Chapter 17 – Outdoor Enthusiasts

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“Sam!”

They screamed for her one after another and Sam had known, she’d calculated the risk before launching her attack and even now as her eyes clenched shut against the wind pressure and her body tensed as it prepared itself for impact, she didn’t regret it.

That man had hurt Aora, a speechless creature that had only helped them from the very beginning, had tried to protect them, hadn’t even voiced her pain… and that man was trying to kill her friends – she couldn’t have just done nothing, not when… not when she had the power.

Now, all she had to do was make sure she’d get through with some cuts and bruises and maybe just… very bad fractures.

She cracked open an eye, hoping to position herself in line with some trees or… anything, anything that’d break her fall, even a little – instead, she saw a flash of black.

It seemed impossible but she felt a strong arm wrap around her back, securing her arms and then another around her neck, securing her head. The position made it impossible for her to see much, her chin pressing down into his shoulder, but she knew who this was, she could feel it, she was sure… except she couldn’t believe it.

Her eyes, wide and unblinking, could only stare at the shuffling, blue sky.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.”

Why… was he crazy…

“Close your eyes.”

The words were binding. She found herself obliging unhesitatingly and the force of the wind against her head intensified enormously, slowing them…

Something pricked and something slashed and gushes of pain shot through her back and limbs and the violent rustling of leaves told her they’d made it past the canopy of trees, which meant… they were close to the ground!

Her eyes flew open just in time to see the wind sway them so they were more parallel to the surface and then, she felt the hit – just through her legs, his arms having spared the upper half of her body.

Her first instinct was to take a breath; she realized she’d been holding it the entire time. Her next instinct was to touch the heavy body lying on her to make sure it was real. Call her paranoid but with everything she’d seen in the past few weeks, she wouldn’t be surprised if there was a wizard that could make her see and feel things that weren’t there…

But that wasn’t the case… right? He was there. He was real. And they were alive. They’d fallen 30,000 feet through the sky and… were alive.

She exhaled.

Zac lifted his head, his blue eyes showing concern for only a fraction of a second – which was as long as it took for him to ascertain she was okay, she supposed – before narrowing into his usual smirk again. The entire thing made a certain recent memory resurface…

When she’d slipped on the stairs at Xene’s house…

“Falling for me in every possible way, aren’t you?” the idiot had said.

Her eyes narrowed.

“Looks like this time I fell for you.”

He chuckled. She gasped.

That took her by surprise. That took her way, way by surprise. He’d been thinking about the same thing?

He was on his feet now, scrutinizing the surroundings, and she pushed herself to hers too.

He threw her a casual look over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

Suddenly, the entirety of the situation seeped through her… suddenly, it seemed outrageous again, what he’d done.

She glared at him, tight-lipped before blurting an, “A-Are you crazy? Why’d you jump?”

“Why’d you fall?” he retorted.

She hadn’t done it on purpose! Was he stupid? And even if she had, who said he had to do anything about it? Who said he could go around risking his life for her like that? “You could’ve died.”

“And you would’ve… had I not jumped.”

That did it. That… she didn’t know what to say. She knew he was right… she probably would’ve, but… it didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense…

He took a step closer, she took a step back.

“You can save my life, but I can’t save yours, huh?”

And she could only blink in response.

She didn’t thank him then – couldn’t… but “You’re welcome,” he said.

×××

Eddy was paralyzed, by something that felt even worse than Xene’s immobility spell. Sam… she’d fallen off and then… then Zac had actually jumped down…

His throat ached from having screamed so much. Rebecca was still in shock, her hands constantly trembling as she tried to soothe Knight. And Dylan… Dylan was devastated, Xene having to physically restrain him from going after them.

“You can’t jump, you won’t be saving anyone!” he yelled at him. “Get a hold of yourself.”

He was right, Eddy told himself. There was nothing any of them could do for them at this point, except maybe… finish the battle they’d been fighting… and believe that they’d make it.

The seriously violent woman in front of them wasn’t going to stop for them to finish grieving anyway. The fact that she was carrying her immobilized partner had slowed her down considerably, but she was angrier now and she still had her gun…

They’d make it, he told himself again.

He extended his arms, leaning forward over Aora’s neck.

The sooner they finished this off, the sooner they could go to them.

A jolt of pain shot through his arms, fizzing, piercing through his skin… the boldest beam of yellow hit the woman and she seized, static dancing around her.

The meercasp fled, leaving the two dark-suited figures falling towards the ground as well.

“Aora,” Xene commanded, his voice dry and listless. “Descend.”

Aora’s movements were haggard, owing to her injury, but she obeyed without fail and none of them batted an eye, not even Dylan, his face more determined than anything else. That meant he believed in them too… and why wouldn’t he?

Sam was the strongest girl Eddy had ever met, she wasn’t one to go down easily and though he had never actually seen Zac’s powers in action, his element was Air… and the guy was practically flying during combat even without them. If there was anyone who could’ve saved her, it was him.

Even hopeless began with the word hope…

The second two very familiar figures standing… standing and alive came into view, Eddy realized he’d never felt true relief before. This was relief… and consolation and liberation and every other form of respite.

“Thank God,” Rebecca exhaled. “Thank God.”

Zac smiled and Sam waved and Aora landed disgracefully, throwing most of them straight to the ground – it didn’t matter.

They were all together and alive; the alternative had never seemed closer.

Dylan was holding Sam in an embrace that was visibly faithful to all the emotions they’d rolled through from the minute she’d slipped… to now. Xene and Rebecca took the opportunity to inspect Zac, who had noticeable cuts on both of his arms and blood trickling through multiple tears in his clothes.

“You guys had us scared to death,” Eddy told them, wiping the sweat he’d stressed himself into producing.

“I’m sorry,” said Dylan as Sam finally forced him to release her. “I should’ve held onto you – if only I hadn’t let the stupid phobia get to my head, I’m sorry-”

“It’s not your fault,” she said, pressing both palms into his cheeks. “Mine, if anybody’s, but not yours. There’s nothing you could’ve done.”

Dylan clenched his teeth, jutting his chin much like a toddler trying to contain his tears. “I’ll never let it get to me again. I’ll never close my eyes – I’ll watch over you-”

“Dylan,” Sam interrupted again.

“I promise, I really will-”

“Dylan,” she repeated, pulling his cheeks till he was forced to yell in protest. She chuckled. “Stop crying. Stop.”

“I’m not crying,” he objected.

He was. Eddy realized he was too.

“Eddy,” Sam gasped.

Soon enough, it was more of a three-way embrace.

“Hey, me too,” Rebecca called, quickly rushing in to complete the group hug – well, except for Zac, but everybody knew that wasn’t going to happen.

They all laughed as they separated, Xene smiling and Zac at least a little amused.

“Sam,” Xene said. “Injury report.”

“Uh… my legs and…” She looked down, twisting and turning in an attempt to examine herself.

“There’s a large cut across her lower back,” interjected Zac, “courtesy of the crop top. And multiple scratches and cuts on her forearms and calves. She’s probably pulled a muscle in her right leg and I assume she’s either hurt her tailbone or bruised her… derrière since she’s been walking differently.”

Once again, Zac had left everyone speechless. This guy really never failed to impress Eddy – was he a low-key doctor now too? In any case, his observation skills were on point.

Sam was gaping though and the way her eyebrows kept twitching indicated that a less than pleasant reaction was to follow. “D-Don’t talk about my butt!”

Oh c**p. Was that what… derrière meant? Eddy inhaled, covering his mouth immediately. They were coming – the giggles. He couldn’t – Sam would kill him – though now his body was practically shaking from trying to hold it in.

“I didn’t use that word.” Zac shrugged.

That was true but the concealed smirk on his face and the fact that Zac was Zac made it impossible to believe that there was no impish intent behind that comment.

“Shut up, you – you stupid, perverted, Mr. Oh-look-I-can-even-fly-now, jerk!”

Everybody was laughing now – Dylan and Rebecca, and even Xene managed a few chuckles though their attention was quickly diverted towards where Knight started barking beside a noticeably weary Aora.

“Aora,” Xene called out as he rushed to her side. “What’s wrong?” he whispered as he gently stroked her head. “I thought the bleeding had stopped.” He moved to her wing, examining the wound carefully. He dipped his fingers into her blood and brought it up to his face, sniffing. “No…”

“Xene,” Eddy said, worried now, “what is it?”

The answer was something none of them had seen coming… all this time, they hadn’t even known what they’d really been up against.

“Poisoned lead – that’s what the bastards used to make those bullets,” Xene said. “She’s been poisoned.”

Eddy had never seen Xene look angrier. He didn’t say another word as he paced to what was left of their backpacks and retrieved the medical kit.

“Xene,” said Sam, reaching out for him as he cleaned the wound, “let me help.”

“No,” he replied. “You’re injured too. Disinfect your own wounds first, bandage the one on your back – Rebecca, help her. Eddy, you help Zac. Dylan, start scouting nearby. Those three are still somewhere in these woods. Best we find them before they regain consciousness.”

×××

Fin kneeled till his forehead met the cold, hard floor of the cavern, hoping his absolute submission would mitigate if not alleviate the rage that would inevitably arise following his update.

“My Lord,” he said, “we have lost contact with Bamori, Hagni and Kamog. I assume they, too, were overpow-”

“You assume?” A petrifying laugh filled the hollow cavern. “Their essences grow stronger each day and you assume those fools were overpowered? Of course they were overpowered, you imbecile! The only thing that matters is whether they accomplished their task…”

“A-Ah, you mean the venomous bullets?” Fin gulped.

“You did instruct them clearly, did you not, Fin?” the enthroned man questioned. “Because… if I find that you failed to do so, I will-”

“Lord Trakan,” he interrupted frantically. “I definitely did, my Lord, I did. Kamog was given those bullets and he was told to aim only for your nephew and his dragon – as you ordered. Bamori and Hagni were given the usual ones… for the children…”

“What?” The cavern shook and rumble showered down as the tall, hooded figure leapt from his seat and grabbed Fin by the throat. “I told you all three of them were to aim for Xene,” he spat. “They were all to be given venomous bullets.”

“A-Apologies, m-my Lord,” Fin squawked. “Apologies. I-I thought the ch-children would prove to be a hindrance if left free… the bullets were also… quite… challenging… to make…”

“You thought? Who told you to think?” He flung Fin back furiously, his spine meeting and cracking against the stone wall. “They are humans, they can die! With only one gun pointed at Xene, he probably maimed all of them blindfolded.”

“M-My Lord,” Fin begged, slamming his head into the floor once again. “Apologies, my sincerest apologies – this servant lives but to serve you, my Lord.”

A sigh. “I swear, Fin… if I could open portals without you, I’d have you cut into pieces and incinerated.”

Fin dared not lift his head.

“Call… Agras.”

×××

Dylan was glad he’d been the one assigned with the task of finding those scumbags. Sam and Zac were injured, Aora was poisoned and all of them were mentally disturbed if nothing else and they were to blame. Even if they were simply following higher orders, they hadn’t proven themselves to be anything deserving of sympathy – they’d wanted to kill. And Dylan wasn’t going to forgive them.

He exhaled as he marched through the trees. At least Sam was okay, Zac too… though Dylan couldn’t really bring himself to face him yet. He knew why… just not how to deal with it. Because that would involve an apology and that would involve gratitude – might as well just call the two of them best buddies then.

An awful, pungent odor brought him to an abrupt stop. He nearly gagged before quickly covering the lower half of his face and brushing the foliage aside to make his way to the source.

The partly charred body of Trakan’s white-haired henchman lying among some bushes came into view. Dylan winced. Even as a wizard, how could one survive both that attack and a fall from that height?

It gave him goose-bumps to be able to feel a pulse on the man’s wrist. And he almost didn’t want to take him back – he was sure that despite it all, Sam would end up feeling guilty for what she’d done.

Dylan, however, felt no shame in literally dragging him by the leg the entire way.

As he reached the clearing he’d left the others back in, he was shocked to see the other two attackers lying on the ground by Xene’s feet and… no Aora.

“You guys found the other two?” he questioned, releasing the burnt man’s leg.

“Xene did,” Eddy said. “He went out to help you as soon as he was done with Aora’s wound.”

“What about her? Where is she?” Dylan said.

“I told her to fly back to Cloud Palace,” Xene replied. “She’ll get there faster without having to carry us. We have antidotes there, she’ll get treated.”

“That’s a relief,” Dylan exhaled. “Why not Crystal Palace though? Since we’re headed there anyway…”

Xene offered him a half-smile. “You’ll see when we get there. Good job on finding him though.” He gestured towards the man he’d abandoned behind him. “I’ll ask Master Daskosen to come and take them.”

He retrieved the same bird-like creature that Dylan and Rebecca had seen back in the night mart. A pirch, was it? Dylan supposed it really was the fastest way to convey a message around here.

“Ah, tie them up in the meantime,” Xene added. “And make sure they don’t have any tracking devices on them.” He looked around cautiously. “I think we’ll camp here for today. It’s a well-covered area and some of you aren’t really in a state to continue traveling right now. If Aora isn’t back by tomorrow… we’ll start on foot.”

×××

Xene’s message to Master Daskosen had, at least in theory, taken care of most of their issues. He’d been informed of Aora’s condition, he’d been told to collect the enemy – which was a relief because it was freaking Rebecca out to have to look at their immobilized, tree-tied forms – and they’d even asked him to bring replacements for the supplies they’d lost during the fight. Like a good ruler, Xene had known what to do.

As for camp, they’d managed to set up a good one rather easily. Xene had made Dylan pull up walls around them circumferentially, so that even if they were to be attacked, they’d get a heads up – the canopy of trees provided the same protection from above. Gathering firewood had been a cinch with Zac’s ability to slice clean cuts through the bark and igniting it had been no issue either given they had a human lighter on their side. Eddy, apparently, was great at setting up tents, though it wasn’t a surprise considering his military background.

Rebecca, herself, was the least used to living outdoors, but she was trying her best to be of help too. She’d take care of their meal, she’d thought before remembering that Dylan was the chef amongst them and even she didn’t want to pass up the chance of having him make something delicious again.

“Of course I knew,” said Sam in response to Eddy’s excited recollection of discovering Dylan’s hidden talent. “He likes cooking, I like eating – that’s why we make such a good team,” she laughed.

They were seated on the logs surrounding the fire, those two and Zac, Knight showering the latter’s feet with affection. The day’s warmth had receded with the Sun and the air was somewhat chilly now. Xene stood by the tree Trakan’s devotees were affixed to and Rebecca was simply shuffling between all of them and Dylan, who was doing… something with their food on a make-shift table he’d created for himself.

“You sure you don’t need any help?” she asked him.

“Hm?” He raised his brows before extending his chopsticks towards her, a small piece of smoked meat between them. “Taste this. Is it alright?”

She nodded enthusiastically as she swallowed the tender piece. “It’s wonderful.”

He grinned.

“Dylan, Rebecca,” Sam called out. “Hurry up, it’s almost spooky campfire tales time.”

Dylan laughed in response. “You’re going to cry later.”

“I won’t,” she insisted.

Soon enough, they were all seated by the fire, each with a sandwich that Dylan had personalized for them. They thanked him for the food and dug in without ado.

“Oh, right,” Dylan mumbled after taking a few bites out of his own. “You guys all know about Counselor Tony, right?”

“Counselor Tony?” Eddy repeated, swallowing his food and the glint in Dylan’s eyes was enough indicator that Eddy had just taken his bait.

Rebecca shook her head. “Don’t,” she said, nudging him.

Dylan shrugged. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He cleared his throat. “Anyway,” he began, louder. “I just remembered since we’re all camping in the woods like this and… you know, we have Eddy.”

“Me?” Eddy said, his eyes wide with confusion and Sam broke out laughing. “What’s this got to do with me?”

“Don’t mind him, Eddy,” Sam said. “He’s just playing around with you.”

“No, I’m not,” Dylan maintained. “Don’t you remember?” He threw a look of disbelief towards Sam. “The boy that went missing, his name was Eddy too.”

“What?” Eddy questioned, growing frantic. “Who went missing?”

Dylan exhaled and Rebecca saw how Zac huffed before continuing with his sandwich.

“Well, it’s an old folktale, but… you never know, right? A group of kids went camping in the woods about say… a hundred years ago? It was just about time for them to sleep, when one of them… heard rustling in the nearby bushes.”

Rebecca had to admit – his story-telling skills were quite impressive. She chuckled.

“His name was Eddy Turner,” he declared. “And though they always, always emphasize how it’s so important to stay together when camping, Eddy quietly got up from the campfire circle and stepped into the dark… alone.”

“Sounds like Eddy Turner was quite the rebel,” Xene pitched in humorously.

“I know, right?” Dylan chuckled. “Definitely not like our Eddy. Right?”

Their Eddy was fully immersed in the story now, eager to find out what happened next. The rest of them kept hinting that Dylan was just messing with him and Rebecca thought he would eventually realize it was just for fun too. But until he did…

“When the others realized Eddy was missing, an immediate search was launched. But a storm came up and everyone rushed back, everyone except… one counselor. Counselor Tony. He kept searching. Everybody could hear him calling, ‘Eddy! Eddy!’ until early in the morning.”

“How noble,” Zac deadpanned.

“When everyone woke up, they found Eddy… safe and sound in his sleeping bag,” Dylan said and Rebecca couldn’t help but smile at the wave of relief that passed over Eddy’s face. “But…”

But?

“Counselor Tony, who searched for Eddy all night long… was never found.”

“What?” Eddy actually stood up.

Oh no. Rebecca knew where this was going.

“Eddy returned home, but they say Counselor Tony still roams different forests all over the world, searching for his… Eddy. People say they’ve even heard it… him calling his name. Eddy… Eddy…”

“But that’s probably back in our world,” Eddy interjected, laughing nervously. “After all, there’s no way Counselor Tony could come here without, like, Xene or somebody.”

“Ah, but,” Dylan chuckled, “ghosts don’t need portals, do they?”

“G-Ghosts?” Eddy pronounced innocently.

“Listen carefully… you might hear him calling you…”

“Eddy.”

Eddy shrieked, closing his eyes and covering his ears before dropping to the ground.

Dylan laughed hysterically, clenching his stomach as he rolled from side to side. It had only been Sam, calling out in an attempt to console Eddy.

Zac shook his head, starting towards his tent while Xene simply sighed, bending down to feed Knight as Rebecca tried her best to convince Eddy that Dylan was just kidding.

×××

“Wait a minute.”

It was Sam, with a tentative grip around his elbow. She let go as soon as he turned to face her, giving him an uncertain smile.

“Where are you going?” she questioned, though Zac knew that was simply a preliminary statement.

“To get some more water from the tent,” he replied nevertheless. “Why?”

“Oh,” she said, chuckling as she played with her hair. “I… um…”

“Come on, Eddy,” they heard Dylan say at a slight distance. “I was totally going to do it to Sam first, but you know… she fell off a dragon and everything.”

“Hey!” Sam griped immediately, clearly happy to have an out from whatever she was going to say.

Zac chuckled, turning back towards the tent.

“Oh – no, wait,” she said, grabbing his arm again, to his surprise. He blinked. “I… just wanted to say… thank you. For earlier. I didn’t think anyone would do something like that for me… you – it was really brave of you.”

Her smile then was a sight he’d never seen before. It wasn’t as bright as her usual, happy ones or as threatening or strangely cute like her competitive, mischievous ones, but… simpler, a natural upward curve of her lips, her eyes glistening with warmth.

“Huh,” he mused aloud, “and to think I was perfectly content with the yelling and tantrums.”

“Sorry about that,” she said, chuckling before pacing back towards the campfire.

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Zac took the first watch that night. Xene had said it’d be at least morning till help arrived from the palace and he didn’t exactly feel comfortable sleeping with three creeps outside their tents, even if they were immobilized, blindfolded and fixed completely to a tree. Besides, he’d rather be present when Sam inevitably takes her sleepless walks than concerned in his sleeping bag.

A half hour into his shift and he heard footsteps. He smirked, knowing he was about to be proven right.

He was proven wrong.

The person that dropped down on the log next to him wasn’t Sam; it was Dylan.

He huffed. “Can you at least act a little less disappointed?”

“No,” Zac replied bluntly, making him laugh. “Why are you here?”

He exhaled. “I’m getting there. Can’t you give me a minute?”

It was Zac’s turn to be amused, the cause being the familiarity of his words. “What is it with you jocks wanting my minutes these days?” he mumbled.

But Dylan heard him, his eyes lighting up at the throwback too.

“Give this to Samantha,” Dylan repeated, making his voice deeper in an attempt to mimic Zac’s, as he slapped his palm down onto his. “Because… I’m crazy about her.”

Zac’s head snapped towards him faster than a leopard with its tail on fire.

“You jumped off a dragon to save her,” he said matter-of-factly and Zac would’ve considered it a jibe if it wasn’t for his appreciative eyes and sincere smile – he might as well just be a cross-dressing Sam.

“Well, of course, since you were too busy being a crybaby,” he replied. Just because he didn’t jibe, Zac wasn’t going to stop from jibing back.

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To be honest, Zac knew it would’ve been stupid for anyone but him to have gone after her. Even if that hadn’t been his reason for it, not everyone could manipulate air resistance and guarantee a better fall. He was just messing because messing with Dylan was second only to messing with Sam, but to his surprise, he didn’t even take offense, effectively killing the fun of it.

“Zac,” he said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Before today, I didn’t think you were… serious enough… about Sam. But from now on… you have my support.”

Zac grunted. “Please,” he said, “as if I need it.” Yet, he couldn’t stop the smile that had started forming on his face.

For Zac, this hadn’t been the first time he’d done something on impulse, not the first time he’d been called crazy for it either and in this case, well, there was no way he was going to let her die. He wouldn’t let any of them die – he’d had enough with tragedies. So, even now as his injuries still stung and his ears felt hot in response to Dylan tormenting him about liking his friend – which was okay because he did – he didn’t regret it.

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