well. He assumed he didn't have to involve himself with the filming crew, though--

Anyway. Map. Did he mention it was infused with a tracking spell of sorts? Little glowing dots of varying hues slowly traveled across the landmass marked up in Old Swede throughout the day. In all different directions, at different rates. He figured they were the golden one standing still amidst the forest in the bottom left corner. Though he wondereed why Alexander and Leilan weren't noted when they broke from camp to hunt before sundown.

The blue one counter-intuitively headed northward for what looked suspiciously like an active volcano. Lyall had a sneaking suspicion it had something to do with James. Or perhaps Hendrik. Either possibility scared him, to be frank.

The page was framed by swooping scrawl in Old Swede. Approximately 54% of the way through translating it all, he determined they'd been placed in such a way that they'd inevitably run into each other, and thus be faced with the decision to either join forces or simply go it alone. Or, in the case of someone like... say Hendrik, possibly mildly antagonize others. Such was free will.

Lyall blinked, gaze fixed on the map still but now entirely unfocused as his brows twitched inward.

Leilan's concern about facing very real dangers out here was very quickly confirmed by a run-in with a bizzare and highly volatile creature that resembled a treasure chest, of all things. But the successful defeat of that creature only abated the same concerns in Lyall's mind.

The magic of this island was an unprecedented kind of power. Unknowable. Lyall didn't want to know it, honestly, it was so... It was.

But the Trieus? Eve alluded herself to either one or both of them possessing clairvoyance. Which was a severe miscalculation on the part of whatever deities were out there, since the twins and the rest of the DMV had no moral qualms with playing gods themselves, overstepping on matters such as free will. Just enough for it to be noticeable by the more cynical of the general populace.

He was headed somewhere with this. Where was he headed exactly.

Trieus. Clairvoyance. Yes. They had all the data of the known universe at their fingertips, but still the pitfalls of mankind. Which was to say, they could see into whatever potential future lied ahead literally any individual, and had the resources to intervene as their petty, shrunken hearts desired. But that was it. They could run interference, but they didn't have the power to seal fates. Successes or failures weren't guaranteed at their hands.

Lyall, on the other hand... On the ground, directly alongside this group of contestants? And now with even just a small fraction of DMV resources? He might be able to secure their successes. Or, in the case of some like James, at the very least ensure survival.

Lyall's next task, then, was getting everybody through this next event alive. He just had stay alert and aware of any potential next twist, since obtaining the map had been so straightforward.

"How have you been holding up?" Alan asked, at last breaking the long lull in silence. He settled next to Lyall instead of by the burning wood. "That was definitely not how I pictured your morning to go. I'm sorry about that."

Blinking out of his thoughts, Lyall glanced up at him with a hint of concern. But offered a faint, reassurring grin as he tucked away the map and turned his full attention to Alan. "No sorries necessary, my good friend," he said softly. "This is entirely out of our hands, and I'm quite fine anyhow."

Alan quietly watched him, pausing for a moment before cautiously asking, "Are you?"

With a slight huff out through his nose, he folded his arms over his knees. "Just exhausted."

Alan nodded in understanding. "Physically exhausted?" he asked.

"Of course," Lyall confirmed simply.

"And that's truly it?" Alan pressed anyways.

Lyall rested his head sideways on top of his arms, tilted to hold Alan's gaze.

He couldn't help but wonder if... Couldn't this simply wait?

"That's half of it," he said honestly, after momentarily fighting the instinct to brush it off, or even bristle in response.

After another second of searching for the words, Lyall shrugged and quietly settled for, "We can add this morning to the list of bad water experiences."

Alan held their gaze for a quiet moment before turning away, absently watching the fire again with his hands on his lap. "I'd still like to teach you how to swim, just so something like that doesn't happen again," he said more quietly, then sighed. "It doesn't even have to be from me. I just don't want anything like that to happen to you again."

Pressing his eyes shut, Lyall huffed out another, more reluctant sigh. "That would be wise. I promise to look into it."

"Thank you. That means a lot."

Opening his eyes again, Lyall looked him over. Alan wasn't quite tense, but he wasn't relaxed either. And there was a distinct lack of banter, or any trace of lightness in his voice.

"How are you, then?" Lyall asked gently, scooting closer.

"I'm alright," Alan answered assuring my with a small smile, keeping still. He lightly shrugged, gaze resting over the fire again. "Weird day, though."

Lyall's expression softened with sympathy. "That's rather an understatement," he said wryly. "To your credit, though, you're quite quick on your feet. A clever chap." Then, more sincerely, added, "You're doing amazing."

Alan faintly huffed out a breath with a half-smile, his glance towards Lyall lingering. "I'm not a child, Lyall. It's alright. You don't need to make me feel better. I'm really quite alright."

"Just tired, then?" Lyall guessed.

Alan hummed, tapping his fingers against his lap. "Just exhausted."

Lyall narrowed his gaze ever so slightly in a show of skepticism. "...And that's truly it?"

Alan smile grew in amusement as he watched Lyall closely for some drawn moments before nodding and turning away, answering with, "Yup."

And, just like that, the question was so easily dismissed for the moment. Without even so much of a hint at the true half of it, and yet Lyall knew beyond a shadow of a doubt there was something he was burying.

There was something deeply hidden behind Alan's easy smiles. Maybe someone more naive or with less energy to spare would be able to take his devil-may-care attitude at face value. And, though Lyall himself could smell the secrecy from the very start, he almost became one of those people.

But then they talked on the pier. And danced, but that was neither here nor there. Point was, Lyall was deeply invested now. Alan was his friend. Possibly his closest, by far. Lyall saw past the charade, and wanted the opportunity to dig deeper.

Now probably wasn't the best time for it, anyhow. It was for the better that they both simply drop it. Return to it when they had real privacy again.

"Whenever you do want to chat about our 'weird day', though," Lyall offered, "my door's open to you. Anytime, alright?"

"I know," Alan said gently, then weakly elbowed his side. "Same goes for you, you know. You don't have to wait until I come to you."

Huffing a quiet laugh, Lyall glanced down at the forest floor and conceded, "Yeah, yes. I will... try and bear that in mind." He lightly bumped shoulders with Alan in turn, slight grin warming as he met Alan's umber gaze once more. "Thank you."

In the short lapse of quiet that followed, Lyall found comfort in simply... sitting still for a moment. Not perfectly well and without troubles bubbling just beneath the surface, mind you, but. It felt akin to contentment all the same.

"The ~food~ has arrived!" Alex announced.

And in sauntered Alex, their haul for supper in tow.

Lyall barely registered tasting much of anything during the meal. Merely fueled up as the rest of the group evaluated their findings from the creature that Alexander identified as a 'mimic'. He let his mind quietly wander back to the archaic writings on the map, still parsing out what were doubtlessly clues or even hints on how to direct this event. Just so he knew what approaches to probably avoid if he could. Out of spite.

Standing up after their meal was done, Alex addressed the whole group.

"Well, it's getting late," he said. "With foreign environments such as these, we shouldn't let our guard down. I'll take first watch," he volunteered. "It'd be best if we took watches in pairs, to be safe."

"I'll stay up with you," Alan said as he stood up, quick to chime in.

Lyall kept a neutral face, despite Alan's sudden and frankly disquieting eagerness.

"Perfect," Alex said with a smile, briefly flicking a smirk in Alan's direction.

"Sounds alright to me," Leilan said. "How long until you wake us?"

Something still didn't sit right with Lyall. The arrangement. Backed by the context of, as far as Lyall could tell, Alan having no pre-existing connection with a man who pole danced and killed for pleasure, and just that same morning was so clearly eyeing Alan in a way that made Lyall's insides mildly churn merely bearing witness to.

Yes, not-so-gentle viewer, he caught that. It was dark, but Lyall was still blessed (or cursed) with the ability to see without light, and Alexander was everything but subtle. Even now.

"I might be able to lend a hand instead," Lyall offered simply. "Or. A pair of eyes. My ability to see into near pitch darkness, it appears, has been maintained, even in this new form."

Suddenly sliding up beside Lyall, Alex put his arm over Lyall's shoulder. It took every fibre of Lyall's being to not visibly jump.

"You know," Alex said. "I've been given the gift of night-sight as well. So if we'd like to do this smart, I suggest we split up, and you take the next shift with Leilan."

Ah. Well, fuck.

With a wilting grin, Lyall had to concede in the name of common sense, "Strategic."

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Carina says...

It was dark, it was cold, and Alan was awake alone with his thoughts.

But he didn't need to be.

Alan eyed the other side of the clearing they called their camp. The soft moonlight glow cast barely enough light for him to notice Lyall and Leilan sleeping soundly on top of the only two bedrolls they had, their breaths deep and steady. On the other side of the clearing sat Alexander, who was repeating the same arm movement over and over, a soft metallic shling ringing out. Maybe sharpening a blade. His spear, perhaps.

Quietly, Alan stood up and circled his way around him, the screeching crickets quieting as he walked past. Alex, quick to notice, also halted his sharpening as he approached. Wordlessly, Alan invited himself next to him, sitting on the same log, but allowing a foot of space between them.

"Hey," he greeted softly, peering back towards their sleeping companions to confirm that they were indeed still asleep.

Alex eyed Alan intently, hand hovering over the glistening tip of his spear. It looked like he'd found a rock suitable to sharpen it with.

"Hey," Alex said measuredly.

"Do you care for some company right now?" Alan asked, still keeping his voice down.

"Depends if I'm the company you want to keep," Alex said slowly.

Alan glanced at the others again. He thought it was obvious that Alex was the company he was seeking considering the others were sleeping, but it didn't hurt to assure him anyways.

"You are," he said with a small assuring smile. "That's why I'm asking you."

Alex narrowed his eyes ever so subtly with a purse of his lips. With a small tilt of his head, he got to his feet, carrying the spear over with him. He sat on the other end of the log, leaning the spear against it beside him.

"You seem awfully comfortable with me all of a sudden," Alex said, eyeing Alan skeptically.

"Ah..." Alan stared down at a pebble on the ground, only taking a moment to reflect over his slim encounters with Alex in the past. "I'm sorry about that. I really should have talked to you sooner, but I really don't have any ill intentions. Just... thought we could use each others company. That's all. I can leave if you'd like, though."

"See, I'm just confused because you're giving me mixed messages, here," Alex said, leaning forward and resting his hands on his knees. "It wasn't even a week ago that you were consistently avoiding me. Ever since the speed-dating event you haven't acknowledged my existence except to be polite in a public setting. And now, all of a sudden, here you are - not only seeking me out, but explicity expressing interest. So, forgive me if I'm more than a little skeptical."

Hm. That was a lot to unpack, but Alan didn't really have the time to do that all right now. He sighed, taking a deep breath before sitting up straighter and angling himself towards Alex.

"You're right. I'm sorry," he said, meeting his eyes. "My behavior has been unacceptable. It has been a difficult last couple of weeks, but that's no excuse to treat you like I did. Even though it wasn't my intention to hurt you, I did so anyways. I truly am sorry. You have every right to be skeptical of me. I won't deny you that."

Alex stared at him for a moment. It was hard to tell what he was thinking, but it felt like he was considering Alan's words for a moment. Letting them sink in. Lowering his shoulders a bit, Alex visibly seemed to relax.

"I guess that means we're good, then," Alex said.

"More than good," Alan assured gently. "Trust takes time to build, so I don't expect you to fully trust me now. It's okay. I don't expect anything from you."

Alexander quirked a brow at that. Alan raised a hand up assuredly.

"But I do want to ask you a question," he added on gently. "If that's okay."

"Fire away," Alex said.

Alan was quiet for a moment, setting his hands on his lap before asking, "How have you been doing? Regarding today, but also in general."

Alex's brows twitched together slightly. He tilted his face to the side but had a hint of a grin.

"Well, I daresay I don't actually mind being purple," he said. "I think it's really all quite fascinating. How they managed all of this."

Alan quietly hummed, his gaze lingering on his deep purple skin that blended well with the ambiance of the night. "Well, purple is a good color on you. It matches your skin tone well."

Alex let out a light laugh at that.

"I suppose the only thing I miss is having a proper toilet around," he said. "Or some goddamn toilet paper. But I've been spoiled, in the cabins and all. I suppose it's about time they made us rough it a bit."

"It is quite a culture change," Alan agreed. "I do think they're trying to spoil us here considering the lengths of extravaganza the DMV goes through." He lightly shrugged before asking, "On that note, what's home at Nye like for you? Are you used to cabin life?"

"It's a bit hard to encapsulate a whole culture in a sentence," Alex said. "So I'm not going to bother. But as for cabin life - eh." He shrugged. "It's probably the nicest place I've ever lived. You?"

"Yeah..." Alan angled his head up towards the sky, admiring the night sky. Curiously, there were no stars. "Same here. I think most of us feel that way, though. So, it's a whole experience."

Alex watched Alan for a moment, from what Alan could catch in the corner of his eye. But after a few seconds he turned to look at the starless sky too.

"Right," he said. "A whole new experience."

A lull of silence passed between them, but Alan didn't feel compelled to fill it. The seconds that passed were peaceful, and neither of them seemed to want to break it.

Eventually, Alan let out a satisfied sigh, turning to face him again. "I think your mom and my mom are friends now," he said out of the blue.

"Yeah, my mom already told me," Alex said.

Alan huffed out of his nose in amusement. "My mom only had good things to say. She says we have a lot in common, though..." He smiled, tilting his head. "I don't know. Do we?"

Alex tilted his head towards Alan again.

"Couldn't say. Did she mention anything in particular, or do you think she said that so you'd go find out for yourself?" he asked.

Alan took a moment to reflect back on the random facts his mom told him, though he didn't spend too long dwelling on them, instead thinking out loud. "I don't think she mentioned it with any agenda. She just wanted to share," he started with a slight smile and shrug. "But she gave me a couple of comparisons. She told me that you and Sienna are close, just like me and my own mom. You help her out with finances. I do too. And you had dreams of becoming a dancer, but opted to choose a different path, one that held less risk." He innocently shrugged a shoulder. "I'm sure this is only a portion of the full picture, but from this alone, I can see why she'd make the comparison and say we have a lot in common."

"Huh," Alex said. "So we're both momma's boys."

"I suppose so," Alan agreed with a hum. "I don't think that's a bad thing, though. Quite the opposite."

"Having strong familial bonds is usually a good thing," Alex said.

Alan nodded. "A green flag, even."

"What'd you take up instead of music?" Alex asked.

Alan huffed out of his nose, faintly smiling while shaking his head. "Nothing. That's where I went wrong. So, that's not a great comparison."

"'Went wrong' seems like a strong moral statement about a career choice," Alex said.

"What do you mean?" Alan asked.

"You just chose a different path," Alex said plainly. "Doesn't mean it's 'wrong.'"


"What made you choose yours?" Alan asked curiously.

"Money," Alex said with a shrug.

"Is that really the only factor?" he pressed.

"Yeah, and I just like fucking killing things," Alex said, a devilish grin growing on his face.

The sentence hung thickly in the air, along with another thought that had been hiding in the back of Alan's mind all day. He finally let go of it, allowing the thought to slither out of his head.

"Can I ask you something?" he asked, attention fully fixed on Alex.

Alex tilted his head with curiosity.

"Just ask it," he said.

Alan slid his legs closer to the log, setting his hands on his lap. "It's about the dreams," he began, lifting a hand placatingly. "But I'm not upset, and it's nothing against you. It's just..." He paused, setting his hand back down hesitantly. "I'm curious why you picked those topics for me. That's all."

"I was just working with what was already there," Alex said.

Alan pinched his brows together, trying to understand. "What does that mean?"

Alex looked up to the sky with a sigh and an eye-roll, slouching forward to hold his hands between his knees.

"Well, you see, with the way my powers work, I get to peer into people's subconscious, because that's where all dreams stem from," he said. "Depending on the person, I can gather a lot of information about what lurks beneath the surface. When I create dreams, I actually can't use anything that isn't already there. If it's not a thought or experience pre-existing in someone's subconscious, I can't insert it in there. So... if I want to give someone a nightmare, I tend to look for the fears that are most hidden. They make the best nightmare material."

Alan did his best to understand, and he heard what he was saying, but it wasn't clicking. "So... what are you saying? Those thoughts and ideas didn't come from you?" he asked slowly.

Alex met Alan's eyes. "Yeah. Those ideas were already there in your head. I just brought them to the surface in the form of a dream."

Maybe the words weren't clicking because this wasn't new information after all. Alan had already thought that even before learning that this was orchestrated by Alex. This didn't change anything.

The dreams were not insignificant after all. They meant something, and it couldn't be ignored.

"Can I ask you something else?" he asked in a more hushed voice.

"You don't have to ask to ask a question," Alex said. "Just ask it."

"Why me?" Alan asked, getting straight to the point. "What do you see in me?"

Alex sighed, rolling his eyes once more.

"I was bored. You had me miffed," Alex said. "Again, I'm sorry for the nightmares. I know it was wrong."

"No, no. I'm not talking about the dreams." Alan shook his head, scooting a few inches closer to him on the log. He paused, intently keeping his gaze on his face. "What do you see in me?"

Alex's grin faded completely, and he narrowed his eyes subtly, looking at Alan more closely.

"I'm not sure what you mean," he said slowly.

But Alan knew that Alex knew exactly what he meant. He found himself speaking again before really even thinking about his words, but at this point, he was unsurprised.

"Am I truly giving mixed messages," he asked more steadily, "or am I just playing hard to get?"

Alex narrowed his eyes more intently.

"I don't know," he said quietly. "You tell me."

"You're a hunter," Alan said with a fluorish of his hand. "Do you ever find yourself playing with the prey before your kill?"

"It's not very classy to play with your food," Alex said, briefly looking Alan up and down before meeting his eyes again.

"You're right." Alan scooted closer as he kept his steady gaze, keenly aware that their hands were now inches away. "I suppose that makes us both naughty instead."

"And fortunately for you," Alex said, dropping his voice to a near-whisper. "I've never had a thing for gentlemen."

In retrospect, this should have been obvious from the start. But it was good to know now than never.

Leaning in, Alan slid his hand closer until he was touching his hand. Rough. Rough and skin. Those were the only words that came to mind as he traveled up his arm, grazing the tip of his finger along his leather armor until it reached his shoulder.

He could have asked Alexander anything. Verbal consent, or asking him what he liked, or playful flirting of compliments.

But honestly, he didn't care.

Alan pulled Alex in, simultaneously leaning in so that he didn't have to draw this out any longer. His lips found his, and they kissed. At least, Alan was pretty sure they did. It was hot and heavy. Rough and skin.

And then suddenly, Alex pulled away.

"Do you really want to do this with the others right there?" Alex asked quietly.

Alan only gave this a fleeting thought, briefly glancing back at Lyall and Leilan's sleeping bodies a near distance away.

No. He didn't care.

Alan ignored his question, stealing his breath by attaching his lips on his again, his hands traveling down his chest to pull away his leather armor.

And then Alan was picked up, quite roughly, and it caught him so off guard that he almost yelped. Almost. Alex lifted him off the log, carrying him somewhere off into the trees with his hands hooked under Alan's legs.

He didn't know where he was going, exactly. Alan was far too preoccupied with figuring out how to remove his damn armor all the while being carried.

Alan didn't really have anything running through his mind. That was, until a random thought kept echoing in his head over and over.

Was Alexander's whole body purple?
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urbanhart says...

So. Theft in a wild wood was still a hazard, evidently.

The writing in Old Swede on the map had revealed the other glowing dots to be indications of fellow contestants grouped together. So, who wasn't grouped? And would stoop so low as to steal from them in the middle of the night?

Or was it some other creature that now apparently had been successfully resurrected from centuries worth of being Very Not Alive and relegated to mere stories of fantasy? Truly ground-breaking science, for the sake of televised hell, no less. Only in this lifetime.

T'was a new day, still in this godsforsaken jungle. But a fresher mind allowed for a more level-headed and thus logical re-approach on the matter.

No one got hurt. It was only stolen goods, thank gods. But that wasn't the point. The point was, it could have been way worse.

And, judging by the fact that Alan and Alexander both managed to lose the very clothes on their backs, as well as fail to catch the culprit-- literally the only purpose of a night watch-- One had to be a very new brand of willfully dense to not be able to read the big neon signs all pointing toward the singular cause for their failure to do their one job for the evening.

He couldn't help but worry a little, because this kind of recklessness was not the Alan he knew.

So he asked for directions from Leilan to the nearest source of clean water. Then asked for Alan to join him in refilling their canteens, in preparation for the trek ahead.

Lyall didn't bother with small talk on the way. Perhaps a bit predictably by now, Alan didn't either. But what perplexed Lyall was how he still seemed so unfazed by everything.

"So, we're back to square one, it seems," Lyall finally said as he knelt down by the brook. He swung one water bag from his shoulder and dipped it in.

Alan mirrored his actions, kneeling with one knee and opening one of the four canteens. "What do you mean?" he asked.

Lyall felt like he was puzzling him out all over again.

"We've wound up with fewer supplies than we started with," he answered instead.

Alan nodded. "Yeah," he murmured, lowering part of the the canteen's lip into the running fresh water. "Seems we're back to square one."

Humming, Lyall lifted his canteen to check how full it was. Lowered it back into the river. "I find it odd that, even a hunter as experienced with the wilderness as Alexander, was unable to catch anything. Neither hide nor tail of the thief. Not even a trail."

Alan lowly hummed, still focused on filling the canteen even though it was already full. The water rushed past it, but he didn't pull it out of the surface yet. "It is odd. And unfortunate. It was a bad coincidence."

Taking the first canteen out of the water, Lyall sealed it shut as he glanced sideways at the side of Alan's face. "You were there, yes?"

"Mmhmm." Alan lifted the canteen, pouring out a little bit of the surplus water so he could properly close the lid. "We kept the first watch together, as you know."

"And..." Lyall shrugged. "Saw nothing? Heard nothing?"

Alan shook his head, swapping canteens. "No. Sorry."

"What were you doing, then?" Lyall prompted more directly. "If not keeping watch."

There was a delay in answering as Alan slowed his actions, but continued to focus on refilling the other canteen. "I admit I was distracted," he answered cordially. "My fault, I know. I already apologized."

The response, though direct in appearances, was still strangely lacking any sort of... conviction. And was blatantly missing the point, anyhow.

"And you remain forgiven," Lyall said simply, turning back to the task at hand, "but we can't..."

He stopped short of any conclusive statements. He needed direct confirmation first.

Turning to fully face his friend, he settled back on his haunches, empty canteen in hand. "Alan."

Lyall waited for him to fully give him attention. And he did, after a short pause. Alan set the canteen aside, wordlessly meeting his eyes as he waited for him to continue.

Drawing in a short breath to steel himself and his resolve, Lyall asked bluntly, "Did you sleep with Alexander?"

Finally, he had his attention. Alan studied his face, ever-so-slightly drawing his brows together, but otherwise not showing much reaction.

"I did," he answered calmly.

Lyall nodded. Good. Great. That didn't bother him one bit.

He opted for, "Right," instead. Make no mistake, he wanted to know why, but--

Alan beat him to the thought and asked first.

"Why?" he pressed with a slight tilt of his head. "Does that bother you?"

Blinking, Lyall tilted his own head at an opposite angle. "...No," he fibbed. "Just your timing with it all."

Alan let out a faint low hum, slightly narrowing his eyes at him. "And that's truly it?"

"No," Lyall said, with slightly more honesty and exasperation. "But I'm not here to tell you what to do--"

"It's fine," Alan cut in, now settling to fully sit on the ground, still giving Lyall his full attention. And just like that, he was fully invested in this conversation. "You can, and you may."

"Only," Lyall slowly resumed, "to suggest that you spare a forethought, and simply accept my offer to take watch next time."

The next few seconds droned on. Alan kept his intrigued gaze, smile growing to a faint smirk of amusement. He only broke the stare once to glance at the water, clearly contemplating his words. Just when Lyall began to hope that perhaps he had gotten through to him--

"Are you suggesting that we take watch together next time?" he asked, a curious glint in his eye.

Lyall didn't react.

The question itself was innocent enough. But Alan was by no means conversationally dense. There was a particular set of implications tied to the concept of 'night watch' within the context of this conversation specifically. And the curiosity in Alan's suddenly-attentive eyes made Lyall wonder where on earth the musician's mind even was.

"All I'm saying," Lyall started again, "is that, if you never planned on keeping watch in the first place, then just say so. That way someone else may step into the role." He swept an arm sideways back to camp. "And we don't unexpectedly find ourselves short on supplies."

Alan nodded repeatedly, eyes following his movements and gestures. "I hear you. I can ask you next time to keep watch with me." He met his eyes again with a small smile. "How does that sound?"

Steadily holding his gaze, Lyall simply inclined his head. "I'm amenable to the idea. Though you seemed keen on 'taking watch' with Alexander, and I'm not quite offering to take his place, so. A part of me fears you're still missing my point."

"I hear you, Lyall," Alan said with a playful smile, swatting at his knee. "I made a mistake, but it won't happen again. Especially because we make a better team." He paused, adding, "We can 'take watch' together while also ensuring the team and items stay safe and secure."

Lyall actively fought the urge to glance down where he touched his knee.

Was Alan...?

Was he alright? He'd been so disengaged and distant this morning. Even in staying accountable-- It wasn't that the apologies were insincere, it simply felt like the full weight of the situation wasn't fully registering. Lyall assumed it was lingering shock from the events of the previous day.

Yet, here Alan was, suddenly so awake again. During what was supposed to be a serious conversation going over what could have been due to the consequences of his neglectful decision-making. Lyall was trying to emphasize the importance of alertness, lest they face something more dire. What part of that communicated, "We are now having fun"?

"I--" Lyall blinked. Though initially unsure of where exactly to start unpacking Alan's response, he cracked a faint and hesitant grin. "We do make for a wonderful team, Alan," he agreed, "but, a persisting concern of mine is the matter of--"

"Shhhhh," Alan shushed, interrupting him. He mirrored his grin, gently placing a hand on his shoulder. "I already told you: I hear you, Lyall. I understand. You don't need to tell me twice."

Huffing out through his nose, Lyall lightly batted Alan's hand away, but Alan playfully batted back, grinning.

"No, nope," Lyall said, schooling his own features once more as he pointed sternly, "I'm telling you what to do, not the other way around."

Alan feigned an exaggerated pout. "Okay then. Tell me what you'd like me to do."

"Take this seriously," Lyall said, turning back to the river and dipping in the still-empty canteen. "We're not exactly in the clear out here."

"I know." Alan paused, and even out of the corner of his eyes, Lyall could feel his studious gaze set on him. "You don't have to worry about this happening again. I don't foresee myself sleeping with Alexander again, anyhow."

Lyall only nodded once in response. Keeping a loose hand, he lifted the canteen and secured it shut, thoughts slowing just enough to now ponder that.

...Much as he wanted to put on a show of indifference, he was now intensely curious about another sudden inconsistency.

Brows furrowing, he turned back just enough to search Alan's eyes, sparkling with renewed playfulness and his usual openness. He was once again the Alan Lyall had first known, but he still didn't understand.

So he had to inquire, "Do you often indulge in loveless one-night stands?"

Alan pursed his lips, reaching over to close the last filled canteen. "Do you?" he asked just as casually.

Turning his gaze to the trees ahead, Lyall considered answering.

Then merely hummed and finally got back to his feet. "We shouldn't keep them waiting," he said instead, starting to lift the strap of the second water bag over his head.

Alan nodded, quick to get up on his feet as well, sweeping all the canteens to hold with both arms. "You're right," he said, standing in front of him and leaning in so that he could grab two of the canteens off his hands. Still, Alan smiled and met his eyes again, the innocuous playfulness still present in his demeanor.

"And for the record," he continued, "my answer is no." He shrugged innocently. "At least, not when I have someone else on my mind."

Hand hovering the canteen strap over his own shoulder and both brows raised, Lyall wordlessly stared at him. Nary a coherent thought, he was caught so off-guard.

And suddenly Alan grabbed his wrist, gently guiding his hand to rest on top of one of the canteens he held against his chest. "Ready to go?" he asked innocuously with a smile, keeping his eyes on him.

And Lyall couldn't not let his eyes flick down to where Alan's fingers rested over his pulse. Where his own hand nearly brushed Alan's chest.

"More than ready," Lyall answered smoothly, meeting Alan's smile with a more even expression of his own.

Alan's smile warmed, but it seemed to be more out of amusement. "Can you help me?" he asked teasingly, flicking his own eyes down to their hands on top one of the bottles. "Carry the canteens, I mean."

Lyall finally cracked a dry, truly teasing grin at that. He slipped the strap of the other canteen from his shoulder, and placed both bottles in his own hands on top of the piled ones in Alan's arms. "Nope," he chirped, "I think you can handle that just fine."

Alan huffed a laugh, grinning. "First you want me to ask for your help, and now you're denying me of it."

"Consequences," Lyall answered simply, patting Alan's shoulder with a cheeky shrug.

Alan gasped, grinning wider. "And now you're punishing me."

Huffing a laugh, Lyall just stepped around him and took the lead back to camp.

It was a short walk back, and initially, they commuted in comfortable silence. But this time, for whatever new reason Lyall couldn't comprehend, Alan was eager to dive into conversation.

"For the record, I did keep watch for the majority of the night," he began as he caught up to Lyall's side. Smiling, he leaned in to bump shoulders with him. "And most of it was spent alone, watching you and Leilan sleep. I did have the fleeting thought to wake you, though."

Neatly folding his hands behind his back, Lyall turned an easy grin toward his friend as he kept steady on the 'path'. Despite his doubts that this was true, he decided to follow along on the off-chance that something serious had indeed been on Alan's mind at the time.

"Why's that?" he asked, brow furrowing just slightly with a hint of worry.

"Because I wanted to spend time with you," Alan said warmly with a flourish of his hand, as if it was supposed to be obvious. "Maybe it won't just be a fleeting thought next time."

Ah. Hm.

Barely narrowing his gaze, Lyall tilted his chin up. "And yet..." How to phrase this in a normal way. "...Alexander. Was an acceptable stand-in?"

Still walking ahead, Alan kept his gaze fixed on Lyall as he also gave him a slight narrowing of his eyes, smile turning more playful. "You sound disappointed."

"To be frank," Lyall answered smoothly, turning his gaze ahead of them once more, "yes. Quite." He playfully pressed a hand over his own chest, feigning hurt. "To know I'm so easily replaced..."

Alan grinned, huffing out a laugh with a shake of his head. "Lyall, I'm disappointed in you. After all the songs I wrote about you, I thought you'd know by now that you'd never be replaced." He shrugged a shoulder. "You can't be replaced if you were never swapped out to begin with."

Well. Lyall could take this further.

He opted to circle back instead. "So that was it, then? Just to spend time?" A quick pause. "Why didn't you wake me?"

With growing intrigue and amusement, Alan kept his eyes on him, studying him like an open book. "I'm not sure." He shrugged, peeling his gaze away just in time to walk around a thin tree. "Lack of intuition, I suppose. But I'm quick to learn a lesson. There will be plenty more other opportunities, I'm sure."

'Plenty more'... Where was this coming from?

With Alan's focus turned ahead now, Lyall took a moment to intently watch him this time. "That's debatable," he hummed jokingly as he ducked under a low-hanging branch. "I've found you've a rather thick skull at times."

"Hm. Really?" Alan hummed with a playful grin. "I haven't heard that one from you before. Tell me how you really feel."

There was lightness in Alan's tone, but the way he posed the question warranted a more thoughtful response. Almost felt like a trap, really. Lyall would normally respond in kind. But normally, he knew what game they were playing. And Alan was throwing a variety of curveballs that Lyall wasn't quite sure how to navigate around.

"You've heard countless times what I think of you," Lyall answered breezily instead. "Surely you're tired of me sounding like a broken record."

"And that's where you're wrong," Alan said just as breezily.

But instead of adding in a equally playful statement to fuel the banter, he stepped in front of him, bringing them both to a sudden halt. The grin washed away, and he looked down at him quite seriously-- and closely-- waiting until he caught his eyes. Lyall felt his own grin fade slightly as he counted only an alarming few inches between their noses. Keeping his chin level with the ground, he curiously met Alan's gaze through errant strands of his own hair.

"I won't get tired of you, Lyall," Alan went on with a severely deep sincerity in his voice, replacing all hints of prior playfulness.

And, just like that, everything clicked into place.

The banter wasn't new by any means. Yet it was changed on a deeper, fundamental level within the span of mere minutes. Because now, for whatever reason, Alan was flirting with him.

But just as fast as the moment came, it disappeared. With a smile tugging at Alan's lips, he finally broke eye contact and turned away without another word, resuming their walk.

It was only when he stepped away that Lyall let out a breath through his nose. He watched Alan's retreating back for 8 seconds before silently trailing after him.

"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" Alan said pleasantly with a friendly smile over his shoulder, pace slowing to allow Lyall to catch up to him. "And I know you already have a plan to tackle it. Can you tell me about it?"

"Of course," Lyall answered evenly, flashing him a brief grin before training his eyes on the trees ahead of them. "It's fairly straightforward, actually~"
Last edited by urbanhart on Sat Apr 06, 2024 6:54 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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soundofmind says...

Morning came. There was no sun to rise in the ash-filled sky, and they didn't stick around to enjoy what little light there was.

All aware that the volcano was bubbling even more than it was the day prior, they all went into the volcano with haste.

As expected, the tunnels connected unpredictable like a labyrith. There was no map, so they were creating one on the way. Eve and Hild took to taking notes with supplies their had in their bag, and James led the way just in case they ran into any trouble.

For a few hours, it felt like they were walking in circles. The deeper they went, the hotter it got, and the more frequently they had to stop to hydrate from the water they had. Rationing it out felt like a test with the amount of water they were losing, but they were, at the very least, surviving.

After passing the same twisting stalagtite for the third time, the four of them let out a long sigh.

They were lost. And it took them another ten minutes of discussion and walking to retrace their steps and find another way out. Or in.

Still unsure where the tunnels were leading them, they finally hit something besides an endless array of volcanic rocks.

Magma mephits.

James rushed ahead to hit one with his sword. Before he could even swing at it again, it perished - but upon dying, it exploded like a lava bomb. He narrowly dodged the splatter to his face, but it hit his armor, sizzling against the metal.

Noting that the mephits died quickly, but went out with a bang, Eve used another spell to take out the group of mephits from afar.

"Ice Shard," was the spell, apparently. And the mephits were sensitive to the shard that shattered in a cloud of cold. It was enough to kill them, but James had to duck again to dodge their collective explosions.

They had to wait a minute for the mephit's remains to cool before they could walk through uncharred. But it seemed like finally, they were making progress. Because it wasn't long after their first fight that they ran into a door - which the mephits must have been guarding.

It was a large set of double-doors, towering over all of them up to 20 feet. The doors looked heavy, and there was some foreign text inscribed on them that James couldn't read. In fact, none of them could read it, which led James to believe it wasn't a real language. It was probably some fantasy cong-lang.


The lock holding the doors shut didn't have a keyhole, and the lock didn't look breakable, so the four of them were stuck.

At least, until they figure out how to get by.

"This must be the heart of the volcano," Eve deduced, pulling out her remaining scrolls and filing through them to meticulously study one-by-one.

"And the text on the archway must be a riddle," Hild added in a hum.

"Can't solve a riddle if we can't read it," James murmured, wondering where the cameras were so he could stare into one disappointedly.

"Perhaps the unknown language is a red herring. This may not be a word riddle after all," Eve murmured, holding her packet of spells. "Hild, Shane: do either of you have a spell pertaining to concealment?"

Furrowing a brow, Hild quickly dug through her bag. "I might..."

Shane observed the lock, brows furrowing in thought. He stepped forward, tentatively poking at the lock, like he wasn't sure if that would burn him or not. When he wasn't hurt, he pressed his full hand to it, closing his eyes.

"It remembers heat," he said, opening his eyes and removing his hand. "Fiery warmth. It seems like it was forged in flames."

"We are at a volcano, but..." Eve glanced to Hild, her eyes landing on the fiery tendrils of hair. "There are no coincidences here."

Beneath their feet, they felt a tremor rumble throughout the volcano.

Right. It was going to blow soon. They'd spent a whole day just looking for this place, too.

"Maybe..." Eve furrowed her brows, intently staring down at the lock. "Maybe only someone with a volcanic heart can open the lock to the heart of the volcano." She turned to Hild. "Hild, can you use your fire magic on the lock?"

James blinked, turning his head to the side as he looked at Hild.

"You have fire magic now?" he asked. He thought that was Lyall's thing.

Eyes alit with the realization, Hild waved for Shane to step back. "We figured only temporarily," she answered, taking a steady stance and holding her hands out in front of her with precise movements.

Looking over to Shane with slightly raised brows, James took a step back out of the way to give her space. Shane and Eve did the same.

Hild's hair burned hotter, as did the fire in her veins. Expression stern, she concentrated the heat at the centers of her glowing palms. Then yelled, "Att flamma!"

A tense pause.


"You could try touching it?" Shane suggested. "It might need the contact of the heat."

"Additionally... not to sound silly, but..." Eve loosely gestured to her head. "You could try leaning in, see if your hair activates it."

Hild spared a quick glance over her shoulder before lamely dropping her arms to her sides with a disappointed sigh. Regardless, she obliged and stepped closer. Picked up the ends of her hair and tentatively tapped the door with it. When that didn't have an immediate effect, she slumped a little and bumped the top of her head to it.

Lighting up a bright red hue, the lock pulsed with enough force to push Hild back. Then, as if turning into molten lava, the lock began to melt away, seeping into the crack between the doors and disappearing.

Then, a green lightbulb James hadn't formerly noticed lit up above the door with a "ding" not unlike a microwave.

"Hm," he hummed. That was...

"Too easy," Eve said with a shake of her head. "Be careful. There might be traps."

"I think we can depend on there being traps," James muttered, walking past Hild. "I'll take the lead."

When no one objected, James took in a deep breath and pushed on the left door. It was just as heavy as he expected - so, heavier than he expected the others to be able to open. It took some effort. Okay. A lot of effort.

With a grunt, the door finally gave with a loud creak of its hinges. As it pushed inward, it scraped against the rocky flooring even louder.

When the door was finally ajar, he let go with a sigh and took a step forward.

Immediately, he heard a faint click beneath his feet.


Looking down briefly, he caught the shape of the pressure plate sinking just barely under the surface of the ground, no longer flush with the earth. It seemed like nothing had happened until he looked up again, and saw that the formerly still room was now very busy.

Ahead of him, there was as chasm that stretched out far and wide. A long, stone staircase stretched out over it, reaching up to a floating earthy platform that had a pedastal on it holding something boxy and red. It was, presumably, the thing they were here to get, but the staircase that made a clear path to it was now very loudly starting to crack.

The room shook with an even rougher tremor, and James had to crouch to keep from stumbling as the volcano rumbled. At the bottom of the chasm, James could see a pool of lava - once still - now starting to bubble and steam.

The staircase crumbled into pieces. What were once stairs were now magically floating fractured pieces starting to wobble and precariously move back and forth at different levels in the air. Steam - or smoke - began to pour out of the cracks at the lower portions of the walls, and the smell of sulfur he'd grown accustomed to grew stronger.

A timer on the ceiling lit up in red numbers.

1 minute.


No time to plan, now.

"Cover me!" James shouted as he sprung ahead and took the first leap.


He landed on the nearest shifting platform - formerly a few stony steps - and reached out with all limbs like a cat to keep from sliding off as it wobbled like a bobber in the water.

The lava below him bubbled up even larger, and seeing as he had 55 seconds and was right above it, he forced himself to his feet and stabilized himself just enough to make the next jump.

This platform was further, but larger. With a slightly bigger landing pad, he just made it, but he fell prone, and slid across it with his gauntlets digging into the edge of a cracked stair. He did not stop to assess how close the next jump would be. He only knew he had to jump far.

Getting to the center of the platform to keep it from toppling, he got to his feet again. But then he felt the burst from below.

The lava bubble beneath him exploded, and the force released made the platform he was on topple mid-air, like a boat capsizing. At the same time, he heard the awful screeches and chitters of magma mephits - creatures he hadn't enjoyed running into last time, and he certainly didn't enjoy them now. It sounded like they were pouring out of somewhere above them.

And it sounded like there were a lot of them.

But James didn't really have time to look, because he was preoccupied with holding on for dear life as he crawled around, trying to get the jagged platform to right itself enough for him to jump off it.

In a turn of fate or perhaps providence, something hit the opposite portion of the platform and made it flip right-side up. For a split second, he hoped to see an ally there. But instead, he saw a creature he could only liken to a hellhound.

Snarling with lava dripping from its jaws, it crouched ready to pounce.

Ah. That was his cue to go.

He took the opportunity and only had two feet to run before he got air.

And for a moment, he thought it had to be comical, or at least ironic, to the Game Master and the developers, the viewers and the public, that one of the world's heaviest men was attempting to leap over massive chasms to stop a volcano. It all sounded so bizarre, didn't it?

His gauntlets just barely reached the edge of the final platform. He felt them starting to slip, and he scrambled to find a hold. A blast of hot something hit him from behind. The hellhound let out a growl, and then a louder, angry yelp.

James felt the heat of something like lava on his back, seeping almost barely through the cracks in his armor. Meanwhile, he only just managed to find a hole to sink his hand into and grab right before he fell.

Almost fell.

The lava seeped in past his clothes, around his waist, and he felt the searing pain as it burned through whatever was there like it was nothing. Hissing and gritting his teeth, he swung from his sole hand-hold and grabbed the top edge of the platform with his other arm. Ignoring the pain he knew would fade in a minute or two - well, maybe more, considering how dehydrated -- gods, that wasn't the point.

He pulled himself up onto the last platform, looking up at the last gap that remained between him and the platform bearing the secret to making this volcano stop. For all their sakes, he hoped it was something he could use quickly.

Making his final jump, he felt another blast of lava beneath him erupt as he was mid-air.

In some kind of divine providence, even though the hit hurt, it propelled him just enough for him to make it the last few feet he might've come short of otherwise.

He stumbled onto the platform and hit the pedastal with a thunk. Forcing himself to his feet quickly, he looked at the red object on the pedastal with expectation.

Only to find it was... a red button.

A button that read in plain words: "Stop."

Considering he had no other recourse, he decided to put blind faith in this stupid button to hopefully work.

He pushed it.

And it truly was like a "stop" button had been pressed.

All of the creatures that had appeared in the room suddenly went limp and fell, like puppets without their masters. All of the platforms stopped moving, and merely hovered where they were. The lava pool beneath them stopped gurgling. The tremors stopped suddenly. The steam and smoke stopped filling the room, and for a moment, there was complete silence.

About to open his mouth and speak to the other three he saw (thankfully) still standing unharmed across the way, he got out:

"Are you--?"

Before something burst through the wall behind him, and it was like a massive, earthy hand grabbed him. The hand swallowed him up for all but his head and feet, and he could've sworn he heard some cartoon squeak sound as the hand squeezed and pulled him back into the wall.

For just a moment, he saw the faces of his friends staring at him in horror. Then the wall closed in between them, and he was shrouded in darkness.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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SilverNight says...


Shrimp was staying back, of course. There was no way in hell-- which happened to be his location right now-- that Shane would be taking his newly-winged cat to face off a lava monster. When he'd parted with Eve and Hild, he'd quietly told Shrimp to please stay quiet, even though the cat certainly wouldn't be able to understand him. Hild had promised she'd keep him from flying off, though, and that was good at the very least.

The three of them had followed James and the monster, with Shane leading the way. He'd kept a hand on the wall, tracking the memory of the monster's passage, and going back when it faded until he found it again. He'd always been good at finding lost things. It had been a somewhat of a job for him once-- back in high school, he'd been known as the person to talk to if you'd misplaced something or suspected theft. It was pretty much the only time he'd received attention from those who would otherwise ignore him. Which was most people. He'd liked the feeling of usefulness, but he'd never had to find a person before, and it had stressed him out until he'd found the monster's lair.

Now on his own, at the edge of the cliff and hidden by a growth of rocks, Shane scanned his spell scroll of invisibility, reading the fine print.

Ten minutes. That time was going to fly by. It was plenty of time to walk the distance, sure, but he had to climb down, find a key, and get James out safely. He had absolutely no reference for how long that would take, because he'd never done a jailbreak against a lava monster before.

There was a first time for everything, but he couldn't help but feel sick at the fear that was clawing at his chest.

Carefully, Shane peeked around the side of the rock. At the center of the lava prison, where four precarious-looking bridges met over a rippling caldera, the lava elemental paced. With every movement of its glowing, misshapen body, lava shone through the cracks in the molten rock like the lines between a lizard's scales. Even at this distance, he knew it was still huge, maybe five times his height and unfathomably heavier. A single swipe would send him flying into fiery death below, and a well-aimed fireball would kill him even quicker than that. There was no room for error.

Shane took a deep breath, rubbing his face with his hands. He was doing this for James. James. James wouldn't have waited this long if Shane was the one in there, except to make sure he had everything he needed. But James wasn't the one out here, Shane was. And so Shane had to be the brave one this time.

He fixed his eyes on the white seal at the bottom of the scroll, carefully pressing his thumb to it as Eve had instructed. As he did, the scroll slowly disintegrated in his hand, blowing away in a non-existent breeze as he was left holding nothing but air. He could still see his hand, but he had to hope that nothing else could.

Quickly, Shane rushed to the edge of the cliff, lowering himself off the side and beginning the descent.

The stone was easy to hold, warm, and full of warped memory. With every handhold Shane saw a new confusing vision-- lava swirling, rock shifting into a mound, heat warping in the air. It was like he was witnessing the creation of the volcano as it had been constructed from magic-- likely just yesterday. It fascinated him, but it also unnerved him. Whole landscapes shouldn't appear overnight, or the snapping of fingers. And yet, the DMV had managed it, through a new use of their unbelievable power.

He wondered why they were making him do this. After all, this drama was all for the views, and he couldn't be viewed right now, could he?

He was snapped out of that thought by his right foot slipping, and his body starting to fall with it. Startled, Shane reached blindly with his left, desperately trying to snag the rock face again. He found it, although the force on his hand from the fall was substantial--


Shane clenched his jaw as tight as he could while a bolt of red-hot pain shot through his still-sore hand. The only thing keeping him from letting out a shrill cry of pain was that it would immediately give him away, and it was all he could do to hold on, bracing the rest of himself against the cliff as he willed the hurt to go away. It didn't. Instead, the longer he stayed there, the more it flared up until that arm was shaking uncontrollably and his hand felt like it was on fire. Closing his eyes, Shane bit his lip fiercely, suppressing the shout trapped in his throat until it died out and he was only gritting his teeth silently.

Keep going. He had to keep going.

Shane felt dizzy with pain when he had to find a new handhold, and every shuffle down the cliff had him seeing swirling lights in his vision that had nothing to do with the readings of lava. By the time he reached the bottom, he felt close to blacking out, and he had to lean his head against the cliff wall until the headache subsided enough that he thought he could walk in a straight line. He couldn't risk stumbling off the edge of the passageways and into the lava.

Inhaling deeply, Shane opened his eyes, letting his hand dangle limply at his side as he walked on.

Undisturbed, the lava elemental had never interrupted its unrushed pacing in the center of the crossroads. It walked around in a steady loop, and as it moved aside from the bridge directly opposite the one Shane was on, he saw a evil-looking metal gate at the end, its doors closed. A lock sealed them where they met. And through the bars, he could see a sitting figure, hunching over tiredly. James.

So he'd found where his friend was locked up. But how was he going to get him out?

Shane's gaze flicked back to the lava monster. Its arms were hung low, with its fists about five feet off the ground. Something was around one of its wrists, and it was sparkling in the internal light. Shane only had to squint to see what it was. A key, loosely attached to a looped chain.

Fantastic. He had to steal that.

Shane tried to sneak as he got closer, even though he couldn't hear his steps anyway. Somehow, around the lava monster, the air was even hotter than the already blistering volcano heat. He could feel it radiating off the creature, and he noticed sweat beading on his forehead. Assuming his survival, he badly needed to rehydrate after this.

Holding his breath out of fear of making the slightest sound, Shane followed the lava elemental on the side with the key, walking quickly to match its pace. The key was right there, hardly attached at all. If he just snagged it, he could--

Too much time spent thinking. As fast as he could, Shane grabbed the key and tugged, running underneath the lava monster and trying to evade its legs.

The ground under him rumbled as he did, and for a moment, he had the terrifying thought that maybe he hadn't made it. Maybe it had crushed him underfoot. But the rumbles subsided, and Shane looked back to see that the monster was walking on, none the wiser. He let out the quietest exhale of his life from the relief.

Time was running out. He had to get to James.

Shane ran as quietly as he could with the key down the other bridge, back to James. Looking through the bars, it seemed like he hadn't moved an inch.

Taking a glance over his shoulder back at the monster, Shane knelt at the bars, looking inside.

"James," he hissed in a quiet whisper, hoping James would know to stay quiet.

James, formerly hunched with his back to the near side wall, snapped his head up. He looked in Shane's direction but said nothing. He squinted, looking confused.

"It's Shane," Shane whispered in the same low tone. "I've got the key. When this door opens, you and I are going to need to run like hell, okay?"

James nodded slowly, but his eyes turned to the elemental beast somewhere behind Shane.

Carefully, Shane placed the key into the lock. The resulting scrape of metal against metal felt deafening to his ears, even though he knew it had to be very quiet. He twisted it in, and felt it give with a soft pop. Hurriedly, he swung the gate open.

Now, he knew their cover would've been blown the moment he did this anyway. But the extremely loud screeching of the hinges, which sounded almost like they'd never been moved, definitely did not help his worries.

"Run!" Shane shouted, moving out of the way.

And James was on his feet, darting out of the cage like a bullet. He was moving toward Shane, and Shane stepped aside, hoping to get out of his way. But James actually grabbed him, snatching him up and tossing him over his shoulder as he ran. Shane's dizziness returned from the disorienting movement.

"What--" he sputtered.

"Faster," was all James breathed as he sprinted faster than Shane had ever seen him go.

Shane groaned. "Am I visible now?"

"Yep," James huffed, weaving past the giant elemental, which only seemed to now be catching on to what was going on.

It let out a loud, angry roar. Lava sputtered like a fountain behind them, and they narrowly avoided its splatter. But James wasn't stopping for anything.

Shane bounced over the back of James's shoulder, watching the bewildered elemental look down at the key missing from its wrist. Its movements were slow enough that by the time it looked up at the back of James's head in what almost seemed like betrayal - though the creature had no real facial features to show emotion - James was already running up to Eve and Hild, who were ushering them towards the tunnel.

Eve and Hild, of course, were quick on their feet. Ahead of James, they retreated back into the narrow tunnel entrance they'd walked through to get here. James was right behind them, and it wasn't until they were well within it that they all finally came to a stop, and James finally set Shane down.

Heaving, James slumped to the ground, shiny with sweat. Shane knelt next to him, dazed. His hand should have been screaming at him-- and the moment he thought that, it did hurt again, some of the adrenaline wearing off. He groaned exhaustedly.

"It was that easy?" Hild asked, only slightly breathless from the sprint and brows drawn with skepticism.

Shane let out a laugh that was too pinched to be a laugh. "Did it look easy?"

James laid out on the ground so he was prone and face-down, still panting heavily.

"Straightforward, I should say," Hild amended.

"Easier than we thought it'd be," Eve added, after running her hands over the narrow entrance. Likely some kind of concealment spell.

"It felt like neither," Shane grunted.

Behind them, they could hear the elemental's roar echoing off the prison walls.

"Not quite in the clear yet," Hild murmured. There was a hint of an apology in her voice as she knelt down by James.

"Do we still have water?" James heaved.

Shane raised his head, looking at Hild for the question.

Swinging a bag from her shoulder, she swiftly and silently passed out water canteens.

Gratefully, Shane took off the lid from the one she offered him, setting it on the ground so he only had to use his right hand to do so. He raised it to his lips, gulping the water down, and had to exercise some considerable restraint not to drink it all off. It almost tasted sweet with how thirsty he was.

James, beside him, was practically inhaling the water from the other canteen. Shane had to watch him to make sure he didn't choke. Fortunately, he didn't. But he did immediately flop back onto the ground once he screwed the canteen's cap shut again.

"Can I have Shrimp?" Shane asked quietly.

But Shrimp acted on his own accord. Fluttering out of Eve's arms, Shrimp leaped down into Shane's at hearing his name. Shane pressed his cheek into the cat's soft fur, closing his eyes. His hand still ached terribly, and he didn't want to move.

For a moment, the four of them simply waited there, recovering.

"We should get out of here," Eve said. "Before that elemental tries to fight us again."

"Agreed," Hild nodded.

Shane could only nod, worried he'd sound too badly in pain if he spoke. There wasn't time for that. Only time to move on to whatever horror was next.
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Carina says...

All things considered, things could have gone worse.

Eve had been keeping up with the books now that she had access to the DMV's database. The financial statements were awfully cryptic and held too many barriers for any one person to interpret without looking up a central DMV-curated acronym dictionary and unit conversation calculator, but Eve had spent a prior summer as an intern understanding all this already.

Point being: the DMV had money. Too much money, really, than they let on. The negative press of Island Magic fed into engagement, which spiked the statistics. Bad press was still good press, and negativity only bred more and more people to tune-in, unable to look away from the circus act of it all.

Or rather, fantasy. The DMV carried the one too many times and applied their excess in weekly funding to more magical resources that would enable them to have more extravagant episodes, more engaging dynamics, more eyes glued to the artificial soap opera that was the reality of their lives. Because who didn't find shapeshifting into high-fantasy creatures with medieval weapons or tabletop roleplaying classes thrilling?

Though... Eve admitted that using magic, and actually feeling like she was a part of it... it was indeed thrilling. Exhilarating, really. To wield this much power, in the palm of her hand and with the echo of her voice... it put her in awe that this was the every day for mages.

For possibly the hundredth time, Eve ran her fingers over her pointed ears, resisting the urge to... pull them, like it was some sort of mask. But she knew it wasn't. Even though she did. Pull it. A lot of times, actually.

Her ears hurt.

Taking in a silent deep breath, Eve adjusted her sling bag across her chest as she continued in the rhythm of their walk. She was leading the way, and for a while, it was only her. But silence fell over the four of them, and they settled into a comfortable formation. James and Shane trailed behind, but ushered them to keep on going. So Eve did. And so did Hild.

She glanced at her fellow cabin mate, who seemed to pay her no mind, comfortable in the drawn silence that stretched between them. With Eve's increased height, she almost felt like she was looking down at Hild, but that was unintentional. Though, with how small she was, and with how softly she glowed, she almost looked like a dainty fire fairy.

Eve tucked that imagery away in her head for now.

The silence stretched on more and more. She continually glanced back to ensure that James and Shane were following, and they were-- despite James raising a hand to wordlessly indicate that they were okay. Maybe he wanted the space to have a heart-to-heart with Shane, who was still adjusting to this strange new world.

But with each new minute that passed, Eve found herself becoming less and less comfortable with the still silence between her and Hild, who was somehow keeping up to her no problem. Or maybe Eve was slowing down. She didn't know.

Maybe she should... say something. Anything. After all, they lived together. Which was fine. She didn't need to live with someone to extensively talk to them. That wasn't what this was about. This was about the here and now, about walking together in silence for-- what? An hour now? More? It wasn't like she had any real gauge on time since they were in a cave, and--


Eve found herself stammering before really settling on any particular topic to land on. Trying not to appear too panicked by the sudden change from silence, she quickly added on, "So, um. Hild. Why do you think you're..." She paused, flicking her eyes over to her, trying to not stare too long at her hair. "...Fire?"


"Fire magic," Eve corrected quickly.

Quirking a brow with what looked like mild surprise, Hild blinked herself from her own thoughts and glanced up at her. "Why I'm fire magic?" she repeated.

"Yes," Eve agreed, trying not to outwardly grimace from her own words. "I meant..." She sighed, starting again. "I figure it wasn't random."

"You're likely right," Hild agreed, nonplussed as she looked ahead again. "Either they wanted me to be better equipped for this terrain, or they decided what I am should be defined by my half-brother's abilities." She scrunched her nose slightly. "For the sake of... cohesiveness, I suppose."

Eve gave her the barest of nods, thinking back on what she knew of Hild and Lyall. They were related, of course-- but there was obvious friction between the two of them. Eve noticed this when she was in the kitchen hearing Hild scold and nearly slam the door on his face after the wendigo fiasco, but she had a feeling things were tense between them before then, too.

It wasn't obvious in their interactions, but rather, the lack thereof.

"Conversely," she began more steadily, "Lyall may be defined by his half-sister's abilities. We haven't yet encountered him, but perhaps it is by design to switch roles, in a sense. I can't fathom why. Maybe to evoke a sense of understanding or empathy between two siblings." She paused, furrowing her brows as she stole another glance her way. "This is purely speculative, of course. I don't actually know."

Hild hummed, somehow simultaneously intrigued and annoyed by the thought. "Could be. Though I have a sneaking suspicion that he won't actually learn any intended lesson."

Eve did her best to deliberately pause, processing the nuances of what wasn't explicitly said. Clearly, Hild thought lowly of her brother. At least, for some aspects.

And Eve wanted to know why. Not because she was nosy, but because she wanted to know who she was working with. She still didn't fully trust Lyall.

"Why do you say that?" she asked.

Hild cast her another curious glance. "I apologize," she said, tempering her voice. "That slipped out. I try not to be in the habit of ranting about family matters to those outside of the family tree."

"It's... fine," Eve said, settling for those two simple words. But even she didn't convince herself that it was assuring enough, so she sighed and added on, "That doesn't bother me. Do you want to rant?"

"I'm alright," Hild answered, tone reassuring. "No ranting necessary."

"Are you sure? You seem quite bothered by it," Eve said cautiously.

With a slight nod, Hild sighed, "Only in the way siblings tend to be with each other." She looked back to Eve and curiously asked, "Do you have any?"

Eve hesitantly shook her head. "No," she said truthfully. After another brief hesitation, she added on, "I've always wondered what it's like to have one, though. I've always imagined it to be nice."

"Pluses and minuses," Hild said evenly, "as with anything."

"More pluses than minuses," Eve began, glancing her way again, "or more minuses than pluses?"

"That depends on the sibling," Hild said, folding her hands together in front. "As well as mood. For instance, I find his faults feel more glaring when I'm in a less-than amicable mood."

"Isn't that with anyone?" Eve asked.

"Precisely," Hild agreed. "Then add the element of having to grow up and live with each other."

"Which is..." Eve took a second to find the right word before uncertainly settling with, "...bad?"

"It merely adds nuance," Hild answered with a shrug. "More context to account for, more exceptions to be surprised by."

Eve hummed in agreement, though she couldn't say she quite understood. "I suppose that can be pleasant and unpleasant."

Hild's gaze turned attentive as she looked back to Eve once more. "As you said, though, this kind of logic doesn't just apply to siblings." She pointed with her chin. "What have you found to be true in your experiences?"

"I'm not sure what you mean," Eve admitted. "Are you asking about my less-than-amicable experiences with others? I hardly think that's a fair comparison to siblings I don't have."

Hild inclined her head. "Apologies. Allow me to clarify: Family and/or any life-long relations? Pluses and minuses ratio." She pursed her lips. "That is quite nebulous. Allow me to further narrow this down." She politely folded her hands again. "Important people in your life. Who are they?"

Eve couldn't stop herself from casting a flat look her way. After all, she asked a question first-- and even then, Hild didn't give her a true answer. But considering they saw each other most days, Eve would rather not be snippy and point out the hypocrisy.

In the short pause, Hild tilted her head and offered, "You're free to decline to answer."

Eve considered the pros and cons with sharing. The cons felt louder, more risky, because it boiled down to one thing: even if unlikely, Hild could share this information with Lyall, which she would rather not happen. The less he knew, the better.

"I'd rather not delve into the details," Eve answered amicable with a nod. "Or as you put it: rant."

"That's alright," Hild assured her.

Was it?

Eve glanced at her once, twice. Was she overthinking this? She was overthinking this.

"Why do you want to know, anyways?" she asked instead.

Hild furrowed a brow. "It was merely curiosity."

Right... curiosity. Eve made a mental note to verify that her notes she had on Hild included the word "curious."

After another second's worth of silence, Hild grinned faintly and asked, "Are you enjoying having a more active magic at your disposal?"

Ah. So she noticed her eagerness. Maybe Eve ought to... tone it down, just a little.

She nodded, thinking back on all the opportunities she had to apply the scrolls. Really, it was imbued magic from enchantment-- an expensive process, especially if she could wield it-- but it did feel like she was a true magic user.

"It is nice," she agreed with a hum. "I can't say I didn't enjoy using it, especially since there was a wide variety to choose from."

"Any spells you liked in particular?" Hild asked.

Eve nodded, thinking back on the generous list of spells she had at her disposal when she woke up. Half of them were already used, but they also acquired new spell scrolls when they stopped the volcano from erupting.

"I don't know if there is one in particular that I'd say I liked," she began. "I liked them all, just in different ways. It's almost like a puzzle, figuring out why we were given the spells at our disposal, leveraging them to mitigate our current situation. For example..."

She paused, waving her hand in front of her before continuing.

"The alter self spell was given to help us adapt to the acrid air of the volcano by physically altering the functions of our lungs. This affected Shane the most, so of course, using it was wise to minimize the coughing and inhaling of the sulfurous air. I also enjoyed the arcane hand spell that summons a spectre hand that mimics my own hand movements, almost like an extension of myself. You didn't see it, but the chest with the excess spells was too far to reach, though I was able to open it with this spell.

"As for spells that I used against the lava monsters... there were many. I found that utilizing several status-related spells in tandem to offensive spells was an optimal solution to destroying them. The offensive spells in particular are more difficult to perform, but they are quite powerful. Cloud of daggers coupled with shatter was an effective combination in destroying many enemies in one area. Next time, I'd like to try a new combination-- perhaps cloudkill and magic missle. Additionally, if I have time during combat, I'd also use spells on myself for defensive purposes. Spells like haste, mirror image, misty step, and..."

Eve trailed off, the realization hitting her all at once that she had said... a lot. Maybe too much. Withdrawing, she panickedly glanced Hild's way a few times, more quietly adding on, "But you've seen all this already. Sorry. The short answer to your question is... well, a lot."

Hild hummed quietly, turning an impressed glance her way. "I did indeed," she said. "You were quite strategic, yet fast-acting. Especially considering your magic as I know it is more passive."


"What about you?" Eve asked, not missing a beat. "Since you are also equipped with spells and have more passive magic as well. Which ones did you like using?"

Hild's glance turned vaguely amused as she looked ahead again. "I rather enjoyed any fire-based spells. I understand my brother's hesitation to use his, of course, but he's ultimately hindering himself by refusing how to safely utilize it."

It was painfully obvious that Eve shared much more than Hild, but that was beside the point. They were back to discussing Lyall, which was what Eve was trying to get to beforehand.

"Does that... upset you? That he doesn't use his magic?" she asked hesitantly.

"No," Hild answered plainly. "Just... Mild disappointment."

Eve mulled this over before offering, "Perhaps he's afraid of what he's capable of. Fire magic can be quite violent, after all."

"And that's where the problem lies," Hild quietly agreed with a single nod. "Fear governs so much in his life."

"There has to be a source for this fear, though. It's likely deeper than simply being afraid to use magic," Eve said evenly.

Gaze turning curious again, Hild looked back at her. "...It certainly is." Then left it at that.

Which signaled the end of the conversation, which Eve certainly wasn't going to push.

But something was better than nothing. The sentence "Lyall is afraid" burned into her mind, but it only raised more unanswered questions: Why didn't he act afraid? What was past the laid-back, charming demeanor? What was he hiding? What else was he hiding?

Eve knew Lyall had to be hiding something. After all, he was working with the DMV. He, too, signed a contract. But no one knew about it, and she was blocked from accessing his files aside from basic information. She was unable to figure him out, and that unsettled her-- especially because his own sister was unsettled by him.

Perhaps that was a strong word. Unsettled. But Eve had every right to be cautious, evaluating her own moves carefully while also perceiving his before they even happen.

Or maybe she was in her head, overthinking it. Maybe she was overthinking it because she was with Hild, who Eve hadn't quite figured out either. And she was keenly aware that she was close with James, too, which-- well, it wasn't new information, but it certainly was... what was the word...


And Eve had a strong dislike for the unexpected. Something about all this made her...


Was she overthinking this? She was overthinking this.

"Thank you," Eve blurted out, figuring she had to say something in the stiff awkward silence that followed. It was so quiet, it was deafening. "For, um... listening. And not ranting." She paused, the weight of her words just now hitting her, so she quickly added, "Not that I'm saying thank you for not ranting. You're welcome to. I meant, thank you for..." She sighed, wilting back and mumbling, "Never mind."

Inclining her head once more, Hild offered a more relaxed, close-lipped grin. "Thank you for sharing. If not too inconvenient, actually, I'd like to ask for your insights on the new spells I'd been granted. I'm more casually involved in this kind of game, and would appreciate some pointers."

Eve breathed a sigh of relief, nodding. She wasn't an expert by any means, but she had no qualms in discussing this.

"What would you like to know?"
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soundofmind says...

This whole adventure was stupid.

Maybe it would feel less stupid if there was some kind of reward. Sure, preventing a disaster should've been reward enough of its own, but James didn't even know if all of this was real. Or if the consequences were real. Maybe all of this really was some kind of shared simulation, and they'd all wake up in their beds after this was all over. Or maybe there really was magic in the world that could drum up all of this.

But James had a feeling he was too dehydrated to come up with any concrete hypotheses at the moment.

Trudging at the back of their party, James watched as Eve and Hild clearly held back from going at their regular pace so that James wouldn't fall too far behind. Shane, too, was hanging back with him at his side - probably just as tired, but less dehydrated in comparison.

It wasn't really worth mentioning, but in his absence from the party, the elemental monster that had kidnapped him mostly just used James as a chew toy. He'd been carried around in its "mouth" for hours while it gnawed on his armor. Were the armor any less sturdy, he'd have been turned into a piece of gum. But he was glad he'd been spared of that fate, and instead had just been thrown into a cage when the elemental grew bored of him.

It was nice to be out, at least. He just didn't know how much longer they'd have to endure this burning hell.

Still trying to keep up, James felt his steps growing heavier.

They were almost out of the volcano. The goal was to get outside and away from the elemental. Hopefully they'd be safer out there.

"I hope you don't feel as rough as you look," Shane said quietly, almost too soft to catch.

James glanced over. Shrimp was perched on Shane's shoulders, staring at James with big eyes.

"I just need water," he said. "I don't know where we're going to find any in this place, though."

"I hope there's a rainforest just beyond this volcano," Shane murmured. "If we're somewhere new, and presumably everyone else, it must be a large territory with some degree of variation in landscapes."

"We just got put in the worst one," James said.

"Hopefully we were," Shane said. "I wouldn't wish something worse than this on my worst enemy."

James pressed his lips together to keep himself from saying: "I might." Instead he just huffed.

"Are you..." James twirled his hand a bit. "Better?"

Shane had looked pretty shaken up after the rescue. He appeared to be calmed down now. But it never hurt to ask.

Shane was silent for a few moments as he scratched behind Shrimp's ears. "I guess," he said, but he sounded like he wasn't sure what he was answering.

Ah. Right. James should be more specific.

"Sorry," he said quietly. "I mean... after uh. You... rescuing me. You used that invisibility scroll, yeah?"

Shane nodded, more quickly as he understood. "I did. It got me down to the cliff and to the monster's key well enough. It seemed the most useful spell for the situation."

James nodded.

"It was a good idea," he said.

Shane seemed like he was trying to smile faintly at that, but it looked like the signal hardly made it to his lips and didn't quite reach his eyes either. "We weren't going to leave you there," he said, a little more gently. "If we hadn't done that, we would've done something else."

"I'm sure you would've," James said with a faint smile. "Thank you, though. For getting me out."

"Of course," Shane said, managing to mirror that smile. "Glad you didn't melt to death in a lava monster's dungeon."

Shrimp let out a pleasant mrrp.

"See, he's glad too," Shane said.

James tried to maintain his smile, but his face was tired.

"I'd pat him, but my hands are heavy," he said.

"I'll pet him by proxy," Shane said, smoothing the cat's back fur.

James nodded in thanks, but found himself too exhausted to say much more. Their conversation lulled to silence, and the sounds of their footsteps echoing off the walls filled the space that remained.

Eve and Hild were up ahead, but it looked like, now, they were in deep conversation. They'd made more distance, probably because they were caught up in talking, and their figures grew a bit smaller up ahead. James had a feeling Shane wasn't even able to see them anymore, aside from maybe their silhouettes. But the faint hum of their soft voices carried down to them, so they could at least hear that they weren't far off, even if they couldn't understand them.

In the absence of anything to keep his mind busy anymore, James found his mind beginning to wander.

His body was heavy. He wished for water. He wished he could take off this armor again, if just to get some relief from the heat - and he remembered the night prior, too. Hild helping him get it off. The deep sigh of relief that followed. The quiet peace, as they sat shoulder to shoulder.

Ever since he'd woken up, all he could wonder was whether he should've held her hand or not.

She hadn't resisted it. She hadn't even said a word. She just... took it. And they'd sat like that for a long time before either of them moved to wake the others.

Squinting ahead, he could see Hild's vibrant hair, still glowing like magma atop her head, making her something of a walking lampstand in the dark cave.

They'd made no mention of it in light of the volcano crisis, but now that it was all over...?

Oh, who was he kidding. An event like this had more crises to come.

But he still couldn't get that one little moment out of his head.

You know what? He was just going to say it. He... he needed to just say it.

"Shane?" he asked.

Shane turned his head to him curiously. "Yeah?"

"I... I think I like Hild," he confessed.

Surprise flickered over Shane's face as he searched James, a small smile spreading the longer he looked. "You do?" he asked, tone suddenly warm.

"I know it's-- it hasn't been..." he said, letting out a small sigh. "Long. It hasn't been long at all. But..."


"Hey," Shane said, his smile widening a touch more. "That's really great, James. I think she likes you too. She's great, and you seem like you'd be good for each other."

James felt his face heat up. Something he hadn't thought would be possible when they were already in an oven.

"I--" he started, but had to collect himself. "I don't want to be presumptuous. But I do think there is some reciprocal interest."

Saying it like that felt so formal, but he couldn't think of different words to use.

"I'm afraid I may have done things out of order, though," he said much quieter.

"What do you mean?" Shane asked gently.

"Last night, while you and Eve were asleep... I..." he tried, but felt like he had to start again from embarassment.

Maybe he was making too big of a deal out of it.

"I held her hand," he muttered. "That's it. But I felt... well, I guess I just don't want her to be confused, since nothing was said. I'd rather be clear, for both our sakes."

Shane nodded, listening intently. "I hear you. If you feel like you're maybe ready to share with her what you've said to me, that would be a good way to communicate. Are you thinking of asking her out?"

James nodded, tracing his gaze back to the glowing hair of Hild up ahead. Far enough away that she wasn't hearing all of this. Thankfully.

"Yes," he said softly. "When whatever this is - is over."

Shane's smile softened. "I think that'd be good. Thank you for telling me about this."

"Thanks for listening," James said. "I... wanted to talk to you first. Before doing anything."

He paused, just for a moment, looking ahead and then back to Shane.

"Do you really think it'd be a good idea?" he asked, even softer. "I'm just... worried. Everything with the DMV has been so chaotic and unpredictable. It feels like such an unstable environment to try... well. You know. Getting to know someone unto a potential relationship."

Shane was thoughtfully silent for a good several seconds. "Not everyone would do well in a tumultuous environment like this one," he said. "I understand how you're worried. But I think the two of you could withstand it. You're both steady, grounded people who don't lose sight of things so easily."

"It also feels wrong when I have no way to contact my family," he said. "With things like this I've always cared about their opinion."

Shane hummed understandingly. "Do you feel like they'd have any objections? If you don't think so, then you're still caring about their opinion if you decide to go ahead with it, even if you don't have direct confirmation of it."

James hummed.

"I don't know," he said. "I don't know what kind of objections they'd have, but... I can't think of anything besides maybe the timing."

"I think they would understand the timing's not ideal, but that it's out of anyone's control," Shane said. "A month that wouldn't be long in the grand scheme of things can feel much longer in a situation like we're in. Relationships and connections can spring up much quicker than normal but remain natural and authentic. It's like time runs differently when you share so many aspects of your life with a group of people for an extended time-- you become used to each other, and what might be a month on a calendar can lead to a deep, comfortable bond that would take longer in another time and place."

As Shane spoke, there was finally some ambient light that started peeking in at the end of the tunnel. At both the sight, and the comfort from a friend, James felt his body sigh in relief.

"Well said," he said, trying to force himself to go a little faster. But his legs physically would not cooperate.

Shane turned his gaze to where James was looking, still smiling softly. "You're a very cautious and considerate person, James. I don't think you're jumping in this blindly, or too early, or without thinking. You're right, it is chaotic and unpredictable here. But you're being careful about this, sorting through your worries and concerns. I think if anyone can manage that here, it's you."

Eve and Hild stepped out into the open. Shane and James were just a few yards away, looking upwards as the light backed the two of them. Eve and Hild turned around, checking to see if the two of them were still coming. Which they were.

"Thank you," James said softly, knowing the rest of this conversation would have to be revisited later.

With quiet understanding, the two of them proceeded without further comment, and eventually, they all reunited at the base of the volcano.

"It appears we've reached our destination," Eve announced as he patiently watched them approach to reconvene. She stared up at the volcano, intently focused and studying the path ahead. "I'm not sure if there's more to explore here. Does anyone recall a hint or clue about moving forward?"

As if in answer to the question, suddenly a rift in time and space cut through the area in front of them like a knife. With a glittering blue outline, a portal opened up to a forest, and a breeze of fresh air flooded into their acrid space like a sigh.

Almost all of them leaned in in response, aside from Hild. Her modified lungs seemed built for this environment.

Just as James took a step to inspect the portal, however, a few figures stepped into view.

The first was clearly recognizable: Alan. He looked like himself, just dressed in a tunic with varying shades of browns and reds, along with a strapped wooden lute. Behind him however, were Lyall and Alex, whom James didn't recognize at first because of their altered appearance. Behind them was a stranger. A shorter man James couldn't quite make out behind the group just yet.

All of their eyes met as the portal's presence became mutually known, but it was those in the forest that responded first.

Brows furrowed and mouth slightly agape at the sight of them, Lyall called out, his voice pitched with confusion. "Hild?"

From beside James, Hild wordlessly pointed back at her brother with mutual surprise.

"Yes, I'm seeing it too," James said.

"So there is another party!" Alex sing-songed with a wave of his hand. "I guess the game masters grew impatient."

James saw an acorn thunk against Alex's skull out of nowhere. His smile faltered, and he looked to the side in confusion.

The stranger picked it up, pinching it between his fingers with a curious look. He was on the short side, with brown skin, curly burgundy hair, and a sword strapped to his belt. What he lacked in height, he made up for in muscle. But he wasn't one of the visitors from the docks.

"This could be an illusion, or some kind of test," Eve said under her breath, partially turning away from the portal so the others wouldn't hear or read her lips. "Be wary."

At the same time, Lyall turned away to mimic the same movements, leaning in to his group to say his own message. It seemed the sentiments were mutual.

"I think this is the kind of magic they use to take us to those interviews," James murmured under his breath.

"Would that not entail more confetti?" Hild whispered back.

James hummed.

"I don't remember confetti..." he whispered.

"You don't need confetti to open portals," Eve said with a sternly focused expression, squinting at the others. She turned to face them again, clearing her throat. "Alexander. Would you like to step into our side?"

Alex looked over at Lyall with a side-eyed grin that somehow seemed to spite both Eve and Lyall at the same time. Almost like he was equally flattered and insulted.

"I'll do it if you don't want to," Alan volunteered instead.

"Could we," Lyall cut in, amiable yet urgent as he clapped his hands together once, "simply test with an inanimate object first? Just so we know it's even a fully via--"

"No," Eve said plainly, glaring at him for some reason. "Why don't you step through, then?"

Her glare was returned with a flat look of his own.

"There's a perfectly convenient acorn right here," the stranger said, tossing it into the air and catching it in his palm again. "It'll do for a projectile."

Next to James, somewhat out of frame of the portal, Shane suddenly froze, eyes wide.

"No way," he breathed.

James turned to him. "No way...?"

The stranger suddenly grinned with delighted surprise, lowering the hand with the acorn. "Way."

"I'd know that voice anywhere," Shane said, voice pitching with excitement as he rushed past James. "Leilan?"

"Shane!" the stranger shouted, diving towards the portal as well.

Shane made it there and through first, though, and his momentum carried him into Leilan. The two of them tumbled safely in a hug on the other side, both with excited shrieks.

"What are you doing here?" Shane exclaimed, grinning ear to ear.

"I'm the newest contestant," Leilan said, also grinning. "Got here yesterday."

Well. That answered the portal question. James wasn't looking to wait any longer to get fresh air. He stepped through the portal in turn, meeting immediate relief as his lungs inhaled something finally without smoke.

But it was a bit of a shock. And. Apparently it sent him into a coughing fit.

Brows furrowed and a faint smile growing on his face, Lyall glanced back and forth between the two, visibly trying to connect the dots. "The depth at which you completely undersold yourself!" he playfully admonished, looking at Leilan. "As well as the company you keep."

Shane stood up and brushed himself off, still smiling and shaking his head amusedly at Leilan. "You didn't tell them?"

"I was going to," Leilan said, also grinning as he got to his feet. "But it was just too funny to say something about it."

"I better introduce you," Shane said, looking around at everyone with a radiant smile as he gestured at Leilan. "Everyone, this is Leilan Akamai. Childhood friend, political scientist, and the Heir of Aphirah's House of Compassion."

Lyall gawked at Leilan. "All you said was 'interning diplomat'!"

Leilan glanced at Shane amusedly. "I did tell him that, but did I lie?"

"Nope," Shane said with a shake of his head. "That's essentially my job description."

"You said you're a new contestant?" James asked, finally killing the cough as he glanced back at the portal where Eve and Hild had now stepped through. Shrimp, who had been flapping around, swooped through as well.

"Oh, yeah," Leilan said, standing at attention again. "I was doing the regular DMV training that most people get, but I hear I'm being swapped out with someone here."

"Who?" Eve asked, hovering hear the portal to more closely study it, only giving Leilan a cautious glance back.

James hummed faintly as he thought of who could be missing. If Leilan was being swapped out... did that mean someone was getting sent home? Had they been sent home already?

"I'm not sure," Leilan admitted, and he sounded truthful. "I don't know if they even have someone in mind."

And it was in this moment that James remembered: none of their conversations were truly private.

A holographic screen hovered in the sky overhead, as if it was being broadcast to the entirety of the land. Maybe everyone else was in this forest, now, too - or at least in view of the announcement playing out. It opened with the Island Magic's logo and theme song before the starting title faded out to an image of -- what the hell?


"Greetings, contestants," his placid voice carried over some invisible speaker-system. "Congratulations of surviving day one of the Fantasy Challenge. You have made it halfway, and all groups have succeeded in their first task; but now it's time to unify you all under one task. Please refer to the image to my right."

As he said so, the screen split in two, and a picture of a tall mountain in the center of a heavily wooded forest appeared beside Carter's face. While the forest looked mundane, the mountain itself looked like something out of a video game. There was a hovering, rainbow road swirling around the mountain that led up to the peak, where a large floating yellow star spun slowly. The video feed panned to the star.

"This, contestants, is your prize. Find the mountain with the rainbow road. Whoever reaches the top first and obtains the Star of Immunity will be given the gift of going home. This gift can be only be applied to one contestant. Whoever obtains the star can choose to send themselves or one person home and complete their DMV early. You have a day and a half remaining to find the mountain and get the star. There will be dangers along the way, as many of you have already borne witness to.

"Good luck, and we'll see you at the peak."

And just like that, the screen disappeared, and the announcement was over.

James stared up at the empty sky.

Send someone home? They were actually giving them a ticket out? But why was Carter there? How was he involved in all of this? James hadn't seen Carter in three years, and the last time he saw him was in court. How'd he end up working for the DMV?

God, did that mean Carter was their Game Master?

Suddenly things were starting to make so much sense...

"I'll presume," Lyall said brightly, turning his attention back to those emerging from the volcanic wasteland, "based on the..." He waved a hand in circular motions at James in particular, then shrugged. "...evidence, that you've likewise already faced one or two of these forewarned 'dangers'?"

Feeling a little dazed, James looked over to Lyall blankly, then glanced down at his armor. It was dented, burnt, and stained with ash.

"We came back from a volcano," Eve explained, not elaborating any further. "But it appears we now have a new directive, as well as a much larger group." Focused, she scanned the skyline, inclining her head towards the silhouette of the mountains. "And we have a long trek ahead of us. But first, we should discuss: does everyone want to be involved to win the prize? It's a rather significant one, but only one person can win it."

Shane looked around while he held out his arm for Shrimp, and the cat flapped onto it. His expression was warm and smiling as he looked at Alan and Lyall, silently greeting them. When he got to Alex, though, his expression shuttered a little with hurt.

"While working together is certainly the most strategically advantageous decision," Alex spoke up upon eye contact with Shane. "I'd rather address the elephant in the room before we potentially all go about storming the mountain."

Alex's eyes drifted to James next, and James didn't know why he suddenly felt so uncovered.

He and Alex had hardly interacted with one another in person. James didn't know him. He hadn't gathered the emotional motivation to speak to him yet, either, after hearing Alex was the source of his worsened nightmares. In honesty, it had been just another blip in the suffering of his existence, and he hadn't given it much thought.

At least, until now.

"I've caused several of you undeserved suffering in your sleep," Alexander confessed, sounding sobered but calm. "But James and Shane, you two have suffered the most. I cannot excuse my careless and unempathetic behavior, but I do want to tell you that I'm sorry. I do not expect to earn your trust and you don't owe me anything, but as for me, I am going to work to prove my integrity for the remainder of our time here. I give you my word that I will not interfere with your dreams again."

James stared at Alexander, frankly caught off guard by the sudden show of sincerity and openness. In the midst of all of this... all he'd been met with, really, was drama at every turn.

But this was... disarming. Unexpected. And for some reason, he couldn't force himself to believe Alexander was being duplicitous in this moment. Even though he'd been a bit dodgy from former obervances, there was something about the manner in which Alexander spoke that was undeniably real.

It was weird, for this to be happening with everyone, but he supposed he hadn't realized that Alexander's dream manipulation had extended to others in the surrounding party. He'd known about Shane, but not the others. So... apparently this apology was due for everyone present.

Or. Most of them.

"Thank you," James said sincerely, finally breaking the short lull of tense silence that followed. "It's clear you've given your actions much consideration, and I believe everyone deserves a second chance. Speaking only for myself, I forgive you. I look forward to seeing your growth in the future."

"And I expect you to hold me to my word," Alexander said seriously.

Huh. So he was asking for accountability.

"Will do," James said with a nod.

Shane locked eyes with James for a moment before looking back to Alex. He was hesitating, but it didn't seem to be out of reproachfulness or a grudge. He just looked hurt, even a little betrayed at whatever amount of trust he'd put into Alex. But he eventually nodded.

"I forgive you too," he said quietly. "I won't hold you in contempt for it, and it means a lot that while you didn't have to, you apologized and owned up to it anyway. I believe that if you want it, there's still time to mend this."

Alex stood up straighter and bowed his head in a small show of respect. James glanced at Shane, then back at Alex. Shane knew enough of Nye culture to know what the small gesture was communicating.

"If you would allow me, I'd love to," he said.

Shane bowed his head in return, and when he met Alex's gaze again, it was with more calm, even resolve. "I think it could be good for all of us," he said.

Alex's look of serious agreement melted into a self-confident smile.

"Perfect," he said, waltzing over to the still-open portal with a sway of his hips. "Now that that's out of the way," he continued, reaching out his hand to touch the outer edge of the portal. "We should--"

For some reason, he was trying to treat the portal like a doorway. But instead of being able to lean on a solid surface, when he put his weight on it, his hand tore through the open portal between the two areas.

The last thing James saw was a blinding flash of light erupt from the tearing portal, and then the ground was out from underneath him. The last thing he heard?

Shrimp, with a screaming meow.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

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urbanhart says...

Never would Lyall have predicted he'd actually personally bear witness to the fabric of the space-time continuum tearing right before his eyes because someone else unthinkingly proceeded to use it like some sort of jungle gym. Yet here he was, falling yet again through a vast void of blinding lights and smeared images of varying fantastical biomes. Again, not screaming, because he was entirely composed even as he was tossed carelessly about by the unfeeling universe like a sack of potatoes.

He landed face-down in the kind of orange, dusty desert you would see in postcards from the western States. Complete with towering plateaus and gaping canyons, and the occasional brambly dry shrub.

It would have been a welcome change of scenery, had he found himself in more pleasant company.

Not so.

There was no thud of a body in the dirt nearby to alert him of her presence. Just a gigantic hand that looked like a phantom, but was solid enough to slap down over his chest like a swatter on an unwanted insect.

Miss Eve herself floated down, steps graceful on what looked like mist, and her usual steely expression fixed determinedly on him.

And, as he flailed and struggled under the giant isolated hand, Lyall had to wonder: What the fuck could he possibly have done wrong this time?

"How much control did you have over this event?" Eve asked steadily, now beside him, glaring. She angled her hand down flatter, and the ghostly hand followed her movements, firmly pressing Lyall's back against the ground.

"Good to see you again, too," Lyall grunted as he went limp with defeat.

But that only made Eve frown, applying slightly more pressure against his back. It wasn't enough to hurt, but it was certainly enough to make him squirm again with mild discomfort.

"What the bloody hell do you want from me?" Lyall asked incredulously, clawing at the fingers curling around his shoulders.

"Just answer my question! We don't have to do this again," Eve answered impatiently. "How much control did you have over this event?"

Lyall threw his hands skyward. "Absolutely none!"

Eve's frown deepened at that. "What do you know that I don't? I know you know something."

This felt like another situation wherein he was damned if he stood firm, and damned if he admitted to what she seemed to want to hear. There was no winning.

Dropping his head back in the sand, he lied prone again with his hands held up in surrender. He took in a steadying breath, then eventually asked in turn, "What do you want me to say?"

Eve drew out a long sigh, studying him. She loosened the ghostly hand's hold on him just enough that he didn't have to take shallow breaths, which was hardly a mercy. "Just... tell me why I should trust you," she said with an even voice.

"A thought exercise," he proposed, tone turning amicable as he curled his fingers to hold up 1 on his hand. "If I may?"

"No," Eve answered plainly. "Answer the prompt."

"How," Lyall proceeded anyhow, "will you know whether you can trust anyone, if you don't first extend the benefit of the doubt?" He pinched his index finger and thumb to emphasize: "Just a seed of it?"

Eve shook her head, her expression a steely resolve as she venomously said, "I don't trust anyone who speaks like a politician."

Ah. Well.

Suppressing a long-suffering sigh, Lyall quietly let his hands drop with a relenting, "Fair enough."

The hell-bent look on her face never wavered as she waited. Before it started to truly grate on his nerves, Lyall slung an arm over his eyes. He determined that, once again, he'd have to bend over backwards to appease her.

"My satchel fell several feet west of me," he eventually said. "You'll find a map with everyone's coordinates, the markers changing magically in real time as they move." He swept his arm out to the side now and met her still-skeptical gaze. "Take a gander."

A few seconds passed as Eve assessed the situation, studying Lyall and carefully considered his words. Perhaps she thought his offering was a trap, since rummaging through his bag would require moving her hands, which would move the ghostly apparition that trapped him in place. However, instead of moving or letting go of him, she muttered a few words under her breath, summoning a completely new hand out of thin air.

Lifting his head just slightly, Lyall closely watched her measured, confident movements while her gaze was momentarily turned. The tense lines of her brows as she seemingly effortlessly maintained her focus.

Not even a full 2 days with magics she'd likely never used before, and she was already so adept.

With her free hand, Eve controlled the hand's movements to pick through his satchel, rummaging through the contents. The magical hand was fairly large in comparison, so the movements were quite clumsy, and an assortment of other items spilled out into the sand. One of the items was the map itself, which Eve was quick to pick up, controlling the hand to float back to her.

Expression stoic and neutral, she stared long and hard at the map, studying it. And then, finally, she picked up the floating map with both hands, effectively breaking the spell. The pressure was lifted off Lyall, and both hands vaporized in thin air.

"Where and how did you get this?" she asked, eyes quickly scanning the map's contents again and again. "The event? Or the DMV? And is it accurate? Tracking others' locations?"

Letting out a deeply relieved breath, Lyall simply sank back against the dirt with his hand pressed over his eyes. Better to stay down than alarm her with any sudden movements, anyhow.

"There was a chest-shaped creature," he answered slowly, hyperaware of how absurd he sounded, "with that, among other useful objects, stowed away within. So, technically sourced from the event. And I'm not entirely sure how accurate, this is all new terrain for me as well."

"I haven't seen anything like this yet. It's obviously enchanted, but for you specifically to have it... that has to be intentional," she murmured, tracing a section of the map with her fingers. She furrowed her brows, frowning. "It appears we've all separated into different domains. But it says here that James and Alan are close."


Lifting his hand, Lyall looked up at her, squinting against the sun behind her head. "How close?" he asked.

"I estimate a two-mile trek, assuming they stay at the same spot. Though it's unlikely they will," Eve answered, eyes still glued on the map. "We can reach them in about an hour if we leave now."

Lyall quirked both brows at that. "'We'?" he echoed curiously, cautiously propping himself up on his elbow.

Eve faltered, lowering the map to stare at him. "Did you... want to stay here?"

He tilted his head with a contemplative scrunch of his nose.

If Alan was with James, then they both were going to be fine. Living, breathing metal-cast sculpture that James had the potential to be now. The man was basically indestructible.

"To be honest, not entirely," he said, "but I think we should discuss the opportunities presented by this event before anything else."

Eve quietly sighed, folding the map in half, but then promptly unfolding it again. "Are you referencing the prize in question?"

"I'm referencing," he answered carefully, "how to utilize this, to everyone's advantage. How can they grow from this? And how can we, with the knowledge that we've been given, set them up for success?"

Eve's frown deepened, apparent that she found his discussion points to be unpleasant and distasteful. "You may do that," she said, her stare on the brink of turning into another glare. "My job is to ensure that operations remain safe for everyone. Otherwise, I have no stake in the specifics of magic development. That's your job."


Her response was hardly a surprise, he supposed. For some reason, he felt his heart sink with some vague feeling of disappointment anyway.

"...Sure," he murmured, glancing off to the side, "fair."

"But you still need to run everything by me," Eve added on sternly. "Because, again. I'd like this to remain safe for everyone, and I hardly think your plans are safe."

Lyall couldn't help the flat look he cast her at that. "What, do you have new mind reading spells too, now?"

"I also think your plans are not funny," she deadpanned, still quite serious.

Fan-fucking-tastic. A micromanager.

Tiredly, he held up a hand and curled his fingers inward. "May I at least have my map back?" he asked flatly. "So that I may still evilly scheme by my lonesome."

This made Eve falter again, and even if she didn't answer right away, the silence was telling. She did not want to return it.

"Are you comfortable navigating?" she asked, still holding on to the map. "We should get going so we can catch up to them sooner rather than later."

Brows twitching slightly inward, he studied her face, definitely surprised by her response this time. "Do you trust me, at all?" he seriously prompted instead, searching her eyes.

"Do you?" Eve shot back, not missing a beat.

Perhaps impulsively, he dug in his heels with, "Do I what?"

"Trust me," Eve replied impatiently. She huffed out a breath. "I don't see how--"

"Have you," Lyall cut in, "given me sufficient reason to trust you, do you think?"

"You haven't first extended the benefit of the doubt!" Eve snapped back, referencing his words mere minutes ago.

"You're the one who keeps attacking me first," Lyall coolly countered.

Eve frowned, hissing, "That's because I don't trust you."

Lifting a hand, he made idle circular motions with his finger. "Only because you refuse to extend the benefit of the doubt, at any given time. Even when I answer honestly, and allow you to toss my personal things about at your whim."

Eve stared at him, tightly pressing her lips together. Reluctantly, carefully, she wordlessly folded the map along the creases again, bending down to pick up his bag and tuck it in. But instead of giving him the bag, she left it on the sand beside him, stepping back and sternly crossing her arms.

"Are you comfortable navigating?" she asked again, changing the subject.

With slow careful movements, he slung the bag over his shoulder and merely said, "Ah, the foundation of a solid partnership: mutual respect."

She only gave him a lingering glance at that comment, pulling out a compass that fit the palm of her hand. "They're this way," she announced, angling herself to point northward.

Lyall only sat straighter in the dirt, absently drumming his hands on his knees as he waited. He let the silence draw out long enough for Eve to impatiently turn back to him expectantly. Exactly four seconds.

He victoriously made a mental note: drawn-out silences? Unappreciated.

He planned on using this. Wisely.

"What are you doing? Do you not want to find them?" she asked, already irritated.

"Oh, my apologies," Lyall said good-naturedly, pressing a hand over his heart. "Would standing up be in accordance with your safety standards?"

"'My'--" was all she managed to sputter out, a mix of baffled bewilderness and deep annoyance mixing into her creased expression. She sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose and turning away. "Never mind. Please stand up so we may leave."

"Gladly," he said, brushing himself off as he quickly obliged. Frowning slightly at the state of disorder within his bag, he drew out the map and flicked it open. "A two-mile trek, right?"

"Last I checked, yes," she agreed, watching his movements. "Can you confirm?"

Turning on his heel, he stepped around her to take the lead. "That I can, my dear."

He felt her hard stare at the back of his head, drilling a hole through his skull. Despite her quiet footsteps, the slosh of sound beneath their feet made her presence behind him known. With his eyes turned down to the map, Lyall couldn't help but absently grin at her palpable irritation.

He added nicknames and ironically-applied terms of endearment to his arsenal.

"So," he spoke up again after a few moments of finding his bearings, tone pleasant, "how are you and the Trieus truly acquainted, hm?"

That immediately warranted a sharp glare. "An awfully suspicious question," she said cooly. "I can ask you the same thing."

"You could," Lyall agreed brightly, flashing her quick playful grin. "However, conversational etiquette observes that I asked first."

"Conversational etiquette observes that you mind your own business," Eve shot back flatly.

Nodding slowly, Lyall pursed his lips as he closely considered her. Mostly noting the hard lines of her rigid posture. Chrysler, this woman did not know how to relax.

"Very well," he calmly relented, turning back to the map. "I first encountered Trieu the brother by the pool, witnessing firsthand his petty, perfidious nature. And Trieu the sister within the bowels of the mansion on the hill, where she first offered position of test administrator. Like the serpent with the forbidden fruit." He shrugged. "And that's the extent of it." Then he turned an expectant grin back her way, waiting for an answer.

Eve turned away the same time he looked over, flicking her eyes towards him in the few seconds that passed. If she was defensive, she didn't show it yet.

Just when it felt like her response was merely silence, she spoke up quietly, peeping, "...I interned with the DMV. I worked with Oliver."

Lyall felt both brows raise at that. "How long ago? Was he an intern as well?"

Eve set her stern gaze firmly at the skyline, squinting through the heat of the sun. "A few years ago. And yes." She snapped her head his way, quick to add on, "Why did Maeve offer you the job?"

"I honestly don't know," he said, lips quirking up in another slight grin when their eyes met. "She offered all sorts of ridiculous flattery pertaining to competence and good tastes in the finer things in life." Lyall studied the map again, noting where their marker was in relation to James and Alan's. "I frankly don't give a damn why."

Eve huffed out a puff of air. "Isn't it obvious? She did this because it worked."

Eyes still fixed on the parchment, Lyall huffed a dry laugh in turn. "Of course it worked. I'm an opportunist."

"Or a puppet," Eve murmured with a shake of her head.

Frankly. The fact that Eve presumed him a fool was amusing.

So, he played along and amicably asked, "What makes you think that?"

Eve frowned, pressing her lips together and fiercely shaking her head a few times. "Because they targeted you. That's intentional. Did you truly think they targeted you for no real reason? This is the DMV. They know more about you than you know about yourself."

That wasn't a real answer. She'd already established their clairvoyance.

Folding the map, Lyall neatly folded his hands behind his back and tilted his chin up with a pleasant smile. "Why do you think they targeted me, then?"

"I don't know," she said with exasperation, sighing. "That's what I asked you. But you don't have a single answer."

Lyall hummed. "I have an inkling of an idea as to why." Turning on his heel, he walked backwards in front of her. "So was it Oliver who inducted you as our 'safety officer'?"

"Yes," Eve answered, clearly miffed as she narrowed her eyes at him, slightly slowing in her steps to offset the distance between the two of them. "What's your inkling of an idea?"

"Were you friends before?" Lyall pressed instead.

"Before what?" she asked instead.

"Before this," he clarified, tilting his head with amusement. "When you were both interning?"

"One can presume that, if he bestowed this position upon me in the present times, then we were friends before this," Eve replied, voice thick with impatience. "Now, can you tell me about the idea?"

"One could presume," Lyall agreed, "but I'd prefer certain confirmation if I can manage it. So, I ask again, were you friends?"

"Yes!" she yelled, finally losing her patience. "I'm not answering any more until you answer me."

Honest to gods, he was trying to control his amusement. The next smile just slipped out. That only seemed to sharpen the glare she sent his way.

Inclining his head, he pleasantly enunciated, "Thank you, darling. That's all I wanted to hear." He tilted his chin up again in a show of thought, keenly aware of her now-intensified irritation.

"Maeve must likewise think me a malleable fool," he said honestly. "As she probably does anybody. Human algorithm that she is, though her humanity is up for debate. And perhaps I am indeed playing into her schemes. But how else to ensure the good friends we've made here make it out with as little damage as possible?" Tilting his head, Lyall met Eve's eyes with complete sobriety now. "A line of thinking you'd understand, yes?"

"Perhaps I should rephrase my initial question," Eve said calmly. Too calmly, in fact. Clearly, she was trying very hard to present herself as steady and collected, even though her face said something different. "Why Maeve offered the job to you is mere speculation. Instead, I want to hear confirmation for: why did you accept the job?"

At this, Lyall brought them both to an abrupt stop. "Let me make myself clear," he said firmly. "I despise the Trieus. I'm loathe to be aligned with an organization that cruelly puts countless young mages under undue stress for the sake of arbitrary standards and excessive regulations. But I'll be damned if I let an opportunity to at least soften the inevitable blows dealt to my friends and family during our stay here, merely pass me by. So, in answer." He bowed his head slightly. "I accepted the position to help everyone through this trial to the best of my ability."

Eve kept her hardy exterior, analyzing both his words and body language now that they stood face-to-face. She briefly pursed her lips, scanning his face. "So we're in agreement," she said neutrally. "We both want to keep our friends close and our enemies closer."

Grinning faintly again, Lyall wanted to ask if that's what she thought of him. An enemy.

Instead, he asked, "Why did you accept your role?"

"Like I said," Eve began, breaking away to move past him, resuming their trek through the desert. "We are in agreement. There are people we want to protect. Which begs the question..." She cast a glance over her shoulder. "Who, specifically, are you wanting to protect?"

Lyall quirked a brow as he trailed after her. "You haven't taken note of my social circle from the countless hours of footage you have access to?"

"Hild, Alan, Cyrin, and James," Eve answered for him. "Is that right?"

"Then why ask?" he prompted.

"I'd prefer certain confirmation if I can manage it," she answered with a thinly mocking voice.

He smiled with unabashed appreciation. "Thus consistently proving yourself a highly intelligent individual," he said smoothly.

Eve pressed her lips together, mentally stumbling through the compliment until finally resuming with, "Is there anyone else?"

"Well, I did say 'everyone'," he answered cheekily. "Who exactly do you seek to protect?"

"Don't be absurd. We can certainly try to work for the common good and help everyone, but it's more realistic and effective to constrain our time and efforts to a select few," Eve answered curtly.

"I'm well aware, Miss Eve," Lyall said, hopping a few steps to walk beside her. "It doesn't hurt to aim a little higher if we can, though, right? Take opportunities if they come?"

"If they come," Eve echoed. She cast him a skeptical glance. "Which is ideal, yes. But I don't consider myself an idealist."

"Neither am I."

She nodded. "Then we are in agreement again there."

"Would I be right," he went on, "to presume your circle of prioritized people is smaller?"

"The people I would like to protect somewhat intersect with yours. I'd also like to protect James and Hild." Eve paused, thinking through this with her brows knitted together again. "Shane, Clarity, and Clandestine are also in my priority. I asked the same question to you because, if you help look over the people I'd like to protect, I can help you look over the people you'd like to protect."

The proposition actually took Lyall by surprise. Especially considering she made it clear with a rather venomous tone not too long ago that she wanted nothing to do with his work.

"Seems I'm not a complete fool for trusting you after all," Lyall commented pleasantly.

Eve hesitantly glanced his way, then again after another second, only responding with stiff silence.

"Though, may I be completely honest with you?" he asked, without waiting for her to come up with a verbal response.

"...What is it?" she replied, voice wary.

"Your greetings leave much to be desired," he said with a bit of a dry grin. "Perhaps next time, don't lead with another physical assault?"

Eve sighed in defeat, burying down the apparent annoyance again. "Next time, I'll say hello," she said flatly.

"I greatly appreciate that," Lyall said, humming a laugh.

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Carina says...

Volcano. Forest. Air.


Though, perhaps that word wasn't worth pondering, considering the numerous other things that had been happening. Alan didn't know what the hell was happening half the time, but he stopped questioning it.

They were falling through hot dry air, and before he could even fully process that, his body found ground again by falling flat against it with a loud metallic clang. Completely winded-- and frankly, concussed-- Alan had to take a second to orient himself.

Or... seconds. With a muffled groan, Alan finally opened his eyes and lifted his head, blinking away the darkness as his vision adjusted to the sickening brightness around them.

Three thoughts followed.

One, it was hot. Very hot.

Two, he was on top of James.

Three, it wasn't a metal floor he fell on. It was armor.

For some reason, it was the third thought that clicked first as he lifted his head from his shoulder, settling his hand on the sand next to them. Hot.

James let out a groan. Alan glanced up, realizing that he should... probably move and not be laying on his chest.

"Sorry," he said apologetically, quick to roll away, feet finding the sand next to them.

Sand. A lot of sand, with the air around them being thick to breathe, like an oven. And the sun was hot against his skin, the sky expansive and a deep blue.

Were they in a desert?

James sat up slowly, letting out a grunt, followed by a sigh.

"Take me out of hell and put me in a desert," James mumbled, but it sounded like he was talking more to himself. The rest was unintelligible, but he sounded unhappy, to say the least.

Quickly gaining his bearings, Alan scanned their surroundings, head sweeping back and forth as it dawned on him: they were alone.

No. Did they get separated? How?

Alan scrambled to his feet, cupping his hands around his mouth to yell out, "Lyall! Alex! Leilan!" The names echoed through the sandy hills with no response. Still, Alan tried out the other names, giving it a few seconds before repeating the same process with, "Shane! Hild! Eve!"

It was almost poetically haunting how his voice carried through the desert, the only sound to carry back to him.

James had finally gotten to his feet, and he stared off into the distance, looking out over the sandy plateau they were standing atop.

"Looks like we're separated," James said. "Now we know not to touch the edge of a portal."

Was that how...? Never mind, Alan wasn't going to question this.

He creased his brows together in worry, his gaze only lingering on the sand falling off James's armor before he turned back to the expansive sandy hills they were overlooking. "I hope they're alright," he said softly.

"Me too," James said with a small nod, his gaze still locked on something in the distance.

He didn't know how long the next silence sat between them. Maybe a long time. All he could think of was: now what?

Though, it was difficult to answer that question considering he didn't really feel like there was much of a purpose. Unless...

Alan hesitantly turned back to James. "Do you want to try to reach the mountain?"

"I think it's the surest way to find the others, at the very least," James said. "Since it's our common goal. So yes. We should head to the mountain."

Alan nodded. "Alright." He scanned the skyline, noting the looming silhouette of the mountain in the far distance. It was clearly unwalkable to get there in one day, but... stranger things have happened. "Let's walk."

James nodded, and he went ahead to lead the way. Alan trailed behind, mindlessly puzzling out implications of everything. The new directive they were given, the prize, the environment...

Though, frankly, he also couldn't bring himself to give a damn. The most important thing he heard was that they were "halfway," which meant the event was three days long in total. Not that that mattered much either. It was just good to know that there was going to be a deadline.

Not that that mattered much either.

Alan wiped the sweat off his brow using the back of his wrist, squinting low at the sky. The sun was beating down at them, and he was already feeling dehydrated.

They weren't going to make it to the mountain. Not like this. But he felt like this was painfully obvious now. Or maybe he couldn't bring himself to voice it, for whatever reason.

Alan glanced at James, who was walking quite slowly given the extra weight of the armor that clinked against his body. He seemed deadly tired, though he also didn't blame him, considering all of this felt like a fever-induced dream.

"Hey," he called gently, nudging his head towards his armor. "How are you holding up? The armor seems really hot."

James let out a sigh.

"It was worse in the volcano," James said. "I'm fine."

"Just because it was worse in the past, doesn't make it bearable in the present," Alan replied gently. "It's just an idea, though. It's a long trek, and I'd hate for you to be uncomfortable."

"You're... suggesting I take it off," James said, like he was only just now catching on.

Alan nodded. "I'm worried you may catch a heat stroke with it."

"If I do I'll regenerate in a few minutes. Maybe an hour at most," he said.

It took Alan some moments to understand what he wasn't saying. He remembered their interaction from literally Day 1 where he first mentioned his magic, and Alan expressed worries and concerns about pain. He hadn't thought about it since then, but...

"The armor's practical," James added after a moment. "Means I don't have to make my own."

"Alright," Alan replied softly, not pushing it. "Still, that doesn't sound pleasant. I hope you're not too uncomfortable."

James shook his head.

"I can bear with discomfort. Thanks for caring, though," he said.

"Of course. And if the discomfort ever becomes too much, we can pause to take a break," Alan said with a smile. "It's a long walk, but I'm in no rush."

James nodded, but said nothing more. Alan didn't quite interpret this as him no longer interested in having a conversation, though.

"Otherwise, how have you been holding up?" he asked, circling back to the over-arching question. "Aside from... I don't know. High fantasy stress, which I hope isn't overbearing for you either."

"Outside of the past day and a half?" James asked.

"In general, yeah," Alan replied. "How have you been doing?"

"I want to go home," James said. "And have since the start. The only gift in all of this has been meeting a few good people. That's the summary."

He could hear the silent frustrations in his words, tiredly piercing through the air.

"What do you look forward to the most when you return home?" he asked curiously.

"Seeing my family," James answered.

"Seeing family is always a gift. They must miss you so much," Alan said wistfully, already feeling nostalgic from wanting to see his extended family again.

"Yeah," James said. "Was it good for you, seeing your mother and brother?"

He smiled warmly, nodding. "It was. It was quite a surprise. I haven't seen them for two months, so I was missing them so much. I'm mostly looking forward to this event ending so that I can spend time with them again."

James hummed.

"Right," he said quietly. "I wonder where we are..."

"I'm not sure. I was wondering that too. The skies are completely different, so I'm feeling disoriented," Alan answered with a weak laugh.

"Could be another island in the Auslanii archipelago," James murmured. "Though they'd had to have done... a lot of work on it."

Alan shrugged a shoulder. "Maybe. I've learned to stop questioning things."

James looked at Alan out of the corner of his eye.

"Just since being here?" he asked.

"Of course," Alan said smoothly. "There's no clear-cut answer to why we look different or have different magic. Outside of... well, magic."

"...Right," James said quietly.

Alan nodded again, deciding to change the subject. He offered a small smile, glancing his way as they continued down the slope of the plateau.

"As silly as it sounds, I do hope we can get to the star prize so you can go home and see your family again," he said sincerely. "I'm sure they'd like that too."

James let out a huff.

"If we manage to make it in time, the person I'm sending home is Aaron," James said firmly. "God knows he's suffered the most out of all of us."

Alan did not know that actually, but considering the weight of his words, it wasn't in his place to ask more about that.

"That's very noble of you, James," Alan said more softly. "And heroic."

"If doing the right thing is 'heroic' these days, the standards people have disappoint me," James muttered.

"Fair point. Though, it's difficult to not bring up heroism in the context of a high fantasy quest."

James gave Alan a flat look. Alan mustered a smile, lifting a hand placatingly.

"Sorry. Bad joke," he murmured.

James glanced down at Alan's strapped to his back lute. Frankly, it was a miracle that it didn't break during the fall.

"Looks like they made you a bard," he said.

Alan blinked. "A what?"

James furrowed his brows.

"Have you... never read or watched any high fantasy stories?" he asked.

Alan hesitantly shook his head. "I once played Skyroom with my brother for an hour, if that counts."

"That... sure," James said. "A bard is a musician who can cast spells through song and music. They tend to be known for their charisma, and usually play the role of an entertainer and performer."

"Oh... huh."

Of course the DMV would assign this role to him. If life was a performance, then he would gladly act.

He quietly hummed, mulling this over. "I suppose that is fitting."

"Yeah. Seems so," James agreed.

Alan didn't really know what to do with this information, but he stewed on it, hardly sinking into any thought. They were mostly fleeting thought that felt half-filtered at the surface, and he hardly caught any of its body, outside a handful of words.

Like: why, and capability, and power.

They walked the rest of the way in silence, which Alan was fine with, since he felt his mind busy with half-constructed thoughts he didn't bring himself to fully understand. Though he felt strangely nostalgic, the peaceful walk through rough terrain reminded him of the backpacking hike in which he would also be alone with a mess of a mind, occasionally talking to others who had even bigger internal messes.

Poetic, really. Like this was a continuation. There was meaning in here somewhere, he was sure.

They reached the base of the plateau, only separated by a ledge. The trail winded ahead was getting narrower and narrower, and they had to walk one in front of the other so they could squeeze through the ledge. Alan trailed behind James, carefully taking each step with one hand against the wall. They were halfway to reaching the trailhead when suddenly there was a rustling of scuttles that made the hair at the nape of his neck stand up.

James pulled his sword out of its sheath, looking up at the source of the sound.

Was that... scorpions?

"[BLEEP]," James cursed.

Rattling, the giant scorpions aggressively scurried down the rocks with its pincers out, tail angled to sting. Freezing, Alan counted nearly a dozen of them, quickly approaching. Maybe within... seconds. Within seconds.

He sweeped his head around, despately assessing the situation, but there was nowhere to go. Jumping was not an answer.

"Go back! Get distance!" James shouted at him as he rushed to swing at the scorpions.

Alan didn't need to be told twice. He quickly backtracked the way they came from, shuffling to gain as much distance as possible between him and the goddamn monstrous-sized scorpions that also strangely resembled rattlesnakes. For some reason.

He felt his heartrate quicken a tad as he uncertainly glanced back at James, getting completely ambushed by the creatures. But he was confident with his sword, swinging and slicing away. Slivers of blood colored his vision, and he vaguely saw a few of the scorpions hiss and fly off the cliff with a severed body.

At least, that was his assessment from only a half-second glance back, because Alan was far too preoccupied with running the fuck away. His breath caught his throat, and he almost wanted to cough since he wasn't used to running through dry hot air, but--

Nope, he was hacking now. But just for a few seconds, because he didn't want to draw any more needless attention to himself. Hugging the wall against the narrow ledge, Alan glanced back at James, still slicing and fighting the intense ambush he didn't ask for. He felt guilty and wished he could be a bigger help, but honestly, he didn't know what else to do. This option was safer for both of them, because the last thing Alan wanted to do was--

A sharp, burning pain at his stomach interrupted all of his thoughts, the pain point exploding in his mind that he felt like, for a second there, he wasn't registering any senses. But instinct then took over, and biting back a hiss of pain, Alan immediately scrambled to shimmy away, kicking whatever the hell-- fuck!

Was that a scorpion? A baby scorpion? Fuck!

He didn't know what happened next. Did he kill it? Smash it? Or was it... no, he kicked it. It flew off the ledge. At least, that was the only reason Alan could think to why he was staring down the chasm, trying to find a familiar speck black.

The pain throbbed, growing, moaning, hurting. It was sourced... on his stomach. No, chest. No, stomach. Both? No, he got bitten once. No. Stung. He was stung. By a scorpion. A baby scorpion, which he'd done plenty of prior research on and knew that they had more venom to kill an adult person in...

...Hours? Minutes...? No, he was being dramatic. It couldn't be that long. Plus, these were not real scorpions. Nothing of this was real, anyhows.

Fuck, this was not good. He wasn't even fighting.

Steeling his composure, Alan took a shaky deep breath then glanced back to see how James was doing. He was standing some yards away, his sword in hand with a head of a scorpion at the end of it, like it was a kebab on a skewer.

James looked up, searching.

"Alan?" he called out.

"I'm here," he called back, waving so he could see his movements. "I'm okay. Are you okay?"

"They're dead," he said. "I'm fine. Are you okay?"

"I'm okay," Alan repeated, though he had a feeling he wasn't the only one lying. "Stay there. I'll come to you."

"Okay," James said, as he took a step back. But just as he did so, there was a loud, sickening crack. James looked down, and before he could react, the ledge underneath him collapsed.

In an instant, James was gone. His body slid down the remaining height of the plateau wall, bouncing down a few rocks into the chasm.

When he landed at the bottom, it was face-down, and he wasn't moving.

"James!" Alan yelped, now feeling panicked.

He had to get down. Fast. But there was no other way down besides this damn ledge, and so he hurried down, acutely aware of his foot slipping a few times, but he always regained his footing. His vision blurred, and Alan realized that the crumbled gap that James created left a gaping hole.

How the hell was he supposed to leave? Never mind, he could jump. Could he? Didn't he just get stung? It didn't matter. He could do this.

And he did. Barely. Well, he almost fell and nearly killed himself from doing it, but that was besides the point.

"Alan?" Lyall's voice called, pitched with worry.

Oh, nice. Now he was hallucinating Lyall's voice. What did this mean? Was he subconsciously wanting him around? Well, he couldn't deny that, either. That was probably true. No, it was true.

"I really didn't think I'd have to say another 'this is the end' eulogy to you," he muttered, almost wanting to laugh from the absurdity of the situation.

The trek down blurred by. It took maybe five... ten minutes? Fifteen? Hour?

What was time, anyways, but a mere social constrict? A human-invented category to quantify the natural progression of life, marking milestones, such as births, marriage, taxes, death?

"Alan," a voice called that Alan was almost certain must have been god.

He whirled around to, disappointingly, see that it was only Eve. For some reason. How did she...? Oh, right. Hallucinations.

"It's dangerous to walk down. Enter through here instead," she said calmly, and then just like that, a fucking door appeared.

Yeah. So this was what dying looked like.

"Great," Alan muttered, opening the door like this was a normal every day thing, especially because he-- somehow-- found himself to be...

Alan glanced back at the door, then at the view ahead of him, then back at the door, which disappeared after Eve stepped through again. Processing...

Was that James? And Lyall?

"Alan," Eve called, now studying him more closely. "Are you alright?"

Okay, so she wasn't the Grim Reaper after all.

"I'm alright," he answered assuringly, desperately willing himself to snap back to reality.

Eve nodded, and just like that, she hurried back to the others' side. Alan had to take a few seconds to stop and just... compose himself, not wanting to appear too shaken. But he had to keep going. By gods, he felt like might be on the verge of death himself, but he had to keep going.

In a daze, he followed after Eve, but taking in the new situation. James was still lying flat on the floor, unconscious and... well, honestly, he already looked dead. And from the way Lyall was urgently weighing his options and attempting magic, he was guessing that he... well, actually, Alan didn't know. A spell, maybe? But he didn't know a lot of things. He ought to stay out of the way until the storm passed, especially since he and Eve were now engaged in a tense, heated debate over what to do. Or rather, what to say.

"Is that even a fucking language?" Lyall fired back, shaking hands hovering over James's back.

"Just repeat after me!" Eve said with great exasperation, going on to over-enunciate complete gibberish.

Still looking uncertain, Lyall set his hands on James and, voice steadying, firmly and loudly repeated the words.

A blue glow appeared from Lyall's hands and surrounded James's body, like some kind of glowing outline. The light pulsed once before fading away in blue-white sparkles, and for a moment, it didn't seem like it did anything. Lyall's eyes scanned him with increasing panic--

Then James let out a groan.

"James!" Eve called, kneeling over his body, hair cascading past her face and shoulder. "Are you okay? Can you hear me?"

Letting out a deeply relieved breath, Lyall re-checked James's pulse.

James said something unintelligible with his face flat against the ground. But for some reason Alan could've sworn he heard him swear. Somehow that made it through.

"Let's turn you around," Eve said with great relief, nudging his shoulders.

Her nudging didn't do anything, but after a few seconds, James's arms came up at his sides and he pushed himself, rolling over onto his back.

It looked like the front of his chestplate had been punctured by a rock, and the metal bent inward. It was a lot of blood.

"Good god, man," Lyall uttered, hands scrabbling at the edges of the armor.

James fumbled with his own hands, searching for the straps. But seemed pretty out of it.

"Are you able to sit up?" Eve asked.

James grunted, but pushed himself upright, sitting with his brows pinched in pain. Lyall hastily undid the straps, tore the armor off and threw it aside, then muttered another string of curses as he assessed the damage. Just as he reached for the puncture wound, though, he stopped himself short as the giant, gaping gash began to rapidly regenerate flesh.

It was unsettling. But at the same time, strangely fascinating to see this at work.

"Should we...?" Eve began, but then trailed off, glancing uncertainly at Lyall.

"I think he's got it from here," Lyall murmured, voice at once relieved again yet heavy.

James reached out slowly, heavily grabbing Lyall's shoulder. Though slightly jostled, Lyall cast him a bright grin.

"Thanks," James said tiredly, dropping his hand back to his side.

Lyall glanced at Eve. "Is there anything to manage pain?"

Eve grimaced, shaking her head. "No, unfortunately," she said quietly.

Lyall nodded once with wince. "Shite. Sorry, mate."

"It's fine," James said with a sigh, moving to slide off his gauntlets. "I'm glad we ran into you."

"Me too," Eve said with a sigh of relief, relaxing the tension in her body. "I just wish we got here sooner."

James nodded, but only patted Eve's arm.

Pushing himself to his feet with a quiet huff, Lyall then made a beeline for Alan. He started to reach out a hand, glanced at the red still staining his fingers, then let it drop to his side. His eyes shone with concern as he looked him over.

"I'm okay," Alan assured with a small smile, knowing that was what he was going to ask first. "I'm glad you're here."

Letting out a short breath, Lyall nodded. "Good. Yes." He mustered a quick smile of his own. "Glad to see you, too."

There was a lot Alan could say here, considering their previous interaction together. But for whatever reason, he opted to watch Eve quietly chat next to James as he mind-numbingly said, "I thought I hallucinated your voice as I was coming down. I thought, maybe, you'd be the last person I wanted to talk to. Or say goodbye to. I don't really know."

Lyall's brows slowly drew inward with growing worry. "'Goodbye'-- The bloody hell are you talking about, Alvaro?" He stepped closer, eyes intently searching Alan's. "Did you knock your head on something this time?"

Alan huffed out a faint laugh, searching Lyall's own eyes back, but found nothing in them, aside from the warmth of his green eyes, more hazel in the desert sun. Though maybe he was too busy wading through the colors to find any meaning. "No," he answered. "It's nothing. Just a fleeting thought." He flicked his eyes back towards James. "Is he alright?"

Lyall briefly followed his gaze. "He's a little worse for wear," he answered softly, "but he'll be fine." He brushed the red off from his hands on his vest, then dug out a canteen from his bag to press into Alan's hands.

"Oh," he murmured, staring down at the canteen for a second, vaguely recalling when they filled it up.

Wasn't that just this morning?

"That's alright, I have my own. We'll both need this since, you know... desert," Alan said, offering it back to him, even though he was pretty sure he didn't have any of his belongings anymore. They got lost, maybe... somehow.

"Drink," Lyall softly demanded anyway, gently nudging it back toward Alan. "Please."

Alan hesitated, but quietly agreed, twisting off the cap and taking a few humble gulps. The water was still cold, and he realized then and there that he was dehydrated, but they all were. Who knows when they were going to reach the next water supply?

Twisting off the canteen, Alan offered it back to him with a small smile. "Thank you."

Eyes still scanning over him, Lyall quietly accepted it with a slight bow of his head. Just as he was about to step back, he paused and further pressed, "Are you sure you're alright?"

"I'm alright," Alan assured again. "Are you?"


"Good," he murmured, disengaging again as he detached himself to figure out what the hell the next steps even were.

Walk through the desert. Maybe get attacked by god-knows-what. See more grim reapers. Find the damn mountain. Get stung again. Maybe.

Alan had been keenly aware of the growing pain burning on his stomach, but he knew he could take care of himself. He didn't want to be totally useless, and he disliked having others worry about him when he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

It just didn't help that this damn world was out to kill him. But they were more than halfway through, right? They just had to survive another day.

They could do that. They could survive.
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SilverNight says...

Shane saw stars as his head hit something, and suddenly the screech Shrimp made turned into a high-pitched ringing in his ears, the sounds blending together. It hurt.

He groaned, keeping his eyes closed as he rolled over onto his back -- because he was now lying on the ground. Great. He pressed his bare palm to the earth, and suddenly a scene of his surroundings played out like he had his eyes open-- lush, green canopies, vines tangling around trees, rainwater dripping from tropical flowers, frogs and snakes at home in the branches. The air was oppressively warm, but instead of the dry acridity of the volcano, it was a humid, wet heat. Like a sauna.

Shane opened his eyes to the rainforest he already knew was there.

Without the need to scan the landscape's features, he instead looked around for people. He found only one. Alex, inexplicably purple, lying in a bed of moss.

Grunting, Shane rose to half-stand on his knees, watching him.

Alex, however, stayed lying down.

"...My bad," he said, staring up at the canopy.

Shane anxiously scanned the trees more closely, slowly getting all the way up. He couldn't see anyone else, not even Shrimp.

"Is anyone out there?" he shouted, as loudly as his smoke-irritated lungs would let him.

No voices replied.

More desperately, Shane looked back at Alex.

"...Wherever we are, I think we're the only ones around," he said quietly.

Alex sat up, looking around.

"Hm. Guess so," he said. He got to his feet and dusted some moss off himself, picking up his spear that had fallen beside him.

What the hell was Shane expected to do? Survive in a jungle with just Alex for company?

"We should get some altitude to see what we're working with," Alex said. "We're supposed to be looking for the mountain, but we're not going to know what we're looking for if we can't see past the trees. I'm going to climb one. You good to stay down here and keep watch?"

Shane processed the idea, nodding. "I'll do that."

Alex nodded in turn.

"Hold this," he said, handing Shane his spear.

Shane nearly hesitated, per his self-made policy on handling weapons. But while that was a boundary he was comfortable expressing to someone like James, he didn't know if he wanted Alex to know that. Both because he didn't want to appear helpless in a survival context, and he didn't need Alex knowing too many vulnerabilities.

So he accepted it, without even covering his hand first. A flurry of snapshot memories flew by quickly-- Alex puncturing a bubble trapping a frozen Leilan, Alex ramming the spear into a gaping maw inside a treasure chest, Alex sharpening the blade by moonlight.

Shane furrowed his brow as he looked back to Alex, trying to ignore the rush of adrenaline and revulsion the memories gave him.

"You've seen some dangers already," he said, concerned.

"Nothing I don't know how to handle," Alex said with a confident grin. "I'll be back in a jiffy."

And then he leaped up, grabbing the lowest hanging branch of a tree overhead. With ease and grace, Alex pulled himself up, climbing up the tree quickly.

Shane returned his gaze to ground level, clutching the spear even though he didn't feel safer with it. In fact, it felt like his skin was crawling.

That usually meant something bad about the item, in his experience. But intuition was messy and Shane had nothing except a nagging feeling.

Then he heard the shuffling in the trees stop from above. A tense silence.

"Uh," he heard Alex say.

"What?" Shane asked immediately.

An "uh" could only sound like bad news.

"I think I found your... cat," he said.

Shane straightened, trying to see where he was in the leaves while his heart raced with hope. "Brown tabby, green eyes, and with wings for some reason?"

"Yeah," Alex said stiffly. "It um."

Another pause.

"Can you call it down to you?" he asked.

Huh. So Alex was one of those people who called pets "it".

"I can try. He's not trained in the way dogs are," Shane said, before clearing his throat and calling in Aphiran, "Shrimp!"

He heard the whacking of feathers against leaves, and the cat flapped out of the tree and into Shane's arms. He seemed a little skittish, which must have been his reason for hiding up there. Shane held him close in a hug, planting a smooch between his ears.

"He's very friendly," he said to Alex in Common. "He's never clawed or bitten a person in his life, and if he's hounding you it's because he thinks you'll pet him. If you don't want to do that, just don't pay him any mind and he'll leave you alone."

Another pause.

"Noted," Alex said. And then Shane heard him climbing up further into the tree again.

Evidently, it was taller than it seemed. He patiently waited, cuddling the squirming Shrimp.

After a few more seconds Alex called down.

"Looks like the mountain is to the west. We've got a bit of jungle to wade through but it's not out of reach within the timeframe we've been given," he said.

Shane hummed. "And how much of a mountain is it? A mountain, or more like someone who thinks their local hills are tall sharing their idea of a mountain?"

Alex was quiet for a moment.

"...Or does it make the Byemalayas look like hills?" Shane asked uncertainly, now getting a bad feeling.

"It's a small mountain," Alexander answered.

"Okay," Shane murmured.

Alexander started making his way back down, climbing quickly and jumping down from the last branch, landing beside Shane.

Alexander brushed some leaves off of his shoulders.

"Well. It's this way," Alex pointed to their left. "Shall we pursue the mountain?"

"I'm happy to, as long as it doesn't grow legs and walk away from us," Shane said. Since that was what pursuing meant.

Alex huffed through his nose.

"Who knows," he said, taking his speak back. "Stranger things have happened here."

"To say the least," Shane agreed, returning his spear to him.

"Well, off we go," Alexander said with a spin, taking long steps to lead the way.

Shane followed, while Shrimp repositioned to his shoulder. Normally, his cat wouldn't stay perched there while Shane was walking around, but the wings seemed to help him stay balanced there. So he had a cat on his shoulder like a pirate with a parrot. He kind of liked it, honestly, but he'd want Shrimp to go back to normal eventually.

"Ever been in a jungle, Shane?" Alex asked over his shoulder.

A little surprised at the question, Shane flicked his gaze to him.

"Not one like this," he said. "I've been to a temperate rainforest before. It's not hot like here."

Alex hummed.

"This one reminds me of home," Alexander said, looking up into the trees.

"How so?" Shane asked.

"Reeks of danger," Alex said. He looked over to Shane with a smirk. "And it looks the same. Plants and all."

Danger. Shane scanned their surroundings with caution. He'd never been the most outdoorsy person, but in his defense, most Aphirans weren't anymore. It wasn't particularly necessary to know about poisonous plants or dangerous wildlife when you would never see those in your city. Especially since most people also weren't thrown into survivalist situations, far from home, into the wild.

"If it's similar," Shane said. "What kinds of threats would you be expecting here, possibly?"

Alex tilted his head to the side.

"Look out for tall, feathery, grass," he said. "It'll trap you."

Shane frowned at the choice in verbs. "As in, make you get stuck?"

"Well what happens is they cling to you kind of like stickers, but stronger, and upon attatchment, they'll coil around you like a snap-bracelet. Because it's many blades doing that all at once, you can see how it's easy to get trapped," he said. "Their hold is surprisingly strong. They're not just flimsy reeds."

Well, this was why Shane wasn't a plant biologist. It seemed like every time he heard of a new plant, nature gradually got a little more horrifying and alarming.

"...Good to know," he said.

"There are also plants that can eat you," Alex went on. "Technically we categorize them as monsters, since they're enough of a threat to humans that we have to look out for them. They tend to hide under the appearance of thick beds of grass. So if it looks like a safe clearing, it's probably not. It could be the plant's 'mouth.'"

"Are they like sundews, but larger?" Shane asked. "I assume they'd have to be of a certain size for that."

"They're a bit more like the venus fly trap," Alex said.

Shane nodded. At least that was something he would recognize if he was lucky enough to see it beforehand. He was, maybe, just slightly better off than a fly.

"Usually they tend to catch like, small to medium sized mammals. The cases of humans dying in them is actually pretty rare," Alex added. "Probably less than five recorded a year. But those are usually the stupid people, anyway."

That was actually... pretty relieving?

"I'll be keeping a close eye on Shrimp," Shane said. "He's not a wanderer, though."

Alex looked at Shrimp, but only briefly.

"Good. Keep it close," he said.

Shane examined him for a short moment of silence.

"You don't have pets, do you?" he asked, more out of curiosity than anything.

Alex seemed a bit... uncharacteristically awkward at the question. He stiffened a bit, and pursed his lips.

"No," he said. "I've... never had pets, no."

"That's fine," Shane said quickly, not sure why his instinct was to be reassuring. "I don't judge. They're not for everyone."

"I know," Alex said.

"Sorry," Shane said, and it was now his turn to be awkward.

Alex let out a sigh.

"I'm... used to people going all 'animal rights' on me," he said with a twiddle of his fingers in the air. "I'm predisposed to being defensive. Don't apologize."

"I won't do that," Shane promised, rubbing Shrimp's head. "I mean, I love animals as much as the next person, but it's not like I'm part of EATO. Monster hunters have an important job to do."

"Okay, but where do you stand on taxidermy?" Alex asked.

"Taxidermy," Shane echoed, not completeely sure where this was going. "Well, those animals are dead, aren't they? I think if everyone got really into taxidermy, we'd be facing some ecological issues, but I don't think it's a problem where it's at."

"Can you tell that to Hendrik?" Alex asked.

Shane raised an eyebrow. "Why, what's he think?"

Alex let out a little sigh as he rolled his eyes. "He's just... he makes it weird. It doesn't have to be weird."

Shane didn't really want to think back to it, but he remembered the video he'd seen of Alex and Hendrik's kiss in the maze. He had no idea what their relationship was, but it seemed like Hendrik's opinion mattered to Alex, at the very least.

"That's a shame," he said with a hum, letting a little bit of sympathy show. "I guess everyone's got their hangups."

Alex huffed.

"...Right," he said.

"But," Shane added, "not all of those have to, or would, get in the way of a substantial connection. There isn't a person on the planet without a weird, oddly specific hill about something that bothers them that they would die on. But we still all find ways to share relationships with each other, somehow."

"What hill does Shrimp die on?" Alex asked.

"He'd go to war over tuna being better than salmon," Shane said. "Which I actually vehemently disagree with. But he's entitled to his opinions, even if I practically raised him."

"Depends on how you make it," Alex said with a hum.

"He mostly has it canned," Shane said. "Though he's probably had it sashimi-style too."

"For a cat?" Alex asked with raised brows.

Shrimp let out a mrrp, like he knew he was the subject of discussion. Alex pulled his lips back a bit in discomfort. On a day where it would've been easier to laugh, Shane might've.

"He wouldn't get a lot of it to himself, although he wishes otherwise," Shane said. "Too much isn't good for him."

"Yeah," Alex said awkwardly again, looking away like he was trying intentionally not to look at Shrimp.

Alex had been the one to turn the conversation back to Shrimp, but Shane had the feeling it had run its length.

He let the silence last just a few moments, taking the opportunity to listen to as well as watch the scenery around them. Most of the noise was from birds and chirping insects, but the wind in the leaves was surprisingly loud. He didn't hear anything worrying, so he decided it was alright to keep talking.

And if they'd run out of small talk material, that only really left the big talks.

"So," Shane said, a little hesitantly. "Thank you again for owning up to what you did back there."

Alex looked over at Shane for a moment, his expression serious, but distracted. His eyes flicked away.

"It was the right thing to do," he said. "I'm just trying to... do that."

Shane took a deep breath through his nose, trying to prepare himself for this.

"That means more than you know," he said. "It was also the harder thing to do, and you were the one holding yourself accountable. You could've easily stood by it without apologizing, or even doubled down after being found out. But you didn't, and that speaks a lot to your genuine desire to do better."

Alex took in a deep breath and came to a stop, setting the end of his spear in the ground.

"That's all really nice of you to say," he said. "And I appreciate it. But you get to be angry, too."

Shane was quiet for a few moments.

"You know, I don't think I am," he said. "And if I am at all, it's more about what you did to my friends than me. But even then, I'm not sure if anger's my response."

"But you should be angry," Alex said. "Angry for yourself. I mean, doesn't it make you mad? I tortured you in your head. I did it for fun. That doesn't bother you?"

"It-- it bothers me," Shane said. "But it doesn't anger me, or send me flying into a rage. When I heard you'd done that, I just felt..." He lowered his voice a little. "...hurt. And shocked, and a little betrayed. I didn't know what I'd done to deserve it."

Alex took a step back, looking at Shane squarely.

"You didn't do anything," Alex said, quieter. "Besides... be friends with and in close proximity to James."

Alex looked off to the side, shaking his head.

"God, this whole thing is so... stupid. I've been stupid. And an ass," Alex said. "It was so pointless."

Shane blinked.

"Tula put you up to it," he said. It wasn't quite a question.

Alex's brows pinched together.

"I'm not trying to pass off the blame," he said.

"I know," Shane said. "I can blame Tula for a lot of things separately anyway. Just..." He faltered. "This makes a little more sense, suddenly. I couldn't understand why you started with James when you hadn't even met him yet. But you'd met her."

Alex pressed his lips together, looking at Shane with an air of assesment as he swayed his spear at his side, popping his weight to one hip.

"So you know about Tula, huh?" he asked.

"About her..." Shane waved his hand. "Incessant desire to hurt James? Yes."

"That she's crazy? Crazy in the head?" Alex went on. "Unhealthily obsessed? Insane? Has some freakish pain kink? Is a sadist?"

"I had a feeling," Shane said slowly. "She's rather hell-bent on violence and suffering."

"Yeah, well, I knew about most of the shit she was up to, so," Alex said with a wave of his hand. "Well. Maybe that'll finally give you more ammo to be angry with."

Shane slowly shook his head. "No. Whatever I feel, it's still not anger."

Alex opened his mouth as if to argue. But just as quickly, his eyes darted up, and his eyes widened.

"BLEEP," he cursed, slowly lifting his spear. "Don't move. Get down when I tell you to."

In a sense, that was the easiest command he'd ever had to follow, because Shane froze up the moment he heard it. Even Shrimp stilled on his shoulder, which was rare for him. Behind him, he could hear the faint hum of a strange growl. It almost sounded like something was gargling.

What the fuck lived in a jungle and gargled? Shane would have asked Alex out of morbid curiosity, if that didn't seem like a terrible idea right now. His heart was racing stupid fast.

Alex's shoulders raised ever so slightly.

"Down!" he shouted.

Shane didn't need to be told twice. He immediately crouched down low to the ground, snagging Shrimp off his shoulder and to his chest so he'd be out of the way.

A horrible blood-curdling screech echoed through the jungle, until it was suddenly cut off by a sputter. But more screams started chiming in, in a terrible chorus. Alex started spewing curse words in a long string of an almost-sentence, running behind Shane.

"Of course they BLEEPing ship these BLEEPers out from BLEEP BLEEP Nye!" Alex growled.

Shane looked behind him just in time to see four giant, dark, babboon-like creatures jumping for Alex with open maws.

"...[BLEEP]," he muttered.

Alex blocked two of them with the length of his spear, catching it between their mouths. The third, he dodged, but it was scrambling back around quickly. The fourth, however, jumped in last, from behind.

It bit Alex's lower leg, and from the cry Alex let out...

No time to think.

"Alex!" Shane shouted, reaching for his bag. "What are these things afraid of? Natural predators, other monsters, anything?"

"Panthers!" Alex shouted, pushing two of the babboons back as he whirled the spear around, stabbing the one biting him through the neck. "BLEEP!"

Shane tore the flap of the bag away, rifling inside for the scroll with the green ribbon. He didn't bother with untying it in his haste, just tugged on it until the cord snapped. He unfurled the scroll, pressing his thumb to the seal, and thought: A panther. A huge panther. The largest damn panther you've ever seen before.

Something shifted in the air between him and Alex, like black smoke uniting into a shape. It soon took the shape of a feline with rippling muscle under its sleek, dark fur, and he saw claws unsheathe, heard an ominous, low growl. As if it had pounced out of the wildlife around them, the black panther illusion prowled forward, fierce eyes fixed on the monkeys as it spread its teeth and let out a blood-curdling yowl.

The baboons gathered around Alex - and there were more, that had come out of the trees - suddenly began hoo-ing and backing away. The sight of the panther was starting to make them panic, but the one biting Alex was still gnawing on his leg.

Shane didn't think about what the illusion might be able to do, he just concentrated all of his will on making it move forward. Sure enough, the panther did just that, charging with a terrifying roar.

Finally letting Alexander go, the baboons let out scared screeches and began to flee. The panther pursued them, and if Shane hadn't made it appear himself, there would have been no doubt in his mind that it was real.

Alexander fell to his knees as the baboons flex into the jungle, their screeches receeding as they got further and further away. He leaned forward over his injured leg, but the wound was out of Shane's view. As was Alexander's face.

Shane rushed over to him, releasing Shrimp to the ground as he went. His heart clenched with panic.

"Alex," he said urgently, silently begging him to tell him how bad it was.

Alex was shakily rolling up his pant leg, and the smell that hit Shane was acrid. It smelled like rotting flesh - and the bite mark looked more like a severe burn. His skin was bubbling up and swelling already, and there were black marks around the bite, indicating it was necrotic.

"BLEEP," Alex said thinly, clearly trying to veil the pain despite his face being pinched up tightly. "I managed not to get bit by one of these things for years and of course it happens now."

Shane's thoughts were racing. He didn't need to be a doctor to tell that this was no normal animal bite-- there was clearly some kind of venom or toxin in that monkey's teeth. He didn't know how serious this was, but the way Alex said that he'd been avoiding this...

Saints, was it fatal?

"Alexander," Shane said more firmly, trying to keep the panic out of his words. "I have another spell, a healing scroll. I'm going to use it on you, but I might have to touch the wound."

Alex was breathing fast, curled up tightly as he held his knee above the bite.

"What? No, it's-- the saliva will burn you," Alex said shakily. "You can't touch--"

"I'll avoid it," Shane interrupted him, rummaging through his bag until he located the scroll again. "Your leg should do."

Alex looked up, like he was scanning their surroundings.

"Healing scroll?" he asked.

"They gave me some scrolls that allow me to cast one-time spells," Shane said quickly, untying the red ribbon. "Like the panther illusion I just did."

He didn't want to look back at the bite, but he did-- and almost immediately regretted it. More skin was turning black, and the stench was enough to turn his stomach. It looked like acid eating away at his leg.

Even though Alexander wasn't a normal human hue, his face looked pale.

"And if more of these come later?" Alex asked, his body twisted up in tension. "Who's going to heal you if you get hurt?"

"Alex," Shane said, looking him dead in the eye. "I am not going to do the math while you are suffering on what might or might not happen in the future. What I know is that right now, in the present, you are injured, and badly so. There's no use in letting this get worse on the possibility that something bad might happen to me later. If I get hurt, and no one can heal me, I'll still have made the right choice in this moment. I'll take my chances."

Alex closed his eyes and shook his head.

"Fine," he hissed through his teeth.

Shane didn't wait a moment longer in unraveling the scroll and activating the seal. As it disintegrated, his hands suddenly felt warm, like he'd been soaking them in sunlight rays. Mystified, he lowered them towards Alex's leg. He didn't even have to touch him for the spell to do its work. A warm, pinkish glow radiated out from his palms, and under the light that seemed to give off pure life and energy, the blackened skin quelled into purple as the swelling suddenly deflated. The gash sealed up again, the teeth marks disappearing, and soon enough the only sign that there had been a wound at all was the blood on the surface of Alex's skin.

Alex slowly relaxed, and his expression melted into relief.

"...BLEEP," he said with a sigh. "I need to get one of those."

Almost dizzy with relief, Shane lowered his hands into his lap.

"It worked," he murmured, half to himself.

Alex let out a long sigh, rolling down his pant leg.

"Well thank BLEEP for that," he said. "If you can conjure a panther again the next time those come around, maybe we can avoid this again."

Shane glanced at the green scroll, which-- perhaps due to the pressure and panic-- he hadn't realized until now he still had.

"I thought they were all single use, but the illusion scroll didn't disintegrate after use like the others did," he said. "Maybe I can."

"Good," Alex said, getting to his feet. He picked up his spear he'd dropped on the ground. "Then we should keep moving."

Shane hesitated. "Are you good to keep moving, though?"

"I'm fine now," Alex said matter-of-factly. "You're fine. What's the hang-up?"

Shane pressed his lips together to bite back the retort of being considerate for your well-being, apparently. His mistake, sure.

"Nothing," he said instead, scooping up Shrimp and getting to his feet.

Alex looked at Shane for a moment with a hard stare, but then shrugged with a small: "hm," and walked off, presumably leading the way.

Seriously, wasn't it exhausting to power through without recovery from something terrible? It wasn't like Shane would've judged him for taking a break. He had the feeling that if he'd been the one injured and he'd wanted a break, though, Alex would've judged him for that.

Come to think of it, he wasn't sure if Alex would've even helped him if their roles had been swapped.

With a tired sigh through his nose, Shane cradled the confused Shrimp close and followed Alex.

Alex seemed to be paying more attention to their surroundings now, scanning the trees with back-and-forth movements of the eyes. Shane noticed Shrimp's ears were pricked up now, listening for sounds. That was good, since the cat could hear better than either of them. Shane made a note to watch him for reactions.

"Do you believe me now when I say I'm not angry at you?" he asked.

Alex glanced back at him.

"...Yes," he said. But it still sounded tentative.

It was something, Shane supposed.

"I do feel like I'm still missing some context, though," he said slowly. "What were you trying to accomplish?"

"With what?" Alex asked, then seemed to catch on. "Oh. You mean the nightmares."

"Yes," Shane confirmed. "Those."

"Well... the idea was to make James more vulnerable," Alex said. "Tula singled him out as competition, but figured if we hit those closest to him it'd... you know. Give us an upper hand when it came to the DMV. But this was before we knew what a load of bullshit the rest of the DMV would be. Not to say that it hasn't had some more recent challenges, but I don't think any of this was what we expected."

Alex paused.

"And -- admittedly, I think most of it was just whatever reasoning she could come up with to justify making James suffer. Which was really getting weird for me."

Alex looked away in a odd sign of discomfort, but this didn't seem to be about the cat this time.

"I was dumb enough to believe she actually considered me a friend for a while," he said, softer. "So that didn't help."

Even as he was hearing this, Shane couldn't help the sympathy that appeared on his face. So, he'd been a strategic advantage for them. Something they'd hoped to exploit against James. But it seemed like Alex had been used, too.

"I understand that you bought into the competitiveness, and that this seemed like it would help you win," he said softly. "But I think-- this isn't a game of victories. They want us to think there's some way to win this-- down to the language they use for us, because we're supposed to contestants. But it's a ploy. If everyone is out for themselves, trying to bring down the others around them to end up on top-- we're all going to fall down. We all lose then. Which means the only way to win is for all of us to win. And that would mean we've all got to be on the same side here."

"I don't think we're winning this either way," Alex said a bit quieter.

"Maybe there isn't a way to," Shane said. "But we can still make it difficult for them to win."

"As if they won't either way," Alex said with a dismissive sigh. "Regardless, this DMV is going to determine our futures. It probably doesn't mean as much to you, since you know what you're going back to at least, back home. But for people like me, the DMV's probably going to pick and choose. Channel me into something where my magic would be useful to the world or something. At least, that's how they'll pitch it, I'm sure."

That wasn't quite true. Shane didn't actually know what he'd be returning to. Nonetheless, Alex had a point-- the DMV was a rite of passage for a reason. It brought change.

"Are you worried?" Shane asked softly.

"That they'll BLEEP up my life?" he asked. "Yeah. Pretty sure they're going to, unless I'm a 'good little boy.'"

Shane sighed quietly, rubbing his face.

"I really wish I could tell you they couldn't," he said. "I really do."

"It's not your fault," Alex said. He looked over at Shane, eyes skipping over Shrimp on Shane's shoulder. "You're at least... one of the good ones. From what I can tell."

For a moment, Shane wasn't sure what to do or say. He dropped his gaze uncertainly.

"Don't let them chew you up and spit you out," Alex said after a beat. "I know they're trying to, and I haven't helped. But... the world needs people like you out there. At least last long enough to give them the finger. BLEEP them up if you can."

Shane managed to thinly smile at that. "If I can't do much else, I'll at least be stubborn."

"Good," Alex said, looking away once more.

For some reason, it actually did help to hear this. Shane felt it was genuine-- Alex had owned up to everything, and there was little or nothing to gain from going back to dishonesty now. Just because it was completely unexpected to hear from him didn't mean it wasn't a sincere opinion.

"I have one more question, if you don't mind," Shane said softly. "It's a little different. I won't be mad at whatever the answer is."

Alex glanced at him.

"What is it?" he asked.

Shane took a calming breath.

"A week in, when you started giving me nightmares, you stuck to one theme," he said. "But one time, about a week after that, you... changed strategies with what you were showing me. Why did you switch?"

"I give nightmares cued by what's already at the forefront of your subconscious," Alex said. "Whatever switching there was wasn't because I'd changed anything - it was your own mind I was using against you."

Shane's footsteps slowed a little as he focused on that, distracted from his walking. So, Alex hadn't done that deliberately. But he still knew.

"Ah," he said faintly. "You didn't shift. I did."

"I'm sorry for knowing your shit," Alex said after a beat, coming to a stop with Shane. "And using it against you."

"It's okay," Shane said, before pausing.

It wasn't really okay. Not really. He hadn't wanted someone else to figure that out before he did himself.

"Or rather, I forgive you," Shane corrected, in a quiet tone. "The world knows my shit too, anyway, and they'll use it against me too. All you did was best most of them to the punch."

"Well now you make it sound even more shitty," Alex said with a sigh. "I guess I deserve that."

"That's not what I'm trying to express," Shane said with a furrow of his brow. "I'm sorry. I mean-- I'm not happy about it, but I don't think you are, either. Besides, you're still remorseful. I'll face plenty of things after this that nobody will apologize for. They'll be happy to hold actions over my head while rubbing salt in the wound. You're better than that."

"You're making a lot of assumptions based on one apology," Alex said, a little stiffer.

"Do you think I'm wrong?" Shane asked.

Alex's expression fell to something he hadn't yet seen in Alex's features.


"I don't want you to be," Alex said softly.

Something about seeing it made Shane feel sad.

"I don't want to be either," Shane said gently. "But I don't say things that I think are wrong. And I want to trust you."

Alex looked down at the grass. It was clear that he was uncomfortable with this level of vulnerability from how quick he seemed to try to avoid eye contact.

"That's..." he said, but his voice turned to a faint murmur. "Nice."

It didn't sound like a thoughtless reply. Just one produced from being caught off-guard.

"I'm going to try to," Shane said softly. "You've shown yourself worthy of the effort."

Alex nodded faintly, but he looked like he was getting restless.

"Okay," Alex said awkwardly. But Alex's own face showed that he didn't like his own response. With a strained grimace, he turned away and started walking again. Hastily.

Concerned, and a little confused, Shane followed him, picking up his own pace, though he was walking closer to Alex's side now.

"Are you okay?" he asked concernedly.

"Yep!" Alex said a bit too cheerily.

He was uncomfortable. That was obvious. Shane didn't know whether the solution was to move past it, or to try to make him more comfortable with whatever he was feeling.

"It's fine if you aren't," he said gently. "Really."

"I think maybe we should talk about something else," Alex said with a gritted smile. "Or maybe we could walk in silence."

Okay. So he did want to move past it.

"I'm comfortable with whatever you prefer," he said honestly.

"Silence would be nice," Alex said.

Shane nodded. All he said was, "Alright," and stayed quiet after that. Even Shrimp was silent in his arms as he continued to scan the trees, wondering what they'd be up against next.
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Carina says...

They were all dehydrated. Though, no one needed to point it out. It was obvious, considering how hard the sun was beating down on them, and all of their canteens were empty. Lyall, unsurprising, was sacrificial and selfless enough to offer his water to the others since he was "a fire being."

Which... well, that made sense. But hearing him say those words felt strangely jarring. Though, at the same time, that also made sense, considering he had... fire. Fire magic.

Yeah. Alan was dehydrated too. He felt the sting of pain creep across his chest, but he persevered. Even if it hurt.

Apparently, there was some kind of ring that they had collected from the treasure chests yesterday that points to water sources. Alan had kept it in his bag, and upon closer inspection between Lyall and Eve, they determined that it led to water. Somehow.

So that was where they were headed now, or had been, for a while. Alan wasn't really keeping track of time, aside from slow slip of his own sanity, which he had a feeling Lyall was picking up. Which only made Alan want to out-stubborn him and get him off his back.

"Scorpions the size of dogs, right?" Lyall suddenly asked, casting him a curious look.

Vision blurring back to reality, Alan returned the glance, making a mental note of their present situation, just to ground himself. They were walking through the vast desert, bodies burnt and dehydrated, having a normal everyday talk about scorpions the size of dogs. James and Eve were trailing behind, just a few yards away, which left Alan with his best friend who maybe also wanted to fuck him.


"Size of dogs," Alan confirmed with a nod. "They were quite big."

"I've only heard of such bizarre creatures existing in places such as Nye," Lyall mused.

Alan quietly hummed. "We are in a bizarre world." He gestured to Lyall with his chin. "Just look at yourself. A bizarre, fiery being."

Lyall huffed a dry laugh. "I know it." He nodded back to Alan with a playfully despondent frown. "Why couldn't I just be normal like you?"

"I think it's more of a thrill that you aren't normal," Alan mused, studying flicker of fire tendrils around his face. "Aside from what I'm seeing now, have you found anything unusual or different about your new body?"

"Ahm." Lifting his arms, Lyall absently glanced down at himself. "Some... scales? Here and there, which are surprisingly easily chafed."

Alan nodded, mulling this over. "Where at?"

Lyall furrowed his brows as he cast Alan a curious grin. But rolled up one of his sleeves and bent an elbow to show him, which Alan locked his gaze on. There were ridged, pointed lizard-like scales. A few shades darker than the scarlet of his skin.

"Mostly joints," he answered. "I don't know if it's some form of protection for where the bones are closer to the surface, but." He shrugged.

Alan flicked his eyes from his elbow to Lyall's eyes, cautiously lifting a hand. "May I?" he asked, gesturing to the scales to touch.

Lyall nodded with another noncommittal shrug, and Alan reached over, fingers grazing over the scales on his elbow. He rubbed his thumb against one that jut out the most, eyes on Lyall again to gauge his reaction.

"Does that hurt?" he asked.

Eyes fixed on his scales with his own intrigue, yet also a hint of legitimate disappointment, Lyall shook his head. "No. It might if you went against the grain, though."

Alan gently rubbed his fingers along the other way, still carefully watching him to gauge his reaction. "How about that?"

Flinching just a bit, Lyall drew back with a huffed laugh and bumped shoulders with him. "Cheeky pest," he uttered with a grin.

"So that did hurt. Sorry," Alan said with a smile of his own. "I'll go easy on you next time."

Lyall's grin faded a bit at that. As he pushed down his sleeve again, he met Alan's gaze with a renewed attentiveness.

"And for what it's worth," Alan continued, returning the same shoulder bump gently, "I love the scales. I think they're a beautiful and unique addition to your new body."

Quietly, Lyall nodded and turned his attention back to the flat horizon ahead of them. After a second's hesitation, he replied, "Thank you. And I rather appreciate that they left you unchanged."

Alan hummed, retaining his curious gaze on him. "How do you truly know I've been left unchanged if you've never explored?"

Cracking a wry smile, Lyall folded his hands behind his back. "I'll start with merely asking." He tilted his chin up. "Are you truly unchanged, beyond what I'm seeing now?"

Alan shrugged noncommittally. A sharp pain tore through his chest, so he made a mental note to... stop shrugging. He did his best to not grimace, but...

"I'd rather show than tell you," he answered, not missing a beat.

Brows furrowing and smile dropping completely, Lyall responded, dead-serious, "Then show me."

Well. Alan was being very forward, but he really didn't expect to get this reaction. He hesitated, glancing back at James and Eve, both of whom he had the pleasure of making brief eye contact with.

"Now? Here?" he asked uncertainly with a more hushed voice.

With a huff and roll of his eyes, Lyall stepped out in front of Alan and brought them to a halt. "Are you hiding something from me?" he asked plainly.

"What?" Alan steeled himself to catch up to the new emotions and subject entirely, shaking his head. "No, I'm not. Don't worry about me."

Lyall narrowed his gaze as he searched Alan's face.

"Is something wrong?" Eve asked, she and James having caught up now.

"No," Alan assured with a half smile. "We're good. Let's keep going."

Except he didn't wait for someone to lead. He knew the direction he was going, but only managed to get two steps in before James grabbed the back of his shirt and tugged him back. The sudden unexpectedness of the tug sent a wave of sharp pain through his entire body, and it felt like his brain couldn't process it, totally skipping over the next two seconds.

Next thing he knew, he was shakily out of breath, keeled over on the sand, staring down at a pair of boots. James's boots.

"You got stung, didn't you?" James asked.

Lyall bit out a curse as he knelt down, a hand on Alan's shoulder. "Why didn't you say anything?"

"I..." Alan tried to form words, his fingers digging deep in the hot sand. But he couldn't find any more.

For some reason, this didn't feel real.
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urbanhart says...

Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck-- Of all the matters for him to dig in his heels on! Of fucking course, it had to be when Alan was fucking dying from a venomous strike from a giant bizarro insect--


With both hands firmly on Alan's shoulders, Lyall guided him down to lie on his back, but Alan was resisting, weakly swatting away his hand.

"Lyall--" he began thinly.

"You need to heal him now," Eve cut in, already by his side and unfurling a scroll.

"What was that thing we used earlier for James," Lyall prompted with a sharp nod, keeping a steady hand on Alan. "I can't remember the words."

"Alan, please just stay still," James said.

"Now, wait a second," Alan said through a weak laugh, squirming under Lyall's hand, now with hints of panic. "I'm really alright..."

"It took me an hour to heal from one of those stings," James said sharply. "You aren't going to heal from it. You're going to die. Let Lyall heal you."

But did Alan heed the warning? Of course not! He instead stubbornly ignored his words and attempted to stand and get away from Lyall's hold.

James, however, quickly pinned him down, which sent Alan yelping a pained whimper, wilting under his hold.

"It has to be somewhere on his abdomen," James said. "Hopefully not near his heart."

Casting the former soldier a mildly unappreciative look at the needless amount of force used, Lyall hissed, "I'm so sorry, Alan," as he reached over.

"No!" Alan quickly yelped, flailing and squirming despite his arms being held down. "No, no, no. Can we talk about this? I'm okay!"

"Alan," Lyall said as evenly as he could, hastily ripping open his shirt, "do not act like a fucking--"

"Lyall!" Alan winced, groaning and setting his head back against the sand in defeat.

If he said anything else, it fell on deaf ears.

Jaw clenched, Lyall frantically took in the damage. Alan's entire abdomenal area was horrifically bruised-looking. Infected veins crept outward like ivy from a puncture wound. The edges of the skin were irregular, like the source of the venom had been ripped out, leaving everything around it swollen and inflamed.

"...It would be merciful to put him under," Eve suggested, staring down at the poisoned flesh. "It will help with the pain."

"It would be more merciful to just kill me," Alan deadpanned, head leaned back as he squinted emptily up at the sky.

"You were about--" James started.

"What was the fucking healing spell?!" Lyall sharply cut in, unable to smooth over the irritated, panicked edge to his voice.

"It's right here," Eve said firmly, scroll out in front of her. "Lyall. I really think we should put him to sleep first."

They were wasting precious time talking about this.

Lyall snatched the damned paper from her hands. Haltingly as he desperately tried to recreate the strange pronunciation, he read aloud the words. The spell sounded different from what Eve told him--

But that didn't matter. Nothing else mattered as the parchment lit up momentarily, filling him with a new sense of hope. Lyall watched with bated breath as the wide-spread infection crept back to the puncture wound. The swelling abated, the broken skin quickly mended. And, hopefully, the pain vanished with it all.

James pulled away and got to his feet. Alan didn't move or acknowledge much of what happened, outside from a silent deep breath of relief.

"It worked, but... the spell scroll is still here," Eve murmured, as if that was supposed to be significant. She took back the spell scroll with two hands, staring down at it with befuddlement.

Lyall heaved a shaky sigh, looking up at the sky as he willed his hammering heart to calm the hell down. Then turned his focus on Alan. "Any lingering pain?" he asked in a whisper, trying to quell his lingering anxiety.

After some more reluctance, Alan sat up, avoiding eye contact with anyone as he brushed his hand across his chest and stomach, shaking his head.

Lyall watched his face closely for any micro-expressions to suggest otherwise. When he read nothing, he nodded once. Drew in a short breath to collect his thoughts.

In the place of the anxious knots in his chest, anger suddenly flared up. It quickly ate at his rationality.

He burst out, livid: "That was possibly the most moronic, needlessly fatal thing you could have ever done! What the hell were you thinking?!"

Alan pressed his lips together and drew his brows inwards, casting Lyall an irritated glance. Tiredly sighing, he brushed himself off and collected himself to be back on his feet, rebuttoning his shirt. "I'm alright now," he simply murmured.

Lyall blinked incredulously at him, unable to follow suit, he was still astounded by the sheer idiocy. "You could have died!"

"I didn't," Alan said back stubbornly, still mumbling and buttoning his shirt.

Jumping to his feet, Lyall quickly stepped out in front of him again. "It was a very real possibility," he lowly insisted with sharp, emphatic gestures, tilting his head to catch Alan's attention again. "And it had no reason to be. Why did you not say anything?"

"I know. I know!" Alan said with a raised voice. He let out another long, tired sigh as he frantically brushed his hand through his hair, angling his head away. "I'm stupid. I should have said something. Asked for help. I know." Sighing once more, he dropped his hand and finally met Lyall's eyes, but they lacked any conviction or sincerity. "Thank you, and I'm sorry."

That wasn't enough. Not by a long shot.

Lyall didn't want a thank you or an apology, neither half-assed nor heartfelt. Even though he felt he already knew why, he just wanted a real answer.

But what he needed to do, he realized, was step back from this. Alan was understandably shutting down. Everyone was dehydrated-- Lyall included. Hopefully the damn ring wasn't lying when it indicated what they saw ahead wasn't a mere mirage.

Pressing his eyes shut and clenching his hands, Lyall drew in another, deeper breath. Despite a tinge of shame from his own outburst, he managed to now face James and Eve. Hands spread with forced nonchalance, he evenly said, "We press on."

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urbanhart says...

So, it wasn't just a mirage. There was an actual oasis out here, by the foot of the cliffs to their right.

Lyall would've thanked the gods if they hadn't been the bastards who put them here in the first place.

As they drew closer though, he started to question his own sanity when he caught sight of someone already there at the water's edge. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so quick to hand off his own water canteen.

"Miss...?" Lyall tentatively called out, slowing a bit in his approach.

Then thought, wait. Sometimes... male elves? Likewise had long hair, and he could only see this individual's back.

"Mister?" he tried with even less certainty, then winced because that just sounded worse. "You..."

Sunlight glinting off shimmering glass-like blobs as they emerged from the pond made him squint harder.

Shit, so it was a woman. Miss Clarity.

She turned quickly at the sound of his voice, reaching for a bandolier across her chest that appeared to be stocked with vials. The moment she'd clutched one with a purple liquid threateningly, though, she seemed to recognize them, and she visibly relaxed.

"Oh," she said. "Just you guys."

Lyall had frozen in place, both hands raised in a nonthreatening gesture. "In...deed. Just us." He frowned with concern as he twisted around to scan the desert. "Have you been out here this whole time?"

"The desert?" Clarity asked, raising her eyebrows. "Yeah."

Lyall glanced at what looked like the beginnings of a campfire and ironcast cauldron beside it. "...Another experiment of yours?"

"Just tea this time, actually," Clarity said, tucking the purple solution back. "Do you all want any?"

Offering her a sincerely appreciative grin, Lyall let his hands drop. "Would it be too much trouble to join you for the evening here?"

"None at all," Clarity said, stirring the steam in the air with her hand. "You're all probably parched. Have a drink."

It was unanimously decided to set up by the water's edge and rest, despite it not yet being sundown. They'd all been through absolute hell that afternoon.

Lyall had to ponder the severity of James's dehydration as he watched the former soldier wordlessly slink into the water face-first like a krokodile. The volcanic region where he first started likely did not help.

Clarity was kind enough to offer proper beverages such as teas. Lyall politely declined to seclude himself at the other side of the oasis. Perhaps he hadn't suffered direct injury (thus far), but he wore a lot of the evidence from those who did. It was no state to stay in. Not while they had what would likely be their last source of water for awhile at their disposal now.

Kneeling by the water, Lyall glanced up on occasion to make note of his companions while he scrubbed the stains and grime from his shirt.

James remained sprawled in the shallow end amidst the reeds, turning an empty stare up to the sky. Eve sat nearby, the bent breastplate to his armor in her lap as she pored over another spell scroll. The tear in the steel slowly mended itself back together when she uttered words Lyall couldn't possibly hope to hear from this distance, nor understand even if he was closer.

Clarity was hunched over a vial of water, first adding a few drops from a tiny bottle that made it turn green, then spooning in generous powders of a powder that made the solution quickly shift from yellow to orange into an angry red. And Alan meandered a short distance away from everyone, hands tucked away in his pockets as he sulked in similar fashion as... just earlier today?

Good gods, that was just this morning.

Lyall absently rubbed his elbow as he turned his attention back to James.

Why hadn't his... What was he to even call it? Shell? Metallic skin? Was that even skin, or the metal of his skeleton beneath, coming through to the surface the way chameleon melanin did to change skin hues? Lyall still had so many logistical questions.

Anyway. Why hadn't that kicked in during the scorpion attack? Was it an on-command ability? It certainly didn't seem that way in the footage during the wendigo ambush.

They couldn't just keep throwing monster's the man's way, though. To call the repeated method drastic was a severe understatement. It was inhumane. James Hawke, though undeniably a formidable fighter with a noble streak, was far more than a fighting machine. He was still a person. He was still weighed heavily by traumas of past fights. And, though Lyall really hadn't had much opportunity to talk with him recently as normal humans do, he could tell James harbored a deep-running sorrow.

And that was something Lyall refused to let the Trieus continually trample over like sadistic beasts.

According to Eve-- as well as the contracts, but those were... they just were-- she and Lyall had access to a variety of DMV facilities. Thus, it probably wouldn't be out of line to request a space, with the sole purpose for controlled-- safer-- methods of testing everyone's powers.

Furrowing a brow, lips pursed slightly, Lyall idly picked at the edges of his scales.

The cabin Alan had set up... It was changed drastically since their first week. Day? Chrysler, 'detention' was only their first day. Regardless. It was a flexible space. Perhaps...

Blinking back to the present, Lyall recounted heads. Sat straighter and urgently counted a third time.

Alan was gone.

...Fuck, Lyall couldn't catch a break today.

Throwing his cleaned shirt over a shrub to dry and tugging on his vest, he hastily got to his feet. No one could confirm where Alan had gone, just that he merely slipped unnoticed. Throwing his hands skyward, Lyall muttered under his breath as he set out in search of the apparently suicidal ass he called beloved friend.

Said ass friend thankfully was not mindful of the trail of footsteps in the sand. Thus, it didn't take long to find him hidden amidst the jagged foot of the cliffside nearby.

The instant he caught sight of Alan, Lyall sharply spun on his heel. He set his hands on his hips as he stared up at the sky with a vaguely annoyed hum, now keeping his back to Alan. Because. Of course.

"Oh my god," Alan muttered, completely startled by his sudden presence. He stood up straighter, still facing the rock formation as he looked Lyall up and down. "Am I not allowed privacy now?"

"No one knew where you went," Lyall shot back over his shoulder. "At least tell someone in the spirit of, you know." He threw a hand up and set it back on his side. "Staying not-dead."

"Right. Of course," Alan said through a feigned smile, voice thick with sarcasm. "I must lose my autonomy and tell you every time I need to take a piss. Duly noted."

"It's not a matter of autonomy," Lyall sharply countered. "Literally just say something. That way I know next time to not walk in on you."

"Mmhmm," Alan hummed tiredly with a pointed, expected look. Like he was expecting him to leave, which was completely missing the point.

Idly twisting back and forth at the waist, Lyall pursed his lips as he himself waited. Either to get his point across, or until Alan declared himself ready to head back. Whichever came first.

"Lyall," Alan emphasized tiredly.

Lyall staunchly refused to answer.

Alan sighed, tilting his head skywards with closed eyes. "Can you get off my back? Please?"

"Well, since you asked so politely," Lyall answered pleasantly, casting a flat, fleeting grin over his shoulder. "No." Then turned a frown back out to the wide expanse of desolate desert ahead.

Alan stared at him flatly, unmoving as a few seconds ticked on. He wasn't trying to hide his annoyance, both in expression and action, because he let out an irritated sigh and turned to walk away. Not back to the water, but to another rock formation.

Dropping his hands to his sides, Lyall let out an exasperated sigh as he followed. "Where are you going now?"

"Away from you!" Alan huffed out over his shoulder, still stomping away.

"Ah, yes!" Lyall threw his hands to the sky for the umpteenth time. "And toward certain death. Of course!" he said with mocking cheer. "A most satisfactory alternative."

Alan didn't bother responding outside of a moaned, "Ugh," and a shake of his head. He slipped behind another formation of rust-colored stones.

Determinedly following him around the corner, Lyall held out his arms in an incredulous shrug. "What the hell is going on with you?"

"I just want to be left alone!" Alan loudly moaned, his turn to throw his hands up in the air incredulously. "But you're being so annoying right now."

"And you're being juvenile!" Lyall shot back, jabbing a hand in his direction.

"I don't care," Alan said dully, taking a step forward so he can actually jab his finger at his chest, pushing him away. "Now leave me alone."

The fucking nerve--

Quick to react, Lyall smacked both hands at Alan's, pushing back with a glare. "Oh, the illustrious Alan Alvaro wants to sulk in a corner by himself because his wish to poetically perish by poison was cruelly denied?" he called with fake grandiosity. "Well, too bad!" He pointed at the ground emphatically. "This is a hostile environment, Alan--"

"I know. I fucking know!" Alan cut in with a raised voice.

He didn't. Lyall swore to gods this man had no fucking clue the sheer terror he'd caused him just hours ago by teetering on the fucking ledge for absolutely no reason.

Frustrated desperation blowing up all sense of self-control, Lyall shoved at Alan's chest with a furious, "Then fucking act like it!"

Taken aback, Alan glared at Lyall, furiously shaking his head and taking a step to recover the distance lost from the push. "Do you really think I'm naive?" he said coolly, stepping in even closer that he could breathe down into his face. "That I want to die? That I'm so useless that I must be looked after? Is that what you really think of me, Lyall?"

Useless? Who the hell did Alan think he was, senselessly putting words in Lyall's mouth?!

Tilting his chin up defiantly, Lyall leveled his cool glare with a heated one of his own. "To be honest, Alan, I have no idea what to think of you right now. Because you're too stubborn of an asshole to tell me anything!"

Alan suddenly barked a laugh at that, turning away with his hand on his face. The laugh was velvety but mirthless, void of humor. "Oh, that's rich," he said, sharply turning back to Lyall with a piercing glare, "coming from you."

Lyall's glare turned stunned. For a split second, he didn't have a rebuttal. Because he knew Alan had a point.

Quick to recover, Lyall shot back an enraged, "I'm not the one who just almost died from pure stupidity!" as the hurricane inside his chest, bursting at the seams, pushed him to shove at Alan again.
Last edited by urbanhart on Tue Apr 09, 2024 6:56 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Carina says...

Alan took a step back, baffled that Lyall had the audacity to aggressively shove him. Or maybe he shouldn't be. After all, he was one of the most stubborn brats he'd ever had the pleasure of meeting. One who simultaneously put up a friendly front while also sticking his nose in everyone's business, controlling their life behind the scenes.

But Alan didn't want to be controlled. So what if what he did was stupid? Maybe he wanted to be stupid!

But he couldn't just say that. Alan knew Lyall would prove him wrong, like he always fucking did, and he was so tired of being under his microscope, like he was some kind of creature he was supposed to be figured out.

If Lyall wanted to play this game, Alan could play this game.

"You want to talk about stupidity?" Alan challenged, feeling his annoyance pivot to a flame of anger. He drew near again, feeling his hot breath of air on his face. "What about you?" At the last word, he jabbed his chest, poking at his heart. "You think you're such a perfect angel yourself? You're not! So fuck off!" He then shoved him, matching the same intensity from before.

Undeterred, Lyall closed the distance himself this time, pushing Alan backward against the wall of rock behind him. The action caught Alan off guard, and although it wasn't enough to hurt, the action did wind him.

"Fuck you," Lyall growled in his face, "I know I'm not."

"Then stop acting like it!" Alan spat back, glaring down at him, noting the fierce viridescent fire growing in Lyall's eyes.

"You can say that!" Lip curling, Lyall jabbed at Alan's chest this time. "You can act however the fuck you want, and no one will ever think any less of you. Because you're the talented, golden boy Alan Alvaro who can do no fucking wrong!"

"Are you fucking serious?" Alan breathed out, and he realized too late that he said that out loud. But he was too upset to care. The anger and annoyance made him completely lose his filter.

And his cool.

He didn't even know what got into him. Alan couldn't comprehend it. He couldn't even name the feeling, but it sent him over the edge, compelled him to firmly grab Lyall by the shoulder and punch the fucker across the face. He felt his knuckles crack from pain, but he didn't care.

Lyall's head snapped to the side. He took a stumbled step away with the force of it, and tensely stood frozen in place as he fixed his gaze out to the desert. Breaths short, expression pinching when he brushed a hand to his cheek.

"I'm not perfect!" Alan yelled over him, his voice breaking.

His hand was shaking, burning from pain, but he didn't care. Nothing mattered. Nothing!

"I fuck up! I make mistakes! And I don't need protecting!" he continued, each sentence falling out of his mouth like rotting vomit. He felt tears sting his eyes, but it wasn't out of sorrow. "Why would you think that? Just let me be! Think less of me, I don't care! You already think I'm useless here, so start thinking that always!"

Letting his hand drop to his side, Lyall only turned his head to look back at him. The skin over his cheek had split. The fire of anger in his eyes from a mere moment ago gone. No frustration, not even hurt. Just stone cold sobriety as he opened his mouth, hesitating as he searched for a response.

Ah, fuck.

"I'm sorry," Alan apologized, steeling away the anger as the full situation dawned on him.

He just punched his friend and yelled at him. Fuck!

"I didn't mean that. I didn't--"

"It's fine," Lyall distantly cut in, gaze averting as he held a hand over his cheek again, "it's fine..."

He dropped his gaze to the dirt, drawing in a long, tired breath as his other hand idly fidgeted at his side. Nodding once decisively, he turned back to Alan with an even, "Carry on."

Then, wordlessly running his hands over his hair and down his neck, showed himself out.

Stunned, Alan silently watch his friend walk away, not giving him another ounce of attention. Once Lyall was out of view, Alan he fell to his knees, heaving a deep breath. He thought it was just his hand shaking, but it was his whole body.

He cursed under his breath, examining his swollen knuckles from punching Lyall's jaw. He was so angry, he didn't even get a good look of assessing the damage. He let his own selfish feelings get in the way.

Alan slapped a hand to his face, slipping his fingers under his glasses and not caring that he was smearing sand near his wet eyelids. He felt like he should cry, but he didn't want to, nor really care to know why he felt compelled to do so.

Fuck, he messed up. He had to make it up to Lyall. And not in any of his bullshit ways. He had to really make it up to him.

Because... Alan knew he was right. He had been completely unreasonable with the sting, and Alan would really rather not die. He knew it was stupid. He knew. But this was... whatever was happening between them felt bigger than that. It wasn't even about the possibility of something romantic happening between them, though that was an entirely separate subject altogether that fell under the bullshit umbrella.

"Fuck, I messed up," he whispered to himself, sharply closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, wiping his face.

Still sitting under the shade of the rock formation, Alan emptily gazed out at the skyline, staring at the nearly-set sun. Had he not been so explosive, perhaps he could have shared the peace with his best friend.

Alan had to fix this, and he will.

A new day will come, along with new beginnings. He will amend things between them tomorrow.
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