Chapter twenty-three: Out On Their Own
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It was not long before the Saviors had moved everyone, well or wounded, back toward the abandoned village. Misti came bounding out of one of the huts to meet them; she scurried up to Jack's shoulders and rubbed her face against his, purring as he scratched her behind the ears.

Soren, carrying a very weak Anne (who did not protest, and this in itself made Soren and Jack even more worried), had led them to the biggest of the still-standing huts, and those who could walk pitched in and set up temporary camp inside. Kitt and Shawn had gathered some large leaves from the surrounding forest and had made enough leaf-beds for everyone, and Soren tried to commission Jack to find something for the Saviors to eat, but he quietly refused with a "No, thanks," and sat down with Misti on his lap before Soren could protest. He was surprised when she didn't argue with him, but even if she had pitched a fit, he wouldn't have budged. He was nearly worn-out and felt absolutely horrible; he shivered and pulled his knees to his chest, much to Misti's dismay. Maybe he had just been in that freezing water for too long, because he still felt so cold... and it was not the sort of cold that came from his healing powers.

Erin gave a loud groan as she heavily sat down and rested her head on her knees. "Okay, I vote no more moving for a while," she grunted.

"I second." Jack let his head rest on his knees. "These shards have been around for hundreds of years, I'll bet; they can wait until we've all had rest."

He heard Soren sigh through her nose. "If you ask me, I think it wouldn't hurt to stay here for a day or two. Anne and Erin are worn slap out, and I don't know about the rest of y'all, but I'm ready for some sleep."

"Like you can complain," Erin grunted. "Why's it I'm the only healer in this little outfit, anyway?"

"Don't really know." Shawn moved to sit down between Soren and Erin, and pulled his knees to his chest. "That does make me wonder, though," he finally added after a thoughtful hesitation. "We're all so tired... is it that our magic powers directly take from our energy?"

"I'd say that's a safe bet," Kitt said. "That's about how it feels."

His eyes were a little wider now. "It's not taking away our life, is it?"

"I don't think so." Jack tried to suppress another sharp shiver. If anything, he thought darkly, his power had taken away his body heat... but the healing always felt cold anyway. "Ser'na wouldn't do that to us," he added dismissively.

"What if she just didn't know?"

Soren shook her head. "I don't think it takes away years of life or anything like that... I think it just uses the energy that's already stored in the body, drawing from what we have to make the magic work. Neither matter nor energy can be created out of nothing, so why would magic be any different?"

"That's great," Erin said, and looked up at her. "But Jack, Kitt, and I can't make physical attacks like you and Anne and Shawn can. Does it still work the same for us?"

Kitt frowned in thought. "Going by Soren's theory, yours is easy: the healing process happens when you transfer your energy into someone else. But mine and Jack's... I only once overused my power back in the fire temple, when Shawn tried to feed himself to that dragon."

Shawn gave a shiver. "Thank you, Kitt, I'd just stopped having nightmares about that."

"But if all our powers take from our energy," Jack mused, "then... when I get injured, the magic uses my energy to heal myself."

Anne had to clear her throat before she could speak. "Some sort of accelerated cell regeneration." Her eyes were still closed. "I think it just speeds up the, ah... the amount of time it takes for... for the healing process to take place. Something like that."

"Are you sure you're all right?" Soren wasn't hiding her exasperation. "You sound terrible!"

"I'm fine," she murmured, "I just really wish I was asleep right now."

"I don't think we blame you." Kitt cast a glance at Soren. "We should let them all rest," she said. "I can take first watch, if you'd like."

Soren was already picking up her sword. "No, let's you and me go find something to eat for later. Shawn, you'll need to stay with them until we get back." He nodded once at her, then immediately turned and started to help Erin to one of the leaf-beds. "Good. We'll be back shortly." She gave Jack one last look and added, "get some rest."

Jack said nothing, but nodded and started to move to take one of the unclaimed leaf-beds; halfway there he stopped and looked back at Anne. The girl hadn't moved, but now her breathing had become shallow and steady. He watched her as he eased himself onto his own bed across the hut. Was she already asleep?

"Maow?"

Misti was looking up at him sagely; she blinked once at him, then padded over to Anne and curled up against the girl's side. Jack let out a heavy sigh as he lay down and gazed wearily at the ceiling. He wished someone had a blanket or something, because the cool morning air was chilling him to the bone. Should he... yeah, he should remind someone should reset watches, but... it felt so good to lie down...

He closed his eyes, and his thoughts trailed into nothingness as he drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.


The orange light of the setting sun was streaming brightly through the holes in the hut's roof when Jack woke himself shivering. He sat up and rubbed his arms to warm himself as he took a look around; both Erin and Anne were still asleep. He also saw that Misti was still happily snuggled up to Anne, who had a protective arm draped over her like a child with her beloved stuffed animal. Jack rose as quietly as he could and followed the sound of voices coming from outside the hut. Maybe the sunshine would warm him up, too.

Outside, the sun was setting behind the cliff of the waterclimb. Orange and pink light streaked the clouds in the sky in a dazzling array. There in front of the hut was a warm, inviting fire; Kitt and Shawn had been left to tend it, and were the only two in sight. There was a large piece of meat roasting over the fire. Kitt seemed to be bickering with the redhead about it. "This is a bad idea," she muttered, pacing back and forth behind the boy. "Meat isn't the same all the worlds over."

Shawn frowned. "But I saw those rats was eating it!"

"Rats will eat carrion and diseased animals and anything that sits still long enough. Last time I checked, humans won't, and shouldn't."

"Say, I'll give some to Misti, and if she eats it—"

"Don't poison Jack's pet!"

"Who says it's poisonous?"

"Shawn, how do you know it isn't if you've never –had– dragon before? I—" Kitt stopped short when she caught sight of Jack. "Oh! You're awake. Good." She picked up a sword from beside the campfire and handed it carefully to Jack. "Soren found your sword in the lake a little while ago. She figured you'd want it back."

"Fantastic. And clean, too... that helps." He grunted as he sat down on the ground, put down the sword, and pulled his knees to his chest. "Having trouble with the dinner, there, Shawn?"

"I've got everything under control," Shawn muttered.

"I hope so, I'm starving." He sighed through his nose. "At least you got a fire going without Anne's help. Really, it wouldn't be too bad if this continent wasn't so bleeding cold..."

Kitt's brow furrowed. "Cold?"

"Yeah, you'd think the sun would warm up the place a little bit, wouldn't you?" Jack looked up from his knees in time to see Kitt frowning at him in thought. "...uh... problem?"

She nodded slowly. "It sounds like you have a fever."

"A fever? If I can heal myself, why would I..." he stopped. Why would he be ill? An inkling of panic started creeping into his mind. What if he had lost his power all at once, just like that—

"No, no," Kitt said immediately. Jack looked up, startled; he hadn't even felt her inside his head. "I was worried about that too, but I think it's alright."

Shawn looked up. "Worried about what?"

"He isn't healing," she said absently to him; then to Jack, "You just have to give yourself time to recover – if your body started relying on magic instead of your immune system, it makes sense that you'd be a bit sick right now."

Jack started to reply, hesitated, and decided against it as he suppressed another shiver. He could feel the heat of the fire on his skin, but it didn't help. He was about to make a comment about it when Soren marched out from behind the hut with a string of fish in one hand and a makeshift fishing-pole in the other. "Dinner's here!" She said cheerfully.

"We already have dinner," Shawn said pointedly, and poked again at the large dragon meat-kebab.

"Oh, that's right... You know those rat-lookin' critters we saw earlier? They started writhing around about an hour ago and died." There was a wickedly amused look in Soren's eye. "They were foaming at the mouth and everything."

Shawn looked down at the meat in sudden disgust, picked it up, and threw it away.

Kitt smirked. "Told you."

The laughter from the fireside woke Erin, and the girl stumbled out of the hut pale-faced and shaking. "I need coffee," she mumbled, and sat down heavily next to Kitt. "I feel like I've got the mother of all hangovers."

"And how would you know what a hangover is like?" Kitt asked.

"I don't, but I can make a pretty good guess."

"Head hurts, huh?" Soren asked, sitting down by Shawn.

"Yeah." Erin groaned, ran a hand through her hair, and scooted a little nearer to the fire. "Is that fish for us? I'm starving."

"So'm I," Jack grunted. A cold spot had nestled into his chest, like someone had left an ice cube just below his sternum. It was probably his healing abilities starting to come back to him, but it hurt, and the pain combined with the discomfort of hunger was starting to make him a little bit cranky.

"Yes, they're ours." Soren casually pulled out her pocketknife and started to gut one of the fish. "It won't take long to roast 'em once they've been cleaned." The blade grated and snagged against the fish's scales. Soren slipped a deft finger into the fish's sliced belly and raked the mass of guts out.

"They're pretty close to brim, so they oughtta be good eating," she said, working the blade down into the fish's body and sawing noisily through the spine. With a gruesome snap and pop, off came the fish's head, and she flicked it down next to the pile of slimy fish-guts.

The other Saviors cringed at the sounds of Soren's work. Erin looked even paler than before. "Hey, Soren, can you not do that while we're— ever? Please?"

She didn't look up from her work. "Do you want dinner or not?"

"Well yeah, but do you have to do that right here? It's disgusting."

"You don't have to be right here either." Soren's voice was feigning sweetness.

Erin looked ready to jump into a fight with another snappy remark, but Kitt and Shawn immediately moved to intervene; Shawn took the string of fish and Soren's arm and started to explain how he would help her clean the rest, while Kitt stared intently at Erin as she telepathically talked her down.

Jack looked around the now disrupted argument for a moment, but he turned his attention back to the fire with a wooden expression. It annoyed him that the girls had such biting, manipulative ways of getting to each other. They would solve more problems with straightforward confrontations than with snarky remarks, after all... But he shook his head at his own logic. Oh, yes, he thought darkly. It had really seemed to work with Ryan, hadn't it?

But no, it was obvious that Ryan had been different. A thick-headed bloke like him sometimes needed to be convinced.

Somewhere deep inside his mind, he felt a scoff. You weren't straightforward when you let them take him.

Jack closed his eyes. There's no use in this, he told himself firmly. Giving myself a guilt-trip won't do any good. There was no way to save him; just one of the guards looked twice as strong as me, and both of them had swords.

You would have healed. You could've fought to save him, but you didn't. You were afraid they would take you to the torture chamber, too.

No, I didn't know the others would make it in time... How was I supposed leave Anne unprotected? I couldn't leave her to fend for herself!

She doesn't need you. She's the one protecting you, isn't she?

She—

You let her take the fall with the dragon, just like you let Ryan take the fall with the Beorum.

No, I didn't—

You're a coward.

"Jack?"

His head shot up. Erin and Kitt were staring at him warily; Erin was the first to find her voice. "You looked really lost in thought. Are you okay?"

"Yeah."

"You sure?" Kitt was frowning at him, but there was no prickling. She hadn't invaded his head yet.

"She'll be right," he murmured, averting his eyes back to the fire.

There was an indistinct rustling from the shrubbery behind him, and Jack turned to look in time to see Anne staggering toward the campfire. She sat down heavily next to him without a word, pulled her knees to her chest, and put her head in her arms; her hair was still down, and she had left her overshirt in the hut along with her baseball cap. "Feeling better?" Kitt offered.

Anne made an indistinct grunt at first, but looked up and smiled at her friends. "Still tired... and my whole body hurts from sleeping too long." She hesitated. "Are y'all okay?"

The mental scoff was back. Do you hear that? She almost fried herself from the inside out, and she still wants to know if you're okay.

Jack closed his eyes and put his head down. "Been feverish," he said. "I've had a fever since this morning. And Erin has a headache."

"And Soren is suffering from a smart mouth," Erin muttered darkly. Off of Kitt's exasperated look, though, she recanted. "Soren and Shawn seem okay; they went to get dinner ready."

Anne laughed softly. "If they can walk farther than the distance from the hut to the fire, they're probably better off than the rest of us." Her head was still resting on her knees, but she perked up when Soren and Shawn came back into the clearing with the assortment of skinned and cleaned fish. Soren intentionally did not look at Erin; Erin didn't seem to mind, but Anne noticed. "Um... are you guys okay?" She asked.

"It's nothing a good dinner and another long nap couldn't fix," said Shawn, looking out the corner of his eye at the two feuding girls.


It was some time after dinner that the gravity of the Saviors' situation truly set in: Kitt, Erin, and Anne started fretting amongst themselves about the next step of the plan (the plan nobody had, really), and Soren, Jack, and Shawn sat back with their respective fish-bone toothpicks and listened. All was still not well between Erin and Soren; with each suggestion Erin made, Soren gave a conspicuous scoff or roll of the eyes. The boys on either side of her exchanged glances several times, both in fear of what would happen if Erin finally snapped.

"The necklaces are pointing us in that direction," Erin said firmly, with a gesture toward the open plains to the east. The glow from her crystal intensified, and Jack noticed the first stars beginning to glimmer in the eastern sky. "Ser'na and Vaun always followed the crystals, and we should too. It's only logical!"

Kitt didn't lift her gaze from the fire. "Yes, it's sound logic. But the fact of the matter is, I'm afraid, that these necklaces aren't compasses. I think they give off a brighter glow when pointed in the approximate direction of the next shard, but not the exact direction."

"What are you saying?"

"Ser'na and Vaun knew where we were," she murmured. "They always knew whether or not we were heading toward a town or a village. We don't have that kind of knowledge! What if we take the risk of heading too far in one direction and, instead of finding the next shard, wander around for hours or days on end?"

Shawn tossed his fishbones into the fire. "We may have to run that risk, love. It's a part of the game - we need to do whatever it takes to put the Meu'sai back together."

"There isn't a risk," Anne interjected. When everyone looked at her in response, she continued. "I mean, everyone keeps shoving prophecies in our faces and calling us chosen and Saviors; if we really believe them, why should we worry about getting lost? The Saviors of Myrran probably wouldn't take a wrong turn unless it was supposed to happen."

"How do you know these prophecies aren't just stories?" Erin asked. She sounded, at the very least, unconvinced.

"I guess I believe them." Anne averted her gaze. "After all, we're all here, aren't we?"

Jack grunted once. "It's actually more of a testimony that we're not all here anymore."

A silence that fell over them was filled only by the sharp pops and snaps of the campfire. Finally, Shawn stood and stretched. "Right, then! I'm off to bed. Who's on the watch tonight?"